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Everything an American needs to understand Eurovision

This is Portugal's entry in this year's Eurovision. No, we're not really sure what's going on either.
This is Portugal's entry in this year's Eurovision. No, we're not really sure what's going on either.
Bax Lindhardt/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

By: Alex Abad-Santos and Zack Beauchamp

This Saturday is the 2014 finals of Eurovision, one of the most-watched non-sports events in the world and the greatest singing competition the world has ever seen. But what is it, really? We're glad you asked.

What is Eurovision?

Eurovision is an international song competition, where a few dozen countries (37 this year) send representatives to perform ludicrously over-the-top music for European glory. The participating countries are mostly European, but a few others, like Israel, get to compete too.

This year, there are six automatic finalists: Denmark (because of its performance last year), France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. The rest of the countries have to battle it out in two televised semi-final rounds to get there — the top ten in each semi-final round make it to the final.

During the semi-finals, each country's music act performs, and advance based on points which are determined by telephone votes and jury decisions. The ones who advance perform again in the finals.

The winner(s) are chosen by a combination of telephone voting and jury votes.

OK, but what American events is Eurovision like?

Eurovision is like what'd happen if you combined the basic premise of American Idol with the bracket structure and enthusiasm of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Yes, it's a music competition with a telephone voting element, but there's a frenetic fandom that US singing competitions don't approach. That kind of loyalty and fan intensity is something we normally only see around huge sporting events.

Imagine for a second that fan-voting determined which team won March Madness or, say, Olympic medals and you'll start to understand why Europeans get super pumped about this — some 170 million viewers tuned in last year.

Who won last year?

Denmark won last year, with a moody performance from Emmelie de Forest. Her song, "Only Teardrops," is a well-done version of one of Eurovision's more annoying genres: the ballad.

But last year's runners-up better exemplify Eurovision insanity at its finest. For instance, this bugnuts Romanian techno-vampire dance in the semi-finals:

Or this amazing mashup between traditional Greek music and third wave ska-punk, whose chorus is just "alcohol, alcohol, alcohol is free:"

Most of the fun of watching Eurovision, if your country isn't performing, is marveling at the amazing performances and mocking the snoozefests, as with any music competition show.

How do they decide who wins?

The Eurovision voting system is rather complicated. Each country, through a combination of viewer voting and rulings from appointed competition judges, ranks all of the the performances from the other countries (you can't vote for yourself). The rankings are determined half by popular voting, and half by the judging panel from that country.

Getting ranked first place is worth 12 points, second place worth 10 points, third 8 points, fourth 7, fifth 6, and so forth until reaching eleventh place and below, which get zero points. The performance with the highest point total wins.  If you're really interested, here are the official rules.

There are some weird patterns in voting that seem to crop up year-after-year. The Scandinavian countries tend to vote for one another, as do the Balkans. Andorra, Portugal and Spain make up a little team, as do Britain and Ireland (though that alliance is more recent). There's actually a whole little academic sub-field devoted to studying these patterns, ably summarized by The Wire here.

However, its unclear whether these are actual alliances or whether these countries simply have similar taste in music.

What are some memorable songs from past Eurovisions?

Perhaps the most batshit insane song in the contest's history is "Vampires Are Alive," the 2007 Swiss entry that's just...well, watch it:

But there are also some historically important performances. ABBA broke out with its 1974 performance of "Waterloo" — the band's first number one single. Bonus points for weird dated sexism in the announcer commentary:

And in 1958, singer Domenico Modugno's performance of "Volare" didn't win, but it spawned an international megahit. You've probably heard this song before, or at least a cover by Frank Sinatra or David Bowie. Modugno's album containing "Volare" is the only foreign-language album to ever win the Grammy for Album of the Year.

As a result of some silly rule-bending shenanigans, noted Canadian Celine Dion performed for Switzerland in Eurovision 1988:

Julio Iglesias (father of Enrique) represented Spain in 1970, before he hit it big internationally:

And Katrina and the Waves, best-known in the US for "Walking on Sunshine," won the 1997 competition for the UK with "Love Shine a Light":

Which contests should I know about this cycle?

The International Favorite: Mariya Yaremchuk, Ukraine

The Ukraine crisis is hanging over Eurovision, as both Ukraine and Russia have qualified for the finals. People want to see Ukraine do well and Russia fail horribly (the Russian entry was booed during the first semi-final performance).  That's why all eyes are on Yaremchuk, and her catchy dance hit "Tick-Tock" (not to be confused with Kesha's "TiK ToK").

The Veteran: Valentina Monetta, San Marino

Valentina is a Eurovision pro. She is representing San Marino for the third consecutive year, and mad it to the finals this time. So yay for her!

If Valentina wins, San Marino would likely be next year's Eurovision host (winners customarily get to host the next year), which would be a big deal for the microstate, which is completely surrounded by Italy. Her song this year, "Maybe," is kind of like what would happen if Celine Dion were commissioned for a James Bond theme song, and then intermittently goosed during while it was recorded:

The Rebel: Conchita Wurst, Austria

Ms. Wurst is the drag persona of Thomas Neuwirth. She's been on the Austrian music scene since 2011 and, when it was announced that she would represent Austria in Eurovision this year, there was a bit of a backlash. There's a several-thousand strong "anti-Wurst" movement among some Eurovision-watchers.

Conchita is not well-loved in Russia or Belarus, countries where anti-gay animus is widespread. One popular Belarussian petition asked the country to block her performance, warning that Conchita would turn Eurovision into a "hotbed of sodomy." Frankly, we think that sounds pretty fun and would be a ratings coup, but whatever. Her song, "Rise Like a Phoenix" is as subtle as Conchita is:

The European Mumford and Sons: Firelight, Malta

Big fan of Mumford and Sons or Fleet Foxes or what have you? Look no further than this group from Malta, which we will just call Malta and Sons:

The Sadly Eliminated Hair-Puller: Christina Scarlat, Moldova

Unfortunately Scarlat, who is part-valkyrie, part-real housewife of Chişinău, was eliminated in the semi-finals. Her claim to fame is ripping off her weave mid-song.


Her song, "Wild Soul," was also a little bit of a rebellious pick. It's not about love, peace, and hope — the usual topics of a Eurovision song. Scarlat's song includes the line "Mercy. I have no feelings of mercy." So yeah, she's a boss.

Okay, this is awesome. When are the finals and how can I watch them?

The finals are on May 10, in Copenhagen. They start at 9 pm CET, so 3 pm Eastern Standard. You can stream them here.

Update: The winner of Eurovision 2014 was crowned over the weekend. *** Spoiler warning *** Austria's bearded drag queen, Conchita Wurst took home the Eurovision crown with 290 points. The Netherlands and Sweden came in second and third.