By Amber Petty
An array of hopeful singers are warming up for their big break in the largest singing competition in the world. No, I’m not talking about the American Idol finale. I’m talking about the only singing competition you need to watch: the Eurovision Song Contest.
With American singing shows, you get a lot of similar (albeit very talented) voices belting out more straightforward pop covers. With Eurovision, you get a singer who starts his song in a piano coffin and a winner whose song is legitimately half chicken noises. The music ranges from dance to pop to rock to strange blends of folk music and house beats. The Eurovision performers themselves are everything from monster-masked punk bands to soulful drag queens. This year, Madonna‘s performing during the interval while all the votes are processed. When Madonna is your time-killing act, you know the show is worth watching.
The Eurovision Song Contest started in 1956 as a way to join Europe in literal and figurative harmony after World War II. The rules are simple: The song has to be under three minutes, not previously released, and sung live. Forty-one countries will compete in the semi-finals, beginning on Tuesday (May 14), but only 26 will make it to the live, three-plus hour Grand Final on Saturday. With a combination of audience voting and selected jury, a Eurovision winner is crowned, and the performer’s country gets the privilege of hosting the contest the following year. Really all you need to know is that a lot of countries participate every year, and there might even be a guy in a horse head dancing on a ladder.
As we get ready for the competition’s grand conclusion in Tel Aviv on May 18, here are some of the defining Eurovision highlights from its past 63 years.
Cezar: “It’s My Life” (Romania)
A singer with heavy eye liner that recalls It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s stage-ready Mac, mostly naked male dancers running around the stage, a gigantic cape, and a falsetto that just keeps going up: Here, you have all the wonder of Eurovision in a single song. It’s something you’d never hear on American radio, yet it’s full of un-ironic spectacle that we should demand from all our live broadcasts. This 2013 performance was the moment I fell in love with Eurovision.
Dana: “All Kinds of Everything” (Ireland)
Devoid of large capes and falsetto, this song is just an 18-year-old girl singing a happy song about “things of the trees.” Though it’s corny, the song provided a beautiful moment of unity. Due to the decades-long conflict taking place within Northern Ireland at the time, it was controversial to have a Northern Irish singer represent the Republic of Ireland in 1970, but the nation put the Troubles aside and the happy ballad brought Ireland its first Eurovision win.
Buranovskiye Babushki: “Party for Everybody” (Russia)
Have you ever wanted to see a bunch of traditionally-dressed Russian babushkas dance and sing about partying around an ancient oven? Your weird wish was granted with Russia’s “Party for Everybody” in 2012. The strange mix of folk music and basic dance beats was a huge hit — these grannies got second place!
ABBA: “Waterloo” (Sweden)
The biggest Eurovision success story, ABBA got their start by winning the 1974 contest with “Waterloo.” The jaunty song about military defeat brought them Sweden’s first win, and ABBA became a worldwide sensation.
Céline Dion: “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi” (Switzerland)
No, Céline Dion is not from Switzerland, but that didn’t stop her from singing the winning song in 1988. Confusingly, Eurovision rules stipulate that a singer does not have to be from the country they’re representing. (In 1997, the U.K. won with the partially American band Katrina and the Waves.) So why doesn’t every country try to buy off Beyoncé and guarantee a win? At the very least, Céline should make a return. Who doesn’t want to see the Canadian queen belt out some weird dance song in her Met Gala look?
Lordi: “Hard Rock Hallelujah” (Finland)
In case you think Eurovision is all ballads, belting, and Eurodance beats, the competition broke the mold with this 2006 winner. The GWAR-esque band impressed the audience with their gravelly-voiced rock, and the lead singer’s moving wings and pyrotechnic axe probably sealed the deal.
DJ BoBo: “Vampires Are Alive” (Switzerland)
From its first lyric (“Vampires are alive!”), this song wastes no time. What sounds like a forgotten B-side from Real McCoy is actually DJ BoBo bringing his questionable pitch and enthusiastic dancing to the Eurovision stage. If you ever wondered what Blade would have looked like if it were directed by Batman & Robin-era Joel Schumacher, this is it.
Salvador Sobral: “Amar Pelos Dois” (Portugal)
Instead of awarding one of the crazy, campy numbers, judges gave the 2017 prize to this simple song. With Eurovision, you never know what’s going to win votes, but Salvador Sobral proved that a lovely tune is sometimes all you need.
Silvia Night: “Congratulations” (Iceland)
Every few years, you get a satirical, meta entry, like “We Are the Winners,” where a group of the most fun guys from the accounting firm got together to sing a song about how they should win Eurovision, or “Ireland Douze Points,” where a turkey puppet sang about how Ireland should take the prize. But my favorite in this category is “Congratulations.” Sung by the Ali G-esque comedic character Silvia Night (played by Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir), “Congratulations” features lyrics like “The vote is in, I freaking win” and a moment where she answers a phone call from God and says, “What’s up, dog? It’s me, your favorite person in the world!” Sadly, this song never made it past semi-finals, but the actress later went on to voice Elsa in the Icelandic dub of Frozen. So really, she was the winner.
Bucks Fizz: “Making Your Mind Up” (United Kingdom)
The 1981 winner is known more for a costume change than a memorable tune. Halfway through the song, as the band sings, “You wanna see some more,” the male members tear away the female singers’ midi skirts to reveal — slightly shorter skirts! Since then, the tearaway skirt has been mentioned in nearly every article about the competition’s legacy and consistently listed as a shocking moment in Eurovision history. It might not be controversial today, but it illustrates the power of a good costume reveal.
Verka Serduchka: “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” (Ukraine)
This 2007 song seems like nothing more than a campy dance hit. But the lyrics “I want to see Lasha Tumbai” sound a lot like “I want to say Russia goodbye,” which some Russians took to be a political message about the country’s involvement in the Ukraine. Singer Verka Serduchka denied any attack on Russia and said the song was really about churned butter (the Mongolian translation of “lasha tumbai”). If this song sounds familiar, it might be because it prominently appeared in Melissa McCarthy’s Spy.
Conchita Wurst: “Rise Like a Phoenix” (Austria)
In what might be the best Eurovision winner of all time, the bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst sang a song of transformation as digital flaming wings encompassed the stage. With Bond-theme horns and all the drama, this song put all the pageantry, art, and talent of Eurovision in a beautiful three-minute package. What more could you want from a singing competition?