Eurovision: It's a Song Contest, Right?

Eurovision - political? It's time to change the record. Preferably to one written by a Swede.

The majority of post-Eurovision commentary in any one year, particularly that in Britain, revolves around the "it's so silly/why-do-we-enter/it's-all-political-voting-anyway" triumvirate of think-free journalism. This year, host country Azerbaijan's human rights record was the angle du jour. Both issues - the annual concern of why a country which is of one the greatest proponents of popular music fails at the largest popular music festival in the world - and 2012's specific issue around freedom of expression and political rights - are clearly worthy of exploration. However, the reductivist versions of events ("it's all political" and "what a terrible regime"), both tinged with mild xenophobia, do bear closer scrutiny. More to the point, and forgive me if I'm missing something here, but it's a song contest right? So it's about the music and the performance of individual songs. Isn't it?

What a terrible regime

I've just returned from a few days in Eurovision 2012's host city, Baku. I don't think I'll plan on going back. "Ooh", I hear you ask, "why ever not?".

Azerbaijan is, sadly, a police state. Secret police or agents of the state are quite openly watching you, everywhere. Beneath the shiny, glossy surfaces (which are seriously something to behold), is an apparatus that is familiar to anyone who has lived under a dictatorship, benevolent or otherwise. The capital Baku is unlike anywhere I've ever been. It's the lovechild of Istanbul and Dubai, with Soviet and Iranian grandparents. An intriguing mix for sure, though it has to be said that there are no obvious signs of dissidence. The Western commentary on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan has been somewhat unfair: both Russia and Turkey before them have hosted the contest of late - and bar some anti-gay clashes in Moscow - human rights issues were largely ignored by the media (or at least were not the focal point of journalists).

Azerbaijan's imprisonment of political prisoners is, compared to Russia, modest (without wishing to undermine the severity of the situation). As for press freedom, we see no trouble in doing business in or visiting Singapore or Dubai (or hosting international events there) despite the obvious restrictions in those countries. The EBU is right to keep putting pressure on Azeris to increase press freedom, but ultimately the issue for the Azeri people is much broader - that of freedom of choice and freedom from fear. In the UK, broadly, we have choice and are not afraid to say what we want, see whom we want and sleep with whom we want. These are freedoms that sincerely we oughtn't to take for granted. Let's hope the Azeris benefit from those freedoms soon. I hope Eurovision has helped and not hindered that.

It's all political

Really, it's not. It's certainly cultural, but the accusation that Eurovision is all about the Eastern countries these days, voting for each other and shutting out "old" Western Europe, really doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Simple facts: (i) three of the so-called "Big Five" - the Western European bankrollers of the European Broadcasting Union - ended up in the top 10 this year (out of 42 entrants); (ii) the winning country was Sweden - though geographically Northern, certainly more aligned to Western than Eastern Europe; (iii) despite countries wonderfully choosing songs in their own languages, the vast majority of songs remain in that global language of ours, English; and (iv) in three of the past four years, the contest has been won by non-Eastern European countries.

Given the number of Russians in Israel, or Turks in Germany - or the linguistic and cultural connections between the Scandinavian and Baltic states - or the fact that countries share borders (which, as an island nation, we sometimes forget), it's inevitable that there are voting patterns. The UK voting public regularly gives high marks to our neighbours - our brothers - from Ireland. Why should we complain when the Greeks or Bosnians do the same? In any case, music professionals give 50% of a country's votes. They are supposed to be more objective than the voting public.

It's not a perfect system but I'd strongly argue that a good contemporary song performed well can win Eurovision, irrespective of its origin. By which I mean a nice tune, a good or fun performance and something appealing to the ear and the eye.

It's the songs, stupid

Ultimately it is this aspect - songs win the Eurovision Song Contest - that is overlooked by mainstream journalists.

This year's winning country Sweden didn't just enter one song this year. Talented Swedish songwriters, writing for other countries, entered ten. And all ten made the final 26. Four made the top ten. You see, Sweden cares about pop music, about its song writing and production. Whether you're Britney or One Direction, it's to Swedish producers and writers you go to. It's a creative industry that has been carefully nurtured, for generations, by successive government policies - and it has reaped cultural and economic rewards. In short, Sweden takes popular music - and Eurovision - seriously. This commitment is why they won this year. And why a Swedish songwriter wrote the winning Azeri entry in 2011.

Unfortunately, despite its world-beating songwriters (not to mention artists), the UK (and the BBC) still fail to "get" Eurovision. Engelbert (great artist) with decent songwriters doesn't quite cut it. Sweden has a rigorous, publically voted for pre-Eurovision song contest (the highest rated television show in the whole Scandinavian region each year). Why was the UK entry picked behind closed doors?

Don't believe me? Try this: go to, watch Engelbert's song performed and then watch Loreen's. Whatever your personal opinion, it's clear that the voting public massively agreed on which was the better song. Still don't believe me? Take a look at the charts. Engelbert peaked at around 76, Loreen is at number 1.

Eurovision - political? It's time to change the record. Preferably to one written by a Swede.


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