Top 10 Eurovision Song Contest Winners* of All Time

In a couple of weeks, the biggest, gaudiest, gayest and easily the most-watched televised music event in the world will unfold, this year from Baku, Azerbaijan, and once again Americans will be almost completely oblivious to it.

We're talking, of course, about the Eurovision Song Contest, which started in 1956 and is something like a musical analog to soccer's World Cup: fanatically watched by the rest of the world, and mostly ignored here.

Well, mostly ignored except by those Europeans and other expatriates living here who still pay attention, which is how we've been drawn into the thing, by certain foreigners in our midst who just won't shut up about it. And once we made the mistake of actually paying attention, soon enough it began to take over our lives too. After the jump, we'll help other beginners learn the history of the thing before revealing what our panel of experts says are the 10 best songs from the contest ever.

First, if you're going to get any enjoyment out of the most-watched non-sporting television event on the planet, you're going to need to set aside your damn American apathy and too-cool-for-school attitude. Europeans love their pop music, and if the cheese factor gets a bit thick, well, who doesn't like a tasty layer of melty, salty, cheesy cheese now and again, right? So stop pouting and get into the spirit of the thing.

Like the World Cup, each participating country sends one performer to perform one song. The previous winner hosts the contest—but some previous winners have balked because of the huge cost. This year, Azerbaijan is hosting after winning the 2011 contest. Semi-finals will be held on May 22 and 24, and the big night of bloc voting and politicking will happen on May 26. It should be a blast.

In the contest's early days, begowned ladies and betuxed men belted out tunes in their native languages to the accompaniment of whole orchestras. It was quaint, and very earnest. Those early days also tended to be very Francophone, with singers from Belgium, Switzerland, Monaco, and Luxembourg all singing in French along with the competitors from France itself. (Until 1973, there was a rule that a performer had to sing in his or her country's native language.) That French influence was so pervasive, to this day, Europeans will sometimes compliment a song they've heard by saying it was douze points (pronounced "dooze-pwah"), meaning 12 points, the highest score a country can award a song.

That French influence began to change as Eastern Bloc nations started to enter the contest. There was little advantage to singing in Polish or Hungarian, and almost overnight the language of the contest became English. Today, nearly every act sings in English, and long ago that quaint veneer was dropped, too: you want to win? Then you better go big, go brash, and it doesn't hurt to cater to the gays.

"For Europeans, it's become like this weird hybrid of a gay pride event and the Euro Cup of soccer," says a friend from overseas. "Winning countries tend to have giant parties in public squares, similar to those held after a city's soccer team wins a championship. And gay audiences from all over the world know many of the Eurovision songs, even if their country doesn't participate in the competition or air it on their national TV system."

Another result of the Eastern Bloc countries entering: Bloc voting. "Newly independent countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia started voting for each other. That's how you get Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan voting for Russia, or Bosnia voting for Serbia and Croatia—despite the murderous wars between them—and vice-versa," says my friend.

A corollary to that trend was that the "Big Four" countries that largely financed the contest—Great Britain, France, Germany, and Spain—tended to get shut out of bloc voting. "In a desperate move, in 2009, England was represented by singer Jade Ewen, who was hand-picked by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who also wrote a song for her and accompanied her on the piano at the competition. But because of political bloc voting, the song came only fifth, losing to a silly and musically simplistic song performed by a Russian artist representing Norway, who at times appeared to be singing off key."

Italy got so disgusted with the situation, it simply pulled out in 1997, saying that it was no longer interested—and only returned last year.

So what does it take to win? Some basic pointers that have guided champions in the past.

• Ballads work. Irish singer Johnny Logan has won the thing three times (twice as a performer, once as a writer) by belting out weepy ballads with a lot of emotion.

• Go silly. Winners have included such intellectual gems as "La La La" (Spain, Maciel, 1968), "Boom Bang-a-Bang" (UK, Lulu, 1969), "Ding-a-dong" (Netherlands, Teach-In, 1975), and "Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley" (Sweden, Herreys, 1984).

• Send young teens. Germany won with Nicole, 17, in 1982, and Belgium with Sandra Kim, 13, in 1986.

• Ethnic-sounding songs seem to be doing well. "Lane Moje" (2nd place, Serbia, 2004), "Lejla" (3rd place, Bosnia, 2006), and belly-dancers on "Every Way That I Can" (1st place, Turkey, 2003) come to mind. Make it an ethnic ballad with a nonsensical title sung by a teen, and it's practically a lock.

OK, so which are the best? Our picks are unscientific, but here are the ten best (*actually, nine winners and one that should have won) from the entire history of the tournament.

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