Let’s all learn to love the Eurovision Song Contest

Matthew Plummer 9.55am

I love the Eurovision Song Contest. Tragically for me it isn’t some sort of ironic interest based on poking fun at the funny hats, weird beards and implausible busts – I actually have the wretched thing in my diary and look forward to it each year, although up until now it’s been something of a secret shame.

The Swedes are to blame. In 2006 I lived in Stockholm, and they take Eurovision rather more seriously over there. Melodifestivalen is the country’s annual talent show that selects their Eurovision entry, and I was horrified to find my friends, who previously exuded Scandinavian cool, staying in to watch it with unnerving enthusiasm. Carola was the eventual winner: her act was typical schlager, a wonderful Swedish word that sums up all the craziness of Eurovision-esque power ballads, cheesy dance music and lengthy hair billowing with wind machines running at full tilt. Carola’s song reached #1 in the domestic charts, was promoted around Europe and finished a very credible fifth in the year Finnish monster rock act Lordi swept away all before them.

But I think the whole Eurovision business neatly sums up some of the failings we have in understanding our European partners. Our entries – recently more towards the nul points end of the spectrum – mean we’ve become accustomed to sneering at the madness on stage each year, and consoling ourselves with just how good the British music industry really is. The red tops do their best to drum up interest in whatever act the BBC has strong-armed onto a plane, but inevitably singing in Eurovision is seen as a hospital pass, with the contest joining siestas, eating horses, long road trips Eastwards and all the other clichés we like to belittle Europe with. We’re just too cool for Eurovision.

So when it comes to the actual contest finals the unfortunate performer we’ve dispatched invariably doesn’t stand a chance against acts who are rather more established, and who see Eurovision as an opportunity to build their profiles as commercial recording artists. I had no idea who Bonnie Tyler is, so I asked my cousin, who described her thus: ‘I think she’s a… something from the… I’m not entirely sure actually’. The Sun charitably called her a veteran. Either way her Eurovision song won’t be gaining much airtime in the bars and clubs around London, whereas the opposite is true in Stockholm.

We did actually choose someone decent a few years ago – Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a song for Jade Ewen in 2009, took her on tour around the Eurovision nations and ended up delivering our best result in years. Casting my mind back I seem to remember Britain being genuinely excited about the 2009 competition because Jade actually had a chance of winning. Her career progressed as a result, showing that Eurovision is worthwhile if you actually engage in it seriously, rather than dismiss it as a stitch-up by scheming foreigners.

Likewise griping about bloc voting (when all the Nordic countries vote for each other, etc.) betrays another misunderstanding about Europe. In the democratic voting-by-text era people still stubbornly dish out high points for their neighbours – just as we do with Ireland. But this primarily reflects the degree of cultural integration across the regions of Europe, which makes sense when you put it in context with UK voting – many of the German acts feel like something we might actually hear on the radio, whereas Latvian music just sounds weird. As a result Germany and the UK regularly (indeed reliably) vote for each other. Just don’t call it an Anglo-German voting pact – it’s just another one of Europe’s many little cliques built on proximity and interaction.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mwyp

Rap music plays a big part, but there is a lot else wrong with our Two Societies

Nik Darlington 10.50am

In the aftermath of this summer’s rioting, my Egremont colleague Sahar Rezazadeh wrote that music inspired gang culture has infected our streets.

The riots were a product of gang culture and nothing else. A gang culture that is inspired, encouraged and glorified by music, especially American rap music.

The rioting and looting that swept English cities had many causes and influences, though rap music and the gang culture it celebrates is undoubtedly one of them.

This is the argument given this morning in The Times (£) by Libby Purves, in an article that also offered a qualified defence of the historian David Starkey, whose ill-chosen but apt comments on Newsnight caused a brief media storm.

David Starkey was certainly an idiot to mention Enoch Powell, even though he was pointing out that Powell was wrong in his predictions, since it wasn’t black-on-white violence.

But when he said that in gang culture “white chavs have become black”, he was trying to sum up, in a pithy telly-debate way, something that everybody with ears knows perfectly well.

Listen to them on the bus, for heaven’s sake, or on the after-school trains in leafy suburbs. White kids who want to seem tough and cool do talk in Jamaican-Bronx patois, trying to sound black. A role model in this inauthentic imitation is the 53-year-old BBC disc jockey and all-white bishop’s son Tim Westwood.

…Also, in his defence, the reason Dr Starkey used the offensive word “chav” was that his fellow guest [Owen Jones] was plugging a book under that title. A clear nod towards him acknowledged that the word was the other man’s, not his.

…His comments on Newsnight were clumsy, the ensuing fracas with the other two (equally unqualified) speakers mishandled. But it would be a pity if his detractors, in their stumbling panic to announce their own non-racism, closed down all discussion of the animating lawless rhetoric of top rappers. We should not be forced to turn a blind eye, or respect gangsta material as a valid “culture”.

…Ideally, Dr Starkey should have come armed with quotations. It would have been a treat to hear him learnedly quote Gangstarr: “I make the moves, I’m never faking/ Cause the loot is for the taking.” Or B.I.G.: “I ben robbin muthaf*****s since the slave ships… I’m robbin’ bitches too, I wouldn’t give a f*** if you’re pregnant/ Give me the baby rings and the ‘I love Mom’ pendant.” Perhaps a line or two from Outsidaz: “Zee rob white guys with nice lives… I need trick money, quick money, get me real rich money… anything I wanna do, I goes and does it.”

…You reckon none of that has anything to do with the riots? That the rap culture had no influence on the twittish lad in Nottingham jailed for posting online “kill a million Fedz, riot til we own cities”? Of course gangsta rap isn’t the only reason for the riots. But it gave a language and a bravado to the hangers-on. Cultural historians should be willing to consider that, rather than pecking Dr Starkey to death like a shedful of panicking hens.

Or, to continue the bird analogy, doing like the the ostrich does and sticking your head in the sand at troubling but honest analysis. All of society - whatever that means anymore - has contributed to these developments via unrestrained economic and cultural liberalism.

Danny Kruger, a former adviser to David Cameron, put it brilliantly in an instant opinion piece for the FT (£).

London has an underclass (a hateful word to the people in it, but no worse, and more accurate, than “the poor”). To generalise brutally, they are un-nurtured, brought up in a microculture of neglect, arbitrary and erratic discipline, and love without its concomitant need for boundaries and good behaviour.

Meanwhile the wider culture - that is us - has abandoned virtue and adopted the ethics of indifference, dressed as liberalism. We have substituted welfare payments for relationships, rights for love, and the sterile processes of the public sector for the warm morality of living communities.

We can afford no longer to remain indifferent to the culture of gangs and rap music than we can to the twisted relationship between society and state. Or should that be societies and state? It is the condition of our Two Societies, and solutions to their problems, that Egremont will be focusing on in the coming days in a special series of features. I encourage you to watch this space.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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Music inspired gang culture has infested our streets

Sahar Rezazadeh 6.04am

If there is one thing that the events of the past few days has shown it is how out of touch some journalists, politicians and ‘community leaders’ really are with the issues affecting ‘disenfranchised’ communities and the lifestyles.

If we are to be serious about questioning the mayhem witnessed on our streets, then we have to be asking, what do these young people watch? What or who do they listen to? Who are their role models? Fundamentally, what is an outline of an average day or week in these young people’s lives?

The riots were a product of gang culture and nothing else. A gang culture that is inspired, encouraged and glorified by music, especially American rap music. To my knowledge, Katherine Birbalsingh has been the only commentator to point this out, stating that some teenagers are spending 7-8 hours each day watching the likes of MTV. Clearly she understands how this kind of music influences the lifestyles and decisions of some young people, including the disregarding of a school education.

The state school system is itself failing pupils, drowning their aspirations and neglecting to equip them with basic literacy as well as discipline. The playground bullies took to the streets this week. Schools had let them off lightly for their bad behaviour and now they think wider society will too.

Rampant materialism, promiscuity, power trips, sexualisation, violence and glorification of criminal activity are all prevalent themes. It always interest me that some young people in this country refer to police officers as ‘Feds’, which is again an example of how American gang culture is becoming an inspiration. Gang culture has been allowed to flourish in the UK for decades. Young people are led to believe that leading a rebellious life is the only way to achieve. It is the cool lifestyle preached by the music they listen to and in the modern ‘culture’ they consume.

Such themes hinder the attempts of teachers and parents to show young people the difference between right and wrong. Some of our communities are suffering from moral deprivation and if we are serious about getting to the bottom of it then it is time to face facts.

Anyone who denies that music or movies have no impact on attitudes and lifestyles should look at the scientific recommendations for pregnant women to play soothing classical music  for themselves and their child. Rowdy music has the opposite effect. There are a host of scientific studies showing the powerful impact music has on the brain and thus potentially on our actions.

It disappoints me to learn that the Government now wishes to look to the United States for anti-gang measures. The US’s failure to stamp out gang culture is infecting other countries, so why presume they have the solutions?

Writing on ConservativeHome recently, Simon Marcus is right: we need to listen to the children but we also need to note what the children are listening to.

Follow Sahar on Twitter @SaharRezazadeh

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The new Creative Industries Council is good mood music but can it deliver?

Sahar Rezazadeh 6.44am

The launch of the Creative Industries Council has received a good reception from leading heads of industry, such as the Music Industries Association, the Design Council, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors and UK Music.

Chairing the new council are the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable. It is anticipated that it will comprise representation from across the creative industries such as music, film, gaming, design and TV production. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has said that the purpose of the council is to ‘provide a voice for the sector with the financial community and coordinate action on barriers to growth…as well as access to finance, the CIC will look at other issues in the sector, which may include skills, export markets, regulation, IP and infrastructure.’

The UK’s creative industries face a host of challenges. Foremost is a lack of investment, which has handed an advantage to global competitors, mostly in the United States. Despite the fact that the music industry alone contributes nearly £5 billion annually to the UK economy and employs over 130,000 people, the growth potentials for creative industries go unrecognised.

The Chancellor and the Treasury recognise that investment possibilities are regularly misunderstood and financiers are ‘more likely to turn down a request for funding from a creative industry player than a company from another sector with a similar risk profile.’

Feargal Sharkey, former lead singer of The Undertones and now the head of UK Music, has pointed out that talent needs time and patience to develop over five years or more, but the eventual returns can be very beneficial to all stakeholders and the wider economy. Instead even when artists do attract investment their work can be compromised in the search for higher returns. Musical themes of sex and violence are invested in for quick profitable returns. Other themes and genres might be more narrowly appreciated but that shouldn’t mean they can’t be profitable long-term. In any case, the creative industries will be more successful when appreciated for their artistic worth as opposed to short-term financial gain.

Sharkey has outlined three key areas of attention for the UK music industry:

Help the creative sectors gain access to the financial and investment communities; develop the necessary education, skills and training; and enforce tougher copyright protection.

Given that almost 85 per cent of businesses in the creative and cultural sectors employ less than five people, independently focused measures will go a long way to supporting talented designers, artists and producers who are unable to get exposure for their work. Independent artists are squeezed out by the four major record labels.

Businesses in the creative sector play huge social and cultural roles. Music and film have massive influence. Creative industries also have enormous economic potential. For the next decade, we must ensure that British entertainment and design gets the investment it needs to showcase all our best talent to the world. Most industries have their own vested interests and the creative industries are no exception. It is important that we do not shut out the next generation of talented artists, producers, designers and innovators. The new Creative Industries Council is apposite mood music. Now it has to deliver.

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