From the Vault: Eurovision

22 May 2015 Sophie Quick

From the Vault: Eurovision

Buranovskiye Babushki


If you missed the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest and only caught the winning performance later on YouTube, you might have fretted about the direction the contest was heading. The victorious Swedish singer, Loreen, who’d sailed through the semi-finals, delivered an unassailable three-minute performance. The song, ‘Euphoria’, was an expertly crafted Eurodance club anthem and Loreen herself was an enigmatic performer with a fresh, almost earthy, aesthetic. With her soaring vocals and oddly appealing samurai-meets-‘Wuthering Heights’ presentation, hers was the right song by the right artist at the right time. And not only for Eurovision, but also for charts worldwide: ‘Euphoria’ went to No. 1 in 18 countries. In Australia, it reached No. 4 on the ARIA Dance Charts. Was Eurovision actually in danger of becoming cool?

“The good stuff definitely can cut through,” says Julia Zemiro who, with Sam Pang, has co-hosted the Eurovision broadcast for SBS every year since 2009. “[Loreen] had an amazing kind of look and she danced barefoot and she had an amazing voice and a great concept.”

The Eurovision Song Contest, which has seen member nations of the European Broadcasting Union compete in song every year since 1956, is, of course, notorious as a carnival of terrible taste. It has earned that reputation; you can only televise so many glittered shirts billowing near wind machines before you carry a certain stigma (as well as a not entirely earnest but devoted fanbase). But Zemiro points out that charisma goes a long way in the competition and that, in recent years, some quality acts have prevailed. “Lena from Germany in 2010 wore a simple black dress and did this fabulous, simple song [‘Satellite’] and people adored it.”

Zemiro, who has interviewed more than 150 Eurovision hopefuls during her time covering Eurovision, is steadfastly diplomatic on the matter of the contest’s propensity for questionable taste. “You can look at the top 10 in any country…and you go, ‘Frankly, I like maybe two of those songs.’ There’s always going to be different styles and tastes… If there are 10 rock ballads in a row – that’s a boring night. You do want a bit of the crazy stuff.”

Despite Loreen’s worryingly classy performance, there was plenty of the crazy stuff at last year’s Eurovision held in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku. The host nation, an oil-rich state bordering Iran and Russia, played a pivotal role. For the interval entertainment on the final night, they presented a nepotism-themed musical spectacular, which saw a four-minute build-up of pyrotechnics, traditional percussionists and contemporary dancers before the president’s son-in-law descended from the ceiling, eyed the crowd icily, then landed on stage…and burst into song. 

There was also Russia’s entry, Buranovskiye Babushki (known informally as The Russian Grannies), who wowed crowds with their up-tempo tune, ‘Party for Everybody’. The song began in the six performers’ native language of Udmurt (they hail from the village of Buranovo, about 1000 kilometres from Moscow) before hitting a stomping chorus in English set to a dreadful house beat. The singers (who had a combined age of 484) performed in traditional ethnic costume alongside a replica Russian oven and incorporated into their act the first instance of simulated pie-baking in the competition’s history.

Europe adored them; the Buranovskiye Babushki came second and vowed to give any money they raised through Eurovision exposure to rebuilding a local church that had been demolished by Stalin. Here, at least for some viewers, was the real Eurovision. The magic of the competition is that there is really nothing quite like it for generating three-minute blocks of thoroughly bewildering television.

This comes down, in large part, to the fact that Eurovision is very much a team sport. In most countries, an act must first triumph in a domestic talent quest, usually televised by the nation’s broadcaster of Eurovision. From there, the Eurovision performance will be designed by a committee, whose members might include songwriters, television executives, managers, directors, a voting public and artists themselves. Together they often come up with something truly peculiar.

Artists don’t usually get to choose the song they perform, and while the final performance might make for wonderfully bizarre entertainment for the contest’s more than 120 million viewers, it can be dismaying to see compromises struck up close.

“What makes me sad about The Russian Grannies is that, when I interviewed them, they were amazing women,” Zemiro says. “Someone discovered them singing together somewhere in the town square… And it makes me kind of annoyed that they put them on stage and put a crazy disco beat behind them and [got them to sing], let’s go party. Get them to sing some beautiful song in their language, and put a beat behind it if you want, but I think you might have been able to do both and keep their dignity a bit. But people don’t always watch it for dignity, they watch it for craziness.”

Eurovision is serious business for some, not least because it gives the winning act at least a year to cash in. You will not get far in any discussion of Eurovision without mention of ABBA, who won for Sweden in 1974 with ‘Waterloo’ and have been serving as the two-syllable riposte to anyone who questions the contest’s credibility ever since. Acts like Bucks Fizz (1981, UK) and Celine Dion (1988, Switzerland) have sold millions of albums worldwide, too. Other Eurovision contestants may not have achieved success in the English-speaking world, but have built solid careers in their own countries or in particular pockets of Europe.

Last year, 42 countries competed in Azerbaijan. But when Eurovision first started out in Switzerland in 1956, there were only seven competing countries. Azerbaijan was not among them. Today the European Broadcasting Union is a sprawling organisation including member states not everyone would classify as European, including Israel, Turkey and Russia. While tensions have certainly flared from time to time (Armenia pulled out last year due to a border dispute with Azerbaijan), the spirit of harmony has won out more often than not.

Some of the original rules of the competition have remained – contestants must still perform original songs and vocals must be live – but others have changed many times as the competition has evolved. The winner of the first Eurovision was decided by jury. Today the winner is chosen in an obscure, and rather suspect, judging process – nominally, 50% voting public and 50% music industry jury.

There were also two periods in Eurovision history when contestants were required to sing in the native language of their country (between 1966 and 1972, and again from 1977 to 1997), but in 2013 around half the acts are choosing to sing in English.

This ‘anything goes’ inclusivity is one of the most loveable aspects of the Eurovision Song Contest. You don’t need to sing in your native tongue, your country doesn’t really need to be in Europe and your contestant doesn’t even need to be a national of the country they’re representing (Dion, for instance, is French-Canadian). Eurovision will rip open its shirt and wrap pretty much anyone up in its waxed-chest embrace.

“There’s such a party atmosphere,” says Zemiro. “It’s about people coming together and having a great night and waving their flags. Everyone kind of cheers for everyone and it’s very good-natured. It’s fun, fun, fun.”

This year, Sweden is hosting and 39 countries are competing. Armenia is back in the fold, although Turkey has pulled out because of dissatisfaction with the judging system. And while Greece and Cyprus are heroically hanging in there, Poland, Portugal and Bosnia-Herzegovina are among those who have withdrawn, citing financial pressures. In this sombre economic mood and with sensible Sweden – land of generous paternity leave arrangements and world-class public transport – playing host, can Eurovision 2013 be relied upon to provide a trashy spectacle? For that, Zemiro says, viewers may need to look beyond the host nation.

“The Swedes aren’t known for being trashy,” Zemiro says. “And I think they’re people who kind of go, ‘Europe’s in trouble and it will look bad if we spend a load of money on this... You might get quality from us rather than quantity.’”

Accordingly, ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus have composed an official Eurovision Anthem, ‘We Write the Story’, especially for the event. But viewers who have browsed through the contestants’ preview videos on the Eurovision website will know that, for glitzy nonsense, they’ll also have to look beyond countries including Norway, Malta and the UK (represented this year by Bonnie Tyler). Many countries have put forward strong contenders with potential mass appeal. Reassuringly, however, some others have stepped up to provide those classic confounding Eurovision moments viewers expect: How is it possible that more than one person in Romania thought a countertenor warbling an entire song in his upper register over a chintzy house beat was a good idea? Who knew Latvian beatboxers in glittery Sgt Peppers suits could be so spellbinding?

The aim of Eurovision is to unite the nations of Europe in song. Say what you will about wind machines; there’s been a lot less fighting among the people of Europe in the 57 years since it began than in the preceding 57. There might even be a ripple effect to all this continental goodwill, too. Last year, more than 2.5 million Australians tuned into Eurovision, with even higher ratings expected this year. Perhaps that’s because quality acts like Loreen and Lena are drawing wider audiences, or perhaps it’s because Eurovision can sometimes serve as a comforting antidote to the towering cultural achievements of the European continent. It’s nice to know, after all, that the Germans – the people who gave us Ludwig van Beethoven – also saw fit, in 2009, to serve up for Eurovision the silver-panted abomination that was the act Alex Swings Oscar Sings. Beethoven is remembered for the ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Alex Swings Oscar Sings are remembered for ‘Miss Kiss Kiss Bang’.


Sophie Quick, The Big Issue.

This article first appeared in Ed#432.