They come from all over Europe, clad in Vegas- or Elton John-worthy finery, having made it through intense competitions in their home countries. The artists of Eurovision 2011 are here, and they are enthusiastically ready to entertain you with unforgettable songs. Songs like “Magic, Oh Magic,” “Piano Piano,” “Pump-pump,” “Diggi-loo Diggi-ley,” and “Bra Vibrationer,” to name just a few contenders from years past.
American Idol has nothing on Eurovision. For the past 54 years, it’s been the original star search. Eurovision is a massive love fest between a passionate audience and the talented and often zany performers they vote for by the millions.
This week, singers from 43 countries come together in Dusseldorf, Germany for the contest finals. Speaking a gaggle of languages, these remarkable musicians are citizens of Albania, Yugoslavia and everywhere in between, including Israel and Turkey. How did those last two make it into Europe? Well, if your country is a member of the European Broadcasting Union, you’re eligible to enter.
Eurovision is structured like the Olympics. Singers and groups don’t win – the country they’re performing for wins. Ireland has won the contest seven times, more often than any other country. Performers proudly wave their national flags onstage at awards ceremonies. Voters can actually phone in their votes before the competition broadcasts even start, and no one says they’re voting for a particular singer or group – they’ll tell you they’re voting for Italy, or that they always vote for Moldova.
Early on, it was required that Eurovision contestants sing in their native languages, and some still do. But these days you’re more likely to hear songs in English, which have a better chance of being hits across the world. In his wonderful New Yorker piece on Eurovision, “Only Mr. God Knows Why,” Anthony Lane dubs the language used for most songs “Eurovision English”. He defines it as “an exquisite tongue, spoken nowhere else, which raises the poetry of heartfelt but absolute nonsense to a level of which Lewis Carroll could only have dreamed.”
Over the years, 263 songs in this peculiar kind of English have reached the finals, while the second runner-up, French, has had just 150 songs reach the finals. (The French are as staunchly, Gallic-ly proud of their language at Eurovision as they are in their own country.) Sample Eurovision English lyrics include those of “Ding Dinge Dong,” the Netherlands entry in 1975:
Ding-a-dong every hour,
When you’re picking flowers,
Even when your lover is gone, gone, gone
And those from Latvia’s 2010 entry, “What For?”:
I’ve asked my Uncle Joe
But he can’t speak
Why does the wind still blow?
And blood still leaks?
So many question now
With no reply
What for do people live until they die?
Only Mr. God knows why
(But) His phone today is out of range.
Until recently, Eurovision has been a phenomenon most Americans are largely unaware of. Yet we have Eurovision to thank for ABBA’s ascendance to stardom – they prevailed in 1974 with their megahit “Waterloo”. And a young Celine Dion won the competition in 1988, singing for Switzerland.
You’ve got to see Eurovision to really understand its wonderful, addictive appeal. If you want to experience music’s equivalent of the European Cup, join hundreds of millions of fans around the globe, and watch the Grand Final this Saturday, May 14, on streaming video.