It's been almost a month since I attended the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden and I've been trying to distill the experience for my American friends. Almost everyone I met this past week was gob-smacked when I told them I was from America and here to see this amazing Eurolicious spectacle. See, it's the world's oldest reality television show, it's been held for 58 years, 120 million people watch the finals every year, it's the reason you know ABBA and you've never even heard of it. Here's a brief primer.
In 1956, The European Broadcasting Union in Switzerland had the idea of bringing Europe together after World War II had so sharply divided it. The Eurovision Song Contest has a few simple rules: each participating country chooses a song to send to the international competition, the song doesn't have to be written by or sung by someone from that country, each song is three minutes long and can be sung in the official language of the country or in English, every country votes for their top 10 favorites by phone, you cannot vote for your own country, and the winning country hosts the event the following year.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? None of this even begins to describe what it's like to take 40 countries and see their musical tastes onstage in one night. It's a melting pot or my Anthropologist mother would call it more accurately "a salad bowl", since no cultural influence completely disappears. What is clear is the huge affect that American pop music has had on the world and when you close your eyes you can hear the Katy Perry and Bruno Mars in this music. But when a country like Azerbaijan does it, they inject their own musical taste, language, and culture and the results are magical. Some are dance club songs, some are opera techno, some are ethnic ballads. Some of these songs are damn good and catchy and you can imagine them on American radio.
My wife, Juliana and I first saw Eurovision while on our honeymoon in Greece in 2006 and we were amazed by it. They basically recreate a music video onstage and pyro cannons, LED video screens, background dancers, fireworks, costume changes, and wind machines are their tools. Hell, the guy who won from Russia three years ago even had gold medalist, Yevgeny Plushenko skating on a 20 foot-wide ice rink while he sang a love ballad called "Believe." Yeah, this gets nuts.
My wife and I get the CD every year (since it is not available on the American iTunes store) and watch the live stream online (since it is not carried on any U.S. Television channel). We have "live tweeted" for the past few contests and our European Twitter followers seem to love it. I feel like Eurovision is a parallel dimension. It reminds me of Dance Fever and Solid Gold when I was a kid. Then when you hear these songs sung in English by someone who may or may not understand the words, the unique awesomeness hits you.
I have a friend named Mikael who was a foreign exchange student from Sweden at my high school and he suggested that we actually go to the ESC finals this year and so here we are.
They take it very seriously in Sweden. They hold a four stage, double elimination "Melodifestival" and the country votes for their representative. ABBA was selected to represent Sweden in 1974 with "Waterloo" and won the entire thing. They are easily the biggest success story to come out of Eurovision and I think more people can sing along to "Waterloo" than most national anthems in Europe.
This year seems to be the year of the "chanteuse singer" and the year that Eurovision discovered Dub Step. If you can't imagine female torch singers and Skrillex-style demon techno onstage at the same moment, you don't know Eurovision. The song from Romania (my wife's favorite) this year has a Castrati-style male soprano named Cezar singing an electro-dance number and looking a lot like General Zod from Superman. Then after the inevitable key change before the third verse (a Eurovision staple) the dress he was wearing lifted him 15 feet off the ground to a sustained high note. It's amazing how many things you can pack into one song.
I've got a particular favorite in the Irish entry this year and not because I'm Irish American. In fact, I usually detest the Irish song. Ireland has won the ESC more than any other country and this year's Irish entry is Ryan Dolan's "Only Love Survives" -- a dance number with fire cannons and shirtless male Bodhran players that has a solid optimistic-messaged, Eurovision style vibe.
The UK had a lot of success in the past with singers like Cliff Richard but has shown poorly in my years of following the ESC. A few years ago, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber grew tired of getting "Nul Point" in the ESC and collaborated with American songwriter Diane Warren on the most cliché ridden "inspirational" Eurovision song ever. They had a big splashy, American Idol kind of television competition to decide the eventual singer of "It's My Time." The whole experiment resulted in a fifth place finish.
The U.K. seems to be obsessed with this former legend scheme ever since they won Eurovision with a post-"Walking on Sunshine" Katrina and the Waves in 1997. This year they have recruited Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler (yes, that Bonnie Tyler) to bring it all home for the UK. The song is a fine ballad but relies on a bit of sentimental tug from an audience who really just wants to hear her break into "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
This winner this year was Emmelie de Forrest from Denmark. She sang "Only Teardrops" in English to the beat of two French revolutionary style drummers and a fire rain curtain. It kind of came out of the blue in my opinion and you can't always predict what will resonate with the multitude of European tastes. But it's a good song and she'll probably have to sing it a few thousand times this year. My favorite, Ireland, got last place with only 5 points.
The voting gets very controversial and a lot of it has to do with the "vote for your neighbor" principle. By this I mean that Cyprus votes for Greece and vice versa. You see it with Belgium and France, Austria and Germany, and most of Scandinavia. It makes sense. These countries share a cultural history, language and seem to either share a likeness for the same music or just not understand the democratic voting process.
It amazes me that this whole cultural phenomenon exists and when I learned my Eurovision history I realized that we have been invisibly influenced by it. It's not just ABBA. The song "Nel Blue Depinto di Blue" better known as "Volare" placed third in 1958 before becoming a huge hit in America. Celine Dion (despite the fact she is Québécoise) competed for Switzerland in 1988 and won the whole thing. Olivia Newton-John sang for England in 1974. The Irish step dancing cabal, Riverdance was created as an interstitial act during the vote tallying for the 1994 contest before exploding onto mail order VHS superstardom in the US. It's like Eurovision is this shadow organization and we, as Americans, are influenced by it and influence it but have no awareness of its existence.
YouTube has Eurovision fairly well represented for the uninitiated American. Do yourself a favor and search for some of my favorite ESC moments like Verka Serduchka who is the transvestite comedian from the Ukraine who got second place in 2007 or DJ Bobo from Switzerland and his song "Vampires are Alive" or Alexander Rybek who won for Norway in 2009 with the catchiest song ever, "Fairytale". Search for the Eurovision band, "Dschinghis Khan" from Germany in the 70s. It was a historical disco act that sang about the sacking of Eastern Europe featuring a dancing representation of Genghis Khan. That sounds amazing, doesn't it? Eurolicious.
My new European Broadcasting Union friends have been emailing me about coming to Copenhagen for 2014. They are still amazed that an American knows so much about the ESC. They say to me, "Tell everybody in America about Eurovision."