Eurovision: A Guide for Non-Europeans, by an American

Last Friday, the Ukrainian music competition Vidbir selected their winner: electronic music duo TVORCHI. Along with this victory comes the honor to represent Ukraine at the Eurovision Song Contest next May in Liverpool, United Kingdom (unless we have a repeat of last year, where the competition’s winner, Alina Pash, stepped down, and the runner up, Kalush Orchestra, represented Ukraine in her stead—and won!). Now that we know the first song of the 2023 contest, Eurovision season has officially begun!

Okay, pause. If you’re not from Europe, most of that paragraph was probably gibberish to you. I mean, what even is Eurovision? The quickest, easiest comparison I can make is that it’s sort of like American Idol… In truth, however, it’s much more complex than that. The Eurovision Song Contest is a European music competition with over 60 years of history. Each year, all of the participating countries choose a song and a musical artist to represent them at the contest. The audience, as well as professional juries, vote on the best performance, and the winning country hosts the contest the following year. The Eurovision Song Contest (often abbreviated as ESC or Eurovision) attracts millions of viewers every year and is the longest-running music competition in the history of television.

Oh wait, didn’t Will Ferrell make a movie about this?

Correct! Having learned about Eurovision from his Swedish wife, Will Ferrell wrote the 2020 comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which follows a fictional musical duo (played by Ferrell himself and Rachel McAdams) from a small town in Iceland, and their journey in representing their country at the esteemed contest. 

The film is hilarious and fun even if you don’t know anything about Eurovision, but with cameos from previous Eurovision performers and references to former contests, it is much more enjoyable when you have some Eurovision knowledge in your pocket. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place! Keep scrolling to learn the ins and outs of the Eurovision Song Contest, from the outside perspective of an American. 

How does it work?

Just about every process in the contest has gone through changes over the years, but for the sake of new fans, I’ll just explain how things work now. 

First, the song selections. As previously stated, every participating country sends a song to represent them at the contest. In general, there are two modes of choosing an entry: an internal selection, or a national selection. With the former, a group of experts in the music industry scout out and choose an artist and/or song, without any contribution from the public. With the latter, the winner of a smaller song contest within the country gets to represent said country. For example, the winner of the Melodifestivalen contest represents Sweden at Eurovision, the winner of the Sanremo contest represents Italy at Eurovision, the winner of the Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu contest represents Finland at Eurovision, and so on. Fun fact: an artist does not have to be a citizen of, or even live in, the country they represent. In fact, there have been a few Canadians and Americans on the Eurovision stage!

Once all of the participating countries have selected their artist and their song, the entries compete in two semi-finals on the Tuesday and Thursday before the Grand Final (which is always held on a Saturday in May). Five countries, known as the “Big Five”— United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain—get to skip the semis and automatically qualify for the Grand Final as a thank-you for being the five biggest financial contributors to the contest. The winner of the previous year, which is also the host country, automatically qualifies for the Grand Final as well. Since Ukraine was the winner of the 2022 contest, TVORCHI will automatically qualify for the Grand Final on May 13.

The running orders for the 2022 semi-finals

10 countries from each semi-final advance to the Grand Final. The winner is determined by a combination of a televote, and a jury vote. First, a panel of judges from each country (called the jury) distributes ten sets of points to the countries of their choosing: 12 points, 8 points, and 10 points to their top three, and then 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 point to the remaining seven countries that they choose. To receive “12 points” is the biggest honor a Eurovision participant can receive. Once all of the jury points have been distributed, the hosts will announce how many televotes (votes submitted by the audience via text, phone call, online form, or the official Eurovision mobile app) each country has received. Whichever country comes out on top after the jury and televotes are added together is the winner. The jury and the public tend to have very different favorites, which often leads to a discussion amongst the fanbase as to whether one or the other should be abolished.

Who participates?

The number of participating countries fluctuates from year to year due to financial restraints and political concerns. There will be 37 countries participating in the 2023 edition of Eurovision: Albania, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and United Kingdom. 

Belarus, Bulgaria, Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Russia have participated in the past five years, but will not be taking part in 2023.  In addition, Andorra, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Luxembourg, Monaco, Morocco, Slovakia, and Turkey participated at least once in the past, but it’s been over five years since they appeared at Eurovision.

Flags of all countries that participated in Eurovision 2018
Wait a minute, some of those countries aren’t in Europe. Why are/were they in Eurovision?

A small handful of non-European countries are allowed to participate in Eurovision due to special circumstances. Australia, for example, has the largest Eurovision viewership outside of Europe, so in 2015 they were given the privilege to participate in the contest. So, in theory, if all Americans loved Eurovision as much as I do, we could have been going to Eurovision instead of Australia.

Australia’s first appearance at Eurovision in 2015
How did an American like you end up obsessed with something that’s exclusively in Europe, anyway?

Great question. As you can see from the other articles I’ve written, I love anime. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time watching AMVs (anime music videos) on YouTube. Certain songs were used very frequently for these videos, and one such song was “Fairytale” by Alexander Rybak. I looked into the song outside of AMVs because I really liked it, and at the age of 12, I decided that Alexander Rybak was the love of my life and I would marry him one day (which is a dream I still haven’t given up on even 10+ years later, BTW). While reading up on my future husband, I found that he had won something called “The Eurovision Song Contest” in 2009, with the very same song I’d heard in so many AMVs. 

Alexander Rybak performing “Fairytale” at Eurovision 2009

Eventually, in 2013, I watched the contest live for the first time; if my memory serves me correctly, it was streamed on YouTube (although this option is not always available in the US, and I only recently figured out VPNs). My favorite song that year, “Only Teardrops” by Emmelie De Forest, ended up winning, and from that point on, I was hooked. Since then, I have closely followed the Eurovision Song Contest every year and tuned in to the live Grand Final when the option was available. 

Would I know any songs from Eurovision?

I can say with a fairly high degree of certainty that yes, you have. “Arcade” by Duncan Laurence, which was the Netherlands’ entry for (and the winner of) the 2019 contest, is viral on popular social media platforms such as TikTok. A mashup of two 2021 entries—Måneskin’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Italy, 1st place) and Go_A’s “SHUM” (Ukraine, 5th place)—also gained traction on that app. Armenia’s entry from the most recent contest, “SNAP” by Rosa Linn, is in the top 3 most streamed Eurovision songs of all time, despite being out for less than a year and having only placed 20th in the contest’s Grand Final. I hear this song on the radio all the time.

Eurovision 2022 performer Rosa Linn will be touring with superstar Ed Sheeran during his 2023 North American tour

It’s not just songs from the past two contests that have found success overseas, either. Have you ever seen the “sax guy” meme? Or this video of Gandalf bobbing his head to funky music? Yeah, that’s from Eurovision. “Run Away” by SunStroke Project and Olia Tira was Moldova’s entry for Eurovision 2010, where it came in 10th place. “Hard Rock Hallelujah” by Lordi, which granted Finland its first (and so far, only) win in 2006, was included on the soundtrack for the 2007 film The Hills Have Eyes 2. I also remember hearing “Ooh Aah (Just A Little Bit)” by Gina G (United Kingdom, 1996, 8th place) on the radio as a kid.

What about the winners?

Eurovision critics denote the contest as a “career killer,” but in many cases, this is simply not true. Some winners that enjoyed incredible global success include ABBA (Sweden 1974), Celine Dion (Switzerland 1988), Katrina and the Waves (United Kingdom 1997), and, most recently, Måneskin (Italy 2021). Even if the songs they won the contest with are not their most popular (“Ne partez pas sans moi” certainly is not the first song that comes to mind when I think about Celine Dion), the artists themselves are well-known and loved around the world.

ABBA performing “Waterloo” at Eurovision 1974
Would I know any of the performers that didn’t win?

Probably! Every once in a while, countries will choose artists that are already famous to represent them at Eurovision (even though this has proven to be an ineffective strategy, seeing as none of these artists have won). For example, Las Ketchup represented Spain in 2006; Cascada represented Germany, in 2013, and Bonnie Tyler represented the United Kingdom that same year; and San Marino’s 2021 entry featured Flo Rida. Some non-winning artists that became famous after Eurovision include Julio Iglesias (Spain 1970) and t.A.T.u. (Russia 2003).

Cascada, who sings the dancefloor hit “Everytime We Touch,” performing “Glorious” at Eurovision 2013
Is there an American version of Eurovision?

As of last year, yes, there is! The first edition of the American Song Contest, hosted by Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, aired this past March. Oklahoma took home the crown with the song “Wonderland” by OK native and k-pop star, AleXa.

AleXa with her American Song Contest trophy
Alright, you’ve sold me. Where do I start?

It might be a good idea to start by listening to all of the winning songs. However, the winning songs are not always necessarily the best songs, so in my opinion, just listening to the winners doesn’t really give you proper exposure to the full Eurovision experience. Here is my Spotify playlist containing every Eurovision song I’ve ever heard and enjoyed. There are over 450 songs in this bad boy, which is still way fewer than every single song in the history of the contest; if you want a more manageable list of recommendations, however, here is the YouTube playlist compiling my favorite performances from the past decade (I haven’t seen my favorite song win since 2014, but alas). I also strongly recommend checking out this playlist of the weirdest Eurovision performances, because let’s be honest, these are the most memorable.

Stay tuned for more updates about the 2023 contest!

About Gabby Bibus

Gabby has been obsessed with anime since she was just 9 years old, and is proud to say she has watched over 200 different series. But that’s not even her biggest claim to fame: she also lives on a farm with over 80 goats! Although anime and animals are her two favorite things in the world, she also loves music, books, and movies. Her day job is a middle school ESL teacher, and she is also a staff member at the New Jersey Renaissance Faire.

View all posts by Gabby Bibus

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