The term which most Europeans associate with the Eurovision Song Contest is ‘weird’ and many of its fans think the same. But weird events can also be entertaining—not least because they are weird.
The bizarre character of the Eurovision Song Contest is the result of a combination of factors: mostly terrible pop music (too much refrain, no context), almost always ghastly lyrics (gibberish really), shrill garments, freaking performances and an almost naïve, albeit sometimes heartening, combination of folklore with modern elements. A spectacle indeed!
Admittedly these are all features one may observe in most contemporary talent shows of the ‘X Factor’ type. Two additional characteristics render the Eurovision Song Contest unique: its transnational character and the fact that it is constructed as a country competition.
Unlike what many people think, the Eurovision Song Contest is not part of the European Union’s cultural policy agenda, even if it borrows some of its ‘unity in diversity’ symbols and sound bites. The contest is organized by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which is the umbrella organization of European public broadcasters with headquarters in Switzerland. The mission of the EBU is to ‘promote public service values’ but, in actual fact, the association operates more as a platform for facilitating the exchange of audio-visual content among its members. Its political agenda is rather thin, and this probably also explains the ease with which the organizers of the song contest agreed to Baku as its 2012 host despite the country’s rather distasteful record with regard to democracy, freedom of press and human rights.
In any case, the EBU maintains a somewhat old-fashioned understanding of public broadcasting which is also why the contest is organized as a country competition. This, in turn, means that the choice of the songs to represent each EBU member is left to the respective public broadcasting corporations and they, in turn, rely on different approaches: some organize open competitions (e.g. Sweden), others opt for restricted ones (e.g. Austria), yet others rely on expert panels with or without televoting (e.g. Russia). For the final, all participant countries are expected to use both televoting and expert juries.
The voting patterns have often been criticized as either skewed or politically tainted since neighboring countries or countries belonging in the same regional and/or linguistic bloc often vote for each other: Greece and Cyprus like to exchange their highest marks; the Nordics too; Balkan countries likewise, even if officially no longer on such friendly terms; similarly Russia and its satellites. This is, however, not so surprising considering that during the months preceding the contest, songs get publicized mainly through public radio stations and these are frequently regionally inter-connected or networked.
West European countries are supposedly less likely to succumb to such ‘pre-modern’ tendencies, but the apparent greater mobilization of migrant communities among the voting public (as opposed to the non-voting audience) has often similar results (e.g. Turkey habitually receiving high marks from Germany).
In a hilarious article on the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest Anthony Lane reporting for The New Yorker asked what is wrong with European pop music. Much would be wrong—if the Eurovision Song Contest were to be the benchmark. Actually there is some very good European pop music, but that is typically not the one that gets displayed at the contest. The reason for that is more organizational than it is political. Staging and promoting pop music in a top-down manner is a contradiction in terms. If the Eurovision Song Contest is to become a good platform for European pop music it would have to modify its participation rules, first and foremost the country rule.
But then again, why do away with such a wacky show?