The Grand Finale of the Eurovision Song Contest is this Saturday, May 26. Since most of the people who read this blog are in North America, I guess I need to explain. The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual song-writing competition among member countries of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). It’s kind of a misnomer because there are a bunch of countries who belong that are not really in Europe, including Azerbaijan, last year’s winning country, who consequently gets to host the awards this year.
There are 50-something countries in the EBU, so there’s a very complex (to my non-European brain) system of qualification rounds to determine which countries will actually be in the finale. The UK, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy automatically qualify, regardless of how terrible their songs might be. This is essentially because they contribute the most money to the EBU. The host country is also guaranteed a spot.
To me, the voting system is equally complicated. The general public gets to vote by phone or text message, but no country can vote for itself. Instead, they get sets of points to award to the other countries, 12 points for their favorite and then a decreasing number of points (10, 8, and then 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) for the other countries. It’s really not easy to explain and only slightly easier to follow if you watch the contest live (which you can do online here on Saturday at 9pm CET, 3pm EDT).
You would think the fact that countries can’t vote for themselves would mean a lack of bias in the voting, but the opposite is true. “Friendly” countries tend to vote for each other. Greece and Cyprus, for example, have never NOT given each other 12 points in the year’s since popular voting was introduced. Spain and Andorra vote for each other. Russia and the Ukraine vote for each other. Belgium and the Netherlands vote for each other. Sweden and Finland and Denmark and Norway all vote amongst themselves. To an outsider, like myself, it’s a little predictable and annoying, particularly when it means terrible songs get points they don’t deserve.
Arguments have been made that these alliances have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with social and cultural similarities. That does make sense. Greece and Cyprus share a common language and an art scene filled with Middle Eastern influences.
But – and here’s a big but – there is NOTHING culturally significant about either Greece or Cyprus’s entries in the 2012 contest. They’re both in English. They’re both pop dance songs. In fairness, the Greek song does make use of some traditional instruments, but I’m pretty sure the Cyprus entry was a reject from J-Lo’s last album.
Contest rules about language have see-sawed back and forth since Eurovision began. At first, countries didn’t have to perform in their official language. Then ABBA came along and gained international superstardom performing a song in their non-native language.
So the language rule changed. Then it changed again. And again. And… Well, right now we’re in a “sing in whatever language you want even if it’s a made-up language” phase. Most countries take full advantage of this rule. Of the 42 countries in the semi-finals, 31 of them are singing songs either entirely or partially in English. That includes the UK, Ireland, and Switzerland, but that also includes Germany, Norway, and Moldova.
To make matters worse, most of those 31 songs aren’t just in English, they are AMERICAN songs, all drum machines and autotune. (Some of the countries that didn’t use autotune should have. I’m talking to you, Albania.)
Even France (to whom I am obviously partial), with their vibrant history of chanson, is entering Eurovision this year with a generic (albeit catchy) dance-pop track that’s half in French, half in English. How disappointing. That being said, France hasn’t won Eurovision since 1977, and they haven’t even made top 10 for all but one of the last 9 years, so maybe it was time for them to change their game plan.
Honestly, there are a bunch of really catchy songs in this year’s contest. Overall, they’re more enjoyable to listen to than in previous years, but I wish they weren’t all so similarly narrow-minded. I keep complaining about the lack of diversity in North American pop music, but how can I expect us to be more diverse if all the countries of Europe can’t even do it for one night?