(CNN) — Ah, Eurovision: each year’s dazzling kitsch extravaganza that captivates one continent and profoundly confuses the rest of the world.
The annual singing competition draws hundreds of millions of viewers, has given the world acts like Abba, Celine Dion and Olivia Newton-John, and may even have united Europe after World War II.
But really understanding the joys and many, many oddities of Eurovision is more complicated than it seems. It combines geopolitical skirts and tight leather pants like no other international event. It has entire countries glued to their televisions, certain that only victory can ensure a unifying sense of national pride.
And, more importantly, it unloads copious amounts of glitter, boxes of pyrotechnics, and cabinets full of national dress, all in the name of cross-border cooperation.
Does it already make sense? Don’t worry, we’ll explain.
What is Eurovision?
In simple terms, it is an international singing competition organized by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). It takes place every year in the winning country of the previous edition. There are two semi-finals and a grand final.
Of course, it is also much more than that. The show features awkward moments from the hosts, lots of political messaging, some great talking points, and a controversy or seven.
But the tradition of the contest throughout Europe stems mainly from the sheer absurdity of the contestants taking part. How weird are we talking? We’ll get to that…
How it all started?
The story of the origins of Eurovision is surprisingly noble. Tasked with bringing a war-torn continent together, the fledgling EBU organized a musical competition. Seven countries participated for the first time, with the live event testing the limits of the shiny new technology called “television”.
The contest quickly expanded and its message of peace and harmony was enthusiastically embraced. This is why today Europe remains a united and carefree region with a happy population and almost no cross-border divisions. OK, we may be exaggerating that last part.
Any EBU member country can participate, and that includes countries on the borders of Europe, such as Morocco, Jordan and Israel. The Vatican is also technically a member, but its entry into the Eurovision battle has yet to materialize. Australia, although it does not fall within the limits of Europe, also participates.
As the five largest financial contributors to the EBU, the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy automatically qualify for the final, a reward worth any price.
Each country performs a three-minute song once, during a very, very long and somewhat emotionally draining broadcast. Singers can sing in any language, most choose English, but many choose their own, and they don’t even need to be from the competitor’s country. Many countries choose their representatives in a televised contest. The possibilities are endless: boy groups, regional superstars, novelty acts and more all participate annually.
Then, for those viewers still sober enough to crunch numbers, the results are announced: each country doling out points to their favorite competing nations, separately revealing scores from a jury of experts and the public vote. Countries award 12 points to their favorite, 10 to their second favorites and between one and eight for honorable mentions.
The votes are read aloud, via satellite link, by a national celebrity in each of the countries that took part in the contest, so we have a comprehensive tour of more than 40 European capital cities. Scores are announced in English and French, so the dreaded prospect of ‘no points’ looms over all nations until they finally reach the scoreboard.
Wait, why is Australia in Eurovision?
Nobody is safe. The country was invited to join as “unique” in 2015, to celebrate the contest’s 60th anniversary, but has remained ever since.
In theory, it’s because Australians have loved Eurovision for decades: even though it starts in the wee hours of the morning, it airs annually on SBS television. If Australia were to win, the following year’s contest would likely be held in a European country of its choosing, probably presenting the best chance for Britain to host the competition again.
How popular is it?
Ooh, it’s huge. Around 186 million viewers watched the 2018 competition, according to the EBU. Certain regions of Europe take it especially seriously: the Scandinavian nations have long been obsessed and can boast a long list of winners.
In Iceland in 2018, more than 95% of TVs were tuned to Eurovision, despite the country not even qualifying for the final.
Popularity varies from country to country, but few nations can honestly say they are not interested. Britain likes to pretend it’s above it all, but Brits are secretly furious that the once-successful nation hasn’t taken home the crown since 1997.
Who has won more times?
Ireland have the most wins, with seven, but most of them were from the early days of the contest, with Sweden needing just one more win to equal their record. Monaco is the smallest country to have won, with its David versus Goliath triumph in 1971.
Overall, 27 countries have won the contest.
OK, how weird are these performances?
I thought you’d never ask. In recent years, Eurovision has seen an ethno-pop band called Buranovskiye Babushki made up of eight Russian grandmothers; a couple of Montenegrin astronauts rapping; an all-female Polish group churning butter during their performance; a Ukrainian dancer in a hamster wheel, and Ukrainian superstar Verka Serduchka, who… well, better see for yourself.
And he was in second place.
Not all countries opt for such an exaggerated spectacle. But with every nation willing to stand out from the pack, even the simplest tunes can be delivered in a surprising way.
So expect bright colors, maybe a few magic tricks, some questionable hairstyles…and most importantly, expect the unexpected.
Is it always so controversial?
Absolutely. Eurovision vaguely resembles Christmas Day: it has been marked on the calendar for months before and is eagerly awaited by millions. Then when he finally arrives, it all ends in a gigantic screaming match. with sequins
Officially, no “lyrics, speeches (or) gestures of a political nature” are allowed during the contest, but if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.
In fact, the history of Eurovision has always been connected to the politics of the continent. It has been alleged that, as early as 1968, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco oversaw a vote-buying campaign to hand victory to Spain, over British contestant Cliff Richard, who was the favourite.
More recently, Lebanon withdrew from its scheduled Eurovision debut in 2005 during a dispute over its refusal to broadcast the Israeli performance. And in 2009, a year after Russia-Georgia tensions came to a head in South Ossetia, Georgia withdrew from the contest in Moscow.
And then there is the ever-present complaint of political voting, with clear regional blocs of nations always seeming to give each other a lot of points. That explains why the most isolated nations actually have to do a lot more to win.
Editions in cities like Baku have also drawn complaints about the human rights records of competing nations. The 2019 pageant, in Tel Aviv, was particularly controversial coming at a tense time for the country after an outbreak of violence between militants in Gaza and the Israeli army.
Eurovision sounds great. As I see it?
That’s the spirit. If you’re in Europe but have so far resisted embracing the wonderful tradition that is Eurovision, chances are you can find it on a local station. US TV stations have only started broadcasting the event in recent years, but don’t worry, there will be an official live broadcast on YouTube. Swedish broadcaster SVT will also offer an on-demand replay, which can be viewed anywhere.
It’s this Saturday from 3 pm ET.