Americans have always had a hard time understanding our friends across the Atlantic. Just take the Eurovision Song Contest, the annual European kitschfest in which pop stars, representing their home countries, compete against each other for national glory and a glass trophy shaped like a microphone. (The so-called “Queen of Austria,” a bearded drag character named Conchita Wurst, won the 2014 contest last week.)
It’s a dubious title, since, qualitywise, Eurovision leaves something to be desired. The music is almost always bad. The participants’ fashion choices are even worse. So why does the event consistently draw millions of viewers?
Because Eurovision is the most quintessentially European cultural event in human history. Here’s why — and here’s what you need to know for next year’s Viennese extravaganza.
1) The voting system is as European (read: needlessly bureaucratic) as they come.
The winner is decided based on points assigned to each act by professional judges and TV viewers who vote by phone or text message. Every country that competes — and this year, 37 did — has an individual panel of judges, which ranks the acts from first to last. A similar list is compiled based on viewer votes, which are combined with the judges’ rankings to form a national top-ten list. The tenth-ranked act gets one point, the ninth gets two points, and so on, up to the third-ranked act, which receives eight points. The top two finishers get a bonus: second place gets 10 points and first place gets 12. Also, countries cannot vote for their own acts.
And you thought the Electoral College was bad.
Another wrinkle: There are often wide discrepencies between the judges’ picks and the voters’ choices. This year, British judges ranked Poland’s entry (“My Slowianie” — which translates to “We Are Slavic”) dead last, but the group was the favorite of the British public, which most observers attributed to the fact that the performers wore revealing milkmaid costumess.
2) It’s “European” the way the World Series is global.
Eligibility to compete in Eurovision isn’t determined by geography. A country can enter the competition if it falls within the European Broadcasting Area, which runs from Britain to Saudi Arabia. That’s why countries such as Israel and Azerbaijan can compete. In fact, both of those countries have hosted the competition in the past.
3) It’s a crash course in European geopolitics.
The contest was founded in 1956 as a way bring the European states closer together through friendly competition. It didn’t really work out that way. Any voting system which allows people from one country to judge the merits of another is bound to get political, and countries across the continent have used the show to air various political or historical grievances. Historically, the French and the British have been loath to vote for the Germans. Former Warsaw Pact countries tend to vote for each other. The end result is that the votes from big countries often cancel each other out, while smaller countries that most voters find generally inoffensive tend to do quite well — Luxembourg and Sweden have both won five times, and Ireland has won seven times.
4) The Cold War never actually ended. It just shifted arenas.
Russia’s entry in this year’s competition, a pair of 17-year-old twins from Moscow called the Tolmachevy Sisters, placed a respectable seventh overall. But they only won votes from five current members of NATO. And only one of those countries, Greece, awarded the pair more than half of the maximum 12 points that any one country can assign to another. (Also, three of the five, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, were once part of the Soviet Union and have significant Russian populations.) Russian voters returned the favor and only awarded points to three NATO countries.
5) Every country brings its own baggage.
The British take real pleasure in collectively complaining about things. As someone who spent 18 years living in the United Kingdom, I can personally attest to this. And having the opportunity to bitterly grouse about your country’s prospects in the Eurovision Song Contest is arguably a lot more important to British viewers than the contest itself. (Not that these complaints are unfounded. The UK hasn’t won since 1997, and has actually come in last place three times since then.)
But not everyone is so morose. Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, told the New York Times last December that getting his country represented in the contest is one of his office’s priorities. He sees it as a way a validating Kosovo’s independence, which is recognized by most other states, but not by the UN. If history is any guide, then the surest route to European acceptance is for the Kosovars to dress up their Eurovision performers as busty milkmaids.