A Song of Peace — Introduction

Anyone can have an opinion on the Eurovision Song Contest. Countless blogs and websites have been devoted to the ESC, and no doubt some other person halfway across the world is now writing a long and impassioned rant on Sweden’s latest pick. More than 180 million people around the world tune in to watch Eurovision every year, and each year every contestant’s latest attempt at kitsch is given the twice over, laughed about in forums, “yaass queened” about on blogs. It has been explored from every possible angle, from fashion to gender politics to its place in the great European project.

But what about the songs themselves? Surely they deserve to be talked about as well? Of course they are, and every spring ESC fans descend on the latest crop of Europop to make their way to Rotterdam or Tel Aviv, shouting loudly about their faves and denigrating their pet hates even louder. But aside from the ones that everyone agrees are ground-breaking — think “Euphoria” or Måneskin — these songs generate very little buzz after the Contest’s over. Even a win does not guarantee you everlasting fame; in fact, you’d be lucky if people can still remember your song a decade down the line. (To every protesting ESC fan right now: can you sing me the second verse of “Heroes”?) This, I feel, is not ideal for something that prides itself on being a “song contest”. These songs, for better or for worse, are part of the Contest’s long and illustrious history, and they deserve to be remembered and talked about, especially in an age when the narrative of Eurovision being “nothing but a kitschfest” is more prevalent than ever.

Given all that, then, I decided to commemorate those winners in my own special way: (yet) a(nother) blog series. I’ve long been fascinated by the ESC — as I wrote in quite graphic detail last year, watching Lena Meyer-Landrut jiggle her way across the stage was quite the formative experience for me — and even if my amusement at its utter weirdness grows with every passing year, I still think that it’s something lovable at its heart, capable of producing wondrous tunes and experiences to last a lifetime. And in recent years I’ve become fascinated by how pop music has become intertwined with the concept of “popularity”: why this song? How do the arbitrary whims of the human mind push a song to its commercial pinnacle? With Eurovision, I think that question gets an interesting twist: what makes one particular song “the best of its year”? What pushed the juries (and later the public) to favour it over the others? Was it the zeitgeist, or the catchy melodies? The 69 songs I have as of the time of writing will, I’m sure, provide a colourful spectrum of answers.

What I would like to do, then, is not to rank these winning entries — readers looking for that kind of thing can go out and buy Christer Bjorkman’s new book instead. Nor do I seek to see how these winning songs rank in their respective Contests — again, infinite YouTubers and writers have already done that for me, and I do not possess the vocabulary to write a dozen variations of “this is a boring song” for each year. (And from what I’ve heard so far, that number is an undervaluation.) Instead, there are two basic questions that I would like to ask:

1. Are these songs any good?

By this I do not mean whether Eurovision is capable of giving us good music at all — you only need to look at ABBA and Katrina to figure out that the answer is a yes. Nor is this a defence of the supposed populist virtues of Eurovision: this is a more contentious issue, and it is one I do not feel qualified to solve. What I am simply enquiring about is how these songs hold up to my 2020s ears. Are they a bop or a chore? What emotions do they evoke in me? Do they perhaps inspire me to live my life more vicariously? All questions that I feel doesn’t get tackled enough when evaluating songs (especially ESC songs), and it’s one I’d like to fill the gap for. But it’s not just MY perceptions that I’d like to spotlight — which leads me to my second question:

2. How does the winning song contribute to the Eurovision mythos?

We have a set idea of what Eurovision is supposed to sound like: flamboyant, perhaps, or passionate, melodic, a thousand other adjectives. How have these winners shaped our ideas of Eurovision, for better or for worse? Does the winning song for a certain year start a trend, or does it in fact buck another? After all, it’s sometimes the runners-up (or even the mid-table placers) that set the trend, and the winner can be a complete outlier that nobody remembers in the upcoming years. My working hypothesis is that we will find as many songs that buck that trend as there are that conform to it — either way, it’ll be interesting to see how much our perceptions of Eurovision have or have not been altered over the years.

There you go: two very simple points of discussion — though of course, given my ADHD tendencies, it’ll probably spiral into far more than that. For those of you who find reading blogposts too much effort, though, you can simply scroll down to the bottom of the page and read the rating out of 10 I’ve given to each winning entry, as well as my pick for the actual winner of that year. As all fans know, part of the fun of discussing Eurovision is arguing about which song actually should have won — you have your Nana Mouskouris, I have my Françoise Hardys — and I hope I can add to that discourse too, in my own way.

A few things before we start. As I mentioned at the very start, almost everyone seems to have an opinion on Eurovision these days. No doubt that some of my picks and ratings will be different to yours, and no doubt you will have strong opinions upon seeing such a difference in action. As is consistent throughout my blogs, you are welcome to disagree with whatever results I come up with, but do please be respectful — it would be weird to start a flamewar over such a peace-loving contest. There’s a strong chance that my winner for a particular year will simply come from how I’m feeling on the day I listen to all of it. In the same vein, my own ratings are merely for reference and might shift wildly over time: a 9 in 1962 might translate to a 2 in 2002, and vice versa. No consistency is intended — just read them for your entertainment. (That said, I am a very nice person, so you are far more likely to see 9s and 10s than you are to see 1s and 2s — when the latter does appear, it means I was utterly appalled by the song.)

For research I’m mainly depending on Chris West’s updated Eurovision!, published 2019: it’s an interesting look at historical context and the politics of the era, though his own thoughts on the songs are rather sketchy and I do hope that I will go beyond that to discover some facts on my own. As mentioned above, I will also be watching all the Contests for context, and my ratings will be mostly on the performances rather than the studio versions — as we’ll see throughout this series, the two can be HUGELY different.

I will publish these whenever I have the time — I’m aiming at a baseline of one a month, though I’d like it to be higher — and the hope is that somehow, sometime, I will work my way up to the present day. It’s going to be a long and messy process, and I have no idea whether I’ll lose interest somewhere around ’65 — I hope not, because this is a passion project for me and I’m very eager to see it through. (I am quite aware of the potential damage 1700-odd Europop songs will have on my taste and sanity, so I have promised myself to listen to a non-Eurovision related artist every 40 songs or so as an attempt at counterbalance. The Drifters’ Golden Hits sounded AMAZING after all those sleepy ballads, let me tell you.)

With all that said, it only remains for me to thank you for your patience and to bid you all happy reading. Look out for the first instalment, that’ll come next week: see you all then!

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