Just picture it – prominent international academics having a serious conversation on The Toppers, the Dutch super group of campy male singers who initially found fame as soloists. “A colleague of mine thought the group had been formed purely to participate in the Eurovision, but no, they sell out stadiums!” On Monday evening, some 25 academics (mostly foreign) attended an informal Zoom meeting to discuss the Eurovision Song Contest. The event was organised by EUR-affiliated media expert Simone Driessen. “It was modelled on conferences held in the USA, where they establish salon events, in the classical sense of the word: a place where you can have a good conversation about something. It’s a convenient format in which people can easily take part, without really having to prepare anything.”

Political controversy

The first event held in the Eurovision salon was an interview with Dean Vuletic, a self-declared authority when it comes to Eurovision science, as well as the author of a book entitled Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. Among other things, he debunked the myth that the festival is not a political event and provided a few examples from the contest’s early years, such as a Dutch song on pious and faithful girls and a Jewish singer representing West Germany.

Vuletic also touched on interesting political trends related to the contest, such as increasingly strict rules regarding political statements, which are banned. In Vuletic’s opinion, this ban is related to commercialisation. As far as that is concerned, he feels that Hungary’s withdrawal in 2019 was not a coincidence. It was in line with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-European (and rather homophobic) attitude. On the other hand, he told the attendees, the media also like to pour fuel on the fire of small protests; they clearly love any political controversy surrounding the Eurovision. He provided an example: the right-wing protests staged in Austria when the famous drag queen Conchita Wurst won the contest. “That was not representative of Austria at all.”

Plenty to conduct research on

The rest of the salon was dedicated to a wide variety of subjects: identity (even songs without a cultural identity tell us about a country’s identity), singing in one’s own language (a good thing if you want to be successful after the contest), protest actions and censorship (they have been around since 1964), Eastern European voting blocs (you Western European countries and media are obsessed with them) and Great Britain’s notorious failure to do well in the contest (“We don’t hate you guys – you just need to send better songs”). The Netherlands, too, was discussed in passing: “Schlager songs sound very good in Dutch and German” and “The success ‘Arcade’ (Duncan Laurence’s 2019 winning song – ed.) had in the US is rather remarkable for a Eurovision Song Contest winner and is due to the rise of streaming services and social media.”

In other words, there is plenty to discuss and conduct research on, when it comes to the Eurovision Song Contest. As soon as it was announced that Rotterdam was to host the contest, Driessen and a few of her colleagues came up with the idea of organising a conference dedicated to the event. “We have a lot of music scientists, so we thought this was a brilliant reason to hold a conference on the Eurovision, music and fandom. We made a conscious decision to include a lot of subjects, also because the contest’s theme is ‘open up’.”

Popular subject: the political dimension

They soon discovered that the number of academics who study the song contest exceeded their expectations. “Honestly, the contest can be studied from three hundred different angles. That’s why we included subjects such as identity and politics. The political dimension is a popular subject. Question to be answered: What does the Eurovision mean to Europe? For instance, people will analyse the role played by a country like Ukraine. Those are exciting things.” Other subjects being researched include the voting system and the influence of social media. “A really niche subject that I personally find very interesting is research on songs – people who compare the violin section of Norway’s winning song with a Portuguese song, trying to determine how they inspired each other, in terms of melody or pitch.”

More than sixty researchers applied to attend the original conference, some forty of whom were invited to come to Rotterdam. “They would have come from all over the world, from all the Eurovision countries, except Australia. We put an immense amount of effort into it, so we were incredibly disappointed when it had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. On the other hand, we completely understood.” Because the researchers were very busy making the switch to online teaching, they did not have enough time to turn the conference into an online conference.

Small taste of the real thing

A year later, Driessen decided to host the event that replaced the original conference completely online. “It’s a far cry from what we had in mind. Our two- or three-day conference was reduced to a ninety-minute meeting. This fitted better into people’s schedules, and everyone had a chance to say ‘hi’ to each other.”

Driessen was happy with the turn-out. “Most of all, I’m glad that the people who joined us still represent a wide variety of countries. It’s great that we were able to do the same in a different format. It was a nice, small taste of the song contest week.”

So what will she herself be focusing on during the event? “The fans, and what the fan experience is like during the pandemic. I’m very curious to see what the reduced number of fans looks like on TV, and whether we will be able to savour the regular exuberance and vibe of the Eurovision party – because it is a party – during the pandemic.”