Ireland at Eurovision

Right, let’s get this first thing over and done with at the start.

“All good things come to an end” is a lie.

The truth is, “all good things come to a slow, disappointing wet fart”, as fans of “Heroes” or Madonna will tell you. And so it goes with Ireland at the grand prix du cheesy pop, a contest broadcaster RTÉ momentarily considered an annex to its tourist board. Whilst Ireland’s entries at Eurovision these days seem underwhelming, the underlying message is “we genuinely like taking part, but can’t afford to keep this up much longer.”  Perhaps it’s the greatest achievement that Irish continue to avoid novelty songs (okay, there’s the turkey. And no, I’m not linking to it.)

It took Ireland five attempts to win Eurovision, which should have given the powers that be some hint of what was about to happen. The earliest entries are very staid and safe, even for the style at the time, such as 1967 heart-wrenching “If I Could Have Choose” (up against “Puppet On A String”, so it’s not like you could get a wider contrast in the middle of the swinging 60s.)

Win number one came a few years later with “All Kinds of Everything”. Now in hindsight, it’s not particularly terrible a song, but I know it winds up a lot of people so instead here’s Sinead O’Connor covering it for Channel 4.

Now an interlude, subtitled “How ‘Orish’ can Ireland get?”  There was one a song I understand is forced down the throats of every Irish schoolchild against their will. It took an entire generation or more for an out-and-out onslaught of Celtic cliche to be broken out, and that went on to win.

(And by Jeezus, did they break out the cliches again for the complete opposite result a few years later. I think this song is now called “Please Stop The Music”)

There have been moments when the good folk at RTÉ have clearly aimed for the Daniel O’Donnell route (overwrought trite which manages to out-satire Father Ted, I present to you “Millennium of Love” which genuinely asked people to imagine harvests of footprints for the children or some such dirge; and a few years later a hymn of such heavy moral expectation I expect vomit to spew from my laptop speakers. Either that or holy water.)

Ireland has enjoyed three main periods in their Eurovision life – winning all the time, having well regarded songs which didn’t quite make it, and every year since 1998.  Let’s sidestep the winners for now, because there’s only so many external links WordPress permits before I get flagged for potential malware, and let’s avoid the “silver period” for now, because that would mean giving more coverage to Colm Wilkinson than is really necessary, and I would have to justify my love for their 1989 cheesefest

So let’s pick over the 21st century bones, when all good things (seven wins, numerous second places, hosting the contest in a “converted” equestrian centre) came to a crashing end (the turkey, Jedward, etc.)

The depths of Ireland’s Eurovision history recently was their one night in Copenhagen, a contest infamous for being amongst the worst by any measure, which should give everyone hope for next year. On a massive stage, in front of a largely drunk audience, a sub-sub-sub-par Michael Bolton ballad bombed and the country was barred from taking part the following year. It could have spurred them on to try writing melodies again, but a combination of lethargy and economic collapse conspired against them. The song “We’ve Got The World” was chosen by a rather cumbersome “PopStars”/”Fame Academy” selection process, as was the style at the time, and whilst the end result was okay, the song copies the 2000 Danish winner with such little subtlety or shame I’m surprised they didn’t just go for the cover version.

Okay, like the red patch on your thighs which might be spreading but you don’t know yet, let us deal with Jedward. Plucked from the X-Factor like some kind of payback for all the problems the United Kingdom ever enacted, the Irish knew their audience well when putting the twins up against hopeless starlets in two selection processes. It said “We don’t want to win, but look, it’s like we’re taking this seriously, so it balances out”  Of the two songs – both single title, I think to help the lads remember the words – “Lipstick” remains the strongest of the two, although that is a “toilet paper verses rice paper” strength comparison. When “Waterline” turned up in Baku, the joke had worn off a bit, and the song needed an on-stage fountain to distract attention from the sorta-kinda-Avril Lavigne punk-pop thing going on.

Perhaps the choice to go all out this year – shirtless men! traditional instruments! three different melodies in one song! the kind of beat you only hear in gay clubs at 2 in the morning! – was a rush of blood to the head. Whatever it was, the producers of the Final chose “Only Love Survives” to end the whole show, and with unfortunate synchronicity, they finished rock bottom last. I remind you that better songs this year, according to the voting and who argues against that, include an operatic Romanian and the very drunk Bonnie Tyler.

Okay I’ll link to one of the winners, “Rock n Roll Kids” from 1994, with the additional bonus video footage of the now late Gerry Ryan presenting whilst (it’s now almost certain) topped up on some extra-curriculum medication of some kind or other. *Sniffs*

I want to end with a bit of Father Ted turned real. Having won three times in a row, Ireland could not afford to win (by any measure). So what do you do when faced with bankruptcy? Choose a complete turkey. Keep dreaming, Ireland…

Finland at Eurovision

The unconscious madness of Eurovision heads into its fourth era – “relative normality” – at a time when its place in the schedules appears even more tenuous than normal. At least during the third era – “beyond parody”, aka “the early 2000s”, aka “what do you mean, irony?” – there was a sense that eventually everything would calm down. Like the child left alone with a six-pack of Dr Pepper, “eventually” took a long time. Maybe too long. We shall see.

Waiting too long for something to come from investing time, money and, well just money into the whole affair was Finland, one of the nations which joined the family back in the black-and-white days. The booze-and-mobile country famous for giving those pesky Russians what for had to wait until the peak/nadir/plateau/trough of the “novelty years” to win, appropriately enough with a self-parody rock song which correctly balanced “camp” with “FLAMING” in a year when such a feat seemed lost to the ages.

Anyway, Finland began in the early 1960s, an era of Eurovision which underlined how out of touch it was with the music “scene” even then. If you’ve ever been hungover/coming down/humping on Saturday mornings with BBC Two in the background, you’ll probably recognise the orchestral background to Finland’s debut from the RKO “classics”.

“Playboy” was perhaps their first real shot at understanding how Eurovision actually “worked”, by proudly sounding so out of step with the music at the time it’s little wonder every passing American felt it their duty to flood radio stations with their own artists.

Finland eventually swigged every available drop of booze and vowed to remain as detached from reality as dear old Auntie Margaret for as long as possible. And by my measure, this trip on the HMS Batshit lasted from before my parents met to just after puberty smacked me around the particulars, so that’s pretty good going. Dear old Finland launched into the spirit(s) with “Tom Tom Tom”, “Pump Pump” and many moons later “Yama Yama” without a care in the world. They were trolling Europe well before it became fashionable – wouldn’t you say, Eastern Europe – and always with an undercurrent of sincerity, like the office bitch, if you will.

(In)Famously, the unhinged behaviour of Finland introduced the contest to moments of remarkable moments in television history, not just music. I doubt we’ll ever get over the initial impact of hearing a soft-punk-ish entry about nuclear war, complete with punches to the head at every chorus, never mind their joyful tune about the Rapture taking away all life on earth except for the singer (or at least that’s what I took from the lyric “Though a hundred lightning strikes at the earth and all of life explodes, nobody can take love from me.”)

As a child of the 90s, my fondest memories are watching Finland attempt to sober up. This was ultimately achieved when Eastern Europe gatecrashed the party, meaning the old hands had to sit out due to a low average score/just not being good enough/being sick over Norway, that sort of thing. In reality that meant coming down from the too good to be really bad to the crushing disappointment of being in Birmingham. I mean, the crushing disappointment of watching as their most grounded and sensible song in decades crashed and burned without mercy.

(I blame the man playing the plant pot)

The fallow years of the entire contest, not just Finland’s journey through it, was topped  by them winning the thing (sorry, Portugal, not going to happen). They made a good attempt at avoiding being forever associated with madcap lunacy with something soft, and something disco, both of which were welcomed by the Eurovision family with a reaction approaching that of a husband greeting the wife’s new haircut with too heavy a pause.

So anyway, Lordi happened, which the rest of Europe thought was good enough to copycat to a degree (Czech Republic, Albania, Macedonia, the usuals). When Finland tried to copy themselves, always a good card to play at Eurovision, it was with a better song (and therefore had no chance).

Most recently, we’ve seen Finland settling down to such normality (lad with guitar singing about saving the world, woman without guitar singing in Swedish and subsequently getting death threats from supporters of True Finns) that it was with refreshing to tune in this year to watch both Azerbaijan and feminism being shot with the one bullet of “Marry Me”. As a reprise of everything they once stood for, “Marry Me” was a plunge into the sauna – dance routine, dodgy lyrics (“I’m your slave and you’re my master!”) and a gay kiss, it’s as though  the 2000s had never happened…..

Nationstates

Across the Arab World, people of all ages and backgrounds risk their lives in demonstrations against corrupt governments. Meanwhile, our close European cousins risk the chill of the North Sea winds in naked protests against the lack of a government. In the topsy-turvy world of Belgium, never knowingly simple to understand, the longest period of time without a national government continues apace and nobody sees an answer in the short-term.

There is a serious economic side to the otherwise eccentric story that has developed in Belgium since elections last year. The country has severe national debt and the risk of investing with the centre of the European Union has been thrown in serious doubt. Whilst local government continues offering services at ‘street level’, the national scene is one of chaos and confusion. The King of the increasingly polarized Belgians has almost reached the limit to what he can provide in leadership. Away from the high-level talks along the corridors of uncertainty, ordinary Belgians want resolutions. History suggests they will be waiting for a long time.

In short, Beglum (not known as a “made up country” for nothing, in all fairness), is a compromise with a flag and borders. Political parties have split and divided to satisfy the often completely contradictory demands of Francophone and Flemish populations. The small German enclave in the east acts like an unexpected flavour in the bowl of contrasting ingredients which Belgium has become, a failed dessert overcooked and overstirred. Brussels is a Francophone exclave surrounded by the Flemish Region which has been flexing its none-too inconsiderable muscles, the capital city of the EU’s beating heart, watching the fabric of the country flicked and charred by the flames of dissent, exhaustion, frustration.

It was after their most recent election that the Flemish population pushed hard enough to unsettle the columns of compromise that held the state up for decades before. The sight of people marching for the formation of a government must seem like Wonderland stuff under the context of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain; placards and posters uniting citizens under one flag, only for different ends from their means, the flip-side to North Africa’s pleas for representative democracy and economic reform. Belgium, oddly to observers, is a divided country demanding the ties of compromise are brought together tighter.

The southern, French-speaking Wallonia is statistically poorer with double unemployment levels to the right-leaning, Dutch-speaking north. Politicians from both sides spend so long balancing political compromises to the detriment of economic solutions. Resentment of the north by the south permeates across and through all Belgian society. In an example from the fringes, Belgium has alternated French and Dutch-language entries to the Eurovision Song Contest ever year, to keep both sides “sweet”. When, in 1999, the Flemish broadcaster chose an English-language song, tempers flared and questions were raised in Parliament.

Not having a Government for nigh-on 300 days must seem like bliss to demonstrators in the UK from both sides of the political debate. To those under the “UKUncut” umbrella, demonstrating against the Coalition government’s spending proposals from a largely left/leftist perspective, such apparent freedom from a formal government structure must seem like a dream come true. After all, Belgium has not fallen apart, its two sides not torn asunder. If all Belgium has is local government delivering services on a tight budget without central government, without crumbling away to nothing, then why not here? They’ve got a monarchy, so have we, where’s the harm?

From the extreme-right in the UK, demonstrators wanting an England of their own invention, pure of race and colour, march under the St George and Union flags, self-styled ‘Defence Leagues’. It must be attractive to them, too, seeing how a country with two different peoples struggling to survive under one flag. Observe the contrasting sociolinguistic and geopolitical struggles, watch the tension, see how they run. Without a government the two sides are running their own affairs, and even with a government and titular Head, the populations speak their own language and enjoy their own culture. We’ve been force-fed multiculturalism and the diluting of culture for too long, why should this be tolerated further?

England (and I specifically use England, not Britain) has all the makings of another Belgium. My politics, my conviction, is not nationalist, is not flag-waving jingoist. I don’t want or desire a break-up of England anymore than I would like the break-up of the United Kingdom itself per se. Let us look at recent coverage of the Coalition’s plans to reduce the number of MPs by 50; the good burghers of Cornwall signed a petition in their thousands against any new constituency crossing the Tamar. One Mebyon Kernow supporter went on hunger strike. Ask a man from Northallerton where he lives, and he is likely to say Yorkshire before England, and long before Britain. North/South divides in England are almost Belgium reversed: an over-inflated south-east and economically compromised north, pulling in different directions for generations. Can you imagine an England split in two? Would the on-going demonstrations by both left and right result in an England we all wanted to live in?

Each Arab World demonstration has the name of the country seared on the hearts and wrapped around the souls of each protester – Egyptians wanted their country back, Tunisians want their country back, Bahrainians demand (and die for) an island for Sunni and Shia. In England, the political discourse swims around the nationalistic question, flirts with it, places more wood near the fire.

There could be a situation to all this from outside the box entirely, of course. When Belgium needed to choose a Eurovision entry in 2006 they forego Dutch, French and English, chose something in an entirely invented, made-up language and got their best result in nearly 30 years. Maybe there’s a political equivilant answer for England in this…

Rage against the X-Factor

Iron Maiden did it. But then again, so did Bob The Builder. And moreover as much as it can be accepted that some damn good pop songs have come from the race to get to Christmas Number One – that oh so British tradition – how many times can a person actually listen to “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” before blood begins to seep through the ears?

Invariably associated with novelty songs and faded celebrity, the nature of Christmas Number One has changed over recent years. Yes, it is still more to do with different PR companies attempting to race each others fax machines, although in more cases than not, the same companies can often be involved in the race even if the media-led rivalry appears a genuine battle between different groups.

It’s always been about the chart place rather than the music, of course. Well, unless you actually really like “Merry Xmas Everybody”. Try hearing it in the middle of June. Go on, put it on Spotify in August, then see how good it is to sing “Here’s to the future now…..” in the middle of Aldi. At least the reality TV explosion has, in a strange round-a-bout fashion, attempted to make the focus of the chart battle actual songs…

This year’s battle is between yet another winner of the X-Factor, and Rage Against The Machine. Older readers may recall the battle in 2000, when Bob The Builder outsold Eminem to take the “top spot” of Number One at Christmas way back then. It was a similar media-led event; both records were hyped to the hills one everything from BBC Breakfast News to questions in the House of Commons. In the end, Bob beat Eminem and the world didn’t end.

Cliff Richard is the man whose rule over the Christmas charts was once without question, although this has all come to end once he played his best (and most cynical) card to date; putting the Lord’s Prayer to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” reeks of Cowell-level commercial interests. Barmy and brilliant, the evangelical community bought it up by the Ark-load.

This year, the X-Factor winner has one of the weakest ever “winner’s songs”, in “The Climb”. It sounds like a parody record. Indeed I have known worse Eurovision records than “The Climb”, and that includes the Swiss entry from 1994. And the Luxembourg entry from 1989. And for that matter, the Hungarian entry from 1995. While hundreds of thousands of “The Climb” have been bought and downloaded, many hundreds of thousands more of “Killing in the Name Of…” have been purchased in retaliation. This could be the most “credible” song to hit number 1 at Christmas since the 2003 surprise winner “Mad World” from Donnie Darko. Before that, we’re looking at the absolute classic “Saviour’s Day” from 1990. No, I mean it. One of the best songs ever written, and I’m not a Christian. Come on – the melody, the lyrical flow, the lyrics….No? Just me…?

Maybe, just maybe, the race for Christmas Number One really has been a joke on the entire British nation. No other country does it. Not even the Americans, and by-and-large, Americans are mental. Whatever makes Britain turn into month-long chart speculators I do not know; it really cannot be just about the songs that make it. It must be about the spirit of the underdog, wanting the one-hit-wonders and no-hit-makers to have their little place in music history. There’s always be a little place in my heart for the commercial radio weather girls who find themselves as a new entry at number 124, or the one-time big star reduced to hoiking her Christmas single around every daytime sofa-show for the one big chance of a top-30 “comeback”.

I fully support the “Rage Against The X-Factor”. If Lordi can win Eurovision, and if Iron Maiden can themselves get “Bring Your Daughter…” to Christmas Number One, then the time has come for another national two-fingered salute to the expected and the assumed. Let us remember that Joe from the X-Factor has an entire life-time to churn out (or have churned out on his behalf) endless Westlife covers. This is the one chance for the sidelined, the leftfield, the alternative, the angry, the sagging-jeans-while-holding-a-skateboard, all of them, to unite against the manufactured schlop of reality TV.

And if anyone else points out that both Rage… and Joe are on the same record label, I may go cuckoo-bananas…It’s Christmas. Live a little…