Eurovision: from ABBA to Guy Sebastian — our obsession with the contest
He’s unlikely to don a dress and beard, but Guy Sebastian is going to give the world’s favourite singing competition his best shot, writes Iain Shedden
The tiny studio in a back lane of Sydney’s Surry Hills is as far away from pop star excess as one can get. Up a few steps from the reinforced back door, the stairwell gives way to a dimly lit room littered with instruments, coffee cups and microphones. Amid it all sits Guy Sebastian, a man pondering a career move that a year ago would have seemed ridiculous.
Sebastian is not prone to extravagance. For all his pop credentials, the good-natured, 33year-old father of two isn’t what you’d call party central. He is outgoing, but you won’t be seeing him in a beard and a dress anytime soon. By the standards of show business stage excess, he’s small fry. No latex monster masks for him; no rolling around in a giant martini glass; no pole dancing.
Two weeks from now, however, Sebastian, one of Australia’s most successful pop singers, enters a new galaxy in his entertainment universe, one in which all of the above extremes of performing have been exhibited in recent years. In this rarefied environment Sebastian will sing a song — and 200 million people will watch it on television.
“That’s a lot of pressure,” the singer says in incredulous tones. “I mean, it’s not like I put my hand up and said, ‘Can I do this please?’ ”
Pressured or not, on May 23 (early May 24 in Australia) Sebastian will be in Vienna’s grand Wiener Stadthalle, where the stage awaits his and Australia’s debut as a competitor at the world’s most enduring and, some would say, fabulous television talent quest, the Eurovision Song Contest.
Sebastian enters the Eurovision arena by invitation on its 60th anniversary, a nod by the event’s hierarchy to the popularity of the show in Australia since it was picked up for broadcast by SBS in 1983. The show’s ratings per capita in Australia are among the highest in the world, with 2.4 million tuning in to the semi-finals and final last year. Since 2009 a local production team featuring hosts Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang has presented the SBS coverage. Singer Jessica Mauboy performed as a guest at the contest last year in Copenhagen and more than a million Australians tuned in to watch her. Now we’re in it properly and Guy’s our man, although organisers have stressed our participation is for this year only, subject to conditions.
With his wife Jules in the wings, Sebastian will perform Tonight Again, the song he wrote with colleagues Daniel Ryan Harris and Louis Schoorl specifically for the final. If he wins we’ll get to host Eurovision next year, albeit in a European country yet to be determined. If he loses, we’re done. “I didn’t think winning was a priority until only a little while ago,” says Sebastian. “Then I found out that it relies on me for Australia to continue being involved.”
Our ongoing participation could yet be up for negotiation, but in the meantime, if he is to win it for Australia at the first time of asking, his will be an incredible achievement. As wild-card entrants, we have been ushered into the final, which gives Sebastian a better chance, but while Tonight Again has featured high in Eurovision betting odds, Sweden’s Heroes, by Mans Zelmerlow, and Italy’s Grande Amore by Il Volo are the frontrunners. “The fact that I’m entering as a wild card is what makes me nervous,” Sebastian says. “It’ll be pretty tough. It would be a miracle if Australia wins, but Australia is used to being the underdog. More than anything I want Europeans to look at our involvement fondly and for me to represent us in a way that attracts people to Australia.”
Just how Sebastian got to this point is a mixture of circumstance and talent, as is often the case in show business. Paul Clarke, whose production company Blink TV is responsible for SBS’s coverage, had several artists in mind when the offer was presented to them by Eurovision back in February. Kylie Minogue was on the list; so were Sia, Kate Miller-Heidke and Iggy Azalea. Cabaret star Paul Capsis was under consideration.
“I wanted someone who is a really natural performer,” says Clarke. “In Eurovision not all of them are. With some of them it’s a presentation. It’s often a daggy, naive throw-together by some countries. That’s sweet. It is what it is.”
Indeed, as Sebastian points out, Eurovision is very much a mix of the flamboyant and sensational, not always alongside serious and accomplished songwriting and performance. The Aussie singer is full of praise for last year’s winner, Austrian Conchita Wurst, who combined her drag queen persona (his real name is Tom Neuwirth) as a frocked and hirsute chanteuse with a song, Rise Like a Phoenix, and a performance that blew everyone away.
“Rise Like a Phoenix is a great song,” Sebastian says. “What worked well for Conchita was that at the start of that performance it was very dimly shot and you didn’t pay any attention to the fact that it was a guy dressed up, but you sat there thinking the song is so moody and ‘Gee, this could be the next James Bond theme.’ Suddenly the lights come up and you’re saying, ‘That’s a bearded dude.’ Or ‘That’s a bearded girl.’ But Conchita’s voice was great, the song was great. It only enhanced the performance for me. The fact that it was a guy dressed up as a girl just made it all the more cool.”
Sebastian, who got his first taste of televised music shows when he became the inaugural winner of Australian Idol in 2003, was keen but hesitant to take up the Eurovision challenge when his recording company Sony called him into its Sydney office to reveal it had been offered to him.
“I immediately said yes,” he says, “but then they hit me with the facts. It has to be a new song. I didn’t realise the magnitude of it. It’s hard as a songwriter to dive into something that is very conceptual as an event. It’s also something that people feel quite passionately about, as I discovered very quickly when it was announced I was doing it.”
This refers to the initial backlash and debate on social media about his selection, which he accepted with good humour.
“When you put yourself in a competitive environment, it breeds great support,” he says. “But also, when you go to any competition, whether it be in football or music, you have supporters for one side who generally hate the other side. It opens up this environment that music shouldn’t be about, which is competition. Even though I came through a competitive show, I don’t feel it was a case of ‘you’re rubbish, you’re better’. The beauty of music is that one thing isn’t always better than something else, it’s just different. That’s why genres exist. When you’re in a competition, that kind of neutral standing doesn’t exist. It’s just ‘you suck, you’re terrible’.”
Despite the criticism, few could argue Sebastian is not well-qualified to fly the flag for Australia in Vienna. Since that Idol success 12 years ago he has released eight top 10 albums and recorded a string of hit singles, including All I Need is You, Just as I Am and Battle Scars, the last of which he recorded with American rapper Lupe Fiasco and which was also a hit internationally. He has won multiple ARIA and other awards and is an accomplished producer
I DIDN’T THINK WINNING WAS A PRIORITY UNTIL ONLY A LITTLE WHILE AGO
and songwriter as well as a respected performer. Writing a song for Eurovision was a challenging proposition, however.
“It’s not like it was in my sphere, or something that was even possible for me to be a part of, considering that we’re not in Europe,” he says. “I had to roll with it. Initially there were all these things going through my mind, like it being a platform, there are 200 million people watching, I want to represent Australia the best I can. I just wanted to write something that was fun and catered to the event, but I approached it initially with the wrong mindset, wrong agenda. Then I thought I should do something different and sing about something that has deeper meaning about uniting together. It’s such a huge platform and such a tumultuous world right now. I should use it for good.”
And so after a few days of false starts in his Surry Hills bunker, the punchy, celebratory soul song Tonight Again was born. It’s a vibrant few minutes of pop that seems to fit his compassionate world view as well as the Eurovision spirit. Getting it right was important to him.
“It’s that feeling we all have when we’re in a moment that’s fun,” Sebastian says. “To me the song encapsulates the feeling I get when I watch Eurovision. It’s fun and it’s light-hearted.”
Sebastian has had to do some cramming to get his head around the culture of Eurovision. He’s not a tragic follower, as many Australians are.
“It’s not like I’ve seen it every year,” he says. “I wasn’t a Euro groupie, but I had seen it. As a performer it’s always great to watch productions like that. I had to educate myself a little bit because, like most people, I’m a fan, but on the outskirts. I don’t have a Eurovision T-shirt. The more I looked at it the more I realised that there are a lot of good songwriters and good artists involved. A lot of the winners are not necessarily the crazy ones. The crazy ones are sprinkled in there for entertainment, but then it boils down to be quite a serious competition.”
Eurovision is a complex and divisive phenomenon. Since the first competition in Lugarno, Switzerland, in 1956 the event has evolved, first through the explosion of pop music in the 1960s, which in Britain saw established artists such as Cliff Richard, Lulu and Sandie Shaw take part. Since then the contest has helped launch the careers of ABBA, Julio Iglesias and Celine Dion, to name only a few, while others who have won the competition, particularly in the past 30 years, have gone the way of the fondue set and the cassette player.
Being an outsider in a long-established European contest is not going to make things easy for Australia. In the current competition, votes among the 40 countries are split evenly between a jury and a public vote. In the past there have been certain allegiances or “clusters” among nations, that vote the same way to affect the overall result. There are some countries outside of Europe that would like to take part but haven’t been asked and that are unimpressed that Australia, given its geography, is being allowed in.
Australian producer and entrepreneur Amanda Pelman, who last week was announced as chairwoman of the Australian judging panel, says “the most amazing thing about Australia being an entrant is that it goes against the phraseology of Eurovision, but then we have one of the biggest viewing audiences”.
Pelman, who helped launch the music career of Minogue, co-produced the travelling It’s a
Long Way to the Top music tour and was a judge on the Seven Network’s It Takes Two, is joined on the judges panel by TV journalist Richard Wilkins, singers Danielle Spencer and Jake Stone and music presenter Ash London. Although Australia is in the final, the panel will also judge the semi-finals.
Pelman believes that because of our ongoing commitment to broadcasting Eurovision and its popularity here, there could be an opportunity for our acts to compete in the future, whether or not we win this year. “Even though we are meant to be a wild card I have to think this is the start of the induction,” she says.
Sebastian, meanwhile, is confident about doing himself and his country proud.
“I never talk myself up,” he says. “It’s not Australian to talk yourself up, but I know what I’m good at. My thing isn’t being on stage with a beard and a dress. It’s not extreme, but I do have confidence in my voice and what I can do on stage.”
He can take encouragement from Wurst, who was in Australia this week and was full of praise for her potential successor.
“He’s a superstar, so he needs no advice,” she says. “He knows how to work a big stage. Eurovision is different to other events, but for those three minutes it’s your stage, whatever you want to do with it. I’m sure he’s going to set up something he feels comfortable with and will be representing himself in the best way he can. The Europeans are very excited about him being part of it.”
From above, Australia’s wild-card Eurovision entry Guy Sebastian; Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang, who host SBS’s coverage of the event; Jessica Mauboy performs as a guest at last year’s competition in Copenhagen
From left, ABBA celebrates its win in 1974; Irish pop duo Jedward in 2012; last year’s winner, Conchita Wurst, pictured at the Logies in Melbourne this week; Finnish death metal band Lordi performs in 2006