Weeknotes 2023.19: Eurotrash

Weeknotes 2023.19: Eurotrash
© BBC/EBU 2023. This image is used for review and criticism and is not licenced under CC-BY-NC.

It’s been Eurovision week, and Sweden’s Loreen took home the trophy at last night’s grand final. Naturally, I have some thoughts. It was an impressive and well-run contest in general, but I have quibbles. Let’s dive in…

The format

The UK did a pretty good job of hosting. I’m not sure four hosts for the final were necessary, although all of them were delightful. It was somewhat surreal to see Graham Norton having to handle the incoming votes from the lectern rather than the commentary booth. The production values were high, the interval acts were strong, the stage was spectacular. Some of the comedy skits in the bits where parts of Europe went to commercial breaks were awkward, but nothing felt especially cringe.

We were promised “innovations” in the format this year. The ‘rest of the world’ vote was one which is probably long overdue. Others were a bit more head-scratching. Hannah Waddingham and Graham Norton can both speak French (Hannah spoke French in the opening spiel about how the voting works, and Graham actually compèred the voting sequence at 2008’s Eurovision Dance Contest) so I can only assume it was an executive decision somewhere in the production team not to have them repeat the jury scores in French. True, this brings it into line with the phone vote, where it’s never been done (save 2016, where Petra Mede obstinately announced the French names of some of the top 10) but it’s a pity that this bit of Eurovision’s international flavour seems to have disappeared. Hopefully douze points hasn’t totally gone the way of the dodo.

The worst innovation, which was thankfully tossed out in rehearsals, was the idea of putting the acts on stage during the semi-final qualifier announcements. It’s hard to see how anyone thought this was a good idea, but it stinks of British TV producer-brain: conventional wisdom since the early 2000s, in the wake of shows like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Big Brother have been that the public likes to watch strangers suffer on TV. Maybe—but that’s not what the Eurovision Song Contest is for. I had similar reservations about the post-2019 system, where they go up the scoreboard to announce the votes: I’m still not really a fan, and while the directors of the last three shows have generally done a better job of cutting away from disappointed acts quickly, it still wasn’t nice to see that lad from Switzerland looking crestfallen when got 31 from the phone vote.

A side note: Graham Norton’s more cutting remarks during the commentary felt a little bit off given he was handling the final voting sequence, although he did wisely tone things down this year. Mel Giedroyc’s commentary, by comparison, was delightful. She’d be a fantastic replacement if/when Graham steps down.

The songs

Austria and their song about being haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe was my favourite of the night, but was unfortunately buried by the running order and maybe being outshone by more outlandish staging on the night. Serbia’s Luke Black definitely grew on me. I also liked Australia, Lithuania, Finland, Albania, and Belgium. I didn’t really enjoy Israel’s. France’s confused me. I also didn’t care much for Poland’s song (Australia did the synthwave aesthetic much better.)

The UK’s Mae Muller had a breathy vocal on the night that was much too low in the mix, but I liked the song fine, and Mae Muller is a very charismatic artist. Hopefully she’ll go far and second-from-bottom at Eurovision doesn’t hold her career back.

The winner, the voting, and the juries

I liked Loreen’s song. It was certainly helped by its position in the running order (and the set-up time it took to get her panini press in position) but Loreen has a cracking set of pipes, and is second to none as a performer. The song is catchy and the staging is startlingly intimate, with the crackling sound of her nails against her outfit and the flexible membrane adding a wonderfully earthy bit of texture to the number. If anyone was going to equal Johnny Logan’s record of winning Eurovision twice, it would be Loreen. (I learned today that she is 39, which seems astonishing—she still looks like she’s in her mid-20s.)

It’s disappointing to see the online fandom apparently turning on Loreen for winning the contest with her massive jury vote. One could be forgiven for thinking the public didn’t vote for her song at all (they did, in droves: she placed second in the phone vote, with a very respectable televote score of 243 and votes from every country except Finland.) A typo by a popular Twitter Eurovision commentator last night (who I shan’t name, because it appears to have been a mix-up in the heat of the moment) seems to have spread around the fandom and was at one point reproduced in a BBC News thinkpiece after the event, stating that Finland’s Käärijä had scored 526 in the televote and still lost (impossible: the maximum score from the televote was 12 × 37 = 444.) Finland did indeed win the televote with 376 votes, but this combined with their jury votes wasn’t enough to beat Sweden who were the landslide jury favourites.

In this way, it’s not that different from in 2016, when Russia’s Sergey Lazarev beat Ukraine’s Jamala on the televote—but not by enough to send him over the top. This was a massive point of controversy at the time that has since blown over—I truly hope the same happens this time as the loudest voices online touch grass and move on. The knives truly always will be out for successful women.

I do think there’s a case that the jury vote could be improved—there is a definite style of song that does well with professional musicians, and it’s not always the public’s favourite. Maybe some adjusted weighting would be in order. Maybe there’s a case for working out the televotes in a different way, too. I have thoughts on this but I shan’t go into them for now.

Problematising Eurovision

A video essayist whose work I enjoy, Verity Ritchie, posted a video last week on the [queer] politics of Eurovision. There’s a lot to unpack here. Of particular interest to me is their point about Eurovision being used to brand countries as progressive and modern—particularly their example of Sweden’s contest in 2013, set against the backdrop of the far-right using LGBT people as a stick with which to beat immigrant and Muslim communities, and Israel’s contest in 2019 completely erasing Palestinian identities, including those of LGBT Palestinians. What’s also evident in Ritchie’s point is that while Eurovision is political, the voting is much more about value politics and cultural affinity than state politics (which seems to be mostly the stomping ground of the host nation.)

This feels particularly relevant this year, after last year’s win that was widely considered political (or laced with sympathy votes) with Ukraine and the UK sharing the top two spots. I wasn’t a fan of this take at the time, and I point those still subscribing to it to this year’s results, with a respectable score for Ukraine and a mediocre score for the UK. In this case, the best songs were at the top of the leaderboard. The UK, as this year’s host, has used the show to underline its support of Ukraine—which is fine—and also to advertise itself as a tourist destination and a cultural hotspot. It does feel a bit hollow, at this contest being hosted on behalf of Ukraine and that prominently features Ukrainian refugees, to see the logo for the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport on the backdrop at the press conferences, when the minister in charge has routinely voted to make our already threadbare and cruel asylum system even stricter.

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