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.
All agree, however, that what matters most are actually the dancers, the pyrotechnics—the nonmusical stuff. Even hapless boy bands such as Blue, which represented Great Britain this year, lacked the raw campiness to compete with rising powerhouses like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine. Some Western Europeans now get it. The Irish duo Jedward—aka the brothers John and Edward Grimes—performed a song titled Lipstick, which is about nothing, and talked about their hair, which is blond and one foot tall. "People say our hair is rock solid, but it's not," Jedward explains. "We're not contributing to global warming or anything."
Yet even Jedward couldn't stop the Azeris. Ell/Nikki—aka the Azeri duo that performed Running Scared—gave viewers what they wanted: a song they've heard countless times before wrapped in a dance and light show. Evelina Sašenko, who represented Lithuania at Eurovision 2011, claims the Azeris were not the most talented act at Düsseldorf. "Everyone noticed," she says. And it doesn't matter. "Eurovision is not only about delivering your best vocal performance."
What many post-Soviet nations have not noticed, however, is that they're increasingly competing with each other, not the Western Europeans they want to impress. John Kennedy O'Connor, author of The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official History, estimates that 90 percent of TV viewers in certain Eastern European countries watch Eurovision. Meanwhile, he says, "the West has become perhaps a bit sneering." Figures provided by the European Broadcasting Union, which produces Eurovision, support the theory: In 2011, 69 million people watched the Eurovision finals, down slightly from 73 million in 2009, when the event was hosted in Russia. By contrast, the 2010 competition, held in Oslo, was watched by only 60 million. Eurovision's future may reside not in luring back Western Europeans but in making sure there are enough television sets on Belarusian farms.
While it's to be expected that the French might look down on Eurovision, it's actually the Poles who show how much the contest has changed. Martin Plassowski, business development director at the advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi's Warsaw office, says 2.3 million Polish viewers watched Eurovision in 2011, compared with 8.3 million in 2003. The "attractiveness of this pan-European event has faded," he says in an e-mail. "Now we have lots of attractive commercial events competing with Eurovision." Then he adds a sideways smiley face.