Reviewing Chris West’s ‘A History Of Modern Europe Through Eurovision’ Written by and on April 9, 2017

It’s always a delight to see a new book about the Eurovision Song Contest, and Chris West’s epic looks at the history of Europe through the lens of its favourite TV show is the latest. John Egan sat down to read between the lines and review the paperback.

Ahead of the book review, Ewan interviewed Chris West at this year’s London Eurovision Party.

Introduction

Eurovision! A History of Modern Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest. By Chris West (Melville House, 2017, 320 pages). Available from 20 April on Amazon.co.uk (£9.98; €9.99 in Amazon’s mainland EU stores; English only) and other book sellers.

Many are familiar with the narrative: from the ashes of World War Two emerged a pan-continental light entertainment show to – depending on whom you ask – unite Europe through song or offer a relatively innocuous pressure valve for ethno-nationalist tensions, all with a dash of new broadcast technology. Fast forward sixty-plus years and we have a cultural institution whose currency extends well beyond the European Broadcast Area… the Eurovision Song Contest.

The extent to which the Song Contest has achieved this – particularly in light of current tensions around Russia’s ban from this year’s events in Kyiv – is a question worthy of debate. Certainly Europe post World War Two has been far from conflict-free. West’s book is a social history of post-World War Two Europe with the Eurovision Song Contest serving as the scaffold for his analysis.

To what extent does West succeed? On balance, somewhat…read on.

The Flags Of All Nations (EBU/eurovision.tv)

The Flags Of All Nations (EBU/eurovision.tv)

The Approach

Hardcore fans of the Eurovision Song Contest  will find little here that is wholly new – which is not to say the book lacks substance. Song Contest details are provided copiously; in fact, each instance of the Contest provides the structure of the book. West reviews each successive iteration of the Contest, including the participants, politics and results. He tracks changes in various rules, and does a good job delineating why things like the scoring system has evolved over the long term.

West’s hook is to scaffold many noteworthy aspects of six decades of European history via that year’s Contest. Overall, it is an approach that works. One could argue West’s book is an historical analogue of the Contest: perhaps superficial, at times entertaining, but much that will have little resonance beyond any given year.

The Context

The devil, however, is to be found the details. West is not an historian (or social researcher) and does not pretend to be one. Arguably he instead offers social commentary, with his opinions found judiciously across the book. This is not, however, a polemic. But in endeavouring to address what are at times complex, dispiriting, or heartbreaking events—particularly from the 1980s onward, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc and former Yugoslavia—West does have a tendency to skate a bit too lightly with what are substantive events. This is not a good idea.

There are also a surprising number of factual errors. Macedonia was a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, rather than a semi-autonomous province. Riverdance was not a “pas de deux” (p. 179): that’s a ballet term. How is Greece hosting the Olympic Games “another apparent triumph for Eastern Europe” (p 229) when Greece was neither culturally nor politically part of the Eastern bloc? The breadth of events covered is impressive, though at times the depth again is missing. Krushschev lived in Ukraine from his mid-teens onwards—that is as good an explanation for him assigning Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as him having an ethnic Ukrainian wife.

There are dangerously superficial accounts of equally complex and potentially divisive events: Srebrenica, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh, and other political issues or disputes. And the politically motivated murderer of a Member of Parliament is a terrorist, rather than a “fantasist” (p. 298). Similarly, the thread about British attitudes towards LGBTQ people does not mention Section 28 and its chilling impact on queer rights activism between 1988 and 2000. The exclusion of such an important element of British politics is plainly wrong.

To some readers these might seem inconsequential: for those directly affected by them, these are substantive—and there’s nothing lost by getting the details rights. These are often events in the living collective memories of Europeans: each is deserving of more bandwidth than they are given in this book.

The Contest

With respect to the Eurovision itself, mostly the book is to be commended. There is the recycled-but-already-debunked claims that Jemini were blanked because of politics in 2003. They were, in fact, terrible on the night, rendering ‘Cry Baby’ an off-key sonic mess. Besides, US forces used Turkish air fields for the invasion of Iraq in 2003: the Turks rejected only a land invasion from their territory. Sertab did alright that year, after all. Further, the Buranov church for which the Buranovskiye Babushki were fundraising was destroyed by Stalin, rather than during World War Two: in fact, numerous Soviet industries relocated to Udmurtia because of its distance from the front lines. Sjonni Brink died during the Icelandic national selection in 2011 after having performed in his semi-final. His “Friends” took over for the Icelandic grand final. Baku’s Crystal Hall was not built on “wastelands”; in fact several hundred families were evicted to build the 2012 Eurovision venue. “Balkan and Middle-Eastern” (p. 233) music wasn’t introduced to the Eurovision in the 2000s. It has been featured at the Contest since the 1980s, through entries from Germany, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Israel (among others).

However, describing Mozart’s Magic Flute as his most Eurovision-like opera, is genius—though I am tempted to give that prize to The Marriage of Figaro (‘Fairytale‘ versus ‘Love Love Peace Peace’). I remain unconvinced that “In Eurovision, the eighties created a Song Contest that in most ways looks and sounds like it does today” (p. 155). The voting system is from the 1970s, televoting came in during the latter 1990s, and the language rule was changed at the end of that same decade. To many, the 1980s—particularly some of the winners—represents the nadir of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Final verdict

Fans looking for a somewhat different perspective on the Eurovision Song Contest should nonetheless enjoy West’s book. The writing is accessible, engaging and economical. This is several hundred pages of content. 5 points!

PS If West’s name rings a bell, it is perhaps thanks to West’s previous book structured around the Eurovision: Hello Europe! A History of Modern Europe in Sixty Eurovision Song Contests (2015).

Eurovision! A History of Modern Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest. By Chris West (Melville House, 2017, 320 pages). Available from 20 April on Amazon.co.uk (£9.98; €9.99 in Amazon’s mainland EU stores; English only) and other book sellers.

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