Riga, Latvia, is the site for this year's annual festival of kitsch. And while Poland continues to send its most popular groups and singers to the contest, as usual, you will not have heard of the British entrant before. This is because no self-respecting British pop star would be seen dead in a contest that is, in that country, seen as a bit of a joke. In spite of that, 8 million Britons and 100 million square-eyed Europeans will tune in to watch the Song Contest this May.
Eurovision is the name given to a network of public European television channels which, founded in the 1950's, aimed to cut the cost of international news and sports coverage such as Football World Cups and the Olympic Games. To help justify such a network, members thought up the Eurovision Song Contest in 1956. The first contest was held in Lugano, Switzerland, and consisted of singers and groups from ten different European countries. Since then, Eurovision has grown to include 26 countries. And from 2004, the competition will expand to the size of Demis Roussos when it will be open to anyone from the 52 member states of the European Broadcasting Union. It will then last for two whole agonizing days. You have been warned!
The rules of the competition have changed constantly since its inception 47 years ago. The way the artists are picked by the respective countries, and the method of voting the winner, seem to change yearly. The one rule that has changed the most often is the one that stipulates which language the songs can be sung in. Originally, this was left to individual countries to decide. But when most countries started to choose English, thinking that this may get them extra votes from juries, the organizers decided in 1966 to demand that singers croon in the language, or languages in the case of Switzerland and Belgium, of the native country.
This rule was changed back again in 1973. This left the way open, a year later, for a group from Sweden to sing a song that would make them famous worldwide. Abba, with their song Waterloo, introduced Europe to Swedish groups and music, and, apart from Celine Dion (for Switzerland in 1988), they are the only artists to have gained international fame and success from appearing in the contest.
After Abba, everyone wanted to sing in English. But, due to the fact that these people were not singing in their mother tongue, the English that often appears in the lyrics is a little basic, to say the least. The winning song in the 1975 contest was by the Dutch group "Teach-in", called Ding Ding-a-Dong. Here is a sample:
Ding-a-Dong every hour
When you pick a flower
Try to sing a song
That goes Ding Ding-a-Dong
Good, isn't it? And that was the winning song! Strange songs by strange singers and groups regularly do well in the contest. Perhaps this has something to do with the subjective and partisan way that some countries' juries vote. Scandinavian countries vote for Scandinavian songs. Cyprus always votes for Greece. Turkey has given Germany the maximum 12 points every single year since it was admitted to the contest in 1990. In a contest that is meant to bring Europe closer together, juries often demonstrate nationalism and self-interest.
The most successful countries have indeed been the ones to sing in English. The United Kingdom has won Eurovision five times, and has had many second places. But the most successful country in recent years has been Ireland. They first won in 1970, with All Kinds of Everything by the singer Dana, who has since gone on to be an Irish Presidential candidate. Johnny Logan won it twice in the nineteen eighties. But it was in the nineteen nineties that Ireland really sent Eurovision watchers and jurors into a frenzy of appreciation. Between 1992 and 1996, Irish groups and singers came first four times. This got to be rather expensive for Irish broadcasters, as the country that wins has to stage the contest the next year.
But the most distinguished career of any nation in the Eurovision song contest has to be that of Norway. They have never won the competition. In 1978, their song Mil Etter Mil (Mile after Mile) failed to get a single vote and finished with no points at all. In the 1980 contest, desperate to get votes, the Norwegians decided to put a little social commentary and protest into their lyrics when they presented a song about a hydro-electric power station. It still didn't do very well.
by Peter Gentle
[Poland's entry song was voted 7th this year (2003). The lyrics are here »]