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The Eurovision Song Contest, explained

Sweet van, Belarus.
(Michael Campanella/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.

This Saturday is the final round of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest. It's one of the most watched events in the world, with roughly 200 million people tuning in to one of the 2015 broadcasts. Historically, very few of those people have been Americans — but that's about to change. For the first time ever, the final is being broadcast in the US, on the Logo network at 3 pm EST. It's gotten so big that Justin Timberlake is performing during the final (though not as a contestant).

So you might be wondering: What the hell is this thing? How does it work? And should I watch it?

I'm here to answer those questions. The short version? Eurovision is the most delightful music competition in the world, and you should absolutely watch it.

Eurovision is basically the Olympics meets American Idol

At its most bare-bones level, Eurovision is an international song contest. But it's so much more than that: It was created in 1956, as an attempt by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to bring Europeans together after the trauma of World War II. Today it's a magical place where (mostly) European countries come together to battle one another using insanely elaborate costumes (and nudity), glitter, and fireworks instead of bombs and guns.

During Eurovision, representatives from different countries perform one original song on a live televised broadcast; the winner is determined both by judges and by the votes that people get in each country. (The details of this are complicated, but don't worry, we'll get to that.)

When it started, there were just seven participants. This year, 42 countries entered into the competition, with non-European participants including Israel and Australia.

Thirty-six of these participants had to compete in semifinal rounds in order to qualify for the final. Only 20 made it to the final. In addition, last year's winner automatically qualifies — in this case, Sweden. The so-called Big Five, the five countries that give the most money to the EBU, also automatically qualify. They're Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the UK.

Eurovision performances are bizarre and, sometimes, history-making

The main reason Eurovision is such a big deal is that its performances are incredible. The productions are astonishing, full of over-the-top special effects and hilariously incomprehensible lyrics. It's just really, really fun to watch — and when you combine that with the kind of nationalistic passion usually reserved for the Olympics, it's pretty easy to get into it.

If you want one song that really captures the spirit of Eurovision, it's worth watching this 2007 Swiss entry called "Vampires are Alive." It is ... well, just watch it:

Another personal favorite of mine is 2012's "Euro Neuro," a pseudo-rap about European unity (I think?) sung by a Moldovan man who goes by the name of Rambo Amadeus. It features Amadeus rhyming "Euroskeptic" with "unalphabetic," and there's also a Trojan horse (I think?):

Occasionally, though, the performances aren't just strange — they actually highlight people who are on the verge of becoming famous, or even launch their careers entirely. ABBA, for example, broke out with its 1974 performance of "Waterloo," the band's first No. 1 single.

Celine Dion — despite being notably Canadian — also owes some of her early success to Eurovision. Through some rule-bending shenanigans, she represented Switzerland in 1988, and won with her song. The victory raised Dion's profile considerably, as she wasn't particularly famous outside of the French-speaking world before her victory. She released her first English album, Unison, two years later.

In 1958, singer Domenico Modugno's performance of "Volare" spawned an international megahit, though it didn't actually win. 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.

So basically, you come for the bizarro nonsense performances and stay for the chance that you're seeing a breakout performance by a future star.

This year's favorites

The best way to try to figure out who's the favorite this year is to look at international betting markets. According to data from 10 different betting agencies, there's a clear favorite and then a group of clear runners-up. After that, the odds are all very long.

So here's a guide to your top five, with a video of each entrant's song along with their average odds from across the agencies.

Russia — 3:2 odds

Russia is the overwhelming favorite. It's easy to see why if you watch its entrant, Sergey Lazarev, perform in the semifinal: Watching a dude sing on a screen-projected 3D iceberg is pretty awesome, and the song is exactly the kind of uptempo pop song that tends to do well at Eurovision.

It makes sense that Russia's entry would be so good. Apparently Vladimir Putin is personally a little obsessed with winning Eurovision; according to the BBC, he sees it as a way to restore Russia's prestige and standing in Europe.

Australia — 5:1

Australia's entry, Dami Im's "Sound of Silence," is honestly kind of boring. But the visuals are pretty cool, and the ballad style is (inexplicably) popular in Eurovision. So it makes sense that it'd be the next in line after Russia's more uptempo entry.

Ukraine — 9:1

Ukraine's entry this year is controversial. Eurovision rules say "no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted," but this song is pretty clearly designed to highlight the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The singer, Jamala, is from the Tatar ethnic group in Crimea, the peninsula that Russia illegally seized from Ukraine in 2014. Her song, "1944," is about Stalin's mass deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea in that year, her grandmother among them.

It's hard not to interpret this as a shot at Putin and Russian foreign policy. My guess, though, is that this will help, not hurt, Jamala's chances at winning the contest. Russia's military adventurism in Ukraine is widely unpopular across Europe, with audiences booing both of the past two years' Russian entries during the finals.

France — 12:1

Who doesn't like a cute French man named Amir dancing around a stage with a giant smile on his face, singing about how great you are? Nobody, that's who.

Sweden — 16:1

Sweden's Frans, who sings "If I Were Sorry," looks and sounds like Sweden's answer to Justin Bieber, with a little bit of Taylor Hanson thrown in for good measure. Whether you like this song or not will depend on how good that sounds to you.

Bonus — Belarus

Belarus did not qualify for the final round, mostly because its song is pretty terrible. But you really have to watch its semifinal performance, which involves a naked man singing to a holographic wolf. That's about as Eurovision as it gets.

Eurovision voting is culturally biased and political

These competitors aren't coming into this on an even footing. While sometimes songs can win on pure mass appeal, there are a bunch of biases that go into determining who wins Eurovision. Historically, certain countries tend to vote for each other in very high numbers, putting some countries at an inherent advantage.

That's because of how Eurovision voting actually works. Each country, through a combination of viewer voting and rulings from appointed competition judges, ranks all the other countries' performances (you can't vote for yourself). 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 11th place and below, which get zero points. The performance with the highest point total wins.

In past years, the rankings have been determined half by popular voting and half by the judging panel from that country. But this year, rankings and voting are being counted separately, with each counting for up to 12 points. The UK's judges could award you 12 points, for example, and the UK voters award you none.

This system seems like a good way to give every country, big or small, an equal voice in Eurovision. In practice, though, it appears to give a lot of weight to cultural and political biases.

A 2013 study, by ETH Zurich scholars David García and Dorian Tanase, looked at how often countries voted for each other between 1997 and 2013. They designed a measure to see if certain countries tended to disproportionately award their points to specific other countries, and vice versa.

The following chart shows their results. Blue lines indicate countries that tend to award large numbers of points to each other; red lines indicate those that tend to award a disproportionately low number to another country. The brighter the line, the stronger the connection:

(David García/Dorian Tanase)

You'll notice that countries tend to cluster in little cliques (where a lot of blue lines overlap), confirming the theory that certain countries vote in blocs. The bigger your bloc, the more of a built-in advantage you have. Hence why Nordic countries and post-Soviet states have done pretty well in recent years, while France hasn't won since 1977.

Why do these blocs exist? The García/Tanase chart suggests one natural explanation: cultural ties.

Inside the clusters, you tend see a lot of countries with similar ethnolinguistic backgrounds. The bottom right section, for example, has Russia, along with a lot of Eastern European countries, some central Asian ones, and Israel (which has a huge Russian immigrant population). The Nordic countries tend to vote for each other, as do German-speaking ones.

Indeed, their study found strong support for cultural links. Using a measure called "cultural distance," essentially a test of shared cultural values, they found a strong correlation between "low cultural distance" — that is, having a lot of dominant cultural values in common — and voting for each other in Eurovision.

But they also found that history and politics matter.

For example, Armenia and Turkey have low cultural distance scores, indicating similar cultural values. But they also tend not to vote for each other in Eurovision. The researchers chalk that up to " historical conflicts" — a polite way of saying that the Armenian genocide, perpetrated by the Turkish government about 100 years ago, still colors the way Armenians and Turks think about each other.

García and Tanase also found that the recent Great Recession and the related euro crisis had major effects on voting. Specifically, they caused clustering to intensify:  Countries were more likely to vote for their friends in the years after immediately after the 2008 crash than in years before it. They even link this intensified clustering, which the researchers call "polarization," to bailouts and spiking interest rates:

(David García and Dorian Tanase)

Studying Eurovision voting, they suggest, might allow political scientists to "quantify how society reacts to political decisions and the [euro] crisis in general, in a similar manner as sovereign bond interest rates measure how the market reacts to the same phenomenon."

Is Eurovision "the gay Olympics?"

It's impossible to really talk about Eurovision without mentioning its role in queer culture. Eurovision is almost certainly the proudest major international competition on the planet. Hence why it's being aired on Logo, America's LGTBQ-themed channel.

"Eurovision really is the gay World Cup," BBC announcer Scott Mills, himself gay, said in 2011. Conchita Wurst, the bearded Austrian drag queen who won 2014's competition, has referred to it as "the Gay Olympics."

The over-the-top glam and glitz that has long characterized the competition fits in well with the emphasis on camp you see in parts of gay culture — like, say, drag queens. But Eurovision's gay subtext really became text in 1997 and 1998.

In 1997, Iceland sent Páll Óskar to the competition. Óskar was the first openly gay competitor in Eurovision, and his nomination proved to be a watershed moment for the competition:

In 1998, Israel sent a transgender woman named Dana International to perform a song called "Diva." International outright won the competition, cementing Eurovision's status as a place where it was safe to be openly LGBTQ. Remember, International's victory came three years before any country legalized same-sex marriage:

After that, Eurovision became famous for its open displays of LGBTQ identity and sexuality. As University of Hull historian Catherine Baker writes:

Further contested steps towards ‘visibility’ in the early 2000s included a kiss between two male musicians from the Israeli band Ping Pong in the video for their 2000 entry, the participation of the Slovenian drag cabaret trio Sestre in 2002 and the Russian duo Tatu in 2003. A transphobic campaign against Sestre in the Slovenian media drew the European Parliament’s attention, with the Dutch MEP Lousewies van der Laan supporting Sestre. Tatu’s international stardom in 2002–2003 had owed much to public personas suggesting that they were lesbians.

"Through Eurovision’s ‘visibility phase’ in 1997–2007, Eurovision’s non-heteronormative contexts ceased being simply projected on to the contest externally; they became part of the text itself," Baker writes.

Essentially, Eurovision came out.

Today, with most European publics strongly supportive of equality for LGBTQ citizens, Eurovision's queer identity is pretty well accepted. But there are exceptions; Russia, in particular, has taken a violently homophobic turn, and Russian state media has reacted negatively to some of the contest's more openly queer elements.

When Wurst won in 2014, for example, Putin personally gave a statement to the press attacking her: "For us it is important to reaffirm traditional values," he said. "People have the right to live their lives the way they want. But they should not be aggressive, or put it up for show."

It's appropriate, then, that Wurst's winning song was titled "Rise Like a Phoenix." Here she is performing it at a 2015 semifinal — and showing Putin that she, frankly, didn't give a shit:

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