What does it mean to score zero in the Eurovision song contest? James Newman, the UK contestant, seemed quite cheerful about it; his reaction has been described as ‘iconic’, dancing in the crowd and raising a glass to the cameras. The British have a peculiar reaction to losing and still celebrate major military defeats like Dunkirk and the Charge of the Light Brigade. The word ‘plucky’ usually comes into play.
But zero, really? If Newman had pretended to set fire to himself with paraffin, or even, like Sophie Ellis Bextor, burned ‘this goddamn house right down’, he wouldn’t have scored any less.
Newman’s fire-based song, Embers, was written as a reaction to the pandemic. Newman told the BBC ‘I feel like everyone wants a party and to have some fun so when I was writing, that’s what I had in my head’.
Like many songs, from Fire, by Crazy World of Arthur Brown, to Firestarter, by Prodigy, Embers has fire-based lyrics, but is pyrologically under-researched. The fire metaphor suggests that love will grow back from the embers and light up the world (while remaining, strangely, ‘cool under pressure’).
Which is the opposite of what happened after the song, which sucked all the oxygen out of the room, but not in a good way. There’s a lesson to be learned from master songwriter, Billy Joel, who famously ‘didn’t start the fire’.
There’s also a lesson to be learned from the paper, ‘We’re shit and we know we are’: identity, place and ontological security in lower league football in England’. (Mainwaring and Clark, 2011). People at the bottom of the league, year after year are left with no option but to celebrate, see ‘red wall’, see ‘second highest death rate from covid’ (Poland have gone ahead again in extra time).
I know people who regularly attend non-league football, grumble all the way through, eat a terrible pie and leave before the end. Perhaps it’s a reaction to getting judged all the time, from SATs and GCSEs to Masterchef and the Employee of the Week award.
In Eurovision the scoring section takes as long as the musical part. Some people just tune in for the scoring, the same people who loved to watch the football results come in on the BBC teleprinter as hors d’oeuvres to the Full Classified.
These people, who love making assessments, have been in control for the last century. They are the people who make children compete in local music festivals and adjudicate best artichoke awards in the village show. They are the people who opposed the European super league, because no-one could be relegated and what was left was just ‘a series of exhibitiion matches’. Like, who wants to see an exhibition?
Flunking a song contest can maybe be seen as a reaction against scoring systems.
Perhaps then, James Newman, an Eddie the Eagle for the 2020’s, is ahead of his time in overturning the notion of attaching a number value to a subjective judgement.
When he wrote ‘Down herе in the ashes, yeah, thеre’s something growing’ was that a sexual innuendo, or something more fundamental – is he imagining a popular revolt amongst the underclass?
Sadly, the euro judges didn’t get any of these deeper meanings. Many of the songs are super-ironic, but the performer has to look as though they are totally serious and 200% into the performance. Any glimmer of insight, like Newman showed, a this-is-a-bit-silly look, then all is lost. Newman and the audience seemed to enjoy his losing far more than performing the song.
Newman has done for songwriting what the Light Brigade did for cavalry tactics; what Dunkirk did for running away; what Count Binface did for democracy and what Gainsborough Trinity have done for football.
Rather than a simple story about the end of the pandemic, Embers was quite subversive. It might have succeeded if the song had been any good. Unfortunately, The Guardian analysis was ‘began like a Daniel Beddingfield B side and went downhill from there’.
As such, Embers was a protest song, but it was no Blowin in the Wind.
No-one, not even Bob Dylan, ever managed to include the word ‘ontological’ in a song, but I think Supertramp could do it. Next year?
‘Mainwaring E, Clark T (2011) We’re shit and we know we are’: identity, place and ontological security in lower league football in England
Pages 107-123 | Published online: 19 Dec 201