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Eurovision: why Americans can't afford to miss out on this cultural spectacular


If you've never watched, then this year, at this hinge moment for the future of Europe, is the ideal moment to take the plunge

This week new figures showed that the eurozone remains mired in recession, the worst since the second world war, while the continent’s feckless leaders once again offered no new measures to stem sky-high unemployment or stimulate growth. From here, on the other side of the Atlantic, it is easy to look at Europe and see nothing but hopelessness. An unworkable currency union, a clueless and austerity-obsessed policy elite, spiking nationalism and extremism. Europe, it can seem, is done for.

But there is a future for Europe – and it wears sequins. The magisterial musical showdown known as the Eurovision Song Contest has its grand final this Saturday, and at this desperate moment for the continent, it’s more necessary than ever. Eurovision is an enormous spectacle, one of the world’s biggest non-sporting events. Last year 102.8 million people, about the same number who watched the blackout-stricken Super Bowl, tuned in to watch the cavalcade of shimmying showgirls and leathery chanteurs, and this year is expected to be even higher.

You may have heard Eurovision derided by antimodern haters as some kind of tacky, overblown kitsch festival – and in the years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, some western Europeans have not hesitated to add a racist tinge to their derision, calling it a silly display only fit for Slavs and Balts. Pay them no mind. Eurovision only looks like a singing competition. It is much more than that: it is an emergent political paradigm, a model wherein national pride and pan-European unity go hand in hand. The EU itself can only dream of this kind of allegiance. 

And how much better the world would be if only it were governed by the fraternal bonds of Eurovision, rather than the insane punitive diktats of Brussels and Frankfurt! It was just three years ago, when the crisis was beginning to bite, that now-dreaded Germany won it all on a surge of pan-European joy with Satellite, sung by the winsome popstar Lena in an incongruous Australian accent (and written by a woman from Oklahoma, of all places). The next year, performing in Germany, a rapper from debt-wracked Greece spat verses among Hellenic breakdancers and projected Ionic columns – and the Germans loved it! They gave Greece 10 points, the second-highest score, while their chancellor was trying to wipe out the breakdancers’ pensions.

Eurovision has a large following far from the continent, especially in Australia – but America has been slow to get with the program. If you’ve never watched, then this year, at this hinge moment for the future of Europe, is the ideal moment for you to take the plunge. There are public Eurovision viewings in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and probably in your town too if you do a quick search of your favorite gay listings website. But if this is your first Eurovision, there are some things you need to know:

1. Ignore the British
As a reader of the Guardian you may have been persuaded that the Brits know a thing or two. I am here to tell you: on this one occasion at least, tune them out. Perpetual losers of the Eurovision Song Competition (they finished dead last three times in the past decade), the British have tried to assuage their pain by dismissing the show as a big joke. The grapes are so sour that one singer from Buck’s Fizz, who won the competition in 1981 with a peppy little number, has called for a UK Eurovision boycott.
So you would do well to avoid watching Eurovision on the BBC, whose commentator offers unamusing (and sometimes straight-up insulting) barbs about nations even the most devoted Ryanair customer would struggle to find on a map. Eurovision is too important to joke about; far better to watch the simulcast in Romanian.

2. Push the borders
“So viel Europa war nie!” – “There has never been more Europe!”, rejoiced Joachim Gauck, the president of Germany, in a landmark speech this February on the future of the troubled continent. It is even truer than he knows. The EU now stretches from Ireland to Bulgaria, but Eurovision encompasses even more territory. In 1998, for instance, the winning country was Israel, represented by a bombshell transgendered Israeli diva singing in Hebrew.
And five different states of the former USSR have won since 2000, most recently Azerbaijan – an only nominally democratic petrostate on the Caspian Sea, 2,500 miles from London. For disgruntled westerners this is a sign of decline. It is the exact opposite: proof of the relevance of the European political project at a moment when too many want to close up shop.

3. Beware of disco 
If you are American and getting ready for Eurovision, there’s a distinct chance that, like me, you are a man of a certain sexual orientation. The truth is, though, that while gay men may make up the loudest contingent of Eurovision fans, we’re a minority all the same. (If only Europe had 102.8 million gay men!) Every year there’s at least one tune that makes you want to slather glitter on your chest and throw your arms in the air. I especially liked What About My Dreams?, the Hungarian entry from 2011, which still figures prominently on my cardio mix.

But I warn you: disco never wins. If you’re placing a bet on the winner, you’d do better to look for power ballads, peppy schlager tunes, or the occasional singer-songwriter number. This year the bookies have given the shortest odds to Denmark, represented by an dark-voiced young woman accompanied by military drummers and a fifer.

4. Accept the gimmicks – but don’t be fooled by them 
Yes, there are a lot of stupid acts in Eurovision – but no one said democracy was easy! Camp is a losing game, and as Herman Cain will attest, a gimmick may get you some attention for a while, but it won’t get you to the top. A good gimmick, combined with a bit of bloc voting, may be enough to get you to fifth or sixth place, but at Eurovision the best act wins more often than you’d think. Last year’s show featured a collection of bread-baking Russian grandmothers, a middle-aged Sammarinese woman cooing about Facebook, and a decrepit Montenegrin rapper who wheeled a Trojan horse onstage. But the winner, by an overwhelming margin, was Sweden’s raven-haired Loreen, who needed no set and minimal dancing to take the title with Euphoria, the best Eurovision song in a decade.

A word about voting: each country awards points to its 10 favorite entrants, from one to a maximum of 12 points ("douze points!", as the bilingual hosts proclaim), and cannot vote for itself. But Eurovision's ballot framework makes the American electoral college look sensible. Each nation's votes have the same weight: Iceland, population 324,000, counts for just as much as Russia, population 143 million. What's more, viewers' votes only count for 50% of each country's result; the other 50% is determined by a shadowy "professional jury" of alleged music professionals. On the plus side, the tabulation of votes at the end of the show does allow you the chance to learn the names of all the countries in French. Say it with me: "L'ex-république yougoslave de Macédoine."

5. Don’t be ashamed to be American
On the contrary: there are Americans everywhere at Eurovision. The Slovenian entrant this year was an American (though she was eliminated in the semifinal). The best Eurovision gossip blog is edited by an American. One of my favorite performers of recent years, the showgirly Kalomira, tore up the stage with “Secret Combination” and placed third in the 2008 contest. Her killer bouzouki-backed dance moves and questionable English made me assume she was a native, but in fact, Kalomira comes from just around the way in West Hempstead, New York, where her parents run a restaurant. My fellow Americans: Eurovision is our show too.


The final starts at  21:00 CET / 3:00 PM EDT

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