The Eurovision Phenomenon

Ivan of Belarus

This text has first appeared in Why is This Interesting newsletter by Noah Brier and Colin Nagy. Subscribe here.

In three weeks Europeans will test their loyalties. The Eurovision Song Contest is on. The contest’s name itself is a puzzle, as the participating “Euro” countries include Israel, Turkey, Armenia, and since 2015, Australia. This being a singing contest, it’s also unclear what the “vision” stands for.

Regardless, in the 64 years since its inception, Eurovision never fails to attract massive excitement and big audience. It’s considered the most watched live entertainment program in Europe, and it helped launch careers of ABBA, Olivia Newton-John, and Celine Dion, who inexplicably represented Switzerland.

This year’s contest is to be held in Tel Aviv, and Madonna is set to perform (representing herself). According to a number of betting sites, Russia is the current favorite, leading with the song whose lyrics suspiciously invoke the symptoms of a potentially politically-motivated poisoning (“though my throat is on fire / I’ll swallow hard, fall apart / break and bleed but you won’t see / acid rain from your fingertips”). Close at its heels is a singer from Netherlands, who opted to roll naked in water in his song’s promo video. Mind you, naked swimming is quite tame for Eurovision. The conquest has seen robots, pyrotechnics, Ivan from Belarus (not Winterfell) howling with actual wolves on stage, and Conchita Wurst. In 2016, Jamala of Ukraine sang “1944,” a song about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing.

As is the case with most European regulations, the rules are hard to grasp, but seem to revolve around the following: each participating country (the number this year is 41) submits an original song that is performed on live TV and radio, and then votes for other countries’ songs to choose the winner. There are two semi-finals, and the highest-placed songs compete in the final, along with the “Big Five”- the countries who are the largest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union. The big five are France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK, and they automatically qualify for the final.

Why is this interesting?

The voting is wild, and it charts the socio-political anatomy of Europe. It’s done via text messaging, and since the only restriction is that one can’t vote for their own country, the collusion is as vast as it is predictable. In a rare display of unity, Balkan countries all vote for each other: the most enthusiastic votes being mutually given between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, national wars be damned. The number of Serbian and Croatian expats in Australia also may explain its persistent presence in the finals. The Scandinavians and former Soviet Union countries display a similar sense of camaraderie, with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan all heartily giving the maximum of 12 points to each other. In the seemingly enduring Eastern Block loyalty, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary vote for Russia. The fact that no European country ever votes for Britain may win pro-Brexiters some points.

More than a singing contest, Eurovision is a moral fable. It mercifully reveals less about our musical taste, and more about how much we actually like each other. In 1997, Terry Wogan, who served as the life-long Eurovision host until his death in 2016, declared that the true meaning of Eurovision is to “sneer at the foreigners.” Ireland, for example, free of the heavy overtones that burden its immediate neighbors, regularly emerges as Eurovision’s finalist. Irish are fun, jovial, and easy to be around. They do Riverdance.

The point that national borders are not charted geographically, but socially, politically, and psychologically is not new, but is rarely as obvious. It’s one time of the year when Europeans (and, well, Israelis) gather around the idea of Europe that is actually fun and devoid of grinding bureaucratic talks about Brexit and who should take the migrants. In the three days of the contest, we get the enjoy the idea of modern Europe as strong, united, and free of petty scrabbles.

Eurovision gives Europeans the insight into the state of the European union, its literal unity, and our loyalty. Now more than ever, it also begets the question of what kind of identity topography would emerge if the US was ever to have a version of the Eurovision of its own.