A gaggle of predominantly European expatriates is packed into a hot, airless room at the Goethe Institute in downtown Washington, D.C. Waving a variety of miniature European flags, they gulp down their beer, munch on bratwurst and burst into spontaneous renditions of kitsch classics such as “Volare” and “Waterloo.”
A giant screen streams a live Internet feed of the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest, an annual singing competition as famous in Europe as it is unknown in America. The audience's spirits remain high, despite the transmission's frequent jamming under the weight of tens of millions of online viewers.
A year older than the EU's predecessor, the European Economic Community, the intensely competitive and hugely popular contest has been produced annually since 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in Geneva. It is built on a winning combination of campy pop songs, garish costumes and gimmicky performances. In the early years, the simultaneous broadcast of the taped competition in several countries was seen as a major technological coup. Today, the performances are broadcast live via satellite to 125 million viewers in 42 countries, and the votes are tallied and relayed in real time from dozens of capitals. And despite the occasional glitches — which usually only serve to add to the show's entertainment value — the EBU invariably acquits itself admirably.
Participating European countries hold national contests to select an original song to represent them. The songs are then sung live at a host venue and beamed into hundreds of millions of homes. Singers do not have to be from the country they are representing — famous singers from abroad can be recruited. Viewers and professional juries cast votes for the best song, using a graduated points system. The country with the most points wins, earning the right to host the next year's contest.
Previous winners have gone on to fame and fortune. ABBA's 1974 victory for Sweden set the group on the road to worldwide fame and fortune, and Canadian singer Celine Dion, whose French ditty “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi” (“Don't leave without me”), composed by a Turkish and Swiss duo, took the title for Switzerland in 1988. The most famous “interval” act — the segment between the performances and the final vote tabulation — was Riverdance, an Irish dancing troupe that used its enthusiastic reception in 1994 as a launching pad for a series of highly profitable world tours.
Conceived as a unique way to unite millions of Europeans from diverse linguistic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, the songfest has preserved its unifying philosophy, as evidenced by the 2010 contest motto, “Share The Moment.” That year's interval act was conceived specifically to illustrate that, showing snippets of simultaneous “flash mob” dances from cities all over Europe, immortalized in a seven-minute Youtube video.
But politics do enter the fray. This year, for instance, Armenia has withdrawn from the competition over a longstanding dispute with host-country Azerbaijan over the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Kitschy costumes, campy pop songs and gimmicky performances are hallmarks of the beloved, 56-year-old Eurovision Song Contest, which today draws 125 million viewers in 42 countries. Above, John and Edward Grimes of the Irish band Jedward rehearse for the finals of the 2011contest, held last May 13 in Düsseldorf, Germany. (Getty Images/Sean Gallup)
The contest also sometimes serves as a microcosm of Europe's cultural cleavages. “The voting patterns follow regional lines,” says Frank Rossavik, an editor at the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet and a devoted fan. “Only occasionally does someone break them.”
For instance, Nordic nations stick together, as do the Balkans, and Cyprus and Greece raise collective groans by unfailingly awarding each other the maximum 12 points that each voting country can allot per song.
Regional animosities have hampered expansion of the show's audience into the Middle East. In 1978, many Arab broadcasters ran a commercial during the performance of the Israeli group Alphabeta, according to The Guardian newspaper. “When it became clear that Alphabeta were set to win, they simply pulled the plug,” the paper said. “Jordan prematurely ended its transmission with a lingering still shot of a vase of daffodils.” The EBU subsequently insisted that countries broadcast all of the show or none of it, essentially barring Arab countries from editing out Israeli performances. Many Arab countries chose to boycott Eurovision rather than allow their viewers to catch a glimpse of their arch-foe.
Israel caused a flutter again in 1998 when transsexual singer Dana International stole the show with her rendition of “Viva La Diva,” performed in a Jean-Paul Gautier gown adorned with multicolored feathers. While Israel's perennial appearance is a testament to the EBU's liberal policy on which countries are allowed to compete, language can be a more sensitive matter.
In the past, singers had to perform in their country's national language, but today the EBU allows countries' singers to use any language they choose. To maximize their chances of winning, some contestants perform in “Eurovision-speak,” a nonsensical vocabulary transcending linguistic boundaries. Thus, Spain won in 1968 with “La La La,” and Britain later won with “Boom-Bang-A-Bang,” the Netherlands with “Ding-A-Dong” and Sweden with “Diggy-Loo-Diggy-Ley.” Indeed, Spain's “La La La” song originally was to be sung in Catalan, but Spain's dictator, General Franco, insisted it be performed in Spanish, worried it might rekindle the Catalan nationalist flame.
“The music that Eurovision honors and enshrines is … [t]he stuff you hear in the back of Belgian taxis, on German radio, in Sicilian bars and in the lobbies of Danish hotels,” wrote New Yorker writer Anthony Lane. “It was all created by the great god of dreck, and Eurovision is his temple.”
Eurovision's populist appeal leads the continent's culturally sophisticated to heap scorn and biting criticism at the contest. In 1982, for example, France's minister for culture ordered a boycott, calling the competition “nothing more than a monument to drivel.” The boycott did not last: by popular demand, France returned the following year — and every year since.
This May will mark a further milestone when Azerbaijan — last year's winner — hosts Eurovision. It will be the competition's easternmost venue, an indicator of how Europe's center of gravity continues to shift eastward. It is also a tribute to how phenomenally successful the contest has been, expanding from the seven countries that competed in the first contest to today's 42.
Political tiffs and kitschy costumes aside, with about 125 million people expected to tune in, it is clear that Europeans love to love their Eurovision.
— Brian Beary