A Crash Course on Eurovision

Written by Thelonia

“Gay Hunger Games” is usually the phrase used to describe Eurovision to people who have never heard about it, but despite its admittedly flamboyant components, the Eurovision Song Contest actually has a long history of trying to bring countries together with an equally long history of only creating more conflict.

This is a crash course on the history behind the sometimes confusing competition, as well as an overview of what we can expect this year.

The History

Eurovision was started in 1956 as an effort to unite a Europe who only ten years earlier had been killing each other on a pretty wide spread scale. Only seven countries took part: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands & Switzerland, and they all competed with legitimately pretty songs, mostly ballads. These early competitions were much different than they became once the age of MTV arrived in the eighties – the performers in those early years were not allowed to dance at all, and there was no staging beyond the performer singing standing straight in front of a mic, which meant that there was a lot more emphasis on the actual song and not the performance. But as technology grew and the industry around music videos only grew, the visual aspect of the competition became more and more vital to success (though not necessarily in terms of actually winning).

Try to see if you recognize any of these songs.

The Rules

The way the contest works, more or less (the rules have changed a few times in its over 60 years on Earth): each country invited (which does not necessarily mean just European countries) submits a song of maximum three minutes, that has not been previously released, and then all the countries vote (via a jury and later, via a national polling system from competing countries) – though they cannot vote for themselves. This means that any and all political grievances get to be aired out in front of the rest of Europe via the amount of points allotted to each country’s top picks (there’s always a cap on how many points can be allocated – though it’s usually done via a top 10 list with each ranked country getting proportional points to their placement on the list).

There are two Semi-Finals, both of which this year include 18 contestants, and of each round, 10 will move on to the Final, where they will join the ‘Big Five,’ the main sponsors of the Contest, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom, in addition to the previous year’s winning country (in this case, Ukraine). The Semi-Finals is where you weed out those who didn’t try very hard, but it’s also sometimes where the more out-there entries get expulsed, which is sad, because sometimes in the Final, you need something really weird to break up the nice songs.

What Kind of Song Wins?

The Winning song tends to be be in English (like 43% of other Eurovision winning songs), or have nonsense lyrics that everyone can follow: something like “La la la” or “Ding-a-dong.” It must have a catchy beat or chorus, preferably include a dramatic key change at the end, and should be memorable visually. Think gimmick. Try to stick to genres that white people cannot look like fools performing – Eurovision is one of the whitest things ever created, so acts that try to do historically non-white genres like Calypso (Sweden in 1987), or Reggae (Finland 1981), or Rap (unfortunately, too many to list), generally do not do all that well. Songs about love and peace almost always go over well, but try to be a bit vague about details, to maximize international appeal (notable exceptions exist – ie: last year’s winner, more on that later).

All that said – a gimmick does pay. While the song that wins the night may in fact be the better song objectively speaking, if it doesn’t stick in your head, then you haven’t really won at all. In this way, 2006’s Lordi, a Finnish heavy metal band that performed their song “Hard Rock Hallelujah” in full rubber monster costumes, are in many ways the perfect Eurovision performers – a good song and a good visual have ensured that they are in many ways the most memorable performers. In 2007, while Marija Šerifović’s “Molitva” won, it was runner up Verka Seduchka that was the most memorable act of the night – becoming perhaps the best Eurovision winner to not actually win.

This is literally one of the most beloved songs in Eurovision history

Last Year

Last Year's Eurovision got testy and showed the clear divisions between what makes a good Eurovision song.

In terms of political songs, it was generally pretty standard: Bulgaria’s entry “If Love Were a Crime” seemed to be loosely maybe about gay rights, but Ukrainian Jamala’s song “1944” went straight for politics and didn’t let go. The song was about the singer’s grandmother, deported by the USSR in 1944, and opened with a verse that went “When strangers are coming.../They come to your house, /They kill you all/ and say, /We’re not guilty/not guilty.” A pretty ballsy move for a Eurovision song. And a move that seemed to confuse the audience (do we clap for a song about genocide or….), but which showed great chutzpah on the Jamala’s part.

Not often you see a wail like that during Eurovision

Russia, in the past few years, has gone out of its way to submit vague love songs that air on the side of eerie possessiveness that can seem maybe a bit much. For instance, in 2015, Ukraine could not take part in Eurovision because of political reasons (aka: Russia invading), all while Russia sent a nice blond woman to sing about world peace.

Last year, they sent an admittedly very nice seeming man who performed a song about love again, but whose main selling point was REALLY COOL GRAPHICS.

Look, Russia knows its audiences, ok?

And then there was the black sheep (or golden child), Australia. The addition of Australia is a truly baffling one. Invited in 2015 for the 60th anniversary Eurovision, they were a cute addition, and their song “Tonight Again” was almost too good for Eurovision standards, a tradition they have continued in the years since, even though many European audiences were still baffled as to what they were doing here two years in a row.

Enjoy the music video since there are literally no good copies of her performance

When it all came down to the wire, the writing was on the wall: it was either going to be Australia, Russia, or the Ukraine.

In a way, each country’s entry represented a category of how to judge an entry: Russia was the flashy visual performance, Australia was the strongest vocal performance, and the Ukraine had the most political song.

Although we know who had the actual best performance of 2016.

It was perhaps naïve to assume that the only true political neutral in the Eurovision contest, Australia, would be allowed to walk away with the contest (which she would have if the entire thing was based on a jury vote). But Europeans have a long and proud history of voting (or not) for each other, so by popular vote, it was rather unlikely that they would win, regardless of quality. And people really don’t want Russia to win. So the Ukraine won. Beating Russia with a song about the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars by the USSR. And reactions were mixed on all sides. Unsurprisingly, the Russians seem to be taking the win worst of all: immediately taking to the Internet to denounce corruption in the ESC ranks and the rampant anti-Russian voting prejudices from the other countries’ juries. And then immediately turned around and called for a ban on “1944,” an ‘obvious piece of anti-Soviet propaganda’. Unfortunately for them, though Eurovision rules forbid songs of a political nature ‘1944’ was allowed on the grounds of being historical rather than political.

Eurovision This Year

The drama continues into 2017.

Because the Ukraine won last year, the contest will be hosted in their country. By a twist of fate, Russia’s contestant, Yuliya Samoylova, was banned from the contest for illegally visiting Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and Kiev considers illegally occupied. This means that not only are we not putting the slight of losing to a song about how much of a dick you are politically, but they cannot even compete.

Despite the strained background relations between Ukraine and Russia, the crop of songs looks promising this year, although, once again, there is a tendency towards serious songs and less of the kitsch one associates with Eurovision. Still, there is a song with both rapping AND yodeling (and all in Romanian!), so there is that.

I literally cannot decide if I hate this or love it.

Personally (and take this with a grain of salt because I am literally always wrong), I’m betting on Italy’s entry, ‘Occidentali's Karma.’ Italy has a good track record of good songs under their belt, and this one, performed by Francesco Gabbani is a good time, although I think looking up the lyrics may have been a mistake because I'm now more confused than I was before.

Also, there's a gorilla. So he's got that going for him.

With political machinations, some genuinely good songs and a Europe who desperately needs some light-hearted and gay merriment, here’s to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, may it light up our hearts and make us remember that even though things sometimes look dark, there’s always people willing to make themselves look absolutely ridiculous on an international stage, and all for us.

The Eurovision Song Contest will be available through Logo TV, with guest commentators Michelle Visage and Ross Mathew, from RuPaul’s Drag Race. There are two semi-finals (on May 9th & 11th) and the Final will take place the 13th. Each will start at 3pm EST.

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