Why the Eurovision Song Contest just can't stop that political feeling
It's always been tricky to explain the Eurovision Song Contest to our US cousins, but thankfully we almost never have to. With Justin Timberlake turning up to sing 'Can't Stop The Feeling' in the interval for this year's contest, suddenly however all eyes were on the stage in Stockholm. Even more eyes than the 200 million who normally tune in.
Essentially it's like a version of American Idol where each state sends a competitor and then votes for their favourite, in a big effort to bring everyone together right? So how then to explain that the winning song of this non-political contest is a Ukrainian tale of Joseph Stalin's 1944 Crimean genocide, with a chorus sung in a language that fewer than half a million people speak. Not to mention that neither the juries nor the general public actually picked it as their overall winner.
Eurovision made huge leaps forward in the UK this year. A polished production gave us incredible effects, hosts who actually spoke good English, and a new voting mechanic which had viewers on the edge of their seats to the very last moment (even if they didn't quite understand why). Timberlake brought global stardust to the stage but the entrants themselves set a high bar, and the hosts' performance of spoof song 'Love Love Peace Peace' arguably stole the show for many viewers. It attracted an overnight audience of 7.2m viewers for the BBC, roughly 1.5m more than the Brits gets ITV, and more than 7 million Tweets were sent, a new record. Cadbury activated an Amplify Twitter Partnership and Promoted Trend , becoming the first brand in living memory to officially partner with the organisers in the UK or Ireland - though across much of the content brands have run full on partnerships with in store activations, competitions and experiential setups for years.
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The reintroduction of a preselection contest this year shows that the BBC is giving it a serious rethink too, and whilst Graham Norton's commentary had its fair amount of cutting remarks it also acknowledged the quality of much of what was on offer. The biggest set back on the contests' journey back into the heart of pop culture was unfortunately the winner itself.
Though powerful and impactful even dedicated fans of the contest would struggle to sing you a single line from it, and even given an awkward club beat they weren't at all inclined to dance to it at the 'Euroclub' afterparty which followed. When Swedish song 'Euphoria' won it became a chart & club hit across the continent. Austrian Conchita Wurst rose above her song and became a year-long piece of pop culture. Last time Måns had a solid effort if not exactly a global smash. This year's winner gives the contest organisers almost nothing to play with, other than a curious story of how unlikely and unexpected the winner was.
The British public seem ready to jump to a familiar conclusion on this point: that dastardly political voting amongst the Eastern European countries had secured a win for a song which no one would otherwise have picked. Certainly the Australian runner up (their participation requires a separate explanation) and Russian 3rd place were easier on the ears, if not exactly totally chart friendly either. The UK for its part looked like it was to have a solid year after 54 points from the juries (including a maximum 12 from Malta) left us mid table, but the voting public's decision to give us just 8 points cemented our near-last fate. It may be over-intellectualising to blame Brexit, but it's pretty clear we're not super popular across Europe, though you can question whether we'd have even voted for it ourselves.
Let's take a close up look at one country's televoting: Lithuania followed by Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, Australia & the Ukraine sure sounds like a classic case of bloc voting. These however are not the results of some far off Eastern European nation, they're the UK televote. Our jury inexplicably gave Georgia 12 points (to audible gasps in the arena) but awarded the eventual winners Ukraine 10, the second highest possible. Overall, whilst the UK fell for the cheeky, cheesy charm of Lithuania our general consensus was that Ukraine should have come second. Perhaps it wasn't such a scandalous political result after all.
Every single country's televote gave points to the Ukranian entry, including Russia who placed it 2nd despite their jury completely snubbing it. The jury voting was more scatter gun and 16 countries did blank it entirely, but conversely 10 gave it the maximum points (including Denmark, San Marino and Israel). The winner was crowned because she found support across Europe, by delivering a powerful & visceral performance that stood out radically from the noise. Personally I didn't 'get' it, but a number of my more casual observer friends had called it out as their favourite.
15 years ago the Swedish people had fallen out of love with Eurovision and stopped taking it seriously. A concerted effort to build it up into the biggest family TV moment of the year has seen it soar in popularity, attract local stars and as a result take home the trophy twice in four years.
The Eurovision Song Contest feels like it might be embarking on a similar journey in the UK, but the first step towards a cure is admitting we still have a problem - it's time to accept that a universally popular song has triumphed each year for the past decade and to stand a chance we'd have to enter something truly good. No offence Joe & Jake, but we can't just blame politics again.
Jerry Daykin is The Drum's semi-official Eurovision correspondent. For 51 weeks of the year he is a global digital partner at Carat.