It’s the new year, which means one thing: Eurovision is only a few months away. Well that’s not all the new year means. In fact, Eurovision is probably one of the least meaningful things about the new year. Nevertheless, come May 14, the eyes of over 100 million will be turned to Dusseldorf, Germany to witness the gaudy, tacky, fabulous spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest.
Americans, if they have heard of Eurovision (and if they have it is usually the result of having friends who are either gay and/or European), are under the impression that it is an international version of American Idol. Nothing could be further from the truth. This misconception is quite slanderous and must be eliminated as quickly as possible. Therefore, my dear fellow Americans let me guide you through Eurovision, so that come May 14, you too will look forward to spending six or so hours on the Internet watching cheesy pop song, camp performances, and bloc voting.
The Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956 and has chugged along continuously since then. First thing is first: Eurovision is not like American Idol (or its British originator Pop Idol, or any other national spin-off.) Those shows are all about the singers who go through round after round singing already established hit songs in a variety of genres. Eurovision is a song contest; ostensibly the singer and the performance do not matter (this is theory of course, the reality is far different.) As such, each nation sends one song that is sung before a European-wide audience. The song has to be original, although most are derivative of the latest American pop.
To those who love Eurovision, it is an honor to represent one’s country. To the British, it is a big joke. The vast majority of performers will never be heard from again. There are exceptions however, although exceedingly rare. Certain performers have gone on to worldwide fame after Eurovision–so much so that even Americans know who they are. Off the top of my head, I can think of five: Nana Mouskouri, Julio Iglesias, Olivia Newton-John, Céline Dion, and, of course, ABBA, whose song Waterloo is the unquestionable highlight of the contest’s entire history.
Eurovision songs are almost completely unmemorable. Which is not to say that they are altogether awful. They aren’t. In fact, some are quite fun. Still, most are bad. There are the few however that do rise up to become something more. Waterloo obviously; even if you don’t know that song, you know it. Eres Tú was famous around the world in the early 1970’s despite not winning. And then there is the Italian number Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu, which actually came in third, but became a mega hit (including in the United States) as Volare and covered by a multitude of different singers. Like Waterloo, you’ve heard Volare even if you think you haven’t.
Eurovision is broadcast by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This is important to know because one of the first questions that non-Europeans (and some Europeans) asks is, “Why does Israel compete? They’re not Europe!” While it is true that Israel is not a European nation, it is a member of the EBU. Eurovision is open to all members of the EBU, which also includes the Caucuses (Asia) and the Middle East (Asia and Africa). While Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey enter each year, the Middle Eastern nations do not. Lebanon almost entered once, but withdrew when it found out it would have to broadcast Israel’s entry, as per competition rules. Morocco entered only once, the year that Israel did not. Since then, no other Middle Eastern nation (Israel aside) has entered the competition.
Language used to be an extremely controversial subject at Eurovision, although it is not anymore. Eurovision stubbornly presents the competition in both English and French, but the truth is that English dominates the competition and has for decades. Ireland won the competition 7 times; the United Kingdom won 5 times and come in second place 15 times. From 1977 to 1998, entries could only be sung in the submitting nation’s official language, or one of them if the nation had more than one official language. (This was the so-called ABBA rule, because ABBA sang Waterloo in English three years earlier, and that made people upset.) In that time period, the UK and Ireland won 8 of those competitions, and placed second too many times to count. No other language had anywhere near as successful a track record. Since 1999 participants sing in the language(s) of their choosing. In those 11 years, every winning song but one been performed at Eurovision in English or partially in English (2004). Even that lone non-English winner, Serbia’s 2007 “Molitva”, was later recorded in English. The truth is that the English language has dominated the competition for most of its existence, because that is the closest thing the world has to a universal language.
The competition used to be a one-night affair, but it has simply gotten too big since for that given how many countries now compete. Now there are two nights of semifinals and twenty semifinalists will make the grand final. The twenty progressing semifinalists will be joined by five entries who automatically qualify for the final: the host nation and the so-called “Big Four”–the UK, France, Spain, and Germany. The Big Four are the four biggest contributors to the EBU, i.e. they are the nations that make competition possible. This year there will be a Big Five because Italy, another major EBU contributor, is returning for the first time in 13 years. The whole Big Four/Five pisses off the other nations, particularly in Eastern Europe, but you know what, they don’t pay the bills. The Eastern European complaints are actually fairly minimal; instead they take out their aggression in their voting, which we’ll get to later.
Most European nations compete in the contest, although some do not. As I said, this year will be Italy’s first appearance in over a decade. This year will also mark Austria’s first appearance in a while (they are only coming because the contest will be held in Germany.) Other nations have stopped competing for reasons such as lack of interest (Czech Republic), financial hardship/lack of funding (Andorra, Monaco), or their own poor results (Luxembourg). Liechtenstein wants to compete but it is not yet a part of the EBU. Maybe in the future.
And then there is the voting. One of the great joys of Eurovision, especially for the non-European, is the voting process. It is also one of the most frustrating things about the competition. In the early days, a jury from each country awarded points. Now national audiences across the continent call designated numbers to vote for their favorite song. They cannot vote for their own entry. They have fifteen minutes to vote following the end of the competition. (If enough people do not vote, a nationally designated jury decides.) Then one-by-one, in a tedious yet mesmerizing process, each nation that competes in that year’s Eurovision, whether in the final or not, announces the ten songs they awarded points to: 12 (douze points) for the most top vote getter, 10 for the next second highest vote getter, then 8 points down to 1 point. Each nation’s scores are announced by a vapid television personality or former Eurovision entrant, and the dialogue goes a little something like this (we’ll use the UK as an example):
Television Announcer: Hello [Host City], this is London calling. Greetings, Europe! It’s been a wonderful competition, the best ever! Here are the United Kingdom’s scores. [The bottom seven are updated automatically rather than being read out. This saves a lot of time.] 8 points to . . . Greece! 10 points to . . . Sweden! 12 points to . . . Ireland! [Cue shot of excited Irish singer(s) celebrating and waving the Irish flag.]
The greatest humiliation for a Eurovision song is the dreaded nul point, or no points awarded by any nation after all the voting has concluded–dead last with a vengeance. It is a feat that is rarely achieved, but the threat is always around the corner, particularly to those nations who have no natural allies in the voting.
After the winner is announced, he/she/they/it(?) goes back up on stage to collect the trophy, squeal in excitement, wave the national flag, and then reprise the winning song while the closing credits role. When the song is over, we are (sadly) free for another year as we await the next competition which will be held in the country that just won.
This voting is far more democratic than it was in the past. The dark side of this voting however, and the subject of much controversy, is the voting blocs. Certain nations are reliable votes for one another. The most historically famous example of this is Greece and Cyprus. The Nordic countries also have historically voted for one other. However, as the competition expanded in the 1990’s and 2000’s (i.e. opened to the former Communist nations) there have become some very large and pronounced voting blocs. The former Yugoslavian republics–despite loathing one another outside of Eurovision–are one example, and occasionally this includes the entire Balkan region (Greece, Turkey, and Romania.) The biggest bloc though is the former Soviet Union: Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic nations, the Caucuses, Moldova, and Belarus. The Baltics are not as reliable (they may go with the Nordic nations at time), but they are reliable enough. Poland also often votes with the former Soviets.
Starting in 1999, only bloc nations won the competition. For years, Western Europe, especially the UK, has been grumbling about bloc voting. The voting recently changed, sort of. National audiences still vote, but the popular vote is only 50% of the total. The other 50% comes from a jury of “music professionals,” whatever that is. Although this has not completely blunted the effects of bloc voting, it has eased it somewhat. Last year, the competition was won by Germany. It was the first time that one of the Big Four won since 1997 when Katrina & the Waves (don’t laugh) won for the UK with “Love Shine a Light.” (Note: the concept of the Big Four did not exist until 2000, which makes Germany’s win last year all the more stunning.) Germans took this as a sign that Europe has finally forgiven them for World War II and likes them again. Eurovision voting is serious business.
The response to the claims of bloc voting is that the Eastern European nations as a whole, take the competition far more seriously than the Western European nations do. They see Eurovision as a chance to prove that they are also Europe, and it drives them crazy to no end when they see the Western European nations (1) look down on them and their entries; and (2) send in obvious second-rate music. The Eastern European nations feel ignored and slighted, and they have a point. After all, they know our music, but when was the last time you listened to Bosnian pop?
Eurovision and Pop Music
The truth is though that for the most part (although not universally), the real Western European talent knows better than to go to Eurovision. Losing can only kill a career, and frankly, so can winning. The UK in particular has been a polestar of brilliant singers and bands that went on to world-wide fame, and in some cases (e.g., the Beatles), changed the direction of rock and pop music forever. While in the early days the UK sent in some of their big bubblegum pop stars (Sandie Shaw, Cliff Richards, Lulu) internationally and/or artistically acclaimed artists like Dusty Springfield were not exactly dying to go. The same is true of Ireland. The post-ABBA Swedish pop that has broken into the American market, the ultimate test of hitting the big time, has done so without Eurovision. So it is no surprise that nations with a rich and vibrant tradition of internationally acclaimed popular music do not take the contest quite so seriously.
Even now the prevailing winds of pop music shape Eurovision. For decades it was common to see an ABBA-esque entry or two (or three, or four) every year. It seems that nations have finally gotten the message that ABBA was a one-off, but now they (tragically) imitate whatever is big in America, and the bigger the spectacle the better. Even when Finland sent in their “heavy metal” entry Lordi (whose 2006 win I am still bitter about), it was really just a watered-down, apolitical, pop-version of GWAR–and Kiss and Alice Cooper. As original as Lordi thought it was, there is nothing new under the sun; the music and the gimmick had been around for decades. It was just new to Eurovision.
Every nation has its own means of selecting its Eurovision entry. Either there is some kind of national vote (like an Idol-esque show or a national mini-Eurovision like Sweden’s Melodifestivalen) or the winner is selected by a panel. Another way in which popular culture has infiltrated Eurovision is the Idol-effect. At the beginning of this post I said that American Idol (and its European variants) was completely different. That is true, but a growing number of countries have used their versions of Idol as a way of selecting Eurovision entrants. It makes sense to do that, and it is a natural fit, although it does set the focus on individual singers rather than on groups.
The Gay Spectacle
There is no way around it–Eurovision is complete and utter camp. That is the joy of watching. Eurovision is a tribute to belting, key changes, ridiculous outfits, outrageous gimmicks, gratuitous background dancers, cheesy choreography, hot shirtless guys, scantily-dressed ladies, wind machines, and above all a gay sensibility. One of the reasons that the change in Eurovision has been somewhat painful in the last decade is that the gay sensibility is being slowly drained away, although some would disagree with that assessment.
Eurovision has not always been gay, but as the contest became more outrageous it bred a campiness that attracted the attention of a continent-wide gay audience whose influence in turn made the competition all the more fabulous and popular. Through the years, the gay subtext was somewhat covert; it was usually apparent in the outfits and the fans. In 1996 however, the gates were flung wide open with Gina G’s Ooh-Ahh . . . Just A Little Bit, which also made the US Top Ten despite not winning. Although there is nothing overtly gay per se about the song, Gina G made no secret about who her target audience was; she appreciated them the way that Madonna did in her heyday and Lady Gaga does now. The next year Paul Oscar, an openly gay former-drag-performer-turned-pop-singer was sent by his native Iceland to Eurovision. He wore eyeliner, sang about hedonism, and was surrounded by four beautiful women in dominatrix outfits. Think Adam Lambert in a faux-glam, Bob Fosse nightmare. Despite being surrounded by women in skimpy outfits dancing around him, there is no doubt that there was an overtly gay sensibility to Paul Oscar. The song however, was not great and finished near the bottom.
The next year the gay sensibility triumphed over the continent as Israeli transsexual pop-icon Dana International won the competition in Birmingham, England with a high-powered dance song called (what else?) Diva. It is one of Eurovision’s finest moments. What had been hidden in subtext was now very much at the center, and although Dana International was a T from the LGBT, it was nevertheless a gay triumph. It was made all the sweeter by the fact that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community went berserk, ranting about the immorality of Israeli society and of Eurovision.
From a personal perspective, the first time I heard of Eurovision was in 1998 just after Dana International won. I did not see the show, but the news caught my eye. The next year, I was in Israel for a semester abroad. Although I did not attend Eurovision (and sadly had no television) I was very much aware of it. Unsurprisingly, Dana International was also the headliner at Tel Aviv Pride that year. Before I left the country I bought her album.
The gay sensibility has receded at Eurovision. It is not that there have been a lack of gay entrants (Harel Skaat, who represented Israel in 2010, is openly gay) or a lack of camp sensibility–Oscar Loya, the openly gay (American) half of Germany’s 2009 entrant Alex Swings Oscar Sings, performed on stage in skintight silver pants, clearly patterned after a disco ball, all the while stealing from Cab Calloway. (To ratchet up the camp level, Loya performed with burlesque star Dita Von Teese, who stripped down to a dominatrix lingerie complete with riding crop.) In 2007 there was even a lesbian sensibility–Marija Šerifović, the Serbian winner. If she is not a lesbian, then she is the butchest straight woman I have ever come across, and the performance was like foreplay in a lesbian porn movie.
Nevertheless, the gay sentiment is definitely being drained from the competition because the camp sensibility is being drained. There is a depressing uniformity to the competition. It’s all spectacle, but it is neither earnest enough nor self-aware enough to rise to the level of camp.
Additionally, the more often it is held in Eastern Europe, the more of a backlash there is against LGBT fans. Already there have been problems, most famously in 2009 when the contest was held in homophobic Moscow. Although we will be spared that this year in Germany, eventually it will boil over again when the contest goes back east.
How An American Audience Can Watch Eurovision
Although Eurovision is not on American television, it can be streamed on the Internet through Octoshape. It’s not wonderful, but unless you go to Europe or any EBU affiliate nations (like Australia) it’s the only way to see the competition live.
To Be Continued…
The next part of this series will introduce you to the major players in Eurovision and some of the more famous/infamous entrants. Just a heads up, if you can’t find it a link to the video in the next post, I have probably already linked to it in this one.