With the Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” now available on Netflix, it may be the first time most American audiences have ever heard of the actual Eurovision Song Contest, better known as simply Eurovision. And some may be wondering what, exactly, it is.
Netflix last year acquired the U.S. VOD rights to the 2019 and 2020 competitions to go along with the new film, though this year’s competition was canceled due to the coronavirus. In the past, curious Americans have had to hunt for clips on YouTube or seek out a VPN to watch the competition from another country’s home broadcaster.
Famous for bringing artists like ABBA and Celine Dion to worldwide attention, Eurovision is something of a cross between “The X Factor” and the Miss Universe pageant — and it can offer Yanks a glimpse of what it’s like to be in a culture that doesn’t have jazz and blues as the foundation of its pop music.
For those who’ve never seen — or even heard of Eurovision — before, here’s a quick primer to get you caught up.
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What exactly is this contest?
Eurovision began as an idea back in the mid-1950s as a way for Europe to come together after World War II had ripped it apart. It was a pretty revolutionary effort for its time. Television was still the Wild West of communications and the Olympics hadn’t yet become an international broadcasting event. Eurovision was one of the first major attempts to hold an event that people from a wide range of countries could watch. With that in mind, the organizers wanted each country to showcase a song that was indicative of their culture.
That sounds like a pretty noble goal.
Yes … but it was also very out of touch with what was happening with music at the time. Rock ‘n’ roll was beginning to take root and The Beatles would take the world by storm just a few years after Eurovision’s inception. This meant that Eurovision’s lineup of ballads and cultural pieces quickly felt antiquated compared to the rock revolution that was going on in the charts. And that was six decades ago … the entries would only get weirder from there.
For starters, there was once a rule implemented on and off over the years stating that participants could only enter songs that were in their country’s main language. When that rule was in effect, some countries found a loophole: give the song a hook that involves complete gibberish. Songs with titles like “Boom Boom” and “Diggi-loo Diggi-ley” poured out while the home-language rule was in effect.
Then there are the artists themselves. As Eurovision has evolved, more and more ridiculous acts have come out of the woodwork. Finnish monster-rock bands, Russian grandmas and Latvian pirates are among the acts that have performed for a TV audience of hundreds of millions in recent Eurovisions. And that Finnish monster rock band actually won.
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Jeez! So is this just some musical freak show?
Well … let’s be fair. While there’s always been some silly novelty acts, there’s also some solid bits of Europop on hand every year from genuinely talented folks. Sweden won in 2012 with “Euphoria,” a soaring dance track by “Idol” contestant Loreen that went multi-platinum in her country after her victory.
There’s also a small handful of top stars on the winners’ list you might recognize. ABBA used Eurovision as a launch pad to stardom in 1974 with their song “Waterloo,” and French-Canadian Celine Dion’s win in 1988 was her biggest claim to fame before “Titanic” came out. Quality — or at least creativity — does tend to win out at Eurovision.
OK, so how does this contest work?
First, all the countries have a national contest where they vote on which song will represent at Eurovision. The participants are divided up into two semifinals, with the exception of the host nation and the “Big Five” countries — France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. — who automatically qualify for the final. They are joined by the 10 countries that get the most votes in each semifinal. In the final, all 26 countries get three minutes to make a good impression, and then the whole continent votes “Idol”-style (not for their home country, of course), as do professional juries for each country.
Then the show transitions to a long procession of national “ambassadors” reading out who each country gave their votes to. The top 10 performers in each country’s vote get points, with 12 points going to the top vote-getter, followed by 10 and then eight down to one for the rest of the order. The same goes with the juries, but with 10 points going to the performer in first place.
And what does the performer with the most points win?
This trophy. Oh, and their country gets to host the competition next year.
What? No prize money? No contract? No vague promises of superstardom?
Nope. The winners do get their 15 minutes of fame and some success on the charts, but beyond ABBA and Celine, Eurovision winners almost never have long-term success. Again, Eurovision long ago moved away from the sort of music that leaves a lasting cultural impact.
Even now, a good chunk of the acts are homogenous power ballads that can blur together when performed in succession. Still, Eurovision is worth watching just for the spectacle of it all. The Disneyland-esque sweetness of the proceedings is charming, and the lack of stakes for the performers keeps it feeling light and fun rather than a battle for wealth, glory, and continental supremacy.
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It has also made headlines in recent years that have allowed it to take steps beyond the realm of annual oddities like the Running of the Bulls. The winner in 2014 was gay Austrian singer Thomas Neuwirth, who performed as drag queen superstar Conchita Wurst. The victory transformed Conchita into an LGBT icon in Europe, even as Russian conservatives raged in fury and used the singer as an example of why Russia shouldn’t be a part of the EU. For all of Eurovision’s platitudes about tolerance and peace, this was a moment where those ideals were actually acted upon, even if it meant breaking the general tone of inoffensiveness.
If it’s supposed to be European, why is Australia a competitor?
It turns out that Eurovision has a major cult following in Australia, and they were invited to compete several years ago as a thanks for all the support down under. The expansion of the European Union means countries like Azerbaijan and Israel get to compete too.
So…if all these countries that aren’t strictly European are competing, does this mean we may be seeing the USA compete in Eurovision soon?
Eh…don’t count on it.