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An event happened recently in the UK that attracted a record TV audience. Full of camp rituals, people in odd costumes and an array of musical genres, the spectacle spellbound an attentive crowd on sofas across the country, with one lucky performer crowned at the end.
I’m not talking about the coronation; I’m referring to an odd four-hour annual event called the Eurovision Song Contest.
On Saturday, the final for the 67th incarnation of the event (it began three years into Queen Elizabeth II’s reign) brought a peak of 11 million viewers to the BBC’s coverage. The actual coronation, a week earlier, totted up a little less than twice that figure, but it was difficult to miss even if you wanted to, being shown on multiple channels.
Eleven million viewers in a nation of 67 million represents a sixth of the country’s population. A comparable audience in the US would come to 55 million. That might be less than the Super Bowl, but it’s more than the NFC Championship or the AFC Playoff between Kansas City and Buffalo.
An LBGTQ+ Super Bowl Half-Time Show
The Eurovision Song Contest is really a kind of LBGTQ+ Super Bowl Half-Time Show expanded to epic movie length — a Gay Olympics in musical form.
Camp is sometimes said to be in the eye of the beholder, but Eurovision could be a visual (and musical) definition of the word. As James K. Puchowski puts it on wiwibloggs, “You don’t have to be gay, effeminate or young to appreciate it. After all, who doesn’t mind a man in drag, howling quasi-musically for three minutes whilst being showered in gold and silver confetti?”
On Eurovisionworld.com, US fan Christopher Carlson has written, “As a gay man I am glad to see how inclusive the contest is… That being said it is almost becoming more of a Pride celebration than anything else. Long gone are the days of classy ladies and dapper gents. The jewels and furs have been replaced with face paint and sequins.”
I remember watching it as a kid when it was a little less camp, if only because the budgets were so much smaller. (I was almost inconsolable when Cliff Richard came in second with “Congratulations” in 1968, feeling a great injustice had been done, as if Bournemouth had been bombed, Mars bars had been banned, or James Bond had suddenly been run over by a laundry truck.)
It tends to seize the nation, when the country salutes our gay citizens like Americans sometimes do with the military. I don’t mean that to sound quite as patronizing as it maybe does; just that I’m not sure I could imagine a similar phenomenon in the US. I think this interest is replicated across the continent — and beyond, as Israel and Australia, both decidedly outside Europe, have been accepted into the contest. This year’s final featured songs from 26 countries, and worldwide viewing figures were expected to have topped 160 million.
Listening to the contest on the radio (as my family initially did this year, driving back from the country in a car) is a muted experience, as the event is really a visual extravaganza, with smoke machines, lasers, strobe lights, pyrotechnics, a huge video screen, and a wristbanded audience that lent a venue-wide color coordination to each act.
When we got home in time to watch it on TV, the dancing was impressive to someone like me who’s never seen a Taylor Swift concert (have you?), but what struck me most about the staging was the set-up time between each act was just a few minutes, and every song appeared conceived on a different planet. The musical genres ranged from pop, heavy metal, and rap to folk, techno, and chanson urban — plus everything in between.
This year’s most bonkers act was Croatia’s Let 3, featuring five mustachioed men resembling cartoon Stalins singing an anti-war song called “Mama ŠČ!” in skirts and ending up in their underpants.
Contestants are voted on by a 50-50 split between a jury of music industry professionals and TV viewers. No one is allowed to vote for their own country.
Last year’s competition was overtaken, without rancor, by political events when the prize went to Ukraine, with a catchy but by no means outstanding folk number called “Stefania,” performed by the Kalush Orchestra. The UK, nipped at the post, offered a more polished and impressive song called “Spaceman” written and performed by a winsome, flaxen-haired man called Sam Ryder (or at least that’s how we all felt in the UK). He’s since gone on to great success, as have many ESC alumni, including Abba who won in 1973 with a song you may have heard of called “Waterloo.”
The custom is that the winning country hosts the next contest, but as Ukraine isn’t in a position to do so, what with their war and all, the UK (having come in second) offered to step into the breach, and Liverpool (yes, famous for having spawned the Beatles) was chosen as the lucky city.
Unlike the Olympics, which tend to bankrupt its host city and induce a lingering hangover for some years afterwards, Eurovision is a one-week extravaganza that consumes the presenting metropolis, and Liverpool was widely judged to have risen to the occasion.
This year was won by Sweden, with a hectoring number called “Tattoo” performed by Loreen, who wore a (this is difficult to describe) gray, see-through bodysuit that had missing shoulders as well as gaps in the stomach and upper thigh area, a costume that would have looked at home in Mad Max: Fury Road. With her witchy, jet-black hair and 3-inch long strap-on black nails, she began singing while lying sandwiched in a box, which she proceeded to push apart as she belted out the ballad at a decibel level that could be described as Loud Railroad Announcement.
(The UK’s contribution, an underwhelming ditty called “I Wrote A Song,” actually co-written by its performer Mae Muller, had an inverse success from last year, coming in second to last.)
Personally I was nonplussed by the songs this year and went to bed with last year’s top two winners (Ukraine and the UK) still playing in my head. But by the next morning I found myself humming this year’s Swedish winner “Tattoo,” as if the song had been engraved in my brain.
That’s what Eurovision does to you; it seems preposterous and kitsch while you’re watching, but eventually you find yourself surrendered to it.
In other words, it’s always got your tune.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.