Scholars increasingly see Waterloo as a pivotal event for Europe. The song, that is, not the battle.
ABBA's breakout hit grabbed global attention when the Swedish quartet won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. The televised competition has also given the world Olivia Newton-John, Julio Iglesias, Céline Dion and the song "Volare."
Each May, about 40 countries from Iceland to Azerbaijan select bands to represent them in the battle, which first aired in 1956. More than 125 million people now watch it live and can vote by phone for their favorite act.
Tastemakers cringe. The contest is routinely savaged as being everything from a lowbrow hash of unoriginal pop to total camp. The winner in 1998 was an Israeli transsexual named Dana International with a song called "Diva." In 2006 the contest was won by Lordi, a Finnish heavy-metal band whose members dress as monsters, singing "Hard Rock Hallelujah." Ireland's 2008 entry was a sock-puppet turkey.
See winners of the Eurovision Song Contest and hear clips from their songs.
- Dustin the Turkey, a popular puppet, represents Ireland in the 2008 competition
- Dima Bilan of Russia wins in 2008 with 'Believe' -- in a performance featuring ice skater Evgeni Plushenko
- Tanel Padar, Dave Benton and 2XL win for Estonia with 'Everybody' in 2001
- Corinne Hermès of Luxembourg wins with 'Si La Vie Est Cadeau' in 1983
- A compilation of the winners in the first 50 years of the Eurovision contest
But 125 million Eurovision fans can't be wrong, argue a new band of academics. Instead of focusing on musical merits, they examine issues like "the concept of European community"; victories for "culturally peripheral nations"; and a "pan-European identity" fostered by the contest's ban on voting for one's own country.
"It could be destabilizing to some people that the idea of European culture is satin pantsuits and guys dressed up as monster rockers and screaming fans," says Karen Fricker, a lecturer on drama at the University of London and a prominent Eurovision researcher.
One skeptic is Terry Wogan, who hosted Eurovision programs in Britain over a period of 37 years. "It's a song contest," he told members of the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the event, in 2009. It's "not about asserting your place in the [European] Community."
Officials at the EBU, an association of national broadcasters, are flattered by the spotlight. "We were surprised to find there was such a large group of people working on scientific research about the Eurovision Song Contest," says EBU spokesman Sietse Bakker.
Over recent years, dozens of scholars as far afield as Georgetown University and New York University's Abu Dhabi campus have begun analyzing Eurovision. They hold symposia and write in academic publications ranging from the European Journal of Political Economy to the Journal of Queer Studies in Finland.
To link these Eurovisionaries, Ms. Fricker, an American, and Milija Gluhovic, a professor of theater at Britain's University of Warwick, in 2009 set up the Eurovision Research Network. Its website lists nearly 90 members.
During last year's Eurovision contest in Norway, the group conducted a daylong seminar at the University of Oslo titled "Setting the Agenda for Eurovision Studies."
One presentation was "National Differences at the Eurovision Song Contest: The Seven Essential & Interconnected 'Dimensions of Meaning.'" Another offered case studies of entries from former East Bloc countries, where the contest is widely considered a sign of integration with Western Europe.
Prof. Gluhovic and Ms. Fricker in July were granted funding of more than $50,000 by the British government for a series of conferences this year, under the theme "Eurovision and the 'New' Europe."
The first workshop, "European Margins and Multiple Modernities," was held Feb. 18 near London. It examined "the binary of barbarian East/civilized West in current European public life," a blurb said.
The second workshop, dubbed "Queering Europe," will focus on gender issues and links between Eurovision and the gay community, in which the contest is extremely popular.
Eurovision was conceived in 1955 as a way to link old rivals using new technology. EBU representatives from 23 Western European countries meeting in Monaco agreed to televise a live international talent show—an ambitious goal at the time. The first contest, staged in Lugano, Switzerland, drew entrants from just seven nations.
Dutch musicologist and cultural historian Lutgard Mutsaers watched it as a three-year-old and says she has seen every Eurovision since. But as a lecturer on popular music at Utrecht University in the 1990s, she kept silent about her fascination. "It would have been professional death to say I was interested in it," Ms. Mutsaers says. "Snobbism is rampant in Continental European music studies."
One of the first pieces of academic work on Eurovision was Swedish musicology professor Alf Björnberg's doctoral thesis from 1987, which analyzed his country's song selection. Despite Sweden's liberal culture, "It was regarded as rather a curious and lowbrow thing to do," he recalls. After he had done some further research, his work on the subject languished for nearly 15 years.
A decade ago, two American academics revived the field. Ivan Raykoff, an assistant professor of the arts at the New School in New York, and Robert Tobin, now a professor of foreign languages and cultures at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., were both intrigued by Dana International's victory. Although Eurovision has never been broadcast in the U.S., the two wrote papers on it and discussed it at international conferences. Marking the contest's 50th anniversary, they posted a call for academic research on the Internet.
"We got a flood of papers," recalls Prof. Raykoff. The resulting volume, "A Song for Europe," published in 2007, is billed as "the first interdisciplinary academic study" of Eurovision.
Contributors included Ms. Mutsaers, who wrote about how the Dutch broke racial barriers with Eurovision's first nonwhite entrant in 1964, and Prof. Björnberg, on performers opting to assert their ethnicities and shun Europop. Few submissions came from Western European countries, where Eurovision began and is now scorned by intellectuals. Only one French scholar offered a paper, "and I didn't really understand what he was saying," recalls Prof. Raykoff.
Many pitches came from academics raised in the Soviet Bloc. Prof. Tobin calls the contest "a barometer of the boundaries of Europe" because it's more inclusive than the EU or NATO. "Even people in Belarus can say they're part of something European," he says.
Despite researchers' intense analysis, most say they still appreciate the spectacle's campiness. "You have to have a good sense of humor and admit there is a level at which it's funny," says Prof. Tobin.
Write to Daniel Michaels at email@example.com