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.

Sunday 6 January 2013

2012: A year to remember

A new year, a new Eurovision season. 2013 is already shaping up to be an exciting and interesting year. However 2012 will go down in Eurovision history as the most politically charged year in the history of the contest. I am delighted that I experienced Eurovision in Azerbaijan, it was a setting like no other. Now that the dust has settled, let's take a look back to May 2012, a contest which will be remembered for years to come.
In previous blog posts I have written about the political situation in Azerbaijan with regards to freedom of the press, freedom of expression as well as the on-going tensions between neighbouring Armenia. In the summer it was reported that those activists who held peaceful protests in Baku at the time of Eurovision had been put on trial. Eurovision 2012 was nothing other than a facade for the Azeri government to present a friendly face to the world. There are some particularly nasty regimes governing countries which are members of the European Broadcasting Union, of which Azerbaijan is far from the nadir. However if action is to be taken against countries which do not uphold basic human rights then the EBU needs to look a little closer to home. Belarus is one obvious example.
All of this does not mean that the contest should not have gone to Baku though. Azerbaijan won the contest fair and square, it would have been wrong to deny them the opportunity to host the event. The time to take action against Azerbaijan was in 2009 when the government called people in for questioning over voting for Armenia. This blatant violation was against the contest rules and yet the national broadcaster got away with it. If anything Eurovision 2012 backfired for the Azeri government since all of the allegations of human rights abuses came to the foreground. In front of the world's media. People were talking about the situation in the country when only a year previously it barely raised an eyebrow or got a mention in the press. This can only be a good thing.
Sweden does not need to play the same game that the Azeris did last year or the Russians in 2009. Eurovision is first and foremost a television show. The venue next year will be smaller, accreditation is likely to be restricted and the first week of rehearsals will be behind closed doors. They're even making the fans stand! Eurovision is changing. Whilst the arenas will stay, we are unlikely to see such spectacles like 2009 (largest LED screen in the world) or 2012 (brand new venue built specifically for Eurovision and making hundreds homeless in the process) for a long while, if ever. Eurovision in Azerbaijan was an excercise in public diplomacy, albeit an expensive one. The Swedes are taking the show back to basics in 2013. This is probably just as well considering that several countries have announced that they will not enter the contest this year. Some were not surprising - Poland and Portugal are both feeling the pinch and some of the smaller countries in Eurovision are continung to stay away - Monaco, Andorra and the Czech Republic. However the two big shocks were Bosnia Herzegovina and Turkey.
Bosnia and Turkey have incredibly successful records in Eurovision, the former having qualified to every single final and the latter scoring its best ever placings over the past decade including that all important victory back in 2003. The Turks appear to be in a strop about the Big Five rule as well as the return of jury votes. This is curious as Turkey came second in 2010 and fourth in 2009. These are showings that many countries would love! Moreover the Big Four/Five rule has been in place since 2000! I suspect that there are other issues at play here. The Turkish government appears to be slowly turning its back on Europe - economically, politically and in the case of Eurovision, culturally. Of course for many countries the burden of the participation fee has led to many questioning the value of entering the contest. For the most part, the participation levels have remained reasonably steady and in the case of Malta, Greece, Estonia and Latvia, sponsorship has been sought which has allowed them to fly their respective flags once more. Eurovision usually takes a while to catch up with whatever is going on in the wider world and it appears that four years after the financial crisis hit Europe, austerity has come to Eurovision. Interesting times ahead, watch this space.
For me personally 2012 was an amazing year. Visiting Azerbaijan for Eurovision was an experience I'll never forget and was an extremely fertile ground for my own research interests. The everyday people I met in Baku were wonderful and it just goes to show that it's the citizens not the government which make a country. I think valuable lessons have been learned at the EBU. To those brave and inspiring people who risk their own safety to bring greater freedom to Azerbaijan, I wish all the very best for their journey ahead. As the German spokesperson, Anke Engelke said during the voting, it's good to have a vote and to have a choice, good luck on your journey Azerbaijan!
2012 was also a busy one since I did a lot of television and radio work which I really enjoyed. I am particularly grateful to the BBC Three crew for having me on their live coverage of the semi finals - I loved the experience and would dearly love to do it again. 2013 is shaping up to be a busy year since I have a publishing contract to write a book on Eurovision. Tartu University Press have given me a tight deadline to finish the manuscript so I had better get my head down!
As the 2013 season starts, I wish all of you a happy new year, thank you for reading and may the best song win!