Eurovision Song Contest Turns 60 Years Old
On May 24, 1956 a song contest was started in Lugano, Switzerland that would eventually become a major entertainment event in Europe and even attract major interest around the world over the years. It was called the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix back then. Now the Eurovision Song Contest heads into 60 years of showcasing music and song and is bigger than ever.
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is the brainchild of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), a union of all the national broadcast associations from around Europe. It was in the early 1950’s. Europe was a divided war-torn continent struggling to rebuild itself and struggling to heal international relations that had only worsened due to the fighting of World War II that had ended in 1945.
In 1951, the Italian city of Sanremo started a music festival to help revitalize the city’s economy and the image of the city of Sanremo. The festival which was titled Festival della Canzone Italiana, or the Italian Song Festival, was held in January that year in the Sanremo Casino and was a hit.
The contest attracted the attention of the EBU and it inspired them of their own idea. They hoped for this Contest to unite the European nations through art and song. At a meeting of the EBU broadcasters in Monaco in 1955, the idea of a pan-European music festival was brought to the table. The Sanremo festival and its format served as the base for how this contest would be held. The following year on May 24, 1956, the first ever Eurovision Song Contest was held.
THE FIRST CONTEST
The very first Eurovision Song Contest was held at the Teatro Kursall in Lugano, Switzerland. The contest was only one hour and forty minutes long. The contest was broadcast both on television and radio since most people didn’t yet own a television set. Only solo performers were allowed to perform and songs were not to exceed three and a half minutes in length. There were fourteen songs performed by a total of twelve acts from seven different countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Austria, Denmark and the UK planned to perform but missed the submission deadline.
All participating countries fielded two songs performed with only Luxembourg and Switzerland having the same singer sing both songs. An orchestra for the whole contest was fielded but each country would have their own conductor conducting. Voting was done by two jury members from each participating country in secret ballot. In the end, 32 year-old Swiss singer Lys Assia won the contest for her song ‘Refrain.’ Along with her prizes, Lys was to perform her winning song at the end of the contest.
The first Contest was however marred by controversy. First, the fact the winner was decided by secret ballot. Second was the fact that the two members of Luxembourg’s jury who were to vote didn’t make it to Lugano. Both members of the Swiss jury were allowed to give a second vote. In fact no one knows what the official results of the contest are to this day. The EBU knew they had to make changes for the next contest if it were to continue.
THE SECOND CONTEST SETS THE STAGE
As I mentioned, the Contest had to iron out some things if it wanted to go further. One thing that wasn’t ironed out back then was the host nation. It was planned in the future that each competing nation would have their chance at hosting. However the increasing number of countries would make that concept an impossibility. Germany who finished second at last year’s contest was allowed to host the 1957 contest in Frankfurt.
This time there were ten nations competing with all seven nations from the previous year returning and Austria, UK and Denmark meeting the deadline this time. As in the previous year, there was an orchestra which was to be conducted by a conductor from each country. This time there was to be only one performance per country. There was no time limit of songs and the contest was open to duets. Denmark would field the first-ever duet in the Contest’s history.
In response to the voting controversy from the previous year, this year would start a judging format that would still exist to this day. This time the juries stayed in their home country and watched the competition from television and they were not allowed to vote for their own country. One voting aspect for this Contest and the four following was the juries were all given a total of ten points to divide among the performers whom they felt worthy. Only two performers from last year’s contest–the Netherlands’ Corry Brokken and last year’s winner Lys Assia– returned. Brokken won the contest but the big news was of the kiss of the Danish duo who performed: it lasted 13 seconds.
However it’s not to say this contest experienced issues. There was the issue of the time length of the songs. The Italian song was 5:09 minutes in length and the UK entry wasn’t even two minutes. Further Eurovision contests would permit for a song of a maximum length of three minutes.
THE CONTEST GROWS OVER TIME
In 1958, the contest was held in Hilversum, Netherlands. This would be a Eurovision tradition as the nation of the Contest winner would host the following year’s contest: a tradition rarely broken. Lys Assia and Corry Brokken were back. For the record, past champions are allowed to perform again and there’s no limit to how many Eurovisions they can participate. The contest was won by a French singer but it was the song that finished third– Domenico Modugno’s Volare— that would win the world over. Already the first hit generated from the Contest.
The contest would grow over the next ten years from ten countries in 1958 to eighteen in 1966. Yugoslavia debuted in 1961 and would become the only nation of the former Eastern Bloc to participate in the Contest during the years of the Cold War. The Contest was known for being out of tune with the common tastes of the record-buying public. While the times were embracing rock ‘n roll and Beatlemania, most songs in the Contest were in fact big band-style songs and the winners up to 1964 were all ballads. The first non-ballad to win was Luxembourg performer France Gall’s ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son’ which sounded like the popular go-go music of the 1960’s. However there would be a major problem in 1969 when four songs shared the top score and thus four winners were declared. Five countries boycotted the following year and the EBU knew it had to revamp the scoring process in time for the 1970 Contest.
1971 allowed for groups up to six to perform.1973 saw the first non-European country to enter performers: Israel. It would not be the last but it would be the most consistent, appearing a total of 41 times and winning three times. 1974 saw the performance of ABBA and ‘Waterloo’ which would launch the band into stardom and would even considered by most to be the best Eurovision Song Contest ever. 1975 would see the one-to-twelve points scoring system that would stick ever since. Before the 1976 contest, there would be protests in Sweden over how commercial the contest became. Sweden withdrew that year as a result.
1980 would see Morocco enter for the first and only time. Over the years the Contest would grow in terms of nations being broadcast to although participating nations were the only ones allows to field juries for voting. The Contest would also see more numbers include dancing in their performances as dance had a key factor in the UK’s Bucks Fizz winning in 1981 for ‘Making You Mind Up.’ Also from that winning performance was the rip of the female singers’ skirts to reveal a miniskirt. That would lead to more onstage gimmicks and more sexually provocative performances over time. The Contest would even introduce the world to a Canadian diva competing for Switzerland in 1998 by the name of Celine Dion and even won with the song ‘Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.’ The 80’s would also see the Contest’s first and only two-time winner with Ireland’s Johnny Logan: in 1980 with ‘What’s Another Year’ and in 1987 with ‘Hold Me Now.’
1990 would pave the way for the post-Cold war era of Europe and would also change the ESC as a result. 1990 was known for featuring a lot of politically-focused songs with the fall of Communism being a top song topic. The winner was ‘Insieme:1992,’ an Italian song about the upcoming European Union. The changes of Europe were first evident in 1993 when three nations of the former Yugoslavia entered the contest for the first time. However they would be the three winners of a pre-qualifying round of seven ‘newcoming’ nations to the ESC: all former members of the Eastern Bloc. That was another difficulty for the contest: dealing with new nations who wanted to participate. 1994 saw the seven lowest-placing countries from 1993 not invited the following year and allowing for seven debuting countries all from the former Eastern Bloc. 1996 tried to solve things by having an audio-only pre-qualifying contest to reduce the 29 submissions to a manageable 23 performers.
1997 saw the introduction of televoting but only five of the 25 participating countries used televoting to decide the winners. The number would grow to 22 out of 25 in 1998. 1998 would also have the first ever transsexual, Israel’s Dana International, to perform. She even won with her song ‘Diva.’ 1999 would see the departure of the orchestra and the arrival of pre-recorded music. However pre-recorded vocals were not allowed and are still not allowed.
The maximum number of countries was always a frustration with the EBU. Due to the break-up of the USSR, the fall of the iron curtain and Yugoslavia’s republics going their separate ways, more nations wanted to compete at the contest and that would lead the EBU to make rules to put a limit on having a manageable number of countries performing on the night. That would be seen unfair in many people’s eyes. Then 2004 saw the debut of a Semi-Final for the Contest. 2008 would see the current format of two semi-finals and a Grant Final for the Contest. 2015 would feature the debut of the first non-European invitee since Morocco in 1980: Australia.
This year the contest will have 42 competing nations including Australia returning. The contest will be held in the Globe Theatre of Stockholm, Sweden; host country of last year’s winner Mans Zelmerlow who won for ‘Heroes.’ 42 countries will perform. There were to be 43 but Romania was disallowed because of unpaid debts owing to the EBU. 36 of the countries will compete in the semi-finals. The host nation and the Big Five countries (UK, Spain, France, Italy and Germany) are to bypass the semis as they qualify for the final. However they are to perform in the semis as a ‘dress rehearsal’ and they are allowed to vote on the other semi finalists who are contending for Finals berths.
RULES, RULES, RULES
It never fails. When you have a performance contest, you have rules that go along with it. Here’s a brief guide to some of the rules of the Contest. And I’ll try to make it brief.
When the contest started, a performer could sing in whatever language they wanted. In 1966, it was declared performers can only perform in their native language. The restriction was lifted in 1973 but returned for 1977 as songs sung in English from Austria and Finland at the 1976 Contest delivered sexually-suggestive lyrics. The restriction was kept intact from 1977 to 1998. However regional dialects and even rare languages native to the country–like Switzerland’s 1989 entry which was sung in Romansh– were permitted. 1999 saw a return to singing in whatever language the performer chooses to perform. There have even been entries in past Contests which consisted completely of imaginary languages.
Since 1999, all but one winner have been sung either partially or completely in English. It’s very common for a performer to sing their song in the national song contest in the native language but sing their song in English at the Eurovision Contest. Thirty-nine of the 42 songs in the Contest this year will either be partially or completely sung in English. Only three songs will be sung completely in another language and an additional three songs will mix English lyrics with lyrics of another language. The one song with a regional language is Ukraine as Jamala’s ‘1944’ will be sung both in English and Crimean Tatar.
It’s pretty obvious most of the performers at the ESC are citizens of the country they represent. However it’s not set in stone. There have been many times certain countries would field a singer or songwriters from other countries. The best example is Luxembourg. In its 37 appearances from 1956 to 1993, only four singers were actual citizens of Luxembourg. In fact all five singers who won the ESC for Luxembourg were in fact citizens of other countries: four from France and one from Greece. And Monaco’s winning entry from 1971 consisted of the lead singer, backup singers, songwriter and conductor all French citizens. In fact lead singer Severine only ever set foot in Monaco only once just weeks before the Contest when she performed her song live before Prince Ranier.
It’s still happening in modern times. There have been three times when a Canadian singer sang for Switzerland including a then-20 year-old Celine Dion back in 1988. Azerbaijan always fields singers that are citizens of their country but hires Swedish songwriters to write winning songs. Ir’s paid off as Azerbaijan has had five Top 5 finishes including a win in 2011.
Although this is a European Contest, there have been countries outside of Europe who have participated. Israel is the most notable with 38 appearances and even winning three times. Morocco participated only once in 1980. Australia was invited last year and they were invited again this year.
Ever hear the saying “Never work with animals or children?” I’ve never known of a Eurovision act with a live animal involved but I’ve learned about children. There have been times when children performed as backup singers or even as a performer and the EBU didn’t have a problem with that. However the problem first started when 13 year-old Belgian singer Sandra Kim won the contest with ‘J’aime la Vie.’ The problem was she passed herself off as fifteen in the song. But it would be the 1989 Contest that would cause chagrin among the EBU as France’s entry was an 11 year-old girl and Israel’s entered duo consisted of a 12 year-old boy. The EBU made a rule for the following year that performers on stage must be 16 years of age in the Eurovision year, including dancers and backup singers. Performers under 16 would have to wait until 2003 for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest to begin to have their day in the sun.
There’s no specific guidelines for what topics the songs should be about. For those who’ve seen the contest, anything seems to go. There have been topics that are universal like love and peace, topics that are regional like war or triumph among past genocide, topics that are sexual in nature, topics that are political, topics that are humorous and even topics that are either ridiculous or sent in an eccentric manner. Anything goes, almost. The only time I’ve heard of a song disqualified for its content was back in 2009 when Georgia entered ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In.’ Many felt it referenced Russia’s Vladimir Putin especially since Georgia was part of the victorious Orange Revolution years earlier. The fact that the ESC was being held in Moscow that year made things that more complicated. There was one case in 2012 when the act for San Marino was to perform ‘The Facebook Song’ but couldn’t because it interfered with the Contest’s product placement rules. The song would be retitled ‘The Social Network Song.’
The Performance and Performers In A Nutshell:
There are some unbasic rules when it comes to submitting a country’s performer and/or performance. Some countries hold their own national song contest to determine the national entrant for the ESC that year and some have a board that picks the performer and the song. Most likely they are a citizen of the country but they don’t have to be. Past performers are allowed to return again, even if they’re a past winner, but Johnny Logan the only two-time winner as a performer.
Then there are the basic rules. The song must be no longer than three minutes in length. The limit of on-stage performers varies over the years but the current limit is six performers on stage at once, including dancers. Up until 1999, the song was to be orchestrated even if musicians were added along. Live music, even by artists performing on stage, has been banned since 2004. Vocals are all to be done live with no lip-syncing. The biggest thing however is that the song is to be completely original. No cover songs are allowed and no sampling of other records are allowed either, not even in rap entries. Recorded versions of the song are allowed to be released before the Contest or even the national contest but a release before September 1st of the year before the Contest would disqualify them. These eligibility rules have led to a number of entries in the past being disqualified.
Voting The Winner:
As the rules of the Contest are ever changing, so are the rules in declaring the winner. Starting with the topic of who decides the winner, the secret-ballot from the first Contest caused friction. Then from 1957 to 1962, it was ten member juries who viewed the Contest from their home country and called in their results. 1963 brought it to a twenty-member jury but was reduced back to ten from 1964 to 1970. Then from 1971 to 1973, there were juries of only two that were present at the actual contest to give points to the winners. In 1974, the format returned to juries staying at home to decide and call in the results. The number of jury members started at 11 but eventually rose to sixteen.
In 1996, it was noted how out of sync the ESC juries were with the record-buying public in terms of deciding winners. In 1997, televoting where viewers called in their favorites was introduced but used as an experiment given to five of the 25 countries at the Contest that year. In 1998, it was expanded to all countries except those that had weak telephone systems. 2001 and 2002 allowed the country’s respective broadcasting association to decide between televoting or a jury decision. The Contests from 2004 and 2008 were exclusively televoting. From 2009 to 2015, televoting and jury results were combined into a single score per country with the televoting result taking precedence if there was a tie. In 2015, it was the juries that took precedence.
Deciding the winners is harder to explain than the points system for the songs. From 1957 to 1961, juries were given a total of 10 points to divide among the performances they liked best. In 1962, juries gave 1 point for 3rd place, 2 for second or 3 for 1st. From 1964 to 1966, it was a point for 3rd, three points for 2nd and five points for third. 1967 marked the return of 10 points to divide however 1970 saw an introduction of tie-breaking rules after the four-way tie in 1969 which led to many countries respond by boycotting. From 1971 to 1973, the juries gave anywhere from 2 to 10 points per song. 1974 was a return to 10 points to divide.
However it was the 1975 Contest that would introduce a scoring format that has stuck since. Each country would rank their Top 10 but of course would not vote for their own country. The country they rank 10th would get one point, 9th would get two points, and so on until 8 points for 3rd place. The country they ranked second would be awarded 10 points and the country they ranked #1 would get 12 points. Since then, twelve points or douze points would be synonymous with Eurovision.
For This Year:
This year’s Contest will be held in the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. They were awarded the Contest upon the win of Mans Zelmerlow for his song ‘Heroes.’ In a rare turn of events, Zelmerlow will co-host the Contest with Petra Mede. Not that often the reigning champion co-hosts. It seems right that Sweden hosts as they have one of the biggest Eurovision legacies with a total of six wins. Only Ireland has won more with seven.
The Contest will be broadcast to 50 countries and can be viewed on LiveStream through the website eurovision.tv. The USA will have live broadcast of the final for the first time ever: on Cable channel Logo-TV. Draws were held months ago to decide who competes in the two semi-finals. The officials allocated the draw for geographical means to keep ‘neighbor voting,’ which I will reflect on later, down to a minimum. Most countries will have citizens of their own country as performers but Switzerland will again have a Canadian as a performer: Vancouverite Rykka with ‘The Last Of Our Kind.’ Romania wasn’t the only country to experience friction before this year’s Contest. Germany had to replace its entry because it soon came to light their originally entered performer had been vocal in the past of extreme right-wing views.
There’s the interval acts too: performances taking place while viewers place their televotes. Zelmerlow will perform his winning song from last year ‘Heroes’ during the interval of the first Semifinal held on Tuesday the 10th, the interval act for the second Semi on Thursday will be a dance ensemble and the interval act for Saturday’s Final will be Justin Timberlake performing ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from the movie Trolls. Interesting note is Timberlake co-wrote and co-produced the song with two Swedish songwriters: Shellback and Max Martin.
Also something new for this year’s Contest. You know how there’s always confusion with the 50/50 system of televoting and jury voting on which overrides in the case of ties. Well, introduces for the first time this year countries will deliver two sets of scores. Now both televoting and juries from each country will give their own separate one to twelve points. This should take away from the confusion and make the contest more even.
I’ll admit I like seeing the Contest. I was lucky to see it live on LiveStream in 2013 and 2014. I live in Canada and none of the networks will be showing the contest live. I will be too busy to watch any of the Contest live thanks to my work schedule and music rehearsal.
I can understand of the Contest’s greatness. It’s the world’s most watched non-sporting event with a wide array of performers of various countries performing their song to win over the rest of Europe. It’s excellent that it helped launch the careers of Celine Dion, ABBA, Bucks Fizz and Ruslana as well as a stepping stone for Julio Iglesias and Nana Mouskouri. It’s also been the stage for established acts like Toto Cutogno, Cliff Richard, Lulu and Engelbert Humperdinck. It has also unleashed some classic songs like ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son,’ ‘Waterloo,’ ‘Making Your Mind Up,’ ‘Volare,’ ‘Love Is Blue (l’Amour Est Bleu),’ ‘Save All Your Kisses For Me,’ and ‘Euphoria.’
However I won’t deny the drawbacks of the Contest. I will admit there are some idiotic performances that rely too much on getting their gimmick to propel them to the win. In fact I hope I don’t sound bigoted but I strongly believe the wins of Israel’s Dana International in 1998 and Austria’s Conchita Wurst in 2014 were because of the hype of both being transgender. I’ll admit there are some songs and performances too eccentric to be real. I will also admit that often the winners are out of sync with the current trends in music. Even with the inclusion of televoting starting in 1997, the winning songs still don’t sound that current. I can even remember while teenpop ruled the late 90’s, early-2000’s worldwide and even in Europe, 1999’s winner was a schlager song from Sweden , 2000’s was a folksy rock song from Denmark and 2001’s was a calypso number from Estonia. Speaking of televoting, I will admit that even though countries can’t vote for their own performers, that hasn’t stopped them from giving top votes to performers from neighboring countries. Yeah, ‘neighbor voting’ has definitely been an issue with the Contest lately and has even questioned the credibility of televoting. I will admit there have been times I felt the song that came in second place was often better than the winning song. I will admit the Contest can propel the winning song to hit status internationally but not always. I will also admit that sometimes the Contest can end up being the peak of a performer’s career in most cases. I really learned a lot from the 2013 BBC show ‘How To Win Eurovision’ that was a show that showed all the idiocy that happens with the ESC but still showed why it was still important for the UK to get back on top. For the record, the UK’s fifth and last win was in 1997, their 23rd and last Top 3 finish was in 2002 and had all three of their last-place finishes in this 21st century. Yes, their legacy of five wins and 15 second-places is definitely a thing of the past.
I will admit to the negative but I still believe it is an enjoyable show to see. I won’t deny some acts try to gimmick their way to the win. However there have been many times even in the era of televoting that the less-gimmicky songs like 2007’s ‘Molitva’ and 2010’s ‘Satellite’ have gone on to win. Even 2012’s ‘Euphoria,’ which some people compare to David Guetta’s ‘Titanium,’ could not only win but burn up the dance floors worldwide too. I myself welcome gimmicks but only as long as they’re not stupid, not too weird and not too distracting from the song itself or could even boost the song. Hey, 2006’s winner ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ had a gimmick that made the song. I still like seeing it on YouTube. Basically the Contest was to focus on the song. More often than not, it is the song that rises to the top. Even last year’s winner ‘Heroes’ was a song with a good message with a stage performance from Zelmerlow with an interactive backdrop that worked with his movements and help make for a stage show that helped him win. Actually the Contest is less eccentric than it was seven years ago. I guess those no-nonsense songs that won are sending a message.
The Eurovision Song Contest was originally created in 1956 to bridge gaps in Europe that was healing after World War II. 60 years later, Europe is more unified and there’s less international animosity than ever. I don’t know if the Contest actually achieved all that in its 60 years but it does make for one entertaining show!