To some, it's the quintessence of Europe's various musical cultures. To others, it's a colossal celebration of bad taste. In its 56th year, the ESC shows once again why it invites heated debate.
Germany is the contest's proud host in 2011
The beginnings were humble. In 1956 European unification was a far-off dream, and television was in its infancy. A number of national broadcasting entities decided to pool forces to make TV better known and promote a European identity.
The still small European Broadcasting Union (EBU) initiated a song competition patterned after Italy's San Remo Festival. Seven countries participated in the first Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson. Three others - England, Denmark and Austria - missed the deadline.
The first competition allowed only solo artists and no song longer than three and a half minutes. Lys Assia from Switzerland took home first prize.
Going after mass taste
With time, the number of contenders grew, and the contest became a must-see for entire nations of TV viewers. 43 countries are participating in 2011. It would have been 44, had Liechtenstein's entry to the EBU been complete. The tiny country's first entry can be expected in 2012.
From the beginning, the central question at the Eurovision Song Contest has been how to write the song that everyone will like. Can a continental consensus in matters musical exist? Designed as a composers' competition, the contest developed its own pop aesthetic over time independently of popular trends.
Winners at Eurovision: Nicole 1982 (Germany), ABBA 1974 (Sweden) and Ruslana 2004 (Ukraine)
For years, neither punk, rock or rap were to be heard but instead sweeping melodic ballads singing the praises of love, peace and unity. The onetime rule that each country had to enter a song in its native tongue generated many curiosities. Titles like "Boom Bang a Bang", "La La La" and "Ding-A-Dong" were good to sing along to but of no great literary value.
That curiosity continues. This year's entry from Finland is titled "Da Da Dam," and Israel entered the Euro dance number "Ding Dong."
A quarter century too early
Lys Assia went down in history as the first Eurovision winner
On April 6, 1974 came the big exception to the Grand Prix rule and the springboard to one of the most successful pop bands of all time. In garish garb and with a relatively rocking and timely sounding song called "Waterloo," ABBA won in Brighton, England by only a small margin, but its subsequent popularity set the stage for many other bands from non-English speaking countries in Europe.
But ABBA was a quarter century ahead of its time. In the years to follow, the Grand Prix was home to heaps of emotional Euro-consensus fare, good to sing to and soon forget.
It wasn't until 1998, when transsexual Dana won the competition for Israel with a shrill disco number, that the Eurovision Song Contest began to interconnect with pop music trends. Even the rather strange Finnish band Lordi took top prize with "Hard Rock Hallelujah" in 2006.
Mr. Eurovision: if ever a man earned the title, it would have to be German composer Ralph Siegel. From 1974 to 2009, he wrote 19 songs for the songfest. Singer Nicole, then 17, won in 1982 with his composition "Ein bisschen Frieden" ("A Little Bit of Peace"). It took 28 years for Germany to recapture the ESC crown.
No friend of humility, Siegel never tires of referencing his claim to fame as the only German composer ever to have won a Eurovision Song Contest. After all, Lena's "Satellite" last year originated from a Danish-American composer duo.
Songwriter Ralph Siegel was upstaged by Lena's 2010 win
Through the valley of tears
It took a Lena Meyer-Landrut to lead Germany to victory. Back in the 1970's, successful Schlager stars like Katja Ebstein and Gitte Henning had been sent to the Eurovision front. The country's selection of artists in the 80's and 90's produced only meager results. In fact, ESC participation even had a lethal career effect, and top German artists simply turned it down. The all-time low was reached in 1996 when Germany went down in the semifinals.
As a result, the competition rules were altered so that the big five ESC financial sponsors - Germany, France, Great Britain, Spain and Italy - are always included in the finale.
From seven to forty-eight
The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the disintegration of Yugoslavia added many new countries to the ESC ranks. Having once divided the spoils among themselves, Western European nations found themselves in the minority, upstaged by Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Those new countries brought in elements of ethnomusic and extravagant stage shows. Meanwhile, the rules for assigning points came under critical scrutiny. The number of eastern European countries awarding votes to each other made it impossible for the western Europeans to win at all, it seemed.
To counteract, yet another rule change was put into place. Juries of musical experts now determine fifty percent of the points awarded.
Singer Lena Meyer-Landrut takes the Eurovision stage for Germany again in 2011
Sing it again, Lena!
Lena's success last year was a complete surprise. Carried away by the euphoria, producer Stefan Raab and North German Radio Hamburg decided to enter her again.
The wisdom of that strategy notwithstanding, it's nothing unusual for the competition for an artist to enter multiple times. In any event, the song "Taken by a Stranger" is stylistically about as far removed from the standard Grand Prix ballad as one can get.
Betting odds in England have Lena ranking eighth.
Author: Matthias Klaus / rf