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.