The definition of light music: Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson sing for their supper

It's May 1956. The whole of Europe is struggling to recover from the devastation and horror of humanity's deadliest conflict - one which killed over 2.5% of the world's population in just 6 years. Bombed-out cities are being slowly rebuilt, and in some countries, a significant number of people are still living in temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, what we know today as "Eastern Europe" has only really just come into being as a distinct concept, having fallen under the Soviet Communist sphere of influence after being handed to Stalin on a plate by Britain and America at Yalta. Krushchev gave his Secret Speech just 3 months ago, and de-Stalinisation has only just begun. Meanwhile, nestled snugly in the middle of the continent, guarded by majestic hollowed-out Alps and contentedly noshing on a Toblerone, plucky, neutral Switzerland - a country forged from a ragtag collection of Alemannic German, French, Italian and Romansh-speaking cantons, and founded on plurality, cooperation and a fiercely defended pacifism - has had a fabulous idea. Marcel Bezençon, head of Switzerland's public broadcaster and chairman of the newly-founded European Broadcasting Union's programme committee, wants to use new technology to bring the continent together through song. The timing is perfect: Europe's entertainment industry is starting to get back into gear, and light music, chansons, schlager and big band are the order of the day. Entertainment is all about escapism - popular music is reassuring, cosy and gemütlich. People have no desire to dwell on the horrors of the past and the deprivations of the present. Germany and Austria are churning out heimatfilms by the bucketload, young Europeans are only just beginning to discover American rockabilly and rock & roll, and Elvis has just had his first number one single in the UK. Few people have televisions. Switzerland, having weathered the storm of World War II largely unscathed (apart from the repeated occasions when Britain and America bombed it because they thought it was Germany), is the perfect host for the inaugural Eurovision Song Contest. In Lugano, Lys Assia is gearing up for the big night. She has no idea how this one broadcast will change her life. Rap will not be invented for another two decades.

Fast-forward 56 years, and Europe and its musical landscape have changed immensely. Popular music is more diverse than ever. Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Beatles led to permanent paradigm shifts, and since then, rock, punk, new wave, hip-hop, dance and countless other innovative genres have burst onto the scene, each enjoying their own brief reign of popularity before establishing themselves as a lasting part of the pop music spectrum. Whereas a 1950s radio listener would have faced a choice of light music, classical music, speech or nothing at all, a contemporary music lover has instant access to more different types of music than ever before - and as a result of this, audiences today arguably have far greater musical literacy and much broader musical palates than half a century ago. Although Anglo-American cultural imperialism is unfortunately a stronger force than ever, with the uniform Stockholm-produced sound of Rihanna, Katy Perry, Jason Derulo and the likes clogging the airwaves across Western Europe (much less so the East and especially the Balkans, which have retained a far stronger sense of their own musical identity), the Internet is a tremendous counterforce in undermining this. At the click of a mouse, we can listen to music from all over the world on Spotify and Youtube, download ridiculous South Korean pop songs onto our glowing rectangles for 79p a time, and watch live Eurovision preselections from even the most obscure former Soviet republics on our laptops, in perfect TV quality - and crack wise about them on Twitter while doing so.

Eurovision, too, has diversified. Today, the contest's first decade looks and sounds delightfully quaint - classics like Net Als Toen, Austria's debut entry Where To, Little Pony?, and Margot Hielscher's gimmicky ode to the wonders of the jukebox are worlds away from the dance pop, yugoballads and drag acts of the 2000s. Although Eurovision has to a certain extent always occupied its own musical universe - the reason for both the extreme devotion and outright derision it inspires - it's been far from static. Ever since the contest's first truly modern winner in 1965 - France Gall with Serge Gainsbourg's rollicking Poupée de cire, poupée de son - it's changed and grown. Many would argue not enough, myself included. 1977-81 remain the contest's 20th-century peak, as great pop and eurodisco gave way to the first electronic sounds. After that? A long, slow decline - thanks in part to the rule that songs had to be performed in a country's native language and the insistence on a live orchestra. Few of the major musical developments of the seventies, eighties and nineties really had an impact on the contest, dated Slavic rock bands and terrible pop-rap aside. And while music-lovers moshed to Nirvana or leapt around to Snap! in the early nineties, Eurovision didn't get its first great, truly credible hard rock song until 2007 (after the tongue-in-cheek campery of Wigwam and Lordi) and its first brilliant eurodance song until 2008. Notably, the contest has still arguably never had a good rap or hip-hop song (Kølig Kaj doesn't count).

As of 2012, Eurovision has done a fair bit of catching up. Since 2004, the growth of the contest into a major commercial event and the widening of the field of contestants to include almost all of Eastern Europe has led to a greater diversity of musical expression and a lot more contemporary acts. Combined with the successful introduction of 50% jury voting to counterbalance biases in the televote in 2009, this has in turn led to Western European countries (especially the Big 5 of France, Germany, Spain, the UK and Italy) taking the contest a lot more seriously. Crucially, instant downloads also give Eurovision much-needed commercial relevance. Viewers can buy their favourite songs without leaving their armchair, and these can then chart and get radio play outside of their home countries. In 2007, Ukrainian drag act Verka Serduchka entered the charts in several Western European countries and released an album in France; this year, Loreen's Euphoria has been a huge Europe-wide hit - even in the dispiritingly insular and europhobic UK, succeeding where Stromae failed in 2009. Before downloads, this simply wouldn't have been possible. As exemplified by the case of Sweden, whose highly successful music industry takes Eurovision very seriously, this commercial incentive gives countries a reason to send good songs. Eurovision is finally fulfilling its mission to provide European artists and songwriters with a strong commercial platform for promotion across the whole continent.

But what of the light music of yore? What of the "lost" years of the 80s and 90s, when the contest was at its most dated compared to the music of the era? Part of the reason Eurovision is often held in low esteem in the UK in particular - despite the huge viewing figures it invariably attains and the many UK fans who make an annual pilgrimage to the contest - is that while in continental Europe, light music evolved and thrives to this day in various guises, in the UK, it largely died out in the 1970s. While Scandinavia has its schlager and dansbandsmusik, the Netherlands its levensliederen, Germany its volkstümlicher schlager, Bulgaria its chalga, Poland its disco polo and former Yugoslavia its own vast musical world, the UK no longer has its own national, populist "light music", apart from a scattering of living fossils like Cliff Richard, Engelbert Humperdinck and Lulu. As a result, many British singers in this genre, such as Roger Whittaker, Ireen Sheer and (arguably) Chris Norman, relocated their careers to Germany decades ago. Conversely, while most continental European countries now no longer send this type of music to Eurovision, the BBC has done so repeatedly in recent years - perhaps due to a dated view of the contest and limited understanding of contemporary European tastes. With the sounds of Steps and Stock-Aitken-Waterman being the UK's closest modern equivalent to schlager, the BBC sent the dreadful Scooch to Eurovision in 2007, saddled the talented and unfairly maligned Josh Dubovie with a disastrously dated song in 2010, then turned the clock back even further in 2012 by entering Engelbert Humperdinck. The result: last in 2007, last in 2010, and second last in 2012. In the latter two of these years, Germany won with a Kate Nash knockoff and achieved a top 10 placing with a contemporary song co-written by Jamie Cullum. In both instances, the consensus reaction from British fans can be summed up as "Why didn't we send something like that?". The answer is the dismal regard in which the BBC's TV entertainment department holds the contest. The lesson is this: the era of light music is over, and the era of "typical Eurovision songs" is over. It was over when Xandee scored disastrously in 2004, Selma Björnsdóttir failed to qualify in 2005 and Kate Ryan in 2006. Just as a diet of nothing but sugary treats will leave you yearning for something more substantial, Eurovision has shown it can no longer survive on a smörgåsbord of la la las, ring-ding-a-dongs, and crab-walking, ribbon-dancing, velcro-trousered schlock - much to the chagrin of many an old-school fan, myself excepted. The past decade has seen songs of this kind perform worse and worse, despite being highly favoured by the fan community.

What made 2012 an epochal year for the contest, after the enjoyable europop of 2004-8 and middle-of-the-road radio fare of 2009-11, is that this is the year I believe Eurovision truly found its own modern sound and niche. Despite the relaxation of the language rule over a decade earlier, only 4 of the year's top 10 were English-only. And for female acts, the number of points scored seemed to be inversely proportional to the amount of flesh paraded, whereas just a decade ago, this would have been the other way round. Greece's lazy europop, low hemline and bum-grabbing dance routine garnered it a dismal 17th place, while a young and attractive yet entirely-covered-up female singer from Sweden scored almost six times as many points with a performance centered around interpretive dance, achieving the second-highest winning score to date. Second place was taken by a group of older women in folk dress singing in a traditional open-throated, vibrato-free Uralic style in an indigenous language never heard before in the contest. (For fact fans, this brings the number of Uralic languages heard at Eurovision to 5, after Estonia's Neiokõsõ performed in Võro in 2004.) Third place: a staid, wistful ballad entirely in Serbo-Croat boasting a linear AB structure, long instrumental sections and an exceedingly understated presentation. Fifth: a Kosovan experimental jazz singer dressed as a Vorlon, performing a raw, emotional, avant-garde lament in a visible state of distress. Sixth: a passionate, sincere and heavily vocally improvised ballad sung entirely in Estonian. Tenth: a tremendous Spanish-language ballad featuring the powerhouse vocal performance of the evening.

In short, the 2012 contest rewarded art and gravitas. This is an extremely welcome development in musical terms, and is an excellent omen for the contest's quality and thus its reputation and longevity. In a year of outstanding ballads performed by strong vocalists, those rewarded the most highly were the most progressive, artistic, sincere, contemporary, and reflective of their nations' musical cultures. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the less original, more generic, more radio-friendly English-language ballads - such as those entered by Iceland, the UK and Denmark - fared poorly. Emotionally rending ballads in native languages, passionately delivered by remarkable artists and featuring minimal artifice - Serbia, Albania, Estonia and Spain - all went top 10, in the case of the latter three tremendously overcoming a lack of voting allies. Lastly, the fact that Sweden won and Norway came last despite superficial similarities between the two entries illustrates the core of the matter. Both countries sent a modern dance song written by Peter Boström and performed by an artist with Moroccan and Iranian heritage respectively. The difference: Stay was about going to a club and having a good time, had no artistic pretensions and was not vocally driven. Euphoria, by contrast, was powerfully vocally led, brimming with artistic pretension, aspired to depth and conveyed a strong emotional narrative.

The question now is: will this trend hold? Will the Malmö lineup be as impressively authentic and serious as the Baku one? We can but wait and see. Selection season has already begun. Personally, I hope to see more Ronas, Otts, Zeljkos, Pastoras and Kaliopis taking to the stage in May. Schlager and light music have their place, but they belong to the contest's past, not its present. As a continent, we've matured sufficiently to be able to take a bit of darkness, pain and reality in our music, as opposed to the sanitised sentimentality and commoditised emotion of schlager. We've graduated from sugar onto wholemeal fare and realised that music is not supposed to be "nice" - and I for one welcome it.

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