Eurovision Explained: What Is It, Exactly?

Every May, over 180 million people across Europe turn on their televisions and watch Eurovision together. Tumblr overflows with memes, YouTube with rankings, and people learn about the new slate of contestants and shout out their opinions of the songs. In 2021 alone, Eurovision was searched 3x more on Google than American Idol around the world, with Maneskin getting a significant boost after winning the competition with “Zitti e Buoni”–a glam-rock song celebrating individuality.

Maneskin performing Zitti e Buoni in Sanremo 2021. The winner of the annual Italian music festival has the right of first refusal on whether to go to Eurovision or not. Maneskin took on the challenge, and the rest is history.

With the overwhelming amount of hype going into these shows, this contest hasn’t penetrated the United States that thoroughly until recently. 2016 saw the Logo channel take it on, but has seen small viewership. Netflix followed along the hype for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; and while the movie became a hit amongst the fanbase, the EBU’s relationship with Netflix didn’t last very long.  

So with Peacock taking the wings this year in anticipation of the American Song Contest, you might be wondering, what is Eurovision? 

Don’t worry, this will all make sense soon.

To clear things up, Eurovision is not like The Voice or American Idol. Both shows focus on the artists’ vocals, whereas Eurovision is about the song. Also, both shows mentioned offer up contracts for the winning singer, whereas Eurovision’s contestants are usually signed to a record label prior to representing their country.

If you look at Wikipedia, Eurovision is “an international songwriting competition organised annually by the European Broadcasting Union, featuring participants representing primarily European countries.” Each country would send one song performed by a solo artist, a duo, or a group to compete for the win. The only requirements is that it has to be three minutes long, has to be completely original, and that it has to be released commercially after September 1 of the previous year. In the 20th century, another requirement was that the song had to be in one of the country’s official languages, but was dropped in 1999.

The songwriting focus was part of the older contests; the trophy would go to the songwriters of the winning song, with the winning singers only receiving a medal. Similarly, in the beginning of Sanremo, which the contest was based off of, several songs were exchanged between different singers, to emphasize the songcraft rather than the artist. However, the focus has shifted towards the singer in the last two decades, with the songwriters relegated to the sidebar at the beginning of each performance.

In addition, Eurovision is a long-runner; in 2015, the Guinness Book of World Records crowned the Longest Running Annual Music Competition for its 60th anniversary. With the exception of 2020, in which the organizers couldn’t find a way to hold the contest as Covid-19 spread across the continent, Eurovision has been held every year since 1956, as early as March 2nd in 1957 and as late as May 29th in 1999 and for the grand final in 2010. 

While “Eurovision” features primarily European countries, it’s not exclusive to them. The eastern edge of the European Broadcasting Union expands out as far as the Caucauses, allowing them to compete. Its southern edge includes the Levant and North Africa, which is why you’ve saw Israel participate frequently since 1973, and Morocco once in 1980. In 2015, Australia competed for the first time; their relationship to Eurovision began in 1983 when SBS broadcast the show for the first time, and the love has continued ever since.

A map of Europe and North Africa based on when they joined the European Broadcasting Union. e
A map of EBU members colored by their date of arrival. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Ofra Haza with her song “Hi”, which came second for Israel in 1983. Since then, the song became a classic in Israel and abroad, and Ofra had a strong music career until her death in 2000.

Why Eurovision? 

When people think about Eurovision, some think of the sparkling costumes and the overly loud performances which sometimes overwhelm the song. Notable examples include “It’s My Life” in 2013, featuring Cezar dressed as a vampire while singing an opera-dubstep hybrid; “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” in 2007, with Verka Serduchka singing a nonsense song entirely in silver; and “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, which gave Finland its first win in 2006 through monsters singing a rock song. 

But if you read a little more, Eurovision started out as something simpler–as a channel for cooperation, and a way to test out new technologies in media. 

After World War II, different European countries wanted to collaborate together on different projects, including economically (the European Coal and Steel Community). This led to the beginning of the European Broadcasting Union in 1950, which would broadcast major events such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In October 1955, the EBU’s members came up with the idea of a pan-European song contest, inspired by Italy’s Sanremo Festival. The first edition was held several months later in May 1956; seven countries joined together in Lugano to show who has the best original song. 

Since then, the contest has expanded, from mostly Western European countries to the Balkans and even Australia. The most growth came in the 1990s, when the former countries of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia arrived to the competition, which led to a number of rule changes to make sure the show length was kept under three hours. This ranged from a pre-selection show for new countries to relegation of the weakest performers. Since 2004, there have been semi-finals, where the top ten of those shows would join in Saturday’s Grand Final.

Thanks to this project, for over sixty years Eurovision featured over 1,500 songs, spanning different genres and languages, and finding a niche for each personal taste. Stars like Cliff Richard, ABBA, and Celine Dion appeared on the stage, with the latter two using the contest as a springboard for their careers. On the other side, artists like Joelle Ursull, Zeljko Joksimovic, and Conan Osiris brought new sounds to the competition, subverting the trope that it’s just a “pop contest”.

Lane Moje was one of two entries from Serbia-Montenegro when they were united. Coming in second place, it’s a classic in ex-Yugoslavia and brought a wave of “Balkan Ballads” from 2000s onwards.

And there’s many more to be discovered, including this year in Turin! On May 10, 12, and 14, a new slate of 40 songs from 40 different countries will compete for national glory. So the next time you can’t find something to watch, check it out!

Published by Elda Mengisto

Frequent writer, aspiring scholar, occasional fencer. I'm a lover of all things beautiful and light.

One thought on “Eurovision Explained: What Is It, Exactly?

%d bloggers like this: