Eurovision 2010: It needs to die a horrible death

“There are only two things I appear to feel at home with,” I whined to the shiny new and ever-so-slightly bemused online editor for BBC Radio 3, “the Proms and the Eurovision. I know,” I added when I saw his eyebrows rise, “it’s an odd combination.”

I went on to explain to him how I had increasingly come to regard my love of the Eurovision as something akin to a shitty relationship.

I’ve never been in one, obviously. I’m just speculating. Even so, I regard it as a shitty relationship because I know fundamentally it’s bad for me. There are so many things about the damn Contest which antagonise the hell out of me (some of which I’ll go into detail here) and yet I can’t help myself.

Year after year I subject myself to the same thing which annoyed me the previous year. Year after year the joy bleeds out of the event as a result. Pretty soon there’ll be nothing left.

I was working in IT support in 2002 and feeling pretty miserable about it.

My boss back then had introduced me to the wonders of HTML and in pursuit of doing something (anything) creative, I reckoned combining this newfound interest with a lifelong obsession would provide the excuse to practice building websites. Inevitably, I ended up focusing on the words on the page rather than making my web pages W3C compliant. Some would argue things haven’t really changed.

But in the process of doing what felt like a series of shamelessly derisory and fundamentally pointless song reviews for the Contest hosted in Estonia that year, I received an unexpectedly complimentary email from a Dutchman asking me whether he’d see me in Tallinn in the week before the Eurovision.

Why on earth would I see him? Why on earth would I be going to Tallinn when I’d be watching it on TV in London? What on earth was he talking about?

When he explained that most of the hardcore fans went to the host city to attend the rehearsals and jig around the parties, I registered a strange sensation. I was jealous. I was missing out. I wanted to be a part of it.

And I was a part of it the following year when I went along for the 2003 Contest hosted in Riga, Latvia. It was an amazing experience. It’s corny to say it, but it was a real ‘eye-opener’.

Ridiculous numbers of journalists clamored to get access to seeming non-entities from across the continent, elevating their interview subjects to the status of gods and goddesses in the words they wrote for their websites or local newspapers. They broadcast their privileged access by publishing pictures of them pictured with Eurovision stars in what amounted to little more than photographic name-dropping. I felt a bit embarrassed to be witnessing it. I didn’t see the value in it. It felt like everyone was playing. I didn’t want to do the same thing.

But maybe I ignored an important lesson quite early on.

When I moaned to a British journalist during that week in Riga (incidentally, for 48 weeks of the year he was an air-steward) how my attempts to get an interview with the UK delegation during the rehearsal week had ended in failure where his had succeeded, his response was curt and ever so slightly dismissive. “Well I have got four years more experience than you dear.” I muttered something about not realising there was a queuing system when bidding for interviews before tearing his page out of my little black book.

My exchange with that British journalist wasn’t typical, but has stuck with me ever since.
It was a conversation which suggested there was a pecking order in this particular playground. That I couldn’t just expect to turn up out of the blue with no prior experience and get an interview with whoever I wanted. I would have to wait my turn. And that might take years.

That seemed to go against my view of what the Eurovision press centre was about.

How could it be that 1000+ journalists were sufficiently interested (and that their publications’ audiences were sufficiently interested) in the Eurovision? Facilities laid on for the press were on a par with a sporting event. Importance oozed from the voice-over-IP phones, network printers and self-reserved PCs. What could each artist say that was so earth-shatteringly important after they’d completed their rehearsal that demanded audience seating, microphones and a stage? Why the barrage of photographers? Why did they keep asking about costumes and dancers? Who the hell were they all tapping away busily in the press centre for?

Was this real journalism or toy town news? Surely ‘Eurovision journalism’ was little more than an opportunity for self-aggrandizement? These people couldn’t be real journalists could they?

Damning, I know. And there’s more than a sniff of jealousy in that line of questioning too. After all, those who normally cry ‘Clique!’ are normally the ones who wouldn’t be so ready to dish out the insults if they were in a clique of their own.

Maybe the problem isn’t them. Maybe it’s me.

There were real demonstrations of sheer pantomime in the press centre just as there was on the stage at Eurovision in 2003. But even so, to dismiss the work Eurovision journalists are doing as mere ‘toy town news’ overlooks one fundamental point about the Contest as an event.

Long before the mantra of multiplatform executives became wearisome to listen to, the European Broadcasting Union had – perhaps unwittingly – touched first base. By overlooking traditional industry labels and the derisory manner many from the UK had regarded fans, the EBU welcomed in the fanatics and borderline obsessives into the fold.

Its true fans had always gained access before but from around 1997/1998 onwards it was accepted perhaps even expected that Eurovision fans would seek access to their most treasured of annual events.

That’s why there is a well-subscribed accreditation process for fans and journalists alike, why there’s always a massive press centre with all sorts of facilities laid on. You just don’t get that kind of thing laid on at the BBC Proms. It’s just not necessary.

In fact, I know of no other event – sporting or otherwise – which grants such access to the very people who adore it. And it’s that very access which has reinvigorated the event and provided a springboard for a great many individuals who now a few years later Eurovision celebrities themselves. Or at least that’s the way it seems judging by the tweets and the blogs and the photographs of this party or that press conference.

These are the individuals who have embraced new self-publishing technologies and creating their own networks around them, disseminating information on behalf of the various delegations and staking out their position in the PR field. The fans are now as much part of the Eurovision process as the songwriter, artist and participatory broadcaster themselves. They are the citizen journalists turned almost-pro long before citizen journalism as a phrase was coined by the industry at large.

But this I believe comes at a cost, a belief fuelled by my own sense of failure to break into that circle. The Contest is no longer just a brand owned by a broadcasting organisation. There is a co-dependent relationship between the EBU and its army of ‘independent’ online content producers. If the EBU planned on pulling Eurovision, there’d be a riot.

Eurovision belongs to the fans now. It has created people. It has enabled people. There are people who are defined by it. Little wonder it’s every bit as competitive a world to break into as old-school journalism. There are too many people pursuing their childhood dreams, encouraged by the access granted by the EBU. If that mindset truly exists on the Eurovision bus, then that makes that particular world impenetrable, understandably so.

And I think – eight years after I first noted that unexpected sense of jealousy in myself – a year after I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of why Eurovision feels like the kind of shitty relationship I should have got out of years ago, I’ve hit upon the answer.

Even physically distanced from events in whatever country the Contest is hosted in, I sense the competition via the likes of Twitter or the web. Each tweet which antagonises, each news story trumpeting what such and such will be doing is nothing short of a painful reminder of that conversation I had in 2003 with part-time air steward.

Maybe he was right. Maybe I should have waited my turn. Maybe I should have been a little lower-key. Maybe I have created this strange feeling of isolation myself. And maybe, the best way to overcome the same regular feelings about the damn thing is to avoid it (or rather the internet) altogether.

At least if I did that I could steer clear of the exchange of Facebook messages I had with a long lost colleague shortly after he’d sent me a friend request and began trumpeting his impending trip to Oslo on his status updates.

Me To Dave: Subject: Rules of Engagement Sir. Message: We can be friends so long as you don’t keep banging on about going to Oslo or being in Oslo.

Dave To Me:
Message: You better unfriend me for a week – it’s going to be hard not to!

Me To Dave:
Message: Then unfriending it is.

Will I make the same mistake again next year? Will I get sucked in again? Or can I finally knock this particular nail on the head and let this obsession die?

I hope to God it dies. You know. A horrible, painful death.

Because really, the Eurovision is nothing but a TV broadcast of a songwriting competition.

Eurovision 2010: Semi-Final One

Semi-Final One
Tues 25 May 2010

Moldova

Russia
Estonia
Slovakia *
Finland
Latvia *
Serbia
Bosnia
Poland *
Belgium *
Malta *
Albania *
Greece
Portugal *
Macedonia
Belarus *
Iceland *

Bold italics most memorable
* Predicted semi-final qualifiers

The first semi-final for the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest goes out on Tuesday 25 May. I can barely contain myself. No really, I can’t.

What you can see here is a self-indulgent, geeky, anoraky and borderline obsessive-compulsive preparation for the big event which – lets face it – won’t be watched by that many people because it’s a week night.

Running order for the considerably more interesting Semi-Final Two.

Anal

Even I can’t believe how pitifully anal I’ve been about this. It’s basically the manifestation of a last desperate attempt to maintain interest in the contest and protect myself against the usual slew of self-imposed negativity. More on that in another blog post. (Yes really, who knew so much could be written about something so fundamentally dull?)

Heads up, this is important!

The big news this year is that the phone lines are open throughout the programme – not just during that bizarre period at the end of the presentation of the songs – but if you’re thinking you’ll be able to swing the vote by hitting the redial button, you’ll be disappointed. TV viewers votes are cut 50/50 with an ‘expert jury’ (a handful of drunks from Shepherds Bush Green).

But, UK viewers can’t vote in Tuesday’s show. Them’s the rules. Treat the first semi-final as a dry run. A rehearsal for the second-semi on Thursday when UK viewers ahead of the bun fight on Saturday night.

Showing my workings

Countries marked in bold italics in the list represent the acts I could recall just from a handful of listens (good or bad). This doesn’t necessarily represent the best acts – just the ones I remember without actually listening to the songs again.

Countries marked with an asterisk represent the ones I reckon will go through having reminded myself what the songs are and considering their impact in the running order. To be honest, this may not be quite so significant this year given the phone lines are open for the entire show, but you know if there are first-timers watching on the semi-final night it *might* have an impact.

Again, the asterisk list is not necessarily an indication of quality, merely a painful reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around me as much as I would like.

Eurovision 2010: Semi-Final Two

Semi-Final Two
Thurs 27 May 2010

Lithuania
*
Armenia *
Israel *
Denmark *
Switzerland
Sweden
Azerbaijan *
Ukraine
The Netherlands
Romania *
Slovenia
Ireland *
Bulgaria
Cyprus *
Croatia
Georgia *
Turkey *

Bold italics most memorable
* Predicted semi-final qualifiers

The second semi-final for the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest goes out on Thursday 27 May. It looks to be a considerably more interesting semi-final compared to the first one.

The big news is that the UK can vote in this particular event. But, like the first semi-final and the final on Saturday 29 May, the telephone vote will be combined 50/50 with an expert jury.

Running order for the considerably less interesting first Semi-Final.

Showing my workings

Countries marked in bold italics in the list represent the acts I could recall just from a handful of listens (good or bad). This doesn’t necessarily represent the best acts – just the ones I remember without actually listening to the songs again.

Countries marked with an asterisk represent the ones I reckon will go through having reminded myself what the songs are and considering their impact in the running order. To be honest, this may not be quite so significant this year given the phone lines are open for the entire show, but you know if there are first-timers watching on the semi-final night it *might* have an impact.

Again, the asterisk list is not necessarily an indication of quality, merely a painful reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around me as much as I would like.

Eurovision 2010: Turkey

There’s a mildly interesting point to be made about Turkey’s song for Eurovision this year. Held up against the Eurovision prism, Turkish band maNga’s song We Could Be The Same ticks one very important box – it has a irreprescible hook at the beginning of the track.

But this is – in the cold light of day – the best thing about it. The verse and subsequent chorus doesn’t live up to the excitement established in that opening pizzicato sounding hook. The melody descends into nothingness. The hard-core, fast-tempo driving rock sound is probably it’s ultimate undoing. It’s trying and failing to sound all manly in a way Turkey’s 2008 entry sounded considerably more convincing.

This year’s song moves away from formulaic-authentic sounding Dum Tek Tek. Sure, a convincing performance, but you’re not going to tell me that tiresomely repetitive melody really deserved 4th place in the final?


Shake It Up Shekerim
from 2008 is without doubt one of Turkey’s strongest pop songs in Eurovision in recent years maintaining Turkey’s proud placings in the table since Sertab Erener’s crowd-pleaser win for the country in 2003 with Everyway That I Can, closely followed by Athena’s Eurovision ska experiment in 2004. The less said about Rimi Rimi Ley from 2005 the better although their 2006 effort – Superstar – marked a real accomplishment in understanding what works with Eurovision’s core audience. Shame it only secured 11th place.

How will Turkey fare this year? Personally, I’m not holding out for a high placing. It’s not the best entry they’ve sent. But it’s also not a howler. Keep an eye on it.

Why the Olympic mascots aren’t a good omen

The launch of the Olympic mascots for the 2012 games doesn’t bode well.

Not because I consider the designs to be flawed or subscribe to the view that children might find them “creepy” but instead because the negative reaction gives us a taste of how the run up to the games will be in 2012.

All this gleened from just looking at them.

And yet the ignorant dismissive tone is all too delicious for the media to ignore.

Take this line from the Daily Mail

… the duo, launched with much fanfare last night on BBC1’s The One Show, require a certain amount of explanation before they begin to make any sense …

There’s nothing wrong with them to my mind. In fact, just like 7reasons.org say, the accompanying cartoon gives the two characters – Mandeville and Wenlock – some context. The movement of the characters is fluid. They don’t speak, instead imitating the world around them. They are peculiarly and inexplicably British as well as reaching out to a global audience at the same time. Most important of their actions make me laugh.

They’re genderless and raceless. Fashioned from cast-offs from the molten steel used to build the stadium, they are ‘of’ the Olympics. They imitate sporting prowess, in turn inspiring the two kids in the film to imitate them. The characters are promoting sport – in a very loose sense – amongst the younger generation. That’s a good thing.

For my money, there’s a bedding-in period with these little characters.The photographs of the lifesize costumes don’t do them justice – no surprises the Daily Mail used those shots – like the animation cells do. Moreover, it is the cartoon which brings them to life (literally) and gives them some character.

But of course, most people won’t see that cartoon or the ones which are to follow in the run up to the games. Two days after launch the cartoon stands at 170,000 views – hardly a overwhelming endorsement.

That’s reflected in an industry poll conducted by EMR showing that over 51% provided a negative response to the mascots, 22% describing the design as “dreadful”.

But that’s what journalism about mass-appeal topics needs. It needs extremes – and ideally negative extremes – to make people read. Negativity drives traffic. Even mild satire registers page views. And if there’s just a handful of people around who may not immediately get exactly what they’re meant to be without a detailed diagram (go on, just go out on the street and ask the man with the dog whether he likes them, that’ll be enough) that’s enough to imply criticism of the work.

And that’s only going to get worse in the coming months, with everything. We’ll read more about how things aren’t working, how deadlines are being missed, how we’ll never make it in time. That’s because journalists need tension in order to tell stories.

Any failure of the mechanisms relied upon to bring what high-class sporting events to the mainstream who may not consider engaging with sport, and the entire enterprise will be deemed a failure. That’s the Olympics biggest challenge: selling the idea of the Olympics to people who had no say in hosting them. The same people who are all required to pay for them, the majority of whom don’t have an interest in either participating in sport or indeed watching any more than the opening or closing ceremonies.

So the easier point to make will be focussing on what most people understand: cost and return on investment. And the result of the inevitable negativity will be a further nail in the coffin of our collective identity. Another example of how the UK is quite crap at most things. It won’t necessarily be fair or justified. It will just be convenient. And it will get worse until the Games are over.