Eurovision and Nothingness: backstage with the hopefuls of Europe's biggest TV event
For the overnight stars of Europe's pop cultural Super Bowl, the future is far from certain78
You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Philip Thornhill’s life is about to change forever. Hundreds of costumed fans have gathered outside the arena here in Vienna, waving flags under a late afternoon sun, and singing along to the bubbly Europop blaring from huge loudspeakers. Backstage, Philip can’t hear them, but he will soon.
In the halls, things are building to a crescendo. A bearded drag queen fans herself furiously in one corridor, pausing only to adjust her black flamenco dress and pose for photos. Smiling, musclebound men prance around in the press hall, hoisting signs that read “Free Hugs!” But nobody takes them up on their offer — they’re too busy setting up cameras and doing sound checks, and prepping for the event that’s going to change Philip’s life.
In barely three hours, he and the three other members of the Danish boy band Anti Social Media will take the stage at the Eurovision Song Contest, one of the biggest — and most ridiculous — TV events in the world, and sing their official competition song, "The Way You Are." Six months ago, he was just a redheaded 19-year-old with a nice voice. By the end of the night, millions of viewers around the world will know his face and his band’s music. For the moment, though, all he can do is wait.
“It’s like a roller coaster, you know, when you’re going up.” Philip says, sandwiched on a couch between drummer Emil Vessing and bassist David Vang, both of them struggling to contain their nervous excitement.
That sounds terrifying, I tell him. “Oh yeah?” he replies. “I dunno, I like it.”
Where three minutes can at once mean everything and absolutely nothing
The last five months have been one continual ascent for Anti Social Media. Their producer, Lars "Chief1" Pedersen, brought them together in January solely to compete in tonight’s show — just for a chance at those three minutes on the world’s stage. If they win enough votes, they’ll stay on through Saturday night’s final, with a shot at bringing the Eurovision crown back to Denmark, a three-time champion. If they don’t, they’ll hop on a plane and resume their fledgling careers in Copenhagen, where the response could be brutal.
"If we flop and go back to Denmark, people go like, ‘Boo! Boo!’" Chief1 told me last week. "They will kill you."
What a final-round victory would mean for their careers remains less clear, but if it’s global fame and longevity they’re after, they may actually be better off losing — something even Chief1 acknowledges. Such is the cruel, twisted logic of Eurovision, where three minutes can at once mean everything and absolutely nothing.
60 years of songs
As an American who’s been living in Europe for seven years, there are many things I’ve embraced in the name of cultural assimilation — espresso, smoking, universal healthcare — but Eurovision has never been one of them. Maybe it’s because I never had a flag to get behind; maybe it’s because soaring ballads don’t really move my needle. But for everyone else here, Eurovision is an institution.
According to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes Eurovision, more than more than 195 million people tuned in to watch last year’s semifinals and finals, putting it on par with the Super Bowl. What began as an experiment in live broadcasting technology with just seven countries has mutated into an extravagant, multimillion dollar production that now expands well beyond Europe’s borders. This year’s contest includes 40 entries from countries like Azerbaijan, Israel, and, for the first time, Australia.
"We don’t have a Super Bowl, we don’t have a World Series. We have Eurovision."
"There are very few events in European culture that bring everyone together," says Ewan Spence, the gregarious, kilt-wearing founder of the Eurovision news website ESC Insight. "We don’t have a Super Bowl, we don’t have a World Series. We have Eurovision."
The event celebrates its 60th anniversary this year in Vienna, continuing the tradition of anointing last year’s winner as the host country. Its epicenter is at the Wiener Stadthalle, a 10,000-seat indoor arena planted in a working-class corner of the city, along an impossibly wide boulevard peppered with sex shops and kebab stands. For nearly two weeks, members of the press and Eurovision fan blogs have been camping out in the Stadthalle, snapping selfies with their favorite artists and singing along with televised dress rehearsals.
For the uninitiated, American Idol may seem like the most obvious corollary to what Eurovision represents — a talent show determined by popular vote — but it’s much more than that. It’s equal parts Olympic event and geopolitical summit, mixed in with seizure-inducing stage sets and plenty of "We are the World" evangelism. Add in a baroque voting system, garish wardrobes, and often truly terrible songwriting, and the whole thing can seem like a circus of the absurd. But that’s what makes it so irresistible to so many.
"The best way to describe it is Miss Universe for music," says John Kennedy O’Connor, a Eurovision commentator and author of The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official History. "Miss Universe is nonsense — there’s no way that Miss Iceland is objectively more beautiful than Miss Canada. And that is the beauty of Eurovision. There’s no way you and I can sit down in a room and say this German song is better than that Austrian song."
Like Miss Universe, the degree to which theatrics and persona play into it partially explains why so few Eurovision winners have been able to translate their sudden fame into mainstream success. The qualities that the contest rewards — extravagance, flamboyance, general weirdness — often aren’t building blocks for global pop stardom (Russia notably made the finals in 2012 with a group of dancing grandmothers.) Whereas earlier competitions included future stars like ABBA (1974), Celine Dion (1988), and Julio Iglesias (1970), Eurovision’s more recent history is littered with names that have faded from the global stage and into oblivion.
"It’s like a supernova," says William Lee Adams, founder of the Eurovision blog Wiwibloggs. "You kind of explode in all this glory, but then you’re a black hole and disappear. It’s a little depressing."
At first glance, that’s perhaps not surprising. Viewers vote for their favorite performance on a single night, not for "most likely to succeed," and professional juries, which account for the other half of each country’s votes, are often swayed by politics. Not every act is looking for the same thing, either. This year’s entrants ranged from wide-eyed teens looking for their big break (Israel’s 16-year-old Nadav Guedj, for example) to grizzled, vaping baby boomers grasping at a second act (such as Montenegro’s 47-year-old Knez).
"What it delivers is instant fame that you can ride for as long as you can milk it."
But that still doesn’t explain why artists would actually put themselves through this ordeal — why they would devote so much time and energy to something that guarantees nothing more than the title "Eurovision winner." In an age of Vine moguls and Kardashians, fame has become increasingly up for interpretation, but the celebrity Eurovision confers upon its contestants seems to be a particularly ephemeral strain. The months leading up to the event typically entail a whirlwind of media appearances and photo ops, throughout which contestants become packaged and product-developed, with compelling backstories and carefully manicured personas that will stay with them well beyond their three minutes onstage. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse depends on who you ask.
"I don’t think it gives you anything. I don’t think it possibly can," O’Connor says of winning Eurovision. "What it delivers is instant fame that you can ride for as long as you can milk it, which isn’t very long. And nothing else."
"Our goal is not to be forgotten"
Emil from Anti Social Media certainly has no illusions about the challenges that await his post-Eurovision career, and he’s surprisingly blunt about the burden that would come with the crown.
"It is a curse," says the 24-year-old drummer, from behind black Ray-Bans and a denim cap. It’s a muggy Wednesday in Vienna, and he’s lounging on a top-floor hotel balcony with the rest of Anti Social Media. They’re fresh off their first rehearsal at the Stadthalle and, just six days away from the biggest performance of their young lives, they seem remarkably relaxed, dropping fart jokes and ragging on each other. I suspect the small pyramid of empty beer cans in the corner of their hotel room may have something to do with it.
"We've talked about that a lot," adds David, the six-foot-something, square-jawed bassist who, at 25, is the closest thing the group has to an elder statesman. "Our goal is not to be forgotten after this, like all the other contestants."
In many ways, Anti Social Media was genetically engineered for Eurovision success. Their sound and style is unabashedly Beatles-influenced, and after just three months, they seem to be maturing nicely into their roles. Emil is the group’s closest Ringo proxy, eccentric and outspoken; with his hushed tones, 19-year-old guitarist Nikolaj Tøth is George. Philip, the guitarist and frontman, is far more charismatic than any 19-year-old I’ve ever met, with sleepy eyes that seem destined for the walls of a pre-teen’s bedroom.
They’ve each enjoyed varying levels of individual success as musicians, mostly through playing gigs across Denmark with their own bands. But they have aspirations that extend beyond their home country, and they think Eurovision could make them happen. "You have this huge exposure," Philip says. "We just look at that as a win no matter what."
Their sherpa through it all has been Chief1, a portly, easygoing 45-year-old who, from the right angle, looks a little like Peter Gallagher. Chief, as the band calls him, speaks with the casual authority of a guy who’s grown familiar with the Eurovision game. He created the rap group Rockers by Choice in the mid-1980s, and is regarded as a founding father of Denmark’s hip-hop scene. Anti Social Media is the third group he’s brought to Eurovision as a producer, and although he’s never gotten close to the title, he’s made a habit of backing groups that don’t fit the traditional Eurovision mold, eschewing the power ballads and duets for distinctly quirkier sounds — a rapper in 1997, and an acoustic pop singer he plucked off the streets of Copenhagen in 2012.
Chief has taken a similar tack this year, betting on Anti Social Media’s Britpop aesthetic to stick out among a field of saccharine duets and anthemic club tracks. Compared to the dazzling, high-tech stage sets of most contestants this year, their routine is fairly austere: coordinated black-and-white blazers, carefully coiffed hairstyles, and doo-wop theatrics.
"I love Run DMC and I love the Beach Boys," Chief says. "A lot of people would try to keep those two things separate."
Nearly everyone made a point of telling me just how non-Eurovision their song is
Differentiation is key; nearly every artist I spoke with in Vienna last week made a point of telling me just how non-Eurovision their song is. Boggie, Hungary’s soft spoken, 23-year-old representative, says "Wars for Nothing," her lilting (and at times soporific) anti-war ballad "isn’t the most popular wave of music," but what really matters to her is the fact that she wrote it herself — a dose of authenticity in a sea of pre-cooked singles. For Loïc, Belgium’s baby-faced hopeful, creative control is "the reason why I live."
But underpinning all this individuality are somewhat banal messages that generally sound the same. "I think it’s important to realize, OK, we are different, but inside we are all the same," Loïc says. "We have blood and we have hearts that are beating." That sounds an awful lot like Serbia’s entry — a 28-year-old soul singer named Bojana Stamenov, whose song includes the lyric: "Finally I can say / I’m different and it’s OK." There are also two different songs titled "Warrior" in this year’s field, and they both cover basically the same thematic ground: determination, resilience, etc.
Part of that homogeneity could be attributed to a rule change, implemented in 1999, that allows contestants to sing in any language. That’s resulted in mostly English-language songs that aim for the broadest possible appeal. But this year’s field also seems to have taken a cue from last year’s winner: the bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst, who has become as celebrated for what she represents — tolerance, gay rights — as for her singing. The closest thing this year's contest has to a Conchita might be PKN, a veteran Finnish punk rock band whose four members have Down syndrome or autism. Leading up to Eurovision, they were widely included among the frontrunners to win the whole thing.
"The back story to many countries and many singers is now becoming as important as anything," O’Connor says. "And I think as a result we’ve got a field of rather dull songs this year."
Anti Social Media don’t have a Conchita-esque backstory, and neither Chief nor the oddsmakers are optimistic about their chances. But that doesn’t seem to bother the group very much. They’ve already pushed out an EP since winning Denmark’s national competition in February, and will play shows across the country regardless of how they place. But Chief thinks Eurovision’s platform could — and probably should — deliver more than just steady work back home. The problem, in his view, is the Eurovision stigma.
"This could be such a huge window," he said last week, splayed out comfortably on a white leather couch backstage. "But it seems like no one dares to do it because they also know that if you don’t get number one, then you’ll forever be banned from anything that’s remotely hip. So either it’s something for the debutante who couldn’t get into the hipster hip zone, or it’s the last stop for someone who was big once. And that’s kind of tragic for me."
But some Eurovision enthusiasts disagree. In their view, Eurovision provides the audience; what happens next is on the artist.
"You know in Mario Kart where you've got that little arrow on the ground that you go over and whoosh, you speed up for two seconds?" Spence says. "Eurovision is that little arrow. You get on it and whoosh. It’ll run out very quickly, but what you do with it is up to you."
"It's part of my path."
It’s been one year since Suzy Guerra sang in her first Eurovision, and she’s still riding that arrow. She didn’t win the crown last year in Copenhagen. She didn’t even get past the semifinals. But the exposure provided was enough to kickstart a second career, and she’s embraced it with open arms.
"A lot of artists, after Eurovision, they don’t want to be related to Eurovision," she says. "I don’t mind, and actually for me it’s mandatory, because it’s part of my path."
Suzy has spent the past year doing the Eurovision circuit, performing at corporate events, appearing on catwalks, and trying her hand at TV hosting. Before she decided to enter Portugal’s national contest at the last minute, she was working in the pharmaceutical industry in Dubai. Now, she’s supporting herself entirely on music and appearances — and for many ex-Eurovision singers, that’s more than enough.
"I think there’s often a perception that everyone’s goal is to become the next ABBA," says Adams, the Wiwibloggs founder. "But no, people just wanna earn a living by singing, which is a fair enough goal."
Not everyone wants to be the next ABBA
Suzy’s staying power as a musician has yet to be tested, though she’s not worried about being tagged with the Eurovision label for the rest of her career. She’s got a new single in the works, and she says it’s going to sound very different from "Quero Ser Tua," the track she performed in front of the world last year. "If the song is a hit, they won’t remember me as a Eurovision artist," she says. "It’s not going to be Suzy the Eurovision artist, it’ll be Suzy that sings this song."
Doing that may be easier said than done. Sandie Shaw, who became the first Brit to win Eurovision in 1967, has blamed her victory for stunting her career, saying it saddled her with an "uncool" label and stifled her creative control. Gina G., who represented the UK in 1996, has made similarly disparaging comments about the event, saying it "didn’t do me any favors afterwards." And British singer-songwriter Rita Ora walked out of an audition to represent the UK in 2009, a decision she now credits with saving her career.
"It’s a double edged thing — that’s the reason why a lot of the winning songs are never heard of again," O’Connor says. "They thrive in their pond, but then you put them in a completely different ocean and it’s a different story. They make no sense anymore."
Even Eurovision success stories have their caveats. Lordi, a Finnish metal band that performs in monster costumes, enjoyed a surge in popularity and media coverage following their Eurovision victory in 2006, exposing them to entirely new fans, and catapulting them from niche curiosity to international phenomenon. Their lead singer, Tomi Petteri Putaansuu (stage name: Mr. Lordi), says that alone made Eurovision worthwhile, "but on the other hand — and this is fucking strange — there are so many people all around the world, all around Finland, around Europe, who are using it as a weapon against us. That because we were at Eurovision, we could never ever be taken seriously ever again."
Their popularity also drew a much more mainstream demographic of fans, resulting in cultural collisions that the group wasn’t always comfortable with. Mr. Lordi points to one instance, not long after they won Eurovision, when he was heading to the dressing room after a show at an outdoor festival. Crowds of fans had gathered behind a fence separating them from the stage, and he stopped to sign some autographs.
"I have horns on my head, I have open bloody wounds on my face, I am all covered in sweat and shit and fake blood, and I’m carrying a bucket of severed limbs, and a fake chainsaw," he told me over the phone this week from his home in Rovaniemi, near the Arctic circle. "And behind the fence there are like 100 people who are screaming and smiling at us, and there were grandmothers and like, five-year-olds. And I thought, ‘am I the only one here who sees that there’s something fucking wrong with this? Are these people blind?’ They only saw ‘whoo! Eurovision winners!’, and they didn't really see what we were about."
The final countdown
Lordi’s never going to reach ABBA levels of fame, and chances are that whoever wins this weekend won’t either. And in some ways, that doesn’t really matter. It certainly hasn’t hurt the show’s popularity, and it still offers an unmatched, singular platform that will continue to draw talent. But at what point do the glitz and superficiality begin to undermine its stakes?
"This is the problem with Eurovision — there’s ABBA, there’s Celine Dion, and who else?" O’Connor says. "After 60 years, if that’s all Eurovision can point to, then Eurovision has a credibility problem." Similar problems have plagued smaller scale talent competitions as well, including the recently cancelled American Idol, a cultural juggernaut that made for compelling TV but ultimately produced few enduring pop stars.
The contestants have no option but to take this seriously
It’s easy for viewers to laugh Eurovision off as a celebration of the ludicrous and the flamboyant, and maybe that’s OK. But for the people behind the outrageous costumes and gaudy set designs, they have no option but to take this seriously.
"Music is too important to me to be sarcastic and ironic and something to be laughed about," Chief told me. He says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll make another run at Eurovision next year, but listening to him speak, I get the impression that this is it for him. "I haven’t spent my entire life, 24/7 to make songs and have people say ‘wow, that’s a really red dress’, or ‘why are there old ladies and strippers onstage?’"
Anti Social Media is nearly finished with their three minutes on stage when the skies suddenly open above Vienna, and a clap of thunder sends journalists scurrying away from the smoking patio and back into the press room. The scene inside now looks like a human Risk board, with bloggers and journalists draped in their national flags, breathlessly watching the broadcast on giant TV screens. The nervous cynicism and "everyone’s a winner" rhetoric I’d heard for a week is fading away, replaced with a more primal urge: to survive, even for just a few more days.
The performances draw to a close around 10:30, thus beginning a painfully long 20 minutes of vote counting. The broadcasters fill the time with flashback montages and an inexplicable clip of Vienna’s tourist attractions, which are shot with a GoPro strapped to stuffed cats and dogs. Then, a little before 11 PM, our multilingual emcees announce that the votes are in. The countdown begins.
Albania is the first to make it, followed by Armenia, Russia, and Romania. Hungary is the fifth winner announced, and the camera cuts to Boggie, who immediately embraces her team in an explosion of joy. The tension mounts as they begin reading off the final five winners, each name triggering a burst of applause in one corner of the press room and a wave of gasps everywhere else. In these waning moments, the show that everyone loves to ridicule suddenly means everything.
Belgium's Loïc is the last finalist announced. Denmark is not called.
"Hey, it’s a competition. What can you do?"
At around 11:30 PM, with the dust settled and journalists now back in front of their computers, Anti Social Media re-emerges from the green room and strolls across the press area for a round of interviews with Danish TV. Philip is leading the way, followed by his bandmates, backup singers, and a small entourage of handlers. His eyes are red and puffy, and he discretely rubs the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. For the first time all week, he actually seems like a 19-year-old.
The group pauses in front of the table where I’m sitting, and I catch Emil’s eye. He reaches out over the shoulders of his entourage to shake my hand, and I clumsily offer my condolences. He responds with a smile and a shrug.
"Hey, it’s a competition," he says. "What can you do?"
A few seconds later, the band arrives in front of a TV camera and a Danish presenter in a green sequined blazer. They’re about to go on air when the band’s media handler turns to Philip and raises her eyebrows. They both jump up and down twice, like boxers getting ready for a fight, and his shoulders heave with a sigh. Then the lights come on, he flashes a smile, and the rest of his career begins.