When I moved to London in 2015, one of my intentions was to attend Eurovision far more often than I'd been able to. Moving put me just a couple of hours or so on a budget airline away from a winning city, rather than a 24 hour+ journey (and many $1000s) from Australia.
Since my move, however, a combination of having to work and wanting to explore other areas of Europe has meant Eurovision hasn't happened for me since I've moved closer. Eurovision has also become so popular that tickets to the final sell out within minutes and of course hotels jack up their prices accordingly. Semi Final and Dress Rehearsal tickets are a little easier to come by.
I first attended Eurovision in 2007 in Helsinki. I naively booked flights and accommodation before buying tickets to the final. Back then, tickets could only be ordered by phone with a Finnish operator who struggled with my Australian accent. After 30 minutes of redialing Finland on 2 mobile phones, I was through and tickets were booked.
I recall arriving in Helsinki on the morning of the final. The town was abuzz, with even the airport greeting me to Eurovision. Heading to the Hartwall Arena I was struck by a bout of surrealism. I was about to watch a show I'd only seen on a small TV on the other side of the world. Fans were dressed in their most outlandish costumes, including more than a couple ABBA-esque silver jumpsuits.
I was seated high up, left of stage. I still had a good view, even if I did miss out on the glitter that exploded at the end of the show. At the time, I thought Helsinki would be a once in a lifetime event, however in 2011 whilst visiting the UK, good timing fell my way and I ended up in Dusseldorf. This time I made sure I was there for the semi-finals.
The city that wins the right to host Eurovision really does make a party of it. The atmosphere was a little different than 4 years earlier. There were fans in the streets all day and night. And plenty of Australians! In Helsinki, I don't recall meeting any Australians. In Dusseldorf, they were everywhere! While some had come from Australia especially for Eurovision, other ex-pats lived in Europe or Germany and came just to join in the party. Local media kept wanting to interview Australians, usually starting with the question: "Why are you here?"
Of course, Eurovision itself is just the main event. The road to Eurovision is lined with several events of sparkles and glitter.
A few years ago, a friend suggested I should watch Sweden's Melodifestivalen. This is the contest used by Sweden to select their Eurovision entry.
Despite not understanding a single word of Swedish, I got up at 5am on a Sunday morning and streamed the final live. I instantly adored the Schlager style of music and the Swedish humour that this English-speaker could usually "get". I just had to attend one day.
"Mello" (as the Swedes abbreviate it) runs over 6 Saturdays, in a different city each weekend with the final in Stockholm. It becomes a badge of honour for towns to earn the right to host a Deltavling (semi-final) or Andra Chansen (Second Chance).
As I discovered in Orebro in 2015, the host town puts out the Mello bunting and really welcomes the performers and hosts to their (sometimes very small) part of Sweden. In Helsingborg in 2016, someone decided to drape statues in pink feather boas.
Entering the stadium, you first encounter the sponsor’s hall. The Melodifestivalen trophy is on display here and this is where the various sponsors hand out showbags, have promotional competitions, and quizzes. I’ve learnt to head straight for the free chocolate bar that one sponsor always has.
Moving into the arena itself, you discover what a professional and slick event this is. Balloons are placed on seats for you to blow up and wave during the concert. Until last year, the programme was placed on your seat. No price gouging here. A DJ is on stage playing Mello songs from previous years. Looking at the seating arrangements, it seems like the entire town is here! The stadium is almost always in an ice hockey arena.
At 8pm, the show commences and airs live to homes throughout Sweden. A cheer goes up when the city’s name appears on screen in the opening titles.
It seems most attendees are locals, with a strong family attitude. families. Melodifestivalen is truly a family event. You will see people ranging from 4 years old to 80 in the audience. The Eurovision audience, by comparison, seems to skew towards a 21-45 age bracket.
Despite the ages of those watching, the performances can be quite adult-orientated as can be seen by Lisa Ajax’s entry “I Don’t Give A”. Yes the next word is “Fuck”.
Even this year’s winner, Robin Bengtsson dropped the F-Bomb multiple times in his semi-final song before changing “Fuckin” to “Fricken” in the Grand Final. Sweden is so awesome!
The kids loved the Wiggles-inspired De Vet Du’s “Road Trip”
The next 90 minutes was a splendid mix of comedy skits and musical competition, with the elimination of two entries halfway through, and another one at the end of the show. The final of course has the traditional voting sequence and eventual winner.
At the end of the show, the press surround the winners for interviews and photo ops. Of course, I made an effort to try and get my own photos before heading outside into the sub-zero temperatures.
I now live in Gibraltar and a trip to regional Sweden for a Melodifestivalen semi has become an annual ritual. I’ve been to 5 shows in the past 3 years (Orebro, Helsingborg, Stockholm, Norrkoping & Skelleftea). It takes a bit longer to get to Sweden compared to living in London, but it’s well worth it.
If you are in Europe in February or early March, do try to add a visit to Melodifestivalen to your itinerary. Tickets are relatively easy to obtain and go on sale in mid-October.
The Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast over SBS’s Eurovision weekend - Friday 12 May, Saturday 13 May, and Grand Final Sunday 14 May at 7.30pm on SBS with LIVE early morning broadcasts begin Wednesday 10 May at 5am on SBS.