Continuing our series of asking the lead writers at ESC Insight “Why Eurovision” the Spanish Inquisition turns to Samantha Ross. Still busy on ESC Insider with her personal thoughts as well as the more feature based content on this site, the answer from the American is as unique and familiar as all of our stories.
For some people, “Eurovision” elicits a wince as they imagine the camp spectacle that seems to give the world’s sequin factories a yearly boost in sales. For others, it evokes memories from childhood, watching a bit of light entertainment over at Grandmum’s house and getting to stay up late to watch the UK invariably come in second place. For most people in my country, it brings up a whole bunch of blank stares or, if you’re lucky, something muttered about Lordi.
For a select few, however, the Eurovision Song Contest means a two-week vacation to an often-unfamiliar country, where the line between “serious journalist” and “hyperactive super-fan” is beautifully blurred. It’s a blend of summer camp, senior prom, science fiction convention, and high-school reunion, where obsessions are indulged, inside jokes are suddenly on the outside, and the question is rarely “who do you want to win”, but rather “where would you like to meet up next year?” The question that I personally hear most often, however, is “so, how did you get here?”
To tell you the truth, thinking back on my journey, I’m still figuring that answer out.
My first recollections of Eurovision are blurry, and only tangentially related to the contest itself. I remember watching old episodes of Monty Python with my dad when I was about eight or nine, and while I found myself laughing at cross-dressing lumberjacks and upper-class twits, I was more confused than anything else when the “World Forum” sketch popped up. Mao Zedong answered a question regarding two people singing about a little birdie for a musical competition and people seemed to find it funny, but I didn’t really know why. The sketch moved on, and I didn’t give the Eurovision Song Contest another thought. A few years later, around the time that I was training for my Bat Mitzvah, our teacher passed around an article on this transsexual Israeli singer who was gaining popularity all over Europe. It was interesting, but I was more focused on whatever else it is that a seventh-grade girl thinks about (It might have been my hair…)
Fast-forward a few years. I had just spent a summer living in Chile and a year hosting an exchange student from Colombia, and I was intensely focused on the idea of internationalism and distancing myself from the cozy New Jersey upbringing that I had known. I started out at Macalester College in Minnesota, where about twenty percent of the student body came from abroad. Between my friendships with people from all over the world and the fact that I had started getting my news from the BBC (rather than American news sources), I started to hear bits and pieces about this vast pan-European song festival, where ABBA and Celine Dion had gotten their starts. By 2005, I was watching the Contest’s live stream online, and by 2006, I was irrevocably hooked. I had never seen anything else like it: a place where music, history, linguistics, geopolitics, and cheese all mingled. It was like the Olympics blended with Idol, injected with steroids, given an unlimited pyrotechnics budget (and a lot of caffeine), and brought to a Pride celebration. From what I was learning about European culture and History through the contest, I became a formidable opponent at Trivial Pursuit. I was even slightly tempted to skip my graduation from Macalester in order to watch the Finns host the event (and to watch Verka Serduchka do her thing…needless to say, Mom was less than thrilled by the idea).
Even after graduation, my interest never waned. I ended up starting my own personal Eurovision blog, The ESC Insider, in the hopes of sharing my obsession with my family and friends (and maybe, by extension, the American audience as a whole). Slowly, I noticed the number of readers on my hit counter growing, and I realized that people who I didn’t even know were actually reading what I had to say. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or terrified. I couldn’t pretend to be everywhere at once with my site, and provide comprehensive news coverage. I was only one woman, and I hadn’t even been to a live competition yet. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but “attend a Eurovision Final” quickly shot to the top of my personal bucket list.
After a few years of geographically and financially inaccessible events (on the budget of a recent college graduate, cities like Belgrade, Moscow, and Oslo were completely unfeasible), a German-hosted Eurovision finally made it possible to attend. I cashed in my frequent flyer miles, nabbed a press accreditation, and cannon-balled into the press centre in Düsseldorf.
For two weeks, it was like rock and roll fantasy camp. The Greeks were inviting me to have a cup of coffee with them. Dino Merlin knew my name. The Icelanders were asking how my family was. The Bulgarians were friending me on Facebook. Homens da Luta were helping me practice my meagre Portuguese. Most importantly, I felt instantly embraced by the community of journalists present. I had never met any of these people in the flesh before this May, and yet I now consider some of them to be my closest friends. If I say “I Love Belarus” to my friends back home, people might question my patriotism. If I say it to anybody in the Press Centre, I’m answered with a rousing chorus of “got it deep inside!”
As much as I love the music, it’s truly the people that drive me to pack my bags and fly halfway around the world. Baku is ten time zones away from my home in Saint Paul, and I’ll likely need to spend at least fifteen hours in the air to get there. I think it’s a small price to pay to feel like you belong.
Asking me “Why Eurovision?” is akin to asking me “why pizza?” It’s definitely not the world’s healthiest food, and at times it’s downright terrible, but it satisfies a craving that nothing else can provide, and it’s always best when shared.