When Estonia won last year's Eurovision Song Contest, its citizens poured onto the streets to celebrate. It was as if they had won the World Cup or even a war. Said then Prime Minister Mart Laar: "We are no longer knocking at Europe's door. We are walking through it, singing."
This Saturday, it's curtains up again for the show that gets usually sane leaders to make such bizarre boasts. Two dozen countries will vie for victory at the 47th Eurovision Song Contest, held this year in Tallinn. The contest is to music what figure skating is to the Olympics unabashedly camp, enduringly popular and dubiously judged. And whatever its most ardent fans may say, this really isn't about the songs.
The European Broadcasting Union, Eurovision's founder, says the mission is to "contribute to the creation of high- level" pop songs with a TV special. This ambiguous statement raises a question: High-level what? High kitsch? High humiliation for anyone who gets the dreaded nul points? If the songs are the point, the record is not good. Only two victors have become superstars: ABBA, who took it all with Waterloo in 1974, and Céline Dion, who won for the Swiss (you don't have to be a citizen of a country to sing for it) in 1988 with Ne partez pas sans moi.
Austria's Manuel Ortega, who will sing Say a Word in Tallinn, says the contest "is a huge opportunity to present my song in front of millions of people." That may be the only time most of them will hear it, since few Eurovision songs top charts outside their home markets. In the past, that was partly because of a now-abolished rule requiring performers to sing in the language of the country they were representing. (Which also meant the songlist ended up full of titles nonsensical enough to leap over language barriers, like 1968's La La La.) But it's also because many of the songs just aren't that good.
For Eurovision groupies, the music really does matter. "When the average TV viewer thinks of the contest, he thinks of [BBC commentator] Terry Wogan, velcro skirts and people on stage playing Bulgarian nose flutes," laments Chris Melville, webmaster of eurosong.net, a Eurovision fan site. "Very few people see the contest as it should be: a competition among songs in which people vote for their favorite song, irrespective of which country it's representing."
Wishful thinking. Anyway, it's more fun to vote for friends and against enemies. You only have to look at the voting patterns to see that this is precisely what happens. Eurovision is as much about flag-waving national pride as it is about pop songs. Each participating country has points to divvy up in the finals, and, once upon a time, each had a jury assigned to this task. (A country's top choice gets 12 points, the second gets 10, the third eight, the fourth seven, and so on down to No. 10, which gets one. The song that racks up the most points wins.) But when, say, Greece got lots of points from Cyprus and vice versa, and when Turkey got few from either, it was pretty clear that juries cared about criteria other than song quality.