Those of us who have followed the Eurovision Song Contest for many years are tempted to tell the story of how the Song Contest has changed over time as a linear tale. But like any history, Eurovision history is not linear. It is characterized by multiple plot lines that play out simultaneously. These plot lines start, pause, and fade away on different timelines, sometimes in conversation with other plot lines.
As we try to make sense of the Song Contest over the past 10 years, we see a watershed moment where several plot lines converge: Marija Serfovic’s win in 2007. When it comes to influencing the Eurovision Song Contest we see today, we argue that “Molitva” is the most important winner in the last 10 years.
In the mid-2000s, many countries voiced a growing dissatisfaction with Eurovision’s direction. There were many reasons, and we are not going to include them all here. However, we think there were four main concerns. First, the songs entered into Eurovision were divorced from current pop music. Next, there was the growing emphasis on performance and staging over song. There was anxiety that the inclusion of more Eastern European and former Soviet countries in Eurovision could greatly impact the Song Contest, both because of the potential for bloc voting and because of the sheer number of entries to get through. Last, there was concern that performing at Eurovision offered participants little chance of garnering career growth or fame.
The dissatisfaction bled into Eurovision entries in a few ways. One approach was the pandering multicultural entry sung in multiple languages that could be easily understood across Eurovision’s increasingly diverse participant base (e.g., Ich Troje, Todomondo). Another approach was the Eurovision protest entry, a reactionary way to express annoyance or anger at the Song Contest (e.g., LT United, Silvia Knight, Dustin the Turkey).
The protest entry reached its pinnacle in 2006. The aforementioned LT United and Silvia Knight performed similar entries declaring themselves the winners of the Song Contest. If Lithuania’s and Iceland’s entries were directly snarky, Finland’s choice still smacked of the same dissatisfaction with Eurovision demonstrated by several other countries at the time. While Lordi is a seasoned and professional act, their theatrical make-up, presentation and over-the-top pyrotechnics (the first year pyrotechnics allowed in the contest) indirectly commented on Eurovision’s excesses. And yet the song completely entertained us all. It transcended its status as a protest song and it was a runaway winner.
Sociological literature indicates that, when faced with high costs of entry but low outcome uncertainty, organizational actors tend toward certain mitigating strategies. These strategies include mimicry, conservatism of choice, and reliance on previous success. We see these behaviors consistently exhibited in the Song Contest, even today.
Therefore, the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest had to answer a question: Is Lordi now what a Eurovision Song Contest winner looks like? Many other countries attempted a similar theatrical, gimmicky route in Helsinki: Switzerland had “Vampires are Alive,” the United Kingdom had “Flying the Flag (for You),” and of course Ukraine had “Dancing Lasha Tumbai.”
There were a number of old plotlines playing out as well. Romania had opted for a vaguely cynical multicultural entry, Todomondo’s “Liubi, Liubi, I Love You.” Meanwhile, France went the protest song route with Les Fatals Picards’ “L’amour à la française,” which subtly mocked that year’s entries from Belarus and Ukraine.
Eurovision 2007 also included important contributions to another plotline: the emerging LGBT identity of the Song Contest. For example, two countries entered drag acts. While Denmark’s “Drama Queen” did not make it out of the Semifinal, Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka was one of the bookies’ favorites to win it all. (We’ll come back to this later.)
The Eurovision Song Contest would likely have taken a different direction in subsequent years had Verka gotten the win the year after Lordi. Artists would take the “safe” choices of what previously worked, and country selections would to defer to the purported tastes of the European voters.
But it didn’t pan out that way: “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” finished second behind “Molitva.”
The win by “Molitva” felt like a rejection of performance over songwriting and of the cynicism towards the Song Contest that was becoming part of the conventional narrative (one that BBC’s Terry Wogan followed in the United Kingdom during his final years as commentator). It was simply a quality entry, and it won because it was the best song that year.
Make no mistake: it did not harken back to the days when Eurovision was just a Song Contest. Perhaps chalk it up to the fact that this was Serbia’s maiden entry, but Marija and her stage partners didn’t just stand there and sing. “Molitva” was as stylized and choreographed as any other entry that year. But at its core, “Molitva” was an excellent song and it was performed by a powerhouse vocalist.
Marija’s vocal was commanding, grounded, and emotional; you didn’t need to speak Serbian to relate to what she was singing about. Indeed, it is to date the only winning entry performed in a language other than English since the language rules were loosened up in 1999.
Moreover, Marija’s strong artistic identity and interpretation embraced and celebrated LGBT pride. It forwarded that agenda by adopting a sincere approach, rather than a campy one.
Marija’s moment didn’t result in every country immediately redefining their approach to the song contest. In 2008, Dima Bilan–returning after his second place finish behind Lordi–had a solid song, but he performed it with a strong stage gimmick. The following year, Alexander Rybak sailed to a win with a preponderance of stage presence and an only-at-Eurovision song.
But slowly, slowly Eurovision has changed. Fewer joke entries have entered the Song Contest, and those that do often flounder in the Semifinals. More countries have been looking for artists that could manage chart-friendly success. The trend was further facilitated by the introduction of juries; with that second audience in play, countries now had to anticipate not only the tastes of the voting public, but also international groups of music industry professionals. The first artist to truly piece it all together was Loreen in 2012. Not only did she capture the votes, but “Euphoria” went on to be a summer hit throughout Europe. However, it was Marija who established that in this performance era, the whole package matters most.