Eurovision is broadcasting this evening, normally a must-watch, but we have no TV this year. I wrote this 12 years ago, please bear with the slightly ponderous sub-academic vibe. Edited for semicolon use.

Visions of Europe
The Eurovision Song Contest 2004

Once more a carefully orchestrated attempt to bring together the peoples of the northern single-figured longitudes. Once more the TV screens glow in Eurovision. It’s a hopelessly hopeless and dated concept, peddling tat tunes that even the makers of Pop Idol would probably have a hard time tolerating, sung by identikit babes and David Gray balladeers, all ground out in a framework of drink-shiny bonhomie, mutual backslapping and strategic voting… but this view belies the reality. Through the layers of Formica, Eurovision is a reassuring throwback/continuation of a pan-European ideal of community. More than that, it transcends its own perceived cheesiness through the gleeful self-awareness of the participants.

Participants includes the commentary, provided in Britain by Terry Wogan, may choirs of angels sing his name. During the long night’s festivities he was always close to the microphone with timely sneers, lyrical exegesis and predictive scoring, often with a kind of eerie Nostradamus-level accuracy. Essentially, Mr Wogan plays the role of the drunken uncle passing scathing comment at the wedding party with all the aplomb of a genuine genius drunken uncle; however it is clear that he, like the contestants, like we, bothers to turn up because he actually likes the whole pseudo-embarrassing rigmarole. Pseudo-embarrassing because it’s meant to be profoundly dislikeable, and powerfully uncool, and yet it is massively endearing, and popular. It’s the faded romance of Vienna, the look of Berlin in a spy film from the sixties: the word ‘Eurovision’ has a cosy air of nostalgia swinging from its faded signage, like ‘Transworld Consortium’, all beautiful semi-utopian futuristic aspiration and simultaneous clunky anachronism and complete inadequacy to confer meaning.

More importantly, especially in the face of institutionalised Europhobia attempting to convince the people of Britain that all Europeans wish to move into the spare room and maliciously straighten bananas, it gives us a valuable taste of what ‘being in Europe’ is really like. The shared sense of trotting out these dismal songs has become a kind of exercise in onedownmanship. It’s clear that Terry is not the only person to see the Eurovision experience as a great opportunity to take the piss out of the neighbours, getting hopelessly drunk on their retsina, dancing on the lawn at three in the morning before turning down a nude sauna with the Jonssons from number six.

None of the participants, I believe, think they’re creating important or lasting works of art, although there has to be a collective desire to unleash another song with the Ikean efficiency and sheer majestic visionary splendour of ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’. About halfway through the voting, as Terry trenchantly reminded us, it was clear there weren’t going to be any prizes for template tampering in Turkey. The songs were mostly disco-lite stompers for the clubs of the north west, or hopeless sub-Bryan Adams balladeering (UK, I’m talking to you), or Wogan-baiting chicks in leather bikini outfits (eventual winners Ukraine).Host nation Turkey’s attempt at a kind of Manu Chao-meets-The Offspring ska-punk, complete with tartan trews and large tattoos, was at least a diversion from the standard synthed strings and guitar miming. The singer’s best contribution was raising the blood pressure of the producers, responding to the surely stoned Green Room interviewer woman’s ‘anything to say?’ with a shouted ‘peace , love and respect!’

Ultimately, though, the contest tries to transcend these problems of the real world. The aim is a kind of family variety show in which something surprisingly nice might happen but essentially it’s all about the taking part. Of the 36 participating countries, sensibly only 18 were actually allowed to take part, thus lessening the possibility of a country receiving no votes at all. Indeed, despite the generally uninspired performances, the vibe was all Big New Europe handshaking. It was a far cry from the pointed politics of last year’s contest, where Iraq-bound UK got nul points. Such antics were put aside in favour of a kind of reassertion of familial fairness. We watched in horror as the voting drew to a close and ‘plucky’ Norway were still floundering on zero; in popped the Swedish jury with a lagom three points and no one went home empty handed. Terry Wogan, mad with Bailey’s and feigned boredom, presumably went off to consume some strong black coffee and then frug with the Jonssons. We marvelled at the distraction and uncorked another bottle of Spanish red, toasting community.