Thursday 18 January 2018

Love thy neighbour - There was a shift in Irish/British power access in 1999

As the first post-Brexit Eurovision is engulfed in controversy, Gareth Murray asks if this will be the most politically-charged song contest yet

Victor: Jamala took the Eurovision crown for the Ukraine last year with the song '1944'
Victor: Jamala took the Eurovision crown for the Ukraine last year with the song '1944'
Yuliya Samoylova - who was withdrawn from the contest following Russia's political spat with the host nation
Irish Eurovision hopeful Brendan Murray is pictured out and about in Kiev ahead of the second Eurovision semi-final tomorrow night. Photo: Andres Poveda
Krista Siegfrids of Finland performs on stage during the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2013 at Malmo

For a fourth year in a row, we'll likely settle down for Saturday's Eurovision final in Kiev with no Irish entry to cheer on as the forgettable ballad by Louis Walsh's protégée Brendan Murray fails to pass tonight's semi-final hurdle in Kiev.

The Irish entry is Walsh by numbers. Good singer, tick; schmaltzy 1990s-style ballad, tick; key change, tick. It offers nothing new. And yet, it's sad to see this slide into mediocrity. From Jedward's tin-men onesies to the 1990s glory days when we reigned supreme, armchair fans will lament the fact that once again we're not at the party.

Is it because of the succession of bland ballads, bar a brief respite from the Grimes brothers, or a 'My Lovely Horse' philosophy that we can't afford to stage the extravaganza? Or does it go beyond our borders, is it politics and bloc voting that is holding us back?

The European Broadcast Union, which runs the contest, insists the affair is non-political. Its rules state "no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted". In 2009, they banned Georgia's 'We Don't Wanna Put In', the last phrase sung 'poot-in' as a pun on the Russian leader, to reinforce this ethos.

But the contest's birth was political. It was the brainchild of Marcel Bezençon and Jean Monnet, both haunted by the destruction of World War II, and visualised as a song contest that would ultimately swap guns and bombs for glitter balls and fireworks.

And while most entries are your typical pop fare, there's normally one headline-grabbing song mired in political controversy.

It's not songs caught up in a political movement either - although 1990's contest had a theme of freedom after the Berlin Wall came down - but rather a good old-fashioned dig at a neighbour. In 2015, Armenia was forced to change their song title from 'Don't Deny' to 'Face the Shadow' as it angered neighbours Azerbaijan and Turkey, who claimed the lyrics were about their denial of the Armenian Genocide a century before.

Last year's winner, '1944' by Jamala, was about Stalin's mass deportation of Crimean Tatars in that year. Some saw it as a comment on Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Eurovision said it was more historical than political.

This year, British viewers have expressed fears of a 'Brexit backlash'. A survey by Ladbrokes found that half of respondents in the UK were concerned voters on the continent would withhold points as 'punishment' for leaving the EU.

Professor Brian Singleton at Trinity College, Dublin, has lectured and written extensively on Eurovision, and says the contest gives us an insight into the current geopolitics of Europe.

"Armenia and Azerbaijan never give points to each other as they have a similar issue of disputed and occupied territory, while the diaspora voting reflects economic migration over the past 20 years - increasing Poland's chances to qualify for the final," he says.

The Ukraine-Russia row has spilled over into this year's contest hosted in Kiev. In March, Yuliya Samoylova, a wheelchair user and this year's Russian contestant, was banned from entering the Ukraine for illegally visiting Crimea, which Kiev considers to be unlawfully occupied. Russia retaliated by withdrawing Samoylova.

The Russians, however, have their friends to boost them to nine top-five places since 2000 including victory in 2008. Armenia, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and even the Ukraine are in their bloc and, on average, lavish at least seven points on them.

It's not a new phenomenon. Terry Wogan in his BBC commentary made a point of predicting that Cyprus would give the maximum douze points to Greece. And we'd be guilty, too - we've given the UK an average of 5.9 points each year over the last 10 years, despite some woeful entries by our neighbour.

A 2013 study by ETH Zurich university looked at voting patterns since 1997. It found that we were part of one bloc - one of five - with the UK, Malta, plus the Scandinavian and Baltic states among others.

While the presence of voting blocs is frustrating, they merely bump average songs up a few places. The cream does generally rise to the top. The bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst's 2014 winner 'Rise Like a Phoenix' was a brassy Shirley Bassey-esque James Bond theme; Germany's Lena brought Björk-style quirkiness in 2010 with 'Satellite'; Sweden's Loreen scored Number Ones across Europe, including Ireland, with the club anthem 'Euphoria' in 2012, Måns Zelmerlöw provided pop perfection with amazing interactive visuals to grab Sweden's sixth Eurovision title, placing our record of seven under threat. All were worthy winners.

With Sweden one of the favourites behind Italy and Portugal for Saturday's final, our crown is slipping. We have not won the contest since Eimear Quinn's haunting 'The Voice' in 1996, and have just three top 10 finishes since the new millennium.

But there are other factors in play. The UK, five-time winners, also experienced a major downturn long before Brexit. Having only failed to make the top 10 twice up until 1998, the UK has had just two top 10 finishes since, even after dusting off golden oldies Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler, and resurrecting boyband Blue along the way.

Since Linda Martin's victory 25 years ago, 24 new countries have joined Eurovision, 21 of which are from east of the old Iron Curtain. These nations have won it seven times since 1999, with the Scandinavians bagging another seven. And 1999 is a key year to note the shift from the Irish/British power axis. It was the year the native language rule was relaxed, allowing countries other than Ireland, the UK and Malta to sing in English. Since then, only Serbia's 2007 winner 'Moltiva' was not sung in English in a year the top 15 were all from the Eastern half of the continent. The bottom six were all old Europe.

Two years later, juries were reintroduced alongside the televote in a bid to curb bloc voting in the East.

But Chris West, historian and author of Eurovision!, says the voting was a true reflection. "If you look at the performers, it is the ones from the East who have studied classical music and/or have big followings," he writes. "It's the West that have cruise-ship entertainers and thinks a little pre-contest PR will make Europe, old and new, love them."

Ireland's Dustin the Turkey entry in 2008 was marked out as a watershed moment in the book Eurovision: Empire of Song when Western Europe showed it "no longer seemed to take the competition seriously."

And it's a case in point. Ireland, the kings of Eurovision, has long lost interest. Dustin, Jedward and a series of half-hearted ballads is what we've offered since confetti rained on Eimear Quinn. Last year was a golden opportunity, the 100th anniversary of the Rising. Seo Linn's rousing 'Music Makers' was a fitting finale to the Centenary Concert at the Bord Gáis.

A bouncy song with a firm eye on our cultural past - and a perfect fit that would have brought Eurovision home.

Five memorable controversies

Krista Seigfrids, Finland 2013

A brief lesbian kiss on stage (below) with one of her backing singers caused a headache for Eurovision. It finished 24th.

Valentina Monetta and 'The Social Network Song', San Marino 2012

Originally called 'Facebook Uh Uh Oh', Eurovision said it contravened rules on product placement and forced changes, leaving a trail of lyrics that did not rhyme. It didn't make it to the final.

Ping Pong, Israel 2000

In a call for peace, Syrian flags along with Israeli flags were hastily unfurled as an out-of-tune 'Be Happy' closed. Israel's broadcasting authority renounced the entry. It placed 22nd.

Dana International, 1998

Dana International, a transgender singer flying the flag for Israel caused outrage among Orthodox Jews back home and the star even received death threats. She won.

Cliff Richard, 1968

The Phil Coulter-penned 'Congratulations' lost by a point to Spain's Massiel. A 2008 documentary claimed General Franco bribed TV executives to vote for Massiel.

Irish Independent

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