LONDON — Forget the Nobel Prize. For millions of television viewers from Ireland to Istanbul, Europe’s highest annual honor belongs to the campy, vampy winners of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Yet, in this music competition-slash-geopolitical proxy fight, the British are in a funk. And decidedly not the danceable kind.
Eurovision, a huge media event on a par with the Super Bowl in this part of the world, is an international music smackdown seen by some as blending the drama of “American Idol” with the intrigue of a U.N. summit. Others call it a bloated parade of unadulterated cheese. Either way, as acts from 26 countries prepare for harmonic battle at the Eurovision finals in Sweden this week, the national mood in Britain is grim.
No British artist has won the coveted Eurovision title since 1997, and it’s not for lack of trying. As is so often the case on these isles where the English Channel doubles as a cultural gulf, the British smell a continental plot. At a time when Prime Minister David Cameron is pledging a referendum on whether to pull his nation out of the European Union, the grumbling here spotlights a basic question for the region: Is Britain out of tune with the rest of Europe?
Stereotyped by continentals as binge-drinking vacationers and monolingual louts, the English in particular consider themselves a much-maligned group that other Europeans love to hate. Thus, they contend, Eurovision is skewed against them. After all, although supposedly impartial juries of industry professionals also weigh in, a major portion of the votes used to decide the winner are phoned in by viewers on the continent.
In addition, though viewers can technically vote for any country but their own, a flurry of scholarly studies from Oxford to Brussels has shown the call-in vote to be a reflection of the region’s body politic and ethnic ties. As sure as sunset on the Aegean Sea, Greece will vote for Cyprus, and vice versa. Have no fear, Belarus, Russia’s got your back. But while Britain has a fair-weather friend in Ireland, some here argue that this nation — in Eurovision, as with so many other things in Europe — is simply the odd man out.
In what has become a British tradition, everyone from soccer stars to media pundits to rank-and-file viewers publicly bemoaned the politics of Eurovision after last year’s loss. Just days before this year’s show, the BBC’s Eurovision Facebook page is peppered with cynicism. “It’s all political, underhand block voting, and, everyone hates us so we will never win it!!” complained Craig Studd in one post.
“They support each other” on the continent, said Brandon Ham, an 18-year-old musical theater major in Cardiff who sent out a tweet likening the Eurovision competition to a popularity contest. “I think they see us as something completely different.”
Mounted with enough lights, sound and costumes to make a Las Vegas stage look like an Amish town council meeting, Eurovision helped launch the careers of Abba and Celine Dion, with winning songs often going on to become international smash hits. Contestants come from the core nations of Europe and as far away as the Middle East and the Caucasus, with each national act performing original songs of three minutes or less.
Competition in two earlier rounds is generally fierce as countries vie for a spot in the finals. But Britain is one of five lucky nations that, by the grace of large financial contributions from national broadcasters, is able to bypass the “semis” and sail straight to the finals.
Some countries conduct elaborate, nationally televised domestic contests to choose their competitors. But in Britain, the Eurovision act is simply anointed by the BBC, which last year came under pressure to pull out of the show after yet another embarrassingly dismal finish.
No one country, at least, appears to have it in for the British. Eurovision acrimony between some countries is so bad that in 2009, a group of Azerbaijanis who voted for Armenia were summoned for questioning by authorities in Baku. Nonetheless, they are crying foul here in Britain.
Consider the evidence. Last year, Britain was sure that it had a winner when it unleashed Engelbert Humperdinck on the Eurovision masses. Yet the veteran crooner belted his heart out for queen and country, only to land second to last. That paled next to the Great British Humiliation of 2003. The Merseyside band Jemini failed to score a single point and was bested even by the likes of Ukraine’s Oleksandr Ponomaryov, who added insult to injury by wading through a song in English titled “Hasta la Vista.”
“The fact is that you have various blocs voting,” Terry Wogan, the longtime Eurovision commentator for the BBC, famously said before stepping down from the job in 2008. “You’ve got the Eastern Bloc, you’ve got the Balkans, you’ve got the Baltics. The Scandinavians have always voted for each other. We’ve got nobody to vote for us.”
After Eurovision began in the 1950s, the British enjoyed initial success — winning the contest no fewer than five times. A 2005 report by Oxford University even found that British acts — at least from 1992 to 2003 — enjoyed more goodwill from voters than those from many other nations, particularly France.
But until 1999, Eurovision acts had to sing in one of their nations’ official languages, and early British glory may have been partly linked to the status of English as a rare lingua franca in the region. When a parade of tight-jeaned Russian rockers, Swedish songstresses and even French pop acts hit the stage with catchy tunes in hyper-basic “Abba English,” it suddenly upped the ante for the Brits.
Observers say Britain’s involvement in the unpopular Iraq war and a parade of anti-European comments from British politicians probably haven’t helped, either. Yet, amid its losing streak, Britain has responded to fire with gasoline — either shucking onstage the likes of Scooch, a bubblegum dance band with members dressed like flight attendants, or dusting off past-their-prime stars.
Take Bonnie Tyler, please. This nation is holding out for a hero when the 61-year-old Welsh queen of the 1980s takes the stage in Malmo this week. But some who have caught her Eurovision act predict heartache to rival the Humperdinck debacle.
“I think the English have a complex; they need to stop blaming Europe and look inside themselves,” said William Lee Adams, the American editor and chief of wiwibloggs.com, a Eurovision fan site. “I mean, have you seen Bonnie Tyler? She looks like a reanimated corpse on stage. That’s just not going to stand up to Sweden. She was big in the ’80s, but someone needs to tell them this is 2013.”
Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.