The Eurovision Song Contest explained to non-europeans

Photo by Andres Putting courtesy of the Eurovision Song Contest official organizers

The old continent is celebrating its first European Year of Cultural Heritage. With 44 countries where over 100 languages are spoken, both official and regional, what does cultural heritage stand for? How do we celebrate something together when we seem to be so different? Well, that’s the challenge for 2018 and onwards.

Local cuisine, landmarks and heritage, customs and traditions, all that adds up to each country’s cultural identity. And then, there’s the Eurovision Song Contest.

Yes, a pop culture phenomenon can also contribute to the celebration of the European Cultural Heritage. Why not?

Until Salvador Sobral won the 2017 edition, Portugal had pretty much given up on the festival. We never seemed to crack the right formula to win the competition, and then comes brother and sister duo (Luisa Sobral was the songwriter) with an assumedly low-key love song and nails it. How? Why? Whaaat?

I confess I was baffled as so was the rest of Europe.

(Now that Portugal has won the football European Championship in 2016 and the Eurovision in 2017, we seem to be under the impression that the 2018 World Cup is also in the bag. If *that* happens, celebrations will last a month!)

My first memory of a Eurovision winning song was 1986’s “J’aime la vie” performed by Belgian singer Sandra Kim. To be clear, I was 8 years old and didn’t know a word of French and, yet, I could sing the chorus with a perfect accent by ear. Yes, a potentially future Eurovision star was lost to travel blogging (booooooo!).

As for before that, my father became a hardcore fan of Italian Gigliola Cinquetti (who won the 1964 edition with “Non ho l’età”) and Swedish ABBA after they won in 1974 with “Waterloo” (yes, I also know this one by heart). He’s still very fond of his ABBA record collection and, forget English lessons on tape! I learned a lot of my English before going to school just by singing along to ABBA songs (and I’m still dramatic singing “The Winner Takes It All” – I had a thing for putting up a show then).

Enough of this trip down memory lane (or should I say, down the Eurovision walk of fame?). I’m here to answer all your questions about what’s this musical phenomenon about and why do (most of) Europeans care about it so much.

What is the Eurovision Song Contest after all?

Imagine all those talent shows we now have on TV (American Idol, [Country’s] Got Talent, The Voice). Scratch all that. The Eurovision Song Contest is like the grandfather of all those televised singing competitions.

In 1956, the European Broadcasting Union organized the very first Eurovision Song Contest with Switzerland’s Lys Assia winning that year’s competition.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, Europe tries hard to keep up the unity across all different countries. And if you think the Eurovision is not political… Well… It’s complicated…

I seem to remember a time (then again my memory might be fuzzy) when For a while, Spain and Portugal gave the highest scores to one another, even if the song sucked big time. Greece and Cyprus most likely give 12 points to each other in every Eurovision song contest (you can almost bet on it and win).

How is the Eurovision Song Contest winner chosen?

Well, the format of the show has changed over the years but voting has always been the way to determine who wins (and the host country for the next edition), in a combination of judge votes and popular votes in more recent events.

I remember being so excited about the voting part! I got to hear the hosts going through the scores in different languages (usually English, French, and the host country’s language). A representative of each country would go live and announce the scores, from the least voted to the top voted (that got 12 points).

Now there’s Internet and smartphones and popular vote. And I find half of the thrill is gone for me.

In the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest, Portugal beat two records: it won for the first time and it was the first country with a score above 750 points.

But what exactly makes a winning Eurovision song? Tough question. Sometimes I think it’s the underlying socio-political message. Other times I think it’s the catchy tune (and OMG there are editions when everyone seems to bring on the extra bling and extra techno choreographies on stage that’s hard to watch). And every time Portugal lost (so, the other 53 times, since Portugal only participated for the first time in 1964) we were sure the whole thing was rigged. Rigged, I tell you! *shakes fist in the air in protest*

Some singers only sing in their native language or a regional dialect, others will sing in English. In the end, whether they win or just make it to the final, for many of them it’s a great opportunity for international projection and kickstarting or pushing forward their careers.

You can hear for yourself and decide what makes a winning Eurovision song. Spotify put together a handy playlist with all the winning songs:

Facts you probably didn’t know about the Eurovision Song Contest

  • ABBA is by far the most world-famous Eurovision winner
  • Céline Dion won the competition in 1988 with the song “Ne partez pas sans moi” for Switzerland
  • The Irish Johnny Logan is, so far, the only singer to have won the competition twice (in 1980 with “What’s another year” and in 1987 with “Hold me now”)
  • Most Europeans take the Eurovision competition as seriously as a soccer championship
  • The singers (and sometimes, even the songwriters) don’t have to be natives from a European country
  • There was a tie in the 1969 edition between Spain, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France
  • All participant countries are members of the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) but not all of them are European
  • The sequence of performances is decided by draw
  • How the competition goes may have changed over the years, but one thing remains the same: the Eurovision Anthem (“Prelude to te Deum”, by Marc-Antoine) at the beginning of every Eurovision song contest

Do you want to know more about this event? Keep up to date on the Eurovision Song Contest’s official website.


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