Since the founding of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, the song that is awarded the Grand Prix has been the product of a series of competitions that begin at regional and national levels and culminate in the annual spectacle, broadcast throughout Europe and increasingly beyond its borders by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). To be competitive a song ideally should represent (1) the nation for which it is an entry and (2) the political and historical complex of Europe itself. In addition to the cultural work it must accomplish, a winning song must also appeal to those Europeans who vote for it because of its aesthetic and musical appeal. The Eurovision song, therefore, signifies both the product of a competition with specific and distinctive rules, and the process of shaping a vocal genre capable of generating widespread popularity across the vast European landscape during more than a half-century of dramatic cultural and national transformation.
The Eurovision song is not a single genre, but rather results from the creative ways in which songwriters, singers, producers and national culture brokers explore the fluid borders between and among popular genres. During the competitive phases leading up to the annual Eurovision Song Contest the search for appropriate Eurovision songs necessitates intensive negotiation between regional/national song genres and the global popular styles that extend meaning across national borders. Because the annual Grand Finale pits national entry against national entry in direct competition, the Eurovision song necessarily responds to nationalism, sometimes openly advancing it, at other times subverting it, always imposing national or nationalist contexts on genre in popular music. The question confronting singers in search of an international breakthrough and national broadcasting networks alike becomes one of transforming the local into the European, hence the creation of what will capture the attention of the entire continent as a ‘song for Europe,’ or the Eurovision song.
The history of the Eurovision song unfolds much like that of the Eurovision Song Contest itself, reflecting political and cultural changes, and responding no less to the changes in popular music. The political history of the contest has been evident from its beginnings during a critical moment in the Cold War (the incursion of the Soviet Union in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956), and it serves as a measure of the shift of European responses to international wars, postcolonial reconfiguration, the fall of communism, and the expansion/contraction of the European Union, which remains a critical issue for Eurovision politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Local and regional histories, as well as the longue durée of national struggles over empire and nation-state within Europe, shape textual content and musical style alike (e.g., the frequent reliance on the Ottoman, even Muslim-deriv ed, genres in entries from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and their rejection by Croatia).
Eurovision song styles calibrate various patterns of historicism. Many entries look back to earlier styles, even earlier songs with international success. Each year, for example, several songs musically refer to songs performed in the popular Italian style known as Sanremo song, from Domenico Modugno’s ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ (‘Volare’) in 1958 to Il Volo’s ‘Grande Amore’ in 2015, leading some critics to complain repeatedly about a conservative or retro historicism, that is, a sense that previous winning styles continue to compete most successfully. There are other Eurovision song styles that attempt to break free of historicist constraints, breaking new ground and openly challenging European and international politics. The historicist concern of Eurovision songwriters, singers, producers and audiences alike powerfully influences style and content, and especially the many ways in which the Eurovision song reflects back upon the various historical streams shaping its identity.
The Eurovision song sets various kinds of agency in motion to respond to the history of the nation and nationalism, in Europe but also beyond. Each song is far more than a text that represents historical narratives, far more than a genre of nationalism, and far more than a symbol system to which ciphers of the nation accrue. Song in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest is neither simply an object nor a subject given meaning through mass dissemination and spectacle. In the course of the annual competitions leading to the Grand Prix each May the Eurovision song undergoes a process of transformation to become a site of historical action. Through performance and competition song transforms symbols into action. It translates local narratives and identities (e.g., of a Croatian village that sends its klapa ensemble to regional and national competition) into national history not only by reconfiguring the historical moment in which the nation becomes audibly meaningful on common cultural landscapes. The larger history of national and nationalist song within which the history of Eurovision song unfolds is decidedly not about individual works of musical nationalism. The politics of the Eurovision song are inseparable from a historical concern for fragments, even with the bits and pieces of music that sometimes cohere as musical works but more often conjoin briefly and powerfully to articulate the historical potency of the moment (in 2016, for example, when Jamala’s entry for Ukraine, ‘1944,’ a direct reference to the Soviet deportation of Tatars from Crimea and an indirect reference to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, was the victorious song).
The Eurovision song is not one kind of fragment, rather many kinds, which form as the products of fragmentation and enact processes of recombining fragments to create wholes that are fragile and malleable, all the more so within the three-minute timeframe allowed the Eurovision song. The song fragment, either with local or with global meaning, already contains identity, and it can transfer identity as it conjoins other fragments to represent a nation. Fragments are most evident in the Eurovision song in the extensive degree of intertextuality. The Eurovision songs that do the most intensive cultural work of nationalism do so by taking full advantage of the rules and constraints placed upon the single song (e.g., Sertab Erener’s combination of belly dancing, hip-hop and Turkish traditional instruments in her 2003 winning entry for Turkey, ‘Every Way That I Can’). Cultural and religious differences (e.g., of ethnic and religious minorities) appear in the bridge, in other kinds of ‘B’ sections, or in an instrumental or vocal introduction that announces the national identity of a song using folk music; musical contrast in the song opens a site of difference. Multiple languages are used to enhance intertextuality (e.g., the four languages of the German entry, ‘Journey to Jerusalem,’ by the German band Sürpriz, in 1999), be they national dialects or global versions of musical Esperanto. Mixed musical styles (e.g., folk music instruments used for a popular style, or juxtaposing hip-hop with a regional dance style, as in Greece’s ‘Utopian Land,’ performed by the ensemble Argo, in 2016) do this even more dramatically.
The musical framework of the Eurovision song has produced vastly different responses, styles, forms and genres. Some nations rely frequently on more canonical genres (e.g., the chanson for France and the Francophone nations), while others use song to represent diversity and multiculturalism (e.g., Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Switzerland). Still other nations exploit the clear stylistic boundaries by making global styles national (e.g., Finland’s use of various forms of heavy metal as Finnish). The five stylistic frameworks below are the most common ways of making the Eurovision song both national and European.
Folk songs or folk-like songs are themselves not unknown in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest, but more commonly folk music provides a source for sampling and representing national distinctiveness. The use of folk-music instruments in a Eurovision song’s introduction became the most common reference to the nation for the increasing number of Eastern European countries after the fall of communist governments in the early 1990s and with even more intensity after 2000.
Regional styles often signify historical connections among European regions, as well as the historical reach of empire. In the early decades of the Eurovision Song Contest, French chanson and songs in the Italian Sanremo style were stylistically dominant; during the 1970s the responses to British rock ’n’ roll multiplied; various Celtic musical styles dominated the 1990s; these yielded to various Eastern European and Eastern Mediterranean styles – sevdalinka in Southeastern Europe, Turkish arabesk and Israeli musica mizrakhit – at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Traditional popular song, in 32-bar forms, has been widely historicized and adapted to the three-minute format by Eurovision songwriters. Less common, but nonetheless important at particular historical moments, has been the appropriation of the blues and Irish-Celtic ternary forms as templates for Eurovision songs. Aesthetically, the contrasting relation between A and B sections in these forms allows the Eurovision song to project both similarity and difference, the national self and the European other.
Eurovision songs both do and do not turn to prevalent international popular styles. In the 1960s Eurovision songwriters rarely turned to rock ’n’ roll, and during its era of greatest popularity hip-hop made very slow inroads into the Eurovision song, with remarkably limited suc cess. Global popular styles, nonetheless, do appear each year, and they have left their impact on several historical moments (e.g., the emergence of African-American styles at the end of the twentieth century).
Performance is of critical importance during the three minutes of a Eurovision song. Dance and instrumental musicians specify form and identity, enhancing the national symbolism of a song, or perhaps translating it into more internationally recognizable symbols and styles.
The form, sound and identity of Eurovision songs frequently reveal a deliberate indebtedness to the short- and long-term history of the contest. Each year, for example, several songs musically touch upon ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ (the winner in 1974) as one of the most enduring Eurovision songs. (Described by one analyst as ‘the perfect Eurovision song’ and voted in 2005 the single most popular song during the Eurovision’s first 50 years [BBC News 2005a, 2005b], ‘Waterloo’ was also the song that broke with the tradition of singing in the language of one’s own country.) In the immediate aftermath of Ruslana’s ‘Wild Dances’ (‘Diki tanzi’) in 2004, ensembles used drumming and dancing so extensively that an Eastern European Eurovision style clearly emerged. Once Sweden’s Måns Zelmerlöw had made extensive use of holograms in the winning formula for his ‘Heroes,’ in 2015, they proliferated across Europe, finding firm footing in the performance styles of Eurovision songs in 2016.
The creators and performers of Eurovision song draw upon local, national and international symbols, forming them into meaning fragments of identity, to create a song that will both represent the single nation and Europe at distinctive historical moments. Musically, the Eurovision song forms around sections of similarity and difference, which accommodate the changing identities of Self and Other in Europe. The audiences for Eurovision song, too, play a role as historical agents shaping its identity, not only through their consumption of recordings, but also because they vote for winning songs at each stage during the annual cycle leading to the May Grand Prix. The genre of the Eurovision song is critical, therefore, to the cultural and political work it does, as well as to the transformative ways in which popular song can transmit more, rather than fewer, meanings.
BBC News. 2005a ‘ABBA Sang Best Eurovision Song.’ Online at
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4565061.stm (accessed 24 May 2016).
BBC News. 2005b. ‘Abba win “Eurovision 50th” vote.’ Online at
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4366574.stm (accessed 24 May 2016).
Bohlman, Philip V. 2004. ‘Popular Music on the Stage of a United Europe – Southeastern Europe in the “Eurovision Song Contest”.’ InVereintes Europa – Vereinte Musik? Vielfalt und soziale Dimensionen in Mittel- und Südosteuropa, ed. Bruno Reuer. Berlin: Weidler Verlag, 27–45.
Bohlman, Philip V. 2008a. ‘Ex oriente lux – Islam and the Eurovision Song Contest.’ InAntropologia della musica nelle culture mediterranee – interpretazione, performance, identità, eds. Philip V. Bohlman and Marcello Sorce Keller. Bologna: CLUEB, 171–180.
Bohlman, Philip V. 2008b. ‘The Nation in Song.’ InNarrating the Nation: Representations in History, Media and the Arts, eds. Stefan Berger, Linas Eriksonas and Andrew Mycock. Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 244–263.
Jan. Fedderson 2002.Ein Lied kann eine Brücke sein: Die deutsche und internationale Geschichte der Grand Prix Eurovision [A Song Can Be a Bridge: The German and International History of the Eurovision Song Contest.]. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe.
Wolther, Irving. 2006.‘Kampf der Kulturen’ – der Eurovision Song Contest als Mittel national-kultureller Repräsentation [Battle of the Cultures: The Eurovision Song Contest as Means of National Cultural Representation]. Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann.
Official CD compilations of all national entries for the Grand Prix appear each year in the month prior to the mid-May Eurovision Song Contest. The official CD is produced by the European Broadcasting Union in co-operation with one of the major transnational labels (frequently BMG) and is widely available.
CD compilations for the national run-up competitions appear in many competing nations, usually in the late winter at the time of the national competition. Large national labels, often in conjunction with nationwide broadcasting companies, release the compilations, which are widely available on the CD market. Promotional CDs of individual entries, often with multiple performances or in different languages, appear in large numbers in the month leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest, and these are widely available in CD shops and through Internet purchase.
An official DVD of the Eurovision Song Contest, with the semi-finals and the final, appears soon after the mid-May Grand 1Prix. The official DVD is produced by the European Broadcasting Union and is widely available in CD and DVD shops.
Promotional DVDs of individual entries, often with multiple performances or in different languages, appear in large numbers in the month leading up to the Eurovision Song Contest, and these are widely available in CD shops and through Internet purchase.
Internet sites provide access to the developments of the Eurovision Song Contest on a daily basis. Ranging from sites managed by fan clubs to semi-official and official sites accessible through national broadcasting companies, these sites make it possible to view and hear entries ranging from the local to the national.
Official Eurovision Site:
Independent ESC news reporting:
BBC official site:
Large Online Community: