Eurovision Song Contest: a beginner’s guide

If you’ve spent any time at all in Europe, particularly around about the March-May period of the year, you’ll probably have encountered the Eurovision Song Contest.

It was set up in 1956, as a way of bringing post-war Europe together. The first ever contest was held in Switzerland, and featured just seven countries – Switzerland, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Each nation performed two songs, and the winner was voted for by juries. You could vote for your own country. Switzerland won. They didn’t try that format again.

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Lys Assia, 1956 winner

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1956 scoreboard








The winner gets the honour (some might not call it that) of hosting the show the following year. Ireland’s won the most times – seven – with the UK, France, Luxembourg and Sweden next with five wins, and then the Netherlands with four.

It’s not all weirdy Europop. OK, a lot of it IS weirdy Europop, but that’s why we love it. Some incredibly successful artists have taken part in Eurovision over the years – Abba, of course, who won in 1974 with ‘Waterloo’. Sir Cliff Richard, Celine Dion, Julio Iglesias, Bucks Fizz, to name but a few.

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There are a few rules: according to Eurovision, the performer and/or songwriter(s) can be of any nationality, but individual nations may specify where their participants come from. All vocals must be live; you can’t have vocals on a backing track. There’s no rule as to what language a nation must sing in, and there can be no more than six performers on stage.

Voting on the night is split 50-50 between a public phone/text poll, and the votes of a jury made up of music professionals. Many Europhiles enjoy this bit of the night almost more than the songs: the votes from each country go on for ages, it allows you to say “douze points” in a fun French accent, and quite often the different national presenters will say something absolutely crackers, leaving the hosts baffled.

As of 2014, 52 countries have taken part in Eurovision. So big is the show now, that two semi-finals are required to keep things under control. This year, the first semi-final will take place on Tuesday 6th May, the second on Thursday 8th May, and will feature 16 and 15 songs respectively. (I’ll keep you up-to-date, never fear) 10 songs from each go through to the final on Saturday 10th May. They join what’s known as the Big Five – the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy – who qualify automatically each year, mostly due to the cash they put up to stage the event; and the host nation.

Last year, Denmark’s Emmelie de Forest won with the song ‘Only Teardrops’ – meaning Copenhagen will host this year’s show.

Here’s Emmelie’s winning chanson:


I know. Isla Fisher, right?

All the songs have now been officially submitted – and already the runners and riders are lining up. As you can probably imagine, Russia’s entry is attracting a lot of negativity, with some calling for them to be suspended from the Contest due to the situation in Crimea and Ukraine.

Which brings me, briefly, to the subject of political voting, claims of which have dogged Eurovision for many years. Putting it simply, it often seems like some countries vote for their mates. Former Eastern bloc countries give other former Eastern bloc countries maximum points, for example.

Some people take this voting situation very seriously:

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While I’m sure there’s truth in it, it’s often also worth looking at which countries certain artists have visited in order to publicise their songs. A few years back, the UK spent a lot of time getting their girl, Jade Ewen, round the likes of Russia and Greece – and it paid off in terms of votes. Or it could all be political.

A bit of digging seems to suggest there’s a certain animosity towards the Contest in the US of A, MTV describing it as “American Idol for ugly people”.

I’d suggest you give us ugly guys a try though. We’re super-fun when you get to know us.

About gnidrah

Television, books, music, sports, cooking. I only get paid for one of them. (Update: two of them!)
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28 Responses to Eurovision Song Contest: a beginner’s guide

  1. FRQ says:

    Who are the favorites this year?

    Also, not that I’m a staunch defender of this contest, but MTV and American Idol can generally eat a bag of shit.

    • gnidrah says:

      Hard to say really, as there aren’t any odds that are reliable. That said, there seems to be a lot of love out there for Armenia, my old pals Sweden, and also Azerbaijan. Speaking personally, I do like Sweden but I’m not sure it’s got quite enough to edge over the line. I’m still working my way through the entries, but I think the Danes have a chance, and even though I don’t love Austria’s song, it’ll attract a lot of attention… 🙂

  2. flanny says:

    Waterloo is my #1 karaoke jam, so I could never hate on the institution that gave that song to the world. Also, that chart makes me want to crawl under my desk.

    • gnidrah says:

      On the flight to Sweden, a friend said she “didn’t love the UK entry, but she didn’t hate it either” – and three heads jerked round from two rows in front and asked her exactly WHY she thought that. I take this shit seriously, but not THAT seriously.

  3. artdorkgirl says:

    Can we talk about the Father Ted episode where they enter “My Lovely Horse” as Ireland’s song? Because that episode is freaking wonderful.

    • gnidrah says:

      We can, but only when you have listened to ‘Cheesecake’, this year’s (real) entry from Belarus…

  4. summerestherson says:

    The Fug Girls usually do great coverage of all the Eurovision outfits! Here’s last year’s:

  5. Kate says:

    Well there’s nothing ugly about that Emmelie! This sounds like fun.

    • gnidrah says:

      Grab a glass of wine and find a live stream, you will not be disappointed. (Disclaimer: you might be disappointed)

  6. old man fatima says:

    Every year the girls and I find a patio bar that is paying Eurovision (always at least 3-4 in Montreal), but this is the first year I’m alone in an uncultured city with nobody and nowhere to Eurovision! My heart is breaking… We should do an open thread and watch it together

  7. facetaco says:

    Umm, you forgot to mention Lordi, basically the best Eurovision winner EVER! Finland hasn’t been able to repeat that success, though; last year I think they came dead last in the vote? If not, they should have. The song actually included the lyrics “ding dong ding dong” as part of the chorus.

    • whatisabadger says:

      I was actually kinda bummed that song did so terribly, it grew on me and her intense eye-bugging was hard to look away from. Finland is sending a rock band again this year but they’re more Coldplay than Lordi, unfortunately (

    • gnidrah says:

      I’m sorry for leaving out Lordi, but the post was getting pretty long 😉 I was at the final in Athens in 2006 when they won. It was spectacular. I’ll dig out my photos from the show and post them!

      Ireland finished last in 2013, though Finland weren’t far ahead. Aside from the crap lyrics, I think some of the more conservative countries couldn’t handle the gay marriage theme…

  8. whatisabadger says:

    Um, I think I’m rooting for France this year? ‘Moustache’ ( sounded completely dumb the first time I heard it, but I listened to it a few more times and while it still sounds completely dumb I would also party to it really hard, which is basically my measure of success for Eurovision songs. But also, CHEESECAAAKKKKEEEE

    • gnidrah says:

      Yeah, I’ve got time for ‘Moustache’. Could be top 10, probably not a winner though, sadly. I loved Sebastian Tellier’s ‘Divine’ SO HARD a few years back. Allez La France.

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