ATHENS, Greece—Forget the Grammys, forget the MTV Music Awards. Drawing an estimated audience of 300 million viewers, the annual Eurovision Song Contest—now in its 51st year—can stake a legitimate claim to being the world's most watched regular music event. Despite this, the show remains entirely unknown to all but a handful of Americans.
This situation may be about to change. Earlier this year, NBC announced that it had acquired the rights to develop and screen a U.S. version of Eurovision, in which the 40-odd competing European nations will be replaced by the 50 states of the union. With preparations under way for this year's Eurovision, which takes place Saturday in Athens, this is an ideal time to offer an introduction to the phenomenon.
Full disclosure: I'm a longtime Eurovision fan, with a deep affection for the show that stretches back to childhood. As such, I have frequently had to defend it against the cultivated sneers of friends and colleagues. For while the contest is taken deeply seriously by the rest of Europe, whose popular music it can reasonably be said to represent, it is mostly regarded in the United Kingdom, where I live, as a camp joke. Unashamedly populist in nature, Eurovision's relentlessly upbeat, major-key feel inevitably jars with sophisticated British notions of creativity and cool. After all, didn't we single-handedly invent modern pop music? How dare these foreign upstarts try to sell a second-hand reading of our own culture back to us!
In theory, Eurovision's aim has always been to discover "the best song in Europe," with the focus on "song." In practice, things don't quite work out so simply. Since the majority of the viewing public will only hear the competing songs once before casting their telephone votes, it is imperative that each performance creates an instant impact to ensure that it stands out from the herd.
So, every trick in the showbiz book is thrown out, in rapid and dizzying succession. Dance routines start from a base level of "frenetic" and escalate upward. (This year, there's an awful lot of break dancing.) Costumes start at "florid" and expand outward—in many cases, quite literally. (The gown worn by the Swedish contestant covers most of the stage space behind her, and the monster costume worn by Finland's lead singer sprouts outsized pterodactyl wings during the final verse.) Mid-song costume changes are not unheard of; mid-song costume removal has become almost common, ever since a 1981 British victory in which the male performers tore off the skirts of the female performers, to a lyrical cue of "And if you wanna see some more!" (On reflection, perhaps the United Kingdom isn't always as sophisticated as it likes to think it is.)
Meanwhile, each country's props department works overtime to create the supreme staging gimmick—with mixed results. The Russians have a ballerina emerging from a grand piano, scattering rose petals. Ukraine has a huge jump-rope. Iceland's Silvia Night slides onto the stage from a giant white stiletto and pulls a telephone receiver from an outsized stick of candy. Finland has the biggest pyrotechnic display; Sweden the biggest wind machine. At Eurovision, size matters. (All of which makes the Latvian effort—a diminutive and decidedly low-tech junior robot—look ill-advised.)
This "instant appeal" imperative also stretches to the songs themselves. Due to a restriction dating from the show's genesis in the 1950s, when pop music was obliged to fit the strictures of the 7-inch vinyl format, no song is permitted to exceed three minutes in length. This ensures a tight discipline in their construction, into which a variety of well-worn tricks are squeezed. Each song must grab the listener's attention within the first few seconds, and each song should build to a suitably exhilarating conclusion—usually by means of an upward key change before the final refrain.
When it comes to that all-important chorus—which is reprised in a memory-jogging video montage just before the telephone lines open—the melodic hook should ideally be underpinned by a short, memorable phrase, using lyrics that are simple enough for the international, multilingual audience to grasp. In this respect, nonsense language can be a great boon: Previous winning songs have included "La La La," "Boom Bang a Bang," "Ding Ding-a-Dong," and the splendidly dumb "Diggi Loo Diggi Ley."
As you may have gathered by now, there is nothing remotely hip about Eurovision, which generally runs at least 10 years behind developments in youth-based genres, if not 20. Rap and metal have finally been accepted, albeit in small, sanitized doses. Modern R&B has yet to make any sort of impact; "emo" probably never will. However, this stylistic conservatism does ensure a continuing appeal to the sort of traditional, multigenerational, family-based demographic that is rapidly disappearing in our tightly segmented multichannel age.
For my part, what I like best about Eurovision is its charmingly unspun quality. It has never become overcommercialized; sponsorship is present but discreet. It has never been co-opted by the major record labels, being largely organized by a federation of national television companies. And touchingly, there is still a sense of adherence to almost quaint notions of international harmony and cooperation; competition remains largely good-natured and untainted by overt greed.
Yes, the Eurovision Song Contest is flagrantly camp—that overused and much devalued term—but like all the best camp, it retains a certain innocence and sincerity at its core. So, when the 10th dolled-up pop moppet in a row gushes at her press conference about what a deep and humbling honor it is to be representing her country, and our eyes roll upward in exasperation, we also know that, deep down inside, she actually means it. And I, for one, like that a lot.