Saturday, May 13, 2023


Mae Muller performing "I Wrote a Song" for the UK

May 2023 has been a good time for politically charged camp spectacles held in the United Kingdom, the Coronation of King Charles III having been followed by a week of events for the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Liverpool on behalf of Ukraine after Russia’s war left them unable to host after winning last year. If the Prime Minister calls a General Election next week, I am going to explode.

Much like trying to follow the overnight results of a General Election, I have fallen asleep before the end of the last five Eurovision finals. Starting at the usual 8pm UK time, this year’s contest was scheduled to finish at midnight, which was 2am in Ukraine, or an hour past my natural power-down time. This has been a result of the gradual change in both the presentation and significance of the contest, and my sleeping habits not having changed in that time.

How did I do in 2023? It turns out that deciding to write an article about the programme you are watching requires you to remain alert, although I began flagging during the reading out of the scores, which will always be slower paced than everything that came before it. With the UK’s brilliant entry, Mae Muller’s “I Wrote a Song”, finishing second from last on the night, or 25th out of 37 overall, I finally called it a night at 12.05am, ten minutes before the end of the contest, and before Sweden’s entrant, Loreen, could reprise her winning song “Tattoo”. Whatever time it is planned to end, the Eurovision final is always destined to overrun by about fifteen minutes.

But that is hardly the point. With the theme of the contest being “United by Music”, with Ukrainian music and culture emphasised from the start, and culminating in the most effective performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” there has probably been, every part of the contest that has grown bigger since the UK last held it in 1998, from the opening flag-waving procession of entrants, through the use of video walls in the staging of each song, to the scale and length of the interval acts, and the ultimate gruelling wait to find out the public vote only gave the UK nine points (even if that was still four more than Spain), everything had a reason to be there.

The scale of the coverage given this year by the BBC, as host broadcaster, made the Eurovision Song Contest into a week-long event this time, from the opening ceremony in Liverpool the previous Sunday, the two semi-finals on the Tuesday and Thursday, and various programmes celebrating the music and history of the contest. The semi-final had been introduced in 2004, with a second added five years later, as broadcasters from more countries joined the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) during the 1990s. Australia’s love of the contest made them honorary Europeans to compete themselves from 2011, but Australia has been represented in the EBU since it was formed in 1950, alongside Canada and New Zealand. (“Active” and “Associate” membership of the EBU is determined using the “European Broadcasting Area” as defined by the International Telecommunications Union, for those who still ask why Israel competes each year.) 

Held in Birmingham, the 1998 contest still closely resembled how it began in 1956, a one-night event linking countries both through friendship, music and technology, with all twenty-five entrants singing in their home languages with the backing of an orchestra. Lower-scoring countries were still required to skip the following year to allow other countries the chance to compete at least every other year, a scheme introduced in 1993 to replace an off-air qualifying round. Pop music, very much mainstream in 1998, remained disseminated by TV, radio and physical sales of music, and “Top of the Pops” aired on BBC One the night before the contest, like it did every Friday night. It was primarily a song contest, and one the UK was always destined to take very seriously.

But changes were already underway: 1998 was the last year for both the language rule and the orchestra, and the first year where a public vote by telephone replaced scoring from professional juries, where the phone network of competing countries allowed – years of chopping and changing the scoring system has now arrived at the jury and phone/online votes being treated separately and weighted the same as each other. Furthermore, the choice of the National Indoor Arena cemented the contest’s move away from theatres to larger venues, from stalls to standing crowds.

I did start by saying Eurovision was a camp spectacle, the subtext of outrageousness and gaudiness in both the songs and their staging having now become both outright text and a major selling point of the contest. It is no surprise that the growing inclusivity of other countries and cultures would lead to the contest being adopted as a symbol of inclusivity. The backlashes and death threats against Israel’s transgender competitor in 1998, Dana International, and Austria’s drag queen entrant Conchita Wurst in 2014, are mostly forgotten because their songs went on to win the contest. Dana International’s song “Diva” becoming the first to win when (almost) all the people of Europe were given the chance to vote may prove to be the most poignant moment in the history of the contest.

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