I have a dirty little secret; a private shame that I have lived with since high-school days. For most of the time I keep it hidden in a closet, but like an unshakeable cold-sore it rears its ugly head once a year, in around May, and then I just can’t help myself.
You see, I love the Eurovision. I absolutely frikking adore the Eurovision. There, I said it out loud.
I have watched the Eurovision religiously since I was thirteen. I look forward to it each year, read up on the contestants, critically review their qualifying performances, and keep running lists of my favorites. In university I even threw Eurovision parties, for Pete’s sake, much to the dismay of my family and friends (other than those of whom I introduced to this addictive annual treat, and like an evil drug pusher got them just as hooked as me).
On the basis that there might actually be people in this world who don’t know what the Eurovision is, here is a brief intro.
In 1956, in a fractured post-WWII Europe, some bright sparks at the European Broadcasting Union had an idea on how to foster greater European unity. They would stage a Song Contest. It would be called “Eurovision”. Each European country would be invited to submit an entrant, which would be performed at a gala event, and broadcast live across the continent.
A jury in each participating country then votes on everyone else’s song, but not their own. This involves each national jury awarding points to their 10 favorite songs – one point to the song rated 10th best, two points to the 9th best, and so on. At the top of the table, 3rd place receives eight points, 2nd place ten points, and 1st place the much coveted “Douze Points!” (twelve points – for some unknown reason, scoring results are mainly delivered in French). At the end of the night the song with the most points wins. The system of scoring is designed to produce a true European favorite, as to win a song needs to have pan-European appeal, speaking to all Europeans regardless of language or cultural divides.
But the scoring process has itself become a much-loved and integral part of the show. Everyone watches with bated breath as the results roll in from across Europe, one country at a time. The voting can take as long as the singing. Scoring can be highly partisan, if not downright political. So, for example, you can pretty much expect without exception that Greece will award 12 points to Cyprus, year in and year out, no matter how God-awful the Cypriot entry is (and it usually is). In recent years a popular vote by SMS / internet has been added, so that each national vote is nowadays scored 50% jury / 50% general public.
Convoluted as it may sound, the system works remarkably well at ferreting out the catchiest songs, plus is damned entertaining to watch. Viewing aficionados (ahem, ahem) tally up the results as they are announced, all the while running endless calculations to try to predict who might eventually be crowned Eurovision champion. The winning country is then automatically appointed as host nation for the following year’s contest, where the whole extravaganza is repeated again.
This simple idea has grown into something far greater than anyone could possibly have predicted back in 1956. The show has become an annual phenomenon in Europe – part national pride parade, part talent show and part unmitigated cheese fest. Like with the Olympics, host countries use the event to shamelessly showcase themselves. And like with modern-day talent show pretenders (think American Idol and The Voice) the winners of Eurovision can become instant superstars. On the other hand, Eurovision losers can often be incredibly, painfully, hopelessly bad.
Over the years the contest has even managed to spawn some genuine mega-stars, like Abba (1974 winner for Sweden) and Celine Dion (1988 winner for Switzerland). Eurovision has now been broadcast for 60 years straight, which according to the Guinness Book of Records makes it the longest running television show on earth. It is also one of the most widely watched non-sport events on the planet, with a global audience of about 500 million. Although given that the population of Europe is about 500 million, basic arithmetic suggests that the only ones watching Eurovision are in fact the Europeans. Explaining why outside of Europe it is practically unheard of.
Except, that is, in Australia.
Australia is a country of migrants, and over the past century Australia has welcomed migrants from everywhere to its shores. This has included folks from all over Europe – the UK, Italy, Greece, the Slavic and Baltic regions, etc. Yet whilst these new arrivals may have adopted Australia as their new home, they also tend to retain close cultural affiliation with their countries of origin.
The Special Broadcasting Service, or SBS, is an Australian government-funded TV channel that broadcasts local language content for the country’s migrant communities. And a highlight of the SBS annual calendar has always been its live broadcasting of the Eurovision. As a result, the Eurovision has developed an almost cultish following Down Under.
All of which is how, as a nerdy teenager, I was first introduced to the joy and drama of the Eurovision song contest. The rest, as they say, is history.
This year’s Eurovision fiesta was held in Vienna, on account of last year’s winner being a bearded Austrian drag queen, Chonchita Wurst, with his/her rousing song “Rise like a Phoenix”. (Believe me, if you are a Eurovision devotee, you’d know this as one of the finest moments in all of Eurovision history). The grand-final took place on Saturday, 23 May, 2015.
Eurovision 2015 was also extra special, at least for me. First, it was Eurovision’s 60th edition, and my 30th anniversary of watching. That makes Eurovision one of the longest relationships I have ever had.
Second, Israel had qualified for the final. Israel has long been considered part of Europe for Eurovision purposes, and has in fact won three times, in 1978, 1979 and 1998. Although of late the quality of Israeli entries has been a bit hit-and-miss, so the fact that my country of birth had qualified for the finals, and with a really strong song as well, was incredibly exciting.
And third, Australia would be competing in the Eurovision for the first time.
Australia? What the fuck? Isn’t Australia about as far away from Europe as you can possibly get?
It appears that the aforementioned cult status of Eurovision in Australia, coupled with a generous offer of sponsorship dollars from the SBS, had persuaded Eurovision organizers to slightly redraw the map of the world, so as to include Australia in Europe. Guy Sebastian (winner of the first season of Australian Idol, now there’s irony for you) would be representing Australia on the Eurovision stage for the first time ever. Meaning also that Australians would be able to vote in the Eurovision for the first time ever.
And whilst this may mean nothing to you, for me it was a very big deal indeed. No longer would I just be a silent, distant Eurovision observer. This year, my voice would finally be heard. This year, my private shame could be taken out of the closet, paraded around, and shouted from the rooftops. There is a God, and he/she is clearly a Eurovision fan, too.
In any case, a minor technical problem presented itself: I was in New York over Eurovision weekend. Had I been anywhere in Europe I could have walked into any bar to watch the show, but here I was in a place totally oblivious to the Eurovision fever gripping a whole continent on the other side of the Atlantic.
Fortunately, a quick search on the internet revealed that there was one bar in Manhattan’s lower East side that would be screening the Eurovision live. On the bar’s Facebook page, I saw that 78 people had signed up to attend the event. Which I found to be quite unbelievable: in a global city of fifteen million there was but a single bar, and 78 lonely souls, attuned to the fact that the world’s greatest song show was about to take place.
Still, one bar was all I needed. So with the click of a mouse I increased the Official New York Eurovision Viewing Party’s guest list to 79.
I arrived at 3pm, just in time for the start of the show (owing to time differences, the evening broadcast from Vienna was a convenient mid-afternoon in New York). To my great surprise, the entire (albeit small) bar had been given over to the Eurovision party, and a huge screen set up at the back. The place seemed packed, with people crammed into tables, perched at the bar or sitting on the floor.
The crowd was incredibly friendly, and everyone was in a festive mood – laughing, chatting and swapping favorite Eurovision stories. The majority of people there were expats and visitors to New York, who like me couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on this year’s offering. Although there were also a few American fans and even some New Yorkers who had never heard of Eurovision – they had been dragged along by friends. One poor fellow had just come down to his local bar for a quiet drink, only to get caught up in the madness.
Pretty soon I found myself in heated Eurovision debate with two young ladies from Lithuania, a pair of Israeli backpackers, and some rather drunk Irish folk. I found a seat with a group of about ten Aussies, all of whom live in New York and had turned out in force to support the Green and Gold.
Let the Eurovision commence!
The opening was classic Eurovision: a trio of attractive hostesses in glittering ball gowns cracking utterly awful jokes in three languages; endless musical homages to this year’s uber-cheesy theme of “Building Bridges”; a farewell performance from reigning champ Conchita, to the delirious delight of the home crowd; and of course the obligatory choir of multi-racial multi-ethnic cherubic children, gathered up from all over Europe, singing together as a symbol of Pan-European harmony. Seriously, any more schmaltz and I would have thrown up.
The singing soon got underway, and Israel’s was the third performance of the night. The young Israeli singer, wearing a bizarre pair of gold-winged sneakers, performed an upbeat number that had definite Arabic / Middle-Eastern undertones. It was a genuine crowd-pleaser, and the entire bar was soon clapping and bopping along. The two Israeli backpackers went into some form of Eurovision-inspired frenzy, singing along and dancing on a table like a pair of demented karaoke artists.
Australia’s entry was the 12th song in the show (out of 27) and when Guy Sebastian came on stage the Aussie contingent in the bar went wild. For the first time ever, the chant of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” was heard in reference to a singing contest. Some smart-arse Brit sitting nearby sniffed: “Huh, they’ve had to buy their way in”, and almost got his head taken off by an Aussie lynch-mob. Don’t fuck with drunken Australian Eurovision fans is all I can say. Mr. Sebastian turned in a very decent performance, and got a resounding cheer from all those present.
In 1999 the Eurovision rules were changed to allow for songs to be sung in any language – until then, each nation had to present a song in their home language. The relentless march of English as a global language was thus evident for all to see: except for France, Montenegro, Romania, Spain and Italy, this year all the other songs were in English. And the specter of the cultural juggernaut that is the United States loomed large, notwithstanding that country’s total indifference to Eurovision. Of all the songs sung in English, every one of them was delivered in an (attempted) American accent.
The Swedish entry, a catchy number called “Heroes”, was sung by a hunky young fellow in tight leather pants, who on looks alone could have won. His performance was accompanied by an excellent background light show, and this combination – Serious Hunk + Catchy Lyric + Cool Staging – proved unstoppable. Sweden eventually won in a landslide.
The second place getter, “A Million Voices”, was performed by a drop-dead gorgeous Russian bombshell, and was my personal favorite. But geopolitics was always going to make a Russian victory in this year’s Eurovision unlikely. Thanks to the recent antics of Uncle Putin, Western European countries dissed Russia en-masse when it came to the voting. A sentiment that was loudly echoed in a New York bar – every award of points to Russia was accompanied by boos and hisses.
And of course Eurovision would not be Eurovision without the bursts of weirdness that have come to characterize the show. True, there was nothing to match recent stand-outs in the freak-show part of the Eurovision, like the dancing Russian grannies (2012), Ireland’s gold spray-painted Jedward twins (also 2012), Finland’s hard-rock Klingon orchestra (2006), Ukraine’s silver lamé wearing Nazis (2007), or Lithuania’s Icanto boy-band, who played air guitars while decked out in work shirts, ties and glittering silver hot pants (2010). But fear not, there was still plenty of oddball entertainment on offer for die-hard fans.
Like the contestants from Hungary, Spain, Estonia and Russia, who got so engrossed in their heartfelt singing that they managed to cry – actually cry – as they sang. Or like halfway through the otherwise entirely forgettable Austrian performance, when the lead singer’s piano burst into dramatic flames, for no apparent reason.
The Belgian number was delivered by a seriously strange bloke lying prone on the floor for half his song. The Spanish songstress had her dress ripped from her back midway through the song, so that she could finish the number in a super-revealing mini-skirt and fishnets. Although that was nothing compared to the UK singers – midway through their number the lights went out, and in the darkness their clothes all lit up thanks to sewed in fluorescent strips.
Not to mention the Armenian back-up singers dressed in bizarre vampire costumes. Or the Serbian back-up singers, marching around in Phantom of the Opera masks and waving flags in a carefully choreographed militaristic display. Or the three Italian singers who performed an emotional opera-style number against a backdrop of Roman columns and exploding eagles. Or the Latvians, who took out this year’s award for bizarre lyrics, with their “Feeling again I am alive it’s your shining reflected, love injected” routine.
Did I mention that Eurovision is nothing if not seriously strange at times?
All in all, as happens every year I got to experience five hours of pure Eurovision bliss. But this year, perhaps taken by the novelty of being in a bar in New York with a crowd of displaced Eurovision lovers, it turned out to be one of the best, most fun Eurovision viewings I have ever had. And the bursts of good-humored national pride on display seemed to suggest that for all of the cheesiness, pomp and ceremony, and outright absurdity, Eurovision today remains what it was always meant to be: a chance for Europeans to come together through song.
See you next year, in Sweden.