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Toward an understanding of the Eurovision Song Contest: A brief survey of the extant literature

This finals of this year's Eurovision Song Contest are this Saturday in Oslo. An a non-European, I'll admit to being a bit confused by the whole thing. The nationalism, the inter-country rivalries, the corruption, the over-the-top flamboyance and bizarrely out-of-place homophobia, the offensive singing turkeys, Lordi... what does it all mean?

So I decided I would turn to the people who can also be counted on to make difficult ideas accessible to the general public... academics!  For such a ridiculous event, Eurovision has attracted a surprising amount of attention from serious scholars over the years. A lot of this revolves around the contest's unique voting and scoring system, which encourages bloc voting an, since the fall of communism, has tended to favor Eastern European countries.

In 2006, Derek Gatherer of Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry took a break from his day job working on "bioinformatical, marketing and drug design projects" to write "Comparison of Eurovision Song Contest Simulation with Actual Results Reveals Shifting Patterns of Collusive Voting Alliances" for the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation. In addition to  providing mathematical data demonstrating bloc voting among countries, Gatherer provides this defense of both the contest itself and its enduring interest to researchers:

A common objection to any academic analysis of the Eurovision Song Contest is that it is an irrelevancy, an out-dated farrago of dubious taste born in an era of naïve enthusiasm for European unity, and taking little account of the best current products of the pop music industry. This view is quite common among mainstream intellectuals and has led to periodic calls for the contest to be scrapped altogether, or alternatively to be reformed to incorporate either music that reflects national folk traditions (which has been unilaterally attempted on occasions by both Norway and Spain among others) or to include "serious" pop music (a U2-rovision, as one television commentator jokingly suggested). This view is itself now becoming something of an anachronism, as the potential of the contest for post-modern irony and its appeal to the homosexual community (e.g. Lemish 2004 and Tan 2005) have provided it with a certain alternative vogue that was absent 15 or 20 years ago. It is also clear that many of the countries of what has been termed "the new Europe" see the contest as a means of advertising their new independence and European identity to the outside world. The contest now operates successfully on two levels, appealing equally to western post-modernists who revel in the very tastelessness and contempt for "serious" pop music that appalled the previous intellectual generation, and also to emerging states rediscovering the pan-European spirit of the contest's founders. The contest is now an important cultural phenomenon meriting academic study. 

The godfather of this academic study seems to be Hebrew University sociologist Gad Yair, who first studied the contest's voting patterns in 1995, "Unite Unite Europe' The political and cultural structures of Europe as reflected in the Eurovision Song Contest." One year later, he revisited the topic along with colleague Daniel Maman in "The Persistent Structure of Hegemony
in the Eurovision Song Contest.":

By analyzing the patterns of relations between four empirically derived European blocs, this study shows that hegemony results from the unique structural position that
the Western bloc occupies. This bloc enjoys a persistent position of a tertius gaudens that results from the fact that (a) nations in this bloc favor each other and export few points to other blocs; (b) the Northern and Mediterranean blocs avoid each other, and therefore allocate their surplus votes to the Western bloc. The Western bloc longitudinally sustains its hegemonic position through the persistence of between- and within-bloc exchange relations. The assumed veil of ignorance legitimizes this structural advantage. We propose that the fairness of the 'veil or ignorance' both secures hegemony and - when analyzed appropriately - helps to uncover it. 

Further evidence of bloc voting is provided by a time of Oxford physicists and engineers in 2008's "How Does Europe Make Its Mind Up?: Connections, Cliques and Compatibility Between Countries in the Eurovision Song Contest. [Original emphasis.]"  In particiular these authors focus on evidence of "pro-European" vs. "Euroskeptic" tendencies within particular blocs.

But there are plenty of other questions that Eurovision can answer, or futher complicate depending on your point of view.  In 2003, economists Marco Haan, Gerhard, Dijkstra, and Peter Dijkstra, used evidence wrote "Expert Judgment versus Public Opinion - Evidence from the Eurovision Song Contest" an attempt to judge empirically whether experts are "better judges of quality" than the general public (They are).

Bosnian-born MIT architectural historian Azra Aksamija may have written one of the more ambitious takes on the contest with "Eurovision Song Contest: Between Symbolism of European Unity and a Vision of the Wild, Wild East,"  which asks, "Is Eurovision just a TV spectacle for “appeasing the masses; is it a venue for marketing institutional political ideas; or are we, as a matter of fact, witnessing a new Europe in the making?"

I'm not sure this is quite what the framers of the Maastrict Treaty had in mind, but who knows?

In any event, there's a brand new voting system this year so journal editors should prepare for a deluge of new submissions.  

NIGEL TREBLIN/AFP/Getty Images

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