Saturday, May 12, 2018

What Eurovision can teach us about life

Eurovision can teach us a fair few things about life. These are things that we already know but Eurovision helps dramatise the lessons in an inimitably glorious way.

Style over substance

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Eurovision is more about pomp, glitz, glamour, pyrotechnics and performance than it is about music per se.

It is about exuberance, mirth, irreverent satire, celebration and deep emotion. Happy and cheerful songs; saucy songs; lugubrious songs; bellicose screeches; plaintive cries of longing and loss – Eurovision gives us all genres and emotions. Some of the songs that are performed are absolutely amazing, and there can be little doubt that the singers performing them are virtuosos.

But, at Eurovision, performative virtuosity trumps musical virtuosity. Exceptions notwithstanding, performance is paramount. Eurovision is a riotous conflagration of colour and (this year especially) a pyromaniac’s wet dream.

Eurovision’s performative and aesthetic appeal is absolutely essential. Audiences and fans love its aesthetic sensibilities, and Eurovision wouldn’t be what it is without these sensibilities. However, in a competition, the aesthetics of performance and the music are bound to exist in tension.

In every competition, decision-making is influenced by a number of factors. In this year’s Eurovision, once again, we have examples of performance triumphing over music. The performances by Cyprus (‘Fuego’, Eleni Foureira) and Slovenia (‘Hvala, ne!’, Lea Sirk), both qualifying for the finals, were amazing performances but arguably did not feature great songs. The Swedish performance (‘Dance you off’, Benjamin Ingrosso) and Czech performance (‘Lie to me’, Mikolas Josef) were great and the songs had really catchy tunes but the two singers were definitely not among this year’s best live singers. (When it comes to Eurovision, every definitive statement is necessarily accompanied by an implied and sotto voce ‘in my opinion’.)

On the other hand, the Swiss (‘Stones’, Zibbz), Croatian (‘Crazy’, Franka), Montenegrin (‘Inje’, Vanja Radovanović) and Russian (‘I Won't Break’, Julia Samoylova) contestants were really amazing live singers, but they didn’t make the finals. This might have been because of generic factors or lack of mesmerising (enough) showmanship. Either way, you can see how these outcomes exist in tension with one another.

This year’s winner, the Israeli contestant (‘Toy’, Netta), combined quirky performance with quirky musicality.

Of course, all assessments are subjective, and perhaps it is the subjectivity of our collective responses that Eurovision can help us better understand. I found SBS’ reactions ticker very revealing. It was interesting (and, admittedly, frustrating) to see how frequently other viewers’ reactions varied from my own. Some reactions from viewers in Australia (for example, poor ratings for a song that was sung beautifully but did not have that Eurovision dance-worthiness or je ne sais quoi) can be baffling. But in that experience of momentary bafflement, you have an opportunity to reconcile with the seeming irreconcilability of other people’s subjective reactions. When Australians voted the Albanian (‘Mall’, Eugent Bushpepa) and Montenegrin songs down, I rolled my eyes and muttered “bloody ee-jits” at the telly. Then I made my peace with it.

Looks matter

Looks definitely matter. Culturally, we have always valorised beauty and prioritised appearance. Not that this needs any reinforcement, but Eurovision teaches us that looks do make an enormous difference. Not just beauty in the traditional sense (although, obviously, that matters as well) but looks and appearance, considered more broadly. Visual merchandising matters. Contestants have to carve an image, visibly identify with a particular iconic mould, and make this a part of their performance. At Eurovision, being beautiful in the traditional sense is perhaps less important than having unique visual merchandising. Eurovision has had many iconoclastic contestants (and winners). They’ve taken an unusual (or non-mainstream) image or look and made it appealing.

Political ideology matters

Of course political ideology matters. Music is not only about technique and rhythm. It is also about the message. The message is actually incredibly important. Songs can ‘speak to the heart’. This is intrinsic to how we engage with music.

Eurovision teaches us that messages, beliefs and images matter. If not, a Chinese broadcaster would not have censored the Irish (‘Together’, Ryan O'Shaughnessy) and Albanian performances, the first for featuring a gay theme and the latter because of the singer’s tattoos, and would not, in turn, have been subsequently banned from broadcasting the rest of Eurovision. Both the censorship and Eurovision’s response highlight the primacy of the message.

Also, many songs and singers (even if they are less technically brilliant than others) find themselves winning hearts and votes because of their message. They tap into a zeitgeist or they highlight something that is topical and politically significant (Ukraine’s winning 2016 performance, ‘1944’ by Jamala, comes to mind).

Moreover, the entire social, cultural and political rubric under which Eurovision operates has important ideological underpinnings. This cannot be overstated. What is a cultural event without its appeal to belief and ideology? Eurovision emblematises European respect, freedom, unity in diversity, etc., and songs that resonate with these themes are likely to do well.

On winning this year’s contest, Netta’s comment on diversity (thanking viewers for supporting diversity of performance) spoke to the importance of messaging for both contestants and the organisation.  

Assessments cannot be fair

This goes back to my earlier point about the subjectivity of responses. When I say that assessments cannot be fair, I mean two things: one, that assessments (particularly of music and performance) simply cannot be objective, and, two, that extraneous (and hidden) factors (including, occasionally, political ideology) can affect the way people vote.

The random allocation of contestants to two semi-finals, as in many other competitions, can also contribute to the arbitrariness of the outcomes. You can have unbalanced pools, and some good contestants will miss out on getting into the finals in this way (true of 2018). However, this is simply about the luck of the draw, and, perhaps, by leaving things to chance, the process delivers something of a more equitable solution (than the alternative of devised allocations). All competitions that use this mechanism of arbitrary allocations teach us that assessments cannot be completely fair but are fair to the best possible extent.

There will always be a P5

There will always be the big or permanent five (in Eurovision, the P5 grouping includes France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom). While it would be easy to get mad at the organisers for replicating (and thus reinforcing) on the cultural plane broader structures of political and economic hegemony, perhaps we should give them credit for revealing the immutability of these structures. Let’s face it, there will always be a P5. Some hegemons will always have more sway than peripheral or less economically powerful players.

In 2018, I was delighted to see that the P5, who get direct entry into the finals, put in pretty good performances. This is not always so, and it can be a little annoying to have one of the P5 appear in the finals in spite of the fact that many other contestants were much better. However, pending a major rebellion, all must make their peace with the political status quo, and Eurovision is right to teach us so.

We must accept these truisms as immutable

I don’t meant to sound defeatist but we must accept these truisms as immutable. Eurovision teaches us that music, performance and, indeed, life itself can be exuberant, raucous, amazing and fun, but also chaotic, ridden with subjectivity, coincidence, chance, arbitrariness and hierarchy, and that we must reconcile ourselves to the immutability of this condition.

Trite as it may sound, Eurovision is a microcosm of life itself.