It’s a competition with some questionable talent, scorned for its lack of taste, and yet the Eurovision Song Contest has an audience of 125m and brings pundits out in force to discuss what it says about the state of Europe today. With this year’s final coming up this Saturday in Malmö, Sweden, we give you the best pieces on how it works and why Europeans care, so that you can mingle with confidence at Eurovision parties.
- Did we mention it is seen as a proxy for the political situation in Europe? The FT’s Gideon Rachman wrote in 2008: “With both Eurovision and the EU, expansion has had a similar effect – west Europeans complain that they no longer recognise a club that they founded, and that they continue to fund.”
- Anthony Lane, the New Yorker’s film critic, was also struck by the idea of Eurovision as a metaphor – “what Eurovision delivers is flavorless processed cheese, as if it were produced not by musicians but by a cultural subcommittee of the European Union, convened in a back room in Brussels.”
Although the competition was founded in 1956 to foster a sense of diversity and celebrate the triumph of art over politics, countries don’t always play nice. After having been at war with Russia, Georgia wanted to boycott the 2009 event in Moscow. However, it agreed to take part after some pressure from the European Broadcasting Union, and submitted a song with some heavy hints for Vladimir Putin, underlined by a throbbing disco beat.
- Russia was in some domestic turmoil that same year, having chosen a Ukrainian to represent it in the competition. Parliamentarian Igor Lebedev accused the singer of having Ukrainian nationalist views and demanded that she be withdrawn. Who would’ve thought that a woman dressed like a nun, singing a song called “Mama”, could’ve caused such consternation in a country that had previously been represented by a band called the Singing Panties?
- Ukraine for their part fielded the “anti-crisis girl” singing “Be My Valentine”. The subtext of her song was clear, said the FT’s Ed Crooks, “Don’t turn our gas off again , please!”
The winning country gets the pleasure of hosting the following year’s contest, creating yet more controversy when Azerbaijan, often criticised for its human rights record, won in 2011. There were reports of residents being removed from their homes for the construction of the concert hall and attacks on journalists in the run-up to the event. Iran took another view of the event altogether. It withdrew its ambassador from Azerbaijan after clerics accused Baku of hosting a “gay parade” as part of the contest.
- Israel takes part despite not being in Europe. As long as the country is within the European Broadcasting Area, it is eligible to submit its candidacy and show off its talents to the rest of the region. This could have its benefits – Eurovision scores correlate with measures of “cultural proximity” – shared cultures, bilateral affinities – which in turn relate positively to bilateral trade volumes. This might be why one blogger was so excited to write about Turkey’s 2008 performance, “I think this is extremely hopeful for our common European future. I feel more likely to support their entry into the EU, this is PROOF they can integrate!”
- Although the UK goes through to the final automatically because of its large contributions to the European Broadcasting Union, it doesn’t have a very good record – it has not won since 1997. This is something of a sore point – according to YouGov, 75 per cent of Britons say some countries don’t have a real shot at winning the contest because of political voting and 76 per cent do not think it brings Europe closer together. However, William Lee Adams, editor of a Eurovision fan site, thinks it is just a complex: “they need to stop blaming Europe and look inside themselves.”
- Eurovision uses a modified Borda Count voting system, where first preference gets 12 points, second gets 10, and so on. Why is this important? The voting system affects the outcome, according to Alan Renwick, a reader in comparative politics at the University of Reading. He even ventures to provide some succour to British fans: “AV would have brought victory to the UK in both 1975 and 1992, ahead of actual winners the Netherlands and Ireland.”
- What’s in store for this year? Well, some countries have pulled out, which could throw the voting dynamic out of whack. Martin O’Leary, a research officer at Swansea University, has set up a model accounting for this and thinks “we’d be foolish not to plump for either Azerbaijan or Russia as a winner.”
- For more Europop and political intrigue galore, there is a Eurovision Research Network – the blog reports that at the semi-finals this year, half a dozen Cypriots were seen holding up a flag bearing the words, “WE ARE STILL ALIVE”.
- Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy has also pulled together a neat collection of academic studies asking ambitious questions like, “are we… witnessing a new Europe in the making?”