published on August 11, 2020

Exporting Eurovision to America: The American Song Contest

by Dean Vuletic 

The Eurovision Song Contest is becoming American: on August 7, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) announced that an American version of Eurovision, the American Song Contest, will be staged for the first time in 2021. Since 1956, the EBU has organised Eurovision annually  except for the cancellation this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic  for the national public service broadcasting organisations from Europe and the Mediterranean rim that comprise the union’s membership. Just as Eurovision is based on song entries representing the states that its members come from, the American Song Contest will have entries from each of the fifty states of the United States of America. The American Song Contest is being produced by a European team that has extensive experience in working on Eurovision, including the Swedish producer and one-time Eurovision entrant Christer Björkman. The American media executive Ben Silverman is also joining the team; he has produced television shows such as The OfficeUgly Betty and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

This is the first time that a Eurovision-style contest will be staged in America, but the relationship between America and Eurovision goes back to the contest’s beginnings. Eurovision is one of the world’s longest running and most popular television shows, and it has always captivated European audiences with its combination of culture, kitsch and politics. It is one of the two mega-events  the other being the Union of European Football Association’s Champions League  that have most united Europeans, as even the European Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, told me in February this year. Yet, for all its quintessential Europeanness, Eurovision has always been influenced by America, as I trace in my book Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. Artists and songs with connections to America have featured in the contest from its first edition. Then, the Austrian singer Freddy Quinn  who had spent part of his childhood in America — performed “So geht das jede Nacht” (That’s How It Is Every Night) in a rock-‘n’-roll style with lyrics that included some English-language names. He represented West Germany in Eurovision: the contest has never had a rule requiring that a singer, composer or lyricist be the citizen of the state that they are representing.

Yet, the relationship between America and Eurovision has not been one-way. Eurovision has also historically had an impact on America, even though the contest was, until recent years, hardly broadcast there. During the Cold War era, Eurovision was only broadcast once on American television, on the Public Broadcasting Service in 1971. There were also attempts around that time, including by the American Billboard music industry magazine, to get an entry representing America into Eurovision. However, these were rejected by the EBU because it wanted to maintain the contest’s European “character” and “flavour”. Still, Eurovision has launched singers and songs that have become hits in America: the most famous are Domenico Modugno’s Grammy Award-winning “Nel blu, dipinto di blu” (In the Blue Painted Blue), popularly known as “Volare” (To Fly); ABBA with its Eurovision winner “Waterloo”, which reached the top ten of the Billboard charts; and Celine Dion, who went on to become a superstar in America after her Eurovision victory.

In recent years, the EBU has sought to expand Eurovision’s impact on America. From 2016 to 2018, the contest was broadcast in America on Logo TV, whose programming targets sexual minorities (the contest has also historically been hugely popular among the gay community in Europe). The American singers Justin Timberlake and Madonna featured as interval acts in Eurovision in 2016 and 2019 respectively. Then there was the release on Netflix in June this year of the film The Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which stars the American actor Will Ferrell and has been a hit in both America and Europe.

Eurovision’s recent forays into America need to be viewed in the context of the EBU’s continuing attempts to open up new markets for the contest. During the Cold War era, the contest expanded throughout Western Europe, and even included entries from Israel, Morocco, Turkey and Yugoslavia. New markets were subsequently found in the states of Central and East Europe, whose national public service broadcasting organisations joined the EBU from 1993 (during the Cold War, Eastern Europe had had its own version of Eurovision, the Intervision Song Contest). Since 2015, Eurovision has included Australian entries submitted by the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), a multilingual public service broadcaster that was set up in 1980 to provide programming to Australia’s migrant communities, which in the 1980s especially meant communities from Southern European states. It was because of these communities that SBS began broadcasting Eurovision in 1983, leading to Australia becoming the biggest market for Eurovision outside of Europe and Israel.

SBS was in 2016 also given a licence to develop an Asian version of Eurovision called ‘’Eurovision Asia”, but that has not yet taken off. A few years of Eurovision being broadcast in China by Hunan TV was ended by the EBU in 2018, after the Chinese broadcaster censored gay references and performers’ tattoos from the show. The EBU has always insisted that Eurovision be relayed uncensored by a broadcaster. Could Eurovision Asia work if its participants do not adhere to common values? Asia has also not had a transcontinental equivalent of the European integration that has enhanced the cultural, political and social symbolism of Eurovision. However, Asia has had its own international song contests, including ones organised by the EBU’s regional counterpart, the Asian-Pacific Broadcasting Union. It might be that a new Asian song contest just does not need the prefix “Euro-” in its name.

Can the American version of Eurovision be successful, then? By calling it just the “American Song Contest”, its organisers have avoided any confusion or prejudice that “Eurovision” could bring and have appealed to patriotic sentiment. The Eurovision brand has an almost seven-decade-long tradition in Europe, having emerged in the mid-1950s at a time when European integration was beginning through the efforts of the Council of Europe and the foundational organisations of the European Union. Yet, America already has several mega events that unite its citizens and have long shaped its national identity: the Grammys, Miss America, the Oscars, the Super Bowl… The American Song Contest will incorporate elements of the first two by being based on popular music and state representation. It will also build on the huge popularity of televised singing contests like American Idol. Indeed, the selection of the entries for the American Song Contest will similarly be made through televised contests for each state, with expert and public juries deciding on the winners.

Yet, can America’s state affiliations fuel the competition and passion that national identities have given to Eurovision, as the media commentator William Lee Adams maintains? After all, what Europeans have found so captivating about Eurovision is that it has always reflected international political relations in Europe, especially when it has come to the voting results that have been determined by national juries which have varyingly included voting by expert and public juries. “Bloc voting”, whereby national juries have voted for the entries of states with which they share cultural, linguistic and political affinities, have been an infamous yet intriguing feature of Eurovision since the contest’s early years. Perhaps, then, the American Song Contest will be more of a song contest and less of a political show than its European parent. The EBU has sought to present Eurovision as an “apolitical” event to avoiding stoking international conflicts, but a competition based on national representation is always bound to have political dimensions.

The American Song Contest is also likely to be more unabashedly commercial than Eurovision. The EBU has not yet announced the broadcaster of the contest; however, unlike European states, America does not have a national public service broadcasting organisation. The EBU’s members have historically struggled with the tensions between public and private financing that the high costs of entering and hosting Eurovision have brought. They have also grappled with the question of whether the production of an international hit or the promotion of a national culture should be the guiding principle behind a Eurovision entry. That most Eurovision entries are now in English  ever since the rule on them having to be in the national languages of the states that they represented was abrogated in 1999  additionally prompts questions about the relationship between national identities and supranational ones. As well as about that between Europe and Americanisation. The American Song Contest will not have to face the same cultural and political challenges: it will not Europeanise America. For the lack of such politics, the American Song Contest may also not be as popularly captivating as Eurovision.

 

Dr. Dean Vuletic is a historian of contemporary Europe. He is the author of the first-ever academic monograph on the history of Eurovision, Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest (London: Bloomsbury, 2018). The book is the product of the research project “Eurovision: A History of Europe Through Popular Music”, which he led as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Intra-European Fellow. As a Lise Meitner Fellow, he has also led the project “Intervision: Popular Music and Politics in Eastern Europe”, which focussed on the history of the Intervision Song Contest. Dr. Vuletic regularly comments on Eurovision in the international media, and more information about his work can be found on his website www.deanvuletic.com.