Everything You Need to Understand (And Survive) Eurovision
The world's strangest music competition is coming live to the US on Saturday. So prepare yourself for glitz, glamour and a major dose of weirdness
Brace yourself America: Eurovision is coming.
So load up on potato chips, cook something European (pizza counts, right?) and strap yourself in for three-and-a-half hours of glitter, drama, trashy Europop and bizarre folksy ballads the likes of which the U.S. public has never seen live – all served with a large side order of 1,000 year-old Game of Thrones-style grudges.
“It’s crazy, right?” Justin Timberlake asked reporters ahead of his headline performance at the event – the first time that a non-contestant has been lined-up to sing on the Eurovision stage.
“It’s a crazy competition,” he said. “I’m actually looking forward to how big it is.”
Timberlake may be in for something of a surprise. Around 200 million viewers tuned into the three-day Eurovision event last year – that’s almost double the number who watched Peyton Manning win Super Bowl 50.
Then there are the contestants themselves. In previous years the honor roll has included a singing turkey puppet (Ireland, 2008), a heavy metal band dressed as monsters (Finland, 2006), six Russian grandmothers (Russia, 2012) and a transgender former drag artist (Israel, 1988). The golden rule of Eurovision is that literally anything goes – and the more outrageous your gimmick, the better chance you have of winning.
“Eurovision is like American Idol if every state got to present a candidate,” explains Chicago-born Genie Godula, anchor at international news channel France24, who has covered the show.
“Americans should watch Eurovision for the pure kitsch value. You can have everything from Estonians dressed in furry cavemen outfits to a beautiful bearded drag queen from Austria.”
Watching Eurovision is no easy task. The contest was established in 1956 to promote peace in Europe after the horrors of WWII and includes a bizarre set of rules that ensure tiny countries like Malta and San Marino are on a level playing field with the likes of Germany, the U.K. and France. Or at least, that’s the theory.
Saturday’s show is the Grand Final, and involves competitors from 26 different countries performing one song each at The Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. It is divided into two main sections: the singing and the voting (with Timberlake performing “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” in the interval).
The songs themselves are performed back-to-back and, with a run time of around an hour and a half, represent the first test of your Eurovision stamina. It’s also where things start to get weird.
To begin with, the definition of ‘Europe’ in Eurovision is a little ‘fuzzy,’ as the contest involves countries that aren’t actually in the continent of Europe at all, such as Israel, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Australia.
The contestants themselves also don’t have to come from the countries they’re representing: for instance, in 1988 French-Canadian Céline Dion sung “Ne Partez Sans Moi” on behalf of Switzerland – and won.
You also need to be aware that not all of the countries in Europe will appear in the Grand Final. While the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the previous winners (in this case, Sweden) are guaranteed a place, every other country has to qualify through two semi-final heats.
This means that while you’ll get to see contestants from the likes of Russia, Belgium, The Netherlands and Hungary performing, you sadly won’t be able to catch those from Ireland, San Marino and Belarus who failed to make it through qualifying.
After all 26 acts have performed their songs, the telephone lines are thrown open to every single person in the 42 countries who entered the contest, regardless of whether their own act made it through to the Grand Final. This voting window lasts for 15 minutes and can be done via a cell phone app, landline call or text.
It also includes the one rule that is absolutely central to Eurovision: you cannot vote for your own country. So if you’re from Paris you cannot cast a vote for the French song, and if you’re from Berlin you cannot vote for the German song.
Once this 15-minute flurry is, over the votes are counted and points awarded to the 10 most popular songs in each country. But Eurovision doesn’t like to simply hand out points from 1 to 10. Instead, the most popular song in each country is given 12 points and the second favorite 10. The third most liked then gets 8 points and the fourth 7. This pattern continues all the way down to the tenth most popular, which gets one point.
Favorite: 12 points
Second: 10 points
Third: 8 points
Fourth: 7 points
Fifth: 6 points
Sixth: 5 points
Seventh: 4 points
Eighth: 3 points
Ninth: 2 points
Tenth: 1 point
This is where Eurovision gets all Game of Thrones.
Bizarrely, the votes of people cast across an entire continent only account for 50 percent of the total. The other 50 percent is decided by a series of five-person juries in each nation. Like the public votes, these juries rank the songs into a top 10 and hand out points accordingly.
On the surface, all you will see is a seemingly endless stream of people appearing from far-flung capitals like Tirana and Belgrade to hand out points for the top 10 choices from each jury. In reality, however, you will actually be looking deep into the heart of European politics, geography and history as allies vote tactically for each other and refuse point blank to give points to anyone else.
This has been the cause of massive, heated arguments for decades. In 2008, longstanding British TV host – and Eurovision legend – Sir Terry Wogan actually stepped down from presenting the show because he believed the system had become totally corrupt.
In 2013, this was nearly proved to be true when Azerbaijan was accused of trying to buy votes from jurors and paying Lithuanian students to vote for their contestant Farid Mammadov. The case was never fully proved but Eurovision introduced a new rule as a result and any country found guilty of vote rigging now faces a three-year ban.
Despite this, the tactical voting continues – particularly among the Scandinavian, Balkan and ex-Soviet nations, who basically share the points out among their friends and allies. Put it this way: Belarus entered Eurovision in 2004. Since then it has given Russia twice as many points as any other country.
It doesn’t stop there, either. The truth is that Europe has so many centuries-old alliances and feuds that virtually every country votes tactically to a degree. It is for this reason that Greece always gives high marks to Cyprus and little or nothing to Turkey. Meanwhile, Malta always hands out points to the U.K., and the U.K. always gives points to Ireland.
Just about the only countries that don’t play the game are France, Israel, Monaco, Switzerland, Portugal, Australia and Germany.
WHAT TO EXPECT FOR 2016
In a new twist the public votes are not going to be revealed until after the juries have allocated their points. This means that the act that’s leading after the jury votes may suddenly be passed by a late runner who’s more popular with the public.
Lots of English
The days when artists insisted on singing in their native language are long gone. Out of the finalists, only France and Austria won’t have some form of English in their songs – and they’ll both be singing in French. For the first time ever the English-singing contingent also includes the Spanish entry, Say Yay by Barei.
It’s way too early to know exactly what madness the acts have tucked up their sleeves, but German contestant Jamie-Lee Kriewitz is a hot favorite to take the title of ‘strangest act.’ The 18 year-old will sing Ghost dressed in an Alice in Wonderland style-costume inspired by Japanese manga, complete with sparkly antlers, an eerie moonlit backdrop and a small tsunami of dry ice.
A Long Wait
From start to finish the whole competition is expected to last around three and a half hours. If this starts to get painful, just be grateful that the points are no longer awarded in three different languages.
It’s often the case that the act with the best gimmick wins Eurovision. M ns Zelmerlöw from Sweden claimed the 2015 title partly as a result of his clever interplay with live graphics. This hasn’t slipped past the class of 2016, so expect lots of dancing on CGI stairs and imaginary ice floes.
Eurovision is relentlessly upbeat, and most countries interpret this as one thing: Europop.
If there’s one thing that gets the Eurovision crowd going it’s the chance to wave their national flag on TV. As the contest is being held in Sweden, you can expect to see lots of blue and yellow, but don’t be surprised if more than a few stars and stripes appear for Timberlake.
The Green Room
Once all the singing is over, the artists gather in an enormous green room to listen to the results coming in. The TV mainly focuses on those at the top of the table celebrating their latest points haul. But look behind them and you’ll see hundreds of musicians putting on their best ‘Oscar face.’
One of the golden rules of Eurovision is that whomever wins the title has to host the next event. In most cases they like to welcome the world to their home with a string of gags. Be prepared that Swedish TV presenters do not have the stand-up skills of Chris Rock.
The jury votes are handed out live by a TV presenter stationed in each nation’s capital city. For some, the temptation to shine in front of 200 million is just too great to resist and they see this as their big moment to make a mark – dropping gags, anecdotes and even the occasional song into the mix. Ever heard a joke told in Albanian? You may on Saturday.
With 26 acts performing on stage there’s naturally a lot of shifting around of equipment that needs to be done. To hide this, the TV producers will roll out a travel brochure for the country of the next performer, only with a typically bizarre Eurovision twist.
Jazz artist Jamala is representing Ukraine with a song about Stalin and ethnic cleansing in the Crimea. It’s just about as far removed from a typical Eurovision song as it’s possible to get and guaranteed to infuriate every Russian watching. “I had to release their souls. Because they never came back to Ukraine,” Jamala told the BBC about her six relatives who she says were packed on trains “like animals” by Stalin to die in the Soviet Union.
Russian Seirei Lazarov is currently the red-hot favorite to win with Ladbrokes, followed by Dam Im of Australia and Jamala of Ukraine. The biggest long shot of the night is Georgian rock band Young Georgian Lolitaz at 250-1.
The show is in Sweden. Chances of them not mentioning the best Eurovision winners of all time? Less than “nul points!”