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Major news in European elections: Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest last night.

Salvador Sobral’s stripped-down performance and heartfelt singing were somewhat of an anomaly in an annual extravaganza known for outrageous kitsch and over-the-top production. Previous contests have featured a Russian Olympian skating on a mini ice rink, Finnish monster-metal pyrotechnics, and a singing turkey puppet from Ireland. And, by all means, you should watch this top-ten video of crazy entries to the end (Tanzen!).

The fascination with Eurovision, however, goes beyond the wild costumes, questionable musicality, and surreal staging. The byzantine voting system, which even confused Sobral, has been the subject of many popular and academic analyses. Since voting is done by country (and countries cannot vote for their own entries), the contest also puts on a remarkable show of ethnic, nationalist, and/or cultural solidarities. These voting patterns, along with the range of cultural expressions on the stage itself, mean that there are well over 6,000 hits for Eurovision on Google Scholar.

Eurovision is also a hotbed for actual international politics. Ukraine, this year’s host, banned Russia’s contestant for having performed in Crimea. This follows last year’s winning performance by a Crimean Tatar singing about Soviet deportations. Armenia’s 2015 entry was forced to change its name from “Don’t Deny,” which was deemed too overt a reference to those who refuse to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide. While the 2014 win by an Austrian drag queen incited Vladimir Putin to criticize the waning of “traditional values,” the context has long been notable for promoting openness to gay and transgender rights.

Embracing Eurovision lets us revel in the glitter and the flamboyance–and, in rare moments, drop the irony and just be moved by a performance like Sobral’s. But it also leaves me with a bizarre sense  of something important just behind the curtains. Eurovision’s artists have pushed many boundaries (not just those of taste). In the midst of the carnival hoopla and nationalist cant, the spotlights also illuminate debates and negotiations about values and identity. In a year when the EU’s future has repeatedly been called into question, Eurovision is one place where Europeanness itself is being worked out.

Ein, zwei, drei… [so stuck in my head].

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  • Disappointed not to see Ireland’s all-time great entry in the top 10 list.


    • wjts

      Objectively the best Eurovision song ever*. Objectively second-best: Inspector Jean-Paul Zatapathique’s “Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong.”

      *Everything about that clip is brilliant. Dougal playing ping-pong and Ted’s little train dance at the end get me every time.

  • Lt. Fred

    In 1974, Portugal’s army overthrew its fascist government after a secret message hidden in … their Eurovision entry.

    I honestly thought Portugal couldn’t do it, that their Sarah Vaugn French jazz (in Portugese!) was a reckless risk. But Europe proved me wrong. Absolutely wonderful stuff. I couldn’t be happier. What a guy, what a performance, what a song.

    Hope he survives boneitus!

  • Robespierre

    Has humanity gone insane? Portugal’s sad little affair belonged nowhere near the top.

  • Dr. Acula

    I may have said this here before, and if so, I’ll say it again. I was in Dublin when Eurovision 2007 was on, and was treated to the RTÉ coverage of it, and the commentator was an absolute delight. Totally sarcastic and hilarious.

  • Dennis Orphen

    Ein, zwei, drei… [so stuck in my head]

    Weinerschnitzel….so stuck in mine.

  • MacK

    Ah, Dustin the Turkey, notorious for asking politicians – on children’s television, about the bribes they took, really was a quite subversive character.

    The Eurovision became increasingly expensive to put on – and each year’s winner hosts the next year. The Irish, who won in ‎1970‎, ‎1980‎, ‎1987‎, ‎1992‎, ‎1993‎, ‎1994‎ were particularly horrified to then win again in ‎1996‎ – three years in a row had wrecked RTÉ finances. Rumour has it that they have been throwing the contest every year since.

    Eurovision has declined ever since they introduced heats/semifinals in 2004 and more in 2008 – it’s simply lost it’s really weird acts. You used to watch it roll out over 3-5 hours – in Ireland you could flip from one sober Irish presenter on RTÉ to an increasing plastered Irish presenter, Terry Wogan, on BBC – and it was a hilarious exercise in being aghast – with inebriated pals. It was particularly good to have many nationalities in the room – and watch them cringe at their national entries – the Austrian’s simulating masturbation on stage was memorable. You just don’t see anything as weird anymore, and certainly not every second act….

  • Ethel2Tilly

    They yodel in Romania? Who knew?

    • Lt. Fred

      The most outright silly contest of this year for my money.

    • Downpuppy

      Yodel and rap were made for each other, obvs.

  • Pity they never got the Queen Mother and Coluche to present the prize. BTW, what is the prize, apart from the white elephant duty to host the next round? A boxed CD set of historic entries?

  • Gregor Sansa

    If you tried to design a voting method that optimized for drama but also got reasonably-fair results, you could do worse than the method they use. But you could maybe do better, too; at least if by “drama” you mean “ability to reveal information bit-by-bit in a way that meaningfully impacts the odds but does not rule out the possibility of an upset”. You could use points down to 4, then reveal points, then use “most times in top 3” to cut down to 3, then “fewest times in bottom 3” to cut down to 2, then pairwise by country between the top two. This would be dramatic, without opening up too much possibility of sneaky strategy; it’s similar to 3-2-1 voting.

    But maybe they are already happy with the ratio of actual singing to voting drama.

    • Ronan

      How do you counteract the fact that people tend to vote for their neighbours rather than for the song?

      eta: though in fairness it might just reflect regional musical preferences rather than favorability towards neighbours.

      eta2: it’s an honest question. is there some weighting system that could undermine bloc voting.

      • Gregor Sansa

        You could build a model that predicts how each country will vote (without looking at any data from the current year). Note that the expected votes should all be regressed towards the mean by a good model; so you will never predict that country X will give country Y first or last place. Then you’d subtract the predicted vote from the actual vote.

        I’m not sure if people would accept this. It may be that a certain amount of favoritism is better than corrections that would be perceived as (and in a minority of cases, might actually be) unfair.

  • Adam Roberts

    Far and away the best song of the entire evening was not one of the national entries but Ukrainian band ONUKA’s interval performance, a mix-up of several of their original tracks. The guy playing the techno horse-tail is my favourite musical moment of 2017 so far.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Wow. Thanks. Their name translates in english to Fruity and Simon, fwiw.

      • Adam Roberts

        Knowing that fact has materially enhanced my pleasure in listening to them!

  • Bitter Scribe

    Obligatory: Anthony Lane’s profile of Eurovision in the New Yorker.

    • TheSophist

      Oh, my goodness, that’s a brilliant/hysterical piece of writing! Thanks for the link.

  • Redwood Rhiadra

    I have to admit the only Eurovision act I’m familiar with wasn’t even an entry, but the intermission in 1994 – the first performance of Riverdance (which I absolutely love.)

  • bender

    Does the Eurovision Song Contest have a position in European culture comparable to the Super Bowl in American culture?

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