This year’s Eurovision Song Contest is nearly upon us, and it’s as bonkers and exciting as ever. Here are my top 10 reasons why it’s so great.
1. The showmanship
Every year the bar for craziness at Eurovision gets set higher. A man trapped upside down in a glass box. A pair of identical twins with their hair tied together. A whole band dressed as monsters. A rap duo from Montenegro… in spacesuits. A tiny woman carried onstage by a giant. Jedward. And, just occasionally, a woman with a beard. Every year I think they must have peaked, and we’re going to be disappointed, then I read that someone’s planning to perform naked, accompanied by wolves, and my faith is restored.
2. The songs
I know it’s rare to hear someone say this, but stay with me: the songs at Eurovision are actually brilliant. We Brits may be reluctant to admit it, and insist that we only enjoy it ironically, but that’s just because we’re all massive music snobs who see Eurovision the same way we see pretty much all foreign pop: as something faintly shameful that should be kept to a minimum. In fact, there are tons of truly great tunes at Eurovision. The men trapped upside down in glass boxes are just a bonus.
3. The costume changes
If you turn up to perform at Eurovision with just one costume, you’re not really giving it your all. And the costume changes have only got more frequent and more elaborate over the years. The one we all remember is the Bucks Fizz skirt rip, but that’s only the tip of a button-bursting iceberg. Countless performers have done variations on the classic skirt/shirt removal, and some have turned it on its head by lengthening skirts instead of shortening them. One year there was even a ball dress that grew to superhuman height during the song, making the singer look like some sort of alien ant queen. Bare male chests are a common sight, and whenever you see a female performer in a baggy or coat-like outfit, don’t count on it sticking around until the end of the song.
4. The commentary
The producer of this year’s Eurovision show has been moaning that the UK has come to see the show as kitsch and irrelevant, and that it’s all Terry Wogan’s fault for making fun of everything. To be fair, if people see the show as kitsch, it’s because it’s The Kitschiest Thing That Anyone Could Ever Possibly Conceive Of. It’s true that for UK viewers, Eurovision is inseparable from the commentary of Wogan (God rest his soul) and his excellent successor Graham Norton, neither of whom could be accused of taking it too seriously. They’re mostly there to point and laugh, fuelled apparently by a constant supply of sauvignon blanc. I’d much rather have that than all the pomp and reverence of The X Factor with its heart-rending montages of contestants’ poor-but-happy upbringings, and background music that only just stops short of flashing the words “This is the bit where you cry” in big letters on the screen.
5. The 3-minute rule
Pop songs should be three minutes long. This is a scientific fact, but only at Eurovision is it an actual rule. No songs longer than three minutes are allowed (shorter is fine: Finland’s song last year was only 1:25). To be honest, with 25 performances to sit through on the night, not to mention the semis, I’d be in favour of cutting the maximum song length to 2:30.
6. The idealism
Eurovision today may be all kitsch and costume changes, but it began as an attempt to unite a divided continent in the aftermath of war. The new European Broadcasting Union wanted to bring people together with entertainment, and it was Swiss TV supremo Marcel Bezençon who came up with the idea of a Europe-wide song contest in 1955. The plan was to use TV to link up the countries of Europe for one big live show – a symbolic step forward in international cooperation and a bold technical experiment in the days before satellite TV. More than sixty years later it’s still happening and 180 million people tune in every year. Although I’ve never seen them get through the scoring announcements without at least a couple of technical hitches.
7. The live singing
There’s no faking it at Eurovision: all vocals must be sung live on the night, with no exceptions. In fact, for the competition’s first seventeen years, the backing music also had to be performed live by an orchestra. Croatia fell foul of the live singing rule in 1999 when their backing track featured what sounded like human voices. Although Croatia claimed the vocals were synthesised, judges felt they’d broken the spirit of the rules and docked their points. But they didn’t do as badly as Jemini, who represented the UK in 2003, sang badly off-key, blamed the sound man, and came home with nul points.
Let’s face it, for most of the year I could pretty much forget that there is a Moldova, or a San Marino or an Azerbaijan. But apparently they’re out there. Who are these people? What do they look like? What do they do all day? What kind of songs do they sing? Eurovision gives us a glimpse. OK, so I’m not advising that you look to a country’s Eurovision entry as an accurate cross-section of its society and culture, but it’s a start. Like an annual Christmas card from a distant relative, it reminds us that somewhere, far away, Moldovans are putting on pointy hats and singing silly songs.
9. The politics
There’s not a year goes by that the shadow of international tension doesn’t hang over the Eurovision scores. Russia can usually rely on a generous haul of votes from many of the ex-Soviet states on its doorstep, but gets a hard time from other quarters for starting wars and treating gay people badly (in recent years the organisers has resorted to “anti-booing technology” to cover up this sort of thing). This year, Russia is in the spotlight for the wrong reasons yet again: Ukraine has chosen to enter a song all about a Stalin-era mass deportation (video below). And last time I checked, Ukraine was the bookies’ second favourite to win, after… oh, Russia.
10. The arguments over the results
Every year self-righteous Brits bleat on about how unfair Eurovision is these days and how no one ever votes for us blah blah blah. They’ve all got some half-baked theory about how political voting works against the UK. It’s like an even more pathetic version of the Brexit “debate”. Cheer up everyone. OK, so we used to run the world, and we invented the Beatles and the Spice Girls and Adele – that doesn’t mean we get to win every year. Here are two salient facts: firstly, the UK is the (joint) third most successful country in Eurovision. Secondly, more than 40 countries take part in the contest these days. Forty! So even if we won twice as often as an average country, we could only expect a victory every 20 years. And the last time we won was in 1997, less than 20 years ago, which is a lot better than we’re doing in the European Football Championship, which we last won… oh yeah, never.
This year we’re represented by Joe and Jake, who may look like they should be at home revising for their GCSEs, but the song’s actually not bad.
Main photo: (c) Andres Putting (EBU)