Day 299: It’s Euro-Idol! (Part 1)

originally published October 25, 2012

Long before Simon Fuller made televised talent shows a North American addiction, the Europeans had made an annual ceremony out of it. No, I’m not referring to how American Idol grew from Britain’s Pop Idol, which evolved from Australia’s Pop Stars, which was foretold in hieroglyphics on an Egyptian cave wall – that’s a trip through a hundred thousand Whitney Houston and Shakira covers, and one I’d rather not take. Before Simon Cowell had first uttered the phrase “bloody awful”, before Randy Jackson’s first awareness of what constitutes as pitchy (dawg), there was the Eurovision Song Contest.

Like so many phenomena of the second half of the 20th century, the Eurovision contest was Hitler’s fault. Specifically it happened because of a fragmented, disjointed Europe, struggling to rebuild a cultural identity after the war. The European Broadcasting Union (the EBU, which has nothing to do with the EU) saw a continent-wide musical contest as a way to bridge the nations together under a single television broadcast, beginning in 1956.

(if only there had been some kind of 50’s-style Euro-Kardashian to bring everyone together)

It was intended to be like the Olympics, but with music (and presumably, no one checking for doping). Each nation is allowed to submit one song. Sometimes the song is chosen by whichever representatives the nation is sending to the broadcast, sometimes each country will hold its own televised special to collect public votes to pick the winner. As long as the country is planning to broadcast the entirety of the Eurovision contest, and as long as they fall under the broadcast umbrella of the EBU (which reaches into Asia and north Africa), they can join in.

Each nation votes on any song other than their own, and the winning song gets the prize. That prize is… well, nothing. The win is a big score for one’s resume, I guess, and they usually have a trophy prepared. Also, the winning country gets to host the contest the following year. But there’s no cash score, no record deal, just a bunch of publicity.

(that was enough for 2006 Finnish winners, Lordi. What good is money to the undead?)

The songs cannot be covers, and they cannot have ever been released or broadcast before the current year’s contest, apart from whatever internal selection process the nation decides upon. The host nation has to supply an orchestra, but a lot of acts sing to pre-recorded backing tracks. The language rules have flown all over the map; for some years the nation was required to present their song in their native language, though at present that ban is lifted. This has resulted in a Swahili song from Norway in 2011, and a handful of songs in made-up languages. As of yet – and I bring this up out of relevance to my article last week – no Esperanto songs have competed.

For the host city, Eurovision’s broadcast week is a party week. The show, which generally airs on a Saturday in the spring, is the one of the most watched non-sporting broadcasts on the planet, bringing in as many as 600 million viewers. Delegates tear the roof off every night at a Euroclub, a venue constructed each year just for this purpose. Shit gets wild at the Euroclub.

(not all the Euroclub parties get great attendance)

Each nation used to send over a jury to cast their country’s votes. In 1997 five countries experimented with televoting, allowing their citizens to phone in and determine where their country’s points ended up. Now every participating nation does this, with half the decision being made by the jury and the other half by the drooling masses. It’s a good system, but it’s not perfect.

For one thing, it took thirteen years for the first tie to happen. France, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK all finished at the top of the heap in 1969, and the rest of the countries weren’t happy about it. Four nations abstained from participating in the 1970 contest in protest, which led the EBU to come up with a tie-breaker system. It baffles me that no one saw this coming.

(I’d have just had them finger-joust to pick a winner)

The problem with the Eurovision contest is that too many countries opt to appeal to the maximum number of ears, resulting in a long stretch of safe, bland, bubblegum pop music. Sometimes artists will try to gain extra votes by using pyrotechnics on stage or skimpy, revealing clothing. It’s a television broadcast and they are looking for votes from the common-folk – it’s really just proper salesmanship.

One of the major criticisms of the whole affair comes from political and geographic biases that tend to pop up. Sometimes it appears suspiciously clear that judges (and now home viewers) will be less likely to award voting points to nations with whom they don’t get along in the political sphere. On the flip-side, you have a unanimous top-vote in both directions between Greece and Cyprus every year since 1998. The two nations speak the same language and share the same music scene, so it’s practically like home-field advantage.

People have studied the Eurovision voting patterns to disturbingly academic lengths. Since the instruction of popular voting in 1997, there have been clear examples of ‘clique-voting’ or ‘cluster-voting’. According to one such study, both the 2003 and 2005 contests were ultimately determined by the ‘Balkan bloc’ voting.

(an international competition affected by… politics? Could it be true?)

After more than five decades, the Eurovision Song Contest has not lost its luster in the eyes of its audience. Sure, some nations have broken the rules regarding broadcasting because of emergency news telecasts, and yes there was that tiny little incident in 1978 when Jordan announced to its citizens that Belgium had won because they refused to acknowledge that Israel (who really won) was even in the contest, but for the most part everyone cooperates.

Ireland has won seven times, and France, Luxembourg, the UK and Sweden have all won five times. Every so often an established artist will squeak their way into the contest (Katrina & The Waves won it for the UK in 1997), but not a lot of earth-storming new acts have entered the global spotlight through the Eurovision competition. The most notable exceptions are Canadian Celine Dion, who weirdly enough represented Switzerland in their 1988 win (the artist doesn’t have to hail from the nation they represent), and ABBA, who hit it big after “Waterloo” won the title for Sweden in 1974.

Wow. Celine Dion and ABBA? Thanks for a shelf-full of crap I don’t like, Eurovision. How will you punish me next?

Of course I know the answer to that question. For tomorrow’s article – Day 300 – I plan on listening to and reviewing each and every winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, dating back to 1956. Hopefully they’re all up on Youtube. I expect a lot of jokes about yawning.

At least until I get to the heavy metal guys from 2006.

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