During the Cold War, the Eurovision Song Contest, like NATO and drum machines, was a strictly Western affair. The made-for-television fiesta featured international competition and a fireworks-laden final round. It drew tens of millions of viewers in Britain, France, West Germany, and Scandinavia, and launched superstars such as Julio Iglesias and ABBA.
Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed, Europe became much bigger, and places like Serbia and Moldova started cranking out pop stars. This greatly expanded Eurovision’s viewership and set the song contest on a new trajectory. The watershed moment came in 2001, when the hitherto little-known country of Estonia became the first post-Soviet republic to win the competition. Neighboring Latvia won in 2002; Ukraine, in 2004; Serbia, in 2007; and Russia in 2008. Last month, a country that many Eurovision aficionados believe isn’t even in Europe—Azerbaijan—snagged first place in Düsseldorf with its moving ballad, Running Scared, which opens with the stanza: “Come to me, come to me tonight. Oh God, I need you.”
The Azeri victory is a sign that Eurovision has strayed irrevocably from its origins. When it was hatched in 1956, the song contest was supposed to be for dueling divas—male and female—from Western European countries, and these singer-representatives would battle it out for a night. Today, Eurovision has become a good platform for undeveloped countries riddled with rusting tractor factories, gold teeth, and unfiltered cigarettes to show that they are, in fact, modern—which is what you want to be if you’re trying to lure investors and tourists. Winning Eurovision, after all, offers a country the chance to host the next year’s contest, allowing the whole Continent to train its spotlight on some place it never thought about.
So far, it’s worked. Irving Wolther, a self-described Eurovisionologist from Hanover, Germany, says Estonia’s landmark victory has become the model for backwaters everywhere. “Estonian Television used the show for national branding, placing Estonia among the Scandinavian countries with impressions of pine forests, saunas, and Nordic clichés,” he says. “This way they could free themselves from belonging to the post-Soviet sphere.” Wolther says the economic benefit of Estonia’s win is “up to $10 billion”—although he doesn’t explain how.
Meanwhile, the Azeri government, run by strongman Ilham Aliyev, is looking to pump millions of dollars into next year’s contest. Paul Jordan, a PhD candidate in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow, notes that the Russians spent nearly $30 million in 2009 and that the Azeris are already talking about spending more—even though their country is about 1/200th the size. “I think Azerbaijan, next year, will be an entirely different ballgame,” says the aspiring Eurovisionologist. Moreover, notes Wolther, the oil-rich country’s “will to use Eurovision as a platform for national-cultural representation is enormous.” It better be: Azerbaijan has one good highway, connecting the airport and Baku, the capital, and just a few hotels and office towers. To convince outsiders it’s a safe place to park capital, the country might have to raze some Soviet-era apartment blocks and do some touch-up work on the crumbling mosques that dot the cityscape.
They’ll also have to block out criticism from many who can’t quite believe Azerbaijan actually won. “I would like to stay politically correct,” says Audrius Girzadas, a Lithuanian radio personality who led his country’s delegation at Eurovision 2011, “but I would be very careful about calling Azerbaijan part of Europe.” (John Loughlin, a political scientist at the University of Cambridge, believes Azerbaijan is European but only “in the elastic sense.”) Sebastian Vinther, a guitarist for Denmark’s 2011 entry, quips that the winning Azeri song, Running Scared, is “not much of an Azerbaijani song” since it was actually written by a Swedish composer. Others suggest that Azerbaijan triumphed only because the public casts half the votes via cell phone. If the juries—which control the other half and are said to have better taste in music—had their way, Italy, represented by the jazzy Raphael Gualazzi, probably would have won.