Having only discovered the song contest in 2007, I don't have the same preconceptions as Europeans.
I headed back to Brussels after a great weekend in Vienna for the Eurovision Song Contest Final. It was my fourth time attending the show and this time was undoubtedly the best.
Vienna went all out, decking out the whole city and setting up not one, but two Euroclubs for fans. The organisation was smooth (more than I can say for Copenhagen and Dusseldorf). I was there as press and was very lucky to be given a VIP ticket, so I had an amazing view. Maybe that explains my effusive praise for Vienna's hosting, but it really was objectively very good. A shame that they were rewarded by the public with nul points! Austria really didn't deserve that.
One really remarkable thing was that this was the first city to openly acknowledge the song contest's gay following. There were rainbow flags hanging from many of the trams, and they even changed some of the crosswalk signs, ordinarily male-female couples, into same-sex partners. It makes sense in a year which saw the first openly gay winner of Eurovision (not counting Dana International in 1998, who was trans).
I'm often asked why on earth an American loves this 60-year-old song contest so much. It's true that the song contest is completely unknown on the other side of the pond. I had never heard of it before I moved to Europe nine years ago. The first time I saw the contest was in 2007. I was in Munich for a conference and just happened to catch it on TV. I was transfixed, I had never seen anything like it. It was like Miss America combined with American Idol combined with election night returns!
A lot of my friends absolutely hate the contest, and I've never quite understood why. When I ask them, they mostly have the same explanation: it's cheesy, it's of dubious musical quality, the voting is all political.
As for the first two points, of course many of the entries are pretty naff but there's a lot of good music in there (for real). When I look back at the old Eurovision entries of the 1980s and 1990s, when my friends would have been gathered around the TV watching the contest with their families, I can see that it did used to be cringe-inducingly silly. But I think that fundamentally changed in the early 2000s. The show became more slick, songs became more radio-friendly pop, and the political voting was reduced when they introduced the 50/50 split between public votes and jury votes.
Say what you will about the political voting, you can honestly say that each year the best song, or one of the best songs, wins. If there was really only political voting, how on earth could Germany and Austria have both won within the past five years? The voting is not nearly as political as people think.
I guess the reason why I have such a different impression of the song contest is because I don't have any of these old associations with it. I tell my European friends - imagine if you discovered Eurovision all at once, only in recent years. Try to watch this year's show with fresh eyes, without any of the associations from your childhood.
Yes, it's largely silly. That's the fun of it. But don't let the silliness distract you from some of the really good songs. It's great fun if you can just relax and get into it, I promise :-)