Brace yourself, it is time for the annual Eurovision Song Contest finals, a televised ode to the cross-cultural power of lamé and platform boots. On Saturday a group of European countries (plus Australia)1 will put their national characters on display in the 61st iteration of this singing contest. Sometimes those displays defy description, logic, or really anything that you and I may consider terrestrial:2 The contest has included singing orcs, a levitating Dracula flanked by nearly nude henchmen, and Ireland’s puppet turkey DJ assisted by terrifying showgirl backup dancers.
Depending on whom you ask, it’s also a hotbed of geopolitical intrigue. Participating countries rank all the acts, which leads to suspicions that Europe’s factionalism rules its pre-eminent talent show. Russian twins on a teeter-totter were booed in 2014 after Russia invaded Crimea, for example. Will their acts keep being punished for as long as Russia holds on to Ukraine’s territory? Have the threats of a Grexit and now a Brexit doomed Greece and the U.K.’s chances with their European peers? And what will this year’s rule change mean for these alleged feuds and alliances?
An analysis of Eurovision voting published in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation in 2006 by Derek Gatherer, a former lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, compared the voting results to ones generated in random simulations to see whether certain nations agreed more often than chance would suggest. And sure enough, Gatherer found past voting patterns suggested that countries often did appear to be voting in blocs (among the most powerful lately: what he calls the Balkan Bloc, including nations such as Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia; and the Viking Empire of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Estonia). But that may not be a smoking gun. Neighbors may vote together because they share similar taste in music, not because they’re nursing grudges over who invaded whom in the 1800s.
Still, some countries’ residents remain convinced that the fix is in. According to a 2013 poll of seven European nations by YouGov, Brits were the most likely to believe that other regions were conspiring to deny them victory.3 Seventy-five percent of Great Britain’s residents thought that politically motivated voting kept the best countries from winning Eurovision. Only 33 percent to 48 percent of residents of six other countries4 were similarly pessimistic.
This year offers better opportunities than ever for post-loss carping and conspiracy theories, because the scoring rules are changing. Previously, the Eurovision score a country awarded was a combination of two rankings — one given by a panel of judges from that country and one from its residents watching at home. Those two were averaged into one overall score for the performer. (The same process would happen with dozens of other countries, all evaluating the same performance.)
At the end of the finals, each country takes turns announcing its top 10 performers, along with the points awarded. So France would stand up and say its top 10 was Denmark, Holland, Switzerland and so on. The trouble is, this made for boring TV. It was often clear early who would win, as favorites emerged.
This year, Eurovision changed the rules in order to introduce a little more suspense. Now, the judges’ scores and the home voters’ scores aren’t averaged together. The scores from the judges will still be announced one by one, but the people’s scores from every country will be added together and tacked on at the very end.
This is basically Eurovision’s equivalent of the snitch in Quidditch: A huge number of points being awarded at the very end means anything could happen.
I wanted to know whether these new rules would change who wins Eurovision (instead of just the drama of the process of finding out). So I reran the results from 2014’s and 2015’s competitions, using the new scoring scheme.5
The good news for the integrity of Eurovision is that the winner didn’t change under alternative rules. But there were some notable shifts. In 2015, the rules change would have bumped Russia from second place to third. And the United Kingdom’s aggressively art deco rendition of “Still In Love With You” would have gone from a forgettable fourth to last to dead last.
In 2014, the top five would have stayed in the same order, but Malta’s “Coming Home” (which I would have assumed was from the Country Music Awards) would have jumped 10 slots from 23rd to 13th, while Denmark’s “Cliché Love Song” (somehow even worse than the name suggests) would drop out of the top 10 to 14th. Those big swings tend to happen when the judges and the people disagree. For example, Malta was ranked in the top 10 by 22 nations’ judging panels, but only four countries’ at-home voters. Under the old rules, averaging the judges’ and the people’s scores dragged Malta down.
So here’s your cheat sheet for blaming the new rules if your favorite entry gets shafted. Just give a very European, ennui-laden sigh and say that judges and everyday people should have to mingle, and so should their scores. But now either the snooty elites or the xenophobes at home have too much influence over the outcome.