‘North Dakota, nul points’: Why the American Song Contest can never be as bizarre as Eurovision

Eurovision: Kate Miller-Heidke performs Zero Gravity, the Australian entry, in the 2019 song contest. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty

There is every chance the American Song Contest will be a rip-roaring success. Something called Propagate Content is supervising the proposed variation on the Eurovision Song Contest, and it’s never wise to bet against an organisation that sounds like the wicked cabal in a dystopian satire. Weren’t they the folks who ran the Hunger Games?

It is, however, hard to imagine the competition — set to air at the end of 2021 — replicating the uniquely bizarre atmosphere of its European progenitor. Eurovision has, for some decades, been at home to conscious camp, but the US version will never capture the accidental camp generated by a fat man from Yugoslavia (as it then was) playing the barrel organ while a clown yells in Serbo-Croat. That magic has gone the way of Avalon.

Propagate Content have got one thing right. It seems the American Song Contest will set the 50 states against one another. Despite the country’s federal make-up, such competitions are surprisingly rare. Sports teams are invariably based around metropolitan areas. The states fought a war against each other, but they don’t square up in the NFL or the NBA. The conflict between regions spread across one continent is a vital part of the Eurovision format. So it looks as if the words “Here are the votes from the South Dakota jury” really will be spoken aloud. 

We are frequently told that the US is hopelessly divided between a coastal elite and an internal mass of excluded sans-culottes. But those distinctions are not nearly so profound as those between European nations

“Eurovision has been a dream project ever since I was a child,” Christer Björkman, the show’s producer, told Variety. “To have a chance to use everything you know about the format and redo it from the beginning and to bring it to an audience that has no history with it is such a privilege.” A contestant for Sweden in 1992, Björkman looks back to Eurovision’s role in promoting conciliation after the second World War. Unity through competition. “It’s a competition where you root for your home state and your home town,” he says.

Where to begin? The centrally controlled production is unlikely to allow the creative misunderstandings that made Eurovision such a bewildering delight. In the original contest’s glory days, broadcasters from across the Continent brought their own individual stamp to song selection, live presentation and relaying of results.

There was, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a leaning towards gobbledegook Esperanto – Lulu’s Boom Bang a Bang leaps out – that played as well in francophone countries as it did in those that spoke Greek or Lower Sorbian. Every now and then a country would gallantly wheel out a traditional musician to keen about the beauties of their nation’s nunataks or (more controversially) the glories of their bellicose past.

When the music was over, we’d hear – and later see – youngish microcelebrities or elderly eminences trill their tongue over “douze points!” The show was a colossal, vulgar exercise in creative babel. It was often bad, but it was never bad on purpose.

Eurovision: Conan Osiris of Portugal performs in the 2019 song contest. Photograph: Guy Prives/Getty
Eurovision: Conan Osiris of Portugal performs in the 2019 song contest. Photograph: Guy Prives/Getty
Eurovision: Kate Miller-Heidke performs Zero Gravity, the Australian entry, in the 2019 song contest. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty
Eurovision: Kate Miller-Heidke performs Zero Gravity, the Australian entry, in the 2019 song contest. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty

In the decades since the Iron Curtain came down, Eurovision has become more consistent in its procedures and more deliberate in its campness. One can see why the bald men cradling white cats at Propagate Content felt now was the time to launch their diabolical campaign. The current Eurovision has much in common with the American Idol/X Factor/The Voice axis of millennial talent shows. But, in some regards, it has moved further from anything the American Song Contest could achieve. Regional disputes and affections have always coloured voting. Cyprus and Greece exchanged favours for decades. The Irish were less keen on voting for the UK than the UK was for putting votes Ireland’s way.

By the end of the last century, with numerous countries added from the former Eastern bloc, ethnic connections and unfriendly rivalries (often inexplicable to viewers from distant nations) were more influential on the result than ever. In the 2007 contest, eastern European countries occupied the top 15 places in the final. Recent alterations to voting procedures have done something to correct the bias, but those relationships still matter.

Nobody would want to see a replication of the worst excesses. But, for all the talk of postwar detente, the tensions between nations have always been a large part of the inappropriate Eurovision fun. That is unlikely to be replicated in the American Song Contest. Might the Carolinas prove inseparable? Could we see the states of New England form a pact of mutual support? Will the perennial tensions between New Jersey and New York have the reverse effect? To hell with the bridge-and-tunnel crowd? Stick it to the uppity Empire Staters? 

The standard version of English for the continental Eurovision presenter is a weird transatlantic trawl that seems learnt from MTV of the 1980s. No such mongrel tongue will be spoken on the American Song Contest

None of this seems probable. We are frequently told that the US is hopelessly divided between a coastal elite and an internal mass of excluded sans-culottes. (That’s a European reference for you there.) But the cultural distinctions between individual states are not nearly so profound as those between European nations. The loyalties are less fanatical. The antipathies are less venomous. The good people of Hawaii have a better understanding of their compatriots in Florida — 7,500km away — than the British do of the relatively adjacent Norwegians. The show might prove to be too darn friendly.

Nor will we get to savour nations struggling to achieve the lingua franca of contemporary pop music. Almost everybody involved will speak the same musical language. The standard version of English for the continental Eurovision presenter is a weird transatlantic trawl that seems learnt from MTV of the 1980s. No such mongrel tongue will be spoken on the American Song Contest. The air will ring with the boring melodies (literally and figuratively) of cultural consistency.

All of which points to the arrogance of assuming that one country, however large, however diverse, can hope to stage the equivalent of an international event within its own borders. Mind you, they do refer to the main North American baseball competition as the World Series. So what else would you expect?