tunnel vision

Five reasons why Americans will never understand the point of Eurovision

May 20, 2013
May 20, 2013

Most Americans will have spent the past weekend unaware of what most Europeans could not have failed to notice: the Eurovision song contest, which held its final in Malmö, Sweden. I watched it from Amsterdam, and as an American who last lived in a Europe a decade ago, I’d forgotten how hilarious the contest is, and yet also how much of a sense of connection it can foster.

But as the clever takedowns streamed across Twitter, the absence of American voices reminded me that the US largely ignores Europe’s camp pop Olympics. In the spirit of geopolitical analysis, here are five reasons why.

Americans don’t do “nul points.”  It even sounds suspicious. Like mainstream American disdain for soccer, where 0-0 isn’t an infrequent score for a match lasting 90-plus minutes, we don’t get the idea of “nul points,” or a contest entrant failing to rank among any of the countries’ voting—the absolute nadir of shame at Eurovision. Only 14 acts have achieved this dubious honor in the history of the competition. In America, even the worst act will probably end up with some job in reality TV. America doesn’t do “zero.”

We don’t do tactical voting. While a significant amount of game theory was developed by economists and mathematicians working in America, we don’t, as a country, really have much experience in so-called tactical voting, where voters select a candidate other than their true favorite in order to sway an outcome. We also don’t really get block voting, where temporarily allied groups vote work in concert, (no pun intended) either explicitly or by historical cultural affinity, to boost each others’ chances. With its entrenched two-party system and lack of parliamentary experience, Americans prefer a straight “like/don’t like” approach.

Much of Eurovision voting, particularly in the early rounds, is tactical in nature, leading to historical voting blocs which have been studied by social scientists and economists, but for which the impact is often downplayed by contest officials. Modern TV talent shows may alter this a little, but we Americans really haven’t grown up with such complex political maneuvering in our DNA. Besides, the voting and scoring is complicated, and the context has produced enough historical data to keep Nate Silver busy for weeks. By the way, why doesn’t Nate take on Eurovision? See? Too complicated.

https://twitter.com/Pawelmorski/status/335842178435805184

We don’t get why cheesiness is funny. Modern American humor, from TV shows to standup comedians to online memes, largely consists of two main ingredients: irony and sarcasm. Eurovision is an irony-free zone, which is what makes the often sidesplitting attempts at earnestness so worth watching—a trainwreck of dry ice, pleather, men in boxes, operatic vampires, and unfortunate babydoll outfits.

Which is precisely why millions of people watching Eurovision this week have been on Twitter and other social media having fun—collectively experiencing the jawdropping shock of Montenegran space dubstep, or laughing till they cry when a poorly timed dance move doesn’t come off. The cheese often seems to be piled the highest by acts from the edge of Europe, such as the islands of the Mediterranean and former Eastern Bloc, which gives northern and western Europeans an opportunity to point and laugh at their newer relations’ misfortune, a pastime in and of itself. “Look at Cyprus. They can’t even afford a song these days…”

We are highly suspicious of anything with a “Euro” prefix. Of course, the euro crisis hasn’t helped this suspicion, but the feeling goes back decades. Eurodisco, eurotrash, Eurodisney, Eurotunnel. All of these seem like bad things to Americans. Nativist American politicians have turned “Europe” into a euphemism for communism, or worse, socialism. Europe, as seen from this continent, is about those “dangerous” ideas—co-operation, federalization, and liberalism. So any contest that allows Europeans to vote on your interests seems highly dubious, at best.

We lack the musical tradition that helps make sense of some of the entries. If you listen to Eurovision entries, or a good deal of older electronic music from Europe, there is a strong strain of folk and classical flavor in the music. Some countries even roll out folk acts straight up, such as last year’s darlings, Russian grandmothers Buranovskiye Babushki. Bold if sometimes unadvised key changes, anthems about togetherness, and unsettling adaptations of happy-clappy barn-dancing feature throughout. Though electronic dance music, strangely relabeled EDM by US music marketers, is now the hot trend in America, it wasn’t always so. Most of us weren’t raised on yaya’s cassettes of folk favorites, or the classically inspired tunes of Europe’s many institutional anthems, so we don’t hear the dog whistle to our collective heritage in the music. Which is a pity, because we Americans could occasionally use a laugh and some togetherness.

You can follow Scott Smith on Twitter at @changeist. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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