Dare to Dream: A brief history of Eurovision

My first memories of the Eurovision Song Contest come from 2005. . . In an empty bar in provincial Kalmar, Sweden, an immigrant proprietor keeps the lights on for two surprised and delighted Americans rooting for the dramatic Maltan despite the sexy Greek racking up votes. I don’t think I’d ever been so bewildered or charmed.

Note especially the dramatic bridge at about 2:20.

Helena Paparizou from Greece ended up winning.
Her performance still makes me very uncomfortable.

I didn’t pay much attention to Eurovision after that, though. Despite a global audience of some 200 million (compare to 100 million for the Super Bowl and 10 million for Game of Thrones), Americans are not free to watch. The official live stream is geo-blocked, and while for the past two years the US-based Logo network attempted a pitiful broadcast of the longest-running annual international television contest and one of the world’s longest-running television programs period, they did not renew their broadcast rights this year. [I watched Saturday’s final streaming the Swedish national broadcast which for some reason is not geo-blocked (Thank you Swedish tax payers!) and started watching consistently after meeting a Dutch super-fan a couple years ago.]

Why can’t Americans watch Eurovision? I think it has something to do with the American media landscape not having the capacity to make content available that is not explicitly a vehicle for advertising. But it’s probably just in keeping with the simple stereotype that Americans don’t care about anything other than themselves.

And there definitely is an argument that Eurovision is not by or for Americans (Ahem: Madonna, maybe you should have just stayed home this year.)

The Eurovision Song Contest was established in 1956 by the Swiss-based European Broadcast Union as an overt attempt to bring together post-war Europe through song.

Have you heard of ABBA or Celine Dion? They’re past winners (1974 and 1988 respectively).

Or maybe even Conchita Wurst and “Rise Like a Phoenix,” which became a sort of anthem for Trans inclusion?

And lest you think Wurst’s dramatic 2014 performance was ahead of the trans curve, note that in 1998 Dana International became the third Israeli and first trans person to win the european song competition, with “Diva.”

Yes, Israel competes (and hosted for the fourth time this year, since winningagain last year). Also, Australia, which is admittedly weird and confusing, until you start applying a liberal definition of “European” and then map that community to epicenters of queer culture (e.g. Sydney and Tel Aviv). Then it starts to make some sense.

I haven’t yet been to the Met’s Costume Institute’s exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” but for me, Eurovision is the epitome of “Camp.” [See Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” for a full explication.]

Indeed, despite unifying platitudes of love, love, peace, peace, etc. Eurovision is mostly a celebration of difference and diversity, not homogeneity and sameness.

Consider Finland’s winning entry from 2006, Hard Rock Hallelujah.

And, Portugal’s 2017 win, which took me a long to understand, but now I really like. (Can you imagine either of these appearing on American Idol, let alone winning?)

Check out this formula for winning Eurovision featuring 2015 winner Mans Zelmerlow and lots of cameos from past winners and contestants.

The politics of language at play are also fascinating. English is ostensibly the official language of Eurovision, though it’s clear not everyone speaks it well. Since the United States doesn’t participate, the UK consistently comes in last, and Australia’s presence is sweet, but kind of irrelevant. . . Why? French used to be the dominant language of the festival, and if there’s a second language of Eurovision, it’s definitely le francais. But, when did it change and why? And more importantly, why don’t more performers sing more of their songs in their native or even preferred languages? Sure, you want the melody to be singable, so just do that part in English. . . pourquoi pas?

By this point you might be shaking your head at all this Eurovision silliness, but Shayna Weiss, associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said it would be a mistake to underestimate Eurovision’s significance.

“Cynics criticize the festival as a cheesy competition with bad music and outrageous costumes and mock its naïve sentimentality,” Weiss wrote in the Jewish Review of Books. “But not taking Eurovision seriously or ignoring it altogether means ignoring the power of cultural politics and performance.”

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