Imagine that every year for Christmas the entire continent of Europe (somehow including Turkey, Israel, and a few other outliers) gets together and gives you presents — a pile of boxes wrapped in bright colors, filled with objects of delight and confusion. Your smelly uncle from Moldova proudly gets you a t-shirt for the “New York Yonkees,” your cousin from Iceland gets you a sweater that is a little too big and itchy, and your step-uncle from Montenegro gets you something thoughtful and lovely that you never knew you needed. This is Eurovision, and it is wonderful, and you can shut up if you disagree.
Every year since 1956 countries in Europe (defined by elaborate bureaucracies and membership fees) have nominated a pop song to compete for dominance, voted on by viewers at home and a cabal of judges in each country. The world has Eurovision to thank for ABBA and to loath for Celine Dion. The winner hosts the following year, and it’s the Olympics and the World Cup and American Idol all wrapped up in one, times a million. This is not a sprawling overview of the contest — see The Believer’s “Bulgarian Idol” for that — this is a story of how the lasers and key changes of the show blasted away the icy veneer of irony that had hardened over my heart. And it will blast away your resistance to love, you monster.
Growing up in the 90s, I was steeped in the cross-culture mix of Los Angeles as the concept of Irony took hold, where Beck could poplock with cholos, play the banjo, and eat Filipino food all with aloofness. Coming from a background that required shopping at Goodwill out of necessity (and having a love of comedy), it was thrilling to find a cartoon t-shirt with the phrase “I survived the tornado of ‘85" and to have it be considered en vogue. Or, at least, to live in a haze of self-congratulatory self-generated coolness. However, like many of my generation, that enjoyment of the absurd metastasized into a lens for viewing the whole world with an amusement bordering on smugness and detachment from loving anything with the vulnerability that comes from appreciation.
In short, I was a bit of an asshole.
A few years ago my wife and I went to Europe for a belated honeymoon. When we stopped in Amsterdam, my wife nursed a stomachache that is to be expected after international travel and exuberant ingestion of fries and cakes. After running by a local restaurant for some takeout (and stopping by a local corner store for dessert), we settled into bed and turned on the TV. Rare is the joy that can surpass watching television in a distant country in a language you can’t understand. Eureka, Eurovision.
A woman clad in a leather skirt sang while shirtless men in gladiator helmets gyrated around metal sculptures; a drum set appeared and she soloed. A man in a superhero cape sang a song called “SuperGypsy,” and a group from Portugal played a charming ballad with tiny guitars.
We were in love.
Beyond giggling at some of the more outlandish acts, I felt something deeper. It wasn't a sense of laughing at the insanity; it was almost a respect for the pure joy and effort on display. I shook it off as a terrible heavy metal act played and promptly forgot that feeling.
“Wasn’t that awful and wonderful?”
Every year since I've tried to convert people to the Eurovision bandwagon, watching friends grow scared as I rattle off the various voting bloc patterns. When I attended a professional conference in Copenhagen, the hosts were dismissive of the contest as “something my grandparents and kids like” but were quick to offer up a comprehensive assessment of the entry for Denmark that year. My coworkers from European countries were mildly embarrassed by the contest and puzzled by my obsession, which I wrote off as the byproduct of terrible entries (I’m looking at you, Italy).
In late 2012 tickets went on sale for the 2013 Eurovision, to be held in Malmö. As I waited on hold to Sweden to buy four tickets at a price to not be named, I bargained with myself that it was just an excuse for a trip, and we had friends that I wanted to see. It was not an insane idea.
There is no way to describe what happens at Eurovision in words that will give it justice. Around us in the stadium (normally used for hockey) were: a gaggle of older Welsh men with matching hats (on their 8th Eurovision trip), a tween girl and her parents, two gay men in matching pink bunny costumes, and an elderly woman in a wheelchair from Germany looking as happy as I've ever seen anyone. People might have been drinking, but the crowd was thoroughly drunk on friendliness. Normally I’m in a panic in large crowds. There would be no mass smothering at Eurovision, though there might be the largest group hug ever and we’d die happy, together.
The show started with a group of children singing an a capella version of the previous year’s winning song, “Euphoria”. Goosebumps were had.
As expected, the show did not disappoint. A cute group from Denmark sang a song and set off glitter cannons, Romania’s entry was a Dracula-type character who broke into opera and was lifted into the air, and a guy in an astronaut costume from Montenegro rapped. Perfection.
The crowd was rapt, clapping and singing along, and people from the respective countries would absolutely lose their shit when their country performed, knowing in many cases that victory was never to be had, but that the pure act of representation was reason to celebrate.
It’s hard to find things we like in life, especially as we get older and more discerning and/or close-minded. Add in the possibility of people scorning what you hold dear and the overall culture of contempt, and the easy outcome is simply to not love.
To love something is to appreciate it for the whole entity, flaws and triumphs combined, and to honor these both. Sometimes people try hard and the result is not that great. In respecting that, we acknowledge our own weaknesses and make those visible. Also, what’s not to love about a pair of Irish twins in space suits doing robot dance moves?
As we were walking out into the crisp Swedish evening, my friend, a vinyl-loving audiophile with a deep and impressive knowledge of music, turned to me. He had gotten a considerable amount of grief the previous week from his friends for attending the show. “Surprisingly, I actually really enjoyed it.”
This week we’ll pile together Danish snacks on our table, invite over some friends, and bask in the warm glow of the white-hot lovebomb live stream that is Eurovision.tv. I’ll see you all in 2015, wherever the contest lands. Unless it’s Azerbaijan, because screw that.