It's an annual celebration of glitz and kitsch. This year's entries in the Eurovision Song Contest include a singing puppet named Dustin the Turkey and a band of crooning pirates – though past winners include bona fide stars such as ABBA and Celine Dion.
But the 53-year-old pop contest, hosted this year by 2007 winner Serbia, is also sometimes a surprising stage for more serious geopolitical battles. As the top contestants from the 43 competing nations gear up for Saturday's final in Belgrade, Western nations are up in arms about New Europe's tendency to vote for neighbors.
For many fans of Eurovision, the simmering political controversies and nationalistic wrangling that accompany the contest are as much fun to watch as the over-the-top acts themselves. The voting bloc allegations have also provided excellent fodder for academics, who have devoted substantial energy to analyzing Eurovision results and what voting patterns say about culture, alliances, and the expanding idea of Europe. Viewers vote by phone or text message, but points are allocated on a national basis – similar to the US electoral system in presidential races.
Derek Gatherer, a data analyst who number-crunches Eurovision results as a hobby and has published papers on his results, says there are three main voting blocs in Eurovision: the Balkan Bloc, the Viking Empire, and the Warsaw Pact, as well as a number of smaller voting partnerships, such as an enduring friendship between Greece and Cyprus.
He refutes other academics' claim that cultural factors explain the Eurovision voting trends.
"The argument against that is that the voting exchange is getting stronger," he says. "If it is the fact that people, for example, just happen to like Balkan sounding music, then the voting patterns wouldn't show they like those sounds more now than they did 10 years ago."
But Laura Spierdijk, an assistant professor of econometrics at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands and a Eurovision fan, disagrees. She and a colleague, Michel Vellekoop from the University of Twente's applied math department, also analyzed the data and say that regional preferences can be attributed to cultural similarities. In certain cases, they even found religious biases – Cyprus, for example, tends to award higher points to other Orthodox countries.
"What we see is that people assign people points to their neighbors, but you can explain that by the fact that people prefer songs coming from a related culture and in a similar language," she says. "That's very natural human behavior."
The biggest surprise, she said, was that in some cases, such as in the Balkans, "apparently cultural similarities even outweigh old feelings of being enemies."
The former Yugo-slavia is a case in point. Serbia won last year in part because six of its neighbors – including several ravaged by war in the 1990s – gave it the maximum number of points: Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro (which had just seceded from Serbia), Slovenia, and Hungary.
The current controversy over voting blocs isn't the first time allegations of foul play have been made in relation to Eurovision. A new documentary alleges that in 1968 Spanish dictator Francisco Franco bribed judges to ensure that Spain won.
This year, the Eurovision contest is caught in the middle of a fierce Serbian and European divide over Kosovo's newly declared independence. Serbia's entry evokes a historic battle in Kosovo in 1389.
Come Saturday, Dr. Gatherer and Dr. Spierdijk will be watching not only the acts themselves, but how countries will cast their votes. "A lot of people feel indignant about this, about the gamesmanship in this international contest." says Gatherer. "I think it's hilarious."