On the eve of its 50th anniversary, Eliza Reid investigates the enduring popularity of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The Eurovision Song Contest is not everyone’s cup of tea. Anything that features cheesy musical acts, over-the-top costumes, hair and makeup, clichéd presenters and shameless tourist-brochure-like vignettes on the host country is not necessarily going to be the highlight of your average person’s Saturday night. Yet, when I first moved to England in 1998, one of the first things the other North Americans suggested was that I watch Eurovision. I was a little sceptical when I was told it was a song contest between European nations, each country providing an act to sing a mediocre pop song and be judged by a panel in other countries. But in the spring of 1999, I watched – and now I’m hooked.
Anyone who has ever seen it knows that the Eurovision Song Contest really has very little to do with singing. It is in fact the best lesson in European current affairs that I can think of. For the uninitiated, here is a short summary of the annual contest: Each competing country enters an act to perform a song in a language of their choosing. The rules used to stipulate that songs had to be performed in an official language of the country, but since no one had the stomach for more Finnish ballads, this rule has been relaxed. The songs are all performed live on Eurovision night and the residents of each competing country can vote by phone for their choice of winner (which does not usually correspond to the best song). Each country awards 1-8,10, and 12 points to other countries, with the winner being the country that accumulates the most points. The lucky winner also gets to play host to the contest the following year, thus assuring a year’s steady stream of Eurovision pilgrims and the headache of preparing to host a show which millions will watch.
The secret to the excitement of Eurovision lies in the voting. Countries used to employ panels of judges for this purpose, whether they may or may not have had musical experience and when they may have been drinking the local version of brennivín instead of watching the songs (although this may perhaps have been with the more honourable intention of increasing their own enjoyment of the performances). Since cooler stuff than stuffy judges now exists, however, (and the potential revenues that go along with it) countries use televoting to support their favourites. And it rarely has anything to do with the quality of the performance. A few rules go as follow:
Germany will always give Turkey 12 points
The Baltic States will all vote for each other
Same goes for the Scandinavian “bloc”
Greece and Turkey will never vote for each other
No one likes France
The first Eurovision song contest was held in Switzerland in 1956 with the noble aim of showing the world (well, Western Europe) that music is a truly universal language and that “a song can build a bridge”. Aww… If the ratings are anything to go by, the ‘Big 4’ countries of Eurovision – France, Germany, Great Britain, and Spain, may be paying a lot to build this bridge (and are therefore guaranteed a place in the final round every year), but they are no longer so convinced of the relevance of this message when it is competing on their screens with Wetten Das or the Eastenders omnibus. It is within the smaller countries that Eurovision madness really takes over. And Iceland is a perfect example of this.
Iceland’s first entry into Eurovision was in 1986, when Icy performed their classic “Gleðibankinn” (The Bank of Fun). For most Icelanders at the time, the biggest concern was where the country would host the event the following year after Iceland’s inevitable victory. They finished 16th. Páll Óskar Hjálmtýsson, who performed for Iceland in 1997, explains why he thinks Eurovision is so popular in the smaller countries: “It’s like winning a soccer game. … I always think that Iceland is like the little nerd in gym class that always got picked last and so if they do well on a big scale contest like this you can imagine what it does to their hearts and their pride. … The year that Selma [Iceland’s entry in 1999] came in second, even my grandmother went downtown. It was just that everybody goes”.
Or could it possibly be that Eurovision night is one of the few nights of the year when it is socially acceptable, preferable even, to stay at home with the family cosily watching TV together and bonding over Coke and pizza, waiting in gleeful anticipation to see if this year the German singer will still have a huge porn moustache and sing about peace, if the Croatian entry will sing about something sad, if the Russians will wear bad clothes, and if the Irish will deliberately try to lose so they never have to host the bloody thing again.
But, most importantly, and no matter the place, everyone waits for the votes to be announced with baited breath, because this year might just be the one where we win. Páll Óskar remembers how the curse of a permanent 16th place for Iceland settled in after 1986 “but Sigga and Grétar came in 4th in 1990 and then Eurovision heat hit it big and it’s been hot as a pistol ever since.”
Iceland’s entry this year is “If I Had Your Love” and will be performed by Selma, who finished second for Iceland in 1999. She is considered a front runner to do well (which could in fact jinx her to finish in 16th) and has the advantage of being able to perform in both the qualifying and the final rounds. If her song includes great pyrotechnics and clothing that is the right size for an eight year old, and provided the rest of Europe isn’t too pissed off at Iceland for the Bobby Fischer scandal, she could be well on her way!
Despite my belief that Eurovision is the most fun thing about living in Europe, I will grudgingly admit that it still may not be the thing for you. But, after the votes have been counted, and regardless of how Iceland does, downtown will be the place to be. As Páll Óskar says “believe me, this is a party like no other, and it is a party like no other because it can only take place once a year. It’s like Christmas. Eurovision has often been referred to as gay Christmas…. gay Christmas in springtime”.
And what better an occasion to celebrate?
The Eurovision Song Contest 2005 will be held on 19 and 21 May in Kiev, Ukraine.
“Paul Oscar’s Eurovision Party” is being held at NASA, [address]. Doors open at 11.