Glitz, kitsch and geopolitics - it's Eurovision!
Eurovision isn't just about wind machines and confetti cannons. As Paul Allatson explains, the contest offers a fascinating insight into broader European tensions and political alignments.
If you see a few bleary-eyed people over the next few days, clutching coffees and staring blankly into space, it might not be because they’ve had big nights; they might have had early mornings watching Eurovision!
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is the world’s longest-running annual TV music competition, pre-dating Australian Idol by almost half a century. It began in 1956 and will be celebrating its 63rd year in Lisbon, Portugal on Saturday 12 May (local time). More than half a billion people will tune in.
Thanks to Associate Professor Paul Allatson from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (all quotes are his), here’s everything you need to know to be a watercooler expert this week.
Who’s competing and when?
This year, 43 countries will be competing in the ESC. Europe didn’t always have 43 countries so since 2008, the competition has been divided into qualifying Semi-Finals (on Wednesday and Friday morning Australian time) and a Final, which will air live on SBS at 5am on Sunday 13 May (or catch the replay that night).
Why should I care?
“Well for one thing, as popular cultural events go, the ESC is the world's largest televised musical event in terms of audience capture with some 200 million+ Europeans tuning in and up to 600 million globally, over the three events.
“Aside from that international reach, the event is fascinating and compelling in terms of the actual songs and performances, which can range from sophisticated pop to the cheesiest examples of what I have called 'ethnonational-kitsch' in my own work on the contest. That unpredictability makes for great television.
“More than a few PhDs have been dedicated to the contest, including by young Australian scholars!”
What makes Eurovision such an interesting topic to study?
“The ESC has always provided fascinating insights into broader European tensions, political alignments and potential conflicts, but it has also been marked by a decidedly peaceful response to those events in line with its governing brief to foster a sense of continental belonging.
“Of course, that is a utopian dream, but it is also a cultural ambition of such political projects as the European Union itself. Arguably the ESC is way ahead of the EU in terms of which countries it accepts into the fold, and ahead of diplomacy by including countries that are in actual conflict or who have troubled borders (eg Russia and Ukraine over the last few years)."
Geopolitical tensions do sometimes surface at the ESC or sit in the subtext. The event is hosted in the previous winner’s home country and in 2017, Ukraine banned the Russian entrant Julia Samoylova. Her song this year is called “I Won’t Break” – I think we get the hint. In the same contest last year, the UK entered a song called “Never Give Up on You”. Post-Brexit, plenty of commentators suggested that “Never Give Up on EU” might have been a more appropriate title…
And voting in the contest often reveals interesting regional dynamics – terms like the Viking Empire, the Balkan Bloc, the Pyrenean Axis (a fancy name for Spain, Andorra and maybe Portugal depending on who you ask) and Partial Benelux (Belgium and the Netherlands) often come up among Eurovision die-hards.
Why is it a thing here?
“The ESC has always been popular in this country, a fact that some critics attribute to Australia's multicultural demographics in the post-WWII epoch. It has been shown on SBS since 1983, and it has garnered an almost cult-level legion of fans, many of whom are also drawn by the contest's kitsch and camp presentations. Literally thousands of ESC-themed parties take place every year across the country.”
And who can blame them – winners include shock-metal band Lordi and the gender-fluid Conchita Wurst, while runners up include Russian grannies, Romanian rock-opera and whatever this is from Ukraine. And have you ever seen the meme of the epic sax guy? Well he’s from Eurovision – and has performed twice!
And we’re in it! SBS’s long-running commitment to showing the contest was rewarded in 2015 with an official entrant, in the form of Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian. This year, it will be Jessica Mauboy on stage, the first Indigenous artist to achieve an Australian number-one album. You can catch her in action in the second Semi-Final on Friday morning at 5am (or on replay that night).
Wait, we’re in it?! We’re not in Europe….
Well, neither is Azerbaijan but they get a spot! Plus, Europe loves us! We’ve been in the top 10 every year we’ve competed and Dami Im even came second in 2016.
It also means we can vote (which is why so many Australians will get up in the middle of the morning to watch!). Voting is done country by country, with a jury and the public vote each getting equal say. Once the performances are over, you get 10 minutes to text, call or vote via app. 12 points (Douze Points!) goes to our favourite, then 10, eight, seven all the way down to one. And sorry folks, you can’t vote for yourself.
Why do you love the competition, Paul?
“I have followed the contest since I was a child: my grandmother used to write to me in the 1970s from the UK with the results of the contest, years before I ever saw it on the television. She was the first person to bring my attention to ABBA when they won in 1974.
"I am most definitely bunkering down for the semi-finals this week and the final on Sunday, and will celebrate the final with a few friends, as I do every year. I tend to enjoy performances that embrace the flamboyant excess of proceedings, and that take sartorial and musical risks!
"One of my FASS colleagues Drew Andrea is actually in Lisbon this year to watch the show live: he is probably the biggest ESC fan I know!”
Who should I keep an eye on this year?
“In more recent years, music companies have been throwing a great deal of money at the contest in terms of commissioning songs by respected pop writers, with the hopes of generating more sales. That has also done a lot to make the ESC into a spectacle that no longer is guaranteed to embrace kitsch.
"That said, the Israeli entry this year, "Toy" by Netta, and which has been leading in the betting odds, does channel the sounds of a chicken; so kitsch does seem to live on very happily!”
More fun facts
Songs can't be longer than three minutes and you can't play live instruments on stage - so bring your air guitars!
Ireland is the most successful country at Eurovision having won seven times, but Sweden is hot on their heels with six.
Even though the ESC has taken place 62 times, it has had 65 winners. In 1969, four countries topped the scoreboard with an equal amount of points; the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands and France. Without rules to resolve tie situations, all four contestants were declared as winners. Needless to say, tiebreaker rules were introduced shortly after.
Eurovision hosts Sweden (home of Spotify and ABBA) put together a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of exactly what a contemporary Eurovision song needs to do to win.