To the Europeans, that fact that most of America has never heard of Eurovision is astounding.
Eurovision is a European tradition, a pop song contest that has launched the careers of some decently well known names in pop music like Celine Dion and Abba. Think of Eurovision as a cross between American Idol and the Olympics. Most countries in Europe (and some that are not actually in Europe...such as Israel and Australia) participate, holding in-country competitions to find the best singer and original song to represent their country in the international song contest. Then, for one week, all of the countries send their contestant to perform their original song and be voted as the reigning champion of Eurovision.
Last year, Austria won Eurovision with their contestant Conchita Wurst, an elegantly dressed transgender with an immaculately groomed beard.
Since then Conchita has become some sort of national icon, gracing the local tabloid-like newspapers on a near-daily basis, and somehow becoming the face of Bank Austria. Walk past any Bank Austria and you will see posters or commercials of Conchita going shopping (which requires money - so you see how it correlates to banking...obviously).
Since Conchita was the winner of last year's competition, Austria was slated to host Eurovision the following year by default.
Now I should mention that, almost entirely by accident, I had heard of Eurovision before moving to Austria. At some point in university I discovered old Eurovision videos on Youtube and spent an entire evening laughing my head off. Why? Well, in some respects Eurovision is quite different from any song or talent contest you have ever seen. In America it seems to be the accepted Modum Operandus to say, " You have 15 minutes of fame. Don't waste it". No matter what, you will do your best to impress and be perceived to be as amazing and celebrity-worthy as possible. Right? I mean, that is what I would do in that situation. Eurovision however, capitalizes on ridiculousness. Many countries know they don't stand a chance of winning, so rather than attempting to look "cool" they opt for looking downright insane.
We're talking singing pirates, giant black cone hats, you name it. Why does a country choose to use their 3 minutes of original song, broadcasted to over 200 million viewers in this manner? I have. no. idea.
But it does make for quite a show.
And then there are the politics. Countries are not allowed to vote for their own contestant. Rather, each country can designate up to 12 points to the country of their choice, with the points (allegedly) being made up of 50% jury vote and 50% popular vote. As this insightful article pointed out, many countries vote quite predictably, designating points to countries as a "please don't invade us", or "sorry we invaded you".
Kind of like a pity vote... kind of.
This year's contest had all the elements you would expect - changes were made in the city to accommodate the contest; people were alternately pleased and disgruntled at the disruption to normal life, etc. etc. A giant viewing public area was set up in front of the Rathaus (city hall), and on the evening that the first semi-finals were taking place we crammed in with thousands of others to watch the spectacle live on jumbo-tron.
It was so much fun. The first evening featured the first 17-ish contestants performing their original song, complete with intricate light shows and choreography. Here is the rundown of my personal favorites:
My overall favorite song and choreography was Belgium:
The song that Jacob is STILL singing on a near-daily basis is from Israel:
But the song I really wanted to win, on the sheer merit of it's "fun-value" was Serbia: (Skip ahead to minute 1:48 if you'd like to catch the point when Europe collectively exploded with excitement)
On the other hand however, some of the songs had a blatantly political twist. The songs aren't technically allowed to be politically charged, though of course a country could always simply deny a song's obvious political agenda. Take Russia for example. Russia's song was definitely not a brilliantly crafted piece of pro-Russian propaganda of "we believe in the dream" sung by a ridiculously gorgeous Russian model. Oh wait, nevermind. It was.
After the two rounds of semi-finals the acts were pared down to 27 countries for the finals. Interestingly enough, the larger (or should I say, wealthier) countries go straight to the finals - Germany, Italy, Great Britain, etc. don't even perform live until the night of the finals.
That weekend we had some dear friends from university visiting, and we couldn't have been more excited to introduce them to the wonderment of Eurovision. It is like being in the city hosting the world cup during the world cup. It's a big deal...for Europe, at least. The night of the finals we prayed that the rain would hold off and went to join the other thousands upon thousands (I think I heard one of the moderators say 20,000) of people heading to the Rathaus to watch the jumbotron. People were decked out in favor of their countries. (I think these guys were pro-U.K.)
We got there at 8 PM, an hour before the show started, and faithfully stood in place, crammed in with all other 20,000 people until about 1:00 AM when the winner was finally announced. (Since it's not the point of the blog post, I will just let you know now that Sweden won with a dance song that sounds eerily like Avicii's "Hey Brother").
Here is the interesting bit though - remember how I was talking about the political charge of a number of the songs? Well Armenia wins the award for "most super-obvious political message", while simultaneously acting like a child who did not just get caught red-handed with their hand in the cookie jar. The "love" song titled "Face the Shadow" performed by "Genealogy" with a chorus of "Don't deny", was supposedly not about the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Nope. Not political at all.
To put it over the top however, were these guys, strategically weaving lines through the audience and waving enormous Armenian flags the whole. entire. show.
Now, I understand that they were making a statement. Perhaps even a statement that desperately needs to be made. But in the moment, the statement looked like "We don't want you to watch Eurovision" more than anything else.
Which is a shame because you really, and I mean really, should be watching Eurovision.