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Eurovision history: from the first competition to the story behind voting blocs

Ahead of this year’s sequin-spangled singing contest, Ellie Cawthorne speaks to Dean Vuletic, a leading expert on the history of Eurovision

Netta holds the Eurovision trophy aloft while singing the winning song for Israel at the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest grand final
Published: May 13, 2022 at 5:27 pm

Why did Eurovision begin?

Eurovision was started by the European Broadcasting Union in 1956.

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“I think a lot of people mistake the establishment of Eurovision as some sort of postwar expression of Europeanism, a desire for European integration,” says Dean Vuletic, a leading expert on the history of Eurovision. “But it wasn’t really about that.”

In fact, the creation of the show was driven by commercial imperatives. “In the 1950s, television technology was still nascent and there was a lot of scepticism across Europe as to whether it was worth investing in. The European Broadcasting Union was formed a way to pool resources in developing television technology, and in the production of programmes that could be shared. And the Eurovision Song Contest happened to be one of those programmes.”

 

What was the first competition like?

The first competition took place in 1956, in a theatre in Lugano, Switzerland. Seven countries entered, with two songs each. People were formally dressed in tuxedos in evening gowns, and performers were accompanied by an orchestra.

“Today, this seems rather quaint”, says Vuletic. “But it doesn’t mean however that they were singing old fashioned songs. For example, one of Germany’s entries, ‘So Geht Das Jede Nacht’ by Freddy Quinn, was in an early rock and roll style.”

Swiss singer Lys Assia, holding a bunch of flowers after winning the first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956
Swiss singer Lys Assia, shortly after winning the very first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956 with her song Refrain (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

And politics were at play from the very beginning.

“This automatically sent a message to the rest of Europe about how the West German state was trying to reinvent its identity following the Second World War,” says Vuletic.

The voting was done in secret and not made public. The contest was won by a Swiss singer, Lys Assia, who sang a chanson in French called ‘Refrain’.


On the podcast | Dean Vuletic speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about the history of the Eurovision Song Contest – and what it tells us about the changing face of Europe

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6 facts to remember about Eurovision

1

Voting scandals are nothing new

In fact, they can be traced back to the very first contest in 1956. Voting was done live, but Luxembourg’s jury was unable to make it to the contest, leaving the Swiss jury to vote in their place. “Lo and behold, the Swiss entry won. So from the very beginning, you had politics, you had scandal and Eurovision was ready to go,” says Vuletic.

Another voting scandal erupted in 1963, when Norway had to give its results twice due to a technical error on the first attempt. Second time round, the Norwegian jury swapped its second highest points to go to the Danish entry, meaning that Denmark won over a French language entry by Switzerland – the competition’s first Scandinavian win.

“This switch in the vote could have been because the Norwegians and their allies were rather annoyed that French language entries had dominated the wins since 1956,” says Vuletic.

2

Voting for your neighbours isn’t just political

“Studies have shown that there have been voting blocs in Eurovision – we’ve seen them in the Francophone part of Europe, the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union, between Britain and Ireland and among the Nordic countries as well,” says Vuletic.

“But they're actually more cultural than political, based on common languages, and common popular music industries. If the voting blocs were purely political then we wouldn't see as many votes being shared between countries like Croatia and Serbia or even Ukraine and Russia.”

3

And language is important

“I’m always asked why the UK has done so poorly in Eurovision in recent decades,” says Vuletic. According to the history, the change in British fortunes came in 1999, with the introduction of new rules under which countries were no longer required to perform in one of their official languages. This led to more entries being performed in English. “This had always been one of the advantages the British and Irish entries had – and with the change in rules they lost that advantage,” says Vuletic.

“The contest likes to promote itself as a promoter of cultural and social diversity in Europe. But when it comes to linguistic diversity, since 1999 it has done a very poor job,” argues Vuletic. “That is changing though – as Måneskin’s Italian-language win last year proves. And if there is more linguistic diversity in Eurovision, we might also be more likely to see a UK entry win, because it will stand out more.”

Måneskin react on stage to winning the 2021 Eurovison Song Contest for Italy
Thomas Raggi, Damiano David, Victoria De Angelis and Ethan Torchio of Måneskin from Italy react on stage to winning for the song “Zitti e buoni” (Shut Up And Be Quiet) during the 65th Eurovision Song Contest in 2021 (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
4

There was a rival communist singing competition during the Cold War

From the late 1950s, Western Europe’s European Broadcasting Union began to cooperate more with its Eastern European equivalent. Suggestions of a joint competition were rejected, and instead, Eastern Bloc broadcasting organisations created their own contest – called Intervision – based on the rules of Eurovision.

Whereas Eurovision remained closed throughout the Cold War to states that were not members of the European Broadcasting Union, Intervision allowed participants from outside Eastern Europe, making it the first truly pan-European song contest.

“Intervision was staged in Czechoslovakia, and in 1968 the Prague Spring saw the Czechoslovak media liberalised and open to western influences. And by the late 1970s, there was an idea that Intervision should not just be pan-European, but global,” says Vuletic. Intervals acts were welcomed from West Germany and the US – including Gloria Gaynor.

And there were other innovations that might seem surprising for a communist-run competition. While Eurovision was plagued by recurrent complaints that commercial record companies were influencing the competition, Intervision embraced commercialism in the late 70s by staging two contests – one based on national entries, and another based on entries submitted by commercial record companies.

5

People have complained about the quality of the music for a long time

“There have long been criticisms about the quality of Eurovision’s music from media commentators, public viewers and even by the organisers of the contest itself,” says Vuletic. “As early as the 1960s, there was a feeling that the contest wasn't reflecting modern trends in popular music. Surveys were showing that young viewers weren’t interested.”

In the 1970s, rules were changed to try and keep up, allowing for more people on stage, bands, and electronic instruments rather than orchestral accompaniment. These changes began to see the contest not just keeping up with new trends but setting them.

“Just look at Abba’s 1974 win with ‘Waterloo’ – this not only launched Abba's international career, but also helped Eurovision take off as a major force on the international popular music stage,” says Vuletic.

Abba (Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus) pose after winning the Swedish branch of the Eurovision Song Contest with their song Waterloo in 1974
Abba (Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus) pose after winning the Swedish branch of the Eurovision Song Contest with their song Waterloo in 1974 (Photo by Olle LINDEBORG / TT News Agency / AFP) / Sweden OUT (Photo credit should read OLLE LINDEBORG/AFP via Getty Images)
6

And while political messages are now banned, that hasn’t stopped performers in the past

While Eurovision has always advertised itself as apolitical, there haven’t always been rules against political messaging.

“In 1976, the Greek entry protested the Turkish invasion of Cyprus,” says Vuletic. “Turkish television sent a letter to the European Broadcasting Union saying the song should be removed as it was political and anti-Turkish. But the European Broadcasting Union wrote back and said, ‘Look, we have no rules against politics, there can be political messages in Eurovision.’”

But things have changed a lot since then, and since 2000, political messages have been banned under rules about bringing the contest into disrepute. Nevertheless, acts have nonetheless found ways of sneaking in messages over the years.

“The Ukrainian entry from 2005 is an example of that – a protest song that had been an unofficial anthem in the Orange Revolution,” says Vuletic. “Then there was the 2007 Israeli entry, ‘Push the Button’. Even though it was considered by many to criticise the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel, it wasn’t banned. In 2009, there was a Georgian entry ‘We Don't Wanna Put In’, which came just after the Russian Army invaded Georgia and was read as criticism of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and that was withdrawn from the contest after it was requested that Georgia rewrite the lyrics or chose a new song. But the list is endless.

“I think the rules against politics are really about not scaring away potential sponsors and advertisers. So, you’ve just got to be subtle in how you get your messages across,” says Vuletic.

Interestingly, though, political songs haven’t always attracted votes. “In 1993, entries from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia both referred to the wars that were happening there, but they didn't win, despite widespread sympathy across Europe,” says Vuletic. “There will no doubt be a lot of support for the Ukrainian entry this year. But will it win? We’ll have to see.”

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Dean Vuletic is a leading expert on the history of Eurovision and the author of Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest (Bloomsbury, 2018). He was speaking to Ellie Cawthorne on the HistoryExtra podcast

Authors

Ellie CawthornePodcast editor, HistoryExtra

Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.

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