European newspapers seemed to take glee in their derision of the annual Eurovision Song Contest, held Saturday night in Istanbul and beamed to hundreds of millions of TV viewers across Europe and as far away as Australia. "As ever, a seemingly endless string of sparkly young people came on and sang instantly forgettable songs with collective lyrics that went something like: Our love is true, let's dance forever/ You are the only one, I feel your pain," the television reviewer of the Guardian wrote.
The contest, which was won by Ruslana, a leather-clad Ukrainian performer described as "Xena-like" by more than one paper, was created in 1956 to foster European unity in the aftermath of World War II. Since then, it has grown into a huge production that this year drew an all-time record 36 countries.
With some notable exceptions (ABBA won the contest in 1974, and the French Canadian Celine Dion actually took up residence in Switzerland in order to represent that country—and win—in 1988), taking top honors at Eurovision doesn't generally correlate with greatness or even stardom. The Sydney Morning Herald noted that "very few of the acts have gone on to truly international careers. More typically they're like Australia's Gina G, who sang Ooh Aah, Just a Little Bit for Britain in 1996, fading into obscurity after one hit."
After years of dismal showings (The Times of London included two Turkish entries in its list of the five worst Eurovision entries of all time), Turkey won the contest last year. That earned the Turks the honor of hosting this year's show. Given the huge opportunity for exposure to all those hundreds of millions of viewers, nations hosting Eurovision see it as a potential boon for tourism and international understanding. The Times reported that an entire section of Istanbul was painted in the national colors, and special care was taken to wash the streets each day during the lead-up to Saturday's live broadcast.
"For two nights [about a billion] people will see short films about Turkey and watch a broadcast organized here," the paper quoted the event's Turkish executive producer as saying. "The value of this is absolutely immeasurable."
Although it's called a song festival, many observers viewed Eurovision as an ode to the European Union more than an effort to choose the Continent's best music. The Scotsman posited that the contest was "like watching a session at the European Parliament set to music. Okay, it was a tad more interesting than that—thanks to the winning ways of the Ukraine's hollering, leathered-up warrior princesses—but never before has Eurovision so closely mirrored what goes on in the corridors of Brussels."
Along these lines, Germany's Die Welt suggested that voting should be done in relation to the population of each of the 36 participating countries, rather than allowing each country to allocate the same number of points. As it is, decisions made by "voters" in each country have equal impact, leading to a situation in which, the paper said, the Belgians "are hated by all of Europe because they gave the French 10 points. … But if the Belgians are only allowed to award four points anyway, they will be spared such hatred." (Translation from the German courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
The Daily Mirror puts a finer point on the musical merits of the contest: The paper said it has none. Noting that countries tend to give high points to their neighbors or countries with which they are allied politically (Cyprus, for example, gave the top vote—12 points—to Greece), the paper exclaimed, "Don't let anyone fool you into thinking this is a music competition rather than a highly political stitch-up."
The paper noted that Portugal gave 12 points to Spain ("as usual"), and Latvia and Estonia heaped points on Russia. A BBC host who presents the contest to British viewers each year was quoted saying that countries that are well-liked tend to score well. "In recent years Britain, which has invaded everybody, seems to have been lacking in the dependable allies stakes," the Mirror said. (The British entrant scored only 29 points, landing in a dismal 16th place.)
Of course, none of this really matters. It's not just that Ruslana is unlikely to break into the U.S. pop market; if history is any indication, few Europeans will be clamoring for her CDs a few months from now.
Despite its popularity, few people take the contest too seriously. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted one die-hard fan who acknowledged that the contest—with its flamboyant costumes and high camp quotient—has "seen better days." Noting that Eurovision enjoys a large gay following, he added, "It's like a gay world cup. Who else would sit here and watch this load of rubbish?"