Iceland's Pollapönk: Tolerance is Bliss
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Boom Bang-a-Bang: Eurovision has a fine record for predicting political tensions

Strikingly, Britain’s last victory was in 1997, the year of the electoral apotheosis of Tony Blair and the Irish peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

It may comfort some, in these tense times, that the entries for the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest include an anthem to international compassion: “Sending out a message up above/Telling all the world to show some love.” Unfortunately for the TV sing-off’s hope of winning the next Nobel Peace Prize, this is the entry from Russia, which should probably expect nul points from the jury in Ukraine, whose song, ominously for those who fear that the dispute between the two countries may preview the Third World War, is called “Tick-Tock”. (Reassuringly, the reference turns out to be not atomic but romantic: “Can you hear me go tick-tock?/My heart is like a clock.”)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office would doubtless claim to have better things to do than tune in for the final from Copenhagen on 10 May but Eurovision has an impressive record of predicting geopolitical tensions. Last year, the BBC’s Graham Norton noted that Russia and Ukraine had given each other lower marks than usual.

Eurovision’s reliability as a political baro­meter may be explained by its origins: it is a near-twin, in aims and birthdate, of the European Economic Community. The annual battle of poor English badly sung was launched in May 1956, nine months before the Treaty of Rome began moves towards European unity. Post-Second World War and mid-cold war, both institutions had declared aims of cementing stronger European ties, although clearly the projects have had different effects: the EU probably has greater respect in the music industry, while Eurovision has done more to foster peace.

As one of the few occasions on which populations are invited to vote for and against other countries, Eurovision efficiently reflects international sympathies and hostilities. Strikingly, Israel won two contests in a row (1978 and 1979) when perceived as a victim in the years after the Munich Olympics massacre, but since the prominence of the Palestinian issue has recently struggled even to qualify for the final.

In a musical equivalent of the belief that a green passport may save your life in a hijack or hostage situation, Ireland has proved the country least hated by others, winning seven times and having to resort, during the recession, to being represented by Jedward to avoid any risk of winning and having to pay for next year’s contest.

Strikingly, Britain’s last victory was in 1997, the year of the electoral apotheosis of Tony Blair and the Irish peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, but subsequently the UK has suffered from an unforeseen consequence of the end of the cold war – nascent nations from the scattered Soviet Union and Yugoslavia forming powerful Eurovision voting blocs – while itself belonging to a political alliance (the EU) increasingly containing enemies.

With Ireland trying not to win, Scandinavian nations, guaranteed high marks from their neighbours and generally thanked for Abba, have become the safety option. Norway, Sweden and Denmark have all won in recent years and the Nordics are among the bookmakers’ favourites again.

The view that Eurovision songs have a limited range is supported by frequent doublings of subject matter. Pyromaniac inspiration unites Austria’s “Rise Like a Phoenix” and Azerbaijan’s “Start a Fire”, while another pair of alphabetical neighbours – the Netherlands and Norway – go nautical with “Calm After the Storm” and “Silent Storm”, respectively. Perhaps reflecting the international impact of The Great British Bake Off, there’s a patisserie theme in Latvia’s “Cake to Bake” and “Cheesecake” from Belarus.

None of these titles, incidentally, is in translation: bad English has become the Esperanto of crap pop. Of this year’s original 37 entries, 32 are sung in Shakespeare’s tongue or at least a variety of it. Many of the songs sound as if the lyricists have been tricked by cruel tourists into believing that strange phrases are common idioms in Britain. “I’m tired of your sweet cheesecake,” croons the Belarusian contestant.

In the style established by Abba, lyrics often feature recognisable English expressions, oddly positioned or stressed. “All the rules well known, they mean nothing,” laments the Finnish singer. And in “Mother”, the Belgian Axel Hirsoux pays tribute to his mum for being “my shoulder, my shelter, my satellite”, a trio of attributes unlikely to feature on many UK Mother’s Day cards.

The British hopeful, Molly, seeks to reverse the 17 years of hurt since the victory of “Love Shine a Light” by Katrina and the Waves with “Children of the Universe”, which, imploring “power to the people”, is one of a number of entries seeking to tap into the mood of voter protest around the world, although there is some ambiguity about whether Greece’s song “Rise Up” refers to elections or erections.

The Icelandic group Pollapönk make the baldest political plea: “Let’s do away with prejudice/Don’t discriminate, tolerance is bliss!” The sentiment is hard to argue with (though not as hard as it must be to sing) but will certainly be ignored by the juries, which, whatever the dreams of the competition’s founders, take pride in prejudice. Voting patterns in Copenhagen will give Cameron and Putin a useful clue to European attitudes towards them.

The 2014 Eurovision Song Contest final is on BBC1 and BBC Radio 2 on 10 May from 8pm

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Property programmes are torture for millennials - so why do we keep watching?

Once aspirational, property TV shows now carry a whiff of sadism. 

I watch property programmes because I like inflicting pain on myself.

That’s the only conclusion I, as a millennial, can come to. I must be a masochist, because I enjoy seeing people with more money than I’ll ever have buying homes I’ll never be able to afford.

There was a time when, for me at least, watching property shows was an act of dissent. In the mid 2000s, catching Homes Under the Hammer during its 10am timeslot as a teenager was the ultimate sign of rebellion, because you should, by rights, be in school. Ditto with Location Location Location, Escape to the Country or any of the litany of property programmes which have been going strong since the turn of the century.

Now, though, I realise that these property shows are not simply designed for adolescents pulling sickies. In fact, I’m not the prime target audience for these shows at all. The people who actually appear on these shows are whiter than white, comfortably middle-class and able to splash the cash from years of good jobs. They couldn’t be further away from a working class, white-passing millennial in an age defined by the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial crash.  

It wasn't always this way. When Location, Location, Location began in 2000, 20 per cent of young people and 80 per cent of middle-aged people owned their own home. Rewind a decade, to 1991, and just north of 35 per cent of 16-24 year olds owned their own home. By 2013-2014, that figure had fallen to under 10 per cent. On average, house prices have risen 7 per cent each year since 1980. Job security is hugely decreased. The average deposit needed to buy a property in London, where jobs are most plentiful, has risen by £76,000 in the last decade. 

In short, in 2017, watching a property programme as a millennial is simply a reminder that the ladders have all been pulled up. 

To add insult to injury, political attempts to help young renters, like that of Ed Miliband's 2015 manifesto, face a backlash from Britain's well-organised and vocal landlord class. It's a small comfort that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have proposed reforms, since this parliament looks likely to be dominated by Brexit. On the plus side, as far as sofa bums are concerned, appalling renting conditions has spawned a new genre of gritty reality TV typified by When the Landlords Moved In. 

So why do I keep watching programmes about people I do not resemble buying houses I cannot afford? Simply because property programmes make undeniably good viewing. Teenagers argue on Twitter about which of them would be the better replacement for Grand Designs’ iconic presenter Kevin McCloud. One friend I spoke to about the show called it "daydream material".

"It's really satisfying to watch", she said. "There's something about seeing people be able to build their dream houses that's interesting. I like thinking about what my house would look like." Another said that "it's a nosiness thing combined with seeing how the other half live". Another friend I spoke to, a couple of years younger than me, couldn’t describe the allure specifically, simply saying “I just like houses”. 

Twitter hosts a number of young fans who also like houses:

Why indeed, Ally. Why indeed.

Other millennial users are brokenhearted that Kirstie and Phil, the pair who host Location Location Location, are not, in fact, a real couple:

There’s something else here though, aside from on-screen sexual tension. It goes back to that idea of "daydream material". It’s an image of what could be – of what should be. You can’t help but be excited for the homeowners featured on the programme, especially if they’re buying their first home or expanding to a home for life. It’s an infectious feeling of what we’d like to have. It’s hope.

Granted, it might be futile. Despite Brexit, a shortgage of homes means house prices don't look set to plummet any time soon. And millennials don't seem likely to afford them - figures released yesterday make clear that though employment has gone up, wages remain stagnant.

There doesn't appear to be any real way out, except for a permanent sojourn in the letting market. As a result, property TV is actually perfect "reality" TV. Like living in the Big Brother house, or finding "love" on an island, or winning £1,000,000 through being a nerd, property TV has ascended from its roots as programming designed to inform and entertain, to the realm of unantainable, glossy wish-fulfilment, as removed from real life as that Total Wipeout assault course.

And yet, the hope lives on. It might not be yet – it might not even be soon - but Phil and Kirstie, when you come for me, I’ll be ready.