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  • Writer's pictureJoshua McDonald

What is the Eurovision Song Contest?

With Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams’ new film, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, hitting Netflix this weekend, there’s bound to be many Americans thinking, “What in the hell is this?” Well, if you’re one of these Americans, then it might surprise you to know that the Eurovision Song Contest is a real thing… And it’s HUGE. No, really, this is a song competition that brings together 40+ countries, and is watched by nearly double the amount of people who tune into the Super Bowl. Yes, it is that big.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the contest itself, you’ve definitely been introduced to products of Eurovision. Have you ever heard of the band ABBA? What about Celine Dion? How about Olivia Newton-John, Bonnie Tyler, or T.A.T.U.? Yep! All of them are contestants who either launched their careers with Eurovision, or came to compete because of the grand stage it represents. But what, specifically, is the Eurovision Song Contest? How did it start? And why is it such an international phenomenon? Find out below!

The General Concept

If one were to describe Eurovision using an elevator pitch, it would be “The Voice meets the Olympics.” At its core, Eurovision is a song competition – do not call it a singing competition – where participating countries will send one contestant, group, or band to represent their nation. There are no restrictions on the style of music or the language in which the song needs to be performed, however, the song must be three minutes or less, original, and unreleased prior to the start of the competition period. Part of what makes this competition so great is that it embraces so many styles of music: pop, rock, opera, singer-songwriter, electric, and even country – often times infusing these genres with cultural influences native to each country.

Prior to the actual contest, each country will decide on the selection to represent them in Eurovision. Some countries hold national competitions while others select an artist/song through a jury of music industry executives. Once every country has selected their entry, the countries are then split into two semi-final groups. Each semi-final group will perform, with the top ten selections moving on to the final to join the host country and the “big five.” What’s the big five, you ask? They are the five countries that make the largest financial contributions to Eurovision: Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the UK.

During the finals, all qualifying acts perform and the winner will be decided based on a points system. Now, voting and the points system can be a little confusing to explain, so why don’t I just let the ESC explain it for you.

As much as I love watching the show itself and discovering new songs and artists, the voting portion of the show is easily my favorite part because of how exciting, nerve-racking, and suspenseful it is! Seriously, revealing the results can take up to an hour, if not more, and those feelings of excitement and suspense only grow throughout the course of that time… But it’s an absolute blast!

Unifying a Post-War Europe

Now that you know how the contest works, you might be curious as to how it came about. In 1956, Switzerland’s EBU brought together seven countries to present a song for their nation, celebrating culture and peace in an effort to help reunite war-torn Europe. Thus, the Eurovision Song Contest was created. Since then, the contest has grown to include European and non-European countries alike, all with the same goal: celebrate culture and peace.

While the general concept is still present, time has undoubtedly changed the contest to a degree. During the early decades of the contest, the message of peace was a respected attribute for Eurovision. But as music started to evolve in the 60’s during the rock revolution, the Eurovision Song Contest started to feel out of touch with what was taking place in the world. Generally speaking, the songs began to feel dated, cheesy, and campy… Which is when things just started to get weird.

When I say, “weird,” what do I mean exactly? Well, since the music itself wasn’t necessarily the best (generally speaking), countries found other ways to stand out. There’ve been songs featuring grandmas, songs about baking a cake, a pupped that’s a turkey, pirates, Vikings… You name it, the schtick has been done. Sometimes these entries are intended to be a comedic entry, while other times countries simply send a terrible act because they don’t want to win. Yes, you read that correctly, some countries want to lose on purpose. But wait, isn’t winning Eurovision considered a great honor? Sure… but if a country wins, they then have to host the contest the following year – a task that is not cheap.

While many people roll their eyes at Eurovision because of the cheesy, campy nature of it, it’s something that the contest has learned to embrace. I imagine a number of people even tune in to see what the “crazy” act(s) will be for the year. If you approach it with the right mindset, it’s easy to have fun with it, something that ESC has come to embrace and make fun of themselves for.

Don’t believe me? See for yourself! This is a montage that the hosts performed a few years back poking fun at the lunacy of the contest.

But it’s Still A Serious Competition

Despite the camp and reputation, lately, things have changed for Eurovision. While the camp is still present, artists have discovered that the size of Eurovision gives them an opportunity to make a name for themselves worldwide. Simply put, that’s not an opportunity to scoff at or waste.

The competition has become more competitive with entries putting forward more mainstream, current songs that could easily be worldwide hits in their own respect. Don’t get me wrong, each year’s contest has always had a handful of songs that were good and that performed relatively well on charts in various countries, but the past three to five years, especially, have raised the bar across the board. Not only have I discovered a number of songs that I play regularly, but I’ve also discovered a number of artists that I genuinely love!

Whether it’s pop hits, club bops, or poignant and relevant songs that will withstand the test of time, Eurovision has made a lasting impression and is only growing in popularity and relevance year after year… Hence the film.

There’s no denying that Eurovision Song Contest: The Fire Saga is a comedy meant to poke fun at the contest – more of a laughing with rather than laughing at – but I suspect it will also touch on a number of serious and realistic aspects – even if momentarily - that make ESC great! So, what are you waiting for? Go check out the movie! Have a laugh, and then check back Sunday for my review!


Also, for the remainder of the week, I will be highlighting actual songs and musicians from Eurovision, so keep an eye out for that! These are real musicians and singers with real talent, and many of them are making music that needs to be heard, especially here in the U.S. I promise you, many of these songs and artists could be hits here if actually given the chance. So, with a spotlight on the contest itself, why not turn that spotlight to the people that have made Eurovision the annual tour-de-force that it’s become… Especially since Coronavirus robbed contestants of their platform this year!

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