The Eurovision Song Contest is perhaps the most unpredictable competition in the world. When one watches the Olympics and you already know, either the U.S. or China will finish on top. At the FIFA World Cup final the teams are likely to be from Europe or South America, but at Eurovision, the winner is usually a jaw-dropping surprise.
Yes, there are many successful countries at Eurovision. Sweden, Russia and Ukraine rarely place at the right side of the scoreboard. In fact, it is rare to see them outside the top 10. But which country has the right formula? How do you define a Eurovision winning song? Is it all fixed? Political? Believe it or not; the winning formula has more to do with what’s trending and going on around the world than to the everlasting feud about diaspora and political voting.
1956 – 1966: The early years (or the Francophone dominance)
Eurovision was launched in 1956, a decade after World War II but in the midst of the Cold War. The current world order was the communist east and the capitalist west. Eurovision was a great example of the latter. In fact during the first edition, the participating countries (except for Switzerland) were the founding members of the European Economic Community. The U.K. and the Scandinavian countries joined a few years later. And as other European countries drifted away from dictatorships, they started to join the contest.
During the first decade of Eurovision, a total of six songs in French won the contest. The language rule preventing countries to perform in a language other than their own. There were five Francophone countries in competition (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Monaco and Switzerland). French was what English is today in the contest. As a matter of fact, at the 1962 contest in Luxembourg, the top three songs were in French.
This French dominance did not have anything to do with the number of songs in French. It was because the late 50s and early 60s were heavily dominated by French ye-ye. The 1965 winning song from Luxembourg, “Pupee de Cire, Pupee de Son” by France Gall is the perfect example. Just like we hear a lot of Swedish manufactured pop music nowadays. During that time, people were dancing to ye-ye.
The late 60s and early 70s are synonyms to the Vietnam War. On the west side of the Atlantic, the music consisted of protest folk songs and psychedelic rock. In Europe, ye-ye was dying out as it opened its doors to British pop. At Eurovision, the UK achieved its first three victories and the language rule was dropped from 1973 – 1976 and three English songs won (including ABBA’s Waterloo). There were still French ballads winning (like “Tu te Reconnaitrais” from Luxembourg in 1973 and France’s last win “L’oiseau et l’enfant” in 1977). However, the winning entries had become more danceable, more bubblegum pop. It was a new era of music for both the world and Eurovision.
1978-1988: Disco and the new order
The late 70s were the era of disco and the 1978 winning song, “A-ba-ni-bi” was an upbeat disco number and the first winner from a non-European country, Israel. They won the following year and a number of countries in the 1980s won for the first time (Germany, Belgium, and Norway). This decade saw a diverse number of genres winning (ballads, folk, and pop) and Ireland began dominating by winning three times. This period ended with the surprise win from Céline Dion, representing Switzerland, which happened to be the last song in French to win the contest.
The 1980s at Eurovision was an era of diversity due to the number of different countries, genres, and performers that won the competition. It was a period that could probably be compared to the early 2000s. It was also the time where more elaborate performances started, the gimmicky and camp began to be part of the Eurovision literature. Eurovision had turned into the mainstream, its public moving away from the formal to the casual. The OGAE was established, and thousands of kilometers away, Australia began broadcasting the show. Eurovision became a synonym of party, and not just for Europe but all over the world. It was the late 1980s and a new era had begun.
1989-1999: A New Europe (and the Irish dominance)
The 1980s ended with the only win from the now extinct Yugoslavia. Riva, a Croatian band, won with a rock-influenced number, “Rock Me”, one of the very few to win Eurovision. The 1990s at Eurovision is known for three things: the Eastern expansion of the contest, the Irish dominance and the introduction of televoting in 1997.
As the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed, new countries were born and they all wanted to join the Eurovision party. Three of the former Yugoslavian republics, Russia and half a dozen Eastern European countries debuted. They all got mixed results and none of them won, but they brought a different dynamic to the contest. Eastern Europe would then find itself hosting the contest a decade later.
As for the winning trend of the 1990s: Ireland, alongside their traditional ballads, won a total of four times. Eurofans complain about the continuing success of countries like Sweden and Russia nowadays. But no country has won more consecutive times in a row than Ireland (1992, 1993, 1994.)
Nobody can explain the Irish success of the 1990s. However if you look at the world events, “The Troubles” were on their final stage. And rock bands like U2 and The Cranberries reminded the public of the constant suffering of the green island. Perhaps, the fact that Irish folk-influenced ballads dominated the Eurovision wins of the 1990s was a result of the exposure of Ireland in the world theatre.
In 1997, televoting was introduced and changed Eurovision forever. Fans did not only wave their flags inside the arena but they also had a say in the outcome of the contest. The common-winning ballads were now replaced with danceable pop numbers, heavily influenced by Swedish schlager.
The decade ended with the abolition of the orchestra and the language rule. The fact that countries could now sing in any language they wanted, with most of them choosing English, meant the end of the Irish (and to a lesser extent the British) dominance of the contest.
2000-2010: Eastern dominance, bloc voting, diaspora #Eurodrama
Just like the 1980s, the 2000s saw a number of countries that debuted in the decade prior, taking home the crown and ending the dominance of the Western European countries in the contest. As far as genres go, it was fairly diverse with schlager, ballads, ethnic-pop, and even a hard rock song.
2003 also marked the year my Eurovision journey began. Late one night while flicking through the TV, I landed on RTVE and said “oh look t.A.T.u. is performing”. After watching the remaining of the show, I never thought I would be hooked on Eurovision for the rest of my life.
The 2000s were filled with controversies and “eurodrama”. Some of the Eastern European countries had brought their old Cold War tensions to the contest. Infamous accusations of diaspora voting, due to the 100% use of televote, and the voting alliances between former allies, formerly united countries and Scandinavia. Controversial times that seemed like the apocalypse of Eurovision.
The 2006 winning song, “Hard Rock Hallelujah” had the most divisive opinions. Those in favour called it “unique and original”, detractors called it gimmicky. The truth is, it was bizarre (in a good way). And it started a new trend where the staging became an integral part of the winning formula. Songs often get higher marks thanks to their staging rather than the song itself.
The decade ended with the re-introduction of the jury alongside televoting, and new dynamics formed.
2010-present: Hi-tech Eurovision (or Back to basics?)
The 2010s marked a new era for the contest. A highly technologically advanced staging kept people in front of the screen for almost 5 hours. The winning trend followed a similar pattern; Swedish/Scandinavian pop had been producing the most wins.
But it was 2016 the most special year. A complete new system was put in place. The presentation of the jury voting made it seem like all that diaspora and bloc voting had ended (Montenegro gave their 12 points to Malta, Norway to Italy, etc.) This new system also gave room to future nail-biting ending. In fact that year, Ukraine’s Jamala won the whole competition by coming second with both the jury and televoting.
But Jamala’s performance also marked a brand new trend for winning songs. The winning song did not only have to be well-written, well sung, and visually appealing. It also had to be emotional, theatrical, and melodramatic.
On the same line with Jamala, is Portugal’s Salvador Sobral. Salvador had only an enchanted forest in the background but it was his quirky moves and eccentric performance that brought victory to the Iberian country for the first time in more than 50 years of participation.
What winners lie ahead of 2017? Expect more theatrical performances full of emotions and a dose of charisma to the camera.