“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.