A Beginner’s Guide To The Eurovision Song Contest

Are you curious about Eurovision but aren’t sure what exactly it’s about? We’ve broken it down for you.
A scene from 2019 Eurovision

Each spring, countries across Europe (and a few other continents) compete in one of the most grueling kinds of competition: a song contest. To the uninitiated, Eurovision can sound silly, but having your country win can be a source of pride. Yet Eurovision is also a source of controversy, ridicule, adoration and — as skewered in Will Ferrell’s 2020 comedy about the event — high camp. If you’ve never watched before, Eurovision can be a bewildering event.

This year’s Eurovision starts on May 18 and ends on May 22, returning after being canceled in 2020. It’s being hosted in Rotterdam, Netherlands, because a Dutch act won in 2019, though it will look different this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 precautions and regulations.  If you’re curious about the event but don’t know anything about it except that it somehow relates to ABBA, we’ve broken down the basics. And if you’re just curious about the music, you can scroll down for a playlist of past winners.

How Did The Eurovision Song Contest Begin And Evolve?

In the 1950s, various people were starting to push the limits of live television. A member of the European Broadcasting Union, Marcel Bezençon, took inspiration from an Italian event called the Sanremo Music Festival. He decided the EBU should try to recreate it on a bigger stage, inviting performers from all over Europe. Thus, the first Eurovision Song Contest was held on May 24, 1956.

Like many such events, the original contest was humbler than what it is today. Only seven countries participated: Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg and France. Unfortunately for historians, the complete record of the first Eurovision is lost. There’s some surviving video and audio, but it’s incomplete. What is known is that the winner was “Refrain” by the Swiss musician Lys Assia.

In the decades since its premiere, Eurovision has changed a number of times. The most notable difference is probably that the number of countries has multiplied, so that in 2021 there are 35 participants. The number does go up and down, though, and countries sometimes withdraw for political reasons. Another big change was the 2004 addition of semi-finals to narrow down the contestants, which then became two sets of semi-finals in 2008. There are six countries that get automatically qualified for the finals: the Big Five (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) and whichever country won the previous year.

Eurovision is today one of the longest-running shows still on the air, and it attracts roughly 180 million viewers on television each year (and this doesn’t count all the people watching the YouTube clips). 

What Countries Participate?

The name Eurovision is somewhat misleading, because it makes you think that the only prerequisite to joining is being a part of Europe. Yet, that is not the case. For a country to be a part of Eurovision, it has to have a broadcaster that’s a member of the European Broadcasting Union, which is the same group that started the Eurovision Song Contest back in 1956. That’s why countries such as Israel, Morocco and Australia have participated, despite not being in Europe.

The 33 countries participating in Eurovision this year are as follows: Albania, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and Ukraine. 

How Do Songs Get Chosen?

There are two baseline requirements for a song to be accepted in the Eurovision Song Contest. It must be three minutes or less, there can be a maximum of six people on stage at a time (so you can’t bring a marching band) and the song must be original. This last requirement is particularly important, because it explains why a country never submits a song that is already very popular. Beyond that, it’s very much up to each country to decide what acts to send, and whether they want to send the biggest celebrity they have or try to wow judges with something new.

Each country has its own method for choosing, and so each one does it slightly differently. In some, like Iceland and Sweden, there are song contests that invite various musicians and select a winner, thus extending the competition aspect of Eurovision before the event itself. Sometimes, a broadcaster will choose unilaterally who to send, but more and more countries are holding contests to avoid accusations of bias.

Even with the song contests, the choices can be contentious, of course. Trying to choose a single act to send to Eurovision can divide a country. Some people might want a catchy, popular song to be entered, while others might prefer that the song be a closer homage to the national culture. It’s this tension that makes Eurovision perhaps all the more compelling. It’s not just a bunch of countries sending whatever musician is selling the most records — it’s an attempt to show off a country’s culture.

One particularly contentious point for songs that get submitted is language. In the past, there have been rules that specifically required that a country’s song must be at least in part in the official language of that country. That rule has been gone since 1999, though there are still complaints from time to time. Some people in France were upset when their 2008 submission — “Divine” by Sebastien Tellier — was sung in English rather than French. And yet English has really become the lingua franca of Eurovision, being the language of almost half of all the winners.

Who Decides Who Wins?

There are two sets of semi-finals. Each of the participating countries gets two sets of votes: one given by “music industry professionals” and the other given by the viewers, who can vote from home. To keep it from being an exercise in which country has the largest population, you cannot vote for your own country. Also, only the countries currently participating can vote. After each semi-final, 10 contestants are selected to go on to the Grand Final.

At the Grand Final, there are 26 contestants, 10 from each of the finals and the other six who are pre-qualified (the Big Five and the previous year’s winner, as mentioned above). Unlike the semi-finals, anyone can vote in the finals. Then, as with any good show, there’s a dramatic reveal of the scores, with the country that has the highest cumulative points being crowned the winner.

Who’s Won The Most?

The reigning champion of Eurovision is Ireland, which has won the contest seven times, though most recently in 1996. It’s followed closely behind by Sweden, which has won six times. After that the numbers multiply, so here’s the full list.

Seven Wins — Ireland
Six Wins — Sweden
Five Wins — France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom
Four Wins — Israel
Three Wins — Denmark and Norway
Two Wins — Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Ukraine
One Win — Azerbaijan, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Latvia, Monaco, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Turkey and Yugoslavia (the last notably no longer a country)

Listen To The Past Winners

There are of course many other facets of this event that could be explored, but this should give you an idea of how Eurovision works. Perhaps the best way to understand a song contest is by listening to the songs themselves, so we’ve put together a playlist of the past winners.

There are a few missing songs on the list: 1979 winner “Hallelujah” by Milk and Honey; 2001 winner “Everybody” by Tanel Padar and Dave Benton; and 2011 winner “Running Scared” by Ell and Nikki.

Header Photo by Ralph Larmann

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