If you ever watched a Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final before 2009 you’d be forgiven for thinking the pan-continental singing competition was a political circus. Terry Wogan, embittered at countless dire results would coo loudly if Eastern European countries voted for one another and rue the day that the continent overlooked a dull jazz song delivered by an even duller bin man. The Contest was, it seemed, a fix: in 2007 no Western European countries made it out of the Semi-Final and until Germany’s victory in 2010 no Western European country had hosted the contest since the UK way back in 1998.
The 2000s just were not the UK’s decade. Jemini infamously received nil points in 2003 for ‘Cry Baby’ and blamed the result on a backlash at the UK’s participation in the Iraq War. At the end of the decade the UK came last twice in space of three years and in the entire decade received just three perfect scores of 12 Points. If you bought Wogan’s version of events it was because the entire continent hated us, everyone voted for their neighbours, and nobody could appreciate the raw talent of entries like Scooch’s ‘Flying The Flag’.
In the 2010s things aren’t going much better. 2011 saw boy band Blue stall in 11th place with 100 points, veteran crooner Engelbert Humperdinck underwhelmed with ballad ‘Love Will Set You Free’ only managing 25th place and Bonnie Tyler scraped in to the Top 20 in Malmö last year. In 2014 unknown Molly Smitten-Downes will fly the flag and it’s not difficult to see why the press already circling to pounce in the entirely possible likelihood that she tanks in Copenhagen in May. So apocalyptic are some perspectives on the Contest that it’s argued even if we sent world-dominating British artists like Adele or One Direction we wouldn’t emerge victorious at the Contest.
Frankly, Wogan and the press’s arguments are pretty laughable. Let’s start with the basics: the UK sent utter crap to the Contest in the 00s besides Jessica Garlick in 2003 and Jade Ewen in 2009. Pete Waterman produced the song in 2010, Scooch sang a song that took the piss out of flights, Daz Sampson cringed across stage with scantily clad school girls and in Kiev the one who didn’t make it into Girls Aloud implored the audience to touch ‘her fire’. The songs we sent never deserved to win because they weren’t good enough and it’s difficult to blame Europe for not bothering to vote for Jemini considering how awful they were.
There is neighbour voting at the Contest – that’s undeniable. The Ex-Soviets share points around, as do the Scandinavians and the Balkans but that hardly constitutes a withering political statement on Anglo-European diplomatic relations. Tele-voters across the continent don’t actively decide not to vote for the UK because of any political bias; they just vote for other songs because it’s more to their taste. Neighbours are likely to vote for each other because they have similar music tastes and similar cultural sounds – the Balkans so commonly vote for one another because the various singers from the region all tend to be stars across it.
We also don’t exactly have the most rigorous of approaches to trying to do well at the Contest. Since 2011 the BBC hasn’t bothered having a national selection and instead just picks someone at random to sing for the UK. Compared to our continental neighbours we’re actually pretty pathetic. A small group within the BBC chooses our entry and then we’re lumped with them. The BBC puts absolutely no effort into promotion, fails to send the act on TV appearances overseas and makes minimal effort to try and get radio airplay for the entry before the Contest. They have, at least in the last few years, gone to the trouble of recording music videos but Youtube views have rarely translated into votes on their own and certainly failed to do so in the case of Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler.
By contrast, the effort of a lot of Europe when it comes to the Contest is incredible. Oil-rich Azerbaijan spent a whopping $5m on their act for the 2010 Contest in Oslo (only to finish 5th…), hired Beyoncé’s choreographer and routinely run a months-long selection process to pick their song. Sweden – perhaps the most Eurovision crazed nation of all – runs its selection process for Melodifestivalen for six-weeks every spring and it is required viewing for the nation. From 32 acts only a single song actually makes it the Contest and submissions for the contest regularly number in the hundreds. Putting the time and effort into the song makes an awful lot of difference and can produce fairly dramatic results.
Germany in 2010 made perhaps the most dramatic change of fortune at Eurovision when they went from placing 20th in Moscow to winning the year after in Oslo with Lena and her song ‘Satellite’. They launched a search for an unknown, wrote a great song and promoted it heavily. It was already a fixture in charts across Europe before it had even been performed at the Contest and won with a comfortable 246 points – Germany’s first victory since 1982.
Perhaps the most fundamental point missed in any discussion of success or failure at Eurovision is the lack of emphasis given by the press to the running order. Now 26 countries perform in the Saturday Grand Final and since 2005 the winning song has always performed between 17th and 26th in the running order. Performing early is a death sentence for any song’s chances of winning. When Engelbert Humperdinck bombed in Baku, the press made little mention of the fact he opened the show with a slow ballad nor any acknowledgment that after 25 songs perhaps the crooner’s subtle ballad might be lost amidst the grand bombast of the other entries.
Molly Smitten-Downes has in her song ‘Children of the Universe’ all the elements of success: quirky stage presence, strong song and a memorable hook. The fate of the UK on the night won’t be decided by political voting but will be dictated by where she’s drawn in the running order. If she ends up near the start we can kiss any hopes of ending up high on the scoreboard goodbye but if she gets drawn later on she has a real chance of doing well…or at any rate better than Bonnie Tyler did last year.
The main problem with the UK at Eurovision is that we have the wrong attitude but it’s proven that success isn’t beyond the grasp of Western European countries anymore. This year we have the best chance of actually winning the whole shebang since Jade Ewen in 2009. Molly was found through BBC Introducing – the scheme that found Florence + the Machine – and sounds thoroughly contemporary. ‘Children of the Universe’ is likewise very radio friendly, has a great hook and has gone down a storm in the fan community something that hasn’t happened for the UK in a long time. If the BBC really ever is serious about winning the Contest though they need to put effort back into the Contest.
It’s no longer the cultural irrelevance it once was after Loreen topped charts across the entire continent in 2012 and is a pretty exciting showcase for the best of music from across Europe. Politics isn’t what’s held the UK back at the Contest – it’s BBC apathy and a woefully misplaced sense of musical superiority. Of course neighburs will still vote for their neighbours at the contest We do it too though with Ireland and Malta. Politics has a role to play in Eurovision but it isn’t the be all and end all, and it won’t be what determines Molly’s fate in Copenhagen.