Culture House Daily

BBC bureaucrats think they can pick a Eurovision winner. Let’s hope they’re right.

3 March 2014

1:48 PM

3 March 2014

1:48 PM

What would pop music sound like if the ‘hits’ were defined by a panel of BBC bureaucrats? We will find out at 7.30pm this evening, when the corporation announces who it has chosen to represent Britain in the world’s most-watched cultural event.  The chosen one will be guaranteed a place in the final, because the BBC pays so much money to Eurovision. As one of the nine million who Brits watch Eurovision each year, I hope it’s a winner. But already, there are signs that the BBC cultural commissars are getting this wrong.

The executive producer of BBC Eurovision, Guy Freeman, has explained his logic in words reminiscent of the old Soviet rival version of the contest, InterVision. Most counties, he admits, have contests – and allow real people to vote. But the BBC has chosen a different path:

‘This year, we began by taking a dispassionate look at recent winners. We discovered that simply, by and large, they’ve been very good songs that deserved to win… We took the view that we needed a bespoke, contemporary song written specifically to suit the conditions of the competition.’

So that’s it, then! The BBC has analysed it, and worked out a formula for popular music success. They have given instructions to some poor soul found via a system called ‘BBC Introducing’, where young artists are invited to upload their wares for the attention. And it intends to produce a winner straight from BBC Music Labs. They have the technology…

The good news: it’ll be a new artist, rather than an 80s (or 60s) retread. And a singer-songwriter, so the entrant will have a modicum of musical talent. But there are problems. First, Freeman is not quite right in his analysis. In spite of its name, Eurovision is not purely a song contest. It is an entertainment extravaganza: a spectacular collision of politics, economics and culture. How many votes will Ukraine give Russia this year? Academic papers are written about the results.


Since televoting came in 1999, you have seen national alliances and enmities played out on voting night. So yes, it is political – but to win, you game the system. Take Norway. It won fielding a Minsk-born Russian (see picture above) to play a traditional Nordic violin, hoovering up the Scandi and Slavic votes. The song, ‘Fairytale’, was superb. But like all Eurovision winners, it was far more than a great song. Dana won in 1970 because she was a teenager singing about rainbows and roses and whiskers on kittens when her native Bogside was up in flames. Had Ukraine fielded a Crimean girl singing about world peace this year, the rest of Eurovision competitors may as well have gone home. (Instead, they have chosen this.)

Choreography also matters –  hugely. In Eurovision, stagecraft is key, which is why the countries holding open contests for Eurovision make their entries put a lot of work into the stage performance. It is a television show, and songs needs to communicate to an electorate that doesn’t always comprende the language. Even the Russian grannies had better choreography than Britain has managed over the years. Sweden’s MelodyFestival (its Eurovision qualifiers) has contestants effectively compete on stage performance. Look at Sanna Nielson’s understated entry: the suspended raindrops, the light wigwam. Can the BBC get this right?

As for the BBC’s theory that its Musical Lab Technicians have discovered the winning Eurovision formula – well, that’s a bit of a stretch. Very seldom does music conform to a successful formula, here or abroad. Take Ralph Siegel, the Irving Berlin of Eurovision, who wrote 17 songs for the contest, including Germany’s 1982 smash, ‘A little peace’. He had a formula: trying to capture a zeitgeist, to articulate the historical moment. Musically, he thought Eurovision entries worked best with three or four-note motifs (still popular) and certain use of triads and chord sequencing. But even his magic faded, because Eurovision changes as quickly as Europe changes. This is not a formulaic contest: it’s a search for a song that just seems to have it. Eurovision winners cannot be engineered, nor so they conform to any formula. You know a winner when you see one.

And that’s why I think that even an improved BBC effort is bound to fail. Culture just doesn’t work from the top down. Bureaucrats are very seldom aware of the nature or location of musical talent, which is why contests are the best way of finding a winner. Britain is heaving with musical, songwriting and production talent but the state broadcaster is not the best way of using that talent.

But Britain does have Eurovision talent – lots of it. Take Azerbaijan’s winning entry in 2011. The singers lived in London, and the song was written by Iain James, from Bristol. Denmark’s winner last year, Emmelie de Forest, was mentored by a Scot. We have the talent, but I just doubt that the BBC – or any single person – knows how to find it. There’s no substitute for contests. Ultimately, the Soviet Intervision Song Contest failed because democracies come up with the best tunes. They do so because market picks winners, in a way that cultural commissars (no matter how talented) simply cannot.

But I hope I’m wrong. The BBC’s Guy Freeman, at least, seems to realise he’s not competing in a musical bad taste contest. We’ll see when the winner is announced tonight.

UPDATE: Word is that Molly Smitten-Downes may be the lucky woman.

8PM UPDATE: Yup, it’s her. And it’s probably the best Eurovision entry the BBC has fielded for years (not, I admit, a hotly-contested category). The BBC has at least used Eurovision to promote an unsigned indigenous talent, and her song – Children of the Universe – has quite a lot going for it. I’m not yet sure that the Loreen-style tempo changes work, but it has a Ralph Siegel-style zeitgeist grab (“power to the people!”) and three-note motif. Her video (below) makes clear she needs to work a lot on her stage performance; the arrangements needs more melody. As I expected, the choreography is almost non-existent.  But her song has authenticity (she wrote it herself) and the narrative of an unknown singer trying Eurovision for the first time will have some clout – Romania, a favourite to win in Copenhagen, is reviving its 2010 duo. For the first time in years, the UK entry is not a passive-aggressive insult to en entire continent. I wish her well.

The BBC Politbureau says she has “the perfect combination of contemporary songwriting and real vocal quality”. But voters, rather than committees, judge this kind of thing and the BBC ought to open this up to real voters next year.

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Show comments
  • James Allen

    Another reason to abolish the BBC: just watched “Bang goes the theory” about Britain’s energy supply market, and, to sum it up:

    Coal, gas, nuclear = bad
    Wind + other renewables = good

    Bizarrely no mention that wind power is twice as expensive as gas/coal (when the wind is blowing). Funny that – wonder why?????

    Corporation couldn’t get any more biased. Time to blow it up (metaphorically-speaking).

  • No Good Boyo

    It’s going nowhere. Where’s the gimmick? Where the sword-swallower on stilts? or the dwarf trapese artists? Can’t Ms Smitten-Downes at least inhale helium from an inflatable balloon that looks like the earth, while the backing singers don sunglasses and ayatollah beards?

  • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

    Bang a few bungs in the Balkans , some euros/pounds to whoever will accept them….and we cant lose.

    I have written a song called
    Dispossessed of the word the UK wants you to be sung by a Muslim Sikh Buddhist Rastafarian Jewish mixed gender choir conducted by a blacked up fat dwarf.

    I sent it to the BBC .So far no repy.
    i expect the harmonies are too difficult.

  • dalai guevara

    Is it me but isn’t there a Scottish referendum coming up?

    Children of the Universe lyrics — Molly Smitten-Downes
    Power to the people
    Power to the people

    I’m been tired of this thinking
    So I drowned it all by drinking
    Feels like a bitter pill
    But I’ll just wash it down
    With the taste of something sweet
    That some doctor gave me
    And this is my message
    I’m not given in

    Power to the people
    Power to the people
    Power to the people
    You know what we want
    And we got to get it now.

    • No Good Boyo

      Rumour has it the there’s been a late change to the Ukrainian entry. It was called, “Beedy-bop, beedy-bop, bow-wow-wow”, but has been replaced by a completely song entitled, “Russkies are a bunch of wankers”

  • global city

    Turns out they they have done what all cultural ‘experts’ do.. and just jump on last year’s trends!

    Crappily formulaic and derivative

  • Jose

    Yes, in terms of dripping in faint praise, it’s the UK’s best Eurovision entry since “It’s My Time”, although it lacks any instant appeal for me. After two listens I cannot remember the song in my head. Being realistic, finishing in the top ten would be a good result.

    As for opening the selection up to the British public again, the public attitude to the contest needs to have shifted massively since that last occurred for there to be any possible benefit. Scooch and Daz Sampson were chosen because the British people view Eurovision as a joke. Or, at least, I hope they were…..

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    “Yup, it’s her. And it’s probably the best Eurovision entry the BBC has fielded for years” << WHAT? Are you mad? Read the lyrics

    "I’m been tired of this thinking
    So I drowned it all by drinking
    Feels like a bitter pill
    But I’ll just wash it down
    With the taste of something sweet
    That some doctor gave me"

    Now that's what I call music.

  • Steve

    Let’s hope they get it right this year.
    1992: I ♥ The Eurovision Song Contest… | Steve Says…

  • Fergus Pickering

    Who cares? I hope nobody I know.

    • No Good Boyo

      You’d be astonished just how deeply some DO care! I’ve seen people yelling at each other to “get a life” over Eurovision!

  • global city

    It really peed me off when last year it was obvious that the UK had formed alliances.

    We should leave that sort of thing to the sorry continentals who see it as a serious cultural event, rather than a joke.

    I do enjoy watching it…. but for the cringe making, car crash fun of it all.

    • Ridcully

      Trouble is, most of the other countries seem to have got in on the joke and are putting up novelty acts. The true spirit of Eurovision should be a combination of trashy Euro-pop and dreadful folk ballads performed by earnest-looking artists in their national costume.

      • global city


      • No Good Boyo

        Something tells me the former Soviet-block nations will be voting for someone other than Russia this year.

  • Diogenes

    Isn’t our eurovision strategic plan the same every year? To lose so that we don’t have to put it on the following year.
    Also people who don’t watch it should have a discount applied to their licence fee (i.e. heterosexual males).

    • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

      View it as the counterpoint to all those UKIP appearance fees and Top Gear.

  • Alexsandr

    does anyone care about this politically biased sideshow any more.
    time it was scrapped.

    • SNapalm

      Actually quite a few. No matter how much you may not like something if people watch it they will still make it

      • Fraser Nelson

        world’s most-watched non-sporting event

        • Noa

          Thought that was the Speccies’ ever growing readership figures

      • Gwangi

        They only care about it in countries that have never produced a decent pop song (i.e. most of Europe).
        Probably Ukraine will win – in a sympathy vote.
        The UK will never win again due to natural rigging of the tribal loyalties amongst all newer Eurovision countries from the East.

        • Anthony Ko

          So how did Norway, Germany, Sweden and Denmark ALL managed to win recently, despite the shenanigans of Eastern Europe?

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          The Warsaw Pact theory of voting doesn’t make sense to me. Russia votes for Ukraine, or Georgia? Azerbaijan votes for Armenia? Croatia for Bosnia? Romania for Hungary or Moldova? Not much tribal loyalty here.

          • Gwangi

            YES there is – because in those states are large numbers who are affiliated with neighbouring states (via language, culture etc) even if the governments disagree. So in Ukraine there are large numbers of ethnic Russians, for example, who speak Russian. Just as Britain always votes for Ireland (and the US would argue we were at war with them for decades).

    • No Good Boyo

      Scrapped?????? Absolutely not! I adore Eurovision. This is the show that produced such classics as Diggey-loo, Diggey-lay, the chorus of tap-dancing Roman centurions, and the Frenchie inhaling helium from an inflatable globe, with the backing singers dressed like Ayatollahs.

      It’s unmissable, riveting stuff!

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Looking forward to singing along to ‘My gay paraplegic Imam and Me’

    • Bluesman_1

      By Sistah Mo! and the Haram Gospel Choir featuring “Dr Dawkins” on non-ivory piano.

    • Moses Operandi

      That was hilarious and I laughed out loud. So thanks.