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Terence Blacker

Terence Blacker: New Europe plays all the best tunes

Lowbrow music may not be to sophisticated tastes, but it can be revealing

Amid the roar and thunder of the global news, a few of the breaking stories around Europe may have escaped your notice.

There has been a complaint from Greece that Macedonia's entry for this year's Eurovision Song Contest is unduly nationalistic – it mentions the word "Macedonian" in one verse. Iceland's representative for the competition has very sadly dropped dead; his song will now be sung by his friends. Allegations of plagiarism surround Armenia's song for Europe "Boom-Boom" (chorus: Boom-boom chaka chaka, your love is a like-a like-a") after it defeated its two short-listed rivals "Hi" and "Goodbye".

Denmark is to be represented by an Israeli cross-dresser. Portuguese viewers boldly selected an anti-cuts protest song "E Luta E'Allegria" ("The Struggle Is Joy") but were over-ruled by the professional judges.

There will be those, and they are in the comfortable majority, who sneer at the Eurovision Song Contest. They see it as an unlovely conflation of all that is vulgar, silly, tuneless and crassly commercial in the modern world. When the British entry fails, as it now does on a reliable annual basis, sinister forces are said to be at work. New Europe, still below stairs in the club, are thought to be breaking all sorts of rules – voting tactically, not taking us seriously, writing better songs.

This snobbery is ill-judged, according to a rather surprising number of academics who are now entering the field of Eurovision Studies. In American and European universities, sociologists and musicologists are arguing, with some justification, that a popular international music competition, involving 40 countries and drawing a TV audience of 125 million, is eminently worthy of study.

Supported by a modest research grant, a series of conferences, organised by the University of Warwick under the theme of Eurovision and the New Europe, will take place this Spring. A workshop called "Eurovision and 'New' Europe".

Because we live in a snooty culture, these academics have been widely mocked. They are on the right track, though. Being part of a changing community may mean different things for each European country, but it always matters. Indeed, lowbrow music may not be to sophisticated tastes, but it can be revealing. In recent decades, the songs sung by black musicians in the minstrel and medicine shows of the early 20th century have been a source of uneasiness among liberals, combining musical simplicity with unpalatable racial attitudes. Some academics have even argued that the music of that time and type should be quietly consigned to the bottom drawer of history.

It was only when historians like Paul Oliver pointed out that the lyrics of songs written at the time contained all sorts of subversiveness and expressions of aspiration for change that they began to be taken seriously.

In other words, there is more to the Eurovision Song Contest than meets the eye. Behind the naff décor, the silly videos, the hilarious costumes, the general air of countries trying to be more international than in fact they are, lies the reality of the New Europe.

It is significant the way some nations choose to ape the empty, money-fuelled celebrity nonsense of richer countries. For gay communities in less tolerant countries, the contest's campness will be changing attitudes. Even the British position, in its own slightly undignified way – superior to the songs of New Europe, yet desperately hoping to defeat them – says more about our approach to being European than any poll could.

Long may the competition flourish, and spawn ever larger Eurovision Studies conferences on campuses around the world. The night itself will, as always, be slightly too long but full of surprises. Gambling on a Eurovision winner is a mug's game but, as things stand, my fiver will be going on Iceland's "Coming Home".