Where did the good songs go?


Eurovision is a shadow of its former self and that’s before we get to the UK entry

By Alper Ali Riza

For the UK to lose a Eurovision contest once with nil points was a misfortune, to lose twice with nil points smacks of carelessness of the could-not-care-less variety. Apologies to Oscar Wilde for distorting his famous dictum, but how else to explain the UK’s awful song and its dismal showing in Eurovision 2021?

There is an obvious paradox about the UK getting nil points. Most entries to the Eurovision Song Contest are sung in English and pop music has been associated with the English pop scene since the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960s.

The Beatles disintegrated in acrimony in 1970, but the Rolling Stones were still going strong in their 70s pre-pandemic. Someone needs to tell Mick Jagger that there is something grotesque about a septuagenarian jumping up and down on stage screaming into a microphone. Apparently he has been learning languages to kill time during lockdown, which is more sedate and a good antidote to going gaga.

There were other English pop successes too: groups like The Who, Pink Floyd and Queen; and many singers including David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Elton John, and George Michael to name but a few. “Punk Rock” and “Heavy Metal” bands proliferated, and I can say, without fear of contradiction, that the UK pop scene belies the nil points the UK has had to endure lately.

Some have attributed UK’s dismal results to Brexit, but it is not as if the UK entries were great songs unfairly discriminated against. The bitter truth is that the UK entries deserved nil points.

The problem is that the BBC puts forward the songs from which the public are asked to choose, whereas it should be the other way round as the hit parade is the best barometer of popular taste. The way back to winning ways for the UK is to let the market decide which two new songs by young singers go forward and then ask the public to choose between them.

In my day, in the swinging 60s, there were lots of new songs every year almost all of which could have won the Eurovision hands down.

With one exception, the best pop music since the 1960s has been either English or American. The exception is the Swedish group Abba that set the trend among European pop groups of singing in English. Abba’s songs are a touch schmaltzy, but they were very popular in their day. They won Eurovision in 1974 with ‘Waterloo’ and produced ‘Dancing Queen’, which is probably the best beat to dance to if you feel energetic and if you leave edgy tangoes out of the equation.

Abba sang in English and it worked for them. But why have the Greeks taken to singing English style pop songs in English? I suppose because the Eurovision contest is about winning points across the whole of Europe, and as English is the lingua franca of pop the philistines who choose national entries threw authenticity out the window for the trash we heard last Saturday.

Time was when Greece produced great songs set to great music by composers like Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, and Stavros Xarhakos all sung in Greek. What philistines ignore is that there is a lot of music in the sound of some languages.

It is true that Melina Mercouri sang ‘Never on a Sunday’ in English but the Greek version was a lot more mellifluous. And yes, Demis Roussos and Nana Mouskouri sang in English but the songs they sang lent themselves to being sung in English.

I would have given twelve points to most of their songs purely on merit. These days we have the robotic award of twelve points from Cyprus to Greece and vice versa even when there is nothing about either to be culturally patriotic. It used to infuriate the doyen of popular music the late Terry Wogan who poured scorn on the inability of some nations to leave politics out of a contest about songs.

The winner this year was ‘Zitti e Buoni’ (Quiet and Good) by Maneskin, but there was nothing quiet or good about the song. All I could make out was a half-naked youth shouting into a microphone in Italian. The Italians are probably the greatest musical nation in the world. All they have to do to make music is sing in Italian, but even a mellifluous language like theirs grates when shouted angrily into a microphone. There must be something wrong when Italy that produced operas by Puccini and singing by the majestic Luciano Pavarotti serves up the shouting we heard last Saturday.

Perhaps I am not comparing like with like, but even so I am sure Italy can do infinitely better than ‘Zitti e Buoni’. At least France’s offering was authentic even if not very original; both singer and song were reminiscent of that most quintessentially French singer, Edith Piaf, though without the characteristic defiance of her classic ‘No, Je Ne Regrette Rien’.

Voila! by Barabara Pravi was very French. The lyrics do not compare with ‘No, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ but the title ‘Voila’ was characteristically French. Graham Norton who succeeded Terry Wogan as presenter of the Eurovision Contest on British TV said something heartfelt after Pravi finished singing, when he said sotto voce: ‘that’s the kind of song that wins the Eurovision.’ Alas ‘Voila’ came second but what was refreshing was that the juries of UK, Germany, Spain and Switzerland gave it full marks precisely because it was so very French.

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Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a retired part-time judge

 



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