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“Let's Not Let a Lot of Lets Get Us Down”

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Let's Not Let a Lot of Lets Get Us Down

Article for BBC Website on the Eurovision Song Contest, 2002

Eurovision 2002
Pic of Eurovision 2002 logo

The 47th Eurovision Song Contest was won last night by a bunch of Lets. A let-down for some…

A surprise winner, without a doubt. But not for the first time: last year also saw a victory that the bookies simply didn't see coming… “What? Estonia?!” resounded throughout the auditorium in tens of incredulous foreign tongues. And this year was not much different. Dedicated Euro-fans, accustomed to their collective favourite finishing near the top, if not in first place, are bemoaning the loss of “justice” in their belovèd contest. In the words of one fan: “What's the point when the worst song wins? Why not make it a concert with no voting and be done with it?!”

History reveals a surprisingly strong correlation between the United Kingdom's recipient of “douze points” and the eventual winner. I am therefore always disappointed when the UK performs near the beginning of the contest, as the soothsaying UK votes will be announced too early in the voting procedure, spoiling the tension. Well, this year, the UK drew second place in the running-order. Lacking the will power to close my ears, I surrendered to the familiar voice of the UK commentator, Colin Berry, as he broke (so I thought) the suspense. With a maximum score for Malta, the Brits had confirmed for me that next year would see us sunning it in the first ever open-air Eurovision arena, wearing shades and sipping tequilas. Well, so much for statistics. Latvia, (awarded 8 by the UK), soon began to grab its share of the twelves, and the threat of another long schlep via chilly Helsinki to the bleak Baltics loomed ominously nearer. (Malta, incidentally, finished in second place, a mere twelve points behind the winner).

It was neck and neck all the way from there. The UK, though finishing a respectable 4th, never really had a look-in. The bronze passed us by on a mere technicality though: with 111 points each (compared with the winner’s 176), Estonia was placed above the UK, having been awarded the highest number of 12 points. Such are the vicissitudes of the ever-unfathomable Euroscores.

The Eurovision Song Contest has, throughout its history, been a launch pad for many a new artist, the majority of songs being composed by ‘amateurs’ rather than by established professionals. But this year, with only a couple of exceptions, both writers and performers exhibited an impressive range of both experience and talent. A fair number of the songs, if taken out of context, even had a splash of credibility and could quite plausibly have been heard on MTV without seeming misplaced. The exceptions, however, which stood out in their karaoke-style intonation and DIY choreography, deserve a mention. Most notably, the backing singers of the much-loved Spanish entry – runners up in the popular TV show “Operación Triunfo” (Spain’s answer to Pop Idol) – who, though possessing some fine voices, were, quite frankly, an utter shambles visually. I speak not of their physical appearance, (for ‘the two Davids’ have elicited as much media attention for their good-looks as for their superb voices), but of the asynchronous, shoddy dance routine, reminiscent of the local AmDram society on opening night.

Jessica Garlick, finalist in UK’s Pop Idol, appeared alongside France’s Sandrine François in a joint party on Wednesday night at a local nightclub. The two divas together were a truly impressive team, with powerful voices and rare on-stage charisma. Their two respective power-ballads, both tipped to win, were certainly fighting each other for votes, and hopes had been high that the recent trend of upbeat winners would be reversed. But heigh-ho. Schmaltz, it would seem, was not the ‘in-thing’ in Europe this year.

1998 bid farewell to the live symphonic orchestra (much to the chagrin of the Musicians’ Union, no doubt!) after the EBU proposed that the oh-so-dated Eurovision undergo a renaissance, relinquishing the former obligation to make use of the orchestra. Of course, the genius of many an early Eurovision classic was indeed in the acoustic, symphonic sound of the instrumentation, and even relatively recent gems such as Neka Mi Ne Svane (Croatia 1998) and To Nie Ja (Poland 1994), to name just a couple, were sent soaring by the synergy of performance, composition and live orchestra. That's all very well, some argue, but who wants this anachronistic medium suited to little other than old-time ballads and Boom Bang-A Bang comedy?

Well, they may have a point — the orchestra all but destroyed the contemporary pop-club sound of many an entry (the Finnish Bye Bye, Baby of 1994 being the most famous example), and pre-recorded backing-tracks, usually for those songs with dance beats, had been creeping in over the previous few years. As ever, money was also a factor: television companies are loathe to squander precious budget on under-used resources such as an expensive 60-piece orchestra. At least now, some Eurosongs pass as ‘contemporary’, rather than pseudo-Romantic pop-operetta hybrids of yesteryear.
Viva la Diva...? Viva le synthesizer.

It’s interesting to note the apparent sudden change in taste upon the introduction of televoting: Ireland scored three consecutive victories in 1992-4 – each one a tear-jerking ballad, but since juries were largely done away with, a string of four-on-the-floor dance tracks have had the limelight. The at-home viewer, up for a ‘bit of fun’ on the annual kitsch fest, is clearly more inclined to vote for the instantly gratifying over class or sophistication. No surprises there.

The hairbreadth Latvian victor—a pseudo-Latino “Ricky Martin band-wagon” offering—is both loved and hated. Those whose tendency drops off the bottom end of the spectrum are suggesting that singer, Maria Naumova’s, victory was fraudulent, that televoting is a farce, and—somewhat apocalyptically—that Eurovision’s days are numbered. The reasoning lies in a growing feeling amongst fans that the quality of a song appears to be the least relevant contributor to success. Costume, lighting, politics and tit-size are but a few examples of those elements which ineluctably influence voting. Clearly, an auspicious choice of background colour and the hiring of easy-on-the-eye vocalists are understandable and pervasive ways of upping popularity, but a new wave of lower-integrity tactics seems to have swept the contest of late. Behold: the euro-gimmick. And they were certainly in abundance this year: the FYR Macedonian ball gown, ripped off mid key change; the Maltese conjuror’s confetti explosion; the Belgian cartwheelers; the three transvestite air stewardesses of the egregiously retro Slovenian offering; and of course, the quick-change artist Latvian victor: entertainment at its best (or most base?).

Gimmicks from previous years include such cheesy crowd-pleasers as the somersaulting acrobats of Estonian 2001, the space shuttle launch lights of Denmark 2000, and Charlotte Nielson's 1999 hair-toss on the final ‘bang’, coupled with zoom-in camera work à la Vidal-Sassoon shampoo ad... Note that all three of these songs won the contest.

Now, if the Lets didn’t win on a gimmick this year, then Terry Wogan ain’t an Irishman.

What melody, however strong, could possibly compete with a woman dressed as a man, complete with Panama hat, morphing from epicenity to the epitome of femininity, clad in a fiery figure-hugging salsa gown?
What refrain, however catchy, could ever begin to make an impact after Latvia’s intriguingly androgynous interpreter, flanked by two hunky lumps of Lettish loveliness, is divested, item by item, in a frenzy of sexy choreography and castanets?
What's a songwriter to do in the face of such vote-pulling gimmickery?

No orchestra; no jury; no justice. Magic tricks and blond hair flicks are all it takes anymore.
Perhaps Eurovision is dead.

Matheson Bayley © 2002
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