An ironic twist to the Eurovision

Opinion: There’s such a chorus of irony in popular culture that it’s hard to make out the genuine

‘In north-western parts of our continent, the Eurovision Song Contest  has been enjoyed as a roaring joke for at least a third of its 58 years.’ Above,  singers celebrate on the stage after the second semifinal of the Eurovision Song Contest on Thursday. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

‘In north-western parts of our continent, the Eurovision Song Contest has been enjoyed as a roaring joke for at least a third of its 58 years.’ Above, singers celebrate on the stage after the second semifinal of the Eurovision Song Contest on Thursday. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP


In what sense is the Eurovision Song Contest like rain on your wedding day? If the caterwauling Canadian moan-machine Alanis Morissette is to be credited, the two concepts are connected by stubborn old irony. It’s been over 20 years since Morissette released her semantically insecure dirge, Ironic – other supposedly ironic constructions include “a black fly in your Chardonnay” and “a free ride when you’ve already paid” – so we probably don’t need to pull the unfortunate ditty apart any further. Suffice to say that, as the comic Ed Byrne once pointed out, rain would be ironic only if either bride or groom were a weather person.

The Eurovision Song Contest is another matter. Attitudes to this strange jamboree, which takes place tonight, vary throughout Europe. But, in northwestern parts of our continent, the competition has been enjoyed as a roaring joke for at least a third of its 58 years. All this would have puzzled the hairy, flared, mid-1970s incarnation of your current correspondent. Kitsch was always a part of the event. But almost nobody tuned in purely to savour the rampaging wretchedness. Only maniacs sought out nasty food. We didn’t buy bad records on purpose. Folk didn’t go out of their way to decorate their homes with vulgar ornaments. No, sir. We actually liked sherbet fountains, lava lamps and Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West).

Irony is now such a fervent strain in popular culture that it is often hard to tell whether one is pretending to like something, liking the awfulness of something or actually liking something as it was meant to be liked. Take the film of the hugely popular musical Mamma Mia! Most everyone now accepts that Abba wrote some of the best tunes in the history of popular music. The lyrics are, however, worth sniggering at. Moreover, surely only somebody with suet for frontal lobes could, without employing their irony gland, derive enjoyment from the film’s absurdly convenient plot or from the noise Pierce Brosnan calls singing.

Mess of sarcasm
We have come to use the word “irony” for this conscious appreciation of agreeably bad art, drama, interior design or cross-continental bun-fight. It’s more than that and less than that. We’re not talking about the dramatic irony that colours everything from Hamlet’s soliloquies to the grandiloquent self-deceit of David Brent. This is not the loaded irony of a satire by Swift or Juvenal. What we’re dealing with here is a mess of sarcasm, kitsch and camp that allows us to derive easy pleasure from trash when we could be extracting more nuanced appreciation from romantic symphonies, Renaissance frescoes and other stuff that doesn’t feature Latvians singing about cake.

Blame the relatively prosperous, relatively stable 1990s. It was in that decade that quite ordinary shops began flogging lava lamps to customers whose cheeks were permanently distended by the application of knowing tongues. Towards the middle of the decade, we encountered the very strange surge of interest in lounge music. Records that our parents played after contract bridge and before driving drunkenly home without seatbelts – Andy Williams, Perry Como, Burt Kaempfert – could be heard emerging from clubs cluttered with standard lamps and leather sofas. The Mike Flowers Pops had a hit with their easy-listening version of Wonderwall. This really happened.

We had too much stuff. We had too much money. We had too much time. In a depression, nobody wastes money on useless art or impractical lamps. We swallowed it all up and now, in worse times, we’re stuck with restaurants serving artisan spaghetti hoops in rooms decorated with Vladimir Tretchikoff paintings. Ironic, isn’t it?

Icon of critic
News reaches us that the good people of Champaign, Illinois, have erected a statue to late film critic Roger Ebert. It’s not the loveliest of objects, but the unveiling is, for reasons I will get to, good news. Positioned outside the cinema that used to host the annual Ebertfest, the statue finds Roger sitting, thumb characteristically aloft, between two empty cinema chairs. More than a few big serious cineastes enjoyed poking fun at Ebert.

Yes, the thumbs up/thumbs down shtick he devised on TV with Gene Siskel was a bit reductive. True, he became a little too easy to please in later years. But few other critics bridged the highbrow and the populist with such aplomb.

That’s not, however, why we’re calling it good news. Anybody who has worked as a critic will be familiar with the smart ass posting “No statue has ever been put up to a critic,” beneath a review. Yes, they have, Mr Jerk. You’ll find it a hundred miles south of Chicago. Now go away.

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