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Starting in 1999, the EBU allowed countries to sing in any language, whereas before songs had to be in a country’s native language(s). Because English is a widely spoken second language, the older rule gave an unfair advantage to countries like the UK, Ireland, and Malta. The new rule isn’t highly controversial, but it certainly has its critics.
Whether you think the new language rule is a good idea likely depends on how you view Eurovision. If you see Eurovision as a way for countries to show off their own cultures, then it would be disingenuous or even unpatriotic for countries to not sing in their native language(s). But if you think Eurovision celebrates a collective European identity, where the point is to emphasize pan-Europeanism rather than individuality, you would be more inclined to support English songs because their lyrics reach a wider audience. Neither opinion is better than the other; they’re just different ways to perceive the competition.
Most people believe that English songs score better. Serbia’s 2007 entry, Molitva by Marija Šerifović, is the only non-English entry to win in the past 15 years. Personally, I think English songs do better because people prefer songs they understand, which translates into more votes. Songs can be catchy in any language, but it’s harder to get a song stuck in your head when you don’t know the words. It’s more fun to sing the actual lyrics than to make up syllables to match the singer (which is what I do!). The ability to sing-along is also why some songs use token English, e.g., Rock Me, or use syllabic lyrics like La La La or Boom Bang-a-Bang.
A recent example of syllabic lyrics is France’s 2010 entry, Allez! Ola! Ole!. The song is in French, but there’s only one verse, non-French speakers easily pronounce the often-repeated three title words, and the song has about 30 seconds of dam-bada-badam. So the song is in the national language, but still appeals to speakers of any language. Since appealing to voters is likely the main reason countries perform in English I want to look at whether, and how much, English actually helps.
Of the 522 songs since the rule change, 73% were in English (including songs that were partially in English). There have been 314 semi-final songs – 72% in English and 28% in another language. Of the songs that advanced to the finals, 79% were in English and 21% were not. Disregarding all other variables, if a song was in English, there’s a 53% chance it made the finals. Conversely, 39% of non-English songs made the finals, which suggests English songs have an advantage.
There have been 368 final songs since 1999 – 77% were in English and 23% were not. I looked at top 10 placements to see if English songs are more successful and 79% of top 10 finishers were in English. Given a song was in English, there’s a 42% chance it was in the top 10 and if the song was not in English there’s a 36% chance it was in the top 10.
To estimate if non-English songs were more unsuccessful, I also looked at bottom 10 placements and 75% of bottom 10 songs were in English. If the song was in English, there’s a 40% chance it was in the bottom 10 and non-English songs had a 44% chance of being in the bottom 10.
In my master’s thesis I found that English songs receive significantly more points. Under the jury vote (using the years 1989-1997), English songs received 45 points more than non-English songs, while controlling for numerous variables. Under the televote, songs in English received an additional 14 points. With the split vote, English songs received 9 additional points, but this was not statistically significant. This suggests the language rule, or perhaps changing the voting system, helped reduce the pro-English bias in the contest, although I’m more inclined to think it was the language rule and not the televoters.
So, is the new language rule a good thing? It depends. It levels the playing field, but non-English songs won before the rule, so it’s not necessary to give everyone a chance of winning. Songs in English do better, although not by as much as most people may think. But that may be precisely because of the new rule – if countries had to sing in their national languages, English-speaking countries would likely have a bigger advantage. To the extent Eurovision is about celebrating individual countries, the new rule is counterproductive because it takes away an important part of their identities and cultures. But if Eurovision is about a united Europe, then allowing more entries to be in the same language is unifying.
I think Eurovision is an amazing event because it balances both European unity and individual countries. Personally, I support the new language rule because it allows countries to choose how they want to represent themselves – be it in their national language, a foreign language, or even a constructed language. What do you think?