Euny Hong is a journalist and the author, most recently, of “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success” (Penguin, 2019). She has lived and worked in the U.S., France, Korea and Germany. She tweets @euny.
PÉZENAS, France —Throughout most of its 65-year history, the Eurovision Song Contest has been a strictly European spectacle. But now, in a rare case of pop culture traveling westward across the Atlantic, the quintessentially European bad-taste extravaganza is headed to America.
Eurovision’s plan to stage an “American Song Contest,” pitting the 50 U.S. states against each other for best — or at least “best”— song. Delayed by COVID-19, the event is now scheduled for the holiday season. That leaves just about half a year for someone, somewhere, to prevent the American Song Contest from taking place.
There are many reasons to protect Eurovision from the Americans. For decades, the song contest has been one of very few symbols of continental unity to arise from popular culture (as opposed to, say, monetary policy).
First staged in 1956, Eurovision was the brainchild of the nascent European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which was itself founded from the ashes of World War II. The spectacle was pitched as a way for 20th-century Europeans to feel the frisson of national rivalry without resorting to fighting, as they had too frequently that century.
That makes Eurovision a year older than the European Economic Community itself. It’s more established than the euro and more reliable than frictionless internal borders. Its closest rival as a symbol of European consensus is Nutella.
Eurovision’s staying power is remarkable given how much Europe has changed in the 65 years since its conception. As European politics evolved, the song contest ably demonstrated it could too — and become even more meaningful for it.
The entry of Russia and six other former Eastern Bloc nations in 1994 represented a step away from the Cold War. When Estonia hosted Eurovision in 2002, two years before it joined the EU, government officials, including the president, gave moving speeches about the contest’s meaning and their country’s place in Europe.
In 2016, then-U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron felt the need to publicly reassure worried Britons that Brexit wouldn’t mean Eurovexit. “I think given that Israel and Azerbaijan, and anyone anywhere near Europe seems to be able to [participate], I think we’re pretty safe from that one.” Cameron meant what he said, but the mocking tone he used revealed his fundamental misunderstanding not just of Eurovision, but of Europe.
Watching Eurovision without taking it seriously, yet also loving it, is woven into the contest’s tradition. The late Terry Wogan, who provided the BBC’s coverage of the contest for years, grasped this better than Cameron, covering the event with great seriousness and probity year after year, while drunk.
That’s why the American invasion into this most European of traditions is so dangerous. Many Yanks don’t necessarily have an ear for Wogan’s dual register, which is why mockery is so often perilous when the U.S. is doing the mocking. And then there’s the Heisenberg Principle of U.S. Observation — when America observes something in your culture, the observed object is not going to escape unchanged.
Case in point: After the American pop star Justin Timberlake gave a two-song guest performance at Eurovision 2016, full of diamond-cut dance moves and Elvis-ish savoire-faire, it didn’t just entertain us for an exotic five minutes. It triggered a subtle Americanization of all subsequent contests.
In the years A.T. (After Timberlake) the contest became slicker — its essential chaos was reduced to sporadic, glorious callbacks to simpler times. Italy’s 2017 song, “Occidentali’s Karma” — which included a man dancing in a gorilla suit for no reason that was ever explained nor expected to be — has become the exception, not the rule.
Because Eurovision was never intended for American eyes, it also had the effect of creating a safe space for the rest of the world to trash talk America. Eurovision press conferences are one of the rare fora for performers to let loose anti-American tirades with impunity — precisely because they are certain no Americans are watching.
In 2003, amid tense debates over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Poland’s frontman said something in the press conference about the “fucking Bush problem.” I was there covering the contest and asked a follow-up question, introducing myself as a freelance journalist writing about the Contest for The New York Times. The Polish singer slowly backed away.
There are so many aspects of Eurovision that won’t adapt well to the culture across the Atlantic, that it’s worth pulling together a short list of everything that’s likely to go wrong with the American Song Contest.
1: Eurovision voting rules won’t make sense to Americans, because they prohibit people from voting for their own. (Voters are restricted to supporting other nations’ entries, to prevent populous countries from monopolizing the contest.) Americans who are fanatical about their state, like Texans, might rather not vote at all than cast their lot for one of their rivals.
2. Eurovision is a nonprofit undertaking. This will make no sense whatsoever to Americans — especially as millions of dollars in advertising revenue become available to be spent on floor shows and costumes. The best song, not best performance, is intended to win, but this is a subtle distinction that will be hard for Americans to make as they busy themselves calculating returns on investment.
3. America has only one official language. One of the appeals of Eurovision is its linguistic diversity, and that’s already being eroded: In the A.T. era, some of the songs’ English lyrics have begun to improve, leaving behind classic lyrics like “Hello, is it God? What’s up, dog?” (Iceland, “Congratulations,” 2013) or “Do you wanna play cyber-sex again?” (San Marino, “Facebook, Uh, Oh, Oh,” 2012).
(As a side note, the latter entry was actually banned from that year’s broadcast, and not for sexual content, but because it mentioned Facebook, a corporate brand. Eurovision rules forbid name-checking brands. What are the odds The American Song Contest will?)
4. Musical diversity is one of the things that gives the contest its spark. America’s regional musical traditions, like country/western or hip-hop, have long gone national — meaning the contest will be a miasma rather than a showcase of different regional traditions. In Europe, the Easterners bring distinctive minor keys, while the French excel at warbling, adding the variety that is the spice of Eurovision.
5. In the worst-case scenario, America will make Eurovision cool. If the American Song Contest succeeds, the European version of the contest will never be the same. It will be: Hello, Jennifer Lopez, goodbye, Verka Serduchka (Ukraine, “Dancing Lasha Tumbai,” 2007); hello professional choreography, goodbye, human hamster wheel. (Ukraine, again, “Tick-Tock,” 2014).
Eurovision was a safe, socially acceptable way for Europeans to cringe. But when Americans cringe at you, the fun is over.