In this episode of Thinking in English, I want to talk about one of the most popular events in Europe: the Eurovision Song Contest. With nearly 200 million people watching, and over 40 countries entering, it is a massive contest full of incredible (and sometimes bizarre) performances. Many of the listeners of this podcast are not European, so hopefully you will learn something about the continent’s culture today!

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Vocabulary List

Contestant (n) – someone who competes in a contest

In tonight’s quiz., our contestants have come from all over the country 

Automatically (adv) – according to rules or schedules that are certain to be followed; and with no human control

You get a pay increase automatically after six months

Bizarre (adj) – very strange and unusual

I went to an incredibly bizarre party last night!

Ridiculous (adj) – stupid or unreasonable and deserving to be laughed at

Do I look ridiculous in this hat?

Puppet (n) – a toy in the shape of a person or animal that you can move with strings or by putting your hand inside

We took the children to a puppet show

Accordion (n) – a box shaped musical instrument including a folded central part with a keyboard, played by pushing the two ends towards each other

My mum made me learn how to play accordion when I was a child

Biased (adj) – showing an unreasonable like or dislike for a person based on personal opinions

The newspaper gave a very biased report of the meeting

Ties (plural n) – the friendly feelings that people have for other people, or special connection with places

I no longer feel any ties with my home town  

What do some Latvian pirates, a group of Russian grandmothers, a Finnish Monster-Rock band, and world famous stars ABBA and Celine Dion, all have in common? The answer is the Eurovision Song contest. They have all been contestants, and some of them winners, of the biggest singing contest in Europe. This year’s Eurovision Song contest will be held in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, on the 22nd of May!  Eurovision is one of the most watched TV events in the entire world, with over 200 million people tuning in to watch every year. Yet, for people outside of Europe, it is probably something you know very little about! And right now, some of you are probably asking: what is he talking about? How does Eurovision work? And should I watch it?

Imagine if you mixed a singing contest with the Olympic games: the result would be something similar to Eurovision. In the most simple way, Eurovision is an international singing competition where the countries of Europe (and Australia for some reason) all compete against each other. But Eurovision is much more than this explanation. It is nothing like other talent shows on TV around the world. 

The competition was created in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Agency. You’ll probably notice this is only a decade after the end of World War II, and Eurovision was planned as a way of bringing the different European countries together after years of war and violence. When Eurovision began, only seven countries participated, but now over 40 enter every year with non-European countries including Australia and Israel also taking part.

How does the competition work? Representatives from each country (maybe a solo act, duet, or band) each perform one original song live on TV; the winner is chosen by combining judges’ decisions and by people voting at home. I said over 40 countries enter the competition, but not all of them can appear in the final of the competition (otherwise it would be an incredibly long TV show!). So, there are two semi-finals held to decide on which countries qualify. In addition, six countries automatically qualify every year. These are the winning country last time (so, the Netherlands), as well as the so-called ‘big 5’ countries: Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the UK. The ‘big 5’ are the five countries that give the most money to the competition, so are rewarded with automatic entry into the final. 

Ok. So, I’ve explained the basic format and rules of the competition. But, so far, you’re probably thinking it seems just like any other singing competition in the world. However, the main reason Eurovision is such a major event is that the performances are incredible, bizarre, and sometimes important. If you watch highlights online, you will rarely see boring contestants standing still and wearing normal clothes. The performances are full of crazy special effects, ridiculous costumes, and the songs can be really strange (and usually bad!). I’ll leave a link to some Eurovision performance here (go to the blog to check them out), but let me describe a few.

One of my favourite contestants ever was the Irish entry in 2008: Dustin the Turkey. Turkey here means the bird Americans eat at Thanksgiving, not the country! Dustin was a puppet singing a song begging other countries to vote for him, as he was surrounded by dancers dressed in Turkey themed costumes. In 2007 Switzerland decided to sing about vampires. Also in 2007, one of the most famous performances ever came from Ukraine’s silver-covered drag queen Verka Serduchka who wore one of the strangest outfits in Eurovision history as she marched around the stage singing along to an accordion based song!

Not all Eurovision performances are bad, however! Sometimes Eurovision can highlight talented performers and launch international careers. ABBA, for instance, performed their song “Waterloo” at Eurovision in 1974 and became one of the world’s most popular acts in the following years. Celine Dion won the competition in 1988 and her victory made her much more famous around the world. This was despite the fact she is Canadian and somehow ended up representing Switzerland. And all the way back in 1958, singer Domenico Modugno performed “Volare” which has since been covered by Frank Sinatra and David Bowie. In fact, her album released after the competition is the only foreign language record to ever win the Album of the Year at the Grammys!

If you’re a regular listener, you probably know by now that I like to talk about something political every episode! But this is a singing competition, right? How could it be political? Well, actually, Eurovision is incredibly culturally and politically biased. Let me explain. 

Obviously some years, a song or contestant can win because they are really good, or really the best. However, there are actually some major biases that can influence who wins the competitions. For instance, every year certain countries tend to vote for each other in high numbers… even if the contestants are terrible! This puts some countries at an advantage, because they have almost guaranteed votes every year. 

How can this be possible? The answer lies in Eurovision’s complicated voting system. Each country ranks all of the other countries’ performances by mixing viewer votes and scores from judges.  And a country cannot vote for itself. Getting ranked first place is worth 12 points, second place worth 10 points, third 8 points, fourth 7, fifth 6, and so forth until reaching 11th place and below, which get zero points. So, for example, if the majority of voters in my country, the UK, think that France was the best – they will be given 12 points. After all the countries have voted, the performer with the highest score wins!

A 2013 study by García and Tanase researched how often countries voted for each other between 1997 and 2013. They found that countries tend to gather together and vote in blocs. And the winners usually come from the biggest blocs. This is why Scandinavian and eastern European countries often win the competition (they are in big voting blocs), and France hasn’t won for 50 years (they are in one of the smallest blocs).

One explanation for these voting blocs is cultural ties. Countries with similar ethnicities, culture, religion, and languages tend to vote for each other. Scandinavian countries tend to vote for each other. German speaking countries do as well. One of the biggest and most powerful voting blocs includes Russia, a lot of Eastern European countries, some central Asian countries, and Israel (a country with many Russian immigrants). Basically, if countries have similar cultures, they tend to vote for each other! 

Culture is not the only factor. History and politics are also important. Turkey and Armenia, for instance, are culturally similar but have a controversial history and tend not to vote for each other. Furthermore, when the economy is bad, countries vote for their ‘friends’ more often! One country which traditionally doesn’t achieve good scores in the competition is the UK. Despite having some of the most successful musicians in the entire world, the UK is famous for receiving no points!

Who are some of the best performers this year? Well, Iceland’s Daði Freyr probably would have won last year… but the competition was cancelled due to the pandemic. He still has a good chance this year, and he performs with a backing group full of bad dancers. Tusse – a teenage Congolese refugee who ended up winning the TV talent show Swedish Idol – has one of the best songs this year. And the tiny country of San Marino will have famous American rapper Flo Rida as part of their act!

Final Thought

In this episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to introduce you to Eurovision. It is one of the most spectacular, crazy, and bizarre competitions in the world. I really recommend that, if you can, you should try to watch a few of the performances. Or go to YouTube and watch some previous competitors. English language music is dominated by acts from North America and the UK, while Korean and Japanese music is also increasingly internationally popular. However, how often do you listen to Greek, Azerbaijani, or Estonian songs? Probably never, right? Well, Eurovision is your chance!

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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