‘Human rights first, Eurovision second’ by Quentin Bates

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That time of year is approaching yet again. It’s a major cultural event, and of course it has to be the Eurovision Song Contest. For the non-Europeans reading this, count yourselves fortunate that it’s something you’ve probably never encountered.

It’s more or less what it says on the tin, an annual contest run by European broadcasters in which performers bang out a three minute pop song composed for the occasion. Then there’s a vote afterwards to decide the winner, normally followed by some bitching and backbiting, as well as accusations that various groups, such as the Nordic or Balkan states, vote to ensure that one of their number gets close enough to the top for a stab at being the winner.

Eurovision is dire. The quality of the music is determinedly poppy and sticks to the white lines running down the middle of the road, produced to a strict formula as if cheesy blandness were something to aspire to. There are few off-the-wall entries now and then, as if there’s a need to prove that the organisers really do have a sense of humour kept in reserve for emergencies, but it’s still kept firmly in check.

If you’re really up for the full horror of Eurovision, YouTube is probably your best starting point. But for the sharpest Eurovision parody there is, which also supplies the full flavour of it, look no further than here.

It’s been going for years and has gone from being a fairly good-humoured, camp affair in the past that wasn’t taken all that seriously, even though it was Abba’s springboard to fame, to today’s grotesquely over-the-top schlockfest. The transformation is down to the new Europeans, the nations to the east that came to Eurovision late as the Iron Curtain came down. They take it all extremely seriously, pumping some big money into getting their formula just right.

Iceland also came to Eurovision late, being admitted to the fold sometime in the mid-1980s, and Iceland adores Eurovision. From the interminable televised heats and voting to decide the national entry to the whole televised bad-taste-fest, Iceland stays glued to the box.

Now there are questions being asked about the rightness or not of taking part in this year’s event. The convention is that the winning nation hosts next year’s event, conjuring up mental images of harassed TV executives pouring themselves relieved triple brandies with every ‘nul points’ their entry gets, as these days it’s a lavish and ruinously expensive thing to stage.

Last year Azerbaijan won. Not exactly a European state, one would have thought, but Turkey and Israel have already long been part of the Eurovision circus. The problems lie with the fact that Azerbaijan is a very far cry from being a free and democratic state and the seriousness with which Azerbaijan’s rulers take Eurovision is such that a new concert venue in Baku is being specially built – with the houses and blocks of flats surrounding the designated site being bulldozed while the occupants have been subjected to offers of derisory compensation, while subjected to a campaign to encourage them to leave their homes as rapidly as possible by cutting off water and power supplies.

There have been a few calls for this year’s Eurovision to be boycotted, but it’ll undoubtedly go ahead anyway and the calls for justice for those losing their homes for the sake of internationally-broadcast terrible music have hardly registered.

In Iceland, one of the loudest voices has been that of Páll Óskar Hjálmtýsson (who abbreviates his name to Paul Oscar), a singer and TV personality who is Iceland’s number one Eurovision fan and who could hardly be camper if he went to live in a big pink tent in Brighton or San Francisco.

His name is also one of those that has been mentioned in connection with the upcoming presidential elections – along with numerous others – none of whom has yet decided to say yes or no. Is Iceland ready for a gay president? Why not? Iceland was the first to have a female president, as well as first to have a gay head of government. So it could be fitting if the terms of an outgoing gay prime minister and an incoming gay president could overlap.

But back to Azerbaijan, a resources-rich nation with a distinctly dismal human rights record and a dictatorial clique in power that prefers to keep dissent quiet and the press under its thumb. There are some forlorn hopes that the glare of the Eurovision spotlight will force a little more political openness in Azerbaijan, where forced evictions and trampling on ordinary people’s rights are nothing new or unusual. But in a few weeks there will be a shiny new concert hall and a tourist-friendly district around it where there used to be ugly, unloved Soviet-era blocks that were nevertheless people’s homes.

Eurovision will certainly go ahead. Iceland will probably take part. This year’s entry has already been selected so it’s presumably too late to back out. But it’ll be interesting to know what Paul Oscar makes of it and if he decides to hold his renowned annual Eurovision party.

As he said publicly when he voiced a call for the boycott; ‘Human rights first, Eurovision second.’ Taking a moral stance over his beloved Eurovision certainly won’t do his chances any harm if he does decide to hit the presidential trail.

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