What Americans have to gain, if they can catch the show, is a lesson in geopolitics rarely offered in such an entertaining way.
Eurovision Song Contest 2005Airtime: Saturday, 21 May 2005, 8pm GMT
Network: BBC2 and European Broadcasters Union Affiliates
The European Broadcasters Union (EBU) inaugurated the Eurovision in 1956, with seven nations participating: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, and Italy. Over the years, the number of eligible countries has grown from the initial seven to 52, as broadcasters from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East joined the EBU. For this year, Eurovision's 50th anniversary, 41 countries have put forward contestants.
The ESC is widely watched and discussed in the countries where it airs. While it can be cost-prohibitive for some countries to enter the contest (or to host the next year's contest if they win), voting often reflects world political tensions and alliances, pointedly, without American influences. Though Eurovision might be relatively unknown to Americans, others will recognize its impact through the songs and singers it unleashes upon the world. What Americans have to gain, if they can catch the show, is a lesson in geopolitics rarely offered in such an entertaining way.
Decisions about who to send to the competition and support in voting are usually fraught. For instance, due to ancient tensions over Cyprus (dating back to the late 1800s), Greece and Turkey spent the mid-1970s reenacting their differences on the Eurovision stage. Greece entered the contest for the first time in 1974; the next year, Turkey felt bold politically and artistically: it invaded Cyprus and participated in Eurovision (and Greece refused to do so). In 1976, Greece took its turn sending a contestant, as Turkey still refused to withdraw its troops from the disputed island and also declined to enter that year's Eurovision.
Though negotiations to reunify Cyprus's Turkish and Greek sections began in the 1980s, the tug o' war over Eurovision participation continued well into the '90s, with both nations occasionally entering in the same year. There was no sign of thaw until 2003, when, perhaps as a nod to the United Nations' efforts to reunify Cyprus, Greece gave Turkey a number of points, when in previous years the country had never awarded its rival any. And, though Turkey gave Greece nul points in last Saturday's competition, Greece was this year's Eurovision winner, with Helena Paparizou's Mediterranean-inflected hip-hop song, "My Number One."
The end of the Cold War also touched Eurovision. The contest was broadcast for the first time in Russian and Eastern Bloc countries in 1965, but it wasn't until the fall of the Iron Curtain that Eastern European countries competed in any numbers: Latvia, Romania, Russia, Hungary, and Estonia all entered the 1994 competition. The end of the Cold War and the start of American-style capitalism masquerading as political freedom inaugurated Eurovision-style democracy: we buy, therefore, we sing.
Until last year's move to telephone voting, an elaborate system of scoring by nations passed judgment culturally and politically. Just as Eurovision's winner's circle often reflects broader disapproval and animosity, the voting nations can also reward EBU member-approved behavior. The U.K.'s vacillating role internationally is reflected in voting patterns. When Brits voted out Prime Minister John Major, who was hostile to the European Union, for E.U.-friendly Tony Blair, the E.U. countries handed the 1997 Eurovision victory to U.K. band Katrina and the Waves. Previously known for "Walking on Sunshine," they attempted to ride the Cool Britannia wave to a comeback in the late '90s. They failed, but the Spice Girls soon emerged from this new, optimistic Britain under Blair.
Some countries enlist already known singers. (Unlike bastardizations, such as Pop Idol, American Idol or Fame Academy, this contest demands talent.) U.K. singer Cliff Richard entered three times, never placing higher than third. Julio Iglesias (Spain, 1970) and Olivia Newton-John (U.K., 1974) both competed after they achieved stardom. Swedish supergroup ABBA thoroughly trounced Newton-John with their winning performance of "Waterloo" for Sweden. Similar to the Olympics, countries can also enlist performers of other nationalities as representatives. French Canadian Québécois Celine Dion performed for Switzerland, and won, in the 1988 Eurovision.
Even has-beens and wannabes enter Eurovision, anticipating worldwide publicity. This year, U.K. "glamour model" Jordan (a.k.a. Katie Price), famous for showing her ample cup size on page three of the Sun, squeezed her several months pregnant body into a hot pink sequined body suit in a bid to launch a singing career. Though Jordan lost and Tony Blair's party won, she remains infinitely more famous than her opponent, U.K. entrant, Javine.
U.S. influence is not unknown here, though as yet, no official competitors have appeared. Once choreography was permitted along with the singing, moves from Solid Gold (1980-1988) to today's hip-hop choreography have dominated; the 1984 winning act, though holding Swedish passports, were three Americans singing "Diggi-loo Diggi-ley."
Still, a legitimate U.S. entry could mean the end of Eurovision as we know it. Imagine it: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demands a meeting with the President of the EBU. She wants all non-European members of the "Axis of Singing Evil" disqualified: Syria, Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Lebanon. The U.S.-backed Israeli entrant can, of course, remain in the contest. The EBU finds this demand unacceptable and balks, in an amiable, northern European way. Rice threatens not to broadcast the contest in the States. The EBU counters by disqualifying the U.S. entry. Rice then orders an air strike on all EBU member broadcasters in the name of musical democracy. Eurovision is no more. Long live the Amerivision Song Contest. Regime change, one pop song at a time.
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You can check out all of this year's contestants at: www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/eurovision/2005/contestant.