The show we love to hate

Yes, it’s here again. No, not the education debate or the European Soccer Championship but the Eurovision Song Contest, that annual aural assault, the show we love to hate, the event which, like an itch on the sole of your boot-clad foot in the middle of winter, you just can’t seem to ignore. Eurovision has been around for an astounding 52 years, a «tradition» born in Monaco in 1955 and established in Lugano, Switzerland, on May 24 a year later. From seven participants in its debut, Eurovision has now swelled to 43; maybe next year there’ll be 44 in the ultimate pop recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Initially, it was meant to be a competition of light music, a «stick-a-tongue-out-at-culture snobs» event. Now, in the minds of many, the Eurovision Song Contest has become a gauge of regional politics with power games between participating countries reflected in the voting; it is an extravaganza coveted by all participants and one that costs a pretty penny; it provides an expression of national pride, a chance to wave the flag. For others, Eurovision is not much more than a chance to mix up a pitcher of margaritas, put out the guacamole and some chips, and call a few friends over to have a good laugh. Some even like the music… That’s the viewers. But what about the hosts? Eurovision 2008 is being hosted by Belgrade, a city that surely has much more important things to worry about. But, Athens, which hosted the song contest in 2006, showed that Eurovision can be a real money spinner. Greek state broadcaster ERT responded to charges that the event was a waste of public money by announcing that ERT’s net revenues from organizing the contest came to 7.28 million euros, while its total costs were 5.5 million euros. «It was a commercial and profitable event and the money we spent was that of the sponsors,» ERT President Christos Panagopoulos said at the time. And this is not to mention the money that was brought into the country by visitors attending the event, or the tourism promotion opportunities it provided. Last year’s contest, in Helsinki, attracted 40,000 visitors to the Finnish capital, 10 percent of whom came from abroad. For all the rational reasons that Eurovision is still around, however, one can’t help but wonder how it has survived through the decades. Surely, it can’t be about the music. Fans will say that Eurovision gave us ABBA (1974) and Celine Dion (1988); critics will cite the exact same examples. And if you exclude the rather serious-minded participants that come from Southeast Europe and further into the ex-Soviet hinterland, there is a case to be made for the fact that participating countries themselves have either scraped the bottom of their music world barrel and resurrected bygone crooners who were forgettable even in their heyday, or are simply pulling the Eurovision leg. Ireland, probably tired of hosting the costly competition after winning the competition three times during the 90s, thanks to its pretty, emotive ballads, sent a turkey to represent it this year. And speaking of fowl and chicks, are the Spanish serious? Obviously not. While cringing at the idea that we will be assaulted with Kalomira’s «Secret Combination» in every cab, bar, cafe and club this summer, I will still go out and buy ripe avocados, lemons and nachos this morning, because the Eurovision Song Contest is like an old paisley shirt: It’s passe, it’s tacky, but deep down inside we know we are never going to throw it away.