When I watched my first Eurovision Song Contest in 1997, it was a cheesy provincial secret, even if it was watched by millions, and few people outside Europe understood that both ABBA and Celine Dion launched their careers by winning the competition.
Now it gets analyzed globally each year, even if just for its geo-political influence. Which bloc of countries will the winner come from this time: the Viking Empire, the Balkan Bloc or the Warsaw Pact? Will poorer Eastern European countries—with their heavy makeup and earnest devotion to bad English-language power ballads—overwhelm the more genteel and developed West? Why are England’s entries always so disappointing?
This came to a head last year in Azerbaijan, where the state spent €35 million ($45.8 million) on the show’s production and another €100 million ($131 million) to build a new arena, amid a stream of publicity about street clashes between police and opposition activists and the government’s allegedly poor human rights record. An estimate of the country’s total investment to host the show put total investment around $800 million. The spectacle drew 125 million viewers but cost so much to produce there were rumors that only three countries—Azerbaijan, Russia, and Sweden—actually wanted to win. In fact, four countries dropped out of the contest after last year, citing the potential financial burden of victory (the winner hosts the next year’s competition).
Well, Sweden won, and in the current spirit of Nordic pragmatism, the 2013 contest will have a more progressive and subdued vibe.
Let’s start with the progressive. Eurovision Song Contest rules expressly prohibit political messages in songs. But the Finnish singer, Krista Siegfrids, has caused a minor uproar with her outspoken support of gay marriage and her kiss with a female dancer at the end of a recent performance in Amsterdam. This wouldn’t be controversial in the slew of European countries that have legalized gay marriage, but it has caused a fuss in Finland, where more than 100,000 people have recently signed a petition to force the parliament to address the issue, after it was narrowly voted down in the parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee.
According to the Daily Mail, Siegfrids said recently: “Homophobic people are angry with me for doing this. But I’m planning a surprise at the end of my performance. It’s live on TV, so nobody can stop me.”
Siegfrids will be performing in a ceremony whose TV production will cost less than half of the 2012 show’s budget. Swedish organizers say this is to show that hosting doesn’t have to be a massive burden. From a story in the Wall Street Journal:
One of the financially fittest states in Europe, Sweden is taking a bit of a left turn with the competition. The public broadcaster SVT aims to more than halve the production tab to $20 million, representing the smallest budget since Helsinki hosted in 2007. The host city of Malmö (population: 300,000) is also putting $4 million into surrounding activities.
Martin Österdahl, executive producer of this year’s event, told WSJ that for the contest to survive, “small democratic nations” must be capable of hosting the show and that “someone has to have the courage to break the trend,” of budget-busting spectacles, with both Germany in 2009 and Russia in 2011 breaking the €30 million ($38.9 million) mark.
Swedish TV knows its stuff. While most countries pick their representative singer in a one-night show, in Sweden there is a six-week series of competitions, culminating in a glitzy final held in a Stockholm-area arena significantly bigger than the one in Malmö that will host the Eurovision final. The Swedish competition is called “Melodifestavalen” and, much to the chagrin of many, is the Swedish equivalent to March Madness in terms of reach and cultural importance. There is even a Swedish name, schlager, for the kind of orchestrated pop that once dominated the contest.
So who is going to win? At least one expert thinks Siegfrids, of Finland, has made a savvy move competitively, as well as politically. Benjamin Cohen, publisher of PinkNews, told the Independent: “Eurovision is often referred to as the ‘gay world cup’, thanks to its camp celebration of popular culture and the fact that so many gay people tune in. So a song that appeals to gay voters is a particularly clever idea, especially given the Europe-wide debate on the introduction of same-sex marriage.”