Three Minutes Over Europe

KIEV, Ukraine -- Children of the 1970s probably have fond memories of groovin' along with (or running away from) ABBA's "Waterloo", a winning song from the Eurovision contest that catapulted the Swedish quartet into the international spotlight. The parents of those children might be surprised to learn that 1950s radio staple "Volare"-- covered by a litany of artists including the Maguire Sisters and Dean Martin-- was actually a rewrite of an Italian song from this competition ("Nel blu, dipinto di blue", from 1958). Any hipster worth a damn knows about Serge Gainsbourg, though he might not realize the Frenchman wrote a song for this contest. Katrina and the Waves won the contest in 1997, many years after "Walking on Sunshine" became a staple of nostalgia-driven compilations. Everyone's favorite Russian faux-lesbian pop duo Tatu lost the contest in 2003, just a few years after kicking doors down in America with "All the Things She Said". The undying popularity of godless things like Celine Dion or Riverdance can be attributed to the Eurovision Song Contest. And yet despite that, it's safe to say that most Americans probably never knew such a thing existed.

Entries for the Eurovision song contest (L-R) Javine Hylton of the United Kingdom, Ortal of France, Shiri Maimon of Israel and Glennis Grace of the Netherlands

This is especially galling as the phenomenon that is American Idol might not exist were it not for the European Broadcasting Union's decision in 1956 to invite 10 European nations to participate in a televised song contest. Only seven of the 10 invitees actually participated in the original Eurovision contest-- the remaining three countries failed to submit their entries on time. The early years of Eurovision are typified by a charming incompetence one would associate with a high school talent show: Myriad technical difficulties, no rules to account for a tie, countries failing to tabulate vote totals properly, nation s either unable or unwilling to host the event. Even the historical summary compiled as part of the press materials for this event strikes a tone that reflects its modest and mawkish beginnings: "1966 was the year of young girls at Eurovision. Among others, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and Portugal all sent sweet, virginal young things to the contest."

Nowadays, the Eurovision contest is big business. So big, in fact, that newly elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yuschenko temporarily canceled the need for members of the European Union and Switzerland to obtain entry visas to his country, which is hosting this year's event. According to the Ukrainian News Agency, "This step was taken for the purpose of transparency of Ukrainian society and realisation of the policy of integration with the EU, and also for creating conditions for investments and acceleration of personal contacts." While the cost of the show is large, the amount of money the Ukraine will receive from festival attendees and participants will go a long way towards offsetting that expense. The 2005 version of this contest, to be held in Kiev, will feature representatives from 39 nations performing live over the course of two days. The semifinal round, featuring 25 performers vying for 10 spots in the finals, happens on May 19. The finals, featuring the top 10 semifinalists and 14 other performers, happens on May 21.

The rules of the Eurovision contest are simple. In order to participate, the country an entrant represents must be a member of the European Broadcasting Union, an organization that includes non-European countries like Israel and Egypt and Switzerland. All EBU members that did not participate in the previous year's competition are automatically entered into this year's competition. France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom-- the countries that perennially contribute the most money to the EBU-- are always eligible to compete, regardless of previous years' performance. The eligibility of other EBU countries in the contest is based on their scoring average of their performances over the past five years. These averages account for years where a country does not participate, of course-- that way, a country that's only participated twice in five years isn't penalized.

Scoring is tabulated through televoting. As with American Idol and other like-minded shows, television viewers can call in and vote for any one song aside from the song representing their home country-- this way, a small country like Moldova theoretically has the same chance of winning as France or Spain. Of course, such precautions don't prevent favoritism from occurring-- according to the Wikipedia entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, regionally and culturally biased voting frequently occurs. "Former Yugoslav states have the habit of voting for each other. With the introduction of voting by the public, Turkey gets many points from Germany and the Netherlands due to large Turkish expatriate communities in those countries, France, with a large Portuguese community, often awards a high score to Portugal, and former Soviet states, with large Russian populations, frequently award high scores to Russia."

Once viewer votes are tallied, points are awarded to the top 10 votegetters. The lowest eight spots receive points equal to their rank, the second highest vote-getter receives 10 points, and the first place finisher receives 12. All this tallying occurs soon after the final song is performed. These totals are then announced by a designated spokesperson over the air, and the Grand Prix goes to the participant with the highest point total. In addition to the honor of winning Eurovision (and any publicity such a victory garners), the winning representative's country will host the following year's contest.

Despite the goodwill that this competition seeks to engender in Europeans, the political realities of these countries often make themselves known. Throughout the contest's history, countries have often opted to not participate because of another country's presence. For instance, tensions between Turkey and Greece in the 1970s meant that one of these countries sat out. In 1964, there was an outcry to ban both Spain and Portugal, due to dictatorships in charge of those two countries. This year, Lebanon's passive-aggressive actions forced their ouster from the contest. According to an article posted on on March 18th:

"...It came out that on the official Lebanese Eurovision Song Contest website, Israel was not listed as participant. After a demand from the European Broadcasting Union to solve the issue, it was decided to remove the complete list of participants and in this way avoiding the problem. According to the Lebanese broadcaster in a statement to the EBU, legislation in Lebanon makes it nearly impossible for Télé-Liban to broadcast the Israeli performance."

Since all Eurovision participants are supposed to broadcast the entire competition, Lebanon was forced to withdraw. It's a shame, too, as Lebanon's entry-- Aline Lahoud's would-be disco staple "It's Over"-- could probably do rather well. As it stands, oddsmakers have Greece, Hungary, and Norway as the favorites, three selections that go a long way in illustration the diversity of the Eurovision entries.

Greece is represented by "My Number One", an exemplary pop tune sung in English flecked with enough ethnic spice (courtesy of some Middle Eastern violin) to give off an exotic air that's not offputting to outsiders. Hungary's "Forojg Vilag" possibly errs on the side of too much homeland pride-- the tune is sung in Hungarian, and its display of indigenous musics overwhelms the more universal portions of the track. Norway's song, "In My Dreams", sidesteps issues of staying true to their country by sounding like Def Leppard covering either AC/DC's "Money Talks" or Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer".

The other songs in the competition cover all sorts of ground, including some ground folks might like better uncovered. Moldova offers a track that asks the burning question, "What if 311 covered a Barenaked Ladies song?" The Ukraine's Greenjolly provides something that sounds a lot like the worst Eminem song ever-- the fact that its lyrics (previously protesting the pre-Yuschinko election results) had to be changed doesn't help any. Another notable track is from Austria's Global.Kyner-- "Y Asi" features lyrics in Spanish and English, and tells the story of a Cuban woman who comes to Austria and falls in love with a man who can dance and yodel. And, yes, there is yodeling in the track as well. From Avril Lavigne clones to maudlin balladry to something that could be from No Doubt's first album, this year's Eurovision entrants show the diversity that can be had within pop music.

Despite their differences, they all have one thing in common, which is possibly the most important rule of the contest: All songs must be no longer than three minutes long. This was undoubtedly instituted for pragmatic reasons: Twenty-five three-minute performances back-to-back, with five-minute breaks between songs, would take over three hours. It's also a rule that points to the history of pop music. The physical limitations of vinyl 78s and 45s meant that only three to four minutes' worth of music could fit on one side. While the popular song itself did evolve throughout the 20th century, this song length limit-- mandated by the technology used to bring this music to the masses-- remained constant. Even now, in the 21st century, in the age of the iPod and peer-to-peer file-sharing, where songs are reduced to zeroes and ones, a group of countries that might only have geographic locality in common bridge cultural and physical gaps via three-minute pop songs. English might be the international business language, but music is the one language that everyone in the world can understand.

Source: Pitchfork