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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Intelligent life on earth: why we need Radio 4's Book of the Week

When a book on quantum gravity came on air, it sounded like a brief return to something that has declined so much over our lifetimes – knowledge as part of a function of a media flow.

It sounded like the densest of abridgements: five days of excerpts from Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli (week beginning 28 November, 9.45am). Swarms of quantum events where time does not exist. Cosmology, meteorology and cathedrals of atomism. Leucippus of Miletus and lines of force filling space. Very few of us listening could have understood what was being said. Instead, we just allowed it to wash over, reminding us that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.

Perhaps once or twice, as the week progressed, token attempts were made to check that everybody was keeping up (“So, the number of nanoseconds in a second is the same as the number of seconds in 30 years”) – or to encourage listeners to picture themselves as part of an experiment (“Imagine I’m on Mars, and you were here . . .”). But generally it was utterly airtight, the reader, Mark Meadows, doing a good job of keeping his voice at a pace and tone uncondescendingly brisk, flattering us that nobody was scratching their head (“The speed of light determined by Maxwell’s equations is velocity with respect to what?”).

It was my favourite radio book reading of 2016. Not because I learned a single thing I could repeat, or might realistically mull over, but because it sounded like a brief return to something that has declined so much over our lifetimes – knowledge as part of a function of a media flow.

It’s that old idea that something might be there for your betterment. When we were exposed to just four channels on television especially, and forced to stay on them, we got into astronomy and opera and all sorts of stuff, almost against our will. (Rigoletto? Jesus. Well, there’s nothing else on . . .) The programme was marvellously and unapologetically impenetrable, as the days and chapters piled up relentlessly (“We are immersed in a gigantic flexible snail shell”). What this adaptation comprehended was that we don’t actually want someone explaining Einstein to us. What is much more compelling – more accurate and clever – is simply to show what it’s like in other people’s brains. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump