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May 12, 2017

Americas: Lessons from the Biggest Live Event You’ve Never Heard Of

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The Eurovision Song Contest, happening on Saturday, May 13, is a competition between 42 countries in the Eurovision television region and also Australia for the best pop song. Don’t laugh, this is serious business, Eurovision unleashed ABBA on the world in 1974, and trying to win it was so important to the Soviets that singers were allowed past the Iron Curtain to compete during the Cold War.

Eurovision is broadcast live almost everywhere in the world, from China to Canada, with the exception of the United States. Each country holds their own nationwide song competition to pick a favorite; the winners go to the Eurovision final where the best song is chosen by votes from a panel of judges from each country, and also by telephone voters all over the world. This part is where it gets political: Phone voters cannot vote for their home country, so theoretically someone with a Swedish cell phone number cannot vote for a Swedish song. But since Eurovision voters are almost as fanatical as World Cup soccer fans, and European borders are open and usually not very far away, it is not unusual for fans to drive to another country, buy a burner cellphone (or 10), and then use it to vote for their home country’s candidate on the night of the competition. Or they can use their votes to make a political point. In 2016, less than a year after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a Ukrainian singer called Jamala won with a song called “1944,” about her ancestors being forced out of Crimea by Josef Stalin. The Australian entry won the panel vote; the phone voters propelled Jamala to the top spot.

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