Saturday 21 September 2019

Europe's extra vision - ‘Middle America has no tolerance for big statements of gay pride’

As the song contest seeks to widen its audience, Damian Corless pays tribute to all that makes it unique - and why it shouldn't change a thing to try and break America

Ryan O’Shaughnessy celebrates making it to the final of Eurovision. Photo: AP
Ryan O’Shaughnessy celebrates making it to the final of Eurovision. Photo: AP

Damian Corless

There was joy unconfined on Tuesday when Portugal's Eurovision presenters yelled out in unison that the last qualifier for tomorrow's song contest final was... "Ireland!" Marty Whelan's multi-orgasmic seizure in the commentary box may, disturbingly, have matched the moment, but there's something forlorn about the fact that we were celebrating survival in the weeding-out process with a glee we once reserved for winning the whole shooting match.

For two decades now we've fallen far short of our standing as Eurovision's all-time champions. With every failure comes the soul-searching, and all the excuses nearly always boil down to just one: The field has grown too big.

With the break-up of the old Soviet Bloc there are twice as many contestants as in Eurovision's, and Ireland's, golden age. Adding insult to injury is the admission of out-of-bounds outposts like Australia, Israel and Azerbaijan, which have less claim to be part of Europe than Boston has to be a suburb of Westport.

And now, it seems they're looking at making it bigger. Noel Curran, the Irish head of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)which runs Eurovision, says the EBU is plotting how to "expand the core Eurovision brand beyond Europe". Curran insists they're "not actively looking right now" to seek contestants from further afield, but the words "right now" point only one way.

The viewing public might object that enough is enough, but that's never stopped the EBU doing what it thinks is best for the EBU. Eurovision has always been the broadcasters' chattel. They've chopped and changed the rules with no by-your-leave from the viewing public, often giving the people no choice on the singer or the song that's flying their flag.

The biggest prize - the one the EBU must be aiming at - is the United States, still by far the commercial Goliath of the entertainment world. But breaking the States means finding acceptance in Middle America, and there are good reasons to believe Middle America will never take to Eurovision, not least because it has 'Euro' in the title...

Conchita Wurst of Austria performs on stage during the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest. Photo: Getty Images
Conchita Wurst of Austria performs on stage during the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest. Photo: Getty Images

1. Eurovision is all about neighbourliness

Specifically it's about taking potshots at the neighbours and settling scores, but it supposes that you know who your neighbours are. Eurovision's first contestants were a cluster of seven with shared borders. From the Balkans to the Caucasus, today it fills the same role it always did. It's just that the theatre of phoney war has moved east. Just 42pc of US citizens have passports - most see Europe as a blob somewhere "over there". The morning after Niamh Kavanagh's win at Millstreet in 1993, pipping the UK's Sonia at the line, the Guardian's reviewer wrote: "Malta gave it to Ireland with the last vote. The bastards!" Americans will never 'get' local stuff like that - the real meaning of Eurovision.

2. Eurovision is too flamboyantly gay and too overtly panto for Middle America

Eurovision was always camp. Camp became irony with the slew of post-1974 Abba clones, and had descended into self-parody by the Noughties, most notoriously in the bad joke that was Dustin the Turkey. Eurovision had badly lost its way by the 1990s but was rescued by the LGBT community who adopted it and reinvented it as the garish pantomime it has become today.

With its exotic settings, bizarre costumes, crudely drawn national stereotypes and its Day-Glo colours, Eurovision had always been panto - it just took a while for the penny to drop.

Panto's gender-bending conventions have become Eurovision's norms.

Flamboyant: Dana International wouldn’t have gone down well with Middle America’s Bible Belt
Flamboyant: Dana International wouldn’t have gone down well with Middle America’s Bible Belt

Long before Dana International or the bearded and ball-gowned Conchita Wurst, panto's male lead, the Principal Boy, was played by a young woman while the panto Dame was glaringly a man in drag. Double entendres, audience participation, moments of playacted high suspense - it's all there.

And guess what? Middle America has never got pantomime, which had its beginnings in the Commedia dell'arte of early modern Italy and France, and was finished off in Victorian Britain and Ireland.

There is no panto season in the States. Intermittently a production pops up on either coast, in the way that once in a while American gridiron football puts on an exhibition game here, but really, who cares?

Middle America has no interest in panto, while the substantial part of Middle America that is the Bible Belt has no tolerance for big statements of LGBT pride such as the Eurovision song contest.

3. The means to settling scores is tactical voting

This week the organisers rolled out the standard denials that the voting is highly political. And Arsene Wenger has never seen an Arsenal foul.

Germany was made wait three decades for its first win, a song pointedly called 'A Little Peace'. Anything to do with WWII? The EBU would insist not. The people know different.

Likewise, the UK has suffered because... well, because the Brits just aren't much liked by the continentals. Again, the nuances of a Serbia vs Macedonia voting grudge match would be lost on the Yanks.

4. The global ambitions of the EBU are not shared by Eurovision's grass roots

Put simply, Eurovision exists and thrives in its own hermetically sealed bubble, and it doesn't want or need American approval, money or interference. Only two Eurovision winners have gone on to conquer the world, Abba and Celine Dion. To Americans, that would seem pretty dismal, but Eurovision winners achieve an immortality that isn't measured in sales.

It's sort of an ironic afterlife measured in cabaret bookings and chat-show slots. Middle America doesn't get irony.

5. It's not about the songs

And finally, anyone who imagines Eurovision as a launching pad for artists or songs into the world's biggest market should remind themselves that most winning songs don't even sell across Europe.

But then, this song contest has never been about the tunes.

For proof there's the fact that the quintessential Eurosong of all time, Cliff Richard's 'Congratulations', co-written by Derryman Phil Coulter, was shamefully denied its rightful victory in 1968 just to spite the Brits.

It has never been about the songs. It has always been about the noisy neighbours.

Irish Independent

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