So, What is This “Eurovision” Thing, and Why Am I Obsessed? – Part One

The following post is quite long and detailed, but it is about something I have grown quite passionate about. So bear with me.

So, you may have heard me mention something called “Eurovision” on here from time to time. For my readers outside the USA and North America, most are probably thinking, “So, it’s no big deal, it happens every year and it’s just a part of our cultural zeitgeist.” But I imagine many of you in the U.S. and Canada are like, “What the hell is she talking about?”

Well, this year’s Contest is beginning with today’s first semifinal, and I feel like now is a good time as ever to talk about what has become my biggest pop culture obsession since…well, the obsession it’s overtaken in recent years, American Idol. Actually, the Idols format itself owes a lot to Eurovision. But before I talk about Eurovision’s effect on me, here’s a primer on the Contest itself (and since Eurovision’s full name is the Eurovision Song Contest, I always capitalize “Contest” when referring to Eurovision directly).

Eurovision: A Primer for North Americans

In order to understand the Eurovision phenomenon, we must first look at its roots, and there are two important factors behind the genesis of Eurovision: World War II and Sanremo. Europe was left heavily damaged both physically and emotionally after the horrors of World War II and in the decade following the war was looking for a way to heal and come together. In early 1955, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), based out of Switzerland, held a meeting in Monaco and came up with an idea based off of Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival (which had been founded a few years earlier in 1951), where different countries around Europe would submit original songs and then perform them in one big contest to be simulcast live across Europe (remember, the first artificial satellite was not launched until 1957, so television transmissions by satellite were a long way off; in the early days the EBU would rely on microwave transmission for the Eurovision broadcasts). In October 1955, the idea was brought to a wider vote from the full EBU, and it was approved, with the first Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix (as it was known in English then) to be held in spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland 🇨🇭.

The inaugural Contest was held on 24 May 1956, with seven countries taking part: host nation Switzerland 🇨🇭, the Netherlands 🇳🇱, Germany (more specifically, West Germany; Germany would not compete as a unified state for the first time until 1991) 🇩🇪, Belgium 🇧🇪, France 🇫🇷, Luxembourg 🇱🇺, and Italy 🇮🇹. For this Contest only, each country submitted two songs. After all the songs were performed, two jurors from each country cast a vote for their favorite song (although it has always been against the rules for a country to vote for itself), and the song that got the most votes was crowned the winner. This ultimately went to the song “Refrain” by Lys Assia of Switzerland 🇨🇭 (who actually sang both of Switzerland’s entries that year, although not all participating countries were required to send just one singer). And even though the winning song was in French, Lys was actually a native German speaker, from the German-speaking Canton of Aargau (her other entry was sung in German). We don’t know the full results of the 1956 Contest, as only the winner was announced, but the 1956 Contest was enough of a success that a second Contest took place in 1957, and has been held every spring since then.

Lys Assia, the winner of the very first Eurovision’s Song Contest in 1956.

Beginning with the 1957 Contest, each participating country submitted just one song. Although the rules of the Contest have varied over the years, the basic rules are as follows:

  • Countries in the EBU are eligible to participate (and do not necessarily need to be located in Europe, which is why countries like Turkey 🇹🇷, Israel 🇮🇱, and even Morocco 🇲🇦 have been allowed to participate), although the EBU does reserve the right to invite Associate Members to participate if it so chooses (which is why Australia 🇦🇺 has been allowed to participate since 2015; Kazakhstan 🇰🇿 is also an Associate Member but has only competed in Junior Eurovision to date).
  • Each participating country submits only one song.
  • All participating songs must be completely original (with no interpolations or samples of other existing songs); have no profanity, religious, commercial, or political content; and may not be released publicly/commercially before 1 September of the year preceding the Contest.
  • Songs must be no longer than three minutes in length (instituted in 1958 after Italy’s 1957 entry, “Corde della mia chitarra” by Nunzio Gallo, lasted 5 minutes, 9 seconds). However, there is no rule limiting how short a song can be. (Finland’s 2015 entry, “Aina mun pittää”, holds the current record for shortest-ever Eurovision entry, clocking in at 1 minute, 27 seconds.)
  • All participating songs must have vocals. (The 1995 winner, “Nocturne” by Secret Garden from Norway 🇳🇴, was mostly instrumental, but got around this rule by having vocals at the very beginning and the very end.)
  • Lyrics can be in any language, including artificial languages, but this has not always been the case. From 1956-1965 and from 1973-1976, there was no restriction on language, but from 1966-1972 and again from 1977-1998 entries were required to be performed in one of the participating country’s national languages. In 1999, the national language rule was lifted for good, and since then, only two winning songs have been performed completely in a language other than English: “Molitva” (Serbia 🇷🇸 2007, Serbian) and “Amar pelos dois” (Portugal 🇵🇹 2017, Portuguese).
  • All vocals must be sung live, no live instruments allowed (instrumentalists must mime to a backing track; this has been the case since the live orchestra was dropped in the late 1990s; prior to that, each country provided its own conductor to conduct the live orchestra for their entry; interestingly enough, Sanremo still uses a live orchestra in its festival).
  • No more than six performers (including singers, backing vocalists, instrumentalists, and dancers) are allowed onstage during their Eurovision performance.
  • Performers must be at least 16 years of age on the date of the Contest (also called the “Sandra Kim Rule”, named after the Belgian singer who won the 1986 Contest who, despite singing she was 15 in her song “J’aime la vie”, was later revealed to be just 13; this rule wasn’t instituted until 1990, after it was revealed that two performers in the 1989 Contest were just 11 and 12 years old). Since 2003, though, the EBU has held a separate Contest for kids aged 9-14 called the Junior Eurovision Song Contest.
  • Five to six countries each year automatically qualify for the Grand Final: the host nation (if not one of the “Big Five”) and the five biggest financial contributors to the EBU, or the so-called “Big Five”: Germany 🇩🇪, France 🇫🇷, Spain 🇪🇸, Italy 🇮🇹, and the United Kingdom 🇬🇧. All other countries must participate in one of two Semifinals, where the 10 countries with the most votes/points qualify to the Grand Final. Each of the automatic qualifiers is required to broadcast and vote in one of the two Semifinals (along with the countries participating in each semifinal). All participating countries (regardless of qualification to the Final) vote in the Grand Final.
  • The winning country gets the right of first refusal to host the following year’s Contest, but is not obligated to do so. (This was common after this was first established in the late 1950s, but the most recent time a winning country declined to host the following year’s Contest was 1980, when reigning champ Israel 🇮🇱 withdrew from the 1980 Contest after winning both 1978 and 1979, citing financial strains from hosting the 1979 Contest and the coinciding of the date of the 1980 Contest with the Israeli version of Memorial Day, which is always a very somber day in Israeli culture. The 1980 Contest was awarded to The Hague, Netherlands.)

And while the voting system has varied over the years, it basically works as follows, using the rules of the current voting system implemented in 2016:

  • There are currently two sets of votes cast by each country: the Jury vote (which is cast by five member juries of music professionals representing each participating country) and the Televote (which is cast by members of the viewing public either via telephone, text message, or through the official Eurovision app in each participating country, with the exception of San Marino; San Marino uses 100% Jury voting because it has no independent phone system due to its small size and thus piggybacks off of the Italian phone network). In the event of a televoting failure, a separate eight-member backup jury is used.
  • Each country cannot vote for itself.
  • The jurors rank all remaining songs (other than their own country’s) in order from first (for their top-ranked song) to last, with the top 10 songs getting points from that particular jury. The songs are allocated points based on rank from that Jury: 10th gets 1 point, 9th gets 2 points, 8th gets 3 points, 7th gets 4 points, 6th gets 5 points, 5th gets 6 points, 4th gets 7 points, 3rd gets 8 points, 2nd gets 10 points, and the top ranked song gets 12 points. (The 12 points, in a throwback to when results were announced in English and French, is often referred to as a douze points or “DOOZ PWAHN” and even now will typically see the host announce the 12 points for each country in the Grand Final in French; for example, the Netherlands getting 12 points from a Jury would be announced as “Pays-Bas douze points!” in French.)
  • The Televote points from each country are awarded in the same manner, using the televoting percentage ranks to determine which ten countries receive points from that particular country. The same points for ranks apply as the ones used in the Jury voting, with the country winning a particular country’s televote getting 12 points (for example, if the Netherlands won the televote in Germany, Netherlands would get 12 points from Germany in the televote).
  • The Jury points are presented individually in the Grand Final, with a spokesperson announcing each country’s 12 points while the rest of the points given by that particular country’s Jury are automatically added on the leaderboard in real time. For example, Eurovision 1978 winner Izhar Cohen (who gave Israel 🇮🇱 its first victory with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi”, which is from the Bet/Hebrew “Pig Latin” for “I Love You”, ani ohev otach, which reads in Bet as a-ba-ni-bi o-bo-he-bev o-bo-ta-bach) will be presenting Israel’s Jury points during the 2019 Grand Final.
  • The Televoting points are presented aggregately (or in total) in the Grand Final; from 2016-2018 this was done in order from fewest televoting points to most, but for this year will be presented in the same order as the participating countries finished in the Jury voting, from fewest to most.
  • The country with the most overall points wins the Contest. (And is not required to win either set of voting; in 2016, Australia won the Jury vote and Russia won the televote, but both countries finished much lower in the other set of votes…this ended up giving the 2016 Contest to Ukraine, who had finished second in both sets of votes and got the highest total score.)
  • And there are tiebreaker procedures in place in case of a tie. (This was instituted after the 1969 Contest ended in a four-way tie for the win, and no tiebreaker, which resulted in four winners: the UK 🇬🇧, Spain 🇪🇸, France 🇫🇷, and the Netherlands 🇳🇱. A tiebreaker has since only been used to settle a tie for first once, in 1991 between Sweden 🇸🇪 and France 🇫🇷, which was eventually awarded to Sweden, although the tiebreaker used for that Contest is no longer in use, which relied on counting on the number of votes worth 12 points each of the tied countries received and on downward if still tied. The current tiebreaker procedure begins by determining which of the tied countries received more overall votes, or how many countries actually awarded points to each of the tied countries.)

Eurovision’s Cultural Impact

Eurovision, in its six decades of existence, has sort of become the entertainment world’s version of both the Super Bowl and the World Cup. It’s always been a source of light entertainment (which was desperately needed in the wake of World War II), and as technology and cultural tastes have evolved, it has also acquired a reputation for being camp (corny, kitschy, and a bit cheesy) and has acquired quite a following in Europe’s LGBTQ+ community, so much to the point that it is sometimes nicknamed the “Gay Olympics”, but still has a bit of a family-friendly vibe as well due to the songs being relatively clean in subject matter.

Eurovision has proven to be a launching pad for many internationally known acts throughout the decades of its existence. In fact, it only took two years after the first Contest for one of the songs to cross over into international popularity, including in the United States. Following the 1958 Contest, Domenico Modugno of Italy 🇮🇹 released his Eurovision entry, the third-placed “Nel blu dipinto di blu”, as a single internationally, including in the United States. It debuted at #54 on the very first Billboard Hot 100, and jumped to #2 the following week. In its third week on the chart, it dethroned the very first Hot 100 #1, “Poor Little Fool” by Ricky Nelson, and began its reign of five non-consecutive weeks at #1. To date, it is the only Italian language song to have topped the chart. So many covers have been made of the song over the years, that it is now popularly referred to by the first word of its chorus, “Volare”.

Domenico Modugno of Italy became Eurovision’s first international crossover star after placing third in 1958.

In the years since, many artists have become internationally known since appearing in or even winning Eurovision, including:

  • Lulu (won for the U.K. in 1969 with “Boom Bang-a-Bang”, also had a number one hit in the States with “To Sir, With Love”)
  • Olivia Newton-John (represented the U.K. in 1974, finishing fourth; she would go on to have several Top 40 hits and number one singles in the United States, including “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “I Honestly Love You”, “You’re the One That I Want” from the Grease soundtrack, “Physical”, “Magic” from the Xanadu soundtrack, and “Have You Never Been Mellow”)
  • ABBA (who had a top 10 hit with their Eurovision winner “Waterloo” and several top 40 hits, capped off with the #1 hit “Dancing Queen”; they are also the only Eurovision act to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as part of the Class of 2010, thanks in no small part to the strength of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ songwriting partnership)
  • Céline Dion (who won the 1988 Contest representing Switzerland, despite being Canadian, with the song “Ne partez pas sans moi” in the closest non-tie finish in Eurovision history by finishing just one point ahead of the U.K.’s entry; she has gone on to have tremendous success in both the English language and Francophone markets, has amassed four #1 singles on the Hot 100 and a bunch of top 40 hits, and also is about to conclude the second of two hugely successful residencies in Las Vegas that have lasted a total of about 14 years)

Not to mention artists that have become known as Eurovision legends for memorable and/or multiple appearances in the Contest:

  • Dana International (who won for Israel in 1998 with the song “Diva” and became the first transgender performer to win the Contest; Dana identifies as female, transitioned in the early 1990s and received her gender confirmation surgery in 1992)
  • Verka Serduchka (the drag persona of Ukrainian comedian Andriy Danylko, who gave Ukraine a runner-up finish at Eurovision 2007 with the song “Dancing Lasha Tambai”, with only Serbia finishing ahead of the song)
  • Johnny Logan (the only person to win Eurovision three times, all representing Ireland: his first victory was as a performer with “What’s Another Year?” in 1980, his second as a performer/songwriter with “Hold Me Now” in 1987, and his third victory came as a songwriter for “Why Me?” in 1992, sung by Linda Martin)
  • Lena Meyer-Landrut (or simply Lena; she won representing Germany in 2010 with “Satellite”, and then opted to defend her championship in 2011 with the song “Taken By a Stranger”, being the first to do so since Corry Brokken of the Netherlands in 1958…Lena finished 10th in her second shot, much better than Corry’s last place finish in 1958)

Olivia Newton-John represented the UK at Eurovision 1974, placing 4th.

ABBA won Eurovision in 1974 with “Waterloo”, giving Sweden its first of six wins.

Lulu, representing the U.K., was one of 1969’s FOUR winners (tied for first) with “Boom Bang-a-Bang”

Céline Dion gave Switzerland its second win in 1988, and still holds the record for closest margin of victory (not tied), winning by one point over the UK.

Verka Serduchka gave a legendary performance for Ukraine in 2007 with “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” and almost won.

Lena gave Germany its second victory (its first after reunification) with “Satellite” and a year later became the second winner to defend their win (finishing 10th in 2011).

Eurovision’s status as a major pop culture event and its evolution from song festival to music’s equivalent of the Super Bowl is an interesting study in how pop culture has evolved in the last six decades.

Stay tuned for a post all about my personal experience in becoming a Eurovision fan and why it’s become such an important part of my own pop culture consciousness; all that and more in Part Two!

One thought on “So, What is This “Eurovision” Thing, and Why Am I Obsessed? – Part One

  1. Pingback: The ABCs of Me | The Snowless Knitter

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