In a couple of weeks, the biggest, gaudiest, gayest and easily the most-watched televised music event in the world will unfold, this year from Baku, Azerbaijan, and once again Americans will be almost completely oblivious to it.
We’re talking, of course, about the Eurovision Song Contest, which started in 1956 and is something like a musical analog to soccer’s World Cup: fanatically watched by the rest of the world, and mostly ignored here.
Well, mostly ignored except by those Europeans and other expatriates living here who still pay attention, which is how we’ve been drawn into the thing, by certain foreigners in our midst who just won’t shut up about it. And once we made the mistake of actually paying attention, soon enough it began to take over our lives too. After the jump, we’ll help other beginners learn the history of the thing before revealing what our panel of experts says are the 10 best songs from the contest ever.
First, if you’re going to get any enjoyment out of the most-watched non-sporting television event on the planet, you’re going to need to set aside your damn American apathy and too-cool-for-school attitude. Europeans love their pop music, and if the cheese factor gets a bit thick, well, who doesn’t like a tasty layer of melty, salty, cheesy cheese now and again, right? So stop pouting and get into the spirit of the thing.
Like the World Cup, each participating country sends one performer to perform one song. The previous winner hosts the contest—but some previous winners have balked because of the huge cost. This year, Azerbaijan is hosting after winning the 2011 contest. Semi-finals will be held on May 22 and 24, and the big night of bloc voting and politicking will happen on May 26. It should be a blast.
In the contest’s early days, begowned ladies and betuxed men belted out tunes in their native languages to the accompaniment of whole orchestras. It was quaint, and very earnest. Those early days also tended to be very Francophone, with singers from Belgium, Switzerland, Monaco, and Luxembourg all singing in French along with the competitors from France itself. (Until 1973, there was a rule that a performer had to sing in his or her country’s native language.) That French influence was so pervasive, to this day, Europeans will sometimes compliment a song they’ve heard by saying it was douze points (pronounced “dooze-pwah”), meaning 12 points, the highest score a country can award a song.
That French influence began to change as Eastern Bloc nations started to enter the contest. There was little advantage to singing in Polish or Hungarian, and almost overnight the language of the contest became English. Today, nearly every act sings in English, and long ago that quaint veneer was dropped, too: you want to win? Then you better go big, go brash, and it doesn’t hurt to cater to the gays.
“For Europeans, it’s become like this weird hybrid of a gay pride event and the Euro Cup of soccer,” says a friend from overseas. “Winning countries tend to have giant parties in public squares, similar to those held after a city’s soccer team wins a championship. And gay audiences from all over the world know many of the Eurovision songs, even if their country doesn’t participate in the competition or air it on their national TV system.”
Another result of the Eastern Bloc countries entering: Bloc voting. “Newly independent countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia started voting for each other. That’s how you get Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan voting for Russia, or Bosnia voting for Serbia and Croatia—despite the murderous wars between them—and vice-versa,” says my friend.
A corollary to that trend was that the “Big Four” countries that largely financed the contest—Great Britain, France, Germany, and Spain—tended to get shut out of bloc voting. “In a desperate move, in 2009, England was represented by singer Jade Ewen, who was hand-picked by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who also wrote a song for her and accompanied her on the piano at the competition. But because of political bloc voting, the song came only fifth, losing to a silly and musically simplistic song performed by a Russian artist representing Norway, who at times appeared to be singing off key.”
Italy got so disgusted with the situation, it simply pulled out in 1997, saying that it was no longer interested—and only returned last year.
So what does it take to win? Some basic pointers that have guided champions in the past.
• Ballads work. Irish singer Johnny Logan has won the thing three times (twice as a performer, once as a writer) by belting out weepy ballads with a lot of emotion.
• Go silly. Winners have included such intellectual gems as “La La La” (Spain, Maciel, 1968), “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (UK, Lulu, 1969), “Ding-a-dong” (Netherlands, Teach-In, 1975), and “Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley” (Sweden, Herreys, 1984).
• Send young teens. Germany won with Nicole, 17, in 1982, and Belgium with Sandra Kim, 13, in 1986.
• Ethnic-sounding songs seem to be doing well. “Lane Moje” (2nd place, Serbia, 2004), “Lejla” (3rd place, Bosnia, 2006), and belly-dancers on “Every Way That I Can” (1st place, Turkey, 2003) come to mind. Make it an ethnic ballad with a nonsensical title sung by a teen, and it’s practically a lock.
OK, so which are the best? Our picks are unscientific, but here are the ten best (*actually, nine winners and one that should have won) from the entire history of the tournament.
10. Lordi, “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” Finland, 2006
I remember Lordi’s victory did make some news over here in America, as in “What the hell are those Europeans smoking, and what do they mean by a ‘song contest’?” Or at least those were my thoughts at the time, if I recall correctly. Actually, this was a great win as voters had grown tired of the usual scantily-clad teenie boppers singing nonsensical ephemera. Lordi not only took home the gold for Finland, it was hardcore enough not to take off those wild costumes for the award ceremony.
9. Lena Meyer-Landrut, “Satellite,” Germany, 2010
A winner from the “Big Four” that managed to overcome bloc voting with the charisma of its singer—who didn’t need any outrageous schtick and performed on a bare stage. Says my friend, “Probably the first Eurovision contemporary pop song in a decade that is worth listening to even after the competition is over.”
8. Céline Dion, “Ne partez pas sans moi,” Switzerland, 1988
A very young Céline Dion begins to rocket to fame with this catchy 1988 winner.
7. Anne-Marie David, “Tu te reconnaîtras,” Luxembourg, 1973
Luxembourg managed to squeak out a win with this song in one of the best and closest final three ever, just ahead of Spain’s “Eres Tú” performed by Mocedades, and the UK’s “Power to All Our Friends,” performed by Cliff Richard.
6. Brotherhood of Man, “Save Your Kisses For Me,” UK, 1976
Come on, you have to dig the dance moves here.
5. Teach-In, “Ding-a-Dong,” Netherlands, 1975
Like we said, lyrics not making much sense actually seems to be an advantage at the Eurovision contest.
4. Dana International, “Diva,” Israel, 1998
Says our expert: “A musically insignificant song, it represents all that the Eurovision has stood for in its later years—a catchy melody, silly lyrics in what is essentially a collection of Latin words used in Hebrew. But the song was performed by a transgender artist and became an instant favorite with the gay communities of Europe. The parrot-feathers dress was prepared for Dana by Jean Paul Gaultier. However, she chose not to perform in competition in the dress, as even she thought it was over the top. But after she was declared the winner and was called back to the stage to perform the winning song again, instead of going straight on stage, she changed into the parrot dress and was totally late in what was a live show. It was so totally gay drama.”
3. France Gall, “Poupée de cire, poupée de son,” Luxembourg, 1965
A very popular song written by Serge Gainsburg and covered by many other artists, the title translates to “Wax doll, sawdust doll” and Gall herself later said she was probably too young at the time to fully comprehend that it tended to make her look like Gainsburg’s puppet.
2. Domenico Modugno, “Nel blu dipinto di blu,” Italy, 1958
This song did not, in fact, win the 1958 competition, but amazingly came in third behind a couple of completely forgettable French and Swiss songs. One of the most recorded songs of all time, even Pavarotti put out a version of it.
1. Abba, “Waterloo,” Sweden, 1974
Well, you probably knew where we were going if you had any knowledge of the contest at all. Yes, an obvious choice but also a good one. Sweden’s first victory, and very much the goal of Abba’s manager, Stig Anderson, who had the contest in mind as a springboard for the group—which it very much became.
So who’s going to win this year? We don’t know, but to give you a taste of what’s coming, here’s Ireland’s entry in the 2012 contest, “Waterline” from Jedward, the twins who were also Ireland’s performers last year (finishing eighth place), appeared in 2009’s edition of The X Factor (finishing sixth) and even spent time in the Celebrity Big Brother house last year, finishing third. Is this the year they actually win something? Who knows. They ought to at least take home a trophy for the hairdos…