By Duncan J. Watts, a professor of sociology at Columbia (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/05/07):
ONE of the unexpected pleasures of spending a sabbatical in Britain has been the chance to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, held the Saturday before last in Helsinki. For those not familiar with this quirkiest of European traditions (which last year celebrated its 50th anniversary), the contest involves 42 “European” countries — Israel and Turkey are included, for example — each of which submits a song to be sung by a band of that nationality.
The rules governing the contest are a little strange, and so is the singing, which appears to emphasize camp over more conventional notions of quality. Britain’s entrant, Scooch, put on a saucy, flight-attendant-inspired act that would have made Abba (the 1974 winner) proud, while Verka Serduchka, a Ukrainian drag queen, came out looking like a silver-foil version of Mrs. Doubtfire. The Greeks, meanwhile, were doing their best Ricky Martin, Belarus looked fresh out of a James Bond trailer and Hungary apparently had ditched the whole Euro thing and opted for what sounded suspiciously like country.
In short, it’s a great show, but the best part is the voting, which is done “American Idol”-style via text messaging. Anyone can vote as many times as he likes, the one restriction being that he can’t vote for his own country. The votes are tallied nationally, and breathless representatives call in the results to Helsinki, allocating 12 points to their country’s top choice, 10 to second place, 8 to third, and so on down to 1 point for 10th.
Now, I don’t know much about contemporary music, but as they say, I know what I like. And watching the 24 acts in the final (a preliminary round removes the other 18), I felt Sweden and Britain were clear standouts, given the silliness of the whole thing. I also had the overwhelming feeling that the Serbian entry, a turgid ballad called “Molitva,” or “Prayer,” didn’t stand a chance.
So imagine my surprise when Serbia not only won, but crushed the opposition, beating second-place Ukraine (yes, the drag queen) by 268 points to 235. Britain, with a paltry 19 points, narrowly edged out Ireland to avoid last place; and Sweden scraped together a meager 51 points, coming in 18th out of 24. What was going on? Two words that were shouted across the British dailies the next day: “Bloc Voting.”
I had heard about this practice, of course, whereby geographical and cultural neighbors tend to vote for each other, and nobody votes for Britain (well, except for Malta). But it was startling to see just how flagrant it was. The Scandinavians all voted for one another; Lithuania gave 10 points to Latvia (whose entry, bizarrely, sang in Italian); former Warsaw Pact countries voted for Russia; and almost nobody voted for Britain (surprisingly, Ireland did — and, of course, Malta).
But Serbia was the overwhelming beneficiary of the system, receiving the top score of 12 points from every other member of the former Yugoslavia — Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia — suggesting that memories of war and ethnic cleansing can be set aside with surprising ease when it comes to the serious business of winning a singing contest. It’s hard to say whether the 60 points that the former Yugoslavia effectively gave to itself altered the final result, but an enterprising Irishman suggested that if all the Irish counties were allowed to secede, they would be unstoppable.
Does it matter? Probably not. It’s just a game, after all, and the outrageous bias in the voting is as entertaining as the songs themselves. But it does offer an unexpected glimpse of how ordinary Europeans perceive one another. More than anything, it seems, blood is thicker than water, and not just in the Balkans. That Germany gave 12 points to Turkey, for example, probably reflects the large number of Turks living in Germany more than it does a German predilection for scantily clad dancers (of which there were plenty of choices).
But it was also obvious how little love Eastern Europe feels for the West. Although the “big four” — Britain, France, Germany and Spain (Italy does not participate) — basically pay for the contest, none of them made it into the top 16; and Turkey, which you might have expected to be playing nice, given its pending European Union membership application, awarded not a single point to any big four or Scandinavian nation.
This pointed rejection of Western Europe might even be seen as a poignant metaphor for contemporary Europe as a whole. The large, industrialized nations magnanimously invite their poorer but more numerous eastern cousins to join their party, and offer to pay the bill, only to discover themselves locked out in the garden while their new friends complain about the quality of the liquor and the arrogance of the hosts.
The hosts, meanwhile, can’t get along either — the big four collectively awarded one another a grand total of just 12 points. So although it was more than a little odd that the countries that actually tried to help in Bosnia are substantially less popular there than the country that instigated ethnic cleansing, it was equally odd that the Balkans, of all places, was effectively handing the western countries a lesson in cooperation.
The annual chance to score yourself in the eyes of your fellow Europeans might not be a bad thing, however: the Serbs and their neighbors are now going through an outpouring of pride and brotherly love. It’s hard not to think that’s somehow more useful than crowning the successor to Abba. Last week in Britain, meanwhile, for all the cries of foul play, there was a hint of — I wouldn’t say soul-searching — but perhaps head-scratching over what might be done to reverse the tide of resentment from traditional allies and newly minted European states alike. If nothing else, that seems like a good conversation to start.
Now, apparently, NBC has the rights to bring a version of Eurovision to the United States, with all 50 states competing. I hope they do it, but only if they keep the same voting system. It may not tell us much about the music we produce or like; but in a patchwork quilt of a country, with red versus blue states, North versus South, East Coast versus West Coast, the Midwest versus everyone — and who-knows-what going on in Texas — it may tell us a lot about what we really think of one another.