Each country participating in the Contest has its own rules, but in general, a Eurovision entry song is three minutes or less, and must not have been available for listening or publicly performed before the year it is entered. Current rules also specify that all backing music must be played from a pre-recorded track, but all vocals must be performed live. A total of six persons are allowed onstage during the number, including lead singers, backup singers, dancers and any other live performers.
That’s the bare framework. But what makes a song uniquely adapted to the challenges of the contest? Above all, it has to be immediate and catchy! By now most of the EBU’s (the European Broadcasting Union, organizers of the contest) member nations broadcast preview shows of the promotional videos of each entry, so there is a chance to see and hear the songs in advance. During the months of March and April many of the entrants travel to various events and Eurovision concerts across the continent to promote their song as well. But still, the vast majority of viewers who watch the two nights of semifinals and then the ultimate night of final competitions are coming into the show with no advance knowledge of what they will see and hear.
Over the course of three minutes, each entry better make a (hopefully good) impression on viewers and listeners. People who are not familiar with ESC routinely dismiss entry songs as pop fluff, without considering that a subtle, multi-hued number that takes several listenings to appreciate will miss out and never get its chance to be loved. Sometimes a great entry will even seem a bit familiar or sound vaguely like a song you have heard before. This is not a flaw, but more of a positive attribute!
Most Americans don’t know Katrina and the Waves’ “Love Shine A Light”, which brought the ESC title to the UK in 1997. But just listen and try not to sing or hum along by the last verse.