The UK, Language and Eurovision – or why do we do so badly now?

This Friday (semi-finals) and Saturday (finals) see the return of the light entertainment highlight of the year that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Having been socialised into this event from a very young age, I find myself vaguely cheered by the selection this year of Bonnie Tyler as the UK entry since it is, in general, easier to enjoy the activity of poking fun at all the other entries if the UK has one that is not utterly appalling. But is the reason that the UK, a country which had garnered more points that any other over the history of the event with 5 winning entrants (second to Ireland’s 7) and a staggering 15 second place finishes, has not had a winner since 1997 (Katerina and the Waves ‘Shine a Light’) or a second place since 1998 (Imaani ‘Where are You?’) simply that our entries are so much worse than they used to be? Since 1999, with the honorable exceptions of Jessica Garlick in 2002 (3rd with ‘Come Back’) and Jade Ewen in 2009 (5th with ‘It’s my time’), we have not appeared in the top ten and have come last on three occasions (2003, 2008, 2010), a indignity avoided by the aged Hump in 2012 by only a single place. What has changed?

The big shift is that 1999 marked the dropping of ‘national’ restrictions on the language in which the song is performed. This isn’t the first period in which there have been no restrictions on language choice for vocal performance, this was also true for the first nine years of the competition (1956-65) until a Swedish entry was sung in English caused national language restrictions to be introduced before they were dropped briefly, and arguably luckily for ABBA (judge for yourself here), in the mid-70s (1974-76) and then re-introduced until 1999. It is worth comparing these periods:

  • 1956-65 saw no English language winner with French being the dominant language with six winners from three countries (Switzerland, France and Luxembourg),
  • 1974-77 saw three straight years of English language winners (Sweden, Netherlands, UK)
  • 1999-2012 has seen 13 of 14 winning songs sung in English, the only full exception being the Serbian winner in 2007, although some have mixed mixed English and national languages (most prominently Ukraine in 2004).

It is plausible that the decision of the Swedish entry in 1965 to sing in English reflected the transnationalisation of commercial popular music in the early 1960s symbolized by the rise of the Beatles and which established an English language hegemony in ‘transnational’ popular music. Britain was identified with good ‘pop’ music across the terrain of the European Broadcasting Union and its active members who make up the Eurovision participants – and this combined with the introduction of language restrictions gave the UK, together with Ireland, a significant competitive advantage. If we drop 1974 and 1975 in which the winners were sung in English by performers from countries where English is not an official language, then the period 1966-1998 saw the UK and/or Ireland win 10 of 30 competitions and come second in 12. It is notable in this context that the post-1999 period has also seen the collapse of the Irish performance, after their dominance of the 1990s, with 6th place in 2000 as their best performance.

So how do we do better in Eurovision? Simple – re-introduce national language rules.

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