A Crash Course in Eurovision, the Olympics of Pop Music

Fans pose in front of the Kiev Eurovision sign in 2017. (Michael Campanella/Getty Images)

Ask an American what comes to mind when they hear the word "Eurovision," and the answer will most likely be "Um, nothing?" or a recreation of Mariah Carey's infamous "I don't know her" gif.

If you're one of these people, Eurovision is an annual international music competition, essentially the Olympics of pop music.

How it works:

  • Each participating country holds a contest to see who they will volunteer as tribute for Eurovision.
  • Songs must be 3 minutes or less.
  • No lip-syncing allowed (sorry, Justin Bieber!).
  • The public can't vote for their own country's song to keep things fair. 

Viewership of Logo's airing of the 2018 show was so low—only 0.02% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 watched—that the channel is not even bothering airing it this year. Meanwhile, outside of the U.S., between 100 and 600 million people obsessively tune in.

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Which begs the question: why hasn't Eurovision fever caught on stateside? One reason might be that we Americans are too egotistical to care about something that doesn’t involve us (*shamefully raises hand*). Another reason might be that we are less versed in enjoying campy fun than our European friends (this year's Met Gala revealed that some of us don't even know what camp is). Or maybe American indifference is a product of Eurovision's reputation of being a D-List talent show.

What if I told you that Celine Dion got her big break on Eurovision in 1988?

And that ABBA won the contest in 1974 with "Waterloo"?

Olivia Newton-John performed that same year.

Our favorite pretend-lesbian Russian duo, t,.A.T.u., competed in 2003.

Even Riverdance (the twerk of the '90s!) jigged it up on the Eurovision stage between songs in 1994.

And, sure, these monsters from Finland aren't as famous as Celine and ABBA after winning in 2006, but they absolutely should be.

Same goes for this Austrian bearded drag queen who won in 2014.

So this idea that Eurovision doesn't showcase actual talent is a myth.

Still not sold on Eurovision? Maybe a little history lesson will get you in the mood to care:

Picture it. It's the 1950s. Europe is war-torn as hell and most people are feeling like Mary J. Blige when she yells, "NO! MORE! DRAMA! I'M TIRED OF ALL THE DRAMA!" in her 2002 fed-up anthem.

A group called the European Broadcasting Union decides a good antidote to all the drama is to unite the continent by hosting a friendly music contest. Bops, not bombs!

Seven countries liked this "Keep Calm and Bop Along" idea and participated in the first Eurovision in 1956. Since then, Eurovision has become one of the world’s longest-running TV programs ever and one of the most watched non-sporting events of all time!

This year, 41 countries are participating. Not all entries are worth commenting on, but there are a few that deserve your attention.

Like Iceland's pick, Hatari, a band that specialized in BDSM bondage techno screamo performance art music with an anti-capitalist message (got all that?). Here’s what the combination of all those influences sounds like this:

Blood! Bondage! Screaming! What's not to love? A writer for The Independent likened their sound to a cross between Teaches of Peaches and the soundtrack for the Mortal Kombat movie. The references check out and we stan.

Israel, the host country this year, wanted to ban Hatari from the contest because of the possibility that they might be punk enough to mention the plight of Palestinians in front of millions of viewers. That ban was shot down by Eurovision officials, so we'll get the chance to watch Hatari let their freak flags fly and speak their truth.

This isn’s the first time there’s been drama around Iceland’s Eurovision pick. In 2006, an artist called Silvia Night performed as Iceland's representative but failed to take home the trophy. She didn’t handle that well:

Some think she's a self-absorbed lunatic. Others think her meltdown was performance art. You decide.

Next up: does the name Darude ring a bell? Well, it should. He's the Finnish DJ behind "Sandstorm" (or as some call it "that doot doot doot doot song from the '90s"). He's back in action this year with a track called "Look Away":

Yeah, I know. That song isn't very good. I'll make it up to you with "Replay", a certified bop from Tamta of Cyprus:

I don't go to the gym, but you better believe I'm making a gym playlist just to put this song on it. And can we take a beat to honor those outfits and visuals? Crown her already!

Okay, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here. There are other great songs in this year's batch. Like "Soldi" from Italian hottie Mahmood:

I don't know about you, but I'm completely sold on "Soldi." Both of my buttocks moved: the mark of a banger.

Speaking of moving your body, Switzerland's Luca Hänni is offering up "She Got Me," an ode to dirty dancing:

Hats off to him for embodying an entire boy band in singular form.

If Wicked's "Defying Gravity" was injected with a dose of opera, it might sound like "Zero Gravity" from Queen Elsa Australia's Kate Miller-Heidke:

Australia’s stylistic choice is equally as random as their country even being included in this European contest, to begin with, but we love a musician who does the absolute most.

Not all Eurovision songs are created equal though. Let's briefly touch on some of this year's worst songs. Like "Keep On Going" from Georgia's Oto Nemsadze, which sounds like a very angry collection of monks impersonating Russell Crowe's struggle singing from 2012's Les Miserables.

Or this cheerful abomination from Montenegro that even S Club 7 would have rejected:

Or this so-bad-it-might-actually-be-good song from San Marino's Serhat.

I could go on, but I'll leave you to explore the other 32 songs on your own. Now that you've been schooled and converted into someone who cares about Eurovision, go weird out your friends with Icelandic BDSM rockers or the memory of Darude.

Eurovision kicks off on May 14 and ends on May 18, 2019.

This post was inspired by a segment of The Cooler, KQED's weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!

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