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Eurovision 2020: and the bland played on In the face of Covid-19, its message of peace and love sounds hollow

Celebrating ancient European values such as 'live, laugh, love'

Celebrating ancient European values such as 'live, laugh, love'


May 18, 2020   4 mins

Aristotle thought one of the main purposes of art was to inspire pity and fear in the people watching it. It’s a shame he wasn’t still around to see Eurovision — Shine A Light, the replacement show for the cancelled Eurovision Song Contest shown across Europe on Saturday night.

Immediately before, the BBC set off a marathon session of Eurovision viewing with Come Together, its own production, which showed notable performances from the last 61 years of the contest. Viewers could vote for their favourite. (Spoiler — the winner was “Waterloo”. This was never in doubt, but it didn’t matter.) The show was jolly, frivolous, perfectly pitched, hosted by Graham Norton with a sure, light touch. It made striking a balance between the inherent silliness of Eurovision and the staggering shock of a global pandemic look easy-peasy.

And then.

At 8pm the European Broadcasting Union took over with Shine A Light. The main event was surely going to be even more fun, even higher an uplift?

Within seconds it was apparent that something was terribly wrong. Whereas Norton had hosted his show informally, in medium close-up against a suitably sparkly greenscreen background, the three presenters of Shine A Light were socially-distanced across the big stage of an enormous empty television studio in Rotterdam. They were often seen from far away, being buzzed by hovering drones.

TV studios when everybody has packed up and gone home are eerie places, like haunted theatres. The acoustics are designed for rows of loud, happy-clapping spectators. Without them, the atmosphere was echoing, ghostly, as if the Phantom of the Opera was lurking up in the lighting rig.

Eurovision hosts are legendarily somewhat awkward and robotic, but this deserted abattoir/ basement garage ambience added extra uncanniness. This was topped off by their repeated attempts to interact with quarantined ‘guests’ over satellite links. Jokes were made hesitantly in the presenter’s second, or possibly third, language. They were then beamed up into space. They bounced back down to Earth seemingly months later to the interviewee, who responded with jittery, nervous laughter of the “I didn’t quite catch that, a-ha-ha-ha” variety.

These opening moments were dizzying to the viewer, like walking straight from a children’s party into a public inquiry convened to investigate a tragic accident. My finger hovered over the off button. But then the contestants started giving us inspiring messages, and it became impossible to look away.

Over the years Eurovision has gone from being an unintentionally camp old laugh to an intentionally camp old laugh, which took something of the fun away. It has always had something of a ‘Kumbaya’-ish, like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing quality, which isn’t surprising given its birth in a Europe devastated by war. In recent years this has transformed into an earnest but non-specific message about saving the planet, living in perfect harmony, etc. (This was brilliantly spoofed by Eurovision itself in 2016, with two former Swedish winners performing the parody song “Love Love Peace Peace” as the interval act.)

But it’s true to say, I think, that Eurovision had lost almost all of its ingenuous naffness. It had become a bit of a trial, an increasingly long, increasingly lavish jamboree. Now, great news, the bizarre circumstances sent the quotient of naff roaring back up. Because unlike the BBC’s Come Together, the EBU’s Shine A Light aimed for high seriousness and meaning, trying to squash the shock of Covid-19 into a Europop envelope.

Rather than show all 41 of the entries in full, which would’ve taken about a hundred years, we got a minute or so of each one, followed by a quarantined video message from the contestant or contestants.

The songs were much as you’d expect. We kept hearing that “music is a universal language” but nearly everything was sung in English and sounded more-or-less like American hits from nine years ago. There was the customary pop schtick of pretending something people do all the time without comment is shockingly outrageous; San Marino’s entry told us that it’s ‘freaky’ to ‘drink on rooftops and kiss in the dark, dance around late at night in the park’. I dunno, maybe it is in Dogana?

But it was the banality of the contestants’ messages that brought the joy.

“Music brings us together. You need to be yourself. You can make your dreams come true. Every journey begins with a single step. When this is all over we must live in peace and love.”

There were hours of this. You started longing for one of them to say something like, “I make music to wreak disunity and chaos on the peoples of the world, nya-ha-ha!” (One of the Russian contestants did opine that “the entire idea of nationhood should be abandoned”, which had a refreshingly forthright, if sinister, ring to it. God also did get a mention, the once, and it was like someone had farted).

If a friend came to one of these people with a serious problem, looking for some comforting words, would they really fix them with a soulful look and say, “Be yourself”?

In the context of coronavirus this hot air became grimly fascinating. To break up the insights there were full-song videos from previous winners, haunting excursions to the deserted streets of Belgrade and Tel Aviv. Another interval was a tour of the inspiring historical monuments of Europe, cathedrals and palaces and towers raised by people with political and spiritual precepts. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris was built as a project of religious and national renewal. Nobody’s going to erect something like that to the high principle of finding your vibe and following your dreams.

What Shine A Light, very amusingly, highlighted is that these are the vague, mushy doctrines that we live by, our anchor in dark times. We have no more useful steer, no stronger rock of faith or philosophy. I can’t help thinking it’s thin stock. If we face an even bigger existential threat will these be enough as communal values to see us through?

But Shine A Light did provide another worthwhile revelation. One of the original aims of the contest was to gain a sense of ourselves through gaining a sense of others, and in this it certainly succeeded.

The clash between Come Together and Shine A Light showed that for all we British go on about our shift from stuff-upper-lip to sentimentality, we remain positively starchy, compared to our neighbours. Sceptical, gently mocking, slightly suspicious of and embarrassed by grands projets. We are truly inclusive, accepting of people as individuals; we mustn’t forget that the two exemplars of the British attitude to Eurovision are Irish.

And we don’t make a song and dance about it.


Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

OldRoberts953

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Carolyn Jackson
Carolyn Jackson
4 years ago

I stuck it out for about half an hour before wandering off to do something else. Watching paint dry would have been far more fun.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
4 years ago

Surprised you lasted half a minute.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
4 years ago

Whoever said ‘Once one stops believing in God, one doesn’t believe in nothing, one believes in anything’ (it wasn’t Chesterton by the way – it’s like many of these saws, unattributable, lost in the monstrous pile of journalism) was incorrect. The desire for salvation from sin (a thing that made man the centre of the Universe) has morphed into ‘global community and world peace’.. These are of course the fundamental aims of the previously strong and dominant Catholic Church in Europe. So Europe’s attachment to these seemingly vacuous things has ancient roots.

The very word ‘together’ shoiuld be banned, except when it is meant utterly literally. ‘Togetherness’ is even worse. It means the State wants to track your movements with a digital ID Card, for your own good of course.

Of course all these people really believe in ‘love’. And as Clive James said ‘The people you most hate always do.’

James
James
3 years ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Interesting, thank you! A side note: the book may not be as rare as it appears. Amazon users seem to think that anything out of print is worth a fortune!

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago

I have always felt that different places needed to take different approaches based on their own situation. New York needed a lockdown as too did UK. We had multiple epicentres of high infection in our major cities. Whilst overall figures indicate the NHS still had capacity at the peak which was induced early (prediction was for peak about now) and very much reduced by lockdown, there were many distinct hot spots which were growing. There were significant pinch points other than beds and ventilators. Specialist staff – yes there were non specialist staff in other areas of every hospital twiddling their thumbs, but you do more harm than good just throwing them untrained into the battle. Another pinch point, which does not get talked about much, was Oxygen – not so much the supply but the evaporators that turn it from the liquid form it is delivered and stored in into the gas patients can breath. Evaporator plants were starting to trip out as they hit their design capacity and whilst there are a few things that can be done to get a bit more out of them there was no quick way around the problem. It is like an engine in the red line – it does not matter how much harder you press the throttle, it ain’t going any faster. Ultimately UK locked down in the nick of time, arguably New York locked down a bit too late, though the hospital capacity there was a different story as the worst affected and those who needed the most hospital capacity were those who only had access to the least capable hospitals to provide it and the different hospital systems could not work together effectively to share the load.

From what you describe, Texas probably did not need to lockdown at all and almost certainly not when and as hard as it did – the Swedish approach would probably have worked in Texas. Consequently what may prove to be the case is Texas has had too little infection and not gained the levels of herd immunity it could and should have in a more controlled and sustainable manner. Sweden’s strategy is to keep the infection at as high a manageable level as possible. It has not avoided the economic effects – shops and bars have stayed open but few are trading profitably, but the biggest effect it that with neighbours locked down they have been unable to trade with other countries. Sweden has the advantage of having a generally compliant population that has a high degree of trust in its government – something sadly lacking in both UK and US. Sweden also only has one real epicentre – Stockholm where 15% of the people have had half the country’s fatalities – its other major population centres are a long way away – Texas has similar spacing. Sweden also has half the obesity rate of UK – I don’t know what that is like in Texas, we just assume all Americans are the same. However Texas would still do well to look a Sweden and see what is possible. There is no mass wearing of face masks in Sweden. The evidence for the effectiveness of face masks is very patchy at best, as there are significant downsides to them – they only really make sense on crowded public transport.

I feel quite strongly that UK should be easing lockdown far more rapidly, but it needs to do it by first dispelling the myths and irrational fears, whilst encouraging social responsibility – something that has been eroding for a long time in UK. I fear the worst thing we could do in UK is waste the summer months not gaining herd immunity, only to get hit badly again as the flu season returns in the winter. It is not clear whether temperature and sunlight has an impact on the virus spread, but it does seem strange that we see more impact in our BAME communities, but the countries of ethnic origin – Africa, India etc seem so far to not have been hit particularly hard as yet. I fear many of those countries that have followed the WHO espoused wisdom of lockdown, have either locked down totally unnecessarily or have locked down at the wrong time and may suffer more for doing so later in the year. What I am certain about is there are so many uncertainties about all this and cowering in fear at home is not a sustainable answer. Following the science, which needs the empirical data, that lockdowns deny it, translates into being behind on gaining the benefits that a bolder approach relying on common sense behaviours would provide. Even the much hoped for vaccine is going to be starved of the data needed to demonstrate its effectiveness without more infection circulating in the community, because it would be unethical to deliberately infect the test group and the control group in the same way.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
4 years ago

Fabulous discussion, and wonderfully written. Thanks.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

I like this article.

As a child I liked Eurovision -I think precisely for the old style unintentionally camp business that you describe as the way it used to be.

In the past twenty years it has undoubtedly changed.

“šMore recently it’s become a showcase event for the evil of banality -empty ‘rainbow messages’ about ‘Love’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘just being who you want to be’ -which usually means “I’m going to aggressively f**k you in the arse with my ‘identity’ and you’d better like it and applaud enthusiastically or there’s a world of hate-shaming in store for you”.

It’s largely become a narcissistic liberal progressive f**k fest, of Neronian proportions, in which real meaning and ‘values’ are cynically sent up, demeaned and perverted.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
4 years ago

Eurovision Song Contest: it’s not pop, it’s not rock, it’s not jazz, it’s not any recognisable musical genre. But it is undiluted drivel; and another way for a profligate BBC to waste TVL payers’ money, of course.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
4 years ago
Reply to  Ralph Windsor

In modern popular music, the music is actually irrelevant. It’s the visuals that count. Conformists always have to show that they believe the right things, and the quickest way to do that is via visual display.

This is actually a different thing from conservative ‘conformism’ which indicates a desire not to pointlessly offend. This kind of conformism only wants not to offend certain people and groups.It frequently turns ugly when threatened.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

I had an earlier version of this comment removed -I imagine because it contained profanity -for the coarseness of which I apologise, but it strikes me there is something so profane about current eurovision that my language was entirely appropriate in the context.

As a child I liked Eurovision -I think precisely for the old style unintentionally camp business that the writer describes as the way it used to be.

In the past twenty years it has undoubtedly changed.

“šMore recently it’s become a showcase event for the evil of banality -empty
‘rainbow messages’ about ‘Love’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘just being who you want
to be’ -which usually means “I’m going to aggressively do you with my deeply narcissistic ‘identity’ and you’d better like it and applaud enthusiastically or there’s a world of ‘hate’-shaming in store”.

In my view it has unfortunately largely become a narcissistic liberal ‘progressive’ orgy, often of Neronian chacracter, in which real meaning and ‘values’ are cynically traduced, demeaned and frequently perverted.

Martyn Hole
Martyn Hole
4 years ago

My God. The ignorance of people who (I assume) studied PPE at Oxford. X Ray machines do NOT need a radioactive source, ir’s all about accelerating electrons. Please write on subjects that, perhaps, you have some insight.

James
James
3 years ago

Yes, thin stock indeed! The focus on the personal is an unfortunate cul-de-sac we’ve found ourselves on. Anyhoo, another funny & insightful piece, thank you!