LONDON — The Eurovision Song Contest is the world’s biggest music competition: a fiercely competitive, always surprising, sometimes surreal Olympics of song. Broadcast live across the world, the competition has taken place since 1956, making it one of the longest running television shows of all time.
Last year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the competition was canceled for the first time in its long history. This year, Eurovision is going ahead with social distancing measures, and a few acts won’t perform live as planned because of positive Covid-19 results or travel restrictions. The final takes place on Saturday, following semifinal rounds earlier in the week.
With its unique traditions, occasionally baffling performances and complicated voting system, the world of Eurovision can confuse the uninitiated. If this is your first year tuning in, or you’re intrigued after watching the Netflix film “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” here’s a survival guide to this year’s contest.
What, exactly, is the Eurovision Song Contest?
As well as being an often madcap television spectacle, Eurovision is a serious competition, and being chosen as a country’s act is a huge honor (as the lead characters in “The Story of Fire Saga” would tell you).
Participating countries — 39 this year — present an entrant with a song no longer than three minutes in length. Each country’s act performs their song, and the winner is chosen based on the combined votes of fans at home and official juries from each competing country.
Notable Eurovision winners have included Sweden’s ABBA with “Waterloo” in 1974, Celine Dion representing Switzerland in 1988 with “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi,” and Finland’s monster costume-wearing Lordi, who won with “Hard Rock Hallelujah” in 2006.
The winning country usually hosts the contest the following year. Since the 2020 competition was canceled, the 2021 contest is being held in Rotterdam after the Netherlands’ entry, Duncan Laurence, won in 2019.
Because 39 entries would mean an eye-watering number of performances for one evening, two semifinals precede the final. By the time the final comes around, there are fewer acts to get through, and the telecast lasts a mere four hours.
The “Big Five” countries — Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Britain — contribute the most financially to the contest and all automatically get a spot in the final. The host nation also gets a free pass, which means 26 acts will perform on Saturday.
How can Americans watch the competition?
In the United States, the final can be seen Saturday on Peacock from 3 p.m. E.D.T. It will then be available on demand. The streaming service, which also aired the competition’s semifinals, will broadcast the contest again in 2022.
What should I expect from the acts?
In the crowded final, entrants often use dramatic props and stage theatrics to make their performances memorable. This can get surreal: Romania once submitted an opera-dubstep entry with a singer who looked like a vampire, and Montenegro’s 2013 act performed as rapping astronauts.
With countries essentially competing in a popularity contest, the songs put forward tend to cover universal themes such as love and peace, and entrants are actively encouraged to avoid political themes. Belarus was disqualified this year after the lyrics of its submission were deemed too political. The country was invited to submit a new song, but it was also disqualified for breaching rules that ensure Eurovision is not “instrumentalized or brought into disrepute,” according to a statement from the contest.
Favorites to win this year include the Italian rock band Maneskin, who perform “Zitti E Buoni” in eyeliner and a lot of leather. Destiny Chukunyere, Malta’s 18-year-old entrant, goes in more of a colorful pop direction with “Je Me Casse.”
Another favorite is Iceland’s entry, Dadi Freyr, with his band Gagnamagnid. The video for their 2020 entry “Think About Things” went viral thanks to the band’s quirky dance moves and uniform green sweaters. Their song for this year’s contest, “10 Years,” features similarly hypnotic moves. On Wednesday the band announced that one member had tested positive for the coronavirus, so they won’t be performing live at the final.
There will even be some American presence at Eurovision 2021: The rapper Flo Rida is part of the entry for the small nation state of San Marino, performing the rap interlude for the song “Adrenalina” by the singer Senhit.
Spain’s Blas Cantó will perform alongside a giant moon that descends from the ceiling. Germany’s act, Jendrik, includes a dancer in a giant hand costume. Vasil, representing North Macedonia, dressed as a disco ball for his semifinal performance.
How will this year be different?
Not long after the 2020 competition was canceled, organizers announced that a contest in 2021 would go ahead, and the event is part of a trial by the Dutch government to see how to safely stage large events without spreading the coronavirus.
Everyone at the Rotterdam Ahoy Arena, the site of the 2021 contest, has been adhering to social distancing and undergoing testing every 48 hours. With delegations traveling from many countries where the majority of the population is not fully vaccinated, delegations keep to “bubbles” and cannot mix, and must spend most of their time in Rotterdam backstage or in their hotel rooms. There will be 3,500 fans in the audience (20 percent of the arena’s capacity), and all must provide a negative test before entering the venue.
Each entrant also recorded a “live-on-tape” performance in advance of the competition, in case they were not able to perform onstage. Only Australia’s act, who couldn’t make it because of travel restrictions, had to resort to the live-on-tape performance.
Iceland was able to perform a full dress rehearsal onstage before a band member tested positive, so that footage will be used in the final. On Thursday, the contest announced that Laurence, the 2019 winner, had tested positive for Covid-19 and would not be able to perform live onstage or hand over the 2021 award.
How does that complicated voting system work?
The first thing to note is that a country — and its Eurovision fans watching at home — can’t vote for its own entry.
After all the entrants have performed, in a section of the broadcast that can last well over an hour, a representative from each country announces its jury votes for each other act, with 12 being the top score. The jury votes make up 50 percent of a country’s final score, the public voting the other half.
These juries are supposed to reduce the chance of bloc voting, where a country votes for a politically and culturally close country’s act, rather than on merit. When Cyprus gave 12 points to Greece and Greece gave Cyprus 12 points right back in 2019, it resulted in boos from the audience.
The public votes from all of the participating countries are then counted and announced by the show’s hosts.
This can lead to a stark revealing of an entry’s lack of popularity. In the 2019 competition Germany received 32 votes from the professional juries. Then came the public votes. “Germany you received, from the public vote, I’m sorry … zero points,” the hosts announced to a shocked audience.
So all the participating countries are in Europe?
The contest was started as part of efforts to encourage cooperation between European countries after the Second World War, and the majority of participating countries are indeed European. But Israel, Azerbaijan and Morocco also compete, as does Australia, and Britain will continue to participate, despite leaving the European Union earlier this year.
What about the U.S.?
The United States doesn’t participate in Eurovision, but soon it should have its own version with “American Song Contest,” set to air on NBC in 2022.
A U.S. version of the competition has been an ambition of the contest and the European Broadcasting Union, who runs the contest, for years. Instead of artists representing a country, musicians representing 50 states, five overseas territories and Washington, D.C., will compete through several knockout stages, with the public vote deciding the winner.
In 2020, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” a Netflix film starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, celebrated not only the more surreal elements of the contest, but also introduced fans around the world to the format and its overwhelming popularity in Europe. A song from the film “Husavik (My Hometown)” was also nominated for best original song at this year’s Academy Awards.
Whether the “American Song Contest” retains the camp, extravagance and distinctively European look and feel of Eurovision remains to be seen. We can be sure, though, that this aesthetic will be on display Saturday at the final.