No More Walls!

60 years ago, the nations of war-weary Europe came together to forge a lasting bond between their diverse societies. No more angry, chest-thumping nationalism; no more inward focus; no more prioritizing of the national good over the continental. A new forum was born, one that brings Europeans together in harmony and bliss to celebrate their charming differences, points in common, and national spirits.

No, I’m not talking about the European Economic Community or Union of European Football Associations. I’m talking about something far more entertaining than either — the European Broadcasting Union, which puts on the Eurovision Song Contest.

It might sound like something out of a cheesy movie. To bring Europeans together, the contest pits singers representing their countries against each other. No opera or choir music, either — good ol’ pop music. Reasoning that music is a universal language, and that even with different languages used for the songs themselves, the emotions inherent in music are universally understood, the EBU thought a music contest was the perfect way to bring countries together. The rise of the mass media, of course, also gave rise to a common pan-European pop culture, which is what the EBU grew out of in the first place. Pop songs were the perfect way to reinforce Europeans’ notions of a pan-European identity while also acknowledging different national characteristics.

The concert has been held every year since, usually in the country that won the previous year. Each country’s TV broadcaster chooses a singer, who would then go on to perform for their country (although now that the scope of the contest has swollen so much, they can’t possibly fit in all the countries into 1 TV show, so they have to weed out some of the lesser entries). Then the voting happens. This used to be done by judges; then it was done by phoning in; now it’s done by both, split 50-50. The hosts of the show then go through all 40 participating countries, “call” someone there, and tally up the votes. The winner gets 12 votes, the runner-up gets 10, a third-place country gets 8, then another country gets 7, and so on down to 1.

It might sound like just another music contest show, but it overshadows all its competitors both in age and scope. Europe also takes it VERY seriously. People all over the subcontinent keep a close eye on the proceedings in May and tune in to the grand finale. Many of them are also fiercely proud of their country’s representatives, but over the years the style has gradually become more and more…. eccentric and many countries don’t put as much effort in as they used to. This is especially true in Britain, France, Spain, Germany and Italy — Europe’s heavyweights and the biggest supporters of the EBU, and therefore automatic participants in the finale. Meanwhile, after the fall of the Communist Bloc, Eastern Europe joined the contest, and determined to prove its worth in the New Europe, many of these countries put on strong and well-qualified acts (though often no less eccentric).

As you can probably tell by now, some of that harmony-and-togetherness spirit is a bit of a sham. It’s a contest, after all, and pitting the contestants against each other by nationality is just asking for trouble. There is plenty of flag-waving and tunnel vision. Although countries are forbidden to vote for themselves, they usually vote for their neighbors — for instance, Scandinavians vote for other Scandinavians, Balkans (despite all their wars) vote for other Balkans, Baltics vote for other Baltics, etc. Greece and Cyprus vote for each other, Moldova and Romania vote for each other. Slavs in general are fond of other Slavs. Russia reliably picks up votes from the countries on its border. Turkey gets lots of love from Germany, thanks to the huge Turkish population there. And so on.

Politics also plays a role, even though it’s a music contest only and politics isn’t supposed to influence it. Russia’s recent reversion to rogue state status has made it unpopular in the rest of Europe, and Russian performers tend to get booed. (Meanwhile, Ukraine couldn’t participate this year because of “political difficulties.”) Britain whines that it gets unfairly slighted because of its unpopular political positions (especially fighting the Iraq War) and perhaps because of its aggravating attitude towards the rest of Europe. Armenia and Azerbaijan have bickered over each other’s entries (they’re bitter enemies), and Armenia refused to attend the contest when it was hosted in Azerbaijan in 2012. Azerbaijan’s hosting also caused consternation among other countries considering its human rights abuses and dubious government.

Spain made it subtly clear in 1982 who it was supporting in the Falklands War.

Unsurprisingly (if you watch it), Eurovision has attracted a strong gay following. This puts it squarely at odds with Russia, which has embraced a proudly homophobic stance in recent years. Russia’s complained about overtly gay acts in the past, but last year’s contest caused by far the most controversy: Conchita Wurst, a bearded transgender lady representing Austria, won and stole the show. Russia exploded with rage and condemned the contest for perverting Christian values. Some politicians called for a boycott of the contest (which wasn’t carried through). Wurst may even have won due to her transgender status; I’ll let you decide.

Despite the rancor, general failure to keep politics out, and accusations of bloc voting and ethnic favoritism, it’s hard to argue that the final results are that unfair, because even accounting for national bias, certain singers keep rising to the top, accruing votes from countries all over the map. There’s always a certain base-line that appeals across national lines, which of course is exactly what Eurovision is supposed to be about. (For instance, in this year’s contest, Italy, Russia and Sweden pulled into the lead early on.)

Singing in English definitely helps; although the contest was originally supposed to showcase Europe’s many languages, in 1999 it bowed to the dominance of English and let performers sing in whatever language they wished. This usually (but not always!) means English, since it’s the language most commonly understood across Europe. Meanwhile, the hosts have to be bilingual, translating the country names and points into French (or English, if the caller is speaking French; see above video).

Anyway, what makes Eurovision so awesome is pure and simple: it’s super weird. Watching it is always a blast, because you never really know what you’re gonna get. Songs tend to be poppy and around 3 minutes (to fit the rules), but the performances have gotten more outrageous and campy as time goes on. Sure, many countries like to play to ethnic stereotypes, but just as often they veer out into Bizarroland and confound whatever expectations you have.

Last year, Donatan & Cleo attracted a lot of attention (that is, prolonged staring) by celebrating Slavic culture with lots of sex appeal.

But Russia’s Buranovskiye Babushki had also celebrated Slavic culture and womanhood by performing domestic labor onstage — and they didn’t need sex appeal!

Spain, which hasn’t won since 1969, has given up on serious entries and thinks this reggaeton parody (originating from a comedy sketch!) best represents the country.

One of my favorites is this 2013 performance by Romania’s Cezar: operatic dubstep with gay and vampiric overtones. (Hey, when I said this was campy, I wasn’t kidding!)

And then there are the performances that aren’t really good, musically speaking, but still stand out among the more generic power ballads and bubblegum pop. This oddity from 2012 didn’t make much of a splash among voters, but it satirizes the economic malaise and bitter atmosphere of the modern EU. Actually, now I know why it didn’t make much of a splash among voters.

Mika Newton’s song “Angel” in 2011 might not have been anything that special, but the sand art being made in the background of her performance was mesmerizing.

Moldova in particular has gained a reputation for its offbeat songs; the classic has to be SunStroke Project’s 2010 song “Run Away,” featuring the Epic Sax Guy.

Ireland’s 2008 entry, which featured a squawking turkey puppet, dancers out of Carnival, and lyrics lampooning the whole contest, won’t soon be forgotten.

So what about this year’s contest? Compared to some of the absurdities of the past, it was fairly tame. The biggest controversy was probably over whether Russia was unfairly penalized for its bullying of Ukraine, although it came in 2nd. The winner, Måns Zelmerlöw of Sweden with the song “Heroes,” probably distinguished himself mostly by his creative visuals than the song itself.

The other highlight of this year’s contest was Australia’s participation, which might seem outlandish given that Australia is on the other side of the world, but it’s been interested in Eurovision for a long time given its Western culture. Besides, Eurovision has always been about inclusion and togetherness; Turkey and Israel, 2 countries in nearby Asia, have participated since the ’70s, after all. (Israel tends to see itself as more European than Asian thanks to getting shunned by its neighbors.)

So what do the winners get? Fame and glory… and the right to host next year, of course. Hosting Eurovision is considered a great honor (Azerbaijan’s hosting in 2012 gave it more of an international spotlight than probably anything else, ever), and as I wrote before, the eastern countries of “New Europe” see it as a chance to stand out in a crowded field. Sometimes the winners go on to successful careers, but usually just within their home countries. The 2 big exceptions here are Sweden’s ABBA and Canada’s Céline Dion (representing Switzerland). Here’s ABBA’s 1974 Eurovision performance with their breakout hit, “Waterloo” (a battle whose 200th anniversary is coming up, by the way).

Forget the rancor of the euro crisis and the renewed Russia-vs.-West rivalry; you can have the 90-minute scoreless matches of the UEFA Finals. I’ll always prefer the Eurovision Song Contest as the most entertaining, kooky, and diverse of Europe’s international gatherings. Long may it endure!


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