The Null Device
Eurovision 2016 has been and gone. This time, much of the weirdness apparently fell by the wayside in the semifinals, thus arguably making watching the finals even more essential for fans of the Old Weird Eurovision. Further weirdness was lost when Romania failed to pay its EBU bill and was unceremoniously disqualified, depriving audiences of a few minutes of dependable gothic oddity (to their credit, Poland tried to fill that gap, though they didn't quite manage it; Poland, after all, is not Romania). And, for the second time ever, Australia was invited to compete; this time, they almost ended up winning. Also for the first time ever, the event was broadcast to the United States, undoubtedly causing mass confusion there, though perhaps not as much as it would have some years earlier. Also, this year, the voting system was split: first came in the votes of the nations' juries of experts, and then the aggregated public phone votes, a system apparently designed to maximise suspense, something in which it succeeded.
As for the songs themselves: Sweden appeared to walk the tightrope of showing competence whilst avoiding the risk of having to host it twice in a row (something that almost bankrupted Ireland in the 1990s), and sent in a hair-gelled teenager singing something unmemorable. Cyprus brought the hard rock, or at least hard-rock-flavoured dance music, and Georgia went landfill-indie (and got douze points from the UK, the spiritual home of landfill-indie, for their efforts). France, I thought, were decent, and the two Baltic states that made it through were as well. Australia entered with a very competent minor-key electropop ballad about intimacy at a distance, with lyrics about FaceTime and cyberpunk-style visual projections, and for a while, looked like it would win, running away with a commanding lead in the jury vote; but it was not to be: the night belonged to the geopolitical faultline between Russia and Ukraine:
Russia, it seems, tried very hard to win, throwing vast amounts of resources at it, as if it were a matter of national prestige. Their song was, by Eurovision standards, first-rate, and the setting was helped with some impressive projection-mapping effects. It was as if Putin himself gave the directive that Eurovision 2017 was to be in Moscow, and instructed everybody to do whatever it took to make it happen, up to and including having the performer, Sergey Lazarev, butter up the decadent liberals of Euro-Sodom by having gone on record criticising Russia's anti-gay laws and the annexation of Crimea. As such Russia had been the bookmakers' favourite to win, geopolitics notwithstanding. When the votes came in, though, the juries largely snubbed Russia, with them getting nul points from 21 juries. Even the torrent of phone votes, which overwhelmingly favoured Russia (and again, that could be anything between overwhelming apolitical approval of the song and/or Russia's formidable internet spammers taking time out from bank fraud to do their patriotic duty) couldn't reverse this; Russia only made it up to third place, coming behind Australia. To add insult to injury, the winner was Ukraine, whose song, 1944, was a sombre, harrowing and pointedly political number about the genocide and expulsion of Crimea's Tartars by Stalin (and, indirectly, alluding to Putin's annexation of Crimea, sailing close to the EBU's rules against political gestures). Set to skittering dubstep beats à la Burial, it was a decent song, though standing on its own, not overwhelmingly the best in the show. Had it not also served as a middle finger raised at Putin's Russia, it might have languished in the middle of the rankings; but geopolitics is geopolitics. (See also: the Israeli entry, which should probably have also done better. Their song wasn't bad, but voting it down was a chance for the cosmopolitan liberals of Europe to signal virtue and tell Netanyahu where to stick his security wall, so it was doomed from the outset. I imagine Dana International had the benefit of a period of relative calm and optimism when she won.)
Geopolitics may also have a little, though probably not a lot, to say about Britain's dismal result. Their song was not abysmal (the UK has done worse in previous years; there was the jaunty number performed by a crew of saucy flight attendants, or the middle-aged bloke playing a teenage hip-hop gangsta-wannabe, or various times when they barely made the minimum effort. Perhaps Britain lost points because the Frogs and Krauts and their wine-drinking garlic-eating buddies are sick of our ongoing national tantrum about wanting to leave the EU. Perhaps they don't like our aloofness and smug sense or superiority (though, were that the case, how does that explain Sweden consistently doing so well?) Or perhaps we just don't get it; when everybody else does minor-key anguish soaring to triumphantly defiant choruses on a wave of synth arpeggios and key changes, we remain terribly British and aloof, tossing off a cheery singalong, all the better to shrug off as no big deal when we inevitably end up in the bottom five.
After all the contestants had performed and the votes were coming in, there was the usual entertainment. This year, they had Justin Timberlake to perform a medley of his hits, in an event referred to by some as Justin Toiletbreak; this was done either to welcome the Americans tuning in for the first time, or as a showcase for the Swedish pop songwriting and production industry that powered Timberlake's musical career. Sweden's musical history was also showcased in a medley of international Swedish pop hits since the days of ABBA (I had forgotten, for one, that synth-led hair-metallers Europe were Swedish; for some reason I thought they were German). The highlight of the break, though, was this deconstruction of the formula for a Eurovision hit, bringing in everything from bare-chested drummers to little old ladies baking bread and incomprehensible folk instruments.
So: Eurovision 2017 will, it seems, be in Kiev. It'll be interesting to see what happens: will Australia (which, not being in the EBU, has been there on suffrance, though managed to do impressively well) come back for a third time, or take its seat as the Sweden-equivalent of the Asia-Pacific song contest being planned? (Will Eurovision itself, in a few years, pivot away from being merely Europe-plus-a-few-neighbours and become a set of regional contests, culminating in a global final?) Will the Russians compete in front of what can only be expected to be a hostile away crowd in Kiev, or will this strengthen calls in Russia to turn their backs on it set up their own “Eurasian” song contest, one without all that problematic gayness? And if Britain, by then, has voted to leave the EU, will it also take its ball and go home?