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"BUMBLING INEPTNESS & FASCIST INTRANSIGENCE" - I WAS THERE, EUROVISION, BIRMINGHAM, UK 1998


WE WUZ robbed. Christ, not the UK, I mean Belgium. Did you hear the gorgeous Melanie Cohl's gasping sigh of Saint Etienne-style cine-pop, 'Dis Oui' ("Come, if you are tired of your vacuous loves/Come, the world needs reconstruction/You can't stand those bombs that explode around us/You know it's enough to be two/To believe we are already stronger")?

It was the only truly great pop song in this year's contest, and fulfilled that function every Eurovision needs: the lost classic, the cruelly overlooked mini-masterpiece lost to the annals of pop oblivion. Last year, it was Hungary's 'Nincs Semmi Baj', the year before, Switzerland's 'Hast Noch Viel' and, yes, I am a Eurovision fan, and I'm nearly in tears.
Not just because of the heartbreaking sight of Melanie seeing the initial rush of votes peter out to a trickle (what the f*** do the Finns know about pop, anyway?), but because this was the year I got to actually go to Eurovision, and demystification doesn't even begin to tell my sad story. It was exactly what I expected. Watching on television, the one thing that comes across is just how hideous the scene behind the perfect facade must be. Trapped behind the scenes, you can't get away from it. Eurovision is hell.


The running of Eurovision is an odd mixture of bumbling ineptness, fascist intransigence and outward pristineness. Onscreen, it's clockwork, backstage, it's a cruel lottery, where careers are snuffed out by chance, journalists openly cry in frustration and photographers wrestle each other to the ground and break each other's glasses. First off, don't assume that, just because you're covering the event for your national newspaper, you're actually allowed to enter the auditorium. By the time I get to the press area they're raffling entry tickets in a bucket and a woman from Switzerland is banging her fist on a counter screaming "Fine!! Zurich's premier paper will have a blank front page tomorrow!"
"No photos inside!" barks a security guard as I make my way into the arena, and get frog-marched to my "very last" seat, wondering why there's around 20 empty places around Jonathan King. Smirking twat. Before the contest proper starts, the lamentably unfunny warm-up man punctuates a series of films about the supposed "rebirth" of Birmingham (a few new restaurants for the rich, a few new "themed heritage centres"... anything to appeal to media scum and f*** local public services, as far as I can tell).
And then we're off, Terry "Weave" Wogan's shit-eating grin beaming at us, that talentless ******* Ulrika Jonsson beaming even harder and I immediately realise what's wrong. Everyone here hates Eurovision. Everyone here despises what it was, wants to save it, or smirk at it, or in some way express their "opinion" on it.


THIS IS fatal. The whole point of Eurovision is in a two-fold romanticism — a belief in the transnational, post-literary power of great songs to move a whole continent; and a belief in a nu-Europa world of feckless leisure and unity-through-the-ephemeral that links us from Dublin to Dubrovnik. That imagery, that charming faux-sophisticated Ferrero veneer, that innocence has dropped out of Eurovision, what's on show tonight is something altogether harsher, crueller, entirely in service to the PR opportunities it offers Birmingham and the BBC; from Tony Blair's creepy intro to the programme ("What better way to promote good relations and reaffirm trust and friendship than through the power of music?"), to the godawful postcards that separate each song with a benign image of Britain changing for the better.
So, the music, and, my God, it's weird and wonderful to hear it without Wogan's wanky commentary (like an eight-year-old jabbing your ribs at the cinema and giggling). Croatia start a trend that disturbingly continues all night — a big shitty ballad — and even a Bucks Fizz-style sudden disrobing can't save her. Greece have bad eye make-up and a horrible Heart-style pomp. France and Spain clearly don't care any more and chants of "Guildo!! Guildo!!" are already booming from the German camp to my left.

After a Slovakian folk monstrosity and a pleasant enough Polish indie band, Israel's Dana International and Germany's Guildo Horn and The Orthopaedic Stockings raise the first and only shot of bedlam in the entire show, but even then it's entirely disappointing. 'Diva' is limp Eurobeat only worthy of 20 seconds on Eurotrash, and Guildo seems just too damn knowing to be a genuine maverick. Malta's Chiara is lovely, the rest slips through dully (including Imaani's shamefully thin 'Where Are You?' — a title that may haunt her sooner than she thinks) until that lost Belgian classic. For the voting, I head backstage to soak up the tension with my fellow scribes.

I roar for my Belgium, they throw individually wrapped fruit-salads at me when I boo the Norwegians: it's actually turning a bit nasty, when a big German snapper tells me to "Please be sit down, please, f***ing crazy asshole guy" as I do my touchdown dance when Melanie gets 10 from the Slovenians.

Israel inevitably win, everybody nods agreement and then hostilities are resumed 'tween us hacks and the BBC junta. Do we get to go backstage? No. Do we get to meet any of the artists? No. Is there an aftershow party? Yes, but only one person per nationality is allowed in, there's no photography allowed and there may not be any actual artists there. I'm pissed off; the Austrian Pepe Le Punks who've been here for two weeks and have their T-shirts, shoulder-bags, lighters, caps and beach-towels to prove it are fuming.
"Thees ees forking chaos!" they bray, before stampeding over to the photo-pit in prep for Dana's two-minute press call. She shows up and throws a few shapes and, when asked: "Have you a message for the people?", replies, "We are all one universe", and then scoots off in a haze of eyeliner and Blue Stratos.
True to form, the aftershow party is grim, Guildo pretends to be a dog for a whole hour, Dana's swamped and protected, and I ask Melanie Cohl if she's got a light. Somebody Belgian says something in Flemish to her, and she swans off, ignoring me utterly. Cow. Goddess.
OK, here's the lesson here: in the making of television — which is all Eurovision is — nothing matters other than the final delivery of those perfect images to the screen. If you watched it at home, you were closer to the Eurovision ideal than we who saw the belly of the beast, and when you've seen Jonathan King swamped by desperate hacks eager for any scrap going, you've seen the pits. I'm staying at home next year because I still believe. Just. 
Those choice EUROVISION lyrics in full
IF KAFKA was still alive he'd write Eurovision lyrics. Eurovision lyrics make Smog sound like Aqua. This year the continent-wide misery level reached new depths of anguished agony.
CROATIA
"Pain has led the way/May the sun never rise/May I cease to be"
FRANCE
"Your manners are well assured/ But your heart bleeds"
SWITZERLAND
"He'll take you and he'll break you/Because it happened to me"
POLAND
"The wind has blown our joy away and brought us only pain"
SLOVENIA
"And my heart lays down and dies/Will the gods not set me free?"
ROMANIA
"If I could touch your world/ I'd call you back so help me, God!"
ESTONIA
"Riding on the depth of our despair/Our waiting sailboat rocks impatiently"
TURKEY
"My loneliness knocked my silent door again/This is the final storm, cry my heart"
MACEDONIA
"Somebody stop the dawn outside/Wishing this red wine would kill the pain/I may be breathing, but, frankly, I'm dead"
GREECE
"Rules my soul like the furies/With a fear as hard as stone"
© Neil Kulkarni, 1998

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  1. A slapper. Yes, I'm ashamed too.

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