Europe will once again be swept away by glitter and extravaganza on Saturday, when up to 200 million viewers are expected to watch this year’s Eurovision Song Contest final in Stockholm, making it the biggest non-sporting live TV event.
It promises to be a spectacular sing-off, with 42 countries competing to be the best in Europe. But the real prize is the chance to host the next contest. With such a huge audience, it offers an unparalleled opportunity to showcase your country. This explains why so many make a real effort to win Eurovision.
Of course, the UK used to be the star in the song contest, coming first five times and second on 15 occasions. But it is now almost 20 years since Katrina and the Waves took the trophy with Love Shine a Light (below). It baffles me that the UK no longer tries hard to win the contest. Especially as the UK has one of the best music industries in the world. Even if the PR opportunities of hosting the contest might not have enough appeal to send a big star, there are strong commercial reasons to take an interest. The Swedish singer Loreen has had her song, Euphoria, streamed more than 200 million times since winning Eurovision in 2012.
But then we Swedes seem to love Eurovision more than anyone else. And we take it very seriously. This year, there were 28 candidate songs to choose from, and 33,000 people attended the Swedish selection final, Melodifestivalen. Twelve million votes were cast that night – Sweden has a population of ten million!
But it’s not just us who treasure the opportunity to welcome Europe’s finest singing talents. When Moscow hosted in 2009, despite Russia’s prickly relationship with the rest of Europe, it was the most extravagant show yet. The Russian leader Vladimir Putin declared it an event of high importance for the nation, and took a personal interest in rehearsals.
Azerbaijan was equally keen on its moment in the spotlight in 2012. But the attention had its pitfalls. Carl Bildt, who was Sweden’s foreign minister at the time, used the opportunity to warn the regime to clean up its act as the world’s press would be coming to the country, and highlighting its poor human rights record. Eurovision, he told me, can have more power to effect change than a nagging foreign politician.
The song contest’s political influence has been felt many times over the years. Take 1974. This is my favourite year in the history of Eurovision. Not only because Abba won with Waterloo, but also because of all the political shenanigans. Italian television refused to broadcast the Italian entry, Si (Yes), until several days after the contest. It was afraid the song would be seen as an attempt to influence the outcome of a referendum on whether to repeal a 1970 law that made divorce legal for the first time in modern Italian history. This was despite the fact that the song’s lyrics had nothing to do with the issue. The voters ended up saying no, by the way.
The contest also inadvertently launched a revolution that year. The Portuguese song, E depois do Adeus, sung by Paulo de Carvalho, was used as a signal for the military to leave their barracks and prepare for a coup. The dictatorship was overthrown, and democracy restored after four decades.
Some say Eurovision had its part to play in the Cold War, too. It stood as an emblem of Western culture for people living under Communism, many of whom wanted a bit of its glamour. If the decadent West could produce such great entertainment, then surely they must be doing something right?
As soon as the Berlin Wall started to come down, many of the new democracies rushed to join the contest. The following year, several participants focused on political events. Austria sang Keine Mauern mehr (No Walls Any More); Norway’s entry was about Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. But it was Italy that won with Insieme: 1992, a love song to the forthcoming Maastricht Treaty that would create the European Union.
Much was said about togetherness. But when the new entrants from the East started winning, that unity began to break down. The UK and Sweden in particular started to complain about “bloc voting”.
But voting for your neighbours has always been part of the contest. On its own, it will never be enough to swing the contest: the only way to win is to get points from all over the continent. As Abba’s Benny and Björn said, “everything always begins and ends with a good song”.
Terry Wogan with the UK’s last winner, Katrina and the Waves
For a diplomat, the voting is in many ways the most interesting part of the contest because of the clues it offers as to the state of relations between various European countries. And it can definitely be a source of tension. It became front-page news when Sweden gave its neighbour, Norway, no points when the country won Eurovision in 1995. The Swedish Ambassador to Oslo was called on to apologise.
Just three years ago, Azerbaijan awarded nul points to its northern neighbour, Russia. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called it “outrageous”, and the issue was raised at a news conference in Moscow between the countries’ foreign ministers.
Yet many more countries are still hoping to join in. Australia has persuaded the organisers that it is has enough fans to justify its participation. There has been interest from China, South Africa and South Korea, too.
They want to be part of a great night of television, of course. But they also have an eye on the main prize: exposure on Europe’s biggest stage. Last year’s grand final in Vienna was watched by more people than the Super Bowl, the most-watched TV event in US history.
That is why we should all be paying attention, not just to the performances but the politics behind them.
Nicola Clase presents The Documentary: The Swedish Ambassador’s Guide to Eurovision 7pm Saturday BBC World Service