Writing a brief history of Eurovision is no easy task. The famed song contest has been taking place since 1956, and it’s included numerous twists and turns since its humble beginnings. Put simply, Eurovision is an international songwriting competition. But it’s of course much more than that. Sometimes it’s an example of the power of soft diplomacy. Sometimes, it’s the international launch of superstars to come. (ABBA, Riverdance, and many more come to mind.) Other times, it’s extremely confusing. But, always, without fail, it’s a lot of fun. Each year comes with the promise of seeing something you’ve never seen before. In this brief history of Eurovision, we offer a bluffer’s guide to one of the world’s largest entertainment events. – Sam Armstrong
Can’t get enough Eurovision? Relive last year’s event with this compilation.
The world’s most famous song festival was born with a lofty ambition – to unite a Europe still ravaged by the recent World War. French businessman Marcel Baison borrowed the concept from Italy’s successful San Remo competition and got the newly formed European Broadcasting Union (EBU) interested. Just seven countries took part on May 24, 1956, in Lugano, Switzerland, with each nation performing two songs. Lys Assia won with the French-language “Refrain” for the host state. The United Kingdom had already commissioned its own domestic Festival Of British Popular Songs and wouldn’t take part in the Eurovision Song Contest until the following year.
In the early days of the contest, there was a considered move to promote European-style pop in a bid to balance the dominant American recordings that – even back then – had a stranglehold on sales on both sides of the Atlantic. These were national anthems, if you like, and so all ten of 1957’s entries were performed in their maiden tongue. The UK joined the contest this year, along with Austria and Denmark. British soprano Patricia Bredin hoped “All” would prove prophetic in the voting, but the Netherlands entry, “Net Als Toen” by Corry Brokken, romped home to victory – even though the nation had broken the rules with a performance a minute longer than the 3:30 allowed.
Here’s the start of something strange in the history of Eurovision: the most famous entry (by a country mile) of 1958 didn’t even win! Italy’ “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu” came third for Domenico Modugno but sold millions when issued as “Volare”/”To Fly” and even won the first Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance, Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year. Instead, France triumphed with Andre Claveau’s “Dors, Mon Amour,” while the UK snubbed this year’s event – no doubt smarting after finishing seventh the previous year. 1958’s contest was held in Hilversum, Holland (the tradition beginning to be established that the winning nation would host the following year).
The UK returned to the fold and 1959 saw the debut of Monaco (another Eurovision delight: the realization for some that there are European states so small you might not have heard of them). The UK’s entry, Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson’s “Sing Little Birdie,” came second and was the first domestic Eurovision single to make the UK charts – a phenomenon that gets more interesting later in the 1960s and 1970s. Germany offered the first nod towards the now-dominant rock ‘n’ roll with its entry, but the judges weren’t impressed – it came eighth out of 11 competing nations, while the Netherlands won again with Teddy Scholten’s charming “Een Beetje.”
With rock ‘n’ roll still missing in action, the dawn of the swinging 1960s Eurovision was anything but. The 12 entries (Norway joined the contest this year) ranged from soft jazz, strident MOR, and those ubiquitous ballads; you could even hear a bit of light opera! France’s Jacqueline Boyer with “Tom Pillibi” was the final song of the night and edged ahead in the poll at the 11th hour. This was the start of the history of Eurovision’s magic ingredient: the unpredictable voting at night’s end, becoming ever-more erratic as the contest grew.
Three more countries joined Eurovision in 1961 – Finland, Spain, and Yugoslavia, bringing the number of entries to an impressive 16. Again, some of the biggest hits of the show failed to win – The Allisons, for the UK, had a sizeable international smash with “Are You Sure?” but came second; while a remake of “Al Di La” (Italy’s entry by Betty Cutis) was an American Top 10 hit for Emilio Pericoli when later featured in the film Rome Adventure but only came fifth. The night’s gold medal went to Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Pascal and “Nous Les Amoureux,” which singularly failed to make subsequent impact anywhere.
The ultimate humiliation of Eurovision is the dreaded “null points” – songs that fail to win a single score from either the professional national juries or viewers voting from home. 1962 was the first time it happened, with Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Spain all falling to impress. France’s Isabelle Aubret with “Un Premier Amour,” on the other hand, romped home with 26 points (runner-up Monaco could only manage 13).
With The Beatles about to conquer the world – and already a phenomenon in their homeland – the UK’s Ronnie Carroll and “Say Wonderful Things” was as far away from Merseybeat as is possible to imagine. He came fifth, while Denmark won for the first time with “Dansevise” by Grethe and Jorgen Ingmann. The night was tainted by a technical hitch. The Norwegians resubmitted their votes after failing to do so properly in the first go-round. When a second attempt led to some of the votes being changed, including more offered for their near neighbours the Danes, it led to claims of funny business. This was the start of another long-running theme in the history of Eurovision: the accusation of political voting.
Italy swept the board with “Non Ho L’Eta” from Gigliola Cinquetti; the song was a huge international success and Gigliola would return to the Eurovision stage again the following decade (and would host in 1991). Austria’s Udo Jurgens only came sixth with “Warum Nur Warum,” but the English-language cover-version, “Walk Away,” by the UK’s Matt Monro later found success on both sides of the Atlantic.
French legend Serge Gainsbourg would write the first classic winner in the history of Eurovision – “Poupee De Circe, Poupee De Son” – for his 17-year-old god-daughter France Gall, representing Luxembourg. This quirky pop composition is a world away from his steamy duet “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus,” which would prove a scandalous sensation just three years later. Ireland joined the contest for the first time, but its later dominance (peaking in the 1990s) was some way off, with a relatively modest placing of sixth the first time around.
Another, perhaps unsurprising, trend in the history of Eurovision starting to emerge at this time was the policy of competing nations picking tracks similar in style to the winning song of the previous year. 1966 saw a host of young female vocalists, including the first Black performer – Milly Scott for The Netherlands. In the end, it was Udo Jurgens, representing Austria for the third time in a row, and his piano-heavy “Merci Cherie” that broke free of the race and romped to a convincing victory.
With the 1960s now truly swinging, it was the era’s cultural capital that finally got top billing when the UK’s Sandie Shaw snatched one of the contest’s most sizable wins. Shaw would later claim to hate “Puppet On A String,” which would certainly come to overshadow her career, but there is no doubting its influence on a Eurovision formula in the years ahead. Despite Sandie’s international success, the song that did the business in America was Vicky Leandros’s “L’Amour Est Bleu,” which topped the US charts for five weeks in an instrumental version by French orchestra leader Paul Mauriat.
One of the strangest years in the history of Eurovision. Did Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco really rig Eurovision? Rumors of tactical voting were rife even then, with the hot favorite Cliff Richard – and his evergreen anthem “Congratulations” – missing out by a single point in favor of Spain’s Massiel, who was picked to sing “La La La” after original singer Joan Manuel Serrat had expressed an interest in performing the track in Catalan against the leader’s wishes. “La La La” topped the leaderboard despite Cliff’s 45 already being a smash across the continent and following some bizarre voting by the national juries. In 2008, documentary filmmakers uncovered evidence that Franco had hired agents to bribe jurors in his bid to host the following year’s show and rejuvenate Spain’s international image as the continent’s favorite tourism destination.
A rare one in the history of Eurovision – an incredible four-way tie for pole position by France (“Un Jour, Un Enfant” by Frida Boccara), the Netherlands (Lenny Kuhr’s “De Troubadour”), Spain (“Vivo Cantando” by Salome) and the UK (with Lulu’s “Boom Bang-A-Bang”). The UK’s entry was arguably the biggest international hit, but things could have been very different – Elton John and Bernie Taupin had entered a song for that year’s national selection, but “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” failed to be picked.
In little more than a decade, Julio Iglesias would become one of the world’s most successful artists, but, in 1970’s Amsterdam ceremony, he had to make do with sixth placing for “Gwendolyne.” This year saw four countries pull out, but this wasn’t exactly rare in the history of Eurovision. (The contest offers many examples of nations choosing not to participate for one reason or another.) But this slighter 12-song competition saw Ireland claim its first crown. Dana’s “All Kinds Of Everything” was a sweet ballad entirely at odds with the serious political deterioration that would soon dominate the region. Dana would go into politics herself – becoming a member of the European Parliament in 1999.
There are textbook-length essays to be written on the development of the voting systems and the technologies that support Eurovision throughout its history, but it’s perhaps enough to simply say here that 1971’s changes saw juries reduced to just two members and that every song now had to secure at least a single point. What was even more surprising is each voting couple also had to mark their score after each performance, meaning later entries had little chance of sensible calibration! No doubt engineered for the best of reasons, this strange system saw Severine’s performance of “Un Banc, Un Arbre, Une Rue” for Monaco top the scoreboard, with Spain again the runner-up and Germany (still yet to win) coming third.
Back up to 18 competing countries, 1972’s contest saw Greek vocalist Vicky Leandros, representing Luxembourg, win with the powerful ballad “Apres Toi.” Another odd quirk of Eurovision is the knack for nations to inexplicably pick on some fresh approach all at the same time. This year it was the male/female duet (in itself perhaps not such a bad idea – it had worked for Denmark in 1963) but no less than six acts followed that formula this time and all proved unsuccessful. As it turned out, no duo would go on to win again until 22 years later.
There’s a history of acts coming back to Eurovision (we’ll come on to that champion, Johnny Logan, soon) but superstar Cliff Richard’s return five years after his shock defeat with “Congratulations” is perhaps the most surprising. He was honest about the motivation – his career was starting to slow and he needed a big hit – but “Power To All Our Friends” for the UK limped in third, behind Spain and the night’s winner: Anne-Marie David with “Tu Te Reconnaitras” (for Luxembourg again). Blurring the traditional boundaries of European geography, this year saw Israel entering for the first time.
Probably the most significant in the contest’s long chronology, Sweden’s 1974 winners ABBA are certainly the most successful act to emerge from the show, with sales of nearly four-hundred million albums to date and a place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The four-piece had failed to qualify at their national selections the previous year (with “Ring Ring”) but “Waterloo” triumphed both at home and on the night in Brighton, UK. The song had some stiff competition, including Olivia Newton-John for the host country with “Long Live Love,” but emerged the runaway winner. Runner-up, Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti, enjoyed big success with her entry “Si.” Even third placed The Netherlands landed an international hit with Mouth and MacNeal’s “I See A Star,” suggesting the contest had finally come of age for record-buyers.
Clearly repeating the ABBA formula of the previous year, Teach-In’s “Ding Dinge Dong” was a comfortable winner, with Cliff Richard’s former backing band, The Shadows, in second place for the UK with “Let Me Be The One.” The contest was growing in stature and scale, with Turkey entering for the first time and immediately illustrating another Eurovision spectacle: a country voting entirely out of character with the other nations. In 1975, it gave 16th-placed Portugal top marks; was the only country not to offer the UK a single vote, and only awarded the winner four points. This regional inconsistency of voting creates so much extra drama to this day!
Another contest classic: Brotherhood Of Man’s “Save All Your Kisses For Me” is the UK’s best-selling Eurovision single and arguably as era-defining as “Waterloo” (the British four-piece were also clearly modelled on the super-Swedes). The act would hit Billboard No. 27 with this song and go on to have two further UK chart toppers in “Angelo” and “Figaro,” but this is the anthem that has kept their career on simmer since their late 1970s peak. Politics is a perennial undercurrent of all international competitions and Eurovision is no exception. The Greek entry was a protest song about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the country only took part after Turkey announced it was staying out of the competition this year.
With punk’s cultural revolution now at full pitch, Eurovision… stayed largely the same; a safe, family-friendly enclave berthed far from more dramatic musical tides. France had been an outsider before the contest (this is the period when bookies first started to take bets on the winning song) but the atmospheric “L’Oiseau Et L’Enfant” by Marie Myriam stole a march on its perkier competition, including the UK’s runner-up “Rock Bottom” by Lynsey de Paul and Mike Moran (proving again that male-female-duet formula just didn’t appear to have that magic ingredient).
The Eurovision crown finally left its traditional frontiers, with Israel securing its first victory for Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta’s “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.” Izhar was famous in his homeland and, after Cliff Richard’s attempts to make it less unusual for established national stars to enter, more were now taking part. Spanish disco duo Baccara had enjoyed international success with “Yes, Sir, I Can Boogie” and represented Luxembourg in this year’s contest with the sound-a-like “Parlez Vous Francais?” but only came seventh.
With the contest moving to Jerusalem, the host nation secured a sensational second victory with “Hallelujah” by Milk And Honey featuring Gali Atari. Disco – at this point, the most popular music genre around the world – was again in evidence, with Germany’s Dschingis Khan and its self-titled entry and Denmark’s “Disco Tango,” by Tommy Seebach proving that not every musical style was beyond the pale, even if punk had proved a bit too strong for Eurovision’s musical palette at this point in its history.
Morocco entered Eurovision for the first time in its history, but the night belonged to Ireland and the “King” of Eurovision: Johnny Logan, who won with the AOR ballad “What’s Another Year?” The African state came second-to-last and would never return to the contest. Johnny would, of course, be back again (and again). Belgium band Telex tried to flatter the contest with a track entitled “Eurovision,” but the ploy didn’t work and the act came 17th out of 19 entrants and would never have another major hit, despite continent-wide success earlier that year with the cover of “Rock Around The Clock.”
In 1981, Bucks Fizz was formed to represent Great Britain with “Making Your Mind Up” and the band’s Dublin performance was a memorable early example of Eurovision choreography, with the female singers having their long skirts ripped off by two male bandmates to reveal miniskirts underneath. The gimmick supported a fine pop hook and helped it romp home to victory, while the band would go on to have dozens more hit singles in the decade ahead, including two more British chart-toppers in “The Land Of Make Believe” (the group’s biggest global seller) and “My Camera Never Lies.”
Perhaps the moment when the founding principles of Eurovision finally came good, Germany won the contest on its 27th attempt. The sweet ballad “A Little Peace,” sung by 17-year-old Nicole Hohloch, saw off all pretenders (and had the advantage of being performed last in the running order; always seen as being one of the best slots, as the performance is fresh in voters’ minds). Second-place Israel gave the entry top marks, a notable score given the heavy historical shadow cast by the still-relatively-recent past. It’s one of the best examples of the positive, soft-political power of the Eurovision project in its history.
With 20 countries now competing and 27 contests already in its history, 1983 marked the point when Eurovision’s ability to sell records started to wither. While MTV and the new wave of British pop transfixed the globe, this year’s champion, Corinne Hermes with Luxembourg’s “Si La Vie Est Cadeau,” failed to break the British Top 75 and continental success also proved patchy. Scoring also became far less consistent, with regional bias making predicting a winner far from straightforward. The late Ofra Haza almost clinched the crown in 1983 with the fan-favorite “Hi” but had to wait five more years before scoring a big international hit with “Im Nin’Alu.”
With ever-so-slightly-bland Euro-pop predominant, three Swedes in gold boots somehow wowed audiences with “Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley” and knocked Ireland’s Linda Martin into second place (although she would be back soon enough). Winning male trio Herreys actually opened the show, making its win even more remarkable. British broadcasting legend Terry Wogan, by now the regular commentator for his homeland, would bill it the worst song he ever witnessed at the contest but, in truth, it was a safe but supremely catchy earworm anchored on a Hi-NRG beat, a sometimes-winning Eurovision formula throughout the contest’s history.
Norway finally made it to pole position with a harmless rehash of the previous year’s successful formula billed “La Det Swinge,” by Bobbysocks. More notable was the presenter’s attempt to create Bucks Fizz-inspired gasps when her dress “caught” on a nail to reveal a slighter outfit underneath and the sheer volume of returning acts. (Those acts included former winners Izhar Cohen and Alphabeta (coming fifth for Israel), Denmark’s Hot Eyes competing for the second year running, and Italy’s Romina Power and Al Bano back after a nine-year break.)
Iceland joined Eurovision for the first time, but its entry – Icy’s “Gledibankinn” – only scored 19 points, coming 16th. Belgium’s Sandra Kim romped home with 176 points for her “J’Aime La Vie.” She was only 13 when she performed, becoming the contest’s youngest ever winner (today she’d be expected to enter the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, which was launched in 2003, and accepts contestants aged between nine and 14). The Cyprus entry, “Tora Zo” by Elpida, is routinely regarded as one of the worst entries in the Eurovision canon and only scored four points on the night.
When Ireland’s Johnny Logan won for the second time with his composition “Hold Me Now,” he could claim his place in the history of Eurovision (but he wouldn’t be stopping there…). With Italy and Greece again returning to the contest, entrants totalled 22 for the first time, and tensions surrounding picking the right song intensified. Israel almost withdrew when its Minister of Culture allegedly decided its song wasn’t strong enough, but cooler heads eventually prevailed. Notable too was the appearance this year of French punk-pop provocateur Plastic Bertrand, of “Ca Plane Pour Moi” fame, representing his homeland with “Amour Amour.”
Many North American audiences don’t realize that Celine Dion’s European breakthrough arrived with her 1988 power-ballad victory for Switzerland. “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi” inched ahead of the UK’s “Go” by Scott Fitzgerald by just one mark, thanks to the final Yugoslavian jury, which failed to award Great Britain even a single point. It launched the French-Canadian’s career outside her domestic market (and following some success in France) although her English-language debut wouldn’t arrive until the following year. In other surprises, Turkey actually awarded Greece three points, while Cyprus had to withdraw at the 11th hour after it was discovered its entry, “Thimamai,” had been written four years earlier.
On the eve of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia won for the first time with “Rock Me” by the band Riva. After Celine’s success the previous year, there was a plethora of impressive female singers and the odd curveball, including another unsuccessful male/female duo (this time, Israel paired a 12-year-old boy soprano with a much older woman). German superstar Dieter Bohlen from the hugely successful band Modern Talking partnered with songwriter Joachim-Horn Bergnes to enter songs for his homeland and neighboring Austria, coming 14th and fifth respectively.
Technical difficulties (often as hosts tried to connect with the international juries) proved part of the fabric of Eurovision night in its earliest years. In 1990, it was still happening, with the Zagreb contest witness to something of a false start when the opening Spanish act failed to find its cue. Many of the songs this year referenced the ongoing revolution in Europe’s eastern borders, with Italy’s winning “Insieme: 1992” by male vocalist Toto Cutugno following this theme.
Hosting the Eurovision Song Contest is considered one of the toughest gigs in television and Italy’s decision to pass the task to previous winners Toto Cutugno and Gigliola Cinquetti perhaps wasn’t the smartest move, with Toto, in particular, struggling to keep up. Sweden’s Carola had come third in 1983 and would record an album with Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees but swept the board in 1991 with rousing hi-NRG anthem “Fangad Av En Stormvind.”
Johnny Logan was back on championship form although, this time, not as a performer. He wrote winner Linda Martin’s “Why Me?” for Ireland after also composing her 1984 entry “Terminal Three.” It marked the start of Ireland’s ascendancy at the show, with the top three songs also all performed in English (the UK was second, with Malta coming in third). Some countries, such as Switzerland, struggled to choose a language that would make everyone happy. In 1992, the French-speaking Swiss overturned a decision on the original winning song of the national heats when its lyrics were later translated and performed in German.
With Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia joining the contest, the show became something of a geography lesson for audiences getting to grips with new European borders. Despite the new entrants, it remained very much business as usual, with Ireland’s Niamh Kavanagh retaining the crown for host nation Ireland. “In Your Eyes” is an accomplished ballad but was almost beaten by the UK’s perky cod-Motown offering “Better The Devil You Know” by former Stock Aitken Waterman starlet Sonia (although the song bore little relation to the Kylie Minogue classic more familiar to fans of the hit production trio).
With Ireland again hosting the contest, 1994 is memorable not so much for that year’s winner (Ireland again for Paul Harrington with Charlie McGettigan’s “Rock ‘N Roll Kids”) but the interval act. The broadcast staged at The Point, Dublin, showcased the international breakthrough of Riverdance with a segment led by Michael Flatley captivating TV audiences and launching a global phenomenon. This year also witnessed a record surge in the number of new countries choosing to participate, with Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Russian Federation, and Slovakia entering for the first time.
There was plenty of press speculation that Ireland wouldn’t want another win (hosting the contest costs millions for the broadcaster and regional government) and, on the night, it came safely 14th – far behind winner Norway’s largely instrumental “Nocturne” from Secret Garden. It’s likely the runaway success of Riverdance influenced both the entry and the subsequent voting that supported it. Switzerland sat this year out and, during this era, the country that came last was also disqualified from entering the following year, with Germany humiliated this time around.
Back in familiar territory at the top of the scoreboard was Ireland again, with “The Voice” by Eimear Quinn far and away the highest-rated song of the night (162 points versus second-placed host nation Norway with 114). But the most successful track of the contest was indisputably the international smash “Ooh Aah… Just A Little Bit” by Australian Gina G, competing for the UK. It topped the British charts and even made the US Top 20, a rare feat then and now for Eurovision songs, but it only placed eighth by the national juries on the night.
“Love Shine A Light” was a song written for charity The Samaritans and performed by Katrina And The Waves (a band still best known for the 1980s classic “Walking On Sunshine”). It won big for the UK – 70 points ahead of runner-up Ireland. Executives at British state broadcaster The BBC were caught off-guard by the UK’s success. “I knew it was a good song, but I didn’t think it was going to win,” admits veteran commentator Ken Bruce. Also of note: This was the year when televoting first appeared (with five of the participating countries using the method that would become ubiquitous in the 21st century).
With the contest moving to Birmingham, England for the first time in its history, the decision was made to cap the number of competing countries to 25 – the host nation, six countries that had missed out competing in 1997, and the 18 other countries that had the best average scores across the previous five years. It was indicative of the growing, fragmentation of the new European geography that entry rules were becoming so complex. This year’s contest broke fresh ground with Dana International, who had been born Yaron Cohen in 1972, winning for Israel with the anthem “Diva.” She had unsuccessfully entered national selections for Eurovision before and was a major national star.
The contentious issue of language choice for entries was swept aside in 1999, with the contest organizers finally agreeing that it was time for Eurovision to abandon its history of restrictions and just let the songwriters and performers decide. This was also the year when the use of a house orchestra ended, with most acts immediately choosing a backing track instead. The final administrative change was the decision to allow the contest’s four main funders to automatically qualify, ensuring places forever more for France, Germany, Spain and the UK. Charlotte Nilsson with “Take Me To Your Heaven” for Sweden would win the final contest of the 20th Century.
With Latvia joining (but Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia bailing for financial reasons), the reach of the contest was widening with the show streamed online for the first time, picking up new audiences in territories such as Japan and Australia. The digital age had truly arrived! There was no sign of similar revolution with the winning song – “Fly On The Wings Of Love” by the Olsen Brothers for Denmark was sentimental schlager through and through, although the track was later revived by Spanish dance act XTM and DJ Chucky in rather more frenetic form.
The phenomenon of the Baltic states starting to rule the Eurovision roost can be traced back to Estonia’s 2001 win with “Everybody” by Tanel Padar, Dave Benton, and 2XL. In a sign of the changing times, previous evergreen champions Ireland ended up 21st – the nation’s worst showing to date. Danish supergroup Aqua, famous for “Barbie Girl,” performed in the interval and, with technology now starting to transform the reach and operation of the show, televoting was now truly starting to replace the traditional national jury system.
With the contest hosted for the first time in a former Soviet republic, the complexities of participation continued to weave an unpredictable narrative of the show. Latvia had been relegated after 2001 and so was unable to take part this time, but a shock late decision by Portugal to opt out due to issues with its broadcaster back home led to Latvia (the highest scoring nation in the relegated blacklist) coming back in and winning the entire contest! “I Wanna” by Marie N was only the third entry by the nation, but it secured a solid lead over second-place Malta, with the UK’s Jessica Garlick coming third.
It was finally Turkey’s time to seize the Eurovision crown, with “Every Way That I Can” by Sertab Erener, after 28 years of taking part. This was also the year Eurovision became a UK tabloid sensation for all of the wrong reasons – the dreaded ‘nul points’ being awarded to the UK for the first time, thanks to Jemini’s notorious performance of “Cry Baby.” As one of the big funders of the night, the UK couldn’t be relegated, but the flop came as a shock to the newspapers and a nation then still confident of success. Jemini blamed the debacle on technical issues, but it was a taste of things to come for British audiences.
With the EBU finally accepting the festivities couldn’t be contained in a single sitting, 2004 saw the contest transform into a two-night spectacle, with a semi-final being staged three nights before the main event. Every European state that wanted could now take part and so the list expanded to accommodate 36 countries, with another win towards the east of the continent. Ukraine’s “Wild Dances” by Rusiana is another Eurovision classic and featured on that year’s contest CD – and, for the first time, official DVD – of the show.
The list of entrants was still expanding – Bulgaria and Moldova joined the party – creating a record tally of 39 contestants. My Big Fat Greek Wedding had been a box-office sensation and it was finally time for Greece to shake off its ‘always the bridesmaid, but never the bride’ billing with a convincing win for the appropriately titled “My Number One” by Helena Paparizou. At the other end of the scoring, the big four funding nations all came at the bottom, with France scoring worst of all.
Proving there’s actually no such thing as an entirely predictable winning song, Finland seized Eurovision glory with Lordi’s “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” The metal band had formed more than a decade earlier and the pyrotechnics and macabre theatrics that made up their shows were energized by this unexpected platform of international fame, with The Arockalypse album making charts around the globe. Other acts, such as Ireland’s Brian Kennedy and 1991 Swedish champion Carola, turned or returned to the contest as a way of rebuilding their profile as their careers slowed, but Kennedy only managed 10th place and Carola came in fifth. Both maintained decent profiles back home, however.
With the EBU now scrapping its recent cap of 40 entrants, competition again soared with a record 43 nations taking part, including new entrants the Czech Republic, Georgia, and the newly independent nations of Montenegro and Serbia. It proved to be Serbia’s night, with “Molitva” by Marija Serifovic knocking it out the park on the country’s first attempt. Ireland’s fall from grace after so many years on top continued, with it finally finishing last in the final for the first time. The UK didn’t do much better, with the tongue-in-cheek “Flying The Flag (For You)” by former hitmakers Scooch scraping into 22nd place.
Russia finally made it to the top for the first time in its Eurovision history with the charismatic “Believe” by pop icon Dima Bilan, who had come second at Eurovision in 2006 with “Never Let You Go.” Dima used this win to try to break out internationally, releasing an English-language album in 2009 featuring recordings made with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. Political tensions and recent conflicts in the region meant security at the competition reached record-levels, but the shows passed without incident.
Winning a record-breaking 387 points (from a possible 492), Norway’s Alexander Rybak became a Eurovision sensation with his pop-folk monster “Fairytale.” Two semi-finals had now become the ongoing template for the show and the closing night’s event at the Olimpiysky Aerna in Moscow was an audio-visual triumph, with ever-more ambitious staging and effects. The UK enlisted Phantom Of The Opera maestro Andrew Lloyd-Webber and acclaimed hitmaker Diane Warren for its entry – “It’s My Time” by soon-to-be Sugababes member Jade Ewan. It was her time and improved the UK’s performance with a Top 5 placing.
Lena’s “Satellite” became the first German Eurovision triumph since Nicole’s “A Little Peace” in 1982 (and the first time one of the ‘Big Four’ nations had won since the designation was established). Former winner Niamh Kavanagh came back to represent Ireland but came in 23rd; while the smart idea of getting Pete Waterman (of Stock Aitken Waterman fame) to work his hitmaking magic on the UK’s entry also fell flat – Josh Dubovie’s “That Sounds Good To Me” finished last.
This was the contest of the returning artist, including entrants for many states including Georgia and Iceland. Most notable were Lena, trying to repeat her success for Germany a second year running (this time, though, “Taken By A Stranger” would place 10th) and Dana International with “Ding Dong,” which surprisingly failed to make it further than the semi-finals for Israel. “Running Scared” by Ell & Nikki for Azerbaijan was first past the finishing line from 43 nations and came on only the country’s fourth year of participation.
With fresh branding now a central component of each Eurovison – this year’s theme was “Light Your Fire,” inspired by host nation Azerbaijan’s moniker: “Land Of Fire.” 2012’s Eurovision focus instead turned somewhere chillier, with Sweden’s “Euphoria” by Loreen receiving the highest number of maximum points (12) of any entry in the contest’s history (18 countries gave it top ranking). The Eurodance belter became a huge global hit and even made the UK Top 3, the first time a non-British entry had done so since 1987’s “Hold Me Now” by Johnny Logan.
Sweden’s third city of Malmo was chosen to host the contest for the second time in Eurovision history and the night’s win went just over the water to neighboring Denmark, only recently linked to that country by the city’s Oresund Bridge. Emmelie de Forest’s “Only Teardrops” was a throwback to more traditional folk-pop, while the UK’s efforts to recapture scoreboard success with veteran singer Bonnie Tyler, of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” fame, fell somewhat short with the singer placing 19th.
A truly powerful statement was made when Conchita Wurst won for Austria with the ballad “Rise Like A Phoenix.” The cis man has sometimes described himself as a drag queen but, whatever the identity, more than 195 million people witnessed a world-class performance that remains one of Eurovision’s most iconic. Despite the genre’s rarity at the contest, country-rock duo The Common Linnets for the Netherlands came second with “Calm After The Storm” and also built critical and commercial momentum with their appearance.
Arguably the successor to Johnny Logan’s King Of Eurovision crown, Mans Zelmerlow has created an international career from his win at the show, with multiple appearances at later events and numerous guest slots on features about the contest. His song “Heroes” secured a convincing win, despite a powerful showing from Russia’s “A Million Voices” by Polina Gagarina. The dance-pop confidence of “Heroes” was enhanced by a clever graphic choreography that saw Mans perform with a cartoon character, proving yet again that the contest’s winning formula is often that canny blend of a great song and memorable staging. This year, Australia entered for the first time as a special guest.
Winning song “1944” tackles a theme about as removed from Eurovision camp as can be imagined. Jamala composed and performed the challenging work at the Globe Arena, Stockholm, and it details the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Soviet dictator Stalin. With the contest televised in the USA for the first time and a new system of national juries and universal televoting now being settled on, Eurovision was starting to grow in critical confidence. Mans Zelmerlow was back this year to host, while Australia returned as a standard contestant, with Dami Im almost seizing the crown in runner-up place.
Portugal made Eurovision history with a win on its 53rd attempt (it was actually the first time the nation had even made it to the top five). “Amar Pelos Dois” by Salvador Sobral is a romantic jazz waltz and has become one of the country’s most beloved ballads. Not only was it Portugal’s first win, but it secured 758 points in the latest voting system – a new record. Host nation Ukraine banned the Russian contestant from performing as she had traveled from Russia to Crimea, proving that politics continues to be an unwelcome undercurrent to a contest that believes it is here to de-escalate tensions of this type.
“Toy” by Netta secured Israel its fourth win (and first since 1998) while this year’s branding was “All Aboard!” – a nice hook on natural diversity and the host nation’s seafaring heritage. With entrants totaling the previous record of 43, there were more familiar faces to match returning countries, including Norway’s Alexander Rybak, who only managed 15th this time. The night’s low point was a stage invasion while the UK’s SuRie performed “Storm.” Commentators seized on the Brexit row as the catalyst, but the artist declined an invitation to return to the stage, saying she was proud of the performance she had given.
Tension around where the 64th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest would be held saw something of political grandstanding, with Jerusalem stated as the likely venue for the event. In the end, Tel Aviv hosted Eurovision for the first time in history. “Arcade” by acclaimed singer-songwriter Duncan Laurance won for the Netherlands, while the interval act was none other than superstar Madonna, who performed “Like A Prayer” and “Future” from her then-recent Madame X album.
Rotterdam had expected to host the 2020 event but, for the first time in its long history, Eurovision was canceled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light was a two-hour live TV special commissioned instead, which was a glorious wallow in nostalgia for fans of the contest and culminated in all of 2020’s planned contestants performing a version of Katrina & The Waves’ 1997 winner “Love Shine A Light.” The broadcast helped soothe the troubled mood of the moment when it was broadcast in May of that year.
With all the previous year’s contestants invited back to Rotterdam to perform a new song, 41 countries took part in the 2021 return, staged while many social and practical restrictions remained in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic (limiting the size of this year’s audience, for example). Italian rock band Maneskin stormed to victory with a track that was already making waves across the continent and marked the first return of hard rock to the contest since Lordi’s win in 2006. Later, “I Wanna Be Your Slave” made charts across Europe and even cut through stateside.
With the news in Europe dominated by the war in Ukraine – meaning Russia was barred from this year’s event – the runaway win by Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra with “Stefania” was little surprise. Far more of a shock was the triumphant return of the UK, after years of poor showings, with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” coming top of the jury voting (made up of national industry delegations) and second overall, securing the country’s best-ever points score. The overwhelming support of the public for the Ukranian folk/rap mash-up was revealed in the final moments of the 66th contest, held in Turin, Italy, which also saw strong showings from Sweden with Cornelia Jakobs’s “Hold Me Closer” and Spain’s “SloMo” by Chanel.
Looking for more? Check out our picks of the greatest Eurovision songs of all-time.