The question we heard most often last week, while clonking through Lisbon during the annual Eurovision competition, was far less existential than it might seem in another context. It was, on the other hand, almost comically direct. “Why are you here?” asked a pair of Irishmen, an Austrian blogger, and several friendly Portuguese people with cocked heads. Their inquiry was a perfectly reasonable one—never asked aggressively, but with an earnest inquisitiveness—but I struggled to find an answer each time it was thrown our way.
Why were we, three US passport holders, in Lisbon’s “Eurovision Village,” drinking the ubiquitous Portuguese beer Super Bock, wearing Eurovision merch, and rooting for our faves (Australia, Cyprus, and the Viking daddies over in Denmark)? I suppose it was some combination of affordable air travel, a recent insistence by the broader culture that Portugal vacations are very on-trend, a friend’s love for the competition that rubbed off on me over the span of a few years, and—perhaps I’m reaching here—a subsonscious desire to escape our own country’s turmoil by immersing ourselves in the delight of another’s. But the easier explanation is that it was fun as hell.
Eurovision is a sparkling, campy, often drunken affair filled with more excitement and sheer joy than can possibly be contained by an ocean. Allow me—one of the contest’s newest American stans—to provide a little primer. Maybe next year the Europeans will be asking questions of you.
What Is Eurovision?
Eurovision is an annual nationalistic song contest in which countries across Europe (and beyond, for some reason) compete to find out which country can write and perform a song Europeans as a whole (and beyond) will love the most. It was conceived “in an attempt to unify a fractured post-war continent.” It has lasted for six decades because people love gay shit.
Do Europeans actually like it?
Like most TV-centric affairs, the ratings have dwindled a little in the contest’s 63-year-history, but it’s still a big event. In 2017, the contest “was seen by over 180 million viewers” around the world.
A friendly Irish man we met referred to the entire ordeal as “a fucking disaster” and meant for “the lowest common denominator.” Despite this, he had traveled to Lisbon to attend the festivities. That sort of begrudged enjoyment appears to be common among Eurovision fans. A more gregarious Irishman, deep into his third or fourth port, was less ashamed of his love for the contest, and proudly told us about the Eurovision group he started on Facebook. It has over 6,000 members. “Adele is shite,” he shouted later, after overhearing us talk about her Titanic-themed birthday party. Eurovision’s where the real talent is, apparently. (Did I mention both men were gay or did that go without saying?)
But it’s not just a good time. The contest’s cultural significance cannot be overstated. Last year, The Economist wrote:
Those who complain about Eurovision’s bad music, tacky costumes and unfair voting blocs miss the bigger point. Its greatest accomplishment is that it shows how very different people can coexist, share a stage and even have fun in the process. It is a symbol of what tolerance looks and sounds like, listening to someone caterwauling at top volume in an outrageous wig. And at a time when anything that offends anyone seems to be met by a knee-jerk call for a ban, the absence of such calls for Eurovision again speaks to its merits.
I’m sorry, “unfair voting blocs”?
If you want to fall into a hole regarding the “collusion between competing countries,” start here. I can’t deal because it sort of sucks the fun out of the whole thing. My fiancé, a reluctant Eurovision attendee, was fascinated by this aspect and was ultimately won over, in part, due to the contest’s complicated politics.
OK, so how did you get into it in the first place?
The same way most Americans do, I suspect. A good friend began obsessing over it and making myself and others watch it with her via terrible webstreams (this was before Logo nabbed the rights to official American broadcasts), and before I knew it, her enthusiasm had rubbed off. When Portugal won last year, she suggested to many of our friends that we all fly to Lisbon and watch the event in person. Only two of us were smart enough to take her up on it.
What are the rules?
There are too many to list here (check out the official site for more detailed information), so let’s focus on the basics, which are:
- The song has to be brand spanking new, and written for the current year’s contest.
- You’ve gotta sing, but instruments are optional. Basically, a cappella is A-OK but rare, an instrumental performances are banned. Singers gotta sing.
- Anyone over the age of 16 can perform.
- Songs must not exceed three minutes in length.
While there used to be much stricter rules regarding languages spoken in each song—a rule requiring songs to at least be partly sung in the country’s native language was finally dumped in 1999—you can now sing in whatever language you please. English has quickly become the language of choice, and only one of my favorite entries this year was not in English. (That song was France’s “Mercy.”)
Wait, I’m sorry. Go back to #3 in that list you just made. “Anyone”? So you can represent a country even if you’re not from there?
Yes! That’s how Celine Dion won for Switzerland back in 1988.
She’s not from Switzerland, right?
Right. She’s from Canada.
So you’re saying I, an American, could sing in Eurovision next year?
Technically yes, though this question is where things get a little murky. The rules make no mention of nationality requirements, but even if you did somehow make it into the contest, Eurovision voters are a picky bunch! A country like, say, Australia, would probably lose respect if they pulled in such an obvious ringer from across the globe.
I’m sorry, Australia?
Yeah. They’re in Eurovision.
Just to confirm, they’re not a European country, right?
Right. But, you know, they’re sort of British, what with their being a commonwealth and all that. But let’s not get too preoccupied by the politics here. What matters is that they were added to the contest in 2015 and that their entry, Jessica Mauboy’s “We Got Love” slapped.
For real. It was everything I wanted from Katy Perry’s last album distilled into a single three-minute pop ballad.
But she lost.
Unfortunately the Maubuoys weren’t enough to keep her afloat, no.
Did you like that one?
Like most Eurovision songs, it’s definitely an earworm, but I wouldn’t say I liked it. The lyrics were inane, the video and staging were childishly appropriative of Japanese culture, and the chorus contained a lot of clucking.
Is that a typo?
No, she clucks like a chicken. It’s like half heterosexual women’s empowerment anthem, half farm-centric nursery rhyme. Also she throws in a Wonder Woman reference. Like, the concept of the song is Japanese appropriation but catchy! but then she’s like, “Don’t forget I’m from Israel! Here’s a Gal Gadot reference.”
Gotcha. What did she receive for winning?
A an ugly trophy, national pride, and the satisfaction of knowing she helped inject tourist dollars into the economy of Israel next year.
Is Eurovision a fast-track to fame for its winning performer?
Short answer: no.
Longer answer: Hell no.
Can you name another winner?
Apart from the aforementioned Celine Dion, ABBA (they won in 1974 for “Waterloo”), and a Swedish woman named Loreen who won the first competition I ever paid attention to back in 2012, I can’t!There’s a reason the only recognizable artists you see in pieces about Eurovision are Celine Dion and ABBA. They’re pretty much the only ones anyone can name off the top of their heads!
I can’t even remember the name of Norway’s entrant even though he’d won once before (a bold move submitting him again, honestly). Alexander something? I don’t know, his song was another abject horror but I can’t get it out of my head.
Do I dare?
I don’t know, do you?
Oh god, that was awful.
Right, but good luck forgetting it! I’ve been humming it for seven days straight.
Did he rip off Bruno Mars?
This guy says the two steps for writing a song are to “believe in it” and to “sing it all day long”?
But that’s NOT how you write a song!
I can’t stop singing it. Help!
So that was the roundabout way of saying famous people don’t compete?
Basically. Jessica Mauboy—my queen, in case you forgot—is a big star in Australia, but she’s an exception to the rule. (“We love her!” said an Australian woman beside us at the semi-final.) Also they’re freaking dying to win, so they pulled out all the stops by sending in someone with true star power.
How do you win, by the way? What’s the voting process?
Well, a couple months after the songs are announced and released online for your listening pleasure (I strongly suggest you visit the Eurovision archives on YouTube), everyone packs up to the host city for a week of festivities. There are two rounds of semi-finals during which the pool is cut in half, and then a grand final after which residents of competing countries call in to cast up to 20 votes for their faves at a cost of roughly .60 Euro per. Their votes are then combined with those of a “professional jury,” which leads to some neck-breaking surprises and swings throughout the hour-ish-long results reveal.
After the professional jury votes were revealed this year, I fully expected Cyprus (whose entry “Fuego” is an absolute classic that’s begging to be played in every gay bar around the world) to take home the big prize, but the telephone votes went for Israel’s chicken song in a landslide.
This all seems very fun.
It is! It’s so much fun.
Why don’t we have Americavision?
Good question. People have definitely talked about it, and now that Asiavision is happening, Americavision may not be that far off!
If we’re lucky.
How can I prepare for Eurovision 2019?
- Listen to every song, watch every performance.
- Choose a favorite, regardless of quality. If you don’t stan for something, you’ll fall for anything.
- Convince everyone you know that they’re missing out. Eurovision is more fun with other people!
- Just go there!