Since it’s a quiet week for new comics, let’s talk about Eurovision!
I’m going to assume that even the Americans among you have a vague understanding of what the Eurovision Song Contest is, since I’ve written about it before. In short: “Eurovision” is the European Broadcasting Union, which is an organisation of European (or close enough) broadcasters. Among their many and eccentric activities is the annual Eurovision Song Contest, notionally an international songwriting contest, but actually conceived mainly as an excuse to show off the cutting edge technical possibilities of 1956. Each country puts in a song, each country votes, winner gets to host the show next year.
The Eurovision Song Contest has a proud tradition of being almost totally detached from anything that might be described as actual popular music anywhere in Europe, though every so often (as with this year’s winner) something comes along to challenge that. Sometimes even the oddities are genuinely entertaining in their own right. And sometimes entire countries either phone it in or transparently take the piss. The result is a truly unique spectacle – songs you’d never hear anywhere else, often for very good reason, locked in flamboyantly bizarre battle.
Since last year’s winner automatically gets to host the show, this year’s broadcast came from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Baku is so far to the east that in order for the four-hour show to air in prime time in the rest of Europe, the show had to start at midnight local time.
The cost of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest is widely regarded as crippling, particularly in the current financial climate. Reportedly, the Spanish broadcaster actually told its act to for god’s sake not win. You might think this would provide problems for Azerbaijan. But in fact, Azerbaijan is an oil rich state which can spend a lot of money when it wants to. This year, they spent that money on bulldozing part of central Baku in order to put up a remarkably over the top venue – complete with walls that could change colour to reflect the flag of the performer – that was genuinely impressive for seven months’ building. The obligatory interstitial videos between songs – which are often plainly a product of the local tourist board – were also very proud of the admittedly flashy new Flame Towers, which can (literally) change colour. It’s only as the show wears on that you realise that the interstitials are showing us the same square mile of Baku again… and again… and again…
Azerbaijan is basically a dictatorship, and the government has been rather keen to keep the human rights protestors off the streets – naturally failing to appreciate that the international PR backlash from this sort of behaviour is far worse than anything that would have been caused by just allowing the protestors to gather. Similarly, it seems that nobody in power realised how the rest of Europe was likely to react when faced with an interval act starring the President’s son-in-law. (Particularly since they also managed to get together the last five winners to perform a medley of their songs – a far more entertaining act – and then put it on semi-final 2.)
All this oddity notwithstanding, the actual show has the familiar mix of the unexpectedly good, the expectedly terrible, the outright inexplicable, and the thoroughly tedious.
This year’s winner is Sweden, which took the thoroughly unsporting approach of entering a song that was successful in the real world. Already selling strongly in five countries – and shooting straight to the top of the UK iTunes chart based solely on Eurovision exposure – “Euphoria” by Loreen looks to be something we haven’t had in a while, a genuine, full scale, international hit launched from Eurovision.
There’s a very real chance I’ll be writing about this in the chart post next week, but in outline: Loreen was the fourth-placer runner-up in Idol in 2004 (in Sweden, broadcasters figure that the audience know what country they’re in). She put out the obligatory token single and then, it seems, vanished into TV production for several years, only to re-emerge in Sweden last year with another attempt to enter Eurovision.
Loreen was also apparently the only contestant to go and visit the human rights protestors. You can imagine how that went down with the authorities. They must have been delighted when she won.
“Euphoria” is genuine pop music; it’s a trance record, but a very well put together one. And the staging is brilliant. Listen to the record in isolation and you’d probably expect them to go for the bright colours and the squadron of backing dancers. But faced with an enormous stage full of video screens – as you’ll see below – the Swedes have opted to kill the lights and have her perform (mostly) alone in semi-darkness. It really gives the impression that you’re watching something more than just a regular dance record, and it suggests that she may well have what it takes to do something with this career boost. This is what “trying to win the Eurovision Song Contest properly” looks like.
Britain, meanwhile, chose to enter Englebert Humperdinck. It came second-last, spawning the usual bitter complaints that Europe doesn’t appreciate us. (Normally they blame the eastern europeans for voting for one another, but with Sweden winning, that one won’t really fly.)
I do actually feel somewhat sorry for Humperdinck here. We’ve entered a lot worse than this, and it does kind of grow on you after a while. There were far drearier songs than this in the show. And yes, it was on first, which isn’t great in a running order of 26. But it’s dated, it’s not instant, and it was never going to win in a million years. Humperdinck can at least take comfort in knowing that the people in last place were Norway, and they got through the semi-finals, which is more than 20 other countries managed. (The UK, as a major financial contributor, gets an automatic bye to the finals. There is a theory that some voters are resentful of this, for some strange reason.)
The UK makes pop music that sells around Europe. We just don’t enter it in the Eurovision Song Contest. And that’s why we lose. The Englebert Humperdinck song didn’t even sell in Britain. It peaked at number 60. So they’re hardly going to vote for it in the Czech Republic, are they?
Back with the songs people actually remembered: this year’s obligatory high-profile novelty hit was from Russia, who entered “Party for Everybody” by Buranovskiye Babushki (“The Grannies from Buranov”). The grannies actually won the national phone vote, beating legitimate pop stars in the process. The Russians may be turning sarcastic. ”We are singing so strongly”, the lyrics assure us. Well, no, no you’re not. But once it picks up it is undeniably catchy.
This is their second attempt to enter Eurovision for Russia. In 2010, the Russian voters strangely did not opt for their song “Dlinnaja-Dlinnaja Beresta I Kak Sdelat Iz Nee Aishon”. (If Wikipedia is to be believed, the title translates as “Very Long Birch Bark and How to Turn It into a Turban.”)
What else is worthy of your notice? Certainly not third-placed Serbia, which was a generic dirge. Many were mystified by the high placing of Albania, with “Suus” by Rona Nishliu. Albanian experimental jazz/soul was not previously thought to be a popular genre, but since it came fifth, we may need to rethink this. The performance is odd. The first half is relatively sensible. By the end she appears to be attempting to establish contact with whales. Quite a few countries did give it maximum points, and not all of them had substantial Albanian minority populations… At any rate, it is fair to say this really is something you will not see on prime time television anywhere but on the Eurovision Song Contest.
Turkey opted for “Love Me Back” by Can Bonomo, which seems to have escaped from some sort of weird klezmer-based musical. The choreography is extraordinary, though I still quite make up my mind whether it’s good or bad extraordinary. It’s fair to say everyone remember it by the end of the night. Stick with it for the boat spot.
Italy, another country that gets an automatic bye to the finals, had an unusually decent year, entering the local equivalent of Amy Winehouse – “L’amore e femmina” by Nina Zilli. And when I say she’s the local equivalent of Amy Winehouse… I’m really not kidding. This is practically a tribute act. Came 9th.
This year’s obligatory “dragged through the XXXX/English dictionary” award goes to Moldova, with Pasha Parfeny’s “Lautar”. It’s catchy. But as choruses go, “You have never been to my show / You have never seen before how looks the trumpet” leaves something to be desired. He still managed a respectable 11th place.
And no, I don’t know why he’s dressed for woodwork.
Macedonia‘s entry, “Cmo i Belo” by Kaliopi, is a bit of a grower. Operatic pop-rock from a stern Macedonian woman, basically, but it does have a great chorus. I like the needless high note in the bridge, which must have sent dogs scurrying from the room all over Europe. She’s apparently a huge star in Macedonia, and has been for the better part of 20 years.
Jedward there at the end, representing Ireland again. We’ll skip over that.
France - who, again, get a bye – actually tried this year, with “Echo (You and I)” by Anggun. It deserved way better than its lowly 22nd placing. First verse is a bit weak but it picks up. (Admittedly, judging from her Wikipedia entry, Anggun is a bit past her commercial prime in France; she hasn’t had a hit there since 2007. But she’s closer to commercial relevance than Englebert Humperdinck…)
As for songs that got knocked out in the semis, you’ll be pleased to hear that the wisdom of European voters has, for a second time, spared final-viewers from encountering Austria rap outfit the Trackshittaz, whose music simply cannot be (and is not) as good as their name implies. San Marino attempts to hitch itself to a bandwagon from five years ago with “The Social Network Song”.
It’s called “The Social Network Song” because Eurovision rules ban product placement. The original title – I swear, really – was “The Facebook Song Uh, Oh, Oh (A Satirical Song)”. Exactly what was satirical about it has never been clearly established.
I have no idea what The Netherlands were thinking when they opted to have a stab at country and western. This was a top ten hit in Holland, so perhaps it’s just a bad performance…
And as for Georgia, their entry resembles an iPod stuck on shuffle. You’ve only got three minutes, guys! You don’t need to work every idea into it! Especially when you’ve actually got a few good hooks fighting for room in there.