Take the musical premise of American Idol, mix in the national pride of soccer’s World Cup and add a healthy dose of over-the-top, Grammys-style presentation. Top with glitter; serve hot.
That’s Eurovision, a massive annual song contest that pits artists from more than 40 European countries against each other as they compete for the honor of best song.
Created by the European Broadcasting Union in 1956 with just seven participating countries, the contest has grown into a phenomenon that captures the attention of an entire continent and beyond. The semifinals and finals of last year’s contest drew nearly 200 million viewers, about 75 million more viewers than for the last Super Bowl.
The competition culminates in a series of live shows and voting sessions, which along with judges’ scores, determine the winner.
Last year, Eurovision powerhouse Sweden — which first won with ABBA in 1974 — took home the prizes: Bragging rights and hosting privileges for this year’s contest.
Here’s the winning 2015 performance by Måns Zelmerlöw.
The televised portion of this year’s competition started on May 10 and it wraps up with performances by the remaining 26 nations in the Grand Finals on Saturday, May 14. For the first time, the finals will be broadcast in the U.S. on Logo and will be streaming online at LogoTV.com. (Oh, and Justin Timberlake is performing).
An entire industry has sprung up around Eurovision, complete with bookies who make odds on the winner. This year, Russia is heavily favored to take home the prize with this catchy pop song from Sergey Lazarev.
Every year, the countries’ performances are as different as the nations themselves. Sometimes countries perform songs in their native languages, but most of the recent winning songs have had English lyrics.
In 2014, Austrian singer Conchita Wurst made headlines around the world with her winning song, “Rise Like a Phoenix.” The bearded drag queen, known as the “queen of Europe,” stunned with her vocal ability, shimmery gold dress and forthright acceptance speech.
“I share the opinion that this was not a victory just for me but for the people who believe in a future that works without discrimination and is based on tolerance and respect,” she said, according to Reuters. The news service added:
“Asked if she was referring specifically to Putin given Russian campaigns against promoting homosexuality to young people, she said: ‘Among others.’
“But she noted that the fact she won votes from Russia as well showed not all Russians were intolerant.”
This year’s contest also delivers a politically-pointed message. Ukraine’s Eurovision song, “1944,” is performed by Jamala, an artist from the Crimean Peninsula. The song is about “the mass deportation during World War II of the entire ethnic Tatar population from Crimea by Soviet troops under the orders of Stalin,” the BBC reports, but it’s also been read as commentary on Russia’s annexation of Crimea two years ago.
Though Jamala, who is Tatar herself, says singing about the deportations is “personal,” some Russian officials complained that the song was anti-Russian. Contest organizers, however, decided it “was not in breach of the competition’s rules against political speech,” The Telegraph reported.
Most performances, though, don’t carry such gravitas. For example, take a look at Russia’s 2012 song called, “Party For Everyone,” which was performed by six Russian babushki, or grandmothers.
The Buranovskiye Babushki [The Grannies from Buranovo] made it to the finals, but eventually fell to Sweden’s pop star Loreen and her song that went on to be a chart-topper, “Euphoria.”
This year’s contest saw less kitschy gimmicks than in years past. There was no Romanian artist dressed as a vampire, singing a song almost entirely in falsetto, as in 2013. There was no band from Finland singing a song called “Hard Rock Hallelujah” while wearing monster costumes so elaborate they could have easily blended in with the orc army in the Lord of the Rings movies. Somehow, that performance won Eurovision in 2006.
This year did, however, feature a Belarus singer, IVAN, who wanted to perform naked surrounded by a wolf pack. To the disappointment of some fans — and probably to the relief of others — when IVAN actually appeared on the stage during Thursday’s semifinals, he was fully clothed and accompanied only by harmless hologram wolves. He did not make it to the Grand Finals.
Also, in case you’re wondering why Australia is competing in Eurovision, it’s basically because the Land Down Under is obsessed with the contest — and has been for a long time — so the EBU gave them an honorary membership of sorts. For the full explanation, you can visit the contest FAQ page.