Everything You Need to Know About the Eurovision Song Contest
What’s Eurovision? Well, until I moved to Denmark, I really didn’t know what Eurovision was. I had heard about some song contest, and kind of remembered that one time the bearded drag queen won (only because John Oliver talked about it), but then last year I got hooked. Eurovision was like heroin to my vein, combining so many things I love – crazy music, competition, nationalism, and flags. Having lived here, I learned that no one in Europe is neutral on Eurovision – everyone either loves it or hates it (but still secretly loves it). And now that I’ve been a Eurovision fan for exactly one year, I am here to answer all your questions about Eurovision 2019!
What is Eurovision?
Eurovision, officially called the Eurovision Song Contest, is a contest where participants representing European countries perform songs, and is aired on TV.
So helpful. Is it like American Idol or something?
You can think of it like that. Essentially each country gets to select an artist or group to participate on their behalf. Then each country also gets to award points based on the performance, and the participant with the most points win. The points come from a 50/50 split of a professional jury and a televote from viewers. And the contest moves to a new location every year, hosted by the country that won the prior year.
Sounds like the electoral college, but with lower stakes. How did Eurovision start?
Like many pan-European experiments, Eurovision grew from the rubble of war-torn Europe in the 1950’s. Several governments were looking to develop some kind of “light entertainment program” that could bring countries together, and it was decided that a singing competition would fit the bill. The contest took its format from the Sanremo Song Festival in Italy, and the first contest took place in Lugano, Switzerland in 1956.
Where is Eurovision this year?
Tel Aviv, Israel. They won the right to host after winning last year’s contest in Lisbon, Portugal.
Wait, Israel is in Europe?
Kinda. I mean, they compete as part of Europe for other events like World Cup Qualifying, so it isn’t that weird. Actually, any country that is a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) is eligible to compete.
The EBU is an international association for national public service broadcasters (like the BBC in the United Kingdom, or RAI in Italy). There are 56 members, covering continental Europe, and some North African, Middle Eastern and Caucasus countries.
Wow, so there are 56 countries in the contest?
Not really – there are 41 this year, since not all countries participate. Some like Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and five-time winner Luxembourg are too small for the modern contest. Many North African and Middle Eastern countries don’t participate because they do not want to broadcast the Israeli participants – in fact Morocco did participate once in 1980 after Israel withdrew from the contest, and Lebanon actually selected a song for 2005 but withdrew due to a law forbidding the broadcast of Israeli content. Countries like Bulgaria and Bosnia have participated in the past, but skipped this year’s contest for financial reasons, and Turkey actual won in the past but quit after 2012 due to a change in the voting format. And the Vatican is technically eligible, but Gregorian chants likely don’t fit the format.
Oh, and Australia.
Wait, what? Australia?
Yeah, it all started in 2015 as a one-off invitation to celebrate the 60th Eurovision contest, but then they finished second and everyone decided they were cool and could stay. I presume part of the invitation is as a thank you for giving the world Kylie Minogue. It has been reported that they have a deal with Germany to host if they actually win.
Fair enough. While I wrap my head around a European song contest that includes Australia, are there any more boring rules to explain?
Not much else. Songs must be original, are strictly capped at 3 minutes (this came after Italy had a boring 5:09 minute song in 1957) and a maximum of six people on stage. All vocals must be sung live, as backing tracks can only be instrumental. In fact, the use of live orchestras was required until the 1970s, and was available until the late 1990s. Oh and no live animals.
Safety first. So how does the scoring work?
Each country gets to award two different scores. One comes from a five-person jury of music professionals that are supposed to evaluate the performance based on the “vocal capacity of the singer”, the performance on stage, the composition and originality of the song, and the “overall impression of the act”. The jury will then rank their top-ten performers, with the top place getting 12 points, second place gets 10, third gets 8 and then so-on down to a single point. Each country also will do a “televote” where viewers can vote for their favorite performer of the night. Points are awarded in the same fashion as the jury vote. In both cases, jurors and the public cannot vote for their own country.
Between professional juries and the wisdom of crowds, the voting has to be pretty impartial, right?
Wrong! There have actually been academic studies on the “collusion” of voting blocs where certain countries overvalue or undervalue the performance of other countries. For example, the Nordic countries tend to all vote for each other, countries with large Russian populations (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia) tend to vote for each other, and countries with similar languages (Belgium/Netherlands, Cyprus/Greece and Romania/Moldova).
Oh and no one votes for the UK because Europe hates Britain.
Haha, yeah I’m guessing Eurovision isn’t too popular with the Brexit crowd. But they can’t do all this in one night, right?
Yup, that’s why Eurovision is actually three nights of fun! Most countries will compete in one of the two semi-finals on Tuesday May 14th and Thursday May 16th. Then the top-ten from each semi-final advance to the finals on Saturday May 18th. Six countries get to bypass the semi-finals and compete only in the finals – host country Israel and the “Big Five” countries that pay most of the EBU’s bills (UK, Spain, Italy, France and Germany).
We keep talking about these countries – how do you get to participate in the contest?
Each country has their own criteria for selection. About a quarter of the countries just had their national broadcaster select the artist and song without any competition, and a few used professional juries for the selection. Some co-opt other song contests like Georgian Idol, X Factor Malta, or the aforementioned Sanremo Song Contest and send the winner to Eurovision. But the majority of countries have mini-Eurovision contests to choose their winners, including an international jury and televoting by viewers. Many of these contests, like Denmark’s Dansk Melodi Grand Prix, take place over a single evening, but Sweden’s Melodifestivalen is a six-week event that includes four semi-finals, one “second chance” and a grand final.
With that kind of competition Sweden must be pretty good, right?
They are actually second all-time with 6 wins, and routinely land in the top-ten. Ireland has 7 wins, including dominating the 1990’s by winning four-out-of-five contests between 1992 and 1996, but hasn’t won since. While Ireland had excellent entries those years, many speculate that part of their success is due to an old Eurovision rule that countries must compete in one of their official languages. This meant that as the contest expanded to include former Eastern Bloc countries, Ireland was one of the few countries that could have songs in English.
You didn’t mention the language rule. You have to sing in a native language?
Not anymore. But from 1966-1973 and 1977-1998 it was a requirement that songs were sung in an official language of the country. Since the rule was eliminated the majority of songs are now sung in English, but past entries have also included Swahili and invented languages. Interestingly the use of native languages has increased in recent years – in 2017 only three songs were non-English, but the winner from Portugal was sung in Portuguese. Perhaps trying to follow that trend, twelve songs last year and eleven this year use their native language.
That kinda makes sense, since participants are representing their countries…
Actually, you don’t have to be from a country to sing for that country! This year San Marino’s entry is sung by the Turkish Alex Trebek (the singer, Serhat, is host of the Jeopardy-based show Riziko in Turkey).
And this year’s British entry was co-written by John Lundvik, a Swede who will be singing Sweden’s entry. Past participants include Aussie Olivia Newton-John (singing for the UK in 1974) and Canadian, Celine Dion (who won the contest in 1988 for Switzerland).
My heart will go on! So this must be the springboard for a bunch of famous singers, right?
Well…..not really. Most winners are more Eurovision-famous than actual-famous. You may know Katrina and the Waves better for singing Walking on Sunshine, but they won for the UK in 1997. Oh, and ABBA…
ABBA? The band from Momma Mia?
Yup! ABBA won in 1974 with Waterloo. Fun fact, Derek and I really got our first exposure to Eurovision when we visited the ABBA museum in Stockholm. The first floor is dedicated to Eurovision (you can see Celine Dion’s dress!) and then you spend the next 45 minutes listening to Waterloo as you learn about the lives of Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid.
I’m not sure if that is actually fun, but I am also getting into the Eurovision mood! So tell me, who else should I learn about?
There are some good ones. Take Lordi, the costumed, hard-rock Finnish band that won in 2006 with Hard Rock Hallelujah.
One of the most ridiculous entries was from Russia in 2012, when the Buranovskiye Babushki, a group of elderly women who wear traditional Russian garb and bake bread, sang their way to second place.
My personal favorite Eurovision song of all time is Loreen’s Euphoria, winner from 2012. This is a song that is still is played almost every night at every gay bar in Europe.
And one of the more famous is Conchita Wurst, the Austrian drag queen who won in Copenhagen in 2014. Her victory was considered a symbol of diversity and tolerance in Europe, though some more conservative leaders disagreed (the Turkish Foreign Minister stated “thank God we no longer participate in Eurovision”).
A drag queen won? That does seem a bit progressive.
The contest has been progressive for some time. In 1997 the first openly gay performer took the stage (Paul Oscar from Iceland), and a year later Dana International, a transgender Israeli performer, won the entire contest!
Oh and the show airs on the Logo network in the US, and Madonna is performing at the Final on Saturday.
Madonna will be there? Can she win?
Sadly, no she can’t. But Iceland appears to be inspired by her, as the band Hatari (an anti-capitalistic, techno/punk BDSM band) will take the stage dressed in their finest leather.
Their style isn’t for me, but they have been considered a contender for a top-ten finish. Personally I enjoy the songs that have more of a fun, pop beat that I know I will hear all summer. My favorites include Spain with La Venda, a fun Latin-beat song that will get stuck in your head
Switzerland’s She Got Me, another fun song that I know will be on repeat all summer.
And Azerbaijan’s Truth, performed by the sexy Chingiz (the staging is supposed to be fantastic)
Are any of them likely to win?
Unlikely, but this is Eurovision so you never know what combination of musical taste and nationalistic love (or hate) will give us a winner, but right now the odds-on favorite is from the Netherlands with Arcade.
Will it win? The only way to find out is to tune in – you can watch for yourself on YouTube, and it starts at 9pm CEST (3pm EDT)!
Who is your favorite song past or present? Are you going to watch Eurovision? Comment below and let me know!