Ireland and the Eurovision, by David Blake Knox, New Island, 300 pp, €16.99, ISBN: 978-1848404298
This year’s Eurovision turned out to be another disappointment for Ireland, with the country that has won the most first places not even getting through the semi-finals. I never thought I would care but having read David Blake Knox’s Ireland and the Eurovision, I can imagine the disappointment behind stage and the wringing of hands in RTÉ. This book charts each annual Irish national song contest – we’ve only missed one since joining the show in 1965 – and each subsequent Eurovision show. It explores, among other things, the key personnel, the song formats and lyrics, elements of the staging and the elaborate voting systems. It also reveals the emotional rollercoaster of being involved in the biggest and longest-running entertainment contest in the world. The author’s own involvement in the contest, and in RTÉ, is the main source of these insights but he has also interviewed some of the central characters and clearly watched all the shows in the archive.
There is an important role for companion books that chart the history and catalogue the production of a cultural phenomenon such as the Eurovision. From this perspective, it is a mine of information for media personnel but also for pub quizzes or trivia competitions with gems such as “what famous artist’s work featured in the set design for the show in 1969?” or “what Eurovision song literally started a revolution?” or “when did the first black singer take part in the competition?”
But underpinning the array of facts and figures a number of stories emerge that capture the threads of a growing nation state and emerging European Union. The number of Eurovisions that have taken place under high security alerts – in 1981 in Dublin coinciding with Bobby Sands’s hunger strike; in Luxemburg in 1973 when Israel entered the contest and audience members were warned not to stand up or they might be shot at – are some indication of the political backdrop. Politics was also a recurring theme over the years, with countries refusing to enter as a protest against another country’s involvement (Austria refused to sing in Spain in 1969; Greece refused in 1975 in protest against Turkey). The show was both disrupted by politics but it also reflected politics and repeated song lyrics referenced European geopolitics.
Blake Knox also pulls out links between the contest and social issues, in particular, changing sexual mores. As the epitome of “family viewing”, the show’s introduction of risqué elements pushed the boundaries of acceptable practices. Blake Knox links these sometimes scandalous assaults on family values with wider social changes. The technical developments are also related in this book as communications technology increased the scale of the competition and complicated the logistics of staging the event, underscoring the increasing role of the visual performance.
Above all the cultural phenomenon is mapped as the song contest moved from the modernist era into the postmodern with the Dana to Dustin journey tracing the search for novelty and the loss of faith in seriously competing in an uncool, unfashionable, naff contest. In its early days the show was a family fireside event, the pompous regal Eurovision music calling a nation to attention to support its sons and daughters. We learn that Bunny Carr dressed in a formal dinner suit even though he would not be seen on camera. Since those early days, the author tells us that, the show has been written off on numerous occasions and of course it provides good “knocking material” for media critics. But is it only the media critics that are doing the knocking? And is the knocking always a bad sign? Audience research used to depict viewers as “couch potatoes” being passively injected with nefarious media content. Now viewers are seen as more active and sometimes even watch programmes in order to make fun of them. Bay Watch, which starred a mullet-wearing muscled and tanned David Hasselhoff as a lifeguard racing to the rescue in his red trunks, was a favourite for young girls to taunt and tease and shout rude comments at. So, along with its loyal, serious followers, the Eurovision’s widespread popularity, or bounce back, may depend on the subversive audience who take great pleasure in lovingly knocking the show and making fun of its naff elements.
Blake Knox’s chronological approach provides a good sense of the evolution of the Eurovision and, along with the factual writing style, allows the reader to incorporate their own memories and opinions, to deduce what exactly was going on; why Ireland won or didn’t win. But of course facts don’t entirely speak for themselves and more forthright interpretation and analysis would have been good, particularly on RTÉ’s internal operations. Battles of personalities and institutional structures are hinted at but not developed. When Blake Knox talks in the first person he seems to promise that his experiences will be more to the fore, but this voice disappears and a corporate “we” takes its place. In terms of staging the main event, it becomes clear that a parallel competition unfolds between the media professionals involved. When their turn came, RTÉ, we are told, acquitted themselves well and showcased their “consummate professional skill, creative flair and technical innovation”. But as Corcoran and others have documented in the history of RTÉ, the Eurovision charted stormy times as public service broadcasting wrestled from the grip of state interference while trying to avoid the lure of commercial interests. There are only brief references to these tensions.
Similarly, the role of the Eurovision in creating a sense of identity within Europe is touched on but not developed. To be fair, the author did decide to keep the book entertaining and readers can look elsewhere to find worthy treatments of the Eurovision song contest’s role in the creation of an EU public sphere. But the emphasis on the Eurovision’s size and impact may be misleading. In terms of popular culture, it may be unique but in overall numbers and sustained viewing it does not come close to sport, particularly soccer. One area that seemed to be left hanging, despite the painstaking task of gathering the data, was the analysis of the song lyrics. As mentioned above, these were charted over the years but Blake Knox doesn’t draw any conclusions. Were they witness to a dumbing down (someone counted “la” one hundred and thirty-eight times in a three-minute song)? How did they reflect the zeitgeist at a given time? What about the “existential” songs? Could the lyrics play a role in finding the magic formula for success?
The book reflects brilliantly the collective will within RTÉ that they might find that formula – it might be in the staging, or the singer formation or the tempo of the song or the green dress/suit or it might be the national voting system (do the people or the experts know best?). As Blake Knox points out, a special consultative committee could only come up with the startling conclusion that it is a “performance contest as much as a song contest”. Unfortunately, it looks like the soul-searching must go on. No amount of scientific analysis can pin down the fickleness of juries or public voters. As Blake Knox seems to scratch his head I couldn’t help wondering, “doesn’t someone have to come last?” No, surely we’ll get it right for 2016.
The Eurovision contest has moved a long way from the family fireside. It is now strongly associated with gay communities who, as Singleton et al recount, in an article in QueerScopeArticles in 2007, dominate the official fan network. But, as the authors point out, acknowledging the Eurovision as a gayfest is a double-edged sword. Being queer, as in oppositional to dominant norms, has been central to gay culture. What does it mean, therefore, to become accepted and mainstream? Of course, with the recent Yes vote in the gay marriage referendum, the fireside family in Ireland is no longer the normative mother, father and children. Again, it could be argued that there are uncanny ways in which the song contest echoes social dilemmas. Just as there is a quandary in becoming “straight” in the Eurovision, how can gays retain a difference in terms of bonding and relationships, if they take the conventional marriage route?
This may seem like a book that provides fascinating snippets of information but it also shows how this very popular competition reveals complex webs of meaning in Irish society and the importance of studying popular culture if we are to understand changing beliefs and values.
Carol McKeogh is Programme Coordinator for English, Media & Culture Studies at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.