Wednesday 23 January 2013

A long time ago, was it? A look back at the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest

The UK waited 16 years for a victory in Eurovision after Bucks Fizz won in Dublin in 1981. In Dublin in 1997 history really did repeat itself and Katrina and the Waves stormed to a landslide victory which meant that the honour of hosting the 43rd Eurovision Song Contest was bestowed to the BBC. There are many reasons why 1998 was a landmark contest so let’s take a look back to the last time the BBC hosted the Eurovision Song Contest.
In the mid-1990s the BBC invested heavily into the Eurovision project which in turn, for a time, reversed the fortunes of the popularity of the contest and led to the UK entries becoming credible chart hits. Love City Groove’s eponymous entry from 1995 reached number seven in the UK singles charts and of course Gina G had massive number one with “Ooh Aah… Just a little bit”, which was even nominated for a Grammy. The new approach at the Beeb also spawned some further hits from the Song for Europe show itself; Deuce’s “I Need You” became a top ten hit in 1995. The BBC wanted to win Eurovision in the 1990s, not because of the musical merit but because they wanted to host the event. Eurovision is of course, first and foremost a television format and allows the host broadcaster the opportunity to pioneer new broadcasting techniques. The 1998 contest did exactly that.
1998 is memorable to many fans since it is the last year that the orchestra was present at the event. Many lament the demise of this tradition arguing that the show has lost some of its unique ambience whilst others have barely noticed that the musicians have left the building. In the past many Eurovision fans have criticised the BBC for their apparent aloofness towards them and yet it was the BBC’s Terry Wogan who specifically welcomed the “thousands of fans and supporters” who had gathered in the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. Whilst fans with flags had increasingly become part of the show, only two or three years before the event felt like almost like a black tie affair. The acknowledgement of the fans in 1998 was a watershed moment in Eurovision history, since this point the show has incorporated fans as very much as part of the show, so much so that they formed the interval act in 2010!
The 43rd Eurovision Song Contest is also notable because it remains the last year that there was a restriction on the language of performance. 1999 saw free language introduced which saw many countries opting to sing in English, dip in and out of English and other languages or in the case of Belgium making up a language of their own (2003, 2008). Finally, the 1998 contest stands out because it was the first year that televoting was introduced en-masse. This one rule change injected new interest in the contest and new controversies and continues to have a lasting impact on the way in which the contest is analysed by fans, critics and academics alike.
The voting in 1998 was perhaps one of the most thrilling sequences since Celine Dion’s narrow one point victory over the UK in 1988. With the leader changing almost with every country voting, it was a race to the finish. By the time the final country voted, the debuting Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the contest could have been won by three countries. The voting patterns from 1998 appear to be contradictory since it could be argued that they marked a turn towards more explicit “neighbourly voting” which has recently dogged the contest.  On the other hand, Malta, with no neighbours scored consistently whilst the UK notched up its 15th second placing, receiving votes from every single participating country. Certainly the outstanding moment in the voting that year was Ulrika Jonsson’s “a long time ago, was it?” gaffe. Personally I think it would have been a whole lot better if Conny, the Dutch spokesperson, had taken offence. Of course Ulrika was merely repeating what had previously been said, the audience in the arena, however, heard differently. It remains one of the highlights of 1998 for me and is a testament to the enduring appeal of live television.

Of course the contest really was Dana International’s. Not only did she win the event, she won the publicity game. Months before the competition the Israeli singer was causing a stir in the European press, Eurovision’s first transgender singer. The selection of Ms International as Israel’s Eurovision entry caused outrage amongst orthodox Jews who viewed her as peripheral to their understanding of national identity. Death threats ensued and the headlines grew. From an academic perspective the controversy concerning Dana International is interesting. According to one esteemed colleague of mine, Professor Brian Singleton, this was the moment that Eurovision itself “came out”, from that point onwards it could be read as an openly queer event. For many fans Dana International’s victory represented a struggle over adversity, in essence a reflection of the very personal journey many people make when they come out as gay.
From a technical perspective the 1998 contest was a triumph for the BBC. The corporation has endured criticism from Eurovision fans for as long as I can remember however their moves toward modernising the contest are a legacy which continues to be felt today. In 2012 the BBC and the UK proved that when they host large international events, they host them well. I personally think it’s about time that the Beeb were responsible for organising Eurovision in the very near future. The challenge is of course finding a winning song for Europe. It seems that when it comes to the UK, hosting the contest is the easy part, winning the damn thing is the real challenge.

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