The Eurovision Song Contest is upon us once again. Last year’s winner, Ukraine, will host what officially is a four-hour concert (plus two semi-finals this week) featuring the best musicians across Europe (and Australia—just run with it) competing to see who has the best song. In reality?
It’s the Hunger Games of pop music.
And this is the second year that you can watch it in the US as well. Logo, the LGBT cable network, has bought the rights to show the Grand Final live on Saturday May 13th, and if you can, you absolutely should watch. Because when the show begins, you’ll see Europe go to war using no weapons other than “lalalala” choruses and magnificently over-the-top staging. It’s fabulous. It’s awful. It’s fabulously awful and, on occasion, transcendentally brilliant. After all, what other continent-wide office party can boast added CGI and a sociopolitical agenda?
So, get ready to experience Europe on its very best night (or afternoon, for those of you in the States). Here’s how you Eurovision:
1. Get Comfortable.
Here’s what you’re looking at:
- 2-3 hours of live performances
- A frankly staggering amount of “This act from Sweden are doing Swedish things! Because they’re from Sweden!” videos
- An hour-plus of “streamlined” voting where every country gives the most points to whoever is most likely to invade them next. (It’s always Russia.)
So what I’m saying is, you’re going to be there for a while. Treat this like the Super Bowl or a Pay-Per-View event. Get comfortable, make sure your phone is charged, hydrate regularly, and most off all, prepare snacks. Think finger food, pizza, that horrifying football-made-of-pepperoni-thing if it’s still on sale and not running wild across the plains somewhere.
2. Selective Research
It’s tempting to research the field and try and figure out who your favorites will be and who, when they appear on stage, are essentially a BATHROOM BREAK sign with lyrics.
Don’t do this.
Not because it’s not useful (it is), but because it spoils the fun. Eurovision is musical Christmas. Sometimes you get something awesome like an incredibly jaunty Greek song about economic apocalypse and drinking…
…and sometimes you get this:
That was the British entry in 2015.
So…yeah. But the costume twist halfway through is still kind of brilliant.
Anyway, my point is this: the surprise is always the best bit. And besides, if you really want to do some research, then look into the vast amount of previous Eurovision acts that are now on YouTube. I can especially recommend Lordi, who really do look as if they fell through a hole in space from another dimension where Eurovision is 8000 PERCENT MORE METAL.
3. It’s Not You
Eurovision is defined less by “shock of the new” than by “shock of the WHAT?!” There are going to be some massively eccentric musical choices inflicted on you over these few hours. They will change you. Let them. This is a siege perilous of Polish rap and chorus-adaptable clothing. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. This is Europe. This is Eurovision. This is GLORY.
4. A Snark-Rich Environment
I don’t normally dig on snark as the default mode of communication but it’s basically Eurovision’s second language. As an example, if you possibly can, you should watch the BBC broadcast: Graham Norton’s commentary is worth it all by itself.
When you’re watching the show, you are positively encouraged to hop online and mock away. Take a look at #eurovision2015. That’s an entire continent coming together to go “…WHY did Britain think that was a good idea?” and embracing the ridiculous majesty of the thing by laughing both at and with it. (This year you can follow along at either #eurovision or #eurovision2016.) And that’s why I love it; there’s a refreshingly small amount of mean-spiritedness to it. Eurovision is one of those events that almost seems to have happened by accident and it’s so random and vast and deeply eccentric at times that it thrives under this sort of attention.
5. TED Talk Chord Change
Eurovision is absolutely science fiction. It’s the most science fiction night of TV ever. You get incredible costuming that’s run the gamut over the years from Cezar the Telescopic Opera Time Lord to Lordi, the Warm-Up Band for Immortan Joe who we met earlier. Even better, you also get incredibly enthusiastic staging and camera work: Eurovision 2014, for example, took place on a stage which looked like the Cube from Cube got blackout drunk and did unspeakable, glorious things to an MMA cage.
The performances themselves are often just as impressive. In 2014, the Tolmachevy Sisters performed on both ends of a seesaw at once (see above!). Then there’s this nicely done chap-in-box/enormously-frocked-dancer combo from Fareed Mamedov in 2013. More recently still, last year’s winner Måns Zelmerlöw won with a performance that was a song combined with Minority Report, Pink Floyd – The Wall, and the Hadouken.
Eurovision is straight up and down science fiction, and I give it, maybe five years, before someone’s performing a duet with a holographic version of ABBA (who, incidentally, won for Sweden with their performance of “Waterloo” in 1974…)
6. It’s Surprisingly Educational
Eurovision often provides a surprisingly accurate snapshot of Europe’s current political climate. The 2014 Russian entry was booed live, both for Putin’s fondness for playing geographical Pokémon and the homophobic policies that were rolled out that year. Conchita Wurst, the self-described drag queen who won that year endured countless attacks just for being in the contest, let alone daring to have a fantastic voice and a song that deserved the win. Almost as good as Conchita’s win was watching the various bigoted comments griping about her fall away over the course of the show as people realized she wasn’t just going to win, but truly deserved to. That win is still regarded as a very deliberate thumb in the eye to the extreme right-wing homophobia that’s noticeably closer to the political surface in Europe now than it was then.
Then there’s us—and by “us,” I mean Britain. Having last won in 1997, our position as Eurovision’s Mildly Disgraced Dad at School Disco is about to notch up its second decade. This year, for the first time in six years, our Tributes have been chosen by public vote. More interesting still, this year the country is having a referendum no one seems to want to have on a thing that very few people seem to want to do: leave the European Union. While the reasons for this are as farcical as they are profoundly depressing, it could have a serious effect on our showing at the Contest. There’s a reasonable chance we’ll either win this year in an effort to get us to stay, or we’ll somehow score negative points. We’ve gotten close before.
7. Occasionally, It’s Brilliant
It really is! That’s actually the best bit! Once or twice in the show you’ll be treated to a single, perfect moment of pop and that’s so much harder to do than it ever gets credit for. Conchita Wurst is one of the best examples (and her album is great too) but there’s a ton more including this winner from Germany in 2010:
And this, the theme tune to the best anime that’s never been made from 2013:
Yes, a lot of this stuff is generic, but when it’s not, it’s extraordinary. If there’s one thing Eurovision’s taught me, it’s that pop music is a language with hundreds of regional dialects and, once a year, we get to hear what those all sound like. Sure, some of them are honking music catastrophes, but some are amazing and it’s worth wading through the dreck to get to the gems.
8. Stay to the End
There will come a time when your body tells you the scoring has been going on for 2 or 3 days and time will cease to have any meaning. Your body and your mind will start wondering about bed, and sleep, and maybe not watching people read numbers on a TV screen…
Because about 10 minutes later you’ll be sucked into the incredible amount of tension baked into the process. Eurovision voting actually runs off a drama algorithm designed to make it as close as possible and keep you watching to the end. Yes, computers are manipulating your attention through entertainment: The Matrix is real, it’s here and you can dance to it.
The Eurovision song contest is huge, ludicrous, and perfect. It’s a glitterball war filled with surprising emotional investment and nuance and complicated political tension that you can sing along with. It’s Europe’s office party and this year, you’re invited. Do come along—and if you do, may the chord changes be forever in your favor.
This article was originally published in May 2016, and has been updated for the 2017 competition.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.