All the Best Things About Europe with None of the Genocide
The Eurovision song contest is epic chaos and probably also the only honest democracy that’s ever existed.
If the role of art is to interrogate civilization, the Eurovision song contest asks the one question that actually matters. The one question that’s still relevant after six savage centuries of slaughter and conquest in the notionally democratic West. It’s a question that’s usually posed in the dark alleyways and disused car parks of the collective unconscious, and it goes like this:
What if, instead of killing each other, we all just got hammered and did karaoke?
What would happen is the most chaos you can possibly have without going to war.
Welcome to Eurovision.
Here’s how it goes. Every year, forty-something countries serve up musical interpretations of a theme that sounds like knockoff body spray - this year it’s The Sound of Beauty. Almost anything goes except subtext. The winner is decided by a global tv audience of millions, plus judges from all the competing nations, which include most European countries, and also Russia, Israel and, for some reason, Australia. In the age of weaponized pedantry, the Eurovision Song contest is ostentatiously relaxed about the meaning of many things, including Europe, competition, and, indeed, what counts as a song. But that doesn’t really explain Eurovision.
To really explain Eurovision, you first have to explain the actual concept of a country. And at its heart, a country is a story told to convince millions of people who would annoy each other if they ever met that they are part of a meaningful whole. That they belong to each other. Benedict Anderson speaks of nation states as ‘imaginary communities’. Eurovision wants us to exercise that imagination, which is why it so often produces an unholy high camp fusion of folk horror, panto and porn.
You might comfort yourself with the conviction that these are mutually exclusive genres. But Eurovision is here to prove you wrong, starting with Poland’s entry from 2014, which taught the world several surprising uses for a butter churn.
In the late 90s, the Eurovision voting system was democratized in a way designed to cause maximum carnage: half the points are still awarded by national judges, but the other half are thrown open to the unpredictable field of late-night weekend televoting. What this means in practice is that the destinies of nations are decided by hundreds of millions of people who have already spent hours drinking and shouting at the television and are in the perfect mood to be petty as hell. The process is self-consciously shallow and stupid. Its success does not depend on anyone making rational, merit-based decisions. As such, Eurovision may well be the world’s only honest democracy.
The first rule of Eurovision is that it doesn’t matter who wins Eurovision. The winner, after all, has to host next year’s competition, which is very expensive and a massive faff. This, too, is honest democracy: everbody wants to win, but nobody wants to be in charge. This explains why Eastern Europe and the Baltic states have wiped the floor with the big Eurovision hitters every year since they were added to the roster in the nineties: because they bring the mayhem like they’ve got nothing to lose.
This year, Latvia’s offering on the altar of national dignity is an extravagantly deranged number by Citi Zeni entitled ‘Eat Your Salad’. It appears to be about filthy vegan fuckboys, of whom I have known more than my share. You really only need to watch the first ten seconds.
Not bad, is it? Vapid and sleazy, yes, but not bad. The very worst performance in Eurovision history was given in 2016 by a certain Justin Timberlake, who had no idea what the event was when he accepted the invitation to sing at the interval.
It was the most unfortunate entry since a streaker crashed Spain’s performance in 2010. The streaker, a smiley, pure-hearted soul by the name of Jimmy Jabs, managed to sway along with the song for quite a while, because that year Spain had decided that what it wanted to give the world was an off-brand Twink Liberace flanked by horrifying pink porn clowns. Jimmy Jabs looked like his weirdest drams had quite literally come true, and security had to spend quite a while work out exactly who they were supposed to be arresting.
All of this was in the spirit of Eurovision. Justin Timberlake, by contrast, demonstrated the fastest way to fuck it up: by taking it seriously. Timberlake is a talented entertainer. He delivered an offensively competent performance that managed to miss the point much a jumbo jet might miss the runway. For fuckssake, Justin, this isn’t the Superbowl. It’s not meant to be good.
There may come a day when Americans are collectively capable of understanding Eurovision. It will not be in my lifetime, though, unless something happens to make them appreciate the art of sucking at something on purpose. Imperialism tends to cauterise the capacity to let other people laugh at you. Remember that, because we’ll come back to it later.
Eurovision is political. Of course it is. It could hardly be anything else, on a continent that has been going to war with itself for the entire span of recorded history. There wasn’t even a break in the self-mutilating tradition of everyone attacking everyone else every generation didn’t even stop to invade other countries and steal their stuff. Non-Europeans, along with most Europeans under thirty-five, still underestimate the staggering amount of military atrocity our ancestors managed to pack into a small landmass, and how profoundly this has shaped the character of the continent. Eurovision was invented by people who were, more than anything else, extremely bored of war.
That doesn’t mean they’re bored of petty point-scoring. Greece and Cyprus always vote for each other, Belarus always shovels its big prizes towards Russia, and nobody votes for Britain, partly because we’re reliably mediocre but mostly because every other European nation is fed up with our bullshit. Which is fair enough.
Britain is a lot worse at Eurovision than you’d think. We’ve spent half a century distracting the world from our post imperial decline by flinging out wild handfuls of pop music and self deprecating humour, so we really ought to be able to deploy them here. Sadly, we’re scuppered every time by our even more fundamental fear of looking daft in front of the French.
We’ve made worse choices for the same reason.
But reasons are not excuses, and the land of Monty Python, David Bowie and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band should be able to do better than another basic bearded guitar boy. We do have the best tv commentary by miles, after Graham Norton seamlessly accepted the baton from the great Terry Wogan, proving once again that Britain’s comfort zone is making fun of other people. Yes. Hi.
Britain might do better if its separate states were allowed to compete independently. Wales is already Eurovision in its soul, partly because of all the male-voice choirs but mostly because it’s the only country in the world with a goddamn dragon on its flag. Because dragons are fantastic and fuck you, that’s why. But Scandinavia, where it all began, is where they understand Eurovision best.
The former Viking territories often go down the death metal route. This might seem at odds with the general high-camp pastel glitter pageantry, until you remember that metal is essentially pantomime. Finland won the whole damn thing in 2006 with Hard Rock Hallelujah, performed by Lordi, a band dressed as boiled orcs in little plastic Finland hats. It’s an epic song. It used to get played the end of the night in goth clubs to get people to go home
Anyway, every year at least one of the Nordic countries can be trusted to inspect the geopolitical hells cape and do what needs to be done: serve up a slice of magical realist pop madness so absolutely baffling that it might well end fascism, which after all requires a coherent aesthetic.
Norway may have overshot this year with the madly catchy ‘Give that Wolf a Banana’. The song is an attempt to capture the mood of Lewis Carrol getting lost in a great big IKEA. It is also about giving a wolf a banana. It is a very silly, possibly deliberate refusal of the authoritarian concept of making any sense at all. In terms of a Norwegian concept for Western unity, Subwoofer is an improvement on NATO, and I suspect they’ve got a much better shot of getting Sweden to join in.
For related reasons, Ukraine are likely to win this year. Russia can sulk all they like, just like they did when Ukraine stood down from Eurovision in 2015with the reasonable excuse that they were busy being invaded by Russia. in 2016, Ukraine was back, and it won, narrowly beating Russia, whose entry looked like someone repurposed a rave club as a re-education camp without redecorating. Not only did Ukraine win, it won with a song called ‘1944’, about the Soviet genocide of the Crimean Tartars. Russia has not forgotten this. State Television spent a long time denouncing Eurovision as a degenerate spectacle of homosexuality, which did as much good as denouncing bears for defecating in the woods.
But Russia has never really been any good at Eurovision. This year they’re not even going, partly because the Kremlin has no interest in any competition it can’t cheat at, but mostly because they got banned. It’s hard to get banned from Eurovision, but invading a neighboring country and massacring tens of thousands of people will do the trick.
The only honest way for Russia to run Eurovision would be to run Pussy Riot. The he neon riot girl band in tutus and balaclavas is the greatest Eurovision act that never was, in that they are such magnificent artists that it is has never mattered that barely play guitar between them. The quality of their music was not the reason their major members were subjected to show-trials and sent off to freeze in prison camps. The Putin regime, like every joyless dictatorship, cannot bear to be made fun of. Tyrants always insist on being taken seriously. Sometimes with tanks.
The opposite of fascism, as Catherynne M Valente observes in her magnificent novel Space Opera, is not anarchy. It’s theatre. For as long as Eurovision is allowed to continue, it will annoy authoritarians. It will do this because of its founding premise: that the entire concept of the nation its fundamentally silly. I believe this in my bones. The whole idea of a country is stupid and embarrassing, which is why anyone trying to do straight-faced nationalism at scale rapidly ends up producing bad vaudeville and punishing anyone who dares to laugh.
Nobody is suggesting that Eurovision by itself can end war. But as long as peace is this magnificently silly, we’ve one more reason to try.