In 2008 Ireland sent a small rubber puppet turkey to participate in the Eurovision song contest. Shortly afterwards the international financial system broke down and Ireland’s bubble economy bust. The events are obviously correlated strongly.
In our class last Wednesday the Eurovision came up. We were discussing the democratic deficit of the EU and somehow we got sidetracked into explaining the Eurovision Song Contest to all the American students on the course. They were quite bemused and politely appalled that millions of Europeans would voluntarily watch a bizarre cheesy music show and somehow see the event as important. I tried to explain the very idea of Eurovision by suggesting it is something like a cross between American Idol and the X factor, but imagine if there was an act for every 50 of the US States (…actually ….maybe that would work….anyone got Simon Cowell’s email?)
But like many things, to truly understand Eurovision one has to really experience it. So here are some You Tube links which bring you into the twisted world of Eurovision.
First up you need to get into the mood by savouring, if that is the right verb, the opening credit’s music which is a rather imperial sounding bit…that many Europeans mistakingly think is the EU’s official anthem……
[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eu_anthem]..which of course the EU supposedly is not meant to have:
So listen here to what many European think as the most European moment of the year….the intro music which tells every European what is coming next…oh no…..
OR if your old enough….
The next step is to look at how it all USED to be, and the best place to start is with ABBA, the 1974 Swedish winner which made the Eurovision briefly cool for about 23 seconds…….
And then fast forward to the winner for last year, Germany: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcU3IdVm9xQ&feature=fvst
You can see how some things have changed and how some things have stayed the same-the medocrity and tackiness remain shinning and constant European virtues throughout. But the odd winning song can be catchy and there is sometimes not a lot to do some nights in Europe.
So how does any of this nonsense help explain the EU?
First, like the EU, the Eurovision’s borders are hazy and ill-defined. Israel has for long been an active member of the ‘European Broadcasting Union’ and therefore has taken part, and even won on a few occasions! So does Russia, and they even won in 2008! Turkey participates, as do Armenia and its arch rival Azerbaijan.
Where Europe ends is not easy to define, and probably cannot be. Which suggests (with quite a bit of extrapolation by me) that the EU will not likely ever make a good platform to transition to a cohesive territorial superstate, given the ambiguity of its geographical extent and interests. But is that a good news or bad news story?
Second, like the EU, the Eurovision has experienced a massive problem with enlargement. After the fall of communism, so many new European countries have joined, that the show has become infeasible in terms of simply allowing each country a slot.
In a nutshell that scheduling crisis caused by the fall of the Berlin wall and communism in Eastern Europe also explains why we have the Lisbon and Nice Treaties over the last decade…..they are attempts to get the stage set right and keep the scheduling tight enough, oh and probably pathetic attempts by the west Europeans to continue to dominate the EU reality show.
Thirdly, the voting politics of Eurovision reveals much about the limits of democracy in the EU. I don’t mean here how countries with a grudge against each voter against each other (check out Turkey’s voting record on Cyprus for example), but I mean the very nature of the voting system.
In the good old days, just like the EU itself, the Eurovision voting was very elitist. Basically each country had a nominated panel of expert judges. These were usually people from national publically owned broadcasting channels (radio and TV). Some were actual music critics, others radio DJs and others, were basically bureaucrats. I think in some countries they were ordinary viewers or listeners. But in its baroque opaqueness and bureaucracy it was quite like the EU.
It was decided how they would vote in a closed session after listening to all the songs. The ‘results’ were then phoned in low-tech live on air…which added greatly to the excitement when the phone reception was poor (well if you were a young kid in Ireland in the 1970s/80s…..there was not much else on TV……..)
In fact the voting system was always beset with terrible problems, check out this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXxs7NUgmUo
Then in the late 1990s it was decided that the Eurovision needed to be ‘democratized’…..and in a radical way (quite unlike the EU its was said to be suffering from a bad case of poor legitimacy and lack of popularity). There would be voting by ordinary people! They would use their telephones to vote their favourite song, thus the bureaucrats would be put in their place and the voice of democracy would be heard!
In reality this was a sordid bid to make more money out of the limping Eurovision franchise (they charge you to phone in a vote!). Moreover, there were odd results. To the horror of west Europeans, east Europeans started to win, not least because their viewers took the whole thing a lot more seriously and entire nations started texting in their votes en masse. Then it got deeply tribal; Estonians started backing their kin brothers the Finns in volume, and Russians voted heavily for Serbia’s entry. There was speculation and debate about the entire Eurovision show collapsing…maybe like the EU itself.
For the squalid details on voting read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_at_the_Eurovision_Song_Contest
However, the bottom line is that the experiment with popular mass democracy via phone voting by ordinary citizens has now been heavily modified by a return (since 2009) to a 50/50 system; 50 per cent of the votes come from a national panel of expert judges, and 50 per cent from the phone voting (which earns money and therefore is valuable).
The obvious lessons for the EU is that mass voting on EU issues of jobs might be as chaotic as the Eurovision became in 2006 and 2007. Imagine a straight simple vote across all 27 EU states for the next president of the European Commission? The same tribal voting patterns may well emerge, and perhaps the winner would have to make his speeches in the lowest common denominator of shaky English, just like Eurovsion winners. Just as long as they do not have to dance.
Simple majoritarian democratic solutions that work okay in America and India may not work well for a Europe of 27 diverse nations that are only unfied in what is actually a rather weak confederation of states, mainly for trade. Whatever steps we are going to need to improve democracy at the EU level will probably have to be well thought out and quite outside the usual box of tricks-such as Europe wide referendums, and simple majority votes. etc. It will have to be at least as complex as Eurovision voting.
Fourthly, Eurovision reveals that Europe is not a single nation of shared values. it is evident that the musical taste and sense of humor of European countries varies quite a bit. This nicely reveals what political theorists call the no demos thesis-which is the idea that there is no shared cultural basis for democracy between EU citizens, if only due to language constraints. Divergent musical taste and the inability to see each others jokes as funny suggests the prospects for building a common EU state, much less a democratic one, are rather poor.
Consider that the Irish ‘hilarous’ joke of sending Dustin the Turkey (puppet) was simply seen as evidence of decadant hubris and our impending national decline. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfuJaf6IBpk
Finland won in 2006 with Lordi, ostenbily a satanic influenced de(a)th metal band. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9w41_I6fP1g
This was of course meant as a joke by the Finns, but was widely seen as how bad things had gone in Europe.
Eastern Europeans are pretty fond of lots of heavy metal type stuff (see this Ukrainian entry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JBNNmuc5_M) allied with what can be only called dodgy techno folk music. Western Europeans are not immune to the odd bit of poppy folk ( see Norway’s 2009 winner which has by the way been the highest scorer of all time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiH4BFTELME ). But more often there is a dire attempt to offer some sort of serious pop song, or worse, a deeply ernest rock ballad.
The winning recipe in recent years seems to be: sing in English; throw in a bit of folksy stuff with fiddles, harps, or whatever, but overlay it with a bit of modern thumping techno stuff, or else just go for a very very simple pop song (Germany won with one in 2010, see above). All the winning songs also seem to be quite clear in terms of their emotional mood; sad dirges of loss (which Europe has been good at historically), or happy peasant dance numbers. The lesson for the EU from all of this would appear to be:
Reduce the lingustic complexity problem by simply using more English (maybe call it American?)……oh and keep policies and rules and decisions as SIMPLE as possible….with a clear emotional mood signalled. Is it any surprise that clever officials in the EU are busy trying to rebrand the failed industrial agricultural policy known as ‘the CAP’ into a much simpler and emotive ‘food security’ policy? A bit more appealing and catchy is it not?
There might be other lessons for the EU other than being emotional and simple, rather than convoluted and clincially rational in how it communicates. Eurovision for all of its cheesiness, appalling sets, dire fashion, awful songs and the general tsunami of medocirity, has nonetheless created a distinctively European moment each year for a great many Europeans (there are exceptions like Italy where its is mostly unwatched and unknown). This emotional and cultural (okay low brow-cultural) connection is something that the EU has singularly failed to pursue. Carrots and Comeptition policy are what the EU does…but not culture, not even popular culture. And that is one reason why the EU is SO boring and why so many Europeans basically find the very idea of Europe intriguing, but the reality of the EU as boring as paint drying.
This suggests if the EU is to move beyond the current rut of what I perceive to be systematic unpopularity and uncomprehension, it has to become somehow more like the Eurovision; a bit vulgur and cheap, but watchable, and centred around speaking to Europe’s diverse national tribes about what they really care about, and not above their heads with policies on competition law and carrots.
And finally a word on Ireland, the Eurovision, and the EU. Ireland has won 7 times-more than any other state. However, we have not won in a long time (1996). We have traditionally done well with rather mournful rock ballads-not many happy dancy numbers. Is this not telling us something about our national psychosis? In fact some of these have been written in a distinctly American influence in their style…..indicating that Ireland’s success in Europe is really got to do with its not so secret closet Americaness. See for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHE8a-D9Zb4 And http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vccwzuttIQY
Moreover, it has been suggested that one reason we did so well historically is because we simply sung in English and thus our songs were a bit more ‘sing alongable’ than say this fetching Norwegian entry of the early 1980s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap3_USxKQ34&feature=related
They changed the rules to allow everyone to sing in English in the 1990s, and that has changed the game for us.
Thus even the Eurovision can cast light on Ireland’s participation in the EU
Which nicely brings me to Jedward, our entry for 2011 [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggP9n2DPRhI&playnext=1&list=PL648D4D1869F5E770], and our nation’s current crisis. Given that the EU Bailout is (a) so vital for us but (b) so bitterly resented by most ordinary Irish people as humiliating, unfair and an intrusion upon our always limited national sovereignty, the success or failure of Jedward is argubaly more important than whoever wins the next Irish general election, at least as regards how Irish attitudes to Europe pan out.
Okay I might be exaggerating just a bit there.
But, if we win, expect gushings of reconcillation with ‘Europe’. If we lose badly (more than possible given the intrinsic dire quality of the song), their signature definant hair will become a trademark act of resistence against the EU. And if we do oh-so average, as I suspect, will this not reveal to us the rather obvious lesson that we’re stuck with Europe now and have to find winning formulae again?
Time to phone Shay Healy (again).