‘The Voice’ meets the World Cup: Inside 2016’s Eurovision Song Contest Finals

Eurovision 2016 winner
© Andres Putting (EBU)

What do you get when you cross The Voice and Dancing With The Stars with FIFA’s World Cup? The only possible answer is the Eurovision Song Contest, which many have come to consider as one of the cheesiest music shows ever produced. But the Eurovision Song Contest’s finale has a worldwide viewing audience of more than 200 million people, which is almost double the viewership of Super Bowl 50. For the first time in its 61-year history, the finals were broadcast in the United States on May 14, 2016 with the contest taking place in Stockholm, Sweden.

Each May, approximately 40 countries throughout Europe plus Australia (invited as a guest participant the last two years) compete for bragging rights as they put forward their best artists and songwriters. Each country’s viewing audience and a jury of music professionals from each country vote for their 10 favorite countries. However, they cannot vote for their own country. For the winner of the contest, the artist is guaranteed instant fame, an enormous sales boost and endless touring opportunities around the world. It’s the notoriety and massive exposure that brings all types of musical artists to the contest. Every music genre from heavy metal and rock to folk and pop songs are featured. Some of the participating performers are huge recording artists in their home country but want to benefit from greater worldwide exposure. Many of the contestants are new to the music scene and were discovered on their countries’ version of The Voice, X-Factor or Idol.

There are a few strict rules that all contestants must abide by:

  • The artist or songwriter must be from the participating country.
  • The song must be an original song.
  • The song cannot be political.
  • Finally and most importantly, the song cannot be more than three minutes.

The typical Eurovision song only needs a few key elements to become a classic. The song needs to have a catchy hook, be radio friendly, incorporate a sudden key change, and the artist needs to hit a high note that he or she holds for an incredibly long time. However, that criterion was smashed to pieces when the Finnish heavy metal band Lordi won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006 with “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” Channeling their icons, KISS, the group performed in masks. It was after this win that the number of rock participants began to increase in the competition.

The contest this year had three notable rock entries that each succeeded to win their semifinal heats to compete for the title. Starting out as a cover band in 2009, Minus One was chosen to represent Cyprus in 2016 after a failed attempt during a national competition the previous year. They sound a bit like the Killers and co-wrote their entry “Alter Ego” song with Swedish hit machine composer Thomas Gison. Apparently the collaboration was just the right mix to put Minus One in the finals. (They placed 21st overall.)

Bringing a techno style sound reminiscent of Depeche Mode to the contest is Latvia’s song “Heartbeat” written by Aminata Savadogo. The song was performed by Justs. (Yes, he goes just by the name Justs.) Songwriter Aminata Savadogo represented Latvia in the Eurovision Song Contest 2015 with the song “Love Injected” where she placed sixth in the grand final of the competition. Justs is just starting out his career after winning a national singing competition. He is definitely someone to keep an eye out for on the world stage. (He finished 15th overall.)

But the biggest surprise in the competition was how Georgia won over its viewing audience with their brand of psychedelic rock. Young Georgian Lolitaz is a band formed in 2000 from Tbilisi, Georgia. Their entry in the song contest was called “Midnight Gold.” What’s exciting about this band is they broke all the rules. It’s not a catchy rock tune, no key changes, no long notes held and the song ends suddenly right at three minutes. It’s almost as if they purposely said, “Don’t tell me how long a song should be—if you want only three minutes, pull the plug.” This is an indie-rock band more people need to hear; thankfully, Eurovision is providing that platform. (The group ended up placing 20th overall.)

However, this year’s winner was Ukraine’s Jamala who won the contest with a song she wrote called “1944.” The song is a mix of jazz, soul and R&B. The dark history behind the song is about the mass deportation of Crimean Tartars on orders from Joseph Stalin during World War II. Jamala is the great-granddaughter of one of the victims. Needless to say Russia is not too pleased about the Ukraine win and has vowed not to participate in the contest in 2017.