2019 Eurovision winner Duncan Laurence. Image: Michael Campanella/Getty Images

2019 Eurovision winner Duncan Laurence. Image: Michael Campanella/Getty Images


The Eurovision Song Contest is the longest-running televised competition in history. The 2020 contest would have been held in Rotterdam, Netherlands, but due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, it has been postponed to 2021. At a time when millions around the world would have been excitedly preparing to throw Eurovision watch parties for the show’s 65th broadcast, UQ academic and Eurovision expert Dr Chris Hay reflects on why this European talent contest has attracted such a growing, loyal fan base on the other side of the planet.

My academic interest in Eurovision began in a very unscholarly place: it began with joy. From the moment I first encountered the contest on SBS, channel-surfing as a bored teenager, it was this unabashed emotional response that crowded out all others.

Later, as a scholar of performance, this fascinated me. Why would an international television song contest – an avatar for low-culture kitsch, source of decades’ worth of earworms from ‘Volare’ to ‘Waterloo’ to ‘Euphoria’ – be able to break down my critical faculties so comprehensively?

After Eurovision’s cancellation this year in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic – the first time in the contest’s 64-year history that the broadcast will not go ahead – it is the experience of joy that fans confess to missing the most. But what is the joy of Eurovision, and how do Australians feel it?

2014 Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst. Image: Ragnar Singsaas/WireImage/Getty Images

2014 Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst. Image: Ragnar Singsaas/WireImage/Getty Images

To offer an introduction: in the middle of Xavier Dolan’s 2019 film, Matthias & Maxime, an otherwise melancholy study of male friendship in decline, the protagonists experience their only moment of unbridled joy in the film while singing along to France’s 2016 Eurovision entry ‘J’ai cherché’ on the radio.

Watch the scene from Matthias & Maxime.

It’s a striking moment in the world of the film, but also outside of it; the scene captures the way in which the song brings the characters together, and connects them in a way they have been struggling to manage throughout the film.

It also shows how a great Eurovision song gets under your skin, takes you over, and yes, fills you with joy.

The delight Dolan’s characters feel is replicated on the faces of the heaving, sweating audience members that are cut to throughout every Eurovision broadcast – the living set-dressing that animates the Eurovision stage. The beaming smiles that punctuate the songs, madly waving their flags and chanting their entrant’s name, project their joy into living rooms around the world. It’s infectious, even at 5am when the Australian broadcast now begins. It’s one reason the audience is there – indeed, the audience is crucial.

An image of UQ Drama lecturer Dr Chris Hay reacting with joy as 2015 Eurovision host Conchita Wurst enters the stage.

UQ Drama lecturer Dr Chris Hay reacts with joy as 2015 Eurovision host Conchita Wurst enters the stage.

UQ drama lecturer Chris Hay reacts with joy as 2015 Eurovision host Conchita Wurst enters the stage.

In one of the only photographs taken during a research trip to the 2015 contest, I’m clutching my head as Conchita Wurst (the previous year’s winner, that year’s host, and my idol) emerges from a set piece beside me. It captures a moment where, for all my academic theorising about the live event, and despite my claims of anthropological distance, the joy of the event overcame me. It’s a feeling that has remained central to everything I have written about Eurovision since.

Eurovision is famously geographically promiscuous: the precondition for entry is not location, but membership of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Past and current entrants have included Morocco, Azerbaijan and Israel – and, after a second-place finish in 2019’s Junior Eurovision, Kazakhstan is knocking on the door.

Australians have been able to watch the contest on SBS since 1983 and, after a painful paean to our love of Eurovision in 2013, we were invited to perform as an interval act in the 2014 Semi-Final (Eurovision interval acts have their own storied history, since Riverdance shot to fame after their performance in the 1994 contest).

A one-off invitation for Australia to participate as a special guest to mark Eurovision’s 60th contest in 2015 followed, where Guy Sebastian’s respectable fifth-place finish – and, moreover, the joy and affection he inspired in Eurovision fans around the world – earned us full entry rights from 2016. UQ graduate Dami Im (Bachelor of Music '09) performed 'Sound of Silence' in the 2016 contest, finishing second in the Grand Final. Our participation is now secured until 2023, and we’ve quickly gained a reputation for quality: every Australian entry so far has qualified for the Grand Final.

Until we joined as a full participant in 2016, Eurovision watching for fans in Australia had been a tactical affair, requiring full lockdown and isolation (if only we knew!) in the hours between the contest’s European broadcast and the delayed Australian telecast that night.

The conflicted joy of anticipation loomed large for Australian fans: it was always a restless Sunday, knowing the result was out there and waiting until the last possible moment to turn the television on lest an errant news report ruin everything. Now, though, Australians are entitled to vote in the contest, which requires live broadcast: a development to which SBS has responded by adding an early morning live transmission while keeping the original evening slot.

In my research, I’ve argued that this new access to the live experience, while it is still mediated by the television screen, offers Australian fans a heightened connection to the global fandom, allowing us to experience the emotional excesses of the contest in real time, and keeping us coming back for more. Indeed, our access to the live experience of Eurovision – and the emotional investment it facilitates – has only increased with the advent of the national selection event Eurovision – Australia Decides.

UQ graduate Dami Im and Guy Sebastian.
Images: Michael Campanella/Nigel Treblin/Getty Images

An image of UQ graduate and 2016 Eurovision contestant Dami Im.
An image of Australian performer Guy Sebastian, who competed in Eurovision in 2015.

But even in 2020’s forced darkness, Eurovision fans endure: they are organising online viewing parties of their favourite contests from years past; they are besieging the EBU with proposals and innovative plans for how to continue despite physical distancing and travel restrictions; and there is even a petition circulating to declare Iceland the winner in absentia.

Watch UQ graduate Dami Im's Eurovision performance from 2016.

Amazingly, the EBU seems to have listened, and the official responses have embraced fan practices: not only is a curated series of home concerts going ahead on YouTube, but fans are also invited to pick the repertoire via polls on Twitter and Instagram, matching each artist with a past fan favourite song to cover. It’s a canny attempt to service new and old fans; the stars of recent years re-presenting the best songs of the past, in a kind of super-cut of the centrepiece of last year’s contest in Tel Aviv.

That format will even be scaled up for the replacement television broadcast, ‘Eurovision: Europe Shine a Light’, which “intends to bring together 2020’s artists, from their locations across Europe, in a performance of a past Eurovision hit, with unifying lyrics appropriate for the current situation we find ourselves in”.

What interests me most here is the wholehearted embrace of Eurovision fans that it represents, and the EBU’s dedication to providing them with as much joy as possible.

Three of the highlights of the 2020 contest – fan favourites long before the line-up had even been finalised – might give you a good sense of what awaits, whatever forum the EBU provides: Russia’s Little Big and their song ‘Uno’, the hotly-favoured Daði Freyr from Iceland with ‘Think About Things’, and Lithuana’s The Roop with ‘On Fire’. All manage to walk the fine line of all great Eurovision entries, leaning into the ridiculous while bringing the joy. In the brave new world in which we find ourselves, I suspect it will be a precious commodity.

Learn more about UQ's Drama programs in the School of Communication and Arts.

About the author

Dr Chris Hay is a Lecturer in Drama in the School of Communication and Arts. He is an Australian theatre and cultural historian, whose work on the origins of live performance subsidy in Australia between 1949 and 1975 is funded by an ARC DECRA grant.

An image of UQ Drama lecturer Dr Chris Hay.

He is also a Eurovision fan, and co-editor of the collection Eurovision & Australia: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Down Under (2019), in which he writes about the live experiences of Australian Eurovision fans.

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