Europe United

If you don’t know how to grossly stereotype Europeans, Christoffer Torris Olsen urges Americans to watch Eurovision, the biggest non-sporting event in the world.

In the eyes of a European, Americans are obese, obnoxious, ignorant rednecks with no healthcare. And while it might be possible to call the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” or tell Brits they have an accent you can’t possibly take seriously, there’s not a lot that unifies Europeans in terms of stereotypes — except what you’re about to learn.

This event garners over 100 million viewers from around the world, slightly more than the Super Bowl. It launched ABBA’s career internationally. It’s responsible for some of the most ridiculous songs and costumes in the history of the world. It precedes the EU and its predecessors, and is central to the proliferation of a pan-European identity, yet most Americans don’t even know it exists. It’s the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual competition between artists (it’s really a songwriter’s competition, but nobody seems to care about that), one from each participating country.

Every country arranges its own competition to determine its entrant. Some choose by jury, some by popular vote. Then, each nation’s entrant needs to qualify for the European finals. Some move on automatically: last year’s winner, plus Great Britain, Germany, France and Spain. The rest compete in the semifinals for a total of 24 spots in the final, where all contestants perform, and the European people to decide on the winner. That could be the framework of any music contest, but for many reasons, Eurovision is special.

Though most entries are fundamentally contemporary pop, Eurovision has developed a certain peculiar aesthetic since its inception in 1956. Instruments are usually handled by a backing track, but all vocals have to be live. Entries can be up to three minutes and use as many as six performers. That’s the box; many contestants spend considerable amounts of time — and drugs, one would guess — trying to think outside of it. Absurdity is usually more important than the music, if the music matters at all.

Many countries present their country’s finest cultural heritage, usually in a slightly perverted fashion. Turbofolk-like music is common, and though many sing in English, hints of local culture are often included. Otherwise it would just be ordinary bad pop music (although there’s plenty of that to go around too; look up any of Sweden’s entries). Ukraine’s 2007 entry is probably the best example of this phenomenon.

Silver drag outfit, Eastern European dance beats, different languages — surely a winning strategy. This performance earned Ukraine second place that year. It might be hard to believe, especially when you compare it to European versions of American Idol, which usually end up with winners that might as well have been from the U.S. Eurovision has a much larger impact, both commercially and politically.

Also common are variations on heavy metal, such Finland’s 2006 entry, “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” It went on to win the entire contest, and is arguably the biggest insult to metal since Cradle of Filth covered Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name.”

Voting rules are simple: Every country, qualified or not, votes for the different entries, usually via popular vote. Then each country gives out one to twelve points to another country, and no country can vote for itself. The winning country also gets to host next year’s contest, and there’s usually a certain amount of fame included for the performers.

But it gets more complicated. The Balkan countries, many of which have been at war in the 1990s, tend to vote for each other. Former Warsaw Pact countries makes a voting bloc, as does the Benelux. Scandinavia votes with the Baltics. Greece and Turkey, being in a current conflict over Cyprus, rarely exchange points.

Where Eurovision goes, the EU tends to follow, The Economist said in 2005. While the entries are rarely political by nature, and in many ways are prohibited from having a political message, proliferation of freedom and stability in Europe has close ties to Eurovision. In 1974, Portugal’s entry helped launch the Carnation Revolution, basically changing the country from dictatorship to democracy. Twelve years later the country would join the European Union.

It’s certainly easier to join a song contest than meet the Copenhagen criteria, but for many countries, Eurovision is the first big step into the cultural community of Europe. Only a few years after the Iron Curtain was lifted, former Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries joined the competition, subsequently joining the EU in the eastern enlargements of 2004 and 2007. And while the contest alone is not enough to bring down the dictatorship of Lukashenko in Belarus, it’s a breath of fresh air and a window to the rest of the continent when they participate.

Not only is the contest open to European countries, it’s basically open to anyone who feels European enough to join the broadcasting union. Israel has regularly participated since 1973, and Morocco participated once. Lebanon and Tunisia have planned to join but haven’t yet, and Qatar wants to take part in either 2011 or 2012.

Socially conservative Americans won’t enjoy Eurovision. I’m glad FOX News has no idea what’s going on over here. Sexually suggestive content is normal and downright popular in Eurovision, and progressive subcultures are frequently promoted. Israel won in 1998 with transsexual singer Dana International. For those who know t.A.T.u and their slightly lesbian gimmick, they participated in 2003. Greek star Kalomira performed the entirely suggestive “My Secret Combination” in 2008. Germany’s 2009 entry included burlesque artist and fetish model Dita Von Teese, plus a bare-chested German that might add to the sensual touch.

To compare, the FCC received 540,000 indecency complaints after Janet Jackson’s errant nipple at the 2004 Superbowl. One hundred million Europeans wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.

Eurovision has given the internet a few things as well. Moldova’s 2010 entry sparked a short-lived but well-deserved internet meme, the Epic Sax Guy. They’re also an example of one of the more ridiculous stage performances of recent Eurovision history, if you disregard the Ukraine entry mentioned earlier.

Eurovision is both good and bad, but usually, the interval act is a highlight. It is an integral part of the program, comparable to the Super Bowl half time show. My home of Norway, otherwise known as the only country to receive zero points in the contest four times, hosted Eurovision last year, resulting in one of the best TV moments I have ever witnessed, doing its fair share to promote a pan-European identity:

Europe is a state of mind, and Eurovision is the EU’s vanguard. It might seem farfetched to include countries like Israel and Qatar in a European contest, but at least the expansion makes sure we’ll have something new when we get tired of the peculiarities of former Eastern Bloc countries.

Europe is growing. The EU is the U.S. ‘s largest competitor and closest ally on the world stage, so it’s a good idea to learn a bit more about what we do. Make sure to clear May 14, 2011 in your calendar. Call your local TV channel or simply watch it online at Eurovision‘s home page.

If it should end up being a little boring, try the drinking game: one shot for each unnecessary vocal modulation. Don’t worry, it only happens in about twice per song. Good luck.

Photo by aktivioslo

Born and raised in Oslo, Norway, Chris usually spends his days doing things he's afraid of. When he doesn't play entrepreneur, he travels or spends time in politics. He is passionate about privacy issues, language, jazz music and food. From time to time he writes in his blog, Torristory.