Every year, the Eurovision Song Contest brings the continent to its knees, begging for mercy. Moreover, rather like UEFA Champions League soccer, this is a European competition that generates a global following among TV audiences and the Twitterati. Why is something that attracts so much sarcasm and snobbery still so popular, and how can it be improved?
I gave away part of the answer to this in the previous paragraph. We may snigger, but in an era of fragmenting media audiences, Eurovision remains one of the “must see” TV events for entire populations. The research shows that one of the main reasons why people engage with any entertainment is because it provides a shared basis for social interaction: if you don’t watch it then what will you discuss with colleagues at the water cooler on Monday?
Sociologists and philosophers go a step further and argue that some things are only enjoyable to the extent that they provide a basis for social interaction: the more people who watch Eurovision, so the more opportunity there is for social interaction, and so the more popular still it becomes.
But this shared element of Eurovision Song Contest is precisely what also causes its main problem, namely the songs. Since the winner is selected by popular vote on the night, there is no point entering a slow burner that grows on audiences over time. And the qualities of music that give it instant appeal also make that music more likely to be annoying.
We typically like music that is moderately complex - not too simple or repetitive, not too weird or bizarre. However, audiences tend to be far more severe on music that is too risk-taking than they are on music that is too simple. It is not a coincidence that there were riots when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debuted but that overly-repetitive dance music is simply dismissed with a quick flick of the “Skip Track” button.
In other words, Eurovision composers have every incentive to err on the side of the predictable, simple, and downright tedious.
The problem is exacerbated by the numerous languages represented within the competing countries: “Boom-bang-a-bang” lyrics that sidestep linguistic complexities only make the songs appear even simpler and more repetitive.
The situation deteriorates even further when faced with evidence from over 28,000 people showing that countries that are otherwise quite culturally-similar have radically different musical cultures: for example, Australians like dance music more than Americans but less than the British; and Scandinavians like rock more than anyone else in Europe, North America, or Australia. If countries and continents disagree on how much they like entire musical styles then it would be a brave Eurovision composer who stepped outside the mainstream.
Eurovision is the perfect storm of incentives for composers to dumb down. In more recent years, the composers themselves have clearly recognised this, but have only made it worse by circumventing the musical limitations they operate under by entering the dreaded novelty stage acts, such as Lordi. The subversion has worn more than a little thin.
So, in the internationalist spirit on which Eurovision was founded, here are some suggestions from a resident of Western Australia on how we could improve it.
First, scrap the phone vote on Saturday. If our decision-making process took place over a longer time frame, composers would have more incentive to produce something that withstands the test of time. Under this artistically-pure regime, this Saturday would remain the showcase for all the songs, but there would then be a results show next Saturday night when we actually vote, following a week of sombre navel-gazing in which we all diligently reflect and re-listen to the songs via Spotify. And the broadcasters would get an extra hour of telly out of it.
Second, if everyone around the world is watching why can’t we all vote too? We could have a “rest of the world” entry which, if it won, would instead send the contest outside Europe the following year: the cost of that alone would be enough to make the European broadcasters enter some decent songs of their own.
Third, if we follow this democratic approach through to its logical conclusion couldn’t there also be a “Please god, no more” voting option, which would simply cause the 2015 competition to be abandoned as an act of mercy?