MILAN — If you believe that Fire Saga made for the most memorable Eurovision Song Contest entry ever, think again.
Despite its eccentricity, the fictional artistic duo played by Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in the Netflix musical comedy about the European competition could easily be overshadowed by many of the real-life contestants that have appeared on stage over the last 65 years.
Since its launch in 1956, the annual music event has continued to mushroom in terms of the number of contestants, the set-up, its musical offerings — and especially its fashions, with contestants opting for flashy and quite often questionable outfits to make an impression on the international audience.
It’s all part of the very essence of the show: a loud, joyous event intended to serve up carefree entertainment and celebrate the differences within the European community.
But behind the razzmatazz the Eurovision Song Contest, or ESC, also means serious business. In addition to broadcasting contracts, media coverage as well as an economic and promotional boost for the host cities, the show has launched major international careers, including the likes of ABBA and Céline Dion, who won the competition in 1974 and 1988, respectively.
Even for non-winners, the event can be fruitful, providing artists an opportunity to increase their popularity abroad and test new markets.
In this spirit, this year’s contestants gathered in Rotterdam, Netherlands, for the event that will culminate with the grand finale on Saturday. Artists expected to perform in front of a limited audience of 3,500 people (about 20 percent of the Ahoy Arena’s capacity) will include James Newman for the U.K.; Måneskin for Italy; Barbara Pravi for France; Hooverphonic for Belgium; Jeangu Macrooy for The Netherlands; Tix for Norway; Tusse for Sweden, and Manizha for Russia, among others. The Dutch city was due to host the competition last year, but the event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, marking the first cancellation in 64 years.
Yet the organizers decided to keep the theme “Open Up,” chosen for the 2020 edition. “Feel the freedom to complete the slogan in your own way,” said the executive producer of the show, Sietse Bakker, back in 2019. “We found it was important to choose a theme that reflects the spirit of our times. With the slogan we warmly invite people to open up to others, to different opinions, each other’s stories and, of course, to each other’s music.”
Diversity and inclusion have always been part of the contest by definition, with each country sending an artist to represent its music scene and often singing in its local language. But beyond nationalities and idioms, the event has championed differences in age, gender, race and sizes, becoming a standard bearer for inclusion in every form and projecting key social messages throughout the years.
Contestants ranged from Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti winning the competition at age 16 in 1964 to charming Russian grannies in folk outfits taking the stage in 2012, not to mention Israeli singer Dana International becoming the first transgender woman to take the trophy in 1998, performing in a Jean Paul Gaultier feathered bolero from the designer’s iconic couture 1997 collection. More recently, Austria’s bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst made for one of the most memorable winners of the show, scooping the prize in 2014 dressed in a gold brocade gown.
Artistic and social statements have intertwined with political ones over the years, as the event reflected the Old Continent’s evolution and changes across the board. For instance, the 1964 edition became politicized with demands that right-wing dictatorships in Spain and Portugal should be excluded from the contest, while when the event relocated outside Europe for the first time and took place in Jerusalem in 1979, Turkey withdrew from the contest under pressure from Arab countries.
Songs also have been used to deliver political messages, including in Finland’s 1982 entrant Kojo protesting against nuclear bombs and, more recently, Ukraine’s Jamala winning the 2016 contest with her song “1944,” referencing the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars.
In particular, in the early ’90s, as communism fell in Europe, many songs reflected the political developments, including popular Italian singer Toto Cutugno who won with the song “Insieme: 1992” about a united Europe. In addition, in those years newly sovereign nations showed interest in taking part in the contest, expanding its number of participants and its reach.
And the format is still in expansion mode. Last week, organizers revealed that the concept will land in the U.S. under the moniker of “American Song Contest.” Launching in 2022, the show will feature live performances, representing all 50 states, five U.S. territories and the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C, competing to win the country’s vote for the best original song.
Even if the news was greeted with mixed reactions on social media — with many protesting that it is the “Eurovision” song contest and should stay that way — the deal further seals the format’s success and its ability to generate both media buzz and business.
Before the event heads Stateside, here’s a cheat sheet to learn the contest’s history and rules and retrace its most memorable fashion moments.
The Eurovision Song Contest is organized by the European Broadcasting Union, or EBU, the alliance of public service media that represents 116 member organizations in 56 countries and an additional 34 associates in Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas.
A brainchild of Marcel Bezençon, president of the Programme Committee, the contest was based on Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival and designed to test the limits of live television broadcast technology. The first iteration was held in May 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland, with only seven nations participating and, for the only time in its history, with two songs per country.
Throughout the years the contest attracted increasing interest, encouraging organizers to add two semifinal rounds to the traditional, one-night event, starting from 2008. At the moment, all countries must be included in the top 10 ranking in a semifinal round to qualify for the final, except for the host country and the so-called “Big Five,” which include France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. Throughout the event’s history, organizers also admitted states outside Europe, ranging from Israel to Australia.
As for the songs, in the beginning all participants had to perform in their country’s national language but during the years songwriters started to believe that success would only come if the judges could understand the lyrics. Therefore in 1973 the rules on language were relaxed, just in time for ABBA to win with “Waterloo” in 1974. Shortly after, rules were reversed for more than two decades, before language freedom was definitely re-established starting from 1999.
The voting systems have also changed during the years, with the current one being in place since 1975. The key rule is that countries can’t cast votes for their own songs. So voters award a set of points from one to 12 to entries from other nations, with the favorite being awarded with the contest’s signature “douze  points.”
Historically, a country’s set of votes was decided by an internal jury, but in 1997 five countries experimented with televoting, giving the public the opportunity to express their preference. The experiment was successful and this voting system started to be embraced by all nations, wherever possible.
The winning country automatically qualifies for the following year’s final and gets to host the event. Throughout its history, though, some countries decided to decline the opportunity to stage the contest for different reasons, such as the lack of suitable venues. Over the last six decades, the event has traveled to locations spanning from London; Rome; Paris; Madrid; Moscow; Oslo, Norway; Dublin and Cannes, France, to Brussels; Tallinn, Estonia; Riga, Latvia; Jerusalem; Istanbul and Baku, Azerbaijan, among others.
MEMORABLE WINNERS AND CONTESTANTS
With seven victories, Ireland is the most successful country at the contest. Sweden has won the contest six times, while Luxembourg, France, the Netherlands and the U.K. have won five times each.
ABBA is the most successful winner, with “Waterloo” becoming an international hit and launching the legendary Swedish group’s successful career.
Other prominent winners include France Gall, who was a teenager competing for Luxembourg when in 1965 she took the prize with “Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son.” This marked a key moment in the history of the show since, for the first time, a pop song won the contest, paving the way for this type of entry in the following years.
The 1988 contest was also pivotal for launching the international career of Céline Dion, who won that edition representing Switzerland.
Ten years later, with the song “Diva,” Israel’s Dana International became the first transgender to win the contest. Most recently, bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst hit the headlines for scooping the prize representing Austria in 2014.
Despite finishing third in 1958, Italian singer Domenico Modugno‘s song “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu” — also known as “Volare” — is the most covered song in Eurovision history, reinterpreted by the likes of Dean Martin, Cliff Richard and David Bowie, among others.
Other illustrious contestants have included Françoise Hardy representing Monaco in 1963; Cliff Richard competing many times for the U.K.; Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, still unknown when he appeared in the contest in 1970; Olivia Newton-John representing the U.K. in 1974 before starring in “Grease;” Lara Fabian representing Luxembourg in 1988; Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. in 2003, and French star Sébastien Tellier in 2008, among others.
Music might be a universal language but nothing speaks louder than a statement fashion moment. And ESC contestants learned it soon, as outfits seen on stage got increasingly flashy in the attempt to make a lasting impression on the audience — either in a good or bad way. To wit: often artists opted for looks that were borderline camp and kitsch, which got the event quite a reputation for its kinky fashion exploits.
Clothes also provided gimmicks for artists to stand apart or to create comedy sketches during the event, especially through the use of transformative looks. For instance, in 1981 the British group Bucks Fizz introduced a new act when the two guys of the band ripped off the skirts of the two girls, revealing a shorter skirt underneath. Four years later, the show’s host Lill Lindfors surprised the audience when her skirt appeared to be ripped off but she quickly transformed her top into a dress. In 2002, the performance of Latvia’s singer Marie N also featured several costume changes, catching the attention of voters.
Overall, the contest has acted as a fashion barometer, tracking the evolution of costumes throughout the last six decades, monitoring everything from the formal, demure black dresses of the mid-’50s to fashion technology in 2018, passing through flared pants, shoulder pads, minimal slipdresses and countless sequins and metallics.
If the first winner of the ESC history, Lys Assia, scooped the prize in a dark formal dress in 1956, throughout the ’60s the undercurrent of a younger generation started to surface, encouraging artists to slowly step away from formality. Cue the first British winner, Sandy Shaw, who in 1967 performed her song “Puppet on a String” in a babydoll minidress and barefoot.
The ’70s brought in flared pants, jumpsuits, platform shoes and plenty of color, as embodied by ABBA in frilled collars and cuffs and chunky platform heels, as well as by Belgium’s 1973 contestants Nicole & Hugo in sequin-striped bell bottom pants and bouncy hair.
While Céline Dion scooped the prize wearing a white double-breasted blazer over a tutu in 1988, that year Spain’s La Década went on stage in puffy skirts, patterned tops, long-sleeved gloves and heavily padded shoulders, epitomizing what the ’80s were all about.
Poland’s charming contestant Edyta Górniak in 1994 expressed the essence of ’90s minimalism through a simple spaghetti strap dress, while two years later the U.K.’s Gina G channeled Spice Girls vibes in a sequined minidress and flanked by back-up dancers in coordinated pastel short frocks.
As the new millennium kicked off, looks got even shinier and metallics abounded on stage. Cases in point: Norway’s 2005 rocker Wig Wam and Sweden’s 2007 artist The Ark in silver looks and feather boas. Germany’s 2009 contestant Alex Swings Oscar Sings! also opted for shiny silver pants while performing next to burlesque star Dita Von Teese.
In the meantime, skin started to be increasingly revealed through seductive costumes, as seen in the case of Turkey’s 2003 singer Sertab Eraner and Ukraine’s 2004 contestant Ruslana.
But in the second part of the decade, show-stopping — if not puzzling — fashion moments peaked. In 2006, Finland made history by beating expectations and winning the contest, represented by the masked hard rock act Lordi and their performance filled with pyrotechnics. The following year, Ukraine responded with another memorable performance by sending Verka Serduchka, a drag act bedecked in a shiny, silver look accessorized with star-shaped head gear while the U.K. sent pop band Scooch dressed as flight attendants. In 2008, Latvia’s Pirates of the Sea were truthful to their name by dressing as pirates while in 2011, Ireland’s Jedward dusted off shoulder pads to give them a futuristic spin.
In the last decade, artists also started to use technology as a “wow” effect, with projection costumes appearing during the performances of Azerbaijan’s 2012 contestant Sabina Babayeva and Moldova’s 2013 singer Aliona Moon. In 2016, Croatia’s Nina Kraljić wore a design by Juraj Zigman which lit up, while two years later Estonia’s projection dress worn by Elina Nechayeva went the extra mile by covering the entire stage floor.