The Eurovision Song Contest: A Meaning-Making Machine

[Note: It was going to be a short one this year. Oh well.]

It’s Eurovision Week and tomorrow is the big final. Those who’ve read this blog before might know I’ve made it a tradition to write an article on the Eurovision Song Contest each year. Two years ago I explained my feelings towards it in Why I Love the ESC, and last year I analyzed and visualized voting patterns among countries in The Eurovision Song Contest Taste Landscape.

This year I’ll do something different. Something more… philosophical.

In Why I Love the ESC I said that I’m no longer as much of a fan as I used to be, and that I look upon it with old-friend fondness in my eyes more than anything else. That’s actually changed somewhat. Starting to write about it two years ago made me also start reading about it more, and that dragged me into the whole online circus around it. And it turns out that the more you read about something and the more you surround yourself with others who are also into it, the more significant it begins to feel.

And significance (or meaning, I’ll use the two interchangeably) is in short supply these days, when subcultural fragmentation has reached the level of the individual.

Part 1: What’s significance?

Significance is a slippery concept. We can go full Plato (but please don’t) and consider it to be a real, fundamental property that things have. This is bad. It’s the kind of thinking that makes you expect an actual, mind-independent answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” (which is just a different way of saying “what is significant?”).

The opposite attitude is that significance is completely subjective and that anything you personally choose to consider significant in fact is. I used to have exactly that glib attitude to meaning and significance as a teenager, but I no longer do (aging does shit to you). Like radical skepticism, I don’t dislike it because it’s false but because it’s so damn useless. It doesn’t solve anything, it just declares there is nothing to solve and expects applause. It has pretensions of sophistication while taking the easy way out. Now, the hard but rewarding problem is finding out what actually makes us feel like something is meaningful.

So, what makes something feel meaningful? What makes us feel that an entity has a high value in its “significance” slot?

I suspect we do ourselves a disservice if we think of significance in a strictly individual-subjective way, because we are a social species and other people matter. Other people are the source of meaning. When it comes to significance, other people are key — we’re more likely to think of something as significant if other people we identify with think so too. I’d go as far as saying that significance isn’t inherent in the world nor an individual-subjective concept but an essentially social phenomenon. As I discussed in my article about the nature of Christmas, social reality is a set of shared abstractions that affect how we feel and act. It’s created and maintained by cultural communities and it’s strength is proportional to the degree of consensus[1].

It’s no surprise that we suffer a “crisis of meaning” in the (post)modern world. Significance dependent on consensus comes naturally in small, isolated communities like tribes, and substitues like the top-down significance-synching that hegemons like religions, nationalism or mass media used to work but no longer does.

Perfect meaning requires consensus among the people we identify with. Subcultures are a way try to achieve this by identifying with a smaller community than a whole society. Such significance is fragile because the fact that most of society outside the subculture don’t share its social reality weaken their subjective solidity[2]. Some are so sensitive to disturbances in social reality that they isolate themselves from everyone else (they join cults), or try to resist the fracturing of society (typically a particular kind of political conservative). Most of us just try to make do with scraps of significance here and there by attaching ourselves to cultures, fandoms, intellectual or political movements or just make our own lives and relationships the object of significance by associating with friends and family.

To sum up, one thing that gives something meaning is a community of people that consider it meaningful — together, this attribution of meaning must be common knowledge. Something that takes away meaning is the awareness that everyone outside the community don’t care at all. To maximize the difference between these two terms then, you’d want something with a strong community spirit that’s also mainstream enough that people outside the community won’t be able to ignore it.

5 Properties of good candidates

That all seems pretty circular. Instead of “whatever is meaningful to you is meaningful” we’ve got “whatever is considered meaningful to a community is meaningful”. Something’s missing. The question is: what things are suitable for being considered meaningful in the first place? While it’s all social reality, some arrangements of social reality are more stable and thus likelier than others[3]. They gel better with human nature.

I’ll list five properties that help. I could go into enough detail to write a post about each but this is *quite* long enough already and I’m in a hurry as I blew most of my time budget for this article on its mastodon predecessor. For a more thorough (and quite excellent) discussion of meaning, see A Nihilist’s Guide to Meaning by Kevin Simler. Plenty in this post is inspired by that article, but I’ll avoid summarizing it except for this one central thesis:

A thing X will be perceived as meaningful in context C to the extent that it’s connected to other meaningful things in C.

That gives us an obvious first property:

1) Single, isolated entities are not as meaningful as systems of connected entities.

Ideally, the system should be endless and inextricable. It should extend as far as possible and be as strongly embedded in reality as possible, using as many connections as possible.

“Connected to” can mean different things. An example that Simler uses is causal connection. Thus:

2) To be meaningful, it helps being a concentration of impact on the future.

Fiction is a synthetic superstimulus for this kind of meaning. The trope “the fate of Everything hangs in the balance and the hero, alone, will have to act to save it” is so common because it concentrates impact in a single act by a single person, which makes us experience maximum meaning. It’s meaning-porn.

Another reason fiction push our meaning buttons is that stories have a particular structure with a beginning, middle and end. They follow a optimally satisfying arc where an inciting event removes the protagonist from a state of normality and pushes them through a series of tension-and-release cycles that increase both in power and frequency until it all erupts in a climax, followed by denouement[4]. So:

3) Meaningful processes are like stories.

They have a beginning and they end with a payoff. They’re made of smaller stories, arranged into a pattern of increasing intensity leading to a climax.

What was that about an inciting event removing the protagonist from a state of normality? Big part of stories as synthetic meaning! Normality is dull, it’s routine, it’s unspecial. Normal days blend together into indistinct slush in our memory banks, giving rise to the feeling that years just fly by.

Remember: connections are important. Forming memories means forming connections to your own future, so temporary deviations from the normal state of life are meaningful. This is obvious — everyone knows that the times something unusual happened make up a disproportionate large part of the story of your life.

That gives us:

4) Things that temporarily jolt you out of normality are meaningful.

To do that something needs to create a discontinuity in several strands at once, so life can “come loose”.

What do I mean by that? There are many aspects of life: family, work, social life, home life, hobbies, the public sphere (local, national and global). They’re all their own stories, strands running in parallel with the occasional discontinuity. Events confined to only one of these contexts don’t trigger much of a break because all the others are still there to keep continuity. Hence

5) Things that affect more parts of your life are more meaningful[5].

That was all preamble. Keep it in mind while I now talk about how and why the ESC feels meaningful to so many people. It might sound just a little bit insane because I’m going to be weirdly dramatic and overanalyze shit. Strap in.

Part 2: The Meaning-Making Machine

In Why I Love the ESC, one of my first point was simply that I like spectacle and the ESC is one mighty big spectacle. “Being part of something bigger” is a cliche for a reason, and while I wouldn’t say just being a Eurovision fan means you’re “part” of it in any other way than watching it (maybe voting or discussing it with others online or offline), that’s quite enough. The fans take part by helping make it the big deal that it is.

It’s important that it’s big. That makes it one of those things that are “in the air” and never completely recedes from the window of your attention until it’s over. I’m trying to capture an elusive feeling — the feeling that what’s happening right now is exceptional, and it breaks down the walls between different aspects of your life by being big enough to come through on multiple fronts. It can be a big news event or a major holiday season or a trip with your friends. You enter a alternate mode of non-everyday existence until it’s over.

Years ago I was in a big theater production at school. Last week before summer break we did nothing but rehearse, build sets, make costumes etc. There were a few dozens of us at least, and we all shared this one context, a context that for this limited time period took over our lives[6]. I had very little free time or free anything during this week, but I remember being very happy.

I can imagine actually performing in the ESC is something like this but a hundred times more intense. Those of us who stand watching by the sidelines get a little whiff of it.

The ESC is meaning-making for us fans because it drags us out of everyday sameness and into something else, if only for a week. It needs to be only for a week, or at least only for a limited time. When I lived in London for a few months 10+ years ago, the first week or two was like being on holiday. New city! New flatmates! New everything! Let’s go out every night! But before you know it house cleaning, grocery shopping and laundry makes life feel un-holiday-like again. Exceptional circumstances can’t last for long or they cease to be exceptional.

This is one aspect that makes something feel meaningful, but it ins’t everything. Compared to the other examples of exceptional time slices: holiday seasons and trips, the ESC is a great meaning making machine because it does more.

A trip can be wonderfully personally meaningful, but it isn’t a collective experience outside the group you’re travelling with. It’s local to your own life and isn’t shared by the rest of society. It’s not a really A Big Event.

Celebrating Christmas every year is more collective, but it’s not a collective experience in exactly the same way the ESC is. It’s a rock solid piece of social reality that pretty much everyone (where I live) shares and it’s “bigger” than the ESC in terms of how many take part. But it’s “smaller” in the sense that it doesn’t happen in any particular place. It’s decentralized and “introverted”, and we celebrate it by withdrawing into local space and get physically close to those emotionally close. It’s millions of small events abstracted into a big one. It’s not really A Big Event.

The ESC is concentrated in space as well as concentrated in time. Unlike Christmas (or New Years Eve or whatever local holidays people might celebrate) the ESC focuses the fans’ eyes and ears on a single place. There are local events in meatspace (watching the contest, throwing parties etc.) intermingling with local events in cyberspace (forums, Twitter hashtags etc.), all synched up by being tied to a single global event.

If that local event was the whole of the ESC it wouldn’t be as meaningful as it is. It works so well because the network of relations with smaller, local events funnel small amounts of meaning from throughout the system towards a nerve center — this year located in Lisbon, Portugal — where it reaches extremely high concentrations.

Note that the concentration pattern holds at several scales: the ESC is happening in Portugal this year, and within Portugal it’s happening in Lisbon, and within Lisbon it’s happening in a particular arena, within the arena, the attention is on the stage, and on the stage (which is ridiculously big nowadays) the focus is on the performers.

The concentrated meaning produced is then redistributed by the shared attention and becomes available to everyone in the whole system. Unlike Christmas, the Eurovision Week as a holiday season offers a centralization for letting everyone share the meaning produced by others.

That’s in space. What about time? I’ve said it’s important that an exceptional time only lasts for a short time (the more exceptional, the longer it can last), and that’s true.

But.

The ESC is concentrated in space and projects its meaning outwards towards all parts of the system, and at the same time that meaning comes from it being the nerve center that system. Ok. There’s a mechanism here that produces meaning by having a dense, intense center in constant two-way interaction with its periphery. What does that mean if transferred to the time domain? It means this short time period, to be as meaningful as possible, need to both draw and project meaning onto the rest of time — to and from it’s own past and future. And it does. I discussed in my first article how important the contest’s history is to its identity. Each year’s iteration has its place in a long history that stretches back to the beginning of television.

What happens this year adds to, echoes, and recontextualizes what happened before. Long stories emerge out of short ones. Salvador Sobral’s victory last year was a good story. A minimalist, traditional tune sung by an unassuming man with a heart condition beat 40+ other entries, many of which were far catchier, slicker and showier. History makes that story even richer. There’s always been a struggle between substance and surface over the years, and while surface appeared to have gained the upper hand the tumultuous first decade after televoting was introduced, Sobral’s win the year after Ukraine’s Jamala won with a song about deportations during World War 2 marks a definite break with that era.

And let’s not forget Portugal’s story. They’ve never been a powerhouse in the ESC, far from it. They’ve got everything against them. Where neighbor voting has been accepted as a fact of life they stand almost completely alone. They send simple, humble songs instead of slick pop acts and they get lost in all the commotion. And they even insist on using their own language when most go for English. They’ve taken part since 1964 but had never won before last year, never even broken the top 5. A 6th place in 1996 was the best they’ve ever achieved and since the semifinal was introduced they’ve only been in the final three times (in 2008, 2009 and 2010). Then they finally won, not by giving up and selling out but by doing what they’ve always done. It’s a great story that couldn’t have existed without extensive history. And whatever country wins this time there will be a story in that too. And there will be many other stories spun with materials from further down the leaderboard.

Stories and stories and stories. They come from the past, they come from faraway lands. They run in parallel, they cut across each other, they meet at major junctions and they all come together on final night. Like little streams coming together into larger and larger rivers, it all flows — it all points, at something bigger.

Rivers end when they reach the ocean, and each contest’s story of stories ends after the final. But unlike what happens to a river, they don’t just end and disappear. Sure, water turns into clouds and rain down again in an everlasting cycle, but that cycle forgets. There’s no lasting impact, it all repeats again and again in the same way. The ESC doesn’t. That what makes it better than sports. Who wins the World Cup of Soccer isn’t going to matter much for the next tournament four years hence. To me at least, that matters, becuase repetition without change leads to meaning fatigue.

I experienced meaning fatigue wrt sports. I was most into it (as well as the ESC) in the mid-to-late 90’s when I was 12-14 years old. While I still like sports somewhat I care much, much less than I did back then and only about a few big events. It all got static, it’s just the same thing again and again. Yeah, some country Wins the Hockey World Championship but then what? I could get excited when I was 13 because it was almost, to my life at that point, a once-in-a-lifetime-thing. But new tournaments came and nothing really changed I gradually stopped caring so much. There’ll just be another one soon.

This is not true for the ESC, for many reasons. Successes set trends, whether it’s ABBA inspiring a slew of two-men-and-two-women groups in the 70’s and early 80’s, european ethno-music being a big deal in the 90’s after Norway’s Nocturne win in 1995, ridiculous spectacle following Verka Serduchka in 2007, or flashy visual effects following Sweden 2015.

Unpopular results lead to rule changes, and while the pace of change has slowed down since the wild 00’s there’s been tinkering ever since (and a lot of fan-nerdery over what consequences these changes have). Meaning fatigue doesn’t occur because each year’s contest isn’t isolated from the next’s[7].

The fact that the winning country is supposed to host next year’s contest is extremely important for this continuity. It invests meaning into victory by giving it consequences for the future of the contest, preventing (again, unlike sports) the fact of who won from becoming an irrelevant curiosity, a dead branch.

Another reason the winner hosting next year is so brilliant from a meaning-making perspective is that in addition to tying the yearly contests together into a sort of blockchain (yes, that metaphor is for a rather narrow audience of people who are interested in both blockchains and the ESC) on the macro scale, it also helps keep the story moving on the micro scale. Instead of there being a break after each final in which everything dies down and nothing happens, the climax of each chapter doubles as the inciting event for the next: we get to know the first thing about it, namely who’s hosting. And next year we’re all reminded of history, of who won last year, and the ties holding everything together strengthens[8].

But it’s not just one contest after another punctuated by a yearly spike of excitement. Eurovision Week is only a week, but it doesn’t just start, happen and end either. There’s gradual build up, a crucial element for meaning-making since it ties things together in time on a smaller scale than the contest-to-contest links do. After having been “set off” by an inciting event, everything slows down without completely stopping and then slowly ramps up throughout the winter and spring, growing more and more intense in that familiar exponential growth pattern. Like in space, this distribution in time also holds on multiple scales: even within the last minutes of the last part of the final, since the post-2016 points presenting system awards the bulk of the points at the end after the jury points giving an indication.

The diehards might follow news about venue selection and participation confirmations trickling in during the autumn off season. By January a few countries have settled on their entries, and when we reach spring National Selection Season is in full swing — and they follow the same exponential rise pattern on a smaller scale.

Between that and the contest itself, speculation starts. Who are the frontrunners? Who will bomb? Who’s the dark horse? What’s the weirdest/funniest/stupidest entry? You can follow the betting odds change. You get to see the stage. Sometimes, like 2017, there are juicy political scandals. Then rehearsals, and we get to see how the songs are staged. Faster, faster, faster, until the moment of climax and release. And from that climax and release, the seed of the next generation is produced. The similarities to life itself is striking.

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Image courtesy of @thiefoworld

Compare this pattern with that of another kind of exceptional time: after a big news event. That’s also highly meaningful, with big consequences stretching forward in time, lots of collective awareness and discussion in multiple domains and scales, attention focused on a particular time and place. But even this isn’t as well-engineered meaning wise as the ESC. Big news tend to come without build up; they burst onto the scene and reach full strength quickly and then slowly fade out from collective consciousness. News stories are called stories but most often they don’t follow story structures. Not on the same time scale, anyway[9]. It’s something happening followed by aftermath, not the gradual build up, from inciting event to climax — passing through smaller, partial substories on the way — that characterize stories.

The Eurovision Song Contest is well-oiled meaning-making machine that perfectly balances continuity and change, centralization and localization, small and large scale, the past, the future and the present. It perfectly fulfills our desire for narrative structure by providing it at different scales in both time and space. It does this by creating a week-long event, composed of smaller events themselves composed of smaller events, that produces a shared experience that embeds itself backwards and forwards unlike almost anything else.

Do I mean this? Is the ESC the most meaningful thing ever? No of course not. In fact I’m struggling to find it as meaningful this year as I did last year and the year before that. My wife’s comparative lack of interest does its part to shatter the illusion, and my
disengagement from the media that sustains the local public sphere doesn’t help. Having it in your own city adds another dimension and perhaps 2016 was an outlier I’m still coming down from.

What I’m trying to say is that as something without real world consequences it conjures up impressive amounts of meaning out of nothing. This is because of how it is structured in time, space and culture, and that makes it a fascinating case study in meaning-making.

• • •

Notes

[1]
Note that humans have evolved to live in small groups where everyone knows each other and have broadly similar experiences. Their views on what is significant is likely to be pretty similar as well, and the pressure towards social conformity (extremely strong in such groups) will bury most differences. Shared attributions of significance will seem rock solid in such a context where everyone is in agreement and be indistinguishable from physical fact. It’s no surprise that humans confuse their tribe’s notion of significance with something inherent to reality.

[2]
I suspect we (post)moderns don’t really feel the unshakeable sense of meaning our ancestors did, and this troubles us. We can no longer pretend like significance is a real, ojective property, since that depends on consensus being strong enough that we confuse the local social attribution of significance with something inherent to the world.

[3]
This short sentence is actually a very big deal. I intend to write more on it at some point.

[4]
It’s not like sex at all, why do you ask?

[5]
Again, this is part of the appeal of cults: being in a cult integrates every aspect of your life into a coherent whole the way conventional religion used to do. To get that today we need to join cults.

[6]
The biggest such thing is something like a war. That might sound weird but while we’re not happy about war, lack of meaning/significance isn’t its problem. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that zombie apocalypse stories and the like have become popular in recent decades. It represents a deep desire to espace ordinary life into exceptional circumstances where all the separate parts of your life (work, family, social, online, hobbies) collapse together into a single context.

[7]
I hope so, at least. What I feel might be illusory because since I got super into it by the mid 90’s, big changes started to occur right at the time my meaning fatigue started to set in wrt sports, and then went on for a decade. Now things have been more stable for a while and there’s a risk of ossification without those changes making everything feel new. Let’s see what happens.

[8]
In-jokes, callbacks and segments about the contest’s history does too (this piece is a magnificent achievement — I still don’t know if I caught all the references.

[9]
News events that do follow story structures also do produce a lot of meaning. Besides wars, mentioned above, elections certainly qualify and they’re one of the things (like the ESC for big fans) take over people’s lives to the extent that it feels empty afterwards. As mentioned in the end, the ESC stands out for how good it is at producing artificial meaning. The outcomes of wars and elections matter a great deal so they have a lot to work with. The ESC has almost no serious stakes and does very well considering.

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