Why I Love the ESC

Tomorrow is the day the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest will take place. And it so happens that it’ll take place right here, in the city where I’m writing this. Twelve-year-old me would have been all giddy. See, I love the ESC. Nowadays that love is the low-intensity affection of an old married couple, but when I was somewhere around twelve-thirteen I was obsessed for a month or two every year (that it felt like a personal tradition is a testament to the different perspective you have on time when you’re 12 compared to when you’re 32—at 12 all you need for a long-standing tradition is two or three years). I listened to all the songs many times, wrote reviews of them that I distributed to the people my mother had invited over to watch the final. If internet fandom had been a thing back then this would’ve been much, much worse. The biggest fans nowadays do seem even crazier than I was.

Sweden won it in 1999 and got to host in 2000, which was a big deal even though it missed “peak obsession” for me by a few years. In 2013 we hosted again, but this time far away from me on the other side of the country. It’s lovely to have it back here again, it reminds me what a fascinating institution it really is.

I am of course aware that this contest is not cool. Neither is it musically sophisticated or particularly authentic. Many regard it as a joke, a weapons-grade concentration of trash culture and a festival of the lamest music you ever get to hear in mainstream media. I totally get that. It’s somewhat true (even if it is a little bit unfair since we get to hear live performances in large arenas, which sound much worse than the polished studio versions we get to hear everywhere else). The whole show, from the music and the clothes to the humor, is aggressively unhip and aims for the lowest common denominator.

Nowadays there are about 40 entries every year, and I find maybe 1 or 2 worth expending a few key presses to add to some permanent playlist (to be fair, that does change when alcohol gets involved) So why do I like it? Why would I even say I love it?

When I at a party once mentioned to one of my more hipsterish friends that I like it he looked at me in disbelief. Why oh why would I possibly enjoy this pathetic gimmick-fest pretending to be a music competition? This article is a (quite grotesquely) expanded version of what I told him. The fact is, there are a lot of good reasons to like the ESC, you just need to look beneath the surface.

But first, let’s just look at the surface. It’s quite a surface. There is something impressive just about the fact that the ESC is such an incredibly large event. Someone called it “sports for people who don’t like sports”, and that pretty much sums it up (I’ve also heard it called “the Gay Olympics”). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the peak of my ESC obsession phase coincided perfectly with when I really cared about sports—old enough to be really into things but young enough not to have experienced the eventual fatigue of yearly repetition.

I still like the Olympics and the World Cup for the partly the same reasons I like the ESC: they’re huge events that break through the white noise of everyday media. They’re campfire events in a fractured cultural environment with fewer and fewer campfire events. Such events are like christmas or new years or halloween or midsummer or octoberfest or [insert whatever big local holiday or party you have]. You get together with your friends and/or family and have a celebration, but you also on some level, get together with everyone.

Sharing holidays and campfire events is part of what makes a society a society. We don’t have that many collective experiences left (breakdowns in the train system is the closest to a collective experience me and my fellow commuters ever share), that level of shared attention gives something a significance it wouldn’t otherwise have. During the Olympics I can watch curling or pole vaulting and care about it, even though I wouldn’t if they were on their own. Being part of a Generally Huge Deal makes things significant, and the sheer size and spectacle of the ESC makes me want to watch a tv competition with music I don’t even particularly like. Isn’t that a little wonderful?

There is also something liberating about the over-the-top tastelessness. The social dimension of “taste” is more than a little unpleasant; it can be suffocating, anxiety-inducing and reinforce pecking-order status gradients and the ESC’s embrace of the radically uncool and unpretentious makes its culture and fandom friendly, relaxed and inclusive*. It celebrates joy, humor and playfulness rather than angst, edginess or undirected rebelliousness.

While its mix of styles, cultures and fashions and its fondness for self-reference makes it aesthetically postmodern, it lacks the detachment and compulsive rejection mentality I find so off-putting about postmodernity. Best of both worlds for me.

*Speaking of inclusiveness, there is also the gay angle. I don’t really get into that here since it’s not a big deal to me and I don’t know a lot about the history of the connection. But it’s a very important part to a lot of people and it should be mentioned. Here are some articles about it.

Despite all this, I can say right away that if the ESC was created today I wouldn’t watch it. I read that someone bought the rights to the format and tried to get it off the ground in the United States, where states would compete instead of countries. It might work but probably won’t. In a contemporary television environment saturated with reality tv and talent- and singing competitions, the format doesn’t stand out and it wouldn’t reach anywhere nere the cultural presence it has today if it was new. The true format that makes the contest what it is can’t be transplanted because you can’t just retroactively create history; the contest’s history is an inextricable part of its format.

That history is long, almost as long as tv itself. The ESC is a 60-year-old institution and just like how any pop tune with terrible lyrics (I’m no fan of censorship but I would totally support a ban on rhyming “fire” with “desire”) becomes significant by being part of the contest, each year’s contest becomes significant by being part of that tradition. The ESC started in 1956 , when national broadcasters across western Europe came together in a show of unity after the war by airing the competition simultaneously in all participating countries—no small feat those days, the contest was a partly a test of technological capability.

While the ESC is called a song contest, its history is more the history of tv than the history of music; it is a child of the tv industry and run by tv-people, not of the music industry and run by music-people. This explains some things. The half-century after the first contest saw unprecedented musical innovation, like the birth of rock, metal, disco, punk, rap, electronic music etc. Very little of this trickled into the contest, which continued to be dominated by ballads and old-fashioned inoffensive pop tunes until quite recently (and to a large degree it still is). Hence,  the history of the contest is quite independent of the history of music in general; how it changes over time has more to do with technology and politics and how they interact with the contest’s peculiar internal logic and rules.

Having countries compete rather than just songs (or composers, as in the precursor the Sanremo festival) is important because it allows a perfectly sized measure of continuity over the years. This combination of stable entrants and changes in rules and technology allows patterns and habits to emerge and fade over time, adding extra layers of expectations and surprise to each year’s instance and creating a richer experience to those well versed in its history. Some countries always vote for each other. Some countries have a particular style. Some are try-hards while others try to be the cool kids at the back of the class and some just give up and go nuts. Some follow dramatic fall-from-grace or rags-to-riches trajectories. Others plod along—or limp. Some insist on homegrown talent while others import their entries wholesale.

The ESC with all its history and continuity is like a little dollhouse society. In real societies,  trends, fads and fashions come and go, and the ESC is big and independent enough to have its own trends and fashions. Some trends are based on new technology, deployed in the very particular situation of an ESC performance. Others are just collective whims. With a model-society this small you can get a complete view of changes in singer/group demographics, languages, song styles, props, gimmicks, clothes and stage design. It’s a wannabe social scientist’s wet dream. Stage design in particular interests me—I spent a lot of time as a twelve-year-old making sketches of stage designs.

For most of the contest’s history, stages were well-lit and fairly small and static—making it easy to pick out the year from a few seconds of footage. By the late 80’s lasers and neon became very cool, leading to darker designs—a style that continued into the 90’s which saw stages getting bigger and more ambitious. They grew even more in the 00’s but size seems to have plateaued in the last ten years. I guess there is a point where it just becomes ridiculous, and sometimes I think we’re there.

In the 90’s they also started to use more complex lighting effects to adapt the stage look and feel for each performance, leading eventually to the “giant screens” style of the late 00’s and 10’s. Larger and darker stages with lots of cool lights meant more visual stimulation and excitement, but those bigger, more virtual (relying more on lighting and screens, less on physical stuff) stages somewhat diminished the sense of unique style for each year that physical stages with textures and static color schemes brought. You can’t make out the year from brief clips as easily any more. I think this is a little sad.

I said the contest was more governed by its internal logic than the musical culture outside it, and that’s certainly true. This internal logic is codified in the rules and they, like the nature of the stage design, change often but not radically—allowing that balance between continuity and novelty. This is what makes the ESC much more dynamic than sports, as I can’t even imagine there being any significant rule change in soccer and hockey removing the red line offside rule in a tiny adjustment a decade ago was pretty much as big as they come.

For someone who liked to design games as a child, the history of rule changes in the ESC and their consequences for the nature of the show is fascinating. Rule changes are, as a (ahem) rule, broadly the ultimate result of technology or politics. Politics includes both real geopolitics as well as local, in-universe politics.

The contest’s in-universe politics have a lot of hot-button issues revolving around the rules— just like real politics revolve around laws. Big issues among the fanbase are the power balance between juries and the tv viewers, the legitimacy and prevalence of neighbor voting (countries voting for their neighbors and political allies) and diaspora voting (people who live abroad or are recent or not-so-recent immigrants voting for their home country) and what can/should be done about it and what effect those things have on the competition in terms of what countries benefit and what kind of entries benefit and so on.

The status of the Big 5 is also controversial. The Big 5 (France, Spain, Germany, The UK and Italy), get tickets directly to the final, and they get this special privilege because they are large and support the EBU financially—which they don’t want to do unless they can be sure that their viewers get their money’s worth by being in the final. The need for the Big 5, or indeed, the need for separate semifinals and final, is a result of the great expansion and revolution the contest went through in the 00’s.

After the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia lots of new entrants wanted in on what had previously been a western-Europe-only-please competition with a sprinkling of exotic guests for flavor. After having crept up from under 20 for most of its history to near 25 in the nineties, the number of participants ballooned in the early 21st century, stabilizing (for now) at about 40.

Number_of_participating_countries_in_the_Eurovision_Song_Contest_from_1956_to_2014(from Wikipedia)

Big change. The organizers dealt with this by a series of rule changes where eligibility would depend on how well you did the year before, or the five last years, or in secret, non-televised qualifying rounds so only last year’s winner was guaranteed a spot in the contest.

At the same time phone systems got better and jury voting was replaced with telephone voting, leading to huge changes in what kind of entries did well. It went from sober songs suited to being listened to repeatedly by juries, to extravagant song-and-dance-and-visual-effects-and-ridiculous-clothes-and-props-and-pyrotechnics numbers designed to catch the viewers’ attention. Pre-revolution, sending a joke or oddball entry was to sacrifice victory prospects for some fun—it would likely put you near the bottom. After it, joke entries could do really well, like second place in 2007 and 2012. If you count the Finnish hard rock band wearing monster suits in 2006 a joke entry (I actually kind of liked the song and thought it would deserve to win even without the gimmick), they could even win.

The sequence of changes in qualifying rules eventually led to the introduction of an on-air semifinal, for the countries who hadn’t placed well enough the year before to earn a ticket directly to the final. It became clear rather quickly that qualifying from the semifinal was an advantage in the final, since people would vote for their favorites again. Soon direct qualification was scrapped and we got two semifinals instead.

Sometimes real world political issues are mirrored in the contest’s own microcosm. I’m thinking of The Great Eastern Triumph of ’07, where all ten qualifiers from the semifinal were post-communist countries (besides the one exception Turkey which, still, isn’t particularly western) and the final result had no western country in the top 15 besides Greece. The internets were ablaze with upset westerners. The newcomers had taken over the contest! The new entrants had violated the implied deal that they were welcome to take part but should not dominate an event that had belonged to the West for decades. The guests did not behave like guests any more, they acted like they owned the place!

See, like real world the ESC has had its own “immigration issue“ with an old guard made uncomfortable by a rapid influx of newcomers that seemed all the same and scary. The individual “personalities” of for example France, The Netherlands and Spain were clear to the average Western tv-viewer. We know them. Countries like Armenia, Belarus, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Moldova and Bosnia-Herzegovina the other hand seemed like interchangeable strangers,  having to share a single stereotype in the western mind unlike the western countries themselves who each got their own stereotype. The sudden influx of many seemingly interchangeable newbies made them feel like a threatening, undifferentiated mass bringing uncontrollable change with them. This is not an unusual fear.

Of course, it wasn’t expressed in those terms. People instead latched on to more politically correct grievances; the domination of the East was due to them voting unfairly and only for each other. I remember from this time that the camps in this controversy were, broadly speaking: “the new eastern participants vote too much based on political and cultural affinity and not music quality, meaning they will end up on top regardless of merit!” vs. “the western countries have gotten lazy and need to try harder and send better songs!”.

I’m not trying to argue that one of them were right and the other wrong. Since countries with a lot of overlap in culture and tastes (like the former Yugoslav countries, the post-Soviet group, the Baltics and yes, the Nordics) will vote mostly for each other, more cultural clusters among the participants will likely lead to more neighbor-voting, disadvantaging non-clustered countries. It’s difficult to know however, how much any increased neighbor-voting was because of the change from juries to televote. I suspect quite a bit.

Introducing new countries with different tastes from the old-timers will also change what songs and countries are successful, that much is obvious.  It’s a perfectly legitimate process yet also an understandable thing to be upset about when you’re the one who winds up worse off. I do think that the controversy was fueled by the suddenness of the inflow of new participants, especially since this happened during times of change.

2007 as the culmination of the revolution eventually led to some stabilizing rule changes. But the revolution had started long before that. 1998 was an important year as it was the first year with televoting but represented change in other ways as well. It was the last year with a live orchestra—a sign that music had moved away from real intruments (which happened a lot earlier in the real world of course). The idea of having an orchestra now in 2016 seems ridiculous, given that much of modern pop is made with entirely artificial sounds.

But the biggest thing about 1998 was that it was the last year with The Language Rule. The language rule had changed several times during the contest’s history, but in 1998 it had been in place for 20 years. It said that you had to sing in in your own country’s official language. What this meant in practice was that it gave the UK, Ireland and Malta a tremendous advantage since only they could sing in English.

eurovision_graph_3311859b

(courtesy of The Telegraph)

I’m not sure exactly when the contest began to be considered a joke in the UK, but if it has anything to do with their results then 1999 and onwards is a good bet. Note what happens to their scores. The UK quickly became the contest’s whipping boy. But this wasn’t always the case, as the chart shows. Up until 1998 the UK was a juggernaut, with 5 wins, 15 second places and and a stunning 27(!) spots in the top 5. While I don’t think their collapse was entirely the result of the language rule changing, it most certainly played a part. Ireland went through a similar process, after winning four times in five years (!) in the nineties, with sober, beautiful songs, they expressed disappointment and perhaps a bit of bitterness about the contests’ “gimmickification” by sending Dustin the Turkey—a hand puppet—to the contest in Belgrade in 2008. Turmoil indeed.

The reaction to the The Great Eastern Triumph makes more sense against this background. T.G.E.T, the demise of the former superpowers the UK and Ireland, and the increasing focus (because of televoting) on what one could reasonably call tasteless gimmicks were three ultimately separate trends easily conflated into a single “the contest is going to hell, we’re getting screwed and it must be someone’s fault”-narrative. When gimmicks and joke entries reached new highs in 2008, and the Big 4 (Big 5 without Italy) occupied the bottom of the scoreboard yet again, they’d had enough. The big countries without a lot of culturally similar neighbors felt mistreated since televoting seemmed to increase neighbor voting, and the eastward expansion had brought in clusters of culturally close-knit countries that didn’t vote for the Big 4. There was talk of it being impossible for any of the Big 4 to win ever again. And since they were footing most of the bill something had to be done.

In 2009 the juries were brought back. The televotes were kept as well, and the scores from each country’s televote and jury were put together into a single set of scores. This system remains in place today, and must be considered a success as the contest has settled into a stable state once more after a tumultuous decade. Germany’s victory in 2010 was a defining event, proving that the big countries could still win. It prompted Austria’s return in 2011 after having sat out for most of the 00’s complaining about lack of quality and unfairness after a string of poor results. It also convinced Italy to come back the same year for the first time since 1998. Austria winning three years later in 2014—showing you don’t need a voting bloc if your gimmick+song combination is strong enough—confirmed the partial restoration of the old order.

I may have gotten a little bit off track… my point is that the history and political dynamics behind the rules contribute to make the ESC much more richly textured than it appears on the surface.

I think this recent history is broadly accurate, even though I’m sure others would tell different stories. I found this article arguing that the contest has been “professionalized”, —as in more slick and less silly—since Sweden’s less than unusually uncool winning entry in 2012. I don’t know. I think he’s catching the same change towards fewer joke entries I see from say 07-08 to now, but I maintain that this is mostly because of the juries returning. Of course, I’ve been paying gradually less and less attention over the last ten (twenty) years, so I may not have caught significant changes the last few years. Fascinating it is, though.

So there you have it. This article got way longer than I expected, but this is a truly unique institution. The ESC is a whole society in miniature, facing many of the same issues a society does. You make rules, and when doing that you try to balance competing self interests with a sense of fair play in an internal political process; you ponder the tensions between televote populism with its democratic mandate but lack of responsibility and professionalism, and jury-technocracy representing the opposite; and you do it all while demographic and technological changes make the ground move beneath your feet.

Because the contest is, unlike society as a whole, a clearly delineated environment it becomes possible to have relatively complete information about it. So when you like to analyze systems and are interested in societal dynamics but find real social science frustratingly intractable, the ESC offers you a microsociety with its own politics, trends, alliances, culture, history, tropes and aesthetics—even economy if you count the votes as a kind of currency. It has near perfect transparency and its internal dynamics revolve around the exchange of value perfectly structured by a set or formal rules. The data is all there. That is how a yearly tv show, on the surface looking like the epitome of tasteless trash culture, can appeal to haughty nerds.

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3 thoughts on “Why I Love the ESC

  1. Fascinating article John. Thanks for linking to my article so I could find it. To be honest when I first arrived and saw how long this is, well, as a detail-averse bod I thought it unlikely that I’d hang around. But I did and I’m glad. Really interesting and erudite takes. The data (which I can see is very important to you) has really fleshed out your arguments. This differs greatly from me wetting a finger and whipping it up in the air. I’ll share this with my community and a follow from me as well. BTW – If you are free at midday Sat, and have a Twitter account, join our Eurovision Chat. Here are the details. Cheers > https://thirtysummers.com/eurovisionchat/

    Like

    1. Thanks! Too bad I was too busy to join the chat, would have been fun. I might write more articles using the ESC as a jumping-off point for exploring issues; its great potential just became apparent. Maybe next year I’ll take part in the Eurovision-related talk more now that I have more of an online presence…

      Liked by 1 person

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