What is it about the Eurovision Song Contest that continues to draw millions of viewers year after year? In several respects, it still seems like a product of the stuffy 1950s. The contest is still confined to public service broadcasters. The opening anthem is still the Prelude to Marc-Antoine Carpentier’s Te Deum. There is still no prize for the winning act. In talent shows, like America’s Got Talent, the winner walks away with a million bucks. In the Eurovision, there is still some sense of an amateur competition: the composer may collect a gong, but not the winning artist.
It’s not hard to mock the Eurovision – and, let’s face it, that can also be a very enjoyable exercise. Among the most inviting targets for critics are the lyrics of the songs. These often express trite sentiments, and make frequent use of the most obvious of romantic cliches. When words fail, Eurovision song-writers are quite prepared to seek other alternatives. Perhaps, the most flagrant example of this tendency occurred in 1967, when the Spanish artist, Massiel, sang “la” 138 times in less than three minutes. Ireland has always been permitted to perform in English, but sometimes it’s been difficult to believe that our entries were written by people who spoke the language fluently. In 2000, for example, Eamonn Toal urged us to remember that “our footprints leave a harvest for the children” – a difficult concept to grasp. In 2007, Dervish informed us that “the archipelagic icicles have melted like the cage” – a tricky line to sing, let alone understand.
However, it ill becomes any lover of pop music to be too critical of the standard of Eurovision lyrics. A recent analysis of 225 songs that had reached number 1 in the US charts in the past few years found that their average vocabulary was pitched at the reading level of an eight-year-old. It speaks volumes that the same analysis revealed that the most advanced use of language could be found in the work of Justin Timberlake. The word that featured most frequently in the lyrics of these 225 hit songs was “yeah”.
The reach of the Eurovision contest now extends far beyond Europe, but it remains rooted in our turbulent and blood-soaked continent. It was founded in the aftermath of the second World War, and represented an attempt to bring the warring nations of Europe together in both literal and figurative harmony. Almost 40 years later, when the Cold War had ended and the Berlin Wall had fallen, those countries that had been part of the Soviet bloc rushed to take part in the contest. It had been one of the very few entertainment shows from the West that they had been permitted to view during the long years of totalitarian rule, and it offered a tantalising glimpse of an alternative future. For some countries, their involvement in the Eurovision not only meant that they were renewing their relationship with the rest of Europe – it also signalled that they were now a part of a genuinely democratic continent.
The arrival of these new contestants wasn’t always welcomed by western observers. Perhaps the best known of those who objected to their presence was Terry Wogan. He had commentated for the BBC across four decades of Eurovision finals. Indeed, it was once commonplace for people to claim that their only reason for watching the contest was to hear his witty and sardonic commentary. In the early years of his career, Wogan’s attitude towards the event may have been mocking, but there was always evidence of some affection in his irony. In the opening years of this century, that attitude seemed to change. His tone became more aggressive – almost belligerent – and, at times, the fears he expressed about various kinds of “Balkan conspiracy” seemed to verge on the paranoid. Wogan’s anxieties about the future of the Eurovision eventually led him to give up his BBC commentary, and he departed the scene, full of dire warnings about the impending collapse of the event. His fears have since proved to be unfounded, but they seem to reflect deeper anxieties about the future of Europe that have emerged in the UK.
The UK is not the only western country to have suspected that countries in the former Soviet bloc were ganging up on the West. Ireland has also been prone to explaining its own recent failures in the contest with reference to sinister foreign intrigues. Perhaps, the most striking example of that came in 2007, with the Irish entry, They Can’t Stop the Spring, which purported to represent a “Celtic celebration of the Eastern European revolutions” that had taken place almost 20 years earlier. This naïve attempt to produce some sort of pan-European liberation anthem proved wholly unsuccessful. Ireland finished last – and would have gained no points at all, if it had not been for the kindness of the Albanian jury.
The response of Ireland’s national broadcaster was to announce that the station would be examining “Ireland’s geographical position” in the light of this failure. The reference to “geographical location” may seem puzzling – even RTÉ, after all, cannot change Ireland’s physical location. In fact, this reference carried an oblique suggestion that there had been an unfair hijacking of the contest by the countries of eastern Europe. One member of the Irish delegation claimed that Ireland’s song was not “what the masses, particularly in eastern Europe, wanted to hear”. It was, surely, ironic that the country, which had entered a song that claimed to celebrate the revolutions of eastern Europe, should end up trying to blame Eastern Europeans for its abject failure.
Ireland’s run of failures in the contest have led some to speculate that these were deliberate, and the result of RTÉ not wishing to incur the expense involved in staging another Eurovision final. I think that is a fairly specious argument. It is not compulsory for any winning country to stage the following year’s event – and several countries have declined to do so in the past. In any case, RTÉ’s revenues were never higher than in the first decade of this century – and that period coincides with our most conspicuous failures. The notion that Ireland has the wherewithal to win this contest any time that RTÉ chooses to do so strikes me as evidence of a considerable degree of hubris.
The reality is that a number of basic errors and editorial misjudgments have been made by RTÉ in the past 10 or so years. Perhaps, the most blatant of these was the entry of Dustin the Turkey in 2008. What was apparently intended to show Europe that we did not take ourselves – or the contest – too seriously, backfired and quickly turned into something of a national embarrassment. As we begin to emerge from the economic gloom and misery of the past few years, it seems that RTÉ’s will to win this remarkable song contest has been renewed. That may not be easy, but it’s not impossible. As Louis Walsh has said, all it takes is a good song, a good production – and, perhaps, a bit of good luck.
David Blake Knox is the author of Ireland and the Eurovision (New Island, €16.99)