1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The Eurovision Song Contest at 54

May 25, 2010

An important platform showcasing the disparate musical cultures of Europe or an embarrassing fiasco? Either way, the Eurovision Song Contest undoubtedly holds legendary status - and its history is long.

Scantily-clad female perform on a gaudily-lit stage in a typically over the top Eurovision performance
Always a spectacle: Eurovision celebrates its 54th birthdayImage: picture-alliance / dpa

While many today may view the contest as a farcical pantomime with no musical merit, it had noble origins. Europe in the 1950s was a war-ravaged continent and Marcel Bezencon, then director of the European Broadcasting Union, came up with the idea of aiding the process of unification around a music competition in which participating nations could present the best of their country's musical talent. The first Eurovision Song Contest, held on May 24, 1956 in Lugano, was a far cry from the glittery mega-events we know today; primarily a radio broadcast, only seven countries took part, with host nation Switzerland winning with the ballad "Refrain" by Lys Assia.

Broad musical appeal

As songs in the contest have to appeal to a massive audience with diverse tastes, Eurovision entries tend to exist in their own peculiar bubble, far removed from current trends in pop music. Cultural explosions such as punk in the 70s or 90s rap are just two examples of popular genres which have rarely, if ever, made appearances at Eurovision. Sentimental ballads or songs with an international message of peace and tolerance have always tended to fare better with the pan-European audience.

Napoleon did surrender

Swedish pop group, ABBA. The two girls - one dressed in a yellow sweater, the other in a red, hooded top -pose in between their two male bandmates
Eurovision gave Swedish supergroup ABBA their big break in 1974Image: AP

Arguably, Eurovision's definitive moment came in 1974. An unknown Swedish group called ABBA took to the stage decked out in spangly costumes and accompanied by an orchestra leader replete with Napoleonic hat. They blew the crowd away with the jazzy, up-tempo "Waterloo," a track inspired by the craze for glitter rock. It was a barn-storming performance, referenced contemporary pop outside of the sterile Eurovision arena and set a standard which has been emulated many times since.

ABBA's subsequent success in foreign markets opened the door for many continental acts to achieve chart success outside their native countries.

The man behind the song

Does the name Ralph Siegel ring a bell? Probably not, but German songwriter Siegel has been behind no less than 19 Eurovision entries over a 30-year period. His first credit was "Bye Bye I Love You," Luxemburg's entry for 1974 performed by Irene Sheer. However, his biggest success came in 1982 with the song "Ein bißchen Frieden" (A Little Peace) performed by 17-year-old Nicole Seibert of Germany.

Sung at the height of Cold War paranoia, it was a timely ballad which tapped perfectly into the political zeitgeist. It won the contest - Germany's only win to this day - and remains one of the most popular entries in Eurovision history. Siegel's latest Eurovision contribution was in 2009 with "Just Get out of My Life," the entry for Montenegro.

German singer, Nicole, sits on a stool with an acoustic guitar and performs A Little Peace at Eurovision in 1982
Germany's sole win; Nicole performs A Little Peace in 1982Image: picture-alliance/dpa

With one exception, Germany has participated in every contest since 1956. But why only one winning entry from Europe's largest music market? BBC journalist Dave Goodman is a walking encyclopedia on Eurovision and commented that Germany's poor performance in the past may have something to do with the country's language.

"The contest for many years favored songs sung in English and French, both considered more suited to ballads and pop songs," he explained.

Goodman noted that German participants have, with a few exceptions, always sung in their mother tongue, which is not as widely understood across the continent as English and French.

"But Germany has had Top 10 placings 30 times at Eurovision, so the country hasn't been totally ignored. And it's come close to winning four times, so perhaps they've been on song more often than we think," he said.

An expanding Europe

The number of countries participating in the contest has grown each year since its inception; so much so that the competition today includes countries from beyond the traditional borders of Europe, such as Morocco and Israel. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 allowed a swath of countries to participate for the first time; Latvia, Romania and Hungary among others all debuted in 1994.

The newest additions to the Eurovision roster are Azerbaijan and San Merino, both of whom joined in 2008, bringing the total number of countries taking part in the 2010 contest to 34.

The 2009 Israeli contendors, Noa and Mira Awad, dressed in black against a black background, stand cheek to cheek and smile for the camera
Israel have competed in Eurovision since 1973. Last year's entrants were Noa and Mira AwadImage: picture-alliance / dpa

But it hasn't all been wine and roses. Allegations of tactical voting based on countries' political relationships with each other rather than the merits of the songs have dogged the festival for some years. For example, Greece and Cyprus regularly exchange maximum points while many of the former East Bloc countries often award high marks to Russia.

Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, a stalwart of the UK broadcast for more than 35 years, stepped down from the commentary box in 2008, telling BBC News, "It's no longer a music contest. I don't want to be presiding over yet another debacle."

Still relevant?

Over the years, Eurovision has changed from a credible music competition to an international laughing stock where music comes second to ridiculous stage performances and off-key vocals. But where did it all go wrong?

"The demise of any credibility the contest had was when Sandie Shaw sang the cringeworthy 'Puppet on a String,'" said Berlin-based music producer Mark Reeder.

"It was both simple and stupid," he noted. "Incredibly, it romped to the top. The Brits, who were the leaders in credible pop music in the 60s, kept reverting to moronic, lowest common denominator trash such as the awful "Boom Bang a Bang."

"From that moment, the flood gates of mediocracy were really open and the wheels of the Eurovision's demise were certainly set in motion," he commented.

A bright hope

German hopeful Lena Meyer-Landrut, dressed in black, is surrounded by confetti during a TV performance while a green lazer shines behind her
Shooting star: Germany's hope for 2010, Lena Meyer-LandrutImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As Eurovision heads to Oslo for the 2010 contest, all eyes are on German hopfeul, Lena Meyer-Landrut. She triumphed at the "Our Star for Oslo" television competition with the Motown-esque "Satellite." Germany has high hopes, especially in light of the country's recent disappointing track record. In 2009, the duo Alex Swings-Oscar Sings placed 20th of 25 with "Miss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" while the 2008 entry from No Angels, "Disappear," almost disappeared completely, limping into 23rd place.

Meyer-Landrut is keen to avoid the rather embarassing performances usually associated with Eurovision.

"The old tradition will not be in my performance," she assured viewers.

Award-winning German comedian Stefan Raab, the mastermind behind the "Our Star for Oslo" show and who himself appeared at Eurovision in 2000 with the novelty song "Wadde Hadde Dudde Da?" is backing Meyer-Landrut all the way and praised her "elfin quality."

Is Eurovision still flying the flag for the best in European pop or is it a dismal and costly fiasco? Perhaps its appeal lies in the fact that it's a little bit of both: car-crash TV on an epic scale, best watched through your fingers but with enough genuine musical highlights to keep you tuned in to the end. After all, a TV audience of between 100 and 600 million people can't all be wrong, can they?

Author: Gavin Blackburn

Editor: Louisa Schaefer