The Eurovision Song Contest will be beamed live into our living rooms this coming week, with the final taking place on Saturday 10th May. The contest has been dubbed the World Cup for women and gay men. This is of course borderline offensive: some of my straight male friends are bigger fanatics than me, and I know plenty of ladies who cringe at the thought of a night in on the sofa, discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of various over-cooked Euro-pop anthems. Moreover, the fact that I’ve never met a gay man who didn’t love Eurovision certainly doesn’t mean they don’t exist (please give me a shout if this is you, so that I can evidence my claim with an authentic example). I myself unashamedly love it. I never feel more European than when the Icelandic act takes to the stage each year and gives the standard quirky performance that leaves you thinking ‘Wha…?’, or when I’m faced with a troupe of male Lithuanian dancers wearing sequin hotpants and matching smiles.
It’s not just the sheer range of music on offer, the showmanship, the outfits, the audacious and hilarious political biases in evidence, the glorious colours of over thirty different flags, and the wonderful fans that I love so much about Eurovision. The fact that Scotland doesn’t have its own entry allows me to wander freely among the nations of Europe, enjoying the virtues and vices of each. I feel no loyalty to any one geographic entity, and thus have the privilege of revelling in the spectacle of it all with minimal emotional investment (not to mention being able to use the voting to nip out and make tea and snacks). So why, then, do I feel so strongly that representation at this most wonderful and bizarre of international competitions is so important for Scotland as we approach independence?
Many countries who participate run a democratic competition to select which song and performer(s) will represent them. Unsurprisingly sinisterly, faceless BBC bureaucrats pick the British entry. This ‘national’, publicly-owned broadcaster has such little regard for a contest taken very seriously and loved by most of our neighbours that they can’t be bothered to run such a competition any more, despite the fact that they use taxpayers’ money to ensure that Britain’s place in the final is protected each year. The old Imperial strains can here be heard over whichever aging crooner is picked to sing whichever mediocre ballad – of course we must be present, but we must also feel superior at all times.
My distaste for this symptom of archaic Britishness is just one of the reasons that Scotland’s presence in future contests is important to me. Everyone accepts that much of the final voting is a joke, with countries with special political relations often giving top marks to each other. Yet it’s a joke that we’re all in on, and can therefore enjoy. The outward-looking, positive internationalism that Eurovision represents is something that an independent Scotland should wholeheartedly embrace. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who wins – it’s the access we all get to small snippets of other cultures, and the good nature of the rivalries that does. You’ll never find mobs of Eurovision fans battling in the streets after the game. You will find Greece fans hugging Cypriots, Sweden supporters high-fiving Norwegians and congratulating them on their performance, and gay men and women all over Europe looking forward to making Putin feel uncomfortable because Russia’s entry is on right after the bearded drag queen from Austria. I look forward to the day when the fact that Scotland always gives ten or twelve points to the rUK becomes part of this in-joke.
There is of course a serious side to the relationship between song and politics. The importance of song in political struggle is notable the world over, something with great historical resonance in Scottish left-wing politics (for more on this see Glasgow Caledonian Uni’s brilliant Centre for Political Song). The Singing Revolution in Estonia (1987 – 1991) is a more recent example of how song can take the form of resistance and empowerment, and can nurture non-violent revolution. I was lucky enough to make a pilgrimage to the song festival grounds in Tallin, Estonia a few years after the country became independent, and see first-hand how important song is in terms of raising awareness of history and politics. Scotland is not Estonia, but it is a country in which song is hugely important. I am not a cultural nationalist – it’s not necessary. Traditional Scottish song and music has survived tenaciously and even thrived in the Union. However, we are definitely under-represented when it comes to pop. This is where the comparison with Estonia is a useful one: the Singing Revolution featured not just national folk songs and hymns that were banned under Soviet rule, but also pop and rock. This political struggle wasn’t just about looking to the past for a sense of identity, but also about forging a new one incorporating the traditional and contemporary.
Eurovision is massive in Estonia these days. I was also lucky enough to watch the Song Contest live in a pub in Tallin in 2005, in the company a fellow Scot, and English stag party, a group of Swedish holiday makers and local Estonian and Russian Tallinites. It had all the excitement you’d find here for a World Cup final – there was booing, shouting, heckling, heavy drinking and banter. However, the English lads were backing Greece rather than the UK, nothing to do with the fact that Greece was represented by the gorgeous Elena Paparizou – a lady with a beautiful voice, very long legs and a very short dress. Greece won that year. The UK crawled in at 22nd, and wouldn’t have made it through the semi-finals, I suspect, were it not for the generous payments the BBC makes to the EBU (European Broadcasting Union). The rivalry between the Estonians and the Russians in that wee pub was the most tangible of all, given that the Singing Revolution was still fresh in the memories of those present. However, the night ended with someone producing tiny Greek flags for us all to wave whilst we attempted to sing the winner’s song in unison, while a dance-off between us and some of the less sober stags took place. Let’s just say Scotland convincingly won that small contest.
Countries such as Iceland, Sweden, Norway and France work hard at putting forward the best songwriters, singers and musicians they have to offer. The ultimate choice of who gets to represent them is made by the people. This is what Scotland can learn from, and moreover can perhaps give to the rUK. If we treat the contest with the respect it deserves, and put forward great songs written and performed by skilled musicians chosen democratically by the population at large, our participation in Eurovision can become a significant pop culture manifestation of the kind of socially just, internationalist country we want to live in. Backroom BBC antics and a distaste for multiculturalism should always be given nul points.
Kirsty A Macdonald
Photograph by Duncan Geere
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