There are few people who know the history of Eurovision better than John Kennedy O'Connor. Ahead of this year's Song Contest we chat to the author, commentator and San Marino spokesperson about the ingredients of a winning song, who Australia's biggest competitors are, and what makes Eurovision such an unstoppable force.
Siobhan Hegarty

22 May 2015 - 2:24 PM  UPDATED 22 May 2015 - 9:43 PM

You’re a long-standing Eurovision commentator, have penned the Song Contest’s 50th and 60th anniversary tomes and even presented San Marino’s vote in 2013. John, you’re obviously a fan of Eurovision, tell us what do you love most about this competition?

I think the wonderful thing about the contest is that you can come at it with any expectation and your expectation will be met. You can watch it if you think it’s the most wonderful thing on the planet, or you can watch it because you absolutely hate it. Either way, you won’t be disappointed, you’ll still be entertained.


As you know, Australia’s competing in this year’s contest! Who are Guy Sebastian's biggest competitors?

My favourite is definitely the Italian entry (Il Volo). It’s actually a classical piece of music and I think the lads singing it are very talented, they’re enormously popular across the world and I think that will play to their advantage. I know Sweden are the favourites, but then, aren’t they always? Nothing original about it. If Måns Zelmerlöw does win Eurovision it will be a question of style over substance. I also like the Australian song very much. I think it stands an incredible chance of doing very, very well.

What are the ingredients for a winning song?

It all depends on the field essentially. It’s the one that rises to the top amongst everything else. That doesn’t mean it’s the best song! It’s the one that really latches onto the public consciousness. In a sea of ballads it might be an up-tempo happy song, or in a sea of pop music it might be a ballad.


A few years ago you championed a song from San Marino, and ended up becoming their 2013 spokesperson… 

The song was called ‘Stand by’ and it was by a really wonderful soul singer called Senit, an Italian singer. It genuinely was my favourite, and as a tiny country that gets very little exposure, San Marino really latched onto me and said, “We really appreciate you supporting our song!” And they came back to me the following year and said, “Would you be interested in hosting our coverage?” So it really came about that way. To be asked to deliver the vote was the highlight of my life. This is my fourth year as their commentator.


You don’t have a cultural connections to San Marino, do you?

No, I’m technically an American. My mother is Irish, my father is English, I was born in Britain and here I am working for San Marino!


Can you name another of your favourite Eurovision performances?

My favourite Eurovision song ever is actually from one of the 1969 winners. In a bizarre twist there was four winners that year in a tie. It’s the French song ‘Un Jour, Un Enfant’, which I think is just beautiful. It’s almost a classical piece of music, performed with a piano, a cello and strings.

“I’m astonished ‘Un Jour, Un Enfant’ didn’t win outright. But there you go, that’s Eurovision. It tied with ‘Boom Bang-A-Bang’, which says it all, doesn’t it?”

Your book The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official Celebration explores the competition’s illustrious and outrageous history. Tell us about the tome.

I wanted to find out why Eurovision is so successful, so I’ve taken a look at everything: from the global hits and winners, to the ones that came last, along with the voting, costumes, dancing and crazy lyrics. Basically, everything that makes Eurovision so completely unique and wonderfully entertaining!


Did you make any shocking discoveries during your research?

A lot of people don’t remember there are some really big names who’ve been in Eurovision and have gone home absolutely humiliated. This is where Celine Dion got her start, Emilio Iglesias too.

“I think for a long time Olivia Newton-John didn’t want anybody to know that she’d been in Eurovision, but there was no shame in her defeat – she lost to ABBA!”

Singing contests come and go. Why do you think Eurovision has survived the test of time?

It’s because it’s not a singing contest. It is a song contest, it is the song that wins. The performer will never outrank the song. Also, Eurovision completely reinvents itself every year.


The book makes reference to the 1956 Eurovision mission statement – “to stimulate the output of original high quality songs in the field of popular music”. Sixty years on, is the competition still is living up to its raison d'être?

Well, I don’t think it ever did! It’s ridiculously esoteric.  At the time it was created, television was a brand new medium, and at the same time, America’s pop music was beginning to dominate European pop radio. They wanted to counteract that. But very quickly people started creating songs specifically for Eurovision, and they had no reference to what was going on in the charts at the time. Certainly in the 1960s, I think [Eurovision and popular music] did converge


How do you see Eurovision in the evolving in the future?

I think honestly it’s probably now unstoppable. Sixty years is a phenomenal achievement. It has gone through peaks and troughs and it’s been written off so many times. It has indeed almost died a few times! But it now just transcends everything else. The future of broadcasting may change as on demand television becomes the norm and scheduling becomes irrelevant. Will Eurovision survive that? I think yes, it will, because event television seems to be the one thing people arrive to watch.


The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official Celebration by John Kennedy O’Connor (Carlton Books) RRP $24.95 is available now at ABC Shops, Dymocks, retailers and the SBS Shop online.