If you’re an expat living anywhere in the European Union (and Australia - don't ask), you probably noticed that everyone starts talking about something called Eurovision sometime in the beginning of May. There are parties, viewings from your favourite bars, bettings, and much much more. It’s the event that brings together families and people who just can’t wait to hear their country’s singer battle it out for that top spot on the left side of the scoreboard. You’ve heard of ABBA and Celine Dion, right? Well, their careers started at Eurovision!
Through the years, Eurovision evolved into one of the most extravagant singing competitions ever with some pretty impressive performances. Today, we’ll explain everything you need to know about Eurovision, so you can confidently join that Eurovision party, chant 'stop with the ballads' and spew some facts to keep the debate going all night long.
What is Eurovision?
In a nutshell, Eurovision is the largest European singing competition. It all started in Switzerland, back in 1956, in an attempt to bring the countries together after the WWII. And although only seven countries participated in the very first contest, it quickly became one of the most popular non-sporting European events.
Nowadays, over 180 million viewers tune in to watch and vote for their favourite country’s singer. The singers, who are chosen through the country’s own competition, get sent to the hosting country where they compete. If chosen as the winner, their country will host the Eurovision at the next event.
Eurovision mainly hosts only European countries, however, in 2015, Australia was allowed to join as one of its host TV broadcaster became a part of the European Broadcasting Union. Eurovision has also been hosting Israel as the Israel Broadcasting Authority is a member of Eurovision's governing body.
How does Eurovision choose the winner?
Each country’s representative has to sing the song in front of the Eurovision crowd during the two semi-finals. The best ten songs from each semi-final get then sent to the Grand Final. The countries that don’t have to compete in the semi-finals include the hosting country, as well as the ‘Big 5’ - France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. These are the countries that make the biggest financial contributions to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which broadcasts the event.
The Eurovision chooses the winner at the end of the Grand Final. After the songs have been performed, the countries broadcast their votes to the competition. They are allowed to give either between 1 to 8 points or 10 and 12 points to the country that impressed them the most.
The votes include a jury vote, given by five music industry professionals, and viewers at home. You’re not able to vote for your own country.
Is Eurovision a political event?
Well, that depends on who you ask. While the competition itself isn’t advertising Eurovision as a political contest, it’s commonly known that the voting system comes from a political (or at least geographical) agenda.
It’s usually extremely common that the neighbouring countries vote for each other. For example, the Balkans, aka the countries of former Yugoslavia, are known to vote for each other. The former Soviet Union also gives the most points to their neighbours as well as some of the countries in Eastern Europe. And then there are Nordic countries along with Iceland, Lithuania, Denmark, and Latvia.
However, this is not an official rule (the Eurovision actually forbids political messages in the songs as well as in the voting system) and the voting can change direction, which is what makes this show so fantastic from an entertainment and political point of view. But we’ll talk more about that later.
So why is Eurovision so popular?
Regardless of the alleged voting politics, Eurovision provides entertainment for at least a couple of hours. If watching the contest live from the arena, you’ll notice there’s a sense of unity, which is exactly why the Eurovision was created in the first place.
It’s also one of the few competitions where the singers have to sing their own songs - the old rules even stated that the songs have to be sung in the country’s native language (this rule has since then changed and nowadays, most songs are sung in English). This allows you to focus only on the music and hear foreign songs you’d never listen to otherwise.
But it’s not just unity in terms of politics and the geographical location. It’s also unity through sending an important message as well as creativity.
Most memorable Eurovision moments
Before we talk about the scandals and controversies, let’s look at some of the most memorable Eurovision contestants. You’ve probably heard of people talking about a man in a hamster wheel or a performer playing a piano whilst setting it on fire. All those things come from Eurovision.
2006 - Lordi (Finland’s performance)
2010 - man spinning and playing a violin (Moldova’s performance)
2012 - grannies singing and baking bread (Russia’s performance)
2014 - a man in a hamster wheel (Ukraine’s performance)
2015 - a piano on fire (Austria’s performance)
2016 - naked men and a wolf hologram (Belarus’ performance)
2017 - Verka (Ukraine’s performance)
Scandals, controversy, and LGBTQ+ representation
Over the years, Eurovision witnessed plenty of controversial acts and scandals, as well as progressive attempts of adding diversity to the competition. Eurovision is also known as being the platform for social issues. These are just some of the most memorable moments that had the most impact on the competition itself as well as its future.
Israel vs LGBTQ+ community - 1998
In 1998, Israel sent the first ever transgender contestant to the Eurovision’s stage. Dana International’s participation stirred up a lot of debate in Israel, with many disapproving of Dana as the chosen contestant. But it was Dana who had the last laugh as she became the winner of the entire competition as well as one of the most successful transgender singers around the world.
Israel vs Syria - 2000
The Israel vs Syria scandal was an interesting insight into the Eurovision’s world of politics. During the rehearsals, an Israeli pop quartet waved Syrian flags in an unauthorised attempt to declare peace. The Israeli government wasn’t happy, and although the band wasn’t removed from the competition, the country refused to pay for their expenses for attending the contest.
Finland vs LGBTQ+ laws - 2013
In 2013, one of the most memorable performances came from Krista Siegfried, a Finnish singer known for kissing one of her female backup dancers as a protest to the country’s ban on same-sex marriage. This caused Turkey to remove itself from the competition as it didn’t want to broadcast LGBTQ+ acts to the country’s viewers. As of 2018, Turkey hasn’t returned to Eurovision.
Austria vs Russia - 2014
2014 was the year that marked Eurovision as a progressive competition with a strong LGBTQ+ representation. After Vladimir Putin called Eurovision a ‘Europe-wide gay parade’, Austria let him know what’s really up when they sent Conchita Wurst to represent their country. Conchita was not only a drag queen, she was also a lady with a beard, and she won the hearts of many with her confidence and her song “Rise Like a Phoenix,” which ended up winning the contest.
Ukraine vs Russia - 2016 and 2017
One of the latest Eurovision controversies and possibly the biggest examples of politics within the competition was the 2016 winner from Ukraine. Ukraine’s singer Jamala won the competition in 2016 with her song “1944.” Listening to the lyrics, it’s very clear the song is a personal experience of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. But it was also suspected and later confirmed that the song is also about the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia. The so-called Eurovision feud carried into 2017 when Ukraine banned the Russian performer’s visa after it was discovered that she made an illegal visit to sing in Crimea in 2015.
And that’s everything you need to know about Eurovision!
Join the ESC fun, tweet about it and enter the world of Eurovision memes, or attend a Eurovision party and enjoy the competition with a passionate (and slightly drunk) crowd of Eurovision fans.
P.S. Eurovision’s commentators like the UK’s Graham Norton are known for their sarcasm and wit throughout the entire competition - if you’re not into watching the show with large amounts of people, you’ll be just as entertained by enjoying the commentary from the comfort of your own home.