Christer Björkman’s long-term relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest reads like a romance. And like any good love story, he can still remember the first encounter.
Christer’s mother ran a gambling empire that included casinos and bingo halls. As a kid he would travel with her around Sweden as she oversaw events, moving from hotel to hotel to entertain the masses who wanted to try their luck on a slot machine. While his mother was working — invariably at night — he would sneak out of their hotel room to see what was going on downstairs.
“There was a specific hotel with a lobby below and a balcony above,” he tells me. “I could sit outside of the room with my feet under the railing and dangle my legs down and look at the people.”
It was here, in 1967, that he first saw Eurovision. “There was a TV set in the lobby and I saw Sandie Shaw barefoot and singing her ‘Puppet on a String’. I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is that?’ I was totally fascinated.”
He later asked his mother to explain what he’d seen.
“She said, ‘Oh, that’s a contest between countries in music and next year I’ll tell you when it’s on. There’s a Swedish one too, so we can see that together beforehand.'”
She kept her word and the following year Christer watched both Mello and Eurovision 1968 — the very first edition broadcast in colour. That his introduction to the contest coincided with the move away from black-and-white seems so appropriate for a man who would go on to become its biggest champion and one of its brightest lights.
Christer later won Melodifestivalen 1992 as a singer, before becoming a producer and turning Melodifestivalen into one of the most talked-about music shows in Europe over the course of two decades. He famously produced the actual Eurovision Song Contest five times.
Because of his close involvement with the contest, Christer has had to keep his opinions on artists and songs to himself. Now, after leaving his role at Sweden’s state broadcaster SVT following Eurovision 2021, he has the freedom to share the thoughts that have been brewing for decades.
My ESC Story: Christer Björkman’s Eurovision book
In his forthcoming book My ESC Story: 1956 – 2021, out this May, Christer draws on his experiences as a fan and artist, and his roles as producer and head of the Swedish delegation at Eurovision. But all of that is built around facts, texts and stats about the contest itself.
Christer re-watched every edition of the contest to put the book together.
In part one, he presents a year-by-year summary with short facts and his personal reflections on each show. In part two, he offers an extensive country-by-country review, presented in the order that each country first appeared in the contest. From the Netherlands to Australia, that’s 52 countries in total. He uses the EBU definition, so that means Yugoslavia, Serbia–Montenegro and Serbia are listed as three different countries in the book. He also ranks every single winner of the contest.
Christer spoke with me in late January from his apartment in Los Angeles, where he’s busy producing the inaugural edition of the American Song Contest. Like any Swede thrust into the sunny climes of California, he was sun-kissed and adjusting very well. From his balcony he can see Santa Monica beach and a massive swimming pool. His apartment is largely white with bold splashes of colour in the cushions and artwork.
I’ve typically met him in the throws of a competition — when he was busy producing and running around and making sure everything is going according to plan. To say he looks more carefree and relaxed than ever is an understatement.
What follows are highlights of our chat. Be sure to visit the book’s official web site myescstory.com to stay up-to-date about its May release.
Eurovision 2021 was your last Eurovision. Given how important it has been to you professionally and personally, that must have been very emotional. Was writing this book in some ways a response to that?
It is now. It wasn’t when I started it. I actually started the book because I had so many people reach out in the fan community that wanted me to translate my autobiography Generalen. But I felt my autobiography was very, very Swedish. It was obviously Swedish. It had a Swedish perspective. There are so many things in it that are so Swedish, so I guess you have to be Swedish to grasp it. I would have written it differently if it were written for an international audience. But I had the idea that through Eurovision I have done something that attracts interest abroad.
Starting this new chapter in my life, I realised I’ve been in charge of 20 of 60 Swedish acts. I’ve been on the Reference Group for so many years. I’ve produced five contests and it’s like, “OK, I get it. I have something to say. I have a story even on an international level.”
And then of course, obviously, I am so disturbed like we [Eurovision fans] all are. I can actually go back and look back at a jury section only, which can be very exciting. That’s the level of disturbed I am. I actually looked forward to rewatching every show and rejudging them and I have graded every single country and made a Top 5 list or Top 10 list. And in some cases almost a Top 20 because it’s so hard to choose. I also made a ranked list of all winners. There are so many lists in this book. People are gonna go crazy just going through all the stats and lists. I’ve had so much fun.
As part of your research, you re-watched all of the shows. That’s quite the undertaking. How long did it take you?
It took forever. I sat down and said, “I’ll do this quickly. I can’t really watch everything.” But you start and it’s, “Oh, this intro is so nice. Oh, and that host.” I ended up seeing everything — every frame. Also all of the jury voting. It took forever — about two years. I had to take a break after 40 years because the 90s was a pain. The 90s is difficult to handle. It’s like a very, very stale piece of meat. You chew and you chew and you chew and out comes yet another ethno song and you’re like, “How did we survive the 90s?”
Was it something about the style of music of that era?
That’s part of it. The worst part was that the style of the music was so heavy. I mean there’s so little that’s joyful or happy. It’s very folky, very serious. Look at 1996. It’s “The Voice” (Ireland, winner); “I evighet” (Norway, second place); “Den vilda” (Sweden, third place). It’s all like, “da da dee da.” It’s not that it’s not good. It’s just that it’s heavy.
Did you have a routine — one show a week on a Wednesday — or was it more random than that?
When I realized how long it took, I had to see it as a job. I had to start in the morning, sit down, get to work and try to get in three a day. That’s how long it takes. You have to stop. You have to revise. Take notes.
Looking back all these years later, were you surprised at how certain countries overperformed or underperformed?
There were so many revelations. I also figured out that the new countries were always so underrated in the beginning. Especially when everything was decided by juries. The UK, Ireland, France, Luxembourg, and Monaco — they were always overrated because of the language. It was quite annoying. The juries are supposed to be professional musicians or whatever and they didn’t see that.
Another example is Yugoslavia. The only time they made it big was when they tried to be western European — and those examples are not my favourite. I like when you can actually tell where the artists and song are from – that’s when I like them. There is one entry from the early 1970s — “Gori vatra” from Zdravko Čolić. It’s a beautiful song, one of my favourite from that country. It didn’t make it at all [fifteenth place out of 17 entries]. It was overlooked.
In terms of your reflections on the show, how honest are you? Is it all love or do we hear some criticism and concerns as well?
Yeah. [Long pause.] You will hear criticism. What I do is I rank each country together with a chapter about that country and why they’re there and what it has meant to me and Eurovision. It is formative on one side, and that’s subjective. The list gets personal. I am very honest. I do Top 3 at the least, mostly a Top 5. And I also do a wildcard and a zero. With the wildcard and zero comes a one-liner. They are not very nice all the time. But they’re fun. You will laugh. You will have fun.
Was there a country where you really struggled to narrow down your favourites because of the quality of entries?
The United Kingdom — to say just one. I grew up loving everything coming from the UK. Every year was a party. I decided to do the UK differently, and instead of having a number one, a number two and a number three, I have stacks of songs in number one and number two and number three. I just loved the UK’s entries in the 60s the 70s. All of it. Everything from Cliff Richard and Sandi Shaw, Mary Hopkin, “Jack in the Box”, “Rock Bottom”. I could go on and on and on.
I’m wondering if the UK zeros will come from recent memory…
That’s the thing. The problem with the UK is recent — the last twenty years basically.
In the preface of the book, you make a really good point about how you can still love Eurovision even if there are elements or certain aspects of the show you don’t like. Could you tell us about that?
I think a lot of the fans tend to forget that. First and foremost, we all love the phenomenon. We love the show. We love the fact that we meet and have a spectacle that is music and we have a competition and it’s not meant for us to love everything. That’s the idea. We should be like, “Oh my god — what is that?” That’s why they created it. We should get to know each other’s culture. It should not be that every time we meet we kill each other in a war. We should be able to meet and appreciate the differences. That makes the world richer. It’s such a good example of how different we are.
Now, obviously 2016 and 2013 were amazing Eurovision productions. But beyond those editions produced and hosted by Sweden, is there an edition you particularly admire?
Throughout the years there have always been those that made a difference. Those that actually pushed the format forward and gave us new highlights. Obviously you cannot not mention Riverdance from Eurovision 1994, which was an overnight success. It was amazing.
I love the set design of 1980, in The Hague, which, in its own simple way, was amazing because it changed with every act. It’s just automated set pieces in the air — but they make different patterns. It’s really memorable. It’s something I can remember very vividly. I also love Vienna 2015. That is really, really interesting one because the stage is so deep in its shape. It creates a very different room. I write about this in the book.
What about camera work? Were there editions where you start to notice that art coming into its own?
Absolutely. You have these specific years when you can actually see they start using the cameras. It’s sometime in the mid 1970s when you actually start realising they aren’t just for showing what’s going on. It was interesting to re-watch the whole thing in a limited period of time because you actually see the development. You can see that once every decade something really, really specific is happening and taking the whole contest to a new level.
Another thing that intrigues me is how as a teenager you would have watched without the eye of a producer. But now, looking back, you have the professional in you. Did that change how you look at things?
Completely. I really try to remember what I felt like at the time — when I first saw things — because that is important. I cannot totally disregard what I felt when it happened. But I also have to put it in the context of what I know now. Obviously so much more has happened and so many songs have been added to this song book. Even though Marie Myriam’s “L’oiseau et l’enfant” has been my all-time favourite forever, when put in the context of the total, did that song still stand up? I had to find a criteria.
What did that criteria end up being?
One is obviously how I reacted when it happened. But then I have to look at a few questions. Did it actually bring something new to the table? Did it change the competition? Is it a complete evergreen or was it something that just happened? And yes — we have those. We definitely have those.
What’s an example of a song that changed things?
Sometimes you know instantly and you can say, “Oh, wow — this one’s going to change things.” Loreen was one that you knew was going to be a classic. It changed a lot of things about how you can do performance and the style you can use. That one was a game changer.
Måneskin has the potential to be one. You can’t tell after a year, but I believe it will be one of those that you remember as groundbreaking. It opens up a completely new space in music for this competition. It’s rock and roll when it’s real and not a gimmick. It’s something that comes out of the music. This is what that style can be. It’s not a retro band with make-up — it’s progressing.
Was rating the songs from Sweden easy or more difficult because of how close you are to the songs, the artists and the history?
No matter how I do it, everybody’s going to take it personal. It’s going to be a disaster, obviously. I’m so glad I am halfway around the globe in California when the book is released. Obviously I have to judge all of them — more than 60 songs — and I also have to judge myself and six winners. There are so many landmines on those four pages in the book.
To be clear, though: This book is not focused on Sweden. It’s bigger than that.
That’s right. I do very little extra for Sweden, even though it’s impossible not to do a bit. It is not a book for Sweden. It does not have a Swedish perspective, really. So I’m trying to be as objective as possible. However, totally objective you can’t be. I will sometimes overrate a Swedish song. That’s the way it is. Somewhere I have to apologize, like I get it, I get it.
Are there any countries that you think deserved to be rated higher over the years?
Turkey was constantly underrated back in the days. Not in the modern era — perhaps they got results sometimes even too good because of the diaspora around Europe. But looking further back they were so underrated. 1980 Ajda Pekkan. And also Morocco (“Bitaqat Hub” sung by Samira Bensaïd). Oh my god — the only time Morocco came and it was a beautiful song. Did it get any points? Naaaah. We were not very generous to different things in western Europe at the time.
Sweden and Australia often give each other love. Was it easy for you to rank their songs?
It was easy to rank Australia. Australia has brought new energy to the show. I like the fact Australia is part of Eurovision. They have a very dedicated team and they’re very open about embracing Eurovision. It was a joy to rank their songs.
The book has a lot of points and comparison — points, points, points, points. Lots of that. The fun bit here is that Sweden and Australia have given each other lots and lots of points in those five or six years. They have almost become a neighbouring country to us. It could be that we are sort of on the same page when it comes to pop music. Sort of radio-friendly pop music.
With more than half of the countries, you include personal stories about those countries. Could you give us an example of a song that meant a lot to you?
Obviously it’s Marie Myriam’s “L’oiseau, l’enfant”. That was a song that hit me right in the belly. I know it by heart. I can read every word in it. I love singing it. I actually sang it at Pride with Marie Myriam in Stockholm once. She’s a wonderful lady. When I started putting all the criteria together, though, that song didn’t really change the contest. It was a French ballad in a line of ballads throughout the 70s. Before her was Severine, it was Vicky Leandros, Anne-Marie David. She was the last one in a line of fantastic ballads from France and Luxembourg. I couldn’t put her at the very, very top. Your song had to represent change — that extra layer.
What’s a song that did change the contest?
The first song that ever changed this contest was France Gall. When she entered that stage she was a young, progressive pop singer. She actually was before Sandie Shaw. But Sandie Shaw was the first English speaking pop girl. Before them it was all ooo oooo, nun like singing. It was all Lys Assia. They were all Lys Assia up until France Gall entered the competition. She had Serge Gainsbourg, who was the hottest composer at the time. They completely changed the rules of the contest. It was like, “What just happened?” The rest of them were still ooo oooo and really, really old fashioned. That was the first song that shook the entire foundation of this competition. It totally came out of the blue. It even made way for Cliffe Richard and Sandie Shaw — that whole era of good pop music. This all started with France Gall.
You also go into the difficulties and tensions that can arise as a producer, since you want what is best for an act. Could you give us an example of a country that took your advice and ran with it when you were producing the big ESC?
Oh yes, absolutely. When Bulgaria came to Stockholm in ’16 [with Poli Genova’s “If Love Was a Crime”], the Head of Delegation Joana had a creative team that wanted the staging to be sort of like Hunger Games. Poli was a warrior and she was going to have her soldiers and they were gonna be in the woods and forest and they would come out into the open landscape and fight and do the whole Hunger Games thing. I was like, “Mmmm.” I saw a really modern song, a really cool girl, and she moved in a really cool way.
That was not the right way to go and I spoke to Joana and said, “We want to do this differently, more modern. We do understand soldiers but we want it to be her being the whole army and duplicate her.” We had these broken LEDs. She was all over the place. You could see it all over the place — very monochrome, very black and white. It was very modern. I said, “Please, let us do it our way and I assure you that you will get a top position. But the forest — hmm, no, it’s not gonna work.” She was like, “Okay, okay. Let’s do it.”
It’s bold and brave of her, especially since her creative team might have taken issue with outsiders re-imagining it all.
When they came into the viewing room for the first time after the first rehearsal, it was full war. Her creative team was furious. Joana came to me and said, “Let me deal with them. I’ll talk to them. You go ahead — I trust you.” In the end, they ended up fourth. A beautiful result.
They certainly kept the momentum going with Kristian Kostov a year later.
For Eurovision 2017 she hired Sacha Jean Baptiste for Kristov. Sacha and I worked together on doing that performance and again she was like, “I trust you all the way.” She got them to calm down. She said, “You know, we‘re not there yet. You can’t get more experience than you can get from the resources you’re given.” So it is difficult and she put her trust in us. She said to her creators, “Just trust them. They know what they’re doing.” It would have been difficult for her as well, but she led her team and balanced it all.
Christer Björkman’s book “My ESC Story” will be available this May. To keep up with the latest news about its release, be sure to visit the book’s official web site myescstory.com.