After years of almost constant disappointment, the UK came within spitting distance of a Eurovision victory. Shame about the collateral damage …
What can the Eurovision song contest teach us about the human condition? Some years, not much except that we like shiny things; this year, that we all thirst for justice, support the victim against the aggressor, are overwhelmed by the sight of love and courage – and therefore, Ukraine was bound to win. In fact, if winning were all that mattered, it would have been quicker for the rest of Europe to not turn up. But (another lesson) winning is not all that matters.
It’s horribly poignant to recall that last year we were mainly complaining about peace, as a song topic. “Not more bloody harmony,” we cavilled, as we patiently waited for the next Nordic duo, close harmonising and asking, “Why war?” “Enough international love already!” Ah, the hollow cynicism of peacetime. Wouldn’t it be great to be hollow and cynical again, and not have to take a song’s metaphors about a nation’s destroyed infrastructure so literally.
So, Eurovision is not so much a song contest as an exercise in international perceptions of justice, set to music. Its superficial romance is densely politically allegorical. Commentators used to be mystified, or at least pretend to be mystified, by the radical drop in the UK’s international standing, come the 21st century. After four decades of winning, running up, at the very least in with a bullet somewhere in the Top 10, suddenly the European community was united: we were irredeemably shit.
All the usual and well-documented biases of neighbourliness, where countries who shared languages and cultural norms tended to vote for each other, were, in our case, reversed. The closer you were to the UK, the fewer points you would award us. Although this was hard to tell when those points in aggregate were none.
The first year we scored nul points was 2003. Everyone thought it must be because of the Iraq war. That made sense at the time. You reap what you sow, and when you turn your back on the international peacekeeping order, you pay the price in the unflinchingly harsh light shone on Jemini, those off-key poppets. It was, at that time, an international first for us to score nothing at all, so whatever the explanation, it had to be something major.
But, in retrospect, I think it was more likely a reflection of the new voting system, introduced in 2000, whereby the four nations contributing the most cash (France, Germany, Spain, the UK) were automatically allowed to skip the semi-finals and enter the contest. It defies, no, traduces the very principles of fair competition, producing an instant physiological disgust response. It would be as if they took the richest nation in the Olympics and just bumped it forward 10 metres in the sprint, then let the spectators vote on who was the fastest.
Italy joined the money group in 2011, so it became the Big Five. That didn’t improve the group’s standing, but it was still only the UK that everyone really hated, and, for much of the past two decades, we have come either last or in the bottom five. It’s got worse since Brexit: we could have scored the ultimate hat-trick and come last for three years in a row, if the contest hadn’t been cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic.
The best explanation is the most obvious: there is a limit to the number of years a nation can spend strutting around, preaching its own exceptionalism, before that becomes all anyone can hear. Pipe any music you like over the top of it, and it’s all just more of your irritating noise.
But, then, just when you think you understand, everything changes, and the UK comes second. Sam Ryder, who even looks a bit like Aslan, has uncovered a deeper truth. Music is elemental. Whatever aggravations pre-exist, they are all eradicated by the purity of song, so long as the song is pure, or is about bananas (thanks, Norway).
No, just kidding – this was actually a sympathy vote. Having observed us over a number of years, our neighbours near and far have concluded that nobody suffers more at the hands of our obnoxious political class than we, their own tuneful people. Pity would never get us to No 1 – justice will always win out – but it can place us at a creditable second.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist