Annual contest by the state run European television stations to find the best new popular song. Each member of the European Broadcast Union can enter a song. Each country provides 16 judges who can vote, but not for their country's entry. First held in Switzerland in 1956. Ireland has won the contest the most times. The French Minister of Culture has referred to it as "A Monument to Drivel."

The key to the Eurovision song contest's appeal is that the music showcased each year bears no resemblance to pop music at all; instead, it's blandified easy-listening rubbish, rather like the work of Celine Dion (who won the contest, for Switzerland, in 1988), but even less challenging, if you can imagine that.

None of the songs ever have any swearing, or political content, or indeed any content at all. The song contest is often used as an immature, childish way of scoring political points - Greece, for example, always votes for Cyprus (which in turn votes for Greece), and not for Turkey.

In Britain the television coverage is narrated by Terry Wogan, who treats the whole thing as a joke, and barely veils a mixture of disgust and perverse fascination at the whole gaudy mess. Imagine the late Carl Sagan commentating on a dog show and you have the essence of Wogan's appeal.

Since 1956, when the first Eurovision Song Contest took place in the Swiss lakeside town of Lugano, the Eurovision Song Contest has infamously provided a few hundred million viewers with an annual glimpse into their neighbours' pop scenes and all the kitsch they could ask for on the side. The contest has produced a handful of bona fide international stars, and rather more embarrassing indiscretions, laughable song titles and hideous frocks.

Eurovision was devised by the European Broadcasting Union in a wave of 1950s optimism for European integration: exactly how a shared experience of schlager and knocked-off chansons is supposed to help iron out the Common Agricultural Policy isn't quite clear. Strangely, the second half of the contest, in which national juries relay their votes, tends to attract more viewers than the songs themselves.

The Cast List

From the seven states represented in Lugano, modern Eurovisions now feature up to 25 countries at a time, apparently the maximum which can be crammed into the show's three hours. Such is the demand for places, strangely enough, that countries at the bottom of the scoreboard could normally expect relegation the following year, unless they happened to be the United Kingdom, France, Germany or Spain, the EBU's biggest contributors. From 2004 onwards, Eurovision will reportedly stretch over a whole weekend to allow for a preliminary semi-final.

The overcrowding is largely the result of the former Eastern bloc joining Eurovision in the early 1990s. All have now competed at least once since 1993, with the exception of Belarus, Albania and the Ukraine who are now on the waiting list, and the Czech Republic, who seem not to be able to care less. Tito's emphatically non-Soviet Yugoslavia, in fact, first showed up in 1961.

Since the EBU's remit extends to any country with a Mediterranean coastline, participants have included Israel, an annual fixture, and Morocco, who made one underwhelming appearance in 1980. The statelets of Monaco and Luxembourg, who regularly roped in Francophone ringers from elsewhere, have come and gone, although even tinier Liechtenstein's attempt to enter was knocked back in 1978 for want of a national broadcaster. Italy hasn't been seen since 1997, apparently on the grounds that their own San Remo festival is miles classier than anything Eurovision has to offer.

Nul Points

The contest has become infamous for supposed neighbourly voting, Greece and Cyprus being the most persistent offenders. The interactive televoting system phased in from 1997 onwards, which allows viewers to directly vote for their favourite songs, throws the wild card of immigrant communities into the mix, so that Turkey, for instance, can count on an all but guaranteed 12 points from Germany each year.

From 1975 onwards, juries have voted for their top ten on a scale of 1 to 8, 10 to their runner-up and 12, for some reason, to their favourite song. Scores are traditionally read out in both English and French, giving Eurovision its unofficial motto in the 1990s of 'l'Irlande, douze points.'

The corollary of the coveted douze is nul points, with which a dreary entry may well finish if it happens not to hail from a recognised voting bloc. Norway, Austria and Finland have all attained the dubious accolade three times over.

With five victories, France dominated the roll of honour until the 1990s, despite temporarily pulling out of Eurovision in 1982 on the grounds that it was nothing but a monument to drivel, and this from the country whose entry the year before had been entitled Humanahum. In 1992 the torch was passed to Ireland, who added four wins in five years to the three already chalked up by Johnny Logan and Dana, now plying her trade in the European Parliament instead.

More recently, Eurovision seems to have put down firm roots in the Baltic Sea, if that metaphor's appropriate to anything other than an oil rig*: Sweden and Denmark walked away with it in 1999 and 2000 before free-market darlings Estonia took the trophy in 2001 on the basis that anything Scandinavia can do, they'll try to do better.

2002's winner, and hence the host for 2003, was Latvia, whose Marie N combined a crowd-pleasing Victor/Victoria act with what was a version of Mambo Italiano in all but name. Join the dots from the last few years, and you'll see that either Lithuania or Russian Kaliningrad should be making contingency plans against having to hold the thing in 2004.

First, Choose Your Song

A number of countries hold elaborate preselections to select their Eurovision entry: Croatia uses the annual Dora festival, which often contains more songs than Eurovision itself and is an event on the Croatian pop calendar in its own right. The same can be said for Melodifestivalen in Sweden and the Eurolaul in Estonia, although not for the British effort, Song for Europe, which showcases four songs on a Sunday afternoon and tends to be presented by somebody roped in from Blue Peter. Others, such as France and Israel, make an internal choice.

In 2002, Spain chose its performer by means of a show called Operación Triunfo, a seamless blend of Pop Idol and Big Brother, itself an established hit in Spain. The mammoth process went on for seventeen weeks, producing seventeen chart-topping compilation CDs along the way, until the winner, Rosa López, was rewarded with a Eurodisco number called Europe's Living A Celebration. Irish viewers know OT as You're A Star; Britons, as Fame Academy.

Every so often, a country's representative is beyond dispute. In 2003, the appropriately named Russian television station Pervyi Kanal knew that it had to be Tatu or, to coin a phrase, bust.

Before They Were Famous

Certain Eurovision winners have gone on to better things: ABBA made their breakthrough in 1974 with Waterloo, and Celine Dion - who'd already been something of a child star on the Francophone scene - first made herself noticed elsewhere by winning for Switzerland in 1988 swathed in a puffball skirt. The new age group Secret Garden won in 1995 with the ethereal Nocturne, which, with only eighteen words in the whole piece, hardly qualified for a song contest at all.

A win, however, is by no means a prerequisite - one Julio Iglesias didn't suffer too badly from his fourth place in 1970, although nowadays tries not to mention his entry Gwendolyne. In fact, it isn't even necessary to be a contestant, as the organisers of the 1994 Dublin contest proved when they commissioned a tap dance extravaganza by the name of Riverdance.

Eurovision also attracts its share of comeback merchants, not least Katrina and the Waves, whose victory with the anthemic Love shine a light produced, unaccountably, the highest winning score to date.

More intriguing, however, are those contestants who are household names back home and unknowns anywhere else. Russia and Croatia, to name but two, normally manage to rustle up a genuine star, including Vanna, the Croatian Anastacia, Vesna Pisarovic, their Britney Spears, and Russia's kings of glam rock Mumiy Troll. The Russians have had a Britney Spearski of their own in Tatarstan-born London schoolgirl Alsou.

Two more of the Russian contingent - Michael Jackson-a-like Filip Kirkorov and Gorbachev's favourite diva Alla Pugacheva - are now married in what became the celebrity wedding of the year. Edyta Gorniak, who sang on Poland's debut in 1994, fetched up at the 2002 World Cup with an idiosyncratic rendition of the Polish national anthem.

Viva La Diva

Even with the best will in the world, the association of Eurovision and kitsch is inescapable. Some performers, of course, realise it, such as the comedian Stefan Raab, Germany's answer to Chris Evans, who took part in 2000 with Wadde hadde dudde da. The song came in fifth, suggesting that many viewers either possess a higher level of irony awareness than one might think or were prepared to vote for the hook of 2 become 1 regardless.

Other performers, unfortunately, don't. In the same year as Raab, Sweden's Roger Pontare entered When spirits are calling my name, an impassioned ode to his Sami brethren which sounded as if ABBA had got their hands on the Gladiators theme. Unfortunately, the average televoter hadn't been clued in on Pontare's heritage, and was left wondering why he was wearing what looked like a native American costume and seemed to have lines drawn all over his forehead in ballpoint pen.

Every year seems to produce its own halfway decent singer who scuppers their chances with an unwise choice of dress. Karolina Gocheva, the biggest star in Macedonia and then some, might have drawn a little more attention to her atmospheric, folk-inspired Od nas zavisi if she hadn't performed in a golden bodice straight out of Xena, Warrior Princess. Lydia, the Spanish representative in 1999, went on stage in an ill-fitting tunic dress made - by one of her country's leading fashion designers - out of a giant, rainbow-coloured Gay Pride flag.

The undisputed queen of Eurovision for the foreseeable future is Israel's Dana International, a transsexual who attracted wide publicity in the run-up to the 1998 contest and, to nobody's surprise except the rabbis', won with Diva by a close margin. Three Slovenian drag queens called Sestre, or The Sisters, couldn't reproduce the feat with their air hostess shtick in 2002.

* montecarlo helpfully informs me that the Baltic Sea unfortunately does not have oil rigs. It doesn't, but I can't think what else would put down roots in the sea...

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