Eurovision: UK must send proper musician next year
Dutch entry showed way forward but Britain took the cynical and inherently defeatist approach of sending Molly, an unknown pretty girl selected by a backroom cabal at the BBC
The Netherlands sent real musicians playing a proper song to the Eurovision. Interesting strategy. I wonder why the UK never thought of that? For once, the Eurovision seemed to get something right, producing a popular result which resonated beyond the confines of its usual self-consciously trashy, out-of-date, culturally in-growing lowest-common-denominator cabaret context. The success of Austrian bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst was widely interpreted as sending out a humanitarian message of not just tolerance but appreciation for social and sexual diversity. I suspect its political impact has been over-stated but maybe, at the very least, the gay community will finally get behind this long-running competition.
I’m joking, of course. The Eurovision is a veritable festival of camp, whilst pop music has been a vibrant arena for exploring issues of sexual identity since the Seventies glory days of Bowie, Elton and Queen. But not all sections of modern society in Europe and elsewhere are as libertarian as the music business and Wurst’s bold performance will, at the very least, promote debate, and will surely have meant a lot to people who feel outsiders in more repressive communities. It was certainly a good result for the Twitter age, giving social networks something to swarm over, although it was the presentation, and not the song, that got everyone excited. Wurst’s faux Bond movie theme is just another overblown, histrionic ballad composed in a style that was out of date long before its 25-year-old singer (female impersonator Thomas Neuwirth) was even born.
The likelihood is that Rise Like A Phoenix will drop like a lead balloon, following the trajectory of most previous Eurovision hits. I wonder if it ever strikes the Eurovision organisation as a concern that, in its 60-year existence, vast amounts of money and broadcasting resources have been squandered promoting an international song contest that has produced only one song that pop audiences still genuinely cherish by one artist who enjoyed significant commercial impact beyond the confines of the competition? The extraordinary success of 1974 victors ABBA has been trotted out as an excuse to justify the appalling standard of this annual parade of trite musical and banal lyrical clichés for 40 years now, a period which might suggest Waterloo was the exception and not the rule.
Yet something peculiar happened in last night’s show that might, conceivably, change the very character of the comedy musical contest, or at the very least give the UK a clue how to avoid annual ritual humiliation by the rest of Europe. And it had nothing to do with hirsute divas. The Netherlands nearly stole the show with a song that sounded like something you might actually hear out in the real world, performed by consummate musicians who appeared to take what they are doing seriously. I know this will be a contentious issue to some. After all, even Eurovision songs have verses, choruses, melodies and lyrics, so what makes one song more authentic than another? But the truth is, we all know it when we hear it, and Europe heard it on Saturday night.
The Common Linnets sombre, country-inflected mid-tempo ballad Calm After The Storm had an elegance and eloquence alien to this competition, with a subtle, flowing melody and lyrics of simple depth, delivered with a quiet intensity and subdued emotional power that struck home like a musical dagger. In chord structure it was rather indebted to Every Breath You Take by the Police, in presentation it drew on the stark Americana and taut duet harmonies of The Civil Wars. But by the gaudy Boom Bang A Bang standards of Euro(vision)pop, it was a stone-cold masterpiece, as if a band of passionate musos had accidentally wandered in off the set of Jools Holland’s Later and magically silenced a baying horde of X Factor fans by the unpretentious integrity and spooky magic of genuine musicality. It was sheer class. In a close-run vote, this previously unheralded alternative country combo came second, beaten only by the gimmicky socio-political gesture of Europop’s new bearded heroine.
But here’s the really interesting thing. By the end of the show, there was only one Eurovision song in the iTunes top ten, a chart that updates almost in real time. And it wasn’t the winner. The Common Linnets immediately popped in at number nine, with losing UK entry Molly Smitten-Downes at 26 and the victorious Conchita Wurst languishing at 27. By the next day, the Netherlands’ entry had soared up to the dizzy heights of number four, while Wurst had only crept to 19, and Smitten-Downes descended one place to 27. The Netherlands haven’t won since 1975 but by bravely breaking with the tired musical format of the Euro genre they went in with their heads high and are reaping an extraordinary reward.
It looks like The Common Linnets have a genuine hit on their hands, and maybe even the possibility of a life beyond Eurovision. The Eurovision Song Contest may have actually given the world a song to remember.
Britain on the other hand took the cynical and inherently defeatist approach of sending an unknown pretty girl selected by a backroom cabal at the BBC to sing a generic, vacuous song especially written for the occasion in an outmoded style particular only to the Eurovision. The result was an entirely predictable continuation of our run of ignominious defeats, coming 17th in a field of 26. Some misguidedly patriotic commentators have tried to spin Smitten-Downes’ failure, suggesting there is no shame being beaten by a novelty Austrian drag queen with a huge sympathy vote. But actually, there is shame. The country that produced the Beatles, the Stones, Bowie, Queen, Kate Bush, George Michael, Morrissey, Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Robbie Williams, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Adele was represented at a huge televisual musical event by an unknown 27-year-old of minimal originality who has been knocking around the music business for years without anybody noticing or caring. And who actually chose her? Not you or me, anyway, despite her trilling trite nonsense about “power to the people”.
You should feel no sympathy for Smitten-Downes. She has done very well out of the whole affair, gaining a public profile and a minor hit, which is more than she managed in the previous decade, and I hope she seizes the chance to do something worthwhile with the rest of her career. But there is no honour in writing off the Eurovision as a ridiculous fandango of no interest to Britain’s proven pop talent, because I have already written on this subject at length and I am convinced there are ways to grasp this poisoned chalice which the BBC has neither the imagination nor will to implement.
Anyway, you don’t have to look at the top of our pop charts to realise that this nation is bursting with musical talent, overflowing with fantastic career musicians creating heart-felt and highly personal work driven by artistic motives rather than just base hunger for fame. There seems to be an assumption that no serious musician would want to go on Eurovision. But has anyone ever asked? The Dutch clearly thought it was worth having a go.