Geiger's Culture Counter: The Olympics of singing

Every May the world witnesses something great. I’m not talking about epic season finales, the coming of a beautiful summer, or hardworking students graduating. I’m talking about the international reality phenomenon Eurovision, aka the Olympics of singing.

This past Saturday 26 of 43 European countries (along with Israel and Australia) duked it out in the finals of a popularity/singing contest that’s like nothing else on television. The show is such a big deal that it’s the most-viewed programed in the world that isn’t a sporting event.

First started in 1956, Eurovision’s prize is nothing but the same fame that has launched the careers of ABBA, Olivia Newton-John, Celine Dion and others. Nowadays many people who have won their nation’s own version of “The Voice” go on to be Eurovision finalists. Original songs are sometimes commissioned by their country’s best writers, such as the legendary Andrew Lloyd Weber often composing for the United Kingdom.

France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the U.K. (known as the Big Five) and the host nation that won last year automatically advance to the finals. Unlike shows such as “American Idol” or “The Voice,” competitors sing the same song throughout the tournament.

But it’s not always the best music that wins. More often than not it’s about what four-chord earworm stays in your head and how cheesy or flamboyant the performance is. A good song can be overshadowed by one with more glitter, pyrotechnics and outrageous fashion. There’s a reason that for the second year Logo TV, home of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” is the chosen broadcaster for America.

I first saw it when I studied abroad. No one quite understood what we were watching as Russian babushkas danced on a stage but it hooked us nonetheless. A new round aired each leg of our trip and we followed it along as much as possible.

Now I follow along with the rest of the world on Twitter. Unlike the Olympics on NBC, it’s broadcasted live so I witnessed first hand the internet flipping out over the return of Moldova’s epic sax guy. Everyone was confused when a man in a gorilla suit danced along with Italy’s singer. Someone stood on top of a ladder wearing a horse mask for Azerbaijan’s song. However, judging from my social media barometer, Romania was the fan favorite since it combined rap and yodeling.

That’s what makes Eurovision, well, Eurovision.

Yet as carefree as it seems at first glance, politics also plays a role. Having a song with a political message is high-risk high-reward. Last year I thought Ukraine’s song about Joseph Stalin deporting the Crimean Tatars would have lost to a generic pop ballad. Instead it rightfully set a new record for total number of votes.

Russia withdrew this year because their chosen singer was banned from entering Ukraine after illegally travelling from Russia to Crimea in 2015, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Then there’s the hot button issue of the song’s language. Some think a song should be in the country’s native language as a matter of pride while others perform in English so the lyrics can be understood by the most people possible. Though there were no language rules at the start, from 1966 to 1972 and from 1977 to 1998 entrants were required to sing in their national language.

I, and a lot of other people, wanted the U.K. to win for their song “I Will Never Give Up On You,” which was a not so subtle message about Brexit and abandoning the EU. If they won, then they would have had to host an expensive competition that celebrates the same union that they voted to leave.

Countries can’t vote for themselves, so they’ll instead vote for neighbors hoping for some votes in return. If they’re already knocked out of the competition then they vote for whoever nearest is left or they may vote on (gasp!) merit.

Ireland, however, didn’t vote for the U.K. at all. It wasn’t because the song was too political, but because the message of regret didn’t match the country’s real-life actions. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

Some say Salvador Sobral won for Portugal because they explicitly asked for the votes since the country can afford to host the contest. This was the first time the country won since it entered the competition 53 years ago in 1964 and they thought their time has come. Others said the song’s simple nature elevated it above the flashy and gimmicky tunes. Personally, I thought the song was well executed but not the most moving.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to treat your eyes and ears to the wonders of Eurovision. The live show is obviously done but performances are available to view online. Mark your calendar for next May to enjoy the finest (and zaniest) pop Europe has to offer.