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Friday, May 25, 2012

Eurovision for Dummies

This Saturday will see the 57th annual Eurovision Song Contest held in Baku, Azerbaijan. For anyone reading this outside Europe, and for many Europeans, Eurovision can be difficult to comprehend. This is my first contest as a British Ex-Pat, so it has been strange living in a news vacuum during the build up to the big night. Thankfully through the magic of Internet TV I can still watch, at a much more civilized hour as well. I'm writing this while watching the second semi-final, with a woman in Native American headdress strumming a white guitar amongst flaming beacons, with what looks like Dexy's Midnight Runners accompanying at the side of the stage. Apparently this is what the Dutch thinks Europe needs right now.

So for the rest of the world, or any bemused Europeans, please allow me to explain all you need to know to fully participate in one of the world's greatest cultural events.

Hang on a minute, what's this got to do with divas?

You're kidding me? Eurovision has been the home to some of the great moments in diva history. Winning Eurovision can be the road to riches, just ask ABBA and CĂ©line Dion, whose careers took off after securing the Grand Prix. Or it can be an ephemeral blip on the fame register; well have you heard Niamh Kavanagh and Eimear Quinn lately...

Everyone from Sandie Shaw to Samantha Janus have stepped up to sing for national pride, some more successfully than others. Eurovision gave us Dana, both original and International flavours, and even divas from the colonies have joined in, with Olivia Newton-John, Gina G and Katrina (and her Waves) representing the UK over the years.

Eurovision is a diva-watcher's paradise, sure they let men enter too, but it's the wonderful women of Eurovision that tend to capture the imagination most of all... unless the boys take their tops off; then it's anybody's game.

How does it work?

Over what feels like several months, but is actually only three hours, artists representing qualifying nations perform their attempt at a song that can unite Europe in aural harmony. The song can be no more than three minutes long and must be sung live, although the backing tracks are now all recorded. After all the countries have performed, there is an interval act designed to showcase the culture of the host nation, which usually means ethnic instruments, dancers in national dress and some of the world's weirdest choreography. Then there is the voting, but more on that later...

[Live semi-final update: a Ukrainian bride is inviting Europe to her wedding apparently; she seems to be getting married in a disco. Apparently the writer only completed half the lyrics in time. Nice flowers though.]

Who can take part?

Every nation in the continent of Europe, which apparently includes Israel, but not Palestine, and parts of Africa and Asia, is eligible to enter. All you need to do is sign up to the European Broadcasting Union, pay them a significant amount of money and you're in. It used to be a closed club for Western Europe and for many happy decades the contest allowed national empathies and rivalries to be settled without the need for war. So powerful was the healing power of Eurovision that it inevitably led to the collapse of communism and the subsequent extension of "Europe" to include the nations of the former Soviet Union. However, these newbies don't seem to realise that democracy allows them to vote for anybody they like, not just their neighbours in an effort to stave off potential invasion or to keep the gas flowing. The dissolution of Yugoslavia also led to a Balkan block, who similarly seem to be enjoying their own private contest. I propose that the UK also abandons political union on the basis that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can then all give each other douze points. It is the most powerful argument for devolution and, given the power of Eurovision, surely an inevitability.

The clamour to take part is such that the contest now takes place over three nights, with two semi-finals deciding which countries get to join the big five (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK) in the grand final. The reason that these five countries have automatic entry is because they pay the most money to the EBU, so it's not unfair at all. Also if Belgium chooses not to watch as they didn't make the final, it will not impact viewing figures as much as if the UK did so. Of course the voting blocs ensure it's pretty certain Belgium won't make the final, or Luxembourg, or Netherlands, or... you get the idea.

[Live semi-final update: apparently Lucy Lawless is representing Croatia this year, kilts are back and waving a piece of white cloth passes for choreography... should have been a white flag.]

How do you win?

The United Kingdom has a proud record in the contest, with five wins and no less than fifteen runners-up. However lately the UK has struggled, torn between being too cool to take it seriously or overthinking the whole thing and trying to manufacture the perfect entry. It has been a while since our last win, fifteen long years, and I don't think this will be the year our drought is ended. I was brought up to respect my elders, so I won't say anything unkind about Uncle Engelbert, but his slow-burning ballad is unlikely to get the gays to the phones in sufficient numbers, particularly when there is a living Russian Matroyshka of grannies and Jedward in the running.

It might seem obvious, but to win you do need to have a good song. A catchy melody is a must and it needs to have that instant ear worm quality that means you remember it amongst the morass of "music" that assails you. A universal theme helps, favourites are "winning", "unity", "love" and "music".  You also need a strong performer, usually young and hot is a must, though a superlative singer can overcome a lack of shagability. Most important, since the introduction of public voting, is your routine. You have three minutes to capture the attention and the votes of Europe, so you better be memorable. Backing dancers are a must, the less dressed the better, and choreography should be simple enough to imitate in your living room. Props are acceptable, particularly wind machines or flames. Part of the joy of Eurovision is seeing what desperate attention-seeking novelties have been dreamt up this year.

So what about that voting?

Every country that enters gets to vote on the competition, though obviously not for their own act - consequently there is a lot of border hopping on Eurovision night. To continue the myth that the contest is actually about music, the untrustworthy public are only given half the votes, with a jury of national experts deciding the rest. Clearly in such an important matter you wouldn't just leave it to democracy to decide the outcome?

Each nation has a range of points to distribute to their top ten countries, with the top act receiving 12 points, the second 10 points, then the rest 8 points to 1 point. After all four hundred and twenty countries have voted, the act with the most points wins. It's that simple; the difficulty is staying awake through the ordeal that makes a General Election seem fast-paced. That, and not throwing your remote through the TV when Cyprus and Greece exchange 12 points for the millionth year running.

[Live semi-final update: I've lost vision! I can still hear the show, but frankly what is the point without being able to judge the routines... it's not like this is a song contest.]

I still don't understand...

What is there to understand really? Eurovision is a fact of life, much like tax returns and birthdays. It happens once a year, sometimes the results are good, sometimes they're bad, but you can't avoid it. Why not embrace the adventure and the modern miracle that is Eurovision. Surely it's better than another World War?

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. For more information on Eurovision or to watch the Grand Final, visit: - the live final is on Saturday 26 March at 21:00 Central European Time.

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