Experts

Current topics explained by RUG experts

Songfestival

Every year, many people get confused by the Eurovision Song Contest. What is this bombastic event, they wonder. Do the countries only vote for each other politically? And what on earth is going on with the music?
by Jurgen Tiekstra

Kristin McGee

University lecturer jazz and popular music

‘I watch Eurovision every year. I think it’s an important contest, because it shows a side of Europe that probably isn’t as well-known outside of the continent. They’re even challenging the concept of ‘Europe’ through the competitors: Israel is one of them, and they’re considering letting China join.

The contest shows that Europe is in transition. In the fifties, Eurovision was all about post-war unification. It was meant to bring people together after the crisis of the Second World War. The contest slowly changed over time: it became more professional, and showed more of Europe’s regional dimensions, with the Eastern Bloc and Scandinavian countries each voting together. After that, the contest faded into something that had more to do with the mainstream, transnational music industry. The genres started mimicking mainstream pop writing and production.

The question is always: what’s the right formula for the Song Contest? The song has to be uplifting, it should have background vocals, it needs to have modulation, and it needs a really strong chorus. I think the theatricality of the song format owes a lot to the musical genre of the uplifting utopian song. They’re not as influenced by R&B as regular pop songs.

There’s something unique how pop music is transformed in the particular Eurovision music genre. This genre has its own ideology: a utopian concept of Europe that’s left the war behind. Musically, this comes through in the use of full voices, especially in the chorus, where the music tends to go up a whole octave. And if the last note is held for thirty seconds, it’s even better.’

Laura Spierdijk

Econometrician studied voting behaviour

‘I must confess that I have loved the Song Contest since I was a child. My research kind of started as a joke, together with a colleague who was a fellow fan. It turned out that there was already a lot of research on the contest that we could use. Back when we did our research – we published in 2009 – the system was quite different: there were no semi-finals and only the audience was allowed to vote. There was no expert jury determining half of the scores.

During that time, there was an ongoing discussion about whether the Eastern Bloc countries were only voting for each other and whether that was dishonest. But the theory of Cultural Economics says that people like what is familiar to them. Someone voting for their neighbouring country isn’t necessarily favouritism; it’s because they speak the same language, because they watch television and listen to radio from that country, and because they’re familiar with their music.

Our research indeed showed there was barely any favouritism, apart from between Cyprus and Greece and the former Yugoslavian countries. Voting was mainly influenced by commonalities in language, culture, and religion.

The expert jury was introduced a few years ago. That was probably because of the Diaspora effect in televoting. Turkish and Armenian communities in for instance the Netherlands and France all tend to vote for their home countries, which gives them a lot of influence, just like ethnic Russians in Estonia. Our research showed that expert juries aren’t as susceptible to ethnic influences. Turkey dropped out because they thought the expert jury being introduced was unfair. Just like Armenia, Turkey started receiving fewer votes.’

Albert Meijer

Wrote his thesis on nation branding

‘Traditional, folkloric outfits on stage aren’t necessary if you want to project a certain image of your country during the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s true that we’ve seen a shift towards more English language music, with many of the song and lyric writers coming from Sweden.

Musically speaking, there isn’t much variation. But if you go deeper, there are some interesting things. For my master thesis, I studied the 2012 contest and I noticed how big a role ethnicity plays. Romania and the Ukraine were both represented by black performers, when neither of those countries is particularly diverse.

My research basically concluded that the Song Contest mainly focuses on the Western values of diversity. So countries that aren’t as diverse push that agenda as well. In addition to ethnic diversity, the contest also promotes sexual and gender diversity; Conchita Wurst, who performed in 2014, wasn’t the contest’s first drag queen. Slovenia, Denmark, and the Ukraine previously sent drag acts.

But when a country like Austria wins with a performer like Conchita Wurst, it does mean that the LGBT community has a strong position in that country. Otherwise it’s just a sales trick. After Austria, where gay marriage isn’t legal yet, won, the LGBT community started criticising their position: “Our values are being peddled to other countries, but they’re not even properly defended in Austria itself.” That’s the risk you run as a country.’

Nederlands