Through happenstance, family celebration, and international air travel, I found myself in the United Kingdom this past week. Meaning that I could watch, for the first time in more than a decade, the Eurovision Song Contest and luxuriate in the spectacle of a multinational community trying to bridge cultural and political differences through a lot of bad and gaudy pop-music.
For those who aren’t familiar with Eurovision—I suspect that almost everyone reading this in the U.S. falls into that camp—I offer this quick explanation. The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual international competition—first held in 1956 and broadcast live on TV—in which the public chooses its favorite musical acts from among 20 or so put forward by participating countries, all performing songs written especially for the competition. It’s like The Voice or American Idol, but on a far larger scale—and much weirder.
It’s that weirdness that makes Eurovision an utterly charming, if occasionally bewildering, event. The songs and performances range from the staggeringly banal (each year has at least one slow ballad with lyrics seemingly translated from Dutch to Estonian to Swedish to English) to the jaw-droppingly elaborate and theatrical, with the guilty parties engaged in desperate and shameless attempt to cover their musical deficiencies.
This year, the performer who following that latter route was Cezar Ouatu, a Romanian, who sang a song called “It’s My Life.” It wasn’t so much that the song’s lyrics were breathtakingly generic (“Love is so deep/And it makes my life complete/Like a mountain in the sky/Love is high, so high,” one verse went), as much as it was his jaw-dropping performance: operatic vocals delivered with a manic intensity, a costume straight out of a low-budget ’50s sci-fi movie, and staging that put dancers where you’d least expect them.
I share that video, not to be the object of derision, but as an attempt to demonstrate the strange wonder that this hugely popular show offers each and every year. It’s performances like Cezar’s—ones that should be terrible, but are almost awe-inspiring in some indescribable way—that make Eurovision what it is; a bizarre (yet thoroughly enjoyable) affirmation of the power of pop music.
That so many nations come together for what is, ultimately, a glorified talent contest, is rather impressive in itself. This year, 39 countries participated—13 of them, including Israel, were eliminated in earlier rounds, leaving more than two dozen to compete in the finals. (Yes, non-European countries are allowed to compete.) A staggeringly wide range of musical styles are on display: compare Greece‘s “Alcohol is Free” with Malta’s “Tomorrow” or Finland‘s Katy Perry-lite “Marry Me”, all from this year’s contest.
Often (and justifiably) described as a camp spectacle, Eurovision succeeds because to be crowned winner brings with it an estimable measure of national pride. That determination seen in every performer from every nation, makes the competition all the more remarkable—and worth paying attention to.
I’m hardly suggesting that Eurovision can lead to world peace—more than half a century into the contest’s existence, its greatest legacy is giving the world Abba. But year in and year out, Eurovision delivers a gaudy riposte to the idea that popular culture is becoming increasingly homogenous.
Whichever country gets the most votes at the end of the night—this year, it was Denmark—the performances that everyone remembers years later are the ones that were strange and unfamiliar, that introduced new sounds into people’s ears, leaving them curious about what else could be out there. Trite and cliched as the sentiment may be, this is a contest in which everyone wins.