Eurovision 2016

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Each spring Europe comes together in the campy bacchanal that is the Eurovision Song Contest. For those who have never heard of Eurovision, let this superfan provide some background. Eurovision was started in 1956 as a means of reunifying the continent after World War II. Since then it has come to symbolize peace, musical “talent” and crazy costumes.  The contest, meant to be a frivolous way to inspire patriotism and unity, has become a mix of American Idol, the Olympics and the Hunger Games. It has launched the careers of ABBA, Celine Dion and Conchita Wurst. 

Each year one country hosts (the honor to host is acquired by winning the previous year) 26 countries from Europe, and these have been whittled down from two semifinals. Never mind the long competitions each individual country has to pick their act. The final 26 countries are comprised of the reigning champion, who gets an automatic place, as do, what I call, the “Security Council” countries: the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, France. The other twenty are voted in. The whole ordeal goes on for about four hours and and by the end a new Eurovision champion has been crowned. Today, the program is known more for being popular amongst gay men and for its truly terrifying accompanying drinking game. But beyond the hamster wheels, volcanoes, and whatever this is, Eurovision is also innately political. Well, political enough to write a term paper in college about (I got an A, probably more for creativity than anything else).

The politics arise not in gimmick or act, but in the voting. Each country eligible to participate has a jury that delegates out votes. Akin to the electoral college in the US, it is kind of a mess, but pretty exciting at the same time. So at the end of the first two and a half hours of performances there is a break that signifies the lines are open for voting. You can vote as many times as you want, but you cannot vote for your home country. It goes without saying that you have to live in one of the eligible countries to be able to vote. Don’t bother to try faking an international number on Skype – I’ve tried, it doesn’t work.

When the lines close the video calls begin. With the host of the Eurovision getting the results from a B-list TV personality from each of the 45 countries. Yes, 45. This takes forever, satellite call failures included. Each country’s jury gives out twelve points. 1-8, 10 and 12 (I don’t know what happened to 9 and 11). The most gracious thing about this is that only the 12-point country is announced, the rest automatically calculate on the screen next to the presenter. With a exclamation of “Douze points!” (the official languages of Eurovision are English and French) they move on to the next country.

As one  can imagine people tend to stick to national affiliations and historical precedence. Greece never gives 12 points to Turkey. Israel never gives 12 points to Germany, etc. This is where the politics kick in. You can pretty much expect how the voting is going to go down. And once you are familiar with the Eurovision popular tropes, its easy to predict the winner. There is a fair amount of gambling surrounding the results as well, with Eurovision being one of the most expensive bookmakings of the season.

Now that you’ve got a basic background of all this nonsense you’ll understand why Eurovision 2016 was so impressive. In performances, this year was lackluster to say the least. Not one entry brought the ridiculousness Eurovision normally promises. But where there is a tame year in panache, there is an insane year in the mundane. Going into the competition Russia was a favorite to win. Sergey Lazarev’s act promised a big song, 3D graphics and exciting dance moves – good juju for a winner. But when voting came around, Russia was getting crushed by Ukraine and Australia. (This is a sore spot for me, Australia, while not in Europe, has the highest audience of viewers of Eurovision. They were invited last year for the 60th anniversary and for some reason are sticking around.)  So, yes, Russia’s golden boy was up against a Ukrainian chanteuse known as Jamala. And what was Jamala’s entry? Well, she promised no 3D graphics or crazy dance moves, but took the other Eurovision route: an intense power ballad. Usually these are snooze, but Jamala’s “1994” opened with the lines: “When strangers are coming. They come to your house, they kill you all and say: ‘We’re not guilty … not guilty.'” Pretty intense right? Her half-English, half-Ukrainian  song is about the 1994 expulsion of Crimean Tartars by Josef Stalin during World War II. Jamala, Crimean Tartar herself, wrote the song about her grandparents who were expelled in 1944 and her family who she hasn’t seen since the 2014 Russian annexation. Its the first time in history a true underdog entry has won Eurovision and the first time a song this outright political has been allowed, marking a shift in the Song Contest.  I’m sure there is something in the fact that the European Broadcasting Union allowed the song in the first place and that it won amongst the juries and also in the popular vote. But I’ll leave that up to the professional political analysts to decide. After all, like I said, I’m mostly in it for the crazy costumes. 

 

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