Malta and the Eurovision: it’s complicated

Every year, despite whatever political cataclysms, complexities and turbulence the world is experiencing- on one fine Saturday Evening in May, Europe (and Australia too now) gather collectively before their screens, be it from a pub, from a field in the middle of nowhere, or from home. To participate in something? You can say that, but the more accurate depiction is that we all gather, whether together physically or in spirit, to judge and see what our country and our neighbouring European countries have to offer at the annual Eurovision Song Contest. It has now been a week since this concert took place, and we have a few thoughts to verbalise.

Every participating country nominates, through its own way of selection, a singing act that will represent the nation at this much-followed international concert and all acts come together to compete and eventually, one act is crowned the winner and host the concert in the winning act’s country the following year. It arguably has so much accolade, that even the United States have been inspired to make their own version of it (wonder what that will look like). And yet, ever since Joe Grech graced Dublin in 1971 to represent our island for the first time, everytime the Maltese delegation left our borders to perform for Europe to the best of its abilities, we have always come back to be met with some pats on the back and disappointment. 

Let us be clear, we are in no way experts in the modus operandi of how Malta comes to pick its rising start to represent the country at the annual Eurovision Song Contest, nor do we run a grandeur state of the art entertainment empire. However, much like the relevant majority of the country, when the annual mid-May Saturday arrives, we gather with friends, or significant others, or families, cuddle up on the sofa and eat mindlessly as we watch the presenters award ‘Douze Points’ with stupefying eyes. While we may not be performers, or the people who work behind closed doors that work tirelessly to assure an unassailable performance, we think this perspective is worth considering because ultimately we, the spectators, decide who gets to take the trophy home. We have seen it happen consistently in the last few years- an act can take the top place in the national juries’ books, but the public can change everything. That’s the beauty of Eurovision-  a complex, yet astounding kitschfest.

Ukraine: An Ode to Identity

So, was it all a waste of precious time and breath? And Ukraine, was it a deserving win? While we are on the subject of Ukraine, let this be our introduction.

When the time came for the Ukrainian act to perform, we were introduced to traditional folkloristic vocals by one of the singers, coupled with  raw rap lyrics, which told a harrowing, yet nostalgic story. It was an ode to their mothers. Mothers who have carried their children through their most fearful moments, and mitigated their fears with lullabies and tales of hope and wisdom. Now, the mother is growing old, but her ageing hair and skin is a stark reminder of all that she has done.

The singers’ mission was to share their peregrinations with all of us- they embraced and wore the traditional Ukrainian embroidered vyshyvanka and sang in their language. They presented the audience with a powerful image, more importantly, they reminded us of who they are. Let us remember, leaving your own country at a time of war is no easy task.  To remind the world of your culture, your traditions and what you stand for in such a simple way, now that takes a special type of courage. Now arguably, there was a good mix of other songs this year. This year especially, the United Kingdom’s Sam Ryder outdone himself- with his contribution getting the best ranking the United Kingdom has seen in the last 30 years. His ecstasy, cheerfulness and optimism were almost contagious. Although there can only be one winner, Sam Ryder definitely won us with his charisma and reminded us that dreaming is necessary.

The Kalush Orchestra did not win because they needed people to feel sorry for them, but because of their ability to share a significant message and demonstrate their unique identity with the world through their music, in such dire times. Now, winning the Eurovision Song Contest may not win a war, but we can argue that it does win the war of hate, for together, through music, we celebrate collectively. Maybe, rather than conspiring and jibbing on these talented individuals for their victory, we should take the time to remember why we participate in Eurovision in the first place.

Malta: What are we not getting right? 

Let us now go back to our tiny little island. Now, we will not get into the merits of whether ‘we should not keep on participating in this cesspool of a concert’ or whether this is all voting is all about neighbourly animosity- quite frankly, just as Elton Zarb brilliantly jokes about in this video, we have heard this lethargic argument since the beginning of our days. We believe there are a couple of more intrinsic reasons as to why we may not be performing as auspiciously as we desire. Is it some sort of anthropological reasoning beyond comprehension, is there something we are missing, or is the Eurovision to Malta what Iago is to Othello?

Let us start with Zarb’s observation, that we should take a step back and not take ourselves too seriously. This is after all, a competition. Last year, we were hyped beyond explanation. For an array of reasons, it was the first concert since the global pandemic changed everything and we had an incredibly talented act with a powerful and yet pure voice. Back to a taste of  life before the pandemic as we knew it- what was not to look forward to? Now, the winning act, the young and vivid Måneskin, were not afraid of performing as they knew how to and showing Europe what they are all about. Be it their attire, their stage technicalities, their gripping lyrics and their interaction, not just with each other on the stage, but with the rest of Europe. It is no wonder that Gen-Z and the rest of Europe felt confident in crowning them as the winners.

But, not all was well on the local socials: first, some thought it would be a wise idea to infiltrate fan groups and make a mockery out of the Italian act for beating Malta in an online odds website and taking aim at the band’s lead singer, Damiano David, who allegedly appeared to be taking cocaine as the camera zoomed in on a green room candid moment. The latter allegation was soon proven not to be true, with David showing a negative drug test result, coming out against hard drugs – and everyone eventually taking a step back. They tried to pull this successful group down from their glory moment by being petulant, only to embarrass themselves horribly in the process and in the end, the winning act’s own song’s lyrics were echoed loudly: ‘Parla la gente purtroppo’. We cannot expect to appeal to other countries or award us twelve points gratuitously if we are intimidated and out to get the competition and Zarb’s words are testament to this- as is our ranking in the second semi-final. It benefits no one.

The second quo vadis in Malta’s complicated relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest is, are our songs at par with the standard required? Now, let us make it unequivocally clear, this is not about Emma Muscat. Emma Muscat does not need us to affirm that she has a captivating voice and unquestionable talent- and everything she has achieved so far (and everything she will achieve in the future) speaks for itself.  But on a more general note,  what we are trying to ask here is- what are we, as a country, trying to portray when we perform before Europe’s eyes?

Let us be realistic- the Eurovision is now the most popular yearly cultural event, with millions watching every year. To capture and amaze the eyes of a multinational and multicultural audience takes a massive amount of effort, and maybe, we have not quite understood the significance of this yet. Are we pitching commercialised pop songs that imitate the charts, or are we giving songs which are ours – that hit all the right spots, and which Europe can relate to with us? Are we afraid to be unorthodox, simple, different or even present an image which is a reflection of what we have to offer? Are we delivering- visually, presentation-wise, diplomatically? Are we ready to start to understand why we are not succeeding as much as we would like to, or are we going to mollycoddle, hoping to improve without contemplation? 

Lastly, it must also come from us. All of the above questions all point back to one thing: us, the people. The amount of times we complain that a song presenting the country is not satisfactory or up to par and so on- shouldn’t we have done our part by voting for what we think could have been a song which is a reflection of our best ability to impress Europe? But also, are we really doing enough to help aspiring artists who have so much locked potential, and who could possibly bring the trophy home?  So many different genres, so many blooming talents- surely we can do more. Of course we will one day host Eurovision and the whole of Europe with it. We will share our traditions, our warm hospitality and show our rich historical sites to our European friends.  But till then, we have a long way to go, and till then, it all depends on us.

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