Here’s to another sixty years of Eurovision? Putting aside the dodgy arithmetic about birthdays and anniversaries, Ewan Spence looks at ‘Eurovision’s Greatest Hits’. While it was a fan-pleasing recording on Tuesday night and will likely do well in television ratings around the world, this celebration of the Eurovision Song Contest was a missed opportunity to drive the show forward into the future.
As the curtain came down on the Hammersmith Apollo stage, I thought to myself, ‘what did I think of Eurovision’s Greatest Hits?’ The answer was a swirling mix of spectacle and highlights fighting against complacency and missed opportunities. Unlike many of the long-term Eurovision followers who were in the audience and have waxed lyrical about the Contest, I couldn’t muster anything more than ‘six, maybe seven, out of ten – must do better.’
With almost everyone else at the Hammersmith was utterly enthusiastic about this being the best thing since sliced bread, I’ve had to go away and think about why my reaction is so out of line with opinion. And it comes down to two themes: safety and sexuality.
Coming Of Age
I’ve spoken before about my love of Eurovision coming from the music driven by the huge avalanche of new music that the Contest generates each year, across a variety of styles, from every corner of the continent and beyond. That quest to find new and exciting moments is fed by Eurovision. I’m also right there with Marcel Bezençon’s ideas of using Eurovision as a test-bed for new technology and allowing society to share ideas and lessons. ESC Insight has, on many occasion, pushed up to those technical challenges and surpassed them (I’ll highlight the international live radio coverage we did at Junior Eurovision 2014 as one case).
The Eurovision Song Contest means many things to many people, but from my vantage point the audience in the Hammersmith was predominantly gay men, and their love of Eurovision is tied into their own moments of personal discovery and exploration. That sort of emotional connection to an artist and an ideal is incredibly powerful, and to be presented with an experience that reflects on the foundations of their identity would be…almost religious.
Monty Moncrieff touches on this during his review of the Greatest Hits show for OnEurope:
I had a moment here last night: all the fantastic things that Eurovision has brought me in terms of friends, fun and memories started with these songs 30 and more years ago. Three men in golden shoes, two dames in purple sequins and a teenager with a guitar and a naïve wish for peace have a lot to answer for. I really can’t thank them enough.
Those connections are strong (dare we say #unbreakable?) and it’s perfectly understandable why this would make the reception to the Greatest Hits such a visceral one. Anyone looking back on an important part of their life will be viewing it through rose-tinted glasses, and it will be almost impossible for them to be critical of the product, or to see the flaws in it that may be apparent to others.
Without that sort of deep-rooted emotional connection, I’m not surprised at the different levels of enthusiasm for the show in the Eurovision fan base. The Greatest Hits concept decided to target a very narrow set of viewers who have a particular type of connection to the Contest, and the honest answer is that this is only a small part of the audience which engages with the Contest every May.
The Safest Anniversary Show Possible
Then there is the show itself. It was safe. It took no risks. It delivered the minimum viable product for an Anniversary retrospective. And I’m sorry, but I want my Eurovision to be more than safe. I want it to be more than a box ticking exercise before the committee goes home. I want challenge, and vision, and scope, and promise.
What I don’t want in the big tent-pole celebration of the best that the Eurovision Song Contest has to offer, is a line-up that is fully one quarter of the bill that was the Danish National Final in 2013. I travelled to Herning for that show, and flashbacks to the middle of the Jutland was not what I had in mind for a night in Hammersmith.
Of course a retrospective show is going to look back at the Contest, of course you are going to have former singers and stars involved, but to have them come out and do the cabaret version of their old songs that they have been performing for over forty years in the case of some of the stars… this is not 21st-century television. It does not speak to what the Eurovision Song Contest represents now. It doesn’t speak to a diverse musical Contest that spans the continent (and now, the world). It doesn’t speak to thousands of careers that can be launched through submissions, National Finals, and the Contest itself. Music is less about ‘hits’ in today’s connected world, but about connections.
Beyond those relationships with the fans noted above, where are the connections to be made from the Greatest Hits show to the general public? Are we really saying that the best Eurovision has to offer is Graham Norton’s misguided taunting humour, the same cliched jokes about Nicki French’s song title, a reliance on the idea of ‘Eurovision is all about the gay male lifestyle’, and a script that took the low road at every opportunity?
The brief for the show was given to it by the EBU Reference Group, so my concerns about the flaw in the basic premise have to be placed in Geneva’s lap. But at the same time, the BBC put on this production, managed the event’s organisation, decided on staging, running order, and more. I didn’t see a production here of a music event, I saw the production of a variety show. And you wonder why Lynda Woodruff was resuscitated by SVT….
Even before highlighting Dave Arch and his band, this was more like Strictly Come Dancing than the Eurovision Song Contest, right down to the awkward male host having to be saved by the competent and professional female host.
On top of a flawed remit, this was a flawed vision.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment at ‘Eurovision’s Greatest Hits’ were the numbers of missed opportunities that could have been used to push forward the message of what Eurovision means in the fabric of the connected 21st century and how it would remain relevant for another sixty years.
The ‘Greatest Hits’ package did not reach outside of fandom to engage the public. While the performers’ names are familiar to many Eurovision followers, for the viewing public at home it’s hard to see what would keep them watching after the novelty of the first few songs. There’s no thread or storyline running through the show, there’s no competitive element or voting that creates tension and drama, there’s just a march to the end, where something a bit bigger happens, and then the credits roll.
A new audience needs to be engaged, and outside of the main Eurovision Contest in May, this was the moment to do it. This was the moment to show Eurovision’s relevancy in the modern world.
It could have been a chance to engage with the press and media to show that attitudes and style move on and change, and Eurovision is not locked into the past. It was a chance to engage the record industry with new ideas. Why sing the old songs in the style of their original performances? What would the latest breed of DJ’s and remixers have done with some of these tracks? Why not re-imagine the songs for the 21st century and evolve the songs as Eurovision has evolved?
And with no voting or competitive element (as was present in the 50th Anniversary Special), why not use this as a safe opportunity to bring the world’s biggest names to the stage? James Blunt recently tweeted from the hip that nobody asked him to do Eurovision… so why not get him at the 60th, duetting with a former singer, in a remake of a classic song? The fans are serviced, the general public have a point of access, the industry gets more content to marketing and hundreds of new connections are made.
Or we could watch Emmelie de Forest. Again.
Can I Answer My Own Question?
My Eurovision looks forward, challenges assumptions, discovers something new every day, and is a force for change. Eurovision’s Greatest Hits looked backwards, chose a safe running order, and relied on nostalgia to win over the public. I’d argue that this variety show approach illustrates what would have happened to Eurovision in the 21st century if the Eastern European countries had not come along in the nineties and forced it to regenerate into an competitive, Arena-based, musical event for the general public.
Of course the fans loved it, of that there is no doubt. But with close to 200 million viewers expected in May 2015, the fans are an incredibly small percentage of the audience the that Song Contest should be going after. The premise of the Greatest Hits show was flawed, the implementation built on these flaws, and it feels like nobody who had any influence had the courage to look at the show and think “we can do better than this. We can do a lot better than this.”
I’m not arguing that this wasn’t a good show, because it was a good show. Bright, colourful, full of emotional moments, a good mix of material to try and keep interest in the running order high, and an appreciative audience.
But I’d argue that this was not a good Eurovision show.
The modern Song Contest deserved better.