A crowd-pleaser? Or unconventional? The Eurovision Song Contest always struggles with this contradiction, and sometimes succeeds - as it did this year - in fulfilling both, writes DW music editor Rick Fulker from Vienna.
It's 1956. The tired, war-ravaged continent is slowly rebuilding, but the cultural scars are still visible. Finding community amongst the recently warring countries is a strenuous, cumbersome task. But the European Broadcasting Union takes up the challenge and invents a singing competition in which former enemy countries compete with one another.
But what, exactly, would appeal to young and old, people of different languages and religion, people from different walks of life, and create a sense of community? A precise answer remains elusive 60 years into the world's biggest entertainment show. Every time organizers believe they've developed the formula for success at the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), until the rules go out the window when the next competition rolls around a year later.
Art or democracy?
How can something truly special be found through the democratic process? Isn't that a contradiction in itself? The ESC has a long history, with many a strange occurrence - more of a parallel universe than a reflection of the actual state of pop music.
Meanwhile, entire branches of industry have been mobilized to manufacture success at the ESC, it being really more of a composition contest than a singing one. From concept to performance, the calculations made at the drawing board can't be overlooked.
And so it was with this year's contribution from Russia, which was perceived as too calculated with its message of peace. These calculations often fall apart, with the ESC surprising us again and again.
A freak show? Last year, bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst was the winner of the night, and could almost thank Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for her success. The hostility emanating from those two countries against the transvestite star and, indirectly, against "gay" Western Europe certainly mobilized a backlash when ESC viewers sent in their votes last year. Conchita gave the event a message of tolerance and individual self-determination and, at the same time, a new political dimension.
Suddenly, there was a queen of Austria - of perhaps Europe, as well - and it was a man. But one who could sing. Conchita elevated the freak show and brought it into the mainstream.
This year's result: Many "escalating power ballads" (a new term for me), but only a little trash of the intentionally bad variety. There was also no clear favorite. The music came from different directions, and there was a lot of quality to it, even strong choruses and danceable rhythms and songs with a message against war or genocide (Hungary, France, Armenia) or songs that deal with the human abyss (Norway).
Beyond that, there was sophisticated, harmless fun (UK), hardcore party sounds (Israel) and a no-frills ballad with a simple but profound human message (Cyprus). The fact that Germany, with its strong song and a professional singer, received zero points, is unfortunate. However, it primarily reflects the fact that this year was a very strong one.
Art and democracy!
But now, a confession: As a classical concert and opera goer, as a Wagnerian and longtime visitor to the Bayreuth Festival, this music editor didn't think that he would ever travel to a Eurovision Song Contest. But in the weeks and days leading up to the main event, I noticed that the ESC was the number one topic of discussion, that Eurovision parties were being planned, that my colleagues - especially those from the Balkans and Eastern Europe - take the fun seriously. Very seriously, even. And when a music event moves not only one's professional colleagues, but also 200 million television viewers, then it's certainly something worth looking into at some point.
In previous years, the European idea - manifested in the ESC - has been broadcast to parts of Asia. In its 60th anniversary year, Australia took part in the competition and the show was broadcast live in China for the first time. My US homeland is not likely to ever take part, however, insisting as it does on its special cultural status. But ESC parties are even organized in the US, especially among the LGBTI community.
What remains? It was a very strong year. Sweden won for the sixth time with "Heroes," a song with momentum and, simultaneously, a heroic message that isn't applied too thickly.
And as for the question "Do art and democracy go together?" I've come to terms with it. They do. After all, Richard Wagner also wanted to please his audience in the end.
What did you think of this year's Eurovision Song Contest? Did Sweden have the best song of the night? Let us know in the comments section below.