I, like many members of the Calvin community, was shocked and saddened when I learned of the plans to cut back on the functions of the SAO. In the spirit of Ken Heffner and the mission of the SAO, I would like to share one of the ways that I engage with and discern secular culture: the Eurovision Song Contest.
For many of you, this might be the first you have heard of such an event. For much of Europe, however, this is an event that goes back decades. The contest involves around forty countries in Europe, who each send an original song and artist to perform for the rest of Europe. Then, each country votes for their favorite entries by way of a jury of music professionals as well as a popular televote—no country can vote for itself, either. Those points are added together to result in a winner. Simple, right?
As I said, the history of the contest dates back to 1956—the early days of television—and was originally concocted as way to bring together a war-torn Europe following the second world war. Granted, only seven countries participated then, and the performances were quite simple compared to the elaborate productions in its present incarnations, but to me, it is impossible to separate the contest’s own evolution with from the evolution of Europe over the past sixty years.
For example, the contest largely consisted of western countries in its formative years. It expanded to include countries from Scandinavia throughout the sixties, the Mediterranean in the 1970s, and in 1980 Morocco participated for the first and only time. These western countries were the most successful in the early years of the contest as well—France won four times in the first decade alone.
The 1990s marked a definitive turn for the contest that coincided directly with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Nearly a dozen countries wanted in, but there was simply no room for thirty-plus entries on one Saturday night, which forced the European Broadcast Union (EBU) to implement non-televised preliminary rounds.
This proved unpopular, and in the early 2000s, they introduced a semi-final so that every entry could be broadcast at least once. As the number of participants increased further, they finally implemented the two-semi-final format used today. Ten acts advance from each of the semis to reach the Grand Final, joining the host country and the Big Five (UK, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain—the biggest financial contributors) get an automatic bye.
Along with the expansion of the contest to three nights, the 1990s also brought about the abolition of the language rule following four wins by English-speaking nations (countries previously had to sing in their national language(s))—which led to the near dominance of English-language songs in the following years. The requirement of an accompanying orchestra was also done away with, making room for the big pop acts we see today. Most importantly, in 1997, countries began experimenting with televotes, which resulted in eight countries achieving their first wins in the 2000s as the previous heavy-hitters garnered continuous lukewarm results.
Today, the contest is known widely for its glorious campiness, as exemplified when I first encountered the contest back in 2014. Conchita Wurst, a drag queen representing Austria, won the contest in a year that included acts such as a French song about moustaches, a Ukrainian man in a hamster wheel, an Armenian dubstep banger, and a Dutch country duet. It is weird, but it is MY kind of weird, and I have been a devotee ever since.
That said, this year’s contest is going to be one of the most controversial yet. You see, the winning country gets to host the following year’s contest—and Israel won the contest in 2018 with Netta and “Toy.” Israel has one of the most controversial political conflicts in the world at the moment, not to mention that nearly everything about this contest has gone wrong in one way or another. But that won’t stop nearly 200 million people from tuning in to this year’s contest—if only to see what less-controversial location we’ll be in next year.
And who might be the bookies’ favorite to win at the moment? None other than The Netherlands—and I’m more than ready for Amsterdam 2020, baby!
If you would like to watch along with me, the semi-finals (14 and 16 May) and the final (18 May) will be broadcast live on Eurovision.tv. I’ve been reviewing this year’s diverse crop of entries on my personal blog if you’d like some more in-depth coverage. This contest has helped me understand some of what is going on musically in countries that I might otherwise have ignored, and I recommend using it to expand your own horizons as well.