How to win the Eurovision Song Contest

Take your pick from the options available.

Italian winners Måneskin of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2021.
Victory for Måneskin and Italy in 2021.

For some, the Eurovision Song Contest is an extravaganza and a celebration of song, dance and soft nationalism. For others, it is a drawn-out and tedious camp nightmare.

For many, it is an irrelevance, just a TV show.

But for a dedicated group of Eurovision fans around the world, the Song Contest is also a fascinating model of how politics, soft culture and political gaming come together in the ultimate cultural puzzle box, at the heart of which is a fascination with how to win Eurovision. Over the years, this question has been debated, obsessed over, argued about and even (oh no!) modelled, to varying degrees of success, to which we now add our own contribution to this heated (and in no way trivial) debate.

As such, to follow is the AOD guide on how to win the Eurovision Song Contest and which we ask you, the lovely reader, to also contribute to, in terms of your opinions, strategy to win the contest, and favourite winners from Eurovision's rich and varied history.

Have we got it wrong in our speculation on how to take the Eurosong prize? And, while we are at it, whatever happened to the attempt to relaunch the contest as Eurosong in the mid-90s? Perhaps most importantly, have we focused on the wrong elements in the debate, and ended up with the dreaded nul points in this sensitive cultural matter?

And you thought Brexit was complicated.

So, what are the popular pathways to Eurovision victory?

Let us start at the beginning.

Option 1: Have a great song and performer against a so-so field:

As an innocent to the realities of the world's biggest television show, you would think that this was the obvious and natural way to win Eurovision.

How wrong you would be, but also, in the right circumstances, occasionally, how right.

Eurovision is (in)famous for failing to deliver songs that are popular and critically acclaimed as the winner. Take Spain in 1973, for example, with the exquisite Eres tú (which came third), or the UK in 1996 with the energetic Oohh Ah, Just a little bit (a UK chart-topper and Grammy nominee), or indeed Italy in 2019, with the electrifying Soldi, a song closely pipped at the post, with fans post-contest speculating on whether singer Mahmood (who was emotionally devastated at not winning) would have been better coming out as a homosexual before the contest rather than after it.

But what happens when the musical planets align and the competition is er, less than competitive as a country enters an ear-catching song, performed by an engaging performer? Over the years, out of a middling pack, a stand-out entry coupled with a winning performance has gone on to take the crown on many an occasion.

In 1972, Luxembourg won Eurovision, with the gothic and majestic Vicky Leandros belting out what would quickly become one of the Eurovision standards with Après toi, in the process knocking the not particularly harmonious New Seekers into second place with fan and bookies favourite, Beg, Steal or Borrow.

Two years later, Abba would win for Sweden, with its Glam Rock pastiche Waterloo, though Italy's Gigliola Cinquetti would also give the poptastic foursome a run for its krona with the grand and theatrical runner-up Si.

Or how about 1980, pouty, when white-suited Johnny Logan, representing Ireland and crooning what would become a UK chart-topper with What's Another Year, would mark his first appearance as a performer and Eurovision winner (Logan's second winning entry coming in 1987, when he also wore white, and took the prize with Hold Me Now).

More recently, in 2010, Germany would win for only the second time in Eurovision history when, as if from nowhere, Lena's charming performance of the upbeat Satellite would cook up a storm, the only other highlight of the contest that year being a stage invasion during the performance of the Spanish entry (which was far from upbeat).

Though this strategy does not always work.

Take Eres tú, mentioned earlier, and performed by the Spanish act Mocedades, which finished a credible second on the night against a so-so field dominated by Euro banger Tu te reconnaîtras. Not that Mocedades probably cared that much, as Eres tú would go on to be an international hit (particularly in Spanish-speaking territories for slightly obvious reasons) and another much-loved Eurovision standard.

Or, how about Kate Ryan, singing pop banger Je t'adore for Belgium in 2006, who could not even make it past the contest's semi-finals, or Cliff Richard, 20 years earlier, belting out the bookies (and most of the juries) favourite, Congratulations, apparently destined for victory, but who, in the end, had to settle for second place.

More on that later, but for the moment, don't be fooled, because having a great song and a skilled singer can only take you so far in Eurovision; a fact that some countries have noticed and taken the long view on as to winning the thing.

Option 2: Have a long-running campaign:

Never underestimate the power of a strategic campaign to put a country over the top at Eurovision. Such campaigns allow countries to build a strategy, learn from the process, and then fine-tune their entries, year on year, until they eventually win.

The United Kingdom was, for a long time the masters of this approach, using it to win in 1967 after nine years of trying (having not competed in 1958); then win again in 1976 and 1997, after which the strategy fell apart for the plucky Brits'.

Running into 1967, the UK's entries were perky (Sing Little Birdie, a runner-up in 1959 for Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson), which didn't quite work; blousy (Looking, High High, High in 1960, also a runner-up for Teddy Johnson), though still not quite right; and polished if bombastic (I Belong, belted out by Kathy Kirby, and another runner-up in 1965).

Nearly there.

Then Kenneth McKellar came a disappointing eighth in 1966 with A Man Without Love, something of a shocking placing for the UK considering what he had gone before.

Nearly not there.

It would take Sandie Shaw (cool, respected) plus a machine-tooled song that ticked all the Eurovision boxes, together with a cunning performance gimmick (Shaw performing Puppet on a String barefoot) to take the prize in one final heave, after all those precious years of trying and getting the formula right after the UK joined the competition in 1957.

The same process of trying, failing and refining the formula also delivered victory for the Brotherhood of Man in 1976, after the UK (sort of) won in 1969 (along with France, the Netherlands and Spain).

Following Lulu determinedly swaying her way through guilty-pleasure Boom Bang a Bang, the UK's performance, year on year went as follows:

1970: Mary Hopkins (second) with Those Were The Days rehash Knock Knock, Who's There?

1971: Mary Clouggan (fifth) in sparkling hot pants, singing Jack in a Box.

1972: The New Seekers (second), as the first group to represent the UK, with Beg, Steal or Borrow.

1973: Cliff Richard (fifth), back again with Power To All Our Friends.

1974: Olivia Newton John (ninth) with marching band stomper Long Live Love.

1975: The Shadows (second) with Let Me Be The One.

1976's Song For Europe national selection showcased a somewhat startling assembly of potential Eurovision entrants, including traditional to contemporary entries, with The Brotherhood of Man appearing second on the night, performing its heavily choreographed, intricately styled and expertly arranged entry Save All Your Kisses For Me, clearly engineered to win, both on selection night and at Eurovision itself.

If you want to take the prize at Eurovision, sometimes it can years, requires ensuring all the elements are in place, and a focused strategy to communicate the message that you are in it to win it. The UK pulled off the same trick in the 1990s, managed between 1995 to 1998 by top pop television producer Jonathan King, with the country again completing a long journey to victory in 1997 under his stewardship.

To see the skill that King put into the fine-tuning of the UK entries year on year, watch 1995's Song For Europe (a programme that features guest contributions from the likes of East-17's Tony Mortimer, Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker and Ian Dury). The Eurovision game was clearly on for the UK by the mid-nineties and, under King's direction, a campaign in the era of Britpop was evidently in the offing.

Running into 1997, and Katrina and the Waves barnstorming performance of the winning song, Love Shine A Light, the UK's performance, year on year, from its previous win in 1981 went as follows:

1982: One Step Further by Bardo (seventh).

1983: I'm Never Giving Up by Sweet Dreams (sixth).

1984: Love Games by Belle and the Devotions (seventh).

1985: Love Is... by Vikki (fourth).

1986: Runner in the Night by Ryder (seventh).

1987: Only the Light by Rikki (thirteenth!).

1988: Go by Scott Fitzgerald (second).

1989: Why Do I Always Get It Wrong? by Live Report (second).

1990: Give a Little Love Back to the World by Emma (sixth).

1991: A Message to Your Heart by Samantha Janus (tenth).

1992: One Step Out of Time by Michael Ball (second).

1993: Better The Devil You Know by Sonia (second).

1994: We Will Be Free (Lonely Symphony) by Frances Ruffelle (tenth).

Jonathan King takes the helm at this point.

1995: Love City Groove by Love City Groove (tenth).

1996: Ooh Aah...Just a Little Bit by Gina G (eighth).

1997: Love Shine a Light by Katrina and the Waves (first).