Last weekend, as cinephiles the world over compared their picks for the Cannes Film Festival’s revered Palm d’Or award, another festival grabbed the attention of some 100 million viewers around the world. That festival was the Eurovision Song Contest that, last Saturday, crowned Sweden’s Loreen champion.
Eurovision began in 1956 as an audacious experiment in live broadcasting with the aim of bringing the countries of war-torn Europe together for an annual televised song contest. Since then, the competition has become one of the most popular television events on the planet and launched the careers of ABBA and Celine Dion (who won in 1988 competing for Austria with a song written in French — go figure) among others.
The competition accepts a single song from any European or Mediterranean country. Entries are selected internally by each competing country, usually through televised talent Idol-like competitions. Clearly, European austerity doesn’t extend to televised pop competitions. The winners of the national contest then compete in the international Eurovision competition, which after a semi-final and final broadcast, crowns its winner using a complex televoting process (though some countries utilise a jury).
It is the mass participation of nearly every European country and their voting citizens that makes Eurovision quite unlike any other televised talent contest. From its inception, the competition has been used as a metaphor for one thing or another: from politics to the imperialism of the English language (which most songs are still performed in).
Eurovision has long been used by competing nations as a platform for public political statements. In 1978, Jordan’s state broadcaster cut to a montage of flowers during Israel’s performance and, later in the evening, cut the broadcast altogether and declared Belgium the winner when it appeared that Israel was winning.
The Eurovision televoting system allows ordinary citizens to get in on this international bloodletting. Often described as a mass referendum on inter-European relations, the system is rigged in such a way that it favours a nation’s popularity, rather than the merits of its song. Every state can award points to 12 other states. Based on the internal system within the countries (nearly always American Idol-style text voting), every state finds its single most popular contestant, who is allocated 12 points and its least popular which are allocated 0 points. Other countries are allocated points based on where they placed within the voting country’s poll.
This has provided the opportunity for much inter-European jostling. Countries that have close political ties like Serbia and Montenegro comfort each other with 12 points every year, while others exact revenge on their continental neighbours through an electoral cold shoulder.
2012 was no exception to this. Germany decided its aid obligations to Greece did not include Eurovision points, allocating it a cool zero score. Greece returned the favour, showing that hundreds of billions of Euros in German bailouts was not enough to earn them a single Greek point.
The music of Eurovision is rarely discussed. This has less to do with getting lost in the political intrigue of the competition and more with the fact that there is really very little to say about Eurovision’s sonic offerings. Imagine being stuck in an echo chamber with only a skipping Eiffel 65 record and you get the idea.
Occasionally contestants will experiment. My personal favourite was Norway’s Alexander Rybak. The 2009 champion took Europop to new highs by interrupting his song with a long jig which he did while playing the violin. He pranced around the stage for a good thirty seconds, bobbing up and down like a catatonic jack-in-the-box. A Norwegian friend tells me that Rybak now spends his time complaining to Norwegian gossip magazines about how difficult it is to manage his frenetic sex life with his musical career.
Like any TV talent contest, we don’t celebrate the best half as much as we revel in ridiculing the worst. This year, The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, a tiny enclave just bigger than Vatican City fielded an entry from one of its 30, 000 citizens called, “Facebook, uh, oh, oh,” later renamed (because of Eurovision regulations regarding songs with commercial messages) “The Social Network, uh, oh, oh.” I don’t think a Grammy is quite on the cards, but who ever said Eurovision was about the music?
For all my cynicism, I can never distance myself from Eurovision. The contagious reverence with which these truly awful musicians are treated is quite simply too much fun to resist. There’s something wonderfully continental about the celebration of this music. If Europe falls into a debt-fuelled depression, at least it will go out dancing. We could all learn something from that.