The (Euro) Vision

As the US television audience gets ready to watch Eurovision 2016, Robin Meloy Goldsby revisits the 2010 competition to prepare American viewers for a highly entertaining evening.”With a bigger audience than the Super Bowl, Eurovision is the only television event where a tenor can attract a larger crowd than a quarterback. It’s music as sport, even though music has little to do with the outcome.” 

I liked the Greek Guys. If you were one of the 125 million people who tuned in to the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest, broadcast live from Oslo, Norway, you know what I’m talking about. The Greek Guys wore tight white jumpsuits and dangerous-looking black leather boots, and stomped all over the stage yelling “Opa!” while life-threatening flames shot up behind them. Bring on the octopus! Break a plate! The song itself was nothing more than an odd-meter Greek hootenanny with machine-gun electronic percussion, and the lead singer was more of a lead shouter, but in the hot-blooded macho entertainment category, the Greek Guys hit a home run.

Acres of crushed velvet! Singers with figure skaters! Strippers and cellists and cleavage and lace! With a bigger audience than the Super Bowl, Eurovision is the only television event where a tenor can attract a larger crowd than a quarterback. It’s music as sport, even though music has little to do with the outcome. Most Americans don’t know about Eurovision. The program depends on a break-free show—there are no commercials—while most American television depends on advertising. Sitting down to watch Eurovision is like jumping onto a three-hour roller-coaster ride, complete with loop-de-loops and breathtaking curves on the bumpy track. It’s a nonstop one-night event broadcast to countries that belong to the European Broadcasting Union, which, to the confusion of first-time viewers, includes places like Israel, Turkey, Russia, and Georgia.

“Moldova is the one to watch,” said my pal Sharon Reamer, a geophysicist and a longtime Eurovision fan and expert. “They always get most everyone in the entire country onstage, including someone’s great-grandmother wearing a babushka and a hand-embroidered costume.” In a surprise twist, this year’s Moldova entry didn’t include a grandmother, but instead featured a hip-thrusting alto saxophone player in a blue sparkle Elvis jumpsuit, assisted by a Moldovan Lady Gaga clone and a man who resembled a pipe cleaner but sounded just like Tom Jones.

Dry ice! Half-naked dancers! Backup singers in orange Afro wigs!

Armenia’s song, “Apricot Stone,” took up the grandmother slack by plopping an eighty-year-old woman in the middle of an Armenian historical drama. A man wearing burlap knickers back-flipped over the grandmother. Not that anyone noticed. All eyes were on lead singer Eva Rivas’s cleavage. Most male viewers, I’m sure, were wondering just where she was hiding that apricot stone. When I suggested it might be tangled in her hair extensions, my teenage son, who was watching with me, called me a poor sport and said I didn’t grasp the message in her song.

I was drawn to Romania and their presentation of “Playing with Fire.” In addition to their creative use of latex and a Las Vegas–inspired Plexiglas double keyboard, Paula Seling and Ovi actually knew how to sing. Paula Seling looked nasty, in a good way. Ovi did his best to keep up with her, but he could have used few macho lessons from the Greek Guys. Or maybe he just needed a last name. Ovi Love, Ovi Ivo, or maybe Ovi da Rainbow.

Spain’s entry, Daniel Diges singing “Algo Pequeñito,” had a Fellini-meets-Cirque du Soleil vibe. The acrobatic clowns in Daniel’s chorus line bordered on creepy with their chalky faces and waxy lips, but I liked Daniel’s appearance a lot, especially his hair; he looked like Malcolm Gladwell in a severe windstorm, always a clever guise for anyone hoping to pull focus from a dozen dancing Bozo look-alikes.

Denmark turned in a performance right out of the eighties, a decade I particularly enjoyed the first time around. The two performers, Chanée and N’evergreen, couldn’t decide if they wanted to pay tribute to Abba or the Police, so, in a move that impressed me with its inclusiveness, they did both, while wearing Captain and Tennille military jackets.

Every year one country or another adds a stripper to its Eurovision presentation, hoping to garner extra points for showing extra body parts. This time around, Turkey—in a clever nod to heavy-metal music—featured a stripping female robot, a ploy that might have worked in their favor if the robot’s head had not gotten snagged on her breastplate early in the song. Georgia’s Sopho Nizharadze belted out a high G while standing on her head, so she didn’t need to strip. England’s bump-and-grind action came from a Hugh Grant look-alike who bounced around the stage while performing something best described as Disco Duck does Donna Summer. He never took his clothes off, but he should have.

I loved them all.

Iceland showcased a woman with a voice so brassy it might have caused that volcanic eruption, Ireland presented a promising singer having a bad hair day, and Azerbaijan made a big splash with a Celine Dion–influenced “Drip Drop” song. France’s entry? It was more like France’s exit. Monsieur Matador’s derrière was music for my eyes.

The show’s viewers, armed with cell phones and copious amounts of sparkling wine, ouzo, and beer, help determine the winner every year. They gather in nightclubs, corner bars, gay bars, at public viewing screens in town centers, and in living rooms—like mine—with their families. They aren’t permitted to vote for their own country’s entry. In the past, Eurovision has been accused of being a contest for favored nations. Germany, not high on the popularity list, often finished close to the bottom. But a new system requires each country to provide a small jury of music-industry professionals to contribute fifty percent of the vote. That’s made it easier for less popular nations to compete and win.

My very favorite performer was Belgian Tom Dice, who stood alone onstage with his guitar and sang a song about a man standing alone onstage with his guitar. I actually phoned the number and voted for him, because I’m a sucker for singer-songwriters. Then again, I’m fifty-three and still believe that music should be played by real musicians.

Germany’s performer, the Lolita-inspired Lena, looked really cute in her Brit-suave black shift but danced like she was in need of a trip to the nearest Australian loo—her fake English accent had the unfortunate effect of making her sound like a shepherd from somewhere north of Melbourne. But Lena brought down the house. After all the votes were tallied, she won, which proves once and for all that you don’t need a stripping robot if you’re wearing the perfect little black dress. Lena was cool, and so was her song. Aside from one reference in the lyric to blue underwear, there was nothing too embarrassing about her performance.

Budding talent-show producers take note: Eurovision maintains its party vibe because it refuses to follow the Star Search formula. There are no critiques or mean-spirited comments from a jury of over-gelled celebrity has-beens, and the international voting remains secret, right up until the very end. No one leaves the stage humiliated. We don’t see anyone go home in tears. At times, Eurovision seems like one of those kindergarten competitions where everyone gets a prize just for trying. And maybe that’s the way it should be.

By the end of the 2010 Eurovision show, I had decided that all of the performances, even the ones using the most spandex, were about something bigger than the song, the singer, or the country. As the jury tabulated votes, the Norwegian producers of this year’s show broadcast a live dancing segment. Tens of thousands of amateur dancers from all corners of Europe, who had learned a simple routine, waved their arms and kicked their legs in time to a silly techno anthem meant to unite us all. It worked. We witnessed a funky collage of real people making their own fun, and for a few glorious minutes in television land, we celebrated together. Most of us will never enter a talent show of this magnitude, but all of us—regardless of where we live—can laugh and sing along. Meanwhile, each of the Eurovision performers, including the plain young man with the unadorned voice and simple guitar accompaniment, has gathered the courage to stand up in front of 125 million viewers and say, “Hey, this is who I am. This is where I come from. Hope you like it. But if not, that’s okay.”


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Brand new: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!