No it's not American Idol or The X Factor. What it is is a contest that is held in May with a TV audience of 150 million, making it the most watched non sporting event in the world. It's the contest that has launched acts including Abba and Celine Dion to success. It has the most talented and diverse set of songs of any contest in the world. It's the EuroVision Song Contest.
Eurovision is sort-of a American Idol combined with the Olympics. Each of the 39 participating countries sends one group to the contest. First off, they can send anyone. That means the groups range from teenagers (Lena from Germany, who won in 2010, just graduated from High School) just getting started to experienced professionals (Loreen from Sweden who won the contest in 2012). The only limits are that the song must be new and under 3 minutes.
What makes it so good? First off the level of talent is amazing. Mostly… Some are poor and a few are really awful (participating so their country can vote). But the good ones are as good as you will find anywhere. Amazing talent, amazing song, and an amazing presentation. For most European countries this matters as much as winning the World Cup and it's a national effort to find the best group to represent them. (The United Kingdom is a notable exception as they appear to be trying to come in last each year.)
Equally important is the variety. A song contest like American Idol is built around the most popular musical genres. American Idol is looking for people who will go on to produce multiple platinum sellers. At ESC you will get pop, ballads, hard rock, folk, jazz, classical, and some that defy categorization. Listening to 20 similar songs gets old at about song number 4 (number 6 if they're all exceptional). But bouncing between genres each song is different and fresh.
And the variety is not a standard pop song, then a standard ballad. The best songs tend to be something you don't normally hear. In 2009 the winner was a classical trained violinist from Norway sounding a bit like Charley Daniels. In 2012 it was a techno-dance number and the 2nd place was a chant by Russian grandmothers sung in Udmurt (I thought that one was terrible). Most of the acts will never appear on a mainstream show like American Idol because they're "different."
Also it's a contest. Everyone is cheering for their country and their favorites. But you go into it not knowing who's going to win. Everyone speaks authoritatively about who will win but… In 2011 Italy returned to the contest for the first time in 14 years with a really nice Jazz number. And everyone said why did they bother with such a pathetic entry. He came in second. People truly are on the edge of their seats as the results are announced (country vote by country vote) because they don't know how it will end up.
You also get to make fun of the contest because there are also some really bad acts. The performance put on by some of the acts is incredibly tacky or overwrought. As each entry starts you don't know if you're going to be screaming for joy, or screaming in pain. Sometimes both. There are also the guilty pleasures, stage acts that are the definition of kitsch, yet you love them.
Last year had the best selections of songs ever and this year is looking to be even better. The semi-finals are May 14 & 16 and the final is May 18. Here in the U.S. you can watch a live web cast at 7:00pm CET (i.e. Sweden). To learn more, visit WIWIBLOGGS (best ESC website), I'll be live-blogging there during the contest. Yes, I'm flying over and spending the week there just to watch the show (my first vacation without my family in forever).
The most amazing 6 hours of music this year – don't miss it.