Europe unites in song…well, sort of

On Saturday night the people of Europe will come together. Gathered together around their television sets across the entire continent, they will jointly watch a broadcast from Istanbul that will highlight European culture, bring all the nations of the continent together in unity and show the vibrant, dynamic future of Europe.

Well, that’s the theory. In truth, the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest will be like most of its predecessors, a bizarre mix of musical styles and fashion senses coupled with the usual inter-country feuding and bizarre voting habits that we’ve all come to know and love over the years. After all, where else on world TV would you get to see Bosnian disco, Turkish Ska and a Ukrainian Shakira-wannabe all in the same broadcast?

At its core, the Eurovision is based on the same principles it was founded on in the 1950s – a chance for the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to come together and produce a live event for all its member broadcasters to show together. Each country would enter a song, and a panel of judges from each country would vote for their favourite. However, as the EBU has expanded with the frontiers of Europe, so has the Eurovision and the competing agendas at the heart of the contest have turned into a fascinating window on European culture.

The 90s were where the big changes in Eurovision came about, with three events converging to create the contest we see today. First, the end of the post-war divide saw the states of Eastern Europe join the EBU, expanding what had been principally a Western European organisation into something much broader. Second, the advance of technology meant that voting could now be done over the phone with a popular vote replacing selected national juries. Thirdly, and partly as a result of the first two changes, countries were now free to submit songs in any language as long as they were written by a citizen of that country – previously, entries had to be principally in their own tongue. This had led to the situation in the mid-90s where Ireland dominated the contest, winning four out of five contests (the fifth was won by Norway with a song that merely sounded rather Irish) thanks to being able to enter songs in English – the global language of pop music.

(The Irish situation did however lead to one of the funniest episodes of the sitcom Father Ted where Ted and Dougal’s song My Lovely Horse is selected for the ‘Eurosong’ contest as it has no chance of winning, thus saving RTE the cost of having to stage the contest yet again.)

(Update: Chris Brooke points out that My Lovely Horse can be downloaded from here)

Suddenly, the Eurovision had more contestants than it knew what to do with and many of them were quite keen on the idea of winning it, having realised that hosting a three-hour television extravaganza was a very good way of promoting themselves to the millions of people watching. With the realisation that the winner would be determined by the viewers, rather than the anonymous juries, there was a sudden rush away from the tender ballads and Abba-esque sounds that had dominated the contest for most of the 80s towards modern international pop sounds.

Sometimes, this worked well, bringing victories to Estonia and Latvia in recent years, and othertimes, it didn’t but watching bad songs is part of the joy of Eurovision. At least it is in Britain, where much of the enjoyment of the programme comes from the commentary provided by Terry Wogan – viewers in other countries, especially those repeatedly mocked by Wogan, may beg to differ.

For me, though, the true delight of Eurovision isn’t musical, but in the voting that determines the winner. Again, it’s very simple and hasn’t changed since votes were determined by juries – each country votes in turn, listing its top ten songs in reverse – 10th place gets one point, up to 8, 10 and 12 points for the 3rd, 2nd and 1st places – though countries can’t vote for their own songs. However, like all simple procedures, it has it’s complications, mainly because every country has its own little musical and cultural idiosyncracies. Put simply, what Estonia likes, Portugal may not, though it gets more complicated than that, be it the tendencies of the Scandinavian and former Yugoslavian countries to vote for each other, Greece and Cyprus giving each other 12 points every year, the large number of Turkish gastarbeiten meaning that Germany usually gives Turkey a high vote, or France (which refuses to enter a song in anything other than French, of course) getting votes from other French-speaking countries, but not many otherwise. Then, of course, there’s always a couple of countries whose votes differ wildly from any patterns seen before.

In fact, it can be more enjoyable to ignore all the actual musical section of the show and just enjoy the vagaries of the voting and this year promises to be even more enjoyable. Unlike previous years, where merely the countries in the final voted, this year all 36 countries who entered (12 were eliminated in a semi-final last night) will vote. Not only does this mean that the voting will likely go on for longer than the singing, but it opens up the prospect of Andorra or Monaco casting the decisive votes.

And, should you wish to make it even more interesting, William Hill will happily accept your bet on who you think will win – Greece (9/4) and Ukraine (3-1) are the current favourites, though I’m tempted by the 20-1 on offer for Bosnia-Herzegovina which, from the 10 seonds of the song I’ve seen, appears to be of the same camp, disco flavour of Israel’s 1998 winner, Dana International. Combining the kitsch and Balkan votes could be the key to victory.

13 thoughts on “Europe unites in song…well, sort of

  1. I spent the first leg of my honeymoon in Estonia, where I discovered that they temporarily appointed a Cabinet-level minister in charge of the Eurovision arrangements, as it was by far the highest-profile international event they’d ever been associated with (though I bet they were praying that they wouldn’t win – if I remember rightly, Latvia did).

    I also have very fond memories of a few years ago (late 1990s) when everyone voted for each other’s mates and Switzerland ended up with nul points – a perfect snapshot of European attitudes.

  2. At least it is in Britain, where much of the enjoyment of the programme comes from the commentary provided by Terry Wogan.

    Not for anyone who actually likes the Yurovizhn, surely? Wogan’s rictus sneer wore thin a very long time ago for me. Even if I had a TV I’d have the sound off in favour of Radio 2 simply because it’s not him.

  3. IIRC, last year Cyprus bunged quite a few points in the direction of Turkey as well, no doubt as a gesture of appreciation for the TRNC relaxing controls on the Green Line.

  4. Yeah, I’m undecided if I should watch coverage on France 3, RTBF, BBC, Nederland 2, Flemish TV1 or on German TV. I’m thinking of just using the remote to power surf betweeen them.

  5. Eurovision kitsch. Mostly bad music, interesting voting habits, bad attempts at stand-up comedy from the presenters and the eternal question: Why is Israel, and now the Ukraine etc., included? (not that I have a problem with that, on the contrary)
    I saw the semi-final on Nederland 2. Two highly partisan bitchy Dutch queenies, I assume, dissing the male Turkish MC – who was really corny – and expressing their satisfaction that, once again, it was “Suisse nul points”.
    Eurovision is one of those silly, folkloristic traditions that in a weird way seem to grow on you. I love it.

  6. a Ukrainian Shakira-wannabe…

    Actually, Ruslana seems to be more of a Ukrainian Xena. 🙂

  7. Speaking about contestants, according to some reports I have seen, Croatian representative is one of the candidates for the most colorful of all representatives. Guy said that he sang bad because of being poisoned by Tito’s secret police.

    I’ll try to cover the story in my blog.

  8. David – Xena may be another reference, but I was thinking musically (yes, music and the Eurovision don’t always seem to go together) and Shakira came to mind first.

    Though my experience of every song is limited to the ten seconds of them I caught at the end of the semi-final Wednesday night…and I’m not sure I’ll be able to see any of the show before the voting tomorrow. Though, that may help me perform the same sort of disinterested analysis of the voting as Kieran at Crooked Timber.

    Dragan – sounds interesting. Let us know if you find out more!

  9. One of the greatest joys of being European is introducing Americans, Australians and sundry other foreigners to the annual fun-filled festival of crap songs and national bias that is Eurovision. Since phone voting was introduced, Ireland has nearly always got 12 points from the UK – because the entire Catholic population of Northern Ireland (as well as the huge Irish diaspora in GB) can vote for their country!

    I note no-one has commented on the fact that it’s taking place in Istanbul. Is this a case of Eurovision, yes, EU, no?

  10. Just been doing a little bit more ‘research’ on Eurovision and the EBU. Turns out Morocco entered one contest in the 80s (and never again – the rumour is that their 16th place finish led to an edict from the King the country should never be humiliated like that again) and looking at the list of full members of the EBU, contestants could include Libya, Lebanon and Jordan should they wish to enter…though I’m hoping that the Vatican consider an entry next year. “My Lovely Horse” in Latin, anyone?

  11. I’ve read that the Arab members of the EBU boycott the contest because Israel participates in it.

    Nick B., I must confess I’ve never heard any Shakira so I can’t compare Ruslana with her. For what it’s worth, Ruslana’s music is a mixture of eastern European folk music with rock and techno influences.

  12. France (which refuses to enter a song in anything other than French, of course)

    This is inaccurate.
    I remember a song in Corsican a few years ago.
    They had something like zero points though. 🙂