It doesn’t matter what your song is about
The Eurovision Song Contest is, whatever your opinion of the music, a spectacle. Think of “The Voice” crossed with the U.N. General Assembly, with an added dash of glitter. Eurovision brings together a version of Europe that somehow now includes Australia and Israel to argue bitterly over who gave points to whom. Juries and viewers can allot points to the contestants from other countries (12 points for their favorite, 10 for their second favorite, eight for their third, and it keeps going downhill from there). With over 200 million viewers, Eurovision is far bigger than the Super Bowl. It is also a lot weirder.
Ferrell’s and McAdam’s characters worried about which kind of song to submit to maximize their chances of winning. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. The first thing that my research discovered is that it doesn’t really matter what you sing about. There is no correlation that I could discover between song content and a good score. A tear-jerking ballad is not any more (or less) likely to win than the poppiest entry. They might even have won if they had submitted “Jaja Ding Dong.” After all, it seems to be fun to dance to.
But do sing in English
One of the sillier plot points in the movie (there are lots of silly plotlines) is that McAdam’s character can only sing in English, not Icelandic. This joke has a basis in truth. Singing in English is one of the things you can do to most to improve your Eurovision score. This is bad news for such countries as France, where singing songs in English is politically controversial. Singing in French (or Icelandic) is a kind of self-sabotage.
Going later is better than going early
The statistics are definitive. If you want to win, you’re better off performing later in the running order. This may be a product of songs and stage sets that look to outdo each other — when every act is over the top, voters may simply have forgotten the songs from the beginning of the contest by the time the interval act rolls around. However, for whatever reason, the later you perform, the better you do on average.
It helps to have good neighbors and be liked
Geographic voting is a perpetual topic of controversy in Eurovision, and it’s true that countries do tend to vote for their neighbors. This is particularly true of countries in eastern and southern Europe — Russia gets plenty of votes from other former Soviet states, the Nordic countries do exchange votes, and of course, Greece and Cyprus nearly always give each other “douze points” (twelve points). These geographic networks determine about 20 percent of the vote (on average) in Eurovision.
It’s not just about voting for neighbors, though. Countries vote for other countries that they like or have a connection to. Some countries, such as San Marino, are widely disliked, or at least get very few votes. However, even these countries have some hope. Austria, which also tends to get a lower score than otherwise expected, won thanks to the iconic Conchita Wurst in 2014.
Wurst makes a brief appearance in the party scene in “Fire Saga,” where another competitor briefly mentions a standard myth of Eurovision — that Britain never wins — not because it submits bad songs, but because everyone hates it. However, the data does not bear this out. My research reveals that Britain actually receives more points than would be expected during the final. Its dismal performance in the past decade has more to do with its song selection than Europe’s dislike for the British.
Eurovision is sometimes war by other means
Finally, while Eurovision’s organizers may insist that it’s an apolitical event, it’s clearly not. Sometimes Eurovision has to figure out how to deal with political conflict. There was a brief period of complicated Eurovision politics in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia broke up and Eurovision had to decide who to allow compete. And even in a largely peaceful Europe, there are tensions — the year after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Georgia submitted a song with the lyrics: “We don’t wanna Putin / I’mma try to shot him.” They were promptly disqualified. On average, though, countries give their military allies one more point than they do countries they’re not allied with — and are less likely to vote for countries they’ve had a recent military conflict with.
That said though, Eurovision is still (at least partially) about the songs. Thankfully, you don’t need Fire Saga’s human hamster wheel but you can’t win Eurovision without a showstopping banger of a song and stage performance. Eurovision itself has created a handy guide to success. For better or worse, it doesn’t mention elves. If you really want to compete, make sure to bring some gorgeous topless men, a traditional instrument or two and of course a violin.
Lauren Gilbert is a PhD student in political science at UC San Diego.