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Music

Australia is back for Europe's silly night of song

The land of AC/DC, INXS and current rock flames Tame Impala, Australia earned another type of claim to fame in 2015: ranking top five at Eurovision with Guy Sebastian's "Tonight Again." Now the Aussies are back for 2016.

It's late afternoon at a pub in Perth - Australia's westernmost city and the self-proclaimed "most isolated capital city in the world." The room whiffs of fried fish and stale beer, and the jukebox in the corner is hollering beyond its means - belting out "Highway To Hell" by AC/DC, no less.

Three 30-something men in loosened ties drink beer and discuss football, the coming federal election and - naturally - the biggest scandal to rock the nation in decades: the elevation of 1990s hell-raiser Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses fame to the forefront of Australia's biggest and most beloved musical enterprise, the aforementioned Acca Dacca.

Portugal Lissabon Konzert AC/DC Axl Rose Rollstuhl

Axl Rose singing with AC/DC? Doesn't sound right to many Aussies

"It's just not right," one of the men exclaims, clearly distraught. "He's unreliable. And he's not even Australian!"

One in his friends is quick to remind him that retiring AC/DC vocalist Brian Johnson is, in fact, British - and actually resides in Florida. "Yeah, so what… he was an Aussie at heart," the man spits in desperation. His friend might have added that the majority of the AC/DC line-up is comprised of European born immigrants.

Is a somewhat timely discourse, considering Australia is once again readying to compete at Europe's biggest night of song this week: Eurovision. I put this to the three men: "What do you think about Australia partaking in a European song contest - and a notoriously gimcrack one at that?"

"I guess it is a little weird," one, who identifies himself as Nigel, offers. "I mean, we're hardly near neighbours… although I am partial to French cheese. Let's be honest: it's a good laugh! But I'm not sure if I feel comfortable being the butt of the joke."

Between rock and a hard place

The "laugh factor" has been at the heart of Australia's impassioned obsession with Eurovision for decades - where ironic and overtly sparkly Eurovision parties have become a national sport. But has the cold hard fact the country is now competing in the famously silly night of song sullied the tone of festive mockery, and put an end to the party? Hardly.

Paul Clarke, Australian Eurovision producer, Copyright: Getty Images/C. Spencer

Paul Clarke, Australian Eurovision producer

According to Paul Clarke, who heads up the Australian Eurovision delegation, many Australians reacted with uncertainty to the shock news in 2015 that the country would be competing at Eurovision in Austria. But that quickly evolved, as the event drew closer.

"We couldn't believe we were invited to the party to begin with," he exclaims of Australia's 2015 competitive debut with Guy Sebastian and his song "Tonight Again." "We set ourselves quite a standard in 2015! Guy is generally considered our favorite artist, and he wrote a perfect song for the occasion. It felt, on the night, like a champagne cork exploding: We were coming of age at Eurovision. When Guy was announced in Australia there were many who were ambivalent, but by grand final night Australia united around him."

Guy Sebastian ESC 2015, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Leans

Guy Sebastian surprised the world by finishing fifth in 2015

Sebastian would shock both Europe and Australia, coming in top five in the notoriously fickle vote - with Sweden and Austria both proffering 12 points, and (mother) England rounding it off with a mighty 10.

Crucially, it proved the most successful Eurovision broadcast in Australian TV history - reaching more than four million viewers, nearly double the previous year. It was also the top trending Twitter hashtag in the country for three days straight.

But what was considered to be a one off to commemorate Eurovision's 60th anniversary and its global reach has suddenly and unexpectedly boomeranged: Australia has once again been invited back to perform at Eurovision in Sweden, albeit this time with no automatic place in the grand finale.

In true Eurovision style, Australian X-Factor winner Dami Im was announced as the country's 2016 entry in spectacular fashion, at an event hosted by 2014 Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst at the iconic Sydney Opera House. Dami Im will perform her ballad "Sound Of Silence."

Eurovision 2016 Australian cadidate Dami Im, Copyright: Getty Images/AFP/J. Nackstrand

Dami Im will be singing "Sound of Silence" for Australia at the semi-final on May 12

National anthem

For most Australians, it's a peculiar turn of events - and one the nation is embracing with mild trepidation. Will Australia be welcomed so warmly in 2016? Or will the sequined mittens finally come off as the country competes for real?

A self-confessed Eurovision tragic, Australian music journalist Simon Collins is a regular at the event and was the very first Australian journalist to ever be accredited for domestic media, back in 2002 for the Tallinn grand finale.

His money is on Russia to dominate 2016, with France close behind - but Australia's prospects, he admits, are tough to call. "I can't say I enjoy the song as much as last year's, but 'Sound of Silence' is a classic Eurovision ballad - and an above par one compared to some of the dreary efforts this year."

"As long as we continue to give it a good shake and our entries take it seriously, yes I think Australia could remain a permanent fixture at Eurovision," Collins concludes, before adding discretely: "But I wouldn't be gutted if we dropped out."

Counting the beats

While Eurovision's reach into Australia may seem an odd one to many Europeans, there is some hard economic logic behind the gamble: Australia sits at the heart of the Australasian region, potentially the biggest TV market in the world.

"Last year, we talked with Eurovision about exploring the idea of migrating the format to the world's biggest music market, Asia," Paul Clarke reveals. "No one wants to dilute what is so special, just build it to places that don't have it. So those talks are taking place right now, with some of the great music nations and TV networks of Northern Asia… I can imagine Eurovision as a global experience. But let's see if the rest of the world can too."

Whether Eurovision will become the FIFA World Cup of song contests remains to be seen. In the meantime, the three men in the pub are hopeful Australia can keep its cool.

"It's obviously a whole different game when you're competing," Nigel offers, synthesising the mood of the nation, "but hopefully we can keep it all in perspective. I mean it's Eurovision - you can't take it too seriously, right? Still, between you and me, I hope we place top five - anything else would be bloody embarrassing."

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