Tempering Eurovision expectations with realism

Malta’s existential failure remains its compulsion at trying too hard at achieving a plastic European victory of sorts

To understand the Maltese psyche that pervades the Eurovision and its orbit of aspirant performers, requires a proper national appraisal of how a tiny nation tends to treat its victories and losses on the international stage.

Despite its obvious allure as a tourist destination, with its own particular offering in terms of rich history, there is little by way of international soft power that makes any Maltese presence remarkable. Inside the world’s parlours, the Maltese are the price-takers: we don’t set agenda, and we take what we can get, punching above our weight wherever we can.

Such is the fate of what is, after all, an independent microstate.

But what sets the Eurovision apart from all other international appointments, is its low bar of entry. As a population of just 500,000, our ratio of ‘exceptional’ citizens tends to be understandably low: that is, you only get one Joseph Calleja every 50 years or so; or one Michael Mifsud per generation... (unless, technically, you nurture the talent by investing assiduously in it: which is perhaps what Malta should be doing more, all things considered).

At that rate, the Maltese are already hampered in international competitions which have a high bar of qualification. Take the World Cup, for instance: the Maltese national team nary manages a draw in some of the qualifying groups; so it is a given for all young Maltese aspiring footballers, as they start to understand the world, that neither they, nor any of their compatriots, will ever end up playing in a World Cup match.

Oddly enough, this calculation seems to be well understood when it comes to football, and other competitive sports. And it doesn’t stop us from playing (and loving) the ‘beautiful game’; or even, for that matter, from participating in international competitions.

It does, however, temper our national expectations with a harsh degree of realism. And this is precisely what seems to fly out of the window when it comes to the Eurovision Song Contest: perhaps because of the few odd occasions, in the past, where Malta reached the top five (without ever winning the contest as a whole).

In a sense, then, Eurovision is seen to occasionally ‘buck the trend’. As an international contest of pop-template kitsch, its low bar of entry – the only requisite is being a member of the European Broadcasting Union – allows us to be within a perceived arm’s reach of this Holy Grail of Europe-wide recognition.

Naturally, this approach comes with its drawbacks – namely, an annual sensation of disappointment, that undeniably affects the national mood - but it has its advantages, too.

Certainly, Malta’s participation in the ESC gives us the opportunity to take a long, hard look at ourselves… not just from our own insular perspective, but also by providing a glimpse of how the Maltese are perceived at European level.

Indeed, perhaps nothing more than the ESC has elicited so much debate about the quality of ‘Malteseness’, that is – in this case – transmitted by the power of song, and why this could be our national ticket to greatness. For every year’s contest carries with it the highest hopes (if not a sense of entitlement) that Malta should rightfully win the Eurovision Song Contest; regardless of all competition.

Alas, the desired victory always proves elusive. But like all ESC post-mortems, our nation proves ready to castigate itself for its failings on a stage that has spawned a particularly mawkish sub-genre of pop; one whose value only seems to be garishness, sartorial lunacy, turbo-folk anthems, and the frisson of continental prejudice between old nemeses.

Malta’s existential failure remains its compulsion at trying too hard at achieving this plastic European victory of sorts. Again, if one were to treat this matter as a question of our national psyche... why not field Maltese talent instead, with its exceptional song-writing capabilities – and without the vanilla, mealy-mouthed odes to childish love – and sung in the Maltese language?

The Maltese scene is replete with accomplished musicians and songwriters who, in the last 20 years, have rewritten the score of popular Maltese music. Why don’t we get to stomp on that stage, with no illusory claim to victory (which after all, has given none of its victors the longevity of fame: except, perhaps, for the few who had been established in the pop scene), with an act whose authenticity showcases a laid-back, almost ‘disinterested’ Malteseness?

Truth be told, we have nothing to lose by adopting that approach; on the contrary, there is much to be gained… not least, the show-casing of true Maltese national talent: of which – contrary to our Eurovision results – we have in abundance.