A caveat: there is no way that I can comprehensively discuss every contestant from every nation that has competed. Frankly, you would be bored if I did; most of them are not interesting. Nor can I discuss the unique characteristics that each nation brings to Eurovision: most of the competing nations have fairly interchangeable styles. This is especially true with the Eastern European nations and the Balkans (minus Greece) who have yet to get a handle on the camp spirit of the competition.
UK: We start here because it is just the most fun and the most interesting. The British pretend not to care about Eurovision, that it’s beneath them and that it is something to be made fun of. On the other hand, they desperately want to win again even if they won’t admit it. No one complains louder about bloc voting than the British. Although they have won five times, the UK has placed second more than any other nation, proving that in Eurovision, as in football, England is bound to lose. As in football, they are also sore losers. Terry Wogan, the radio broadcaster who for years famously provided sardonic Eurovision commentary for the BBC finally gave up because of bloc voting. Graham Norton now does the commentary, proving that even in its darkest times, Eurovision will still be a source of gay camp. UK entries of late have veered so dangerously close to parody that there is no doubt they deserve to inhabit the bottom slot. Although they only finished second-to-last in 2007, the worst entrant by far was Scooch, whom I shall never mention again.
Despite its recent run of bad form, the UK has won the competition five times. Sandie Shaw was the first to win in 1967 for Puppet on a String, a song she has always hated but will never be able to escape no matter how desperately she tries. She also pioneered the concept of the gimmick by singing (as was her wont) barefoot on stage. I know; I’m shocked by that audacity too. Then Cliff Richard came in second with Congratulations, which is one of the songs Eurovision loves to pimp even though it came in second. He lost to Massiel of Spain, who sang “La La La” (yes, I know, but the titles get worse), and he has never gotten over it. In 1969 Lulu was one of four winners. Her song was Boom Bang-a-Bang (see.) Then came the 1976 triumph of Brotherhood of Man, who are like ABBA but for those who think ABBA is too hardcore. In 1981, Bucks Fizz (named after the drink) won with Making Your Mind Up, a performance most famous for the two men in the group ripping off the skirts of the two women, revealing . . . shorter skirts. Finally in 1997, Katrina & the Waves (no, seriously, don’t laugh) won with Love Shine a Light. Although England has produced some good songs (emphasis on some) since 1997, they have also turned in a bunch of turkeys, with Jemini receiving the dreaded nul point in 2003. In the past seven years they have come in last place three times. In that time the best UK showing was in 2009 when Jade Ewen screeched her way to fifth place with a song written and played by none other than the schlockmaster himself, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. As with the World Cup, every year the British/English go in expecting to win, all evidence to the contrary, and every year their inflated hopes are dashed.
Ireland: The record holders for most Eurovision wins with seven, including three in a row in the early 1990’s. Ireland was punished for inflicting Johnny Logan on the continent (twice), as hosting the competition that many times in close succession nearly bankrupted the country. (Full confession: I don’t completely hate Johnny Logan.) It was rumored that alcohol was freely supplied to the Irish entrants just prior to the performances in the years following Ireland’s run of victories, so that the country could recover. In good times, Ireland does not perform well at the contest whether they send in good entries (last year’s song, sung by former winner Niamh Kavanagh) or bad ones (Dustin the Turkey in 2008). As Ireland is now facing dire financial straits, expect the vengeful Eurovision gods to smile kindly on the Irish entry. Everyone knows that the Irish hate the British, except apparently the Irish and the British, who routinely reward each others’ entries with maximum points.
Germany: Germany had one of the absolute strangest entries of all time with Dschinghis Khan (name of the group and the song), but no success. Then in 1982, sweet 17 year old Nicole sang sweet song Ein bißchen Frieden en route to sweet victory. The Germans, being German, decided that this was the key to winning Eurovision and used the same songwriter in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2003. Needless to say that none of these entries won. In 2006, the Germans started doing something shocking: sending good and original(ish) songs to Eurovision, most notably Texas Lightning’s No No Never (a pop country western tune) and Roger Cicero’s Frauen regier’n die Welt (a pop swing.) Neither won, although both could have, and Texas Lightning should have. Then in 2010, Germany sent Lena Meyer-Landrut with a very catchy song called Satellite. There were no gimmicks, no costumes, no dancers, and no pretense. She won. To quote critic Anthony Lane’s take on the song in his brilliant New Yorker article (June 28, 2010), “[T]his was the first time in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest that any song has reached out and planted so much as a toe in the country known as cool.” The Germans, being German, are sending Lena as their representative again this year. The Germans give most of their top marks to Turkey, probably because that large Turkish population inside Germany votes.
France: Although France has, like the UK, won the competition five times, in the past few decades they have been severely handicapped because, quite frankly, they are French. In the early 2000’s they put forward some good songs (and singers) and placed in the top 5 a couple times. In 2009, they did something completely shocking for Eurovision; they entered an honest-to-God artist named Patricia Kaas, who is internationally renowned for singing a sort of jazz/pop/chanson mixture. This is the equivalent of Dusty Springfield representing the UK. France was telling Europe that they were taking this contest very seriously. The song was amazing and the performance was one of the most powerful I ever seen, Eurovision or no. And I don’t speak a word of French. Patricia Kaas should have won, but the French have no neighbors who like them, and she only came in 8th. The next year France sent in Jessy Matador to tell Europe they were done taking the competition seriously. One other thing you should know about France–the French are fiercely proud of speaking French and get really pissed off when another language (i.e. English) is thrown into the French entry.
Spain: Spain, always the sick man of Europe, is undoubtedly the weakest of the Big Four, and has only done slightly better than Italy. This is not to say that Spain has produced nothing lasting in Eurovision–far from it. They did send Julio Iglesias in 1972, and in 1973, Mocedades came in second with Eres Tú, a song that was a top 10 hit in the United States. Spain also won 1968 and 1969. The former was Massiel’s La-La-La (the song of Cliff Richard’s nightmares), and despite the idiotic title, the song is actually quite controversial. Massiel was not the original singer; it was Joan Manuel Serrat who wanted to sing the song in his native Catalan. The Franco government refused this request and when Serrat refused to sing in Spanish, the government gave the song to Massiel. La-La-La beat Congratulations and the British have never forgiven that. There were rumors that Franco fixed the competition in favor of La-La-La, but that is, to date, mere insinuation, probably to make Cliff Richard feel better. Spain also won the next year, but that was the year of four winners when the UK, France, and the Netherlands also won. Spain used to get a lot of support from Andorra which no longer participates, but otherwise is not part of an Iberian bloc (more on that when I discuss Portugal). There are substantial factions in Spain, mostly Catalan and Basque, who want to secede and form their own separate countries. If Spain ever wants to win Eurovision again, it should let them.
Benelux: This is something you will never hear again. Of the Benelux nations, Luxembourg has been the most successful. Luxembourg won five times, most famously with the Serge Gainsbourg classic Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son (1965) sung by France Gall, a legitimately brilliant song by a legitimately brilliant songwriter (although France Gall was scarred by her association with Gainsbourg.) Luxembourg last won in 1983 with a forgettable song that beat Ofra Haza’s classic Chai. In 1994 Luxembourg decided they would never, never return. So far they have not. The Netherlands has won four times. In 1975, Teach-In won with (*sigh*) Ding-A-Dong. The Netherlands has spectacularly underperformed since then. They have only made it out of the semifinals once, in 2004. Since then the Netherlands have not been in a final, which is fine because the entries have been dreck. The Netherlands however, looks like a Eurovision giant when compared to Belgium, which finished dead last eight times, and won once in 1986 with the shoulder-padded Sandra Kim, the Chinese gymnast of Eurovision entries, who was all of 13 years old when she competed.
Nordic Countries: There are five nations in the Nordic bloc: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark. Technically they should not be grouped together because they are quite different, but you don’t need to know that. With the exception, of Iceland, they have all won at least once. Iceland’s chances for victory have actually been harmed by its fellow former Vikings. Icelandic entries placed second twice, the first in 1999 with the incomparable Selma, who should have won (she lost to Sweden’s Charlotte Nilsson who sang a song that bore more than a passing resemblance to Waterloo.) Yohanna also came in second in 2009 (she lost to Norway’s Alexander Rybak, which was awful, but which I will discuss in great detail below.) Regardless of Iceland’s lack of wins, it can still feel superior to its fellow Scandinavians (and yes, I know that that’s not the proper term) because it has Björk and they don’t (they also have Sigur Rós, but once you have Björk you don’t need anyone else; Denmark had Aqua for a summer, but Björk is eternal.) In 2006, Iceland sent in Silvia Night, a popular foulmouthed, narcissistic, Icelandic television host who is allegedly singlehandedly responsible for corrupting Iceland’s youth. Silvia Night is also fictional and was a clearly a gag entry, but the Europeans were not laughing. Her press conference (starts at 3:37) is a hoot. The Greek audience (who thought that she has disparaged them at rehearsals) booed her off-stage which led to a pretend meltdown, including a rant about the entries from Sweden (former winner Carola), Finland (Lordi), and the Netherlands (Treble).
Only Sweden can out-pop star Iceland. Sweden is the reigning champion of the Nordic pop because, well… ABBA. They have also won the competition three other times, although none of their other winners has been anywhere near as enduring as ABBA. Both Carola and Charlotte Nilsson (Perrelli) have attempted winning more than once, but multiple success was not in the cards for either of them. Then there was the Herrey’s, who won the competition with Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley, perhaps the worst title of all Eurovision winners. After ABBA, Sweden realized that it did not need Eurovision because it could produce music that a worldwide audience would not make fun of, hence such gems as . . . Ace of Base, Roxette, and Europe.
Norway has won three times, and yet still may be the worst Eurovision nation ever. Norwegian entries have come in dead last 10 times (a record) and finished with nul point four times (also a record.) Even Norwegian winners have been somewhat off, and that is not an easy thing to say about a Eurovision song. The first, Bobbysocks, are fairly unmemorable, but the next one was Secret Garden. You have heard a Secret Garden song, because you have heard Josh Groban ruin You Raise Me Up. (Admit it, you thought they were Irish, right? Well, actually only the violinist is; the pianist/composer is Norwegian.) Secret Garden won with a song called Nocturne, although calling it a song is somewhat generous. It is a piece of music that has a 24 word lyric (sung at the beginning and the end) because otherwise it would not be a song under Eurovision rules. It was a novel way to get around the Eurovision ridiculousness aura. If a song is mostly solo violin, you cannot complain how dumb the lyrics are, right? Ireland had won the competition the three years prior to Secret Garden, and would win the year afterwards. Norway interrupted that streak with . . . an Irish violinist playing faux-Celtic music. Here is my theory: having not punished the Irish enough for Johnny Logan, the European audience intended to punish Ireland again, but got confused by Secret Garden, whom they collectively thought was the Irish entry. It was not until they were all in Oslo the next year and very cold that they realized their mistake and went back to punishing Ireland. (My boyfriend loves Secret Garden; you should know that.)
In 2009, Norway inflicted Alexander Rybak on the world. Rybak’s song Fairytale is so painful that it hurts my feelings. It also set a record for scoring the most points in a Eurovision contest. Rybak threw every gimmick in the book into Fairytale. It was more gimmick than song. He pretended to play violin (apparently he is trained) and sang very badly. He was born in Belarus, which was played up so that the former Soviet bloc would vote for him. In the days following his victory, the European media gushed on and on about how talented he was and how he would break into even the American market. I laughed and laughed at that. Time has proved me right.
Finland is like Norway-lite–slightly fewer lows and not nearly as many highs (nine last place finishes, one nul point.) In 2006, just before Lordi won, the Finns were ashamed of their entry. Afterwards, they were proud. Lordi went on and on about how they broke down the prejudices of Eurovision and proved that other types of music could win. The next year Serbia won with a traditional Eurovision ethno-ballad. That’s some change right there. Finally, Denmark won twice, although I had no idea about that first win until I started writing this post. Denmark has had neither the extended highs of Sweden nor the dramatic lows of Norway and Finland. In 2000, Denmark won, and in 2001, the competition was held in Copenhagen. 2001 was a remarkably good year in terms of quality. The good news for Denmark was that its placed well. The bad news was that the Danish entry came in second to a horrible Estonian entry (the only really bad entry in the top ten or so.) But Aqua performed for the audience, so yay! A few years ago, Denmark sent in a drag queen, so the Danes definitely understand the gay camp vibe.
Greece/Turkey/Cyrpus: For the purposes of Eurovision, these are actually one country. Turkey and Greece send in virtually the same song every year, and they are both usually “Shake-It” songs. Greece’s entry gets the nod only because it is the song that usually rhymes “fire” with “desire” (seriously, watch for that), and because perennial entry Sakis Rouvas is hot. Cyprus exists solely to give Greece douze points. You think I’m kidding? In 2006 when the competition was held in Athens, as soon as the hosts announced that Cyprus was the next nation to give scores, the (very nationalistic) Greek audience roared with approval. This was before Cyprus announced its scores. Turkey won in 2003. Greece won in 2005. Turkey’s winner was unmemorable. Greece’s winner would be unmemorable except that she was part of Antique, the duo that represented Greece in 2001. Antique came in 3rd and was really good–my favorites that year. Coincidentally, Antique was not exactly Greek. Both members were born and raised in Sweden to Greek parents.
To Be Continued
In the last part of this series, I’ll finish my run through of nations and entries, and give some final thoughts.