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Waterloo 2.0?

This Show Launched ABBA and Celine Dion, and You've Never Even Heard of It

Why you should care

Because there’s conflict in the East, and you can learn a lot about Europe by watching its favorite — some say tasteless — song contest.

BW group shot of Abba

Source: Corbis

Swedish pop group ABBA with the first prize they won with their song Waterloo at the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England, in 1974.

Long before American Idol, X Factor, The Voice or even Star Search, there was Eurovision. The giant annual sing-off between European nations has taken place every year since 1956, serving as a launchpad for musicians like ABBA and Céline Dion. These days, it’s kitsch and often cringeworthy, but it has captured the hearts of Europeans and much of the rest of the world, commanding a global viewership of 125 million.

If you look beyond the sequins, giant hairstyles and dry ice, there’s more to Eurovision than meets the eye.

If you look beyond the sequins, giant hairstyles and dry ice, there’s more to Eurovision than meets the eye. The history of the contest is closely intertwined with the post-war history of the continent itself, from allegations that Spain’s notorious General Franco rigged the contest to ensure Spanish victory in 1968, to Georgia’s controversial 2009 entry We Don’t Wanna Put In, which was banned as an overt political reference to the Russian invasion of the previous year.

Many are questioning how the current crisis in Eastern Europe will impact the contest, scheduled to take place this week in Copenhagen.

Overt political content may be banned today, but the birth of the Eurovision contest was very clearly political. In the early 1950s, reeling from the trauma of the World War II, Europe found itself divided between the capitalist, U.S.-backed West and the Soviet satellites in the East.

President sitting in chair looking at the television

Source: Corbis

Vice President Lyndon Johnson watches the Eurovision television broadcast in his home on July 23, 1962.

Here, there is fun and freedom; there, there is boring communism.

To encourage Western victory in the culture war, the U.S. lavishly supported the development of television infrastructure and, in 1956, the European Broadcasting Union decided to test the reach of its network by hosting an international song contest. Eurovision was immediately embraced as a celebration of European unity and the success of capitalism. In a 2011 documentary, Donald Sasoon, professor of European history at the University of London, summed up the message projected by Eurovision: “Here, there is fun and freedom; there, there is boring communism.”

Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin felt the need to strike back. In a classic “anything you can do, we can do better” Cold War response, the Eastern Bloc mounted its own song contest: The Intervision. The first broadcast aired in 1961 from Gdansk, Poland, just one week after construction began on the Berlin Wall.

The contest was hugely popular and, like its Western cousin, attracted millions of viewers. But it also faced certain barriers.

For one thing, Eurovision’s public vote was conducted by telephone, but the Soviet phone network at that time scarcely existed. So instead of televoting, watchers were asked to switch on their living room lights when an act they liked appeared onscreen. In theory, the power company was supposed to measure the energy spikes and forward the information to the contest organizers. Not the most reliable voting system, but the Soviets weren’t exactly known for electoral transparency.

BW image of woman singing into mic

Source: Eurovision

Lys Assia of Switzerland wins the the first Eurovision competition in 1956.

Additionally, some suggested that Intervision’s popularity wasn’t attributable to the national acts at all. Rather, people were tuning in for the interval performance, which ironically tended to feature international superstars like Gloria Gaynor or Boney M, giving Eastern music-lovers a rare opportunity to listen to Western music.

But while Eurovision nears its 60th anniversary, Intervision didn’t make it to its 20th. By the early 1980s, the Solidarity movement was gaining momentum in Poland, and the authorities declared martial law, shutting down the streets of Polish cities and bringing the song contest to an abrupt end.

Don’t let the glitter or song choices distract you; the Eurovision Song Contest is serious business.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, participation in Eurovision has almost doubled, thanks to the involvement of Eastern nations (along with outliers including Georgia and Azerbaijan, which won in 2011, disgruntling many in the contest’s heartland). Despite the historic tension, Russia first joined Eurovision in 1994 and took the crown in 2008. Ukraine made its debut in 2003 and claimed the title a year later.

As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, the Russian entry can probably expect a frosty reception in Copenhagen when this year’s contest kicks off. Organizers do their best to sidestep politics, but many expect to hear political messages from contestants, Ukrainian representatives, other Eastern European states and perhaps the live audience.

Russia and Ukraine will both perform love songs, offering little opportunity for political interpretation. But some believe the politics will play out in the voting, recalling the decades-long voting standoff between Turkey and Greece that followed the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. And as Russian expert Stig Frederiksson points out, the contest will throw a bright spotlight on Crimea’s status. If the European Broadcasting Union counts Crimean votes as Russian, for example, it will be the first international recognition of the peninsula as part of the Russian Federation.

So stay tuned, and don’t let the glitter or love songs distract you; the Eurovision Song Contest is serious business.

Go deep

Go deep

TV documentary: The Secret History of Eurovision 

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