I once had the misfortune of watching Eurovision with only an Argentinian, a Mexican, and a Lebanese for company. If you’re not European (or Australian, apparently), Eurovision seems to be very confusing and completely un-understandable. For us Europeans, either on the mainland or stuck on little islands, it’s the defining feature that we all have in common. How is it possible to not feel affectionately towards the brutal political performing, voting and shunning, the drunken television hosts, and dodgy Euro-fashion, and the camp performances with the potential to bankrupt the hosting nation?
A potted guide to Eurovision history
There’s a common misconception that Eurovision began solely as a way to reunite the bruised and battered Europe after the Second World War. This may be the reason that it was so successful, and to this day is the largest entertainment show on Earth, but the true sentiment behind its conception is rather more geeky.
The first Eurovision Song Contest took place in 1956 at the suggestion of Sergio Pugliese from an Italian television station, who wanted to take the Italian Sanremo Music Festival and expand it to test the limits of live broadcast television. The first contest was in Switzerland, with seven countries taking part, and the challenge was to have seven different television networks in seven countries simultaneously broadcasting the same program. Of course, the European Broadcasting Union used the excuse of bringing a war-torn Europe together as an excuse for their experiment.
To compete, a national television network must be an active member of the European Broadcasting Union, located in the range of broadcast of the EBU, or being a member state of the Council of Europe, and jump through several hoops such as ensuring that it will be broadcast to 98% of their country, they broadcast the previous year’s show, and of course, that they paid the fee. The television stations each have different ways of determining their entry, although by now most countries host X-Factor style shows to decide their contestant (probably as a way of wringing more money out of viewers in votes).
The numbers of participating countries grew gradually each year. After the Second World War, a contest that unified Europe and had themes of love and peace was popular and it became wildly successful. Following the Soviet dissolution and the end of the Cold War in 1991, there was a sharp increase in the number of participating countries to 43 countries participating in 2008 and 2011, and similar numbers taking part in the subsequent years. The only European countries that have never participated in Eurovision are Liechtenstein, Vatican City and Kosovo, although all countries but Germany have failed to participate at least once since 1956, for reasons ranging between a form of political protest to simply not being able to afford it. The winning nation must be able to host the contest the following year, on top of their participation fees, the possibility of which has ruled out entries by many nations at different points in time.
To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Eurovision, Australia were invited to take part in Eurovision 2015 as a one-off, as a nod to the popularity of the Song Contest down under. They were given an automatic spot in the final and came fifth overall, with Guy Sebastian’s Tonight Again, a clear nod to Europop with in composition and staging. Australia were so popular that it was decided that they would be allowed to return in the subsequent year, but would not be given an automatic place in the final. In 2016, Dani Im’s The Sound Of Silence propelled them into second place, and Europe’s love for their Oceanic cousins does not seem to be waning. Even if Australia were to win the Eurovision Song Contest, it wouldn’t be hosted outside Europe. One special condition of Australia’s participation is that they agree to co-host the contest in Europe if they are to win – if they win this year, they will probably co-host with Germany for 2018. The novelty of Australia still seems to be strong even among the most traditional Eurovision fans, and Australia’s don’t seem to be on trend to be any less successful this year.
2017 was set to be the first year to reach 44 participants, but with Russia having pulled out of this year’s competition as their performer was not granted permission to travel to Ukraine for the competitions, and Bosnia and Herzegovina being forced to withdraw due to the financial state of their national television station, only 42 countries were eligible to hold a place in the final. Of these, all but the Big Five (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, who are the biggest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union, and thus are automatically given a place in the final) and the host nation had to battle it out for a place in the final at the two semi-finals/elaborate excuses for a tech rehearsal that took place on Tuesday and Thursday.
The winners are decided by votes from all the other countries, with one to twelve points being awarded. With this in mind, it pays to be good friends with your neighbours. Eurovision is about way more than the music, it’s about using your vote to express friendship and political approval (or disapproval). Scandinavia and the Balkan bloc are very good at awarding their douze points to their own, but the UK doesn’t tend to do so well. Ireland and Malta are usually our friends, but thanks to our sometimes questionable political decisions and tenuous relationship with Europe, our scores suffer. Two months after the invasion of Iraq, the UK was awarded a grand total of null points across the whole competition, a feat that occurs only very rarely.
2017 | so scandalous
United Kingdom’s chances This year, with Brexit looming, many European countries are anything but our best friends. Even TheresaMay has been reported as joking that she doesn’t think that we will get many points this year. It seems that as well as ruining our country, she wants to ruin our chances at Eurovision too. But you never know, we’re fairly obviously in dire straights with a snap election being called, so maybe we’ll get some pity points and do slightly better than usually. We can’t really do any worse.
Russia Let’s address the huge elephant in the room in this year’s Eurovision: Russia’s absence from the contest held in Kiev, Ukraine. The Russian entry, Yulia Samoylova, was banned from entering Ukraine after touring Crimea in 2015. Each participant is organised by the respective television stations in each country, and Russia’s channel One turned down suggestions that they have her perform remotely, or God forbid, that they pick another representative that would be granted entry to Ukraine. Instead, they chose to withdraw from the contest entirely, saying that she will instead represent Russia in next year’s competition. Instead, on the day of one of the semi-finals, she performed in Crimea in an act of defiance. The winning 2016 entry from Ukraine’s Jamala about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union was undoubtedly fantastic, but we can’t deny that the fact it won the Eurovision Song Contest was anything but a political statement. Indeed, Russia took it personally, and threatened to boycott the next year’s contest in protest. With all of Europe choosing this entry as the winners, I can’t imagine they felt very welcome.
Eurovision tends to be a contest of openness, shown no better than when drag queen Conchita Wurst rose like a phoenix to win the 2014 competition. Russia’s anti-gay stance tends to bring protests from crowds at the Eurovision finals, who feel like this kind of discrimination goes against the spirit of Eurovision. This year Russia has had a huge media storm regarding its antigay laws, with reports coming in the last month of gay men being detained and executed systematically in Chechnya. Maybe, in the spirit of Eurovision, they really are better sitting this one out.
Language In the early days of Eurovision, songs were required to be performed in their national language. Since 1999, there has been no restriction on the language that songs can be performed in, which has lead to large numbers of songs being sung in English or French, which tends to increase the score due to their lyrics being understood by a larger number of viewers. However, Eurovision purists, and some countries, still prefer performances in their national language. But the numbers are dropping off, with the general trend being all countries moving towards English performances – even France who have faced protests in the past when their entrant has sung in any other language. Only Portugal, Hungary, and Belarus have entries that are not at least partially in English.
France But why are France singing in English? Well, it’s actually not entirely out of choice. France nearly faced disqualification this year when it emerged that their song Requiem was performed as far back as December 2015, long before it was submitted as their Eurovision entry. This breaks the rules, but France have got around it by using a bilingual version of the same song with an English chorus. This difference is enough to keep them safe, although is it worth the cost to their gallic pride?
Honourable mentions from 2017
Best use of cultural appropriation: Francesco Gabbani (Italy)
Check out the music video for Italy’s Occidentali’s Karma without any understanding of Italian or subtitles, I dare you. If it does make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, you maybe need to do a bit of reading up on cultural appropriation.
Eurovision is not a stranger to cultural appropriation, but in recent years the acts have become more politically correct to reflect the growing social awareness of the audience. Despite this, Francesco Gabbani appears in a variety costumes from kimono-style jackets to saffron robes, posing like a Hindu god and dancing with a man in a gorilla costume. The song is actually a mocking take on the way that Westerners take Eastern ideas and Westernise them, piggybacking on ideas of spirituality and treating them as novelties that make them interesting and sexy. The lyrics are somewhat sophisticated and reference science, art, and literature to make his point, but I feel that the point is somewhat lost. Even if you know that the Western habit of appropriating cultures as our own is problematic, using these cultures in a form of mockery is still parodying them, and it is still disrespectful. It’s hypocritical for Gabbani to imitate things that are meaningful to serve his point.
The live performance is a lot safer, with minimal obvious cultural appropriation beyond the use of language. Given that the majority of the audience will not speak Italian, the meaning of his lyrics is very likely to be lost, and a lot of people will enjoy it for its faux-spirituality. By using this medium to make his point about the Westerner’s karma, Gabbani is serving only to do the same.
Hall of fame
Conchita Wurst - Rise Like A Phoenix (Austria, 2014)
Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision in 2014 showed us that the kitsch craziness that happens at Eurovision extends beyond just the show. With a performance as powerful as her voice, Wurst raised the stakes of standard for powerful female soloists that followed. To have a bearded drag queen perform the beautiful Rise Like A Phoenix flawlessly and win as she so deserved demonstrated that the Eurovision community was supportive of diversity beyond the camp costumes and dances that Eurovision usually brings.