The words “Eurovision Song Contest” probably stir some dim images, at best, for the average American. Imagine one overlong, annual episode of American Idol, featuring…mostly professional singers from each country in Europe, where every country gets to vote on its favorite song and usually makes selections based on decades of history more than actual quality. It’s largely a receptacle for B-list pop stars or washed-up former celebrities, and it’s treated with the utmost seriousness by half of the continent and as a campy joke by the other half. Our annual Eurovision competition comes to a head this Saturday in Copenhagen. Time to get ready.
Eurovision was founded in 1956 as a way to unite the continent after a half-century marred by brutal occupation and warfare (would you believe it was invented by the neutral Swiss). It’s an extremely grand attempt at live broadcasting, with every competing song performed for a huge audience and global broadcast, and then every country’s citizens calling in to vote for their favorites (they can’t vote for themselves). These points are distributed, also on live television, a political spectacle you can’t find outside of the United Nations General Assembly.
What does the winning singer or band get? Nothing but glory! Oh, and their country is burdened with the job of hosting the whole ordeal the next year (it felt like half of the ‘90s competitions were held in Ireland as a result). Occasionally, Eurovision can be a real springboard for fame, or at least a record deal; at the very least, a winning song will chart very nicely in its home country.
For all its campy weirdness and history of partisanship, Eurovision is a very watchable spectacle. Yes, the whole thing lasts way too long (at least three and a half hours, not excluding the semi-finals and other qualifying events) and yes, you have to suffer through at least a dozen miserable ballads sung in languages you don’t know. But, much like American Idol or any other singing competition, it’s easy to pick favorites and root for them through the voting process, and the whole flag-waving aspect makes everything easy to identify. It’s like the World Cup, but only in Europe, and with singing! Here are some notable past winners.
It’s worth noting that a lot of these videos will begin with a brief video spotlighting the band’s country and feature voice-over from famed Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, who announced the BBC coverage of Eurovision from 1971 to 2008. His exceedingly droll, sarcastic commentary is part of the reason Eurovision remained popular so long, at least in Britain (he recently retired and was replaced by Graham Norton).
ABBA, “Waterloo” (1974)
This is the one indisputable pop masterpiece to emerge from Eurovision. ABBA launched itself to international fame with this victory and were topping the chats just a year later. Just look at them, looking like beautiful young extras from an Austin Powers movie. “Waterloo” was Sweden’s entry but was of course sung in English—although Eurovision sometimes imposes rules making countries sing entries in their own languages, they are usually swept aside after a few years because they make things boring.
Celine Dion, “Ne Partez Sans Moi” (1988)
This thing sounds like a James Bond theme that half-heartedly gives up in the middle. Celine Dion is French Canadian and in 1988 was still known only as a French-language singer (her English-language debut came in 1990). She represented Switzerland here (the process by which singers represent countries is obscure and largely unpatriotic) and won by only one point over the United Kingdom’s entry, Scott Fitzgerald’s “Go” (I assume he has nothing to do with the novelist). Take a look at that one—it also kinda sounds like a Bond theme.
Dana International, “Diva” (1998)
“Diva” had two things going for it: a decent hook for its chorus and the fact that it was sung by Eurovision’s first transgender performer, the Israeli Dana International. It was another vote close to the wire, with Dana winning on the final ballot of the night over the UK and Malta. “But David,” I hear you asking, “Is Israel really in Europe?” No, not really, and neither is Morocco, or Azerbaijan, but Eurovision is pretty open to anyone participating, as long as you’re in the general vicinity of Europe.
Massiel, “La, La, La” (1968)
This Spanish winner is an excellent example of the deep political wounds Eurovision so often opens up in its countries. It was originally intended for singer Joan Manuel Serrat, a legendary Spanish singer who intended to sing it in Catalan, but the dictatorship of Francisco Franco would not allow it, and he was replaced with young Massiel at the last minute. It’s also, uh, not that great a song, and surprisingly beat Cliff Richard’s “Congratulations” by only one point. There have long been unfounded rumors that Franco paid off other countries to vote “La, La, La” to victory, but they’ve never been properly substantiated.
Katrina and the Waves, “Love Shine a Light” (1997)
When Katrina and the Waves (you know them best for their ‘80s smash “Walking on Sunshine”) took the 1997 competition by storm, the UK was finally on the ascent again. Tony Blair’s Labor government had been swept to a landslide victory, after 17 years of Conservative government, only two days earlier. Katrina and the Waves’ pleasant little anthem won an unprecedented level of support and is one of the most impressive winners (in terms of sheer points) in the competition’s history. The UK has not won since, but in 1997, the country had reason to think things would only get better.
Lordi, “Hard Rock Hallelujah” (2006)
Eurovision is the domain of soft rock and pop music, as well as a particularly unlistenable garbage genre called “Schlager music” that essentially amounts to easy listening. But once in a blue moon, something different comes along, and for Eurovision, a bunch of Finns dressed as monsters playing (poppy, relatively inoffensive) hard rock was as different as it got. Just look at this performance. The incongruity of their costumes against the brightly colored stage, the fact that lead singer Mr. Lordi (yep) is wearing a jaunty flag of Finland hat. Lordi were unique for the competition, but that didn’t mean people couldn’t enthusiastically wave flags while they played. It was Finland’s first victory in 44 years of trying.