“It’s supposed to be bad. And the worse it is, the more fun it is”: Exploring Eurovision’s predecessors

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; Some of the entrances are from the roof, on high wires. And some are through pyrotechnic flames and glitter.”

So said Shakespeare* in 1599. He was, of course, talking about Eurovision.

Now listen up, Americans, because this may be new to you (although perhaps not after Will Ferrell’s film Fire Saga.) You may have the Super Bowl “world” championships, (in which the only country that enter is the USA) but us Europeans have Eurovision.

What is Eurovision?

There’s no real way to answer that. Imagine a stage lit up with a million bulbs, all flashing with enough intensity to induce some sort of fit, even in people with no pre-existing conditions. A crew of performers wearing either matching neon fancy dress, national costume, or almost nothing at all dances with varying degrees of ease. Someone is singing with extraordinary passion about a loved one, or freedom, or ‘finding themselves’ or the battle of Waterloo. Half of the song will be in English, half of it (the most passionate half) will be in another language). Australia might or might not be there too.

At some point the performer might raise their arms up to reveal an enormous set of fully-feathered wings attached to the back of their dress. If not, there’s a good chance they’ll have a full costume change by the end of the song instead. For no discernable reason, someone will be in a human sized hamster wheel (Will Ferrell was right about that, at least).

Half way through the song the key will change. Thirty seconds later it will change again. If the singer is a woman the key will continue to rise until she is sure to break every pane of glass in the stadium. Someone will be playing the piano or saxophone, despite the fact they clearly can’t. Impossibly muscle-y men will writhe onto the stage, covered in oil, and the singer will awkwardly stroke one of them, like a pet owner stroking a puppy.

A naked man in full body paint might run across the stage with a political message daubed onto his chest but in his exuberance he’ll have run too fast and no one will be able to work out what his message was. At this point, everyone will stop watching the show and will turn to Twitter. Then a glitter cannon explodes, signalling the end of the song and covering the frenzied audience in a billion gold dust particles before the whole thing starts again with a new set of performers.

Now imagine all of that crammed into 3 minutes. And the stage is on fire/rotating/projecting lasers (pick at least two.)

That’s Eurovision.

Photograph of performance of "Love Love Peace Peace" at the 2016 grand final: Petra Mede and Måns Zelmerlöw perform on stage surrounded by performers dressed in costumes of past Eurovision acts
Grannies, demons, topless drummers, sexy milkmaids and a white grand piano: classic Eurovision.
Credit Albin Olsson

I need a lie down

It’s the greatest night of the year. Almost 200 million people from across Europe tune in to give the UK nil points and make pseudo-intellectual comments about political voting (oh, look – Cyprus gave Greece 12 points? Would never have seen that coming!) This year, post-Brexit, promises to be super successful for us in the UK.

But is this crazy, bright, brilliant night a 20th century invention, or are its roots much older?

Well, they’re older, obviously – or else what would be the point of this post?

Today I’m taking a quick tour of singing contests of Europe’s history to see how well Eurovision would have fitted in with events of the past.

The Pythian Games: Ancient Greece

Let’s start with a familiar one, shall we.

Greece has been a member of Eurovision since 1974. But before that, it had a festival of arts and entertainment all for itself.

The Pythian games were held predominately at Delphi in honour of the god Apollo. They were ranked second in importance next to the Olympics – so you could say they were a Big Deal.

Pausanias, the second century traveller and writer, gives a detailed account of what the games entailed:

The oldest contest and the one for which they first offered prizes was… the singing of a hymn to the god.

… But they say that Orpheus, a proud man and conceited about his mysteries… refused to submit to the competition in musical skill.

They say too that Eleuther won a Pythian victory for his loud and sweet voice, for the song he sang was not of his own composition. The story is that Hesiod too was debarred from competing because he had not learned to accompany his own singing on the harp.

… At the second Pythian Festival they no longer offered prizes for events, adn hereafter gave a crown for victory. On this occasion they no longer included singing to the flute… for the tunes of the flute were most dismal…

Pausanias, Description of Greece

Pausanias’ account of the Pythian games shows a surprising number of parallels with Eurovision.

Firstly, the idea that some people are ‘too good’ for the competition. Pausanias had Orpheus, a legendary Greek poet and musician who clearly felt the Pythian games were beneath him. In 2009 the UK had Rita Ora – a then relatively unknown singer who was selected to represent the country at the competition but pulled out, later saying “Imagine! If I’d stayed, it would probably have been all over for me. At best, I’d be a contestant on that diving show…?’ Splash!?”

Cesare Gennari Orfeo.jpg
Orpheus – too good for the Pythian games, but was he good enough for Eurovision?

Of course Orpheus and Ora might be right – singing competitions can be a bit naff and Eurovision especially has a reputation for humiliating acts that take themselves too seriously.

Still, ABBA did OK out of it…

Secondly, Pausanias alludes to certain rules – that contestants were supposed to compose their own songs and perform them with accompaniments.

Technically a performer can enter Eurovision without any instruments other than their voice, but they wouldn’t stand a chance. As for the song itself, yet again there are parallels between the games and the modern day competition; the rules of Eurovision state that a song cannot be publicly released before a certain date (usually around a month or so before the main event) – meaning that it must be a new song and not a cover or performance by an established band of their own already released material.

And finally – the flutes, of which Pausanias was clearly not a fan. But neither, it seems, are the judges at Eurovision who have never, not once in the history of the competition, allowed purely instrumental performances.

Sängerkrieg and Eisteddfod

Sounds like the name of a Eurovision group.

According to German literature, the Sängerkrieg was a 13th century singing contest between 6 minstrels in order to find who was best placed to sing the praises of princes. The judges were to be the Count and Countess of Thuringia. The story contains trickery, peril and wizards, so not too far off the standard Eurovision fare.

In the end a minstrel called Wolfram won the contest by singing such beautiful music about God that the devil (who had been summoned by the wizard to defeat the minstrel – do keep up) fell down, exhausted.

Whether the Sängerkrieg actually happened is murky, but what isn’t is the Eisteddfod.

The Eisteddfod is an ancient Welsh tradition of musical and literary competition where bards and performers would gather to sing it out for the privilege of being judged by the royal kings of the time.

The first documented Eisteddfod was hosted by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1176 but it’s likely the tradition stretches back further than this. In 1523 an Eisteddfod was held in Flintshire where a statute was drawn up detailing what the bards who were due to compete could and could not do. The statute stated that bards could not drink, womanize or gamble.

Rhys ap Gryffydd getting excited for the next performer.

Now I’ve never been to a backstage Eurovision party but judging by the performances I think it’s safe to assume that each one of these rules is soundly broken every year. In fact, gambling on who the winner will be though sweepstakes and bingo cards is pretty much compulsory where I am. This year, with coronavirus restrictions in place, will therefore perhaps be the first time all of the rules are adhered to.

As well as stating what the behaviour of the performers should be like, the statue also decreed that no bard worthy of his salt would perform “satirical” songs. Often political in nature, satirical songs would poke fun at the ruling classes and restrictions placed on the working people.

Clearly the powers that be were concerned with unpleasant tensions and controversial messages being spread through the performances, and the overseers of Eurovision must have similar concerns, because today every singer must operate under restrictions that prohibit songs and performances that are political or commercial.

Not that that rule is always stuck to, of course. In 2009, following conflict between Russia and Georgia, Georgia’s entry was criticised for being too anti-Putin (to make things more awkward, Russia was the host of the competition that year). When the Georgian delegates refused to change the lyrics, they were told to withdraw from the competition. In a similar way, in the sixteenth century a bard called Richard Gyyn was caught singing without a license he was accused of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and for criticising the practices of the protestant church including “certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers”.

Unfortunately for Richard it seemed Elizabeth (who feared the Welsh were plotting against her and the Church of England) wanted to make an example of his satirical songs. He was hung, drawn and quartered on 15 October 1584.

Victorian Opera

And so we arrive in Britain in the 19th century, where a new form of entertainment – full of drama, divas and divine dresses – was taking hold: opera.

If the costumes of Eurovision are extravagant then the costumes of 19th century divas were out of this world lavish. Adelina Patti, a darling of the opera scene at this time, once required a police escort at her Covent Garden performance of Verdi’s La Traviata after she had her jewellery taken apart and sewn onto the bodice of her costume – all £200,000 worth of it.

But an emphasis on the aesthetics could sometimes come at a cost to the performance itself. The French composer Berlioz commented at the time that the “music of the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more… They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.” Berlioz was famously anti-Italian in his musical choices, but his criticism of how unchallenging and vanilla opera was is echoed today by some Eurovision enthusiasts.

Now I’m not saying Eurovision attracts the same standard of critic, but every year there are murmurings online that the songs are becoming more and more ‘radio-ready’ and the performances less unique as singers use the show to launch their careers. A few years ago we had performers like Conchita Wurst and Verka Serduchka who didn’t give a damn about what they were ‘supposed’ to look and sound like – now we have mostly very conventionally beautiful people wearing very beautiful gowns singing very beautifully about the struggles of the beautiful. Close your eyes today and you might find it hard to tell where one song ends and another begins.

Of course this isn’t completely true – one or two truly wow acts stand out every year. There’s always the performer who croons a little too much to the camera, or the one whose dress design looks like she’s sucked up a muddy puddle, or the singer who reaches notes only heard by dogs.

In 1821 Giuditta Pasta played the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. Not only was her voice well received, but her showmanship held her audience absolutely captive. Her career continued after this part, with composers falling over themselves to write roles specifically for her. Even when she was too old to perform confidently, she continued to give performances with the singer Pauline Viardot commenting that Pasta was like the da Vinci painting The Last Supper: “a wreck of a picture, but it is the greatest picture in the world.”

Which brings us to the most famous Eurovision performance – one that won acclaim during the show itself but also spawned a successful career. Of course, I’m talking about ABBA.

Eurovision winners in 1974, ABBA went on to sell at least 200 million records worldwide. They are – to this day – the best selling Swedish band of all time. With eight UK number one albums and a Wikipedia page just for their awards and nominations, ABBA stands as the goal for all Eurovision entrants, proving once and for all that if you can embrace campness and novelty, Eurovision can be a career making event.

Have a happy Eurovision everyone!

So to any Americans watching for the first time – welcome. You won’t understand it all – nobody does – but if you can make it through the strobe lights, gyrating and 100 hour long voting system, you’re guaranteed to have a fantastic night. Happy Eurovision!

E x

*Seriously, people?!