Last night’s Eurovision was, as always, a collision of music, culture and politics. As always, the official British entry was dire – but, as always, the invisible hand of Britain’s world-class musicians lay behind many acts that did well. So it was with Denmark’s winner, Emmelie de Forest, whose song Only Teardrops won by quite a margin. For CoffeeHousers who didn’t catch last night’s awards, here it is.
From the first note, you can tell something is up. If this is a Danish entry, why the Celtic flute? It wasn’t a homage to Belfast Child. Ms de Forest has, since the age of 14, been learning from and performing with Fraser Neill, one of Scotland’s world class folk musicians. His influence was audible last night.
Most Brits think that Eurovision is confected tat. Denmark doesn’t seem to have received that memo, and fielded an entry which showcased its national assets from the music to the voice to the dress. It had a (Scottish) immigrant’s influence – as do most of Europe’s great achievements. And the song was distinguished not by some generic Eurotrash drumbeat but the penny whistle, drums and the voice of a rising star of the Danish folk scene. The percussion, a major part of the song, was by the Copenhagen Drummers. Last night, a nation gave its best and wowed a continent. We didn’t, and didn’t.
The below video gives an example about how Emmelie de Forest has spent much of the last five years: performing in budget venues with Fraser Neill and interpreting the traditions of Scotland’s folk scene for new audiences.
You can imagine the guy who took this film putting the camera down afterwards and thinking: yup, this girl’s got something pretty special. I’ve thought the same of countless Scots singers I’ve seen in pubs in Edinburgh and Inverness – but they tend not to get the big breaks they deserve (unless they move to Nova Scotia or, in Fraser Neill’s case, Denmark). The so-called Scottish Arts Council tends to spend its money on imported art. For all sorts of reasons (politics, class, identity) our official arts bodies and broadcasters struggle to recognise or promote our indigenous talent. It is, alas, inconceivable that a 19-year-old British folk singer would end up on what is now the world’s most-watched musical stage. Unless she emigrated – as so many of our folk musicians end up doing.
The British entry nowadays is picked by an anonymous BBC bureaucrat, who seems to have a supercilious disregard for Eurovision and an abject ignorance of the nature or location of our young talent. As I have written for this week’s Spectator, the BBC can’t be bothered to hold contests for Eurovision and seems to regard it as an international musical bad taste contest. I loved Graham Norton’s commentary last night; my beef is not with him but the the way the BBC pays so much (of taxpayers’) money to Eurovision that we are guaranteed a place in the final, but cant be bothered to use this as an opportunity to scout out some new talent – singing, or songwriting. All it seems able to do is exhume someone from the 1960s or 1980s.
Until fairly recently, the new queen of Eurovision was making folk CDs (left) with Fraser Neill that were sold at the back of gigs. I suspect they will be worth a fair bit now, if any found their way on to eBay. There are hundreds of as-yet-undiscovered British stars doing the same thing, who have just as much talent. We have hundreds of brilliant musicians who would kill to be given the kind of chance that Fraser Neill’s protégé was given last night. But I don’t think this will ever happen, for as long as the BBC treats Eurovision as a kind of musical freak show. The BBC is becoming the UKIP of Eurovision: fielding weak candidates in an election which it holds up to ridicule.
Denmark’s state broadcaster holds a contest, Dansk Melodi Grand Prix, which goes to huge lengths to find young talent with two semi finals. I’m not sure that, if we had heard Bonnie singing live (her performance last night was markedly worse than her studio recording) she would have won any kind of vote. Emmelie de Forest had to run a gauntlet of Danish talent to win the nomination. She was pretty much unheard-of before, even there, so her victory was unexpected. And inspired: the Danish formula has now produced two Eurovision winners and 13 top-five placings.
Even if de Forest had bombed, Denmark would still have used its Eurovision entry to give an unknown young singer the chance of a lifetime, and shown a lesser-known part of its culture to the world. When Neill and de Forest were touring (right, music samples here) they seldom made the top billing of even the folk listings. So Denmark did take a gamble in sending her over the bridge to Malmo. Only Teardrops was a courageous display of Danish cultural self-confidence.
Britain does have talent. If the BBC can’t be bothered to look for it, perhaps Sky or ITV will – and take over Eurovision next year.
UPDATE: I’m delighted to say that we have made contact with Fraser Neill and he’ll be interviewed in the new Spectator
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.