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An American at Eurovision

the writer at a Eurovision event

he hall darkens, the singer takes to the stage, the crowd goes wild and the waving flags of dozens of nations fan the arena. It's the entry from Bulgaria and the next three minutes are full of strobbing lights and ear splitting drums to accompany the screeching vocals. Three minutes later they retire and the entry of another country takes the stage. Perhaps it's Ireland with a Celtic ballad or Iceland with a modern rock anthem or Sweden with a bit more bubble-gum pop music we have come to expect from them. They go on and on, one after another, covering every corner of the European continent and beyond until the last singer retreats from the stage. And then, Europe begins to vote for the winner.

As I sit there through this whole pageant, I wonder sometimes what I, an American, am doing here in the midst of this bizarre but quintessentially European cultural event. Yet every May I find myself on a flight to somewhere in Europe to attend this very peculiar European institution. So what in the world is this whole thing? Well, if you combine the musical competition of American Idol with the international pageantry of the Miss Universe contest, and a little of the intrigue of the United Nations, you can have an idea of what the Eurovision Song Contest is all about.

The Eurovision Song Contest goes back to over 50 years ago when Europe was still licking its wounds from the last war. Looking for a little cross-border harmony, the European Broadcasting Union came up with the idea of an annual song contest where each country would select a song to represent them and promote their national culture. It would be broadcast on a live television program seen simultaneously in all the participating countries who would then each individually rank the other countries' songs at the end of the competition. The song who received the highest number of points would be declared the winner and that country would get the right to host the contest the following year. Back at its modest debut in 1956 only 7 countries took part, but as its popularity grew and the Iron Curtain fell, the ranks grew and grew. Now in 2008 there are 43 countries taking part: instead of one night of competition there are now two nights of semi-finals leading up to the Saturday night grand finale.

Eurovision scoreboard

Back in the days when most countries had only one or two national broadcasters, the event was guaranteed a high viewership for its prime-time Saturday night spot. Ask any European about it and they are sure to tell you how they used to sit around with their families once a year to cheer for their entries. In contrast to this nostalgia however, the most likely response from a European will probably be a loud groan. For, despite the auspicious goal of promoting national cultures, the quality of the songs has often been hilariously lacking (often much like American Idol) and has given the reputation of being more of a kitsch-fest than a song contest. Through the years we have seen some of the worst excesses of 70's fashions, out of tune singers, cheesy Vegas-like choreography, bad taste gimmicks and painful crooning than you can shake a baton at. There have been hundreds of great entries, but Europeans are most likely to remember and associate the contest with the worst ones.

Despite the contest's sometimes less than vaulted reputation, an audience of 300 million television viewers was a pretty tempting opportunity for any up and coming singer in which to partake. A win was a very good shot at launching an international career. Back in 1974 Sweden sent an unknown pop quartet to the contest while in 1988 Switzerland hired a young untried chanteuse from Quebec to sing their song. Both won, and a few years after that you would be pressed to find anyone who hadn't heard of either of them: Abba and Celine Dion. Beyond them, Katrina and the Waves, Nana Mouskouri, Julio Iglesias, Tatu and France Gall all had their hand at the contest (and despite wining it didn't hurt their careers any).

I first found out about the crazy thing from a Dutch pen pal who staring in 1989 began to mail me audio cassettes of the contest. What appealed to me then (and still does) was the international spectacle and scope of the whole thing. It was amazing to hear a Greek bouzouki, a Finnish folk song, a Turkish pop song and a Dutch power ballad all on the same little cassette, and all in different languages other than my own. In addition to the songs, he also included the recording of voting which was even more fun: each country was called and gave points in ranking order to their top ten favorite entries (but obviously not allowed to vote for your own). As country after country announced their votes, it became apparent which songs were competing for the top spot. It was often not until the last country voted that we knew the winner: would Italy give its top marks to Germany, or would Norway get their vote and win? And as fun as it was to see the winner, there was also the dubious distinction of coming in last place. The first year I watched that dishonor went to poor Iceland, who not only came in last but didn't manage even to get a single vote from any of the other countries (though still not a winner, Iceland did manage to come in fourth and second a few years later, just so you know).

This was all such great fun, and year after year I began to get worrisomely hooked. Each May I began to look forward to the cassette tapes mailed by my dutiful friend. This was always a couple weeks after the contest, but as we Americans were clueless about the whole thing I never found out the winner till I'd heard all the songs and excitedly followed the voting. By 1995 the illness was growing in me and I spent $600 I didn't really have to buy a European-format VCR just so I could start watching it actual videos of it. I joined a few fan clubs, made contacts around Europe and in 2002 I was invited by some Finnish friends to actually attend the contest held that year just next door in Estonia. The excitement of being there live (and being caught on live TV in one of the audience shots) was so beyond my wildest expectations, as was meeting a number of the actual competitors. I've gone back every year since. A new country has by chance won the contest each year since then and all of them are worthy destinations in their own rights. So far this strange little hobby of mine has taken me to the likes of Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece and last year, to Finland.

Eurovision at Finland

As an American I'm a bit of a curiosity showing up at the contest. I have rehearsed my standard responses to 'what are you doing here' and 'how did you find out about he contest' to a fine art. As much as we get maligned around the world for our policies, America still evokes bright lights and international success for any up and coming artist from Portugal to Poland, so I sometimes get a little more attention than I deserve. 'Sorry: I know you might be a big star in Romania, but I don't have any record contracts or exciting gigs in New York to offer you.' But Europeans are great though and I'm always made to feel part of the crowd in the sea of fans, journalists, photographers and performers. It's this spirit of international cooperation which is the most fun of going: hanging out with Turks and Greeks, Irish and Brits, Bosnians and Serbs: supporting each other's songs, discussing politics and history and amazingly all getting along. This is the good side of the politics of the contest.

That is the smiling side of the contest, for the actual voting is neither so amicable nor fair. And this has become the big controversy of the contest. As previously mentioned, each country gives points to their top 10 songs of the night. In an ideal world, the best songs would get the most points, but it so often doesn't work out that way. Groups of countries tend to automatically vote for each other: no matter how tragically pathetic the Greek entry may be they can always be sure of maximum votes from Cyprus (and vice versa). Then there are long love affairs inside the respective groups of ex-Yugoslav, ex-Soviet and Nordic countries: they always exchange points too based more on geography than merit. They say it's because they share a same taste in music but I'm not so sure: Turkey and Cyprus have rather the same taste in music but, as historic enemies, I sure don't remember then exchanging many points with each other.

Then there is the controversy of the 'diaspora vote'. Turkey can't give itself any points, but it always seems to receive top marks from Germany. Not that the average German loves Turkish music, but the millions of Turks residing in Germany vote in large numbers for their homeland. With Turks living all over Western Europe, Turkey is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the diaspora vote, as it Russia with large minorities living all the ex-Soviet republics. You can learn a lot about European demographic patterns from this voting phenomenon: there must be a lot of Lithuanians in Ireland and a lot of Romanians in Spain given the number of points going their way (and guess what? there are!).

This all leads to a lot of grumbling. Some countries like Iceland, Portugal and Switzerland don't have any voting blocks or diaspora to give them this artificial boost…and every year seem to lose out accordingly. I was sitting with the Icelandic delegation in Helsinki last year when their entry, a powerful rock ballad (and in my opinion the best entry of the night) wasn't even chosen as one of the top ten in their semi final to advance to the finale. Their place was taken by the much less worthy entries of the likes of Latvia, Moldova and Turkey. Now that was a somber evening for us. It seems a giant West-East chasm has opened up in the contest where the old western countries that have been in the contest since the start (Germany, France, UK, etc) don't stand a chance against the combined forces of the newer post-Iron Curtain countries in the East. There is a worry this could ruin the contest. The West grumbles it is an unfair playing field and they can't success. The East counters 'maybe you should send better songs'. Austria got fed up by not making it last year and has dropped out because of it. So, is there anyway to fix this? Well, they are trying, but it's pretty hard to get over several millennia of European history in just one night of music.

So, where am I going this year (and thus to answer your question: 'who won last year'). If you guessed it's somewhere in the east and somewhere from the midst of a voting block then you would be correct on both accounts. Europe's own bad boy, the former Yugoslav Republic of Serbia took the top prize and will be welcoming the throngs of Europe this spring. It's not great timing for them: their historic region of Kosovo just declared independence earlier this year, leading to riots and the burning of a few embassies in Belgrade (including ours!), But I'm sure they will be gracious hosts. I'm just now sure how many countries who recognized Kosovo will be getting many points from Serbia during the voting this year.

I'll tell you how it went when I get back.


Enjoyed your Eurovision article. I had read a bit about it in the past, but this filled in a couple of holes. I'm still a little confused, though, about a couple of things. I recently saw Celine Dion in Vegas, and know she is from (as you mentioned in your article) Quebec. Yet she was hired by Switzerland to sing. Can any nation hire anyone from another nation to represent their country, even though it is not a European nation? Also, I read that Israel is one of the countries that participates, yet they are certainly NOT in Europe. Can you explain?

Barry Garcia
San Diego, CA

* * *

Hi Barry,

Thanks so much for your feedback and for reading my article. And thanks for taking the time to write me.

Very very good questions.

The rules state that 'each nation's television station will select a 3 minute, original song to represent their country. There is no rules stating that the singer, the song writer or the lyricist have to actually be from that country. Small countries especially sometimes hire more popular singers to represent them and we have even sing the same artist sing for 3 different countries. An American friend of mine wrote this year's Czech entry.

As for participating countries, Eurovision is organized by the European Broadcasting Union which is sort of a pan-European broadcaster. Any country that is a member can take part. It just so happens that a lot of countries around the Mediterranean also belong, even though they are not in Europe. Israel is one of them. Morocco once took part too. I asked that very same question to a member of the Israeli delegation once and they were really offended. Australia is also a member too and they broadcast it every year. Technically they could participate too, but given that it's a live event they have never elected to do so.

Here is a link of our lovely Celine back in 1988, before her makeover and any of her English hits (at the next year's contest in Switzerland she debuted her first English language hit 'Where does my heart beat now' as part of the opening of that year's contest (but not as a participant).

And here is the very exciting voting showing her win. One of the best ever

Best regards,

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