Building Bridges: 60 Years of the Eurovision Song Contest

It’s been a dreadfully slow news week in Azerbaijan following the celebration of Novruz, but the new year always brings new excitement.

That’s right, folks – it’s Eurovision time!

Last week, Azerbaijan announced that İctimai Television (ITV) selected Elnur Huseynov to represent the country in the second semi-final on May 21st. He will be singing “Hour Of The Wolf,” written by Sandra Bjurman, Nicolas Rebscher, Nicklas Lif and Lina Hansson. Elnur Husyenov is no stranger to Eurovision – he competed with Samir Javadzada in the country’s first entry in 2008, coming in 8th place. (He also won last year’s edition of The Voice Turkey.)

Elnur Huseynov’s promotional picture for Eurovision 2015.

You might be confused by now: How can Azerbaijan compete in a contest called “Eurovision” when the country isn’t really in Europe? And what is Eurovision anyways?

While the name has changed over time (until 1977, the French name was used – Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne, or Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix), the Eurovision Song Contest began when the Switzerland-based European Broadcasting Union began investigating lighthearted ways to bring war-devastated Europe together. In 1956, the first “European Grand Prix” telecasted song contest was held in Lugano, Switzerland between 7 countries: the Netherlands, France, Germany (West Germany, though not named as such in most contests), Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Switzerland. The project itself was ambitious, as a simulcast television show had never been done on such a large scope – and many of Eurovision’s first viewers didn’t even own a television (fortunately, it was also broadcast on the radio).

Today, Eurovision has evolved: any country within the European Broadcasting Area (EBA) may complete, provided that they meet that year’s agreed-upon requirements (such as broadcasting the prior year’s show). The EBA is defined as the following:

“The European Broadcasting Area is bounded on the west by the western boundary of Region 1, on the east by the meridian 40° East of Greenwich and on the south by the parallel 30° North so as to include the northern part of Saudi Arabia and that part of those countries bordering the Mediterranean within these limits. In addition, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and those parts of the territories of Iraq, Jordan, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey and Ukraine lying outside the above limits are included in the European Broadcasting Area.”

The contest is hosted in the country of the prior year’s winners, provided they are able to supply funding for the event. Hosting Eurovision is a considered a great honor (and a prime opportunity to lure tourists, especially considering that nearly 200 million viewers will tune in to the broadcast), so few countries rarely turn the opportunity down. This year’s contest will be hosted in Vienna, Austria. The theme is “Building Bridges,” in light of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and subsequent efforts to “build bridges” in the reunification of Europe.

The Eurovision eligibility map. Countries in green have competed at least once, and countries in orange have never competed but are welcome to do so. Countries in pink are eligible but have withdrawn from the contest.

Following the determination of eligibility, each country is sorted into two live semi-final rounds that occur the week before the contest, and the top 10 songs from each semi-final will proceed to the final on May 23rd. Entrants in the semi-final select both a singer and a song, and submit a music video. Each country may utilize any selection strategy – in many nations, a national phone/text vote is held for a singer and a song, or a talent contest is held. In Azerbaijan, Elnur was chosen internally by the ITV committee, which broadcasts the contest in Azerbaijan, and the song was chosen in a similar fashion.

In both rounds, countries allocate votes (which are often done by the citizens of that nation, or by committee) from 12 to 1 towards the song/country they like. The “Big Five” of France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy are not required to compete in the semi-final as recognition of their (financial) support over the years, but still vote in the semi-finals. The host country, as last year’s winner, is also an automatic qualifier for the final. In recognition of the 60th anniversary of Eurovision, Australia has been invited to compete as a guest country, and will also skip the semi-final.

Of course, the contest is more than a fun song event – it is often used by countries as a platform for promoting a nation’s history and beliefs, which inevitably leads to conflict (as seen last week with the Armenian controversy). Voting “cliques/blocks” are common (such as with Russia and the former Soviet countries), and in 2009 a number of Azerbaijanis were “questioned” by the government and accused of being “unpatriotic” when they voted for Armenia. Numerous countries have withdrawn at some point throughout their Eurovision tenure in protest – Georgia in 2009 over the ongoing conflict with Russia, Armenia in 2012 following Azerbaijan’s victory, Ukraine’s this year in light of financial and political issues, and so on. It’s also interesting to me because the way countries participate in the contest reflect the nature of their politics: in a repressive country like Azerbaijan, citizens had no say in their singer or song selection this year, and voting referendums are held infrequently.

But Elnur Huseynov isn’t focusing on the negative: with his song, which he referred to as a “mystical contemporary ballad,” he says “I believe in my entry song as it has so many powerful messages. It is truly a song with great meaning of which the most important is ‘that every heart deserves a fight’ and we should never give up. We must fight for our happiness and for a better future. I’m going to the Eurovision to share this message with the European audience.”

(Which totally has a darker undertone and subtle jabs at Armenia, but whatever – he didn’t write it.)

And fight he will, but the odds are already looking good: gambling websites project that Azerbaijan will come in at least 4th place.

***

The music video for “Hour of the Wolf” can be found here. I quite like it, but I share the common complaint that it is very “conventional” and “mainstream pop.” Many have panned contest winners for being similar, but without Eurovision we wouldn’t have ABBA and Celine Dion so…yay?

And for a long history of Armenia-Azerbaijani tensions during the Eurovision song contest, grab your popcorn and click here for more information.

Fortunately for us American peasants, the event will be streamed online on Eurovision’s website. Hope to see you there in late May!

***

http://www.azernews.az/culture/79110.html

http://www.eurovision.tv/page/multimedia/photos?gal=127473

http://www.sma.gov.jm/sites/default/files/publication_files/ITU-R_Radio_Regulations_2012_%202015_%20Article_5_Table%20of%20Frequencies.pdf

http://en.apa.az/xeber_azerbaijan_fourth_in_online_voting_on_eu_224847.html

http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/facts-figures

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