If you’re one of the many who believe the Eurovision Song Contest to be just some sort of camp blip on the cultural calendar, think again. Don’t be fooled by Russia sending a group of grannies to the 2012 Contest. They weren’t just there for your entertainment – even the Buranovskiye Babushki had a message.
As someone who’s watched every single Song Contest since 1981 and would make it my Mastermind subject, I know it has true significance. Yes of course it’s an annual excuse for some eyebrow-raising exhibitionism on an epic scale, but it’s also the canary down the political coal mine. In these turbulent times, if you want to find out what’s really happening with our European friends and/or neighbours, you’d best switch off the news and tune in, along with the rest of the 200 million-plus audience.
The great paradox of Eurovision is that, in theory, overt political statements in song are banned by the European Broadcasting Union’s Orwellian-sounding “Reference Group” – as Georgia discovered in 2009, when their catchy disco ditty came under fire. Apparently the lyrics “We don’t wanna put in” sounded a bit dissident to the suspicious ear.
But these rules just make it all the more fun for keen-eyed cultural commentators as, year after year, politics invariably sneak in the back door. We all know about some of the more overt gestures. It wouldn’t be the same if the Cypriot representative didn’t announce – with a straight face, even after all this time – that they’ve thought long and hard, and decided to award their maximum douze points to Greece. It’s a nonsense, but we’d all be a little shaken – even concerned – were this to change.
The Contest has also proved startlingly prophetic. At its debut, back in 1956, the line-up included hosts Switzerland, plus Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Netherlands. Only a month afterwards, these very same guest countries met to discuss forming some sort of… customs union. Sound familiar?
In 1968, a decade of effort by fascist dictator Franco culminated in a Spanish win, which he hoped would bring the country closer to Western Europe – but Austria withdrew the following year in protest. Estonia had more success with this; they won in 2001, and were accepted into the EU two years later. “We freed ourselves through song,” said their prime minister. Turkey did the opposite, spitting the dummy in 2013 and starting their own contest instead of participating.
Eurovision Song Contest 2018 – 2017 winner Salvador Sobral (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
It gets even more dramatic. Don’t be distracted by the arrival of Eurovision’s greatest ever group in 1974. Beyond Abba winning with Waterloo, another battle was being waged in Portugal. Two weeks after the Contest, the Portuguese entry E Depois Do Adeus (After Goodbye) became literally the call to revolution when it was played on the radio – it was the signal for a coup d’état and a brand-new government.
This overflow of profound feeling into song has never gone away. As recently as 2016, Ukraine’s Jamala won with a dirge that made up in emotion what it lacked in energy: 1944 was a lament about Stalin’s deportation of the Tatar people – with absolutely no modern-day connotations, got that? Jamala actually admitted there were plenty, but too late for the Reference Group to get their mitts on her.
Slightly more uplifting is the tale of Austria’s Conchita Wurst, whose appearance in 2014 wasn’t universally popular. So shocked were certain eastern European groups that they campaigned to have her banned from the competition. The result? On the night the rest of Europe resisted, and voted Conchita all the way to the winner’s podium. Politics with a capital P may be banned, but gender politics is not.
As well as all the apolitical politics afoot, the commercial pull of the Contest isn’t something that should be overlooked by any self-respecting music mogul, either. Those in charge of selecting the UK’s offering have alternated between taking the whole thing incredibly seriously – recruiting the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Ball and Pete Waterman to write a song – and throwing in the towel long before the opening trumpet (Electro Velvet, anyone?). But they’re seriously missing a trick in its potential as a global music platform..
We all know that Bucks Fizz built a 30-year career on the back of their 1981 triumph Making Your Mind Up. More recently, Blue may have had failed to impress us Brits with their 2011 entry, I Can, but their douze points of Bulgarian love proved enough to get those comeback kids a top ten hit in Germany and a European tour off the back of it.
For political commentators, pop pundits and anyone else who’s anxious about the UK’s place in Europe, Eurovision is more, much more, than a mere song contest. While it will always have its share of camp, revelry and inexplicable milkmaids, there’s a whole lot of serious political, cultural and commercial business going on too. Now, I’m just wondering – did anyone see where those Russian grannies have got to?
Eurovision Song Contest: Grand Final Saturday is on at 8pm on BBC1 and Radio 2