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The Eurovision Song Contest, Explained For Americans

It's the best night of the year and you're not invited.

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Good evening, America! If you're planning on spending any time on the internet this weekend, you're going to see a lot of talk about Eurovision.


You probably have lots of questions, like "What exactly is a Eurovision?", "Do I really need to know about this?", and, "Oh god, this isn't to do with Brexit again, is it?"

Well, we're here to give you answers.

Beautiful, ballad-heavy, rainbow-filled answers.

The ~basic~ explanation: Every May a European city plays host to an incredibly divisive, yet glittery, singing competition.

BBC / EBU / BuzzFeed

But to fully ~understand~ what Eurovision is and, more important, what it represents, we're going to have to take you back to 1956.

Keystone / Getty Images

The lady above is Swiss singer Lys Assia, the very first Eurovision winner. 🏆

A little more than a decade after the end of the second world war, Europe was still in a state of recovery and needed a reason to ~bond~.

Back then Eurovision was primarily a radio show, although some cameras were there to tape it for those people who had televisions. Its format was concocted by the European Broadcasting Union in Monaco, and it was inspired by the Italian Sanremo Festival.

The first contest took place in Switzerland, with just seven countries competing.

Philippe Le Tellier / Paris Match / Getty Images / BuzzFeed

Each country entered two acts and the show lasted an hour and 40 minutes.

Interestingly, there were supposed to be 10 European countries taking part but Austria, Denmark, and the UK missed the entry deadline.

Since then the list of participating countries has expanded to include countries such as Italy, Poland, Norway, and...Australia.

Getty Images / BuzzFeed

Basically everyone but America.

"Australia???" Yes, Australia. We Europeans find this weird too.

teacher: okay class, name some european countries! class: france, poland, australia,

Eurovision has always had a massive fanbase in Australia. So, as a goodwill gesture, Australia was invited to take part in the show's 60th anniversary edition. But because the Australians were great and entered into the spirit of things, we let them stick around. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Back in the day, Eurovision basically had no rules. But then everyone took the piss, so now there are loaaaaaads of rules.

Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Getty Images

Songs didn't used to have a time limit, so in 1957 Italy entered a 5 minute, 9 second song. There didn't used to be an age limit, so in 1989 France was represented by an 11-year-old.

The same show gets broadcast in every country, but we all have our own commentators. In Britain the job was Terry Wogan's, but in the last few years it's been hosted by the incredibly sassy Graham Norton.

Nigel Treblin / Getty Images / BuzzFeed

The common denominator with all British hosts is that they get drunker, and less politically correct, as the night goes on.

These days Eurovision is basically split into two halves: a singing competition in the style of The Voice, followed by an incredibly tense, politically volatile voting system.

Ragnar Singsaas / Getty Images / BuzzFeed

And it is compulsory to watch the whole thing.

Getty Images / BuzzFeed

Before the competition even begins, 43 European (and, tbh, non-European) countries select an act to represent them.


You'll have heard of the likes of Abba, Celine Dion, Loreen, and maybe even t.A.T.u.

Unsurprisingly, some countries take the process of selecting their representatives more seriously than others.

Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP / Getty Images

Sweden take it incredibly seriously, for example, while one time Ireland entered a singing turkey whose name was Dustin.

Some countries run televised selection processes whereby the public decide who will represent them, whereas others just send whoever came fifth in their version of The Voice last year.


Some countries spend a lot of money to send their representatives around all the European countries who'll vote in the contest so that they can build up a fanbase before the show begins. Others (read: the UK) literally don't give a shit.

Because a contest featuring 40 acts would take forever, there are two semi-finals in the week of the contest. A maximum of 26 finalists make it to the real thing.

Maja Suslin / AFP / Getty Images

The finalists are chosen by a 50:50 combination of public voting and jury selection. No one knows who makes up this jury but presumably they're ~musical experts~ in some capacity.

But the previous year's winning country, as well as France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK, are always guaranteed a place in the final.

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The so-called Big Five donate so much money to the competition that it would be rude not to let them compete in the final.

On the night of the final, every country performs one song and the host country's tourist board plays a lot of promotional material for that country.



Most of the songs are ballads.

But sometimes a country will absolutely fail to give a flying fuck and will enter someone like this:

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Lordi were Finland's entry in 2006 and THEY ACTUALLY WON.

Or this.


These sexy milkmaids were Poland's 2014 entry.

And who could forget these Russian grandmothers who literally baked a loaf of bread on stage in 2012?

Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP / Getty Images

They didn't win, despite promising to donate any profits they made to the reconstruction of their local church's roof.

The key thing to note is that no one claims to take Eurovision seriously (except Sweden) until it looks like they're going to win. And then they all take it very seriously indeed.

It is also interesting to note that basically all Eurovision entries have been written by one guy called G:Son. He's written a massive 75 entries, including 2012 winner (and the best song of all time including all songs, not just Eurovision entries) "Euphoria" by Loreen.

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OK, so despite what the name says, the Eurovision Song Contest is not actually a singing contest.

Stick with us, we promise this will make sense eventually.

It's an opportunity to vote for the countries who border you, regardless of how much you enjoyed their songs.

Getty Images / BuzzFeed

The maximum number of points a country can give is 12 (“douze points”). So, for example, Ireland and the UK give each other douze points, as do Greece and Cyprus, and the Netherlands and Belgium.

As in the semi-finals, the result is determined half by the voting public, and half by the jury.


Every country (regardless of whether they qualified for the final) gets to vote. And every country chooses a representative to announce its vote.

This bit often turns into a contest to choose the weirdest vote announcer.

The whole point-giving process used to take quite a long time, but they've changed the system, making it longer, meaning all chances of getting to bed early are out the window.

Sean Gallup / Vyacheslav Oseledko / Frazer Harrison / Getty Images / BuzzFeed

Nowadays the results of the public vote are revealed first (and only recipients of 8 points, 10 points, and 12 points are read out), and the jury votes are added on at the end.

Everyone has a lot of feelings about this change, even though it's not that new any more.

(and remember, if you're confused by the voting in eurovision, ain't we all, babes. It's all part of the magic.)

Ireland has won Eurovision seven times, making it the most successful country. And Norway has scored the dreaded "nul points" four times, making it the biggest loser.

Mccullou / PA Images / BuzzFeed

And while some acts become legit famous, most simply remain in our hearts as Eurovision legends.

Aaaand the winner of the contest gets their country to host it next year...unless it can't afford to.

Michael Campanella / Getty Images / BuzzFeed

This is why Britain has hosted eight contests, despite only winning five times.

So rest assured this will all happen again next year, and you still won't be invited.



Lordi won Eurovision for Finland in 2006. An earlier version of this article got the year wrong.

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