“I’m in love with a fairy tale / Even though it hurts.” It was with these lyrics, a fiddle, and a disarming smile that Norwegian delegate Alexander Rybak came to be voted winner of the 54th Eurovision Song Contest—an annual spectacle-cum-diplomatic mission reputed to be the world’s most-watched non-sporting event on television. However intended, the lines aptly capture the attitude of many Europeans toward the contest, just as the entries in the ever expanding competition are a reflection of all that is exasperating, perverse, and wonderful about European Unity—a leveling of cultures for the sake of political stability, national security, and economic opportunity.
This year, forty-two countries qualified for the semi-finales, among them Albania, Andorra, and Azerbaijan, while former, traditional contestants Austria and Italy have opted out of participating in the competition. The friction between East and West has become more pronounced in recent years, leaving a frustrated West to contribute awkwardly self-conscious throwaway songs that further diminished the chance of a winning song from, say, Ireland (a seven-time winner), the United Kingdom, or Germany. It was as if the West chose to cloak itself in a mantle of irony to set itself garishly and haughtily apart from the closely-knit, sheer impenetrable post-Iron curtain it perceived to be obstructing Eurovision.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about a shift in the voting, with viewers of Eastern European nations favoring the songs representing neighboring countries, since voting for the representative of one’s own country is not permitted. For the West, the contest has become both an embarrassment and a liability (the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Spain being the chief sponsors of the event and guaranteed a place in the finale). The chance of winning the contest based on merit or popularity became tantamount to wishing for a happily-ever-after. Until last night.
This year’s live event was hosted by Russia, the previous winning nation. Although Russia’s 2008 victory was not necessarily undeserved, the bloc voting had become so flagrant as to call any success of an Eastern European act into question. The thought that the triumph of the East was by now all but certain became so irksome to organizers and broadcasters in the United Kingdom that long-time commentator Terry Wogan withdrew from the contest and musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber stepped in to prevent Britain from suffering another abject yet just defeat.
To increase the chances, voting procedures were changed once again, this time combining popular vote (via phone and instant messaging) with the vote of a presumably less partial jury of musical experts. In a reversal of the dreaded trend, the British entry finished fifth, and that despite Lloyd Webber’s low-voltage power ballad and a somewhat flawed performance by the heretofore unknown Jade Ewen. Still, the United Kingdom may have regained the respect of the jurors by deciding to put an end to defeatist silliness and to reconsider the meaning of “Song” in “Eurovision Song Contest.”
Inspired perhaps by the participation of Baron Lloyd-Webber, the overall quality of the songs and the performers was superior to the dross and folly to which the pop-cultural event had been reduced in the 21st century. Sure, Alexander Rybak was born in the former Soviet Union—but there is no doubt that Norway won because of the exuberance, charm, and catchiness of its entry, just as neighboring Finland rightly came in last. “I don’t care if I lose my mind / I’m already cursed,” the lyrics continue. Thanks to last night’s event, those words no longer reflect the attitude of Western contestants.