America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest

The Pain of Victory
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 18 2006 1:28 PM

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest

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As any Eurovision veteran will testify, there's a particular spirit of jovial bonhomie among the contestants that is unique to the event. It cheers the soul to see members of rival delegations loudly exchanging greetings, praising each other's songs, swapping flags, and generally cheering each other on. Would that all international competitions were like this.

Still, behind all the smiles and warm wishes, you might detect a glimmer of fear. Winning Eurovision is a great honor—but it's also something of a poisoned chalice. Once the celebrations are over, the winning country will swiftly find itself landed with the huge responsibility of hosting the next year's contest. It's a sobering realization.

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Sure, there's financial support from fellow members of the European Broadcasting Union, but a logistical nightmare awaits any hapless victor, and woe betide any country that wins the contest too regularly.

During the mid-1990s, Ireland had the dubious fortune of winning Eurovision four times in five years—a fate that was rumored at the time to have cost their national TV company dearly. Some mischievous commentators have speculated that the Irish have been quietly dodging victory ever since—as their subsequent poor showings would seem to testify.

Ireland's Brian Kennedy. Click image to expand.
Ireland's Brian Kennedy

Ten years on from the last Irish victory, that may be about to change. Brian Kennedy is the first Irish entrant in living memory to enjoy any sort of significant recognition outside his homeland, having sustained a successful recording career for 16 years—and a close recording and performing association with Van Morrison for six of those years. His self-penned entry, "Every Song Is a Cry for Love," is the sort of syrupy ballad that would normally have me covering my ears in horror—but, having heard him perform it several times during Eurovision week here in Athens, both at rehearsals in the Olympic Indoor Arena and at the various official parties, I find myself warming to it. There's something of Aaron Neville in Kennedy's upper-register delivery, and the song itself has the sort of basic emotional pull that can really hit home after the third complimentary vodka.

Nevertheless, and in common with 23 of this year's 37 competing songs, Kennedy has to succeed in not just one but two international telephone votes—a situation that can in part be attributed to the collapse of communism.

For the first 30 years of Eurovision's existence, participation was mostly limited to Western European nations (with the notable exception of Israel, which is eligible to compete despite not being in Europe at all). However, since the fall of the Iron Curtain—and more particularly since the disintegration of the Soviet Union—Eastern European nations and former Soviet republics have been queuing up to join the circus. It is almost as if participation in Eurovision is viewed as setting the final symbolic seal of legitimacy upon their new-found independence. Ah, the power of popular song!

Understandably, sitting through nearly 40 giddy dance routines, upward key changes, erotic semi-stripteases, and the like would try the patience of even the most die-hard Eurovision fan—not to mention the lengthy voting procedures that occupy the second half of the broadcast. (I could cheerfully spend the next three days talking you through the labyrinthine complexities of the voting and scoring system, but I sense that we all have better ways of spending our time.)

Something had to give. And so, two years ago, the Eurovision Song Contest split itself in half. Tonight, the 23 nations that received the lowest number of votes in last year's contest—plus plucky newcomer Armenia—will battle it out in a live semifinal. The 10 countries that receive the highest number of telephone votes will then graduate to the Saturday night final, where they will join the 10 most successful countries from last year—plus a select group known as the "Big Four" (France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom), which are granted automatic finalist status due their major financial contribution toward the event's running costs.

As became all too apparent last year, the perceived benefits of "Big Four" status can come at a terrible price. Was it hubristic complacency on their part or simmering resentment on everybody else's that resulted in the bottom four places in the final being occupied by the self-same countries? If this pattern continues, it could have worrying consequences for the future funding of the event. After all, who would want to sponsor ritual self-humiliation?

Perhaps with this in mind, three of these four countries have noticeably raised their game in 2006. (We shall pass quickly over the forgettable French ballad, which is a prime candidate for what has become known as "nul points" status—the awarding of precisely zero marks from the massed hordes of tele-voters. It is an achievement for which the Norwegians have become famous.)

Spain's Las Ketchup. Click image to expand.
Spain's Las Ketchup

Spain has fielded the best-known act in the 2006 lineup: Las Ketchup, who scored a massive international hit in 2002 with "Asereje (The Ketchup Song)." Cautiously sticking to a tomato-based theme, their song is titled " Un Bloody Mary Por Favor." Ketchup and vodka—not exactly the most appetizing of combinations, is it?

Germany's Texas Lightning. Click image to expand.
Germany's Texas Lightning

Meanwhile, Germany has opted for a delightfully easygoing country-and-western love song. This has charmed press and fans alike during rehearsals week and has been a huge floor-filler every night at the official parties. In among all the desperate gimmickry that surrounds it, "No No Never," by Texas Lightning stands out a mile. If there is one characteristic that could be said to unite all the winning songs since the introduction of telephone voting in the late 1990s, it is that they share some sort of indefinably heartwarming, lovable quality. This year, Germany has it in bucket loads. Could we be looking at Berlin in 2007?

Turning toward my own home country, there have been smiles all around the British delegation this week. A strong set of rehearsals has confirmed that Daz Sampson has fielded the United Kingdom's strongest Eurovision entry since Katrina & the Waves stormed to victory in 1997 with the anthemic "Love Shine a Light." There is no other entry this year quite like "Teenage Life"—a curious pop/rap confection that comes across like an unholy blend of "Gangsta's Paradise" and "Another Brick in the Wall." Sampson's ebullient performance is further strengthened by his backing dancers: a troupe of feisty young women in school uniform who cavort about in a makeshift classroom, complete with wooden desks and chalkboard. Politically correct? Maybe not entirely. Entertaining? Most definitely. Much like Eurovision itself, in fact.

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