The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'eurovision'
The Eurovision final is once again upon us, this time from Kiev. The Ukrainians are making the most of their geopolitical situation, from the slogan, “Celebrate Diversity”, with its dig against its enemy's homophobia. Russia is, of course, absent because of its contender's connections with the annexation of Crimea. Once again, I'll be blogging this until the end, or the commencement of Russian bombardment, whichever comes first.
First up is Israel, represented by a buff dude singing a stomping piece of EDM-pop with more than a slight debt to the recently departed Robert Miles, replete with the standard pyrotechnics. Pretty much par for the course, and could do decently.
And Poland brings the big minor-key torch song, performed by a blonde lady with a mighty, soaring voice, accompanied by her brother on fiddle.
And Belarus brings the evening's first dose of oddity. A pair dressed in white (he in a white cloché hat and a medicated-looking grin, she with vaguely Leia-esque buns), doing an upbeat ballad in Belarussian, on a tiny boat in a lake of smoke-machine fog, and finishing it off with a vigorous snog. Slightly odd, but a catchy, upbeat number.
Austria has a dude in white singing a sort of generic folk-meets-soul ballad beside a disco-ball moon. The set decoration is actually pretty good. The song doesn't shy away from clichés, right down to the early-90s synth-string chord stabs at the end.
Armenia's entry is the first Eurovision Goth of the night. Eastern scales, purple flames, and three women in black, singing and dancing. They could go well.
The Netherlands has brought Wilson Phillips out of retirement, it seems. They're over-egging the pudding a bit with the key changes. Still, Eurovision is Eurovision.
Moldova has three chaps in suits who call themselves Sunstroke Project, doing a sparse, reggaeton-inspired number named Hey Mamma. One of them has a saxophone and is also wearing sunglasses, which with his haircut makes him look a bit like Max Headroom. Slightly silly dancing, but a competent number.
Hungary gets points for traditional hairstyles, for the singer's topknot. There's a milk churn on the stage, which the singer uses as a percussion instrument. It started as a melancholic ballad, combining eastern scales with understated Eurodance electronics, but then broke into a rap in the middle.
Italy keeps with the reggaeton influence, bringing it into an upbeat song with anthemic choruses. There's a chap dancing in a gorilla suit on stage for some reason; I think the song's theme has to do with evolution, judging by the visual projections.
Denmark's entry is one of the two Australians competing, a young woman named Anja (who, I'm guessing, goes by Anna or Annie or something back home). 90s R&B vocals over Eurodance backings. Competent and somewhat hyggelig, though not all that memorable.
Portugal: a chap with ornate facial hair, animated facial expressions and a songbird-sweet voice, singing a rather lovely understated ballad over piano and strings, in a virtual woodland setting. Subtle, but rather nice. Could do well.
Azerbaijan has a lady in a silver-white trenchcoat in front of a blackboard with all sorts of darkly evocative words like EXTREME, SKELETON and THORNS written on it. And there's a guy in a horse-head mask sitting atop a stepladder. The pounding drums say Eurovision Goth.
Croatia's entry, a goateed chap in a hybrid dinner/biker jacket, alternates between soprano and Pavarotti-esque tenor, accompanied by a string trio. It started off with an inspirational monologue. Croatia seem to be embracing the ridiculousness of Eurovision and running with it for all it's worth. I expect them to get the UK's douze points, just because they represent the Platonic ideal of what the UK expects Eurovision to be about.
And here's Australia, represented by a teenage boy in a long coat. Quite competent, again, but doesn't really stand out. They might not come within a hair's breadth of winning this year.
Greece has an E'd-up rave stomper, sung by a lady in a long dress, as two half-naked men splash around in a paddling pool, with the usual pyrotechnics.
Spain ramps up the kitsch, with three surfer dudes in Hawaiian shirts miming with guitars, as a computer-animated VW Kombi van boogies on its suspension in the background. The song, titled “Do It For Your Lover”, is cod-reggae over a drum loop.
Norway has a guy in a rural hat singing, and another guy in a Daft-Punk-meets-Hellraiser mask doing something vigorous with electronics. The drummer is wearing a hooded robe, which makes one wonder whether he was borrowed from a black-metal band. Either the transmission is breaking up or they are inserting digital glitch effects into the video. They've adopted the EDM trick of demoting the chorus to a pre-chorus and having its place taken by a few bars of chopped-up vocal samples. Technically, pretty good.
And here comes the UK, with Never Give Up On EU, sorry, Never Give Up On You, as if in preemptive apology for her country. It has the elements: minor-key piano and subtle electronic beats. The singer sings decently, and the visuals provide Eurovision-grade pyrotechnics on a par with Eastern Europe's finest. That was actually quite good; better than any UK entry I remember, and better than Australia's entry. Perhaps she'll get a pity vote and end up in the top 5; perhaps the UK, having taken Russia's place as the villains, will get its geopolitically anticipated kicking; time will tell.
Cyprus has a chap in black singing heartily. The visuals appear to be lifted from the Groove Coaster iPhone game.
Romania has taken Eurovision weirdness as a prompt and run with it; their song is a rap about yodelling. Which sounds kitschy and naff, but they pull it off. And then they brought out some old-fashioned cannon, for no reason, just to avoid not being weird enough.
Germany is living up to being the world's premier manufacturer of electronic music software, bringing in a piece that's essentially a sequence. This could have been the demo track shipped with Cubase or Ableton Live.
And here comes the home team, Ukraine; they're bringing a rock band, whose promo video has them looking sullen in black leather. “The style is rock”, the announcer said, but it's really a more rock-flavoured Eurovision-pop, with some U2-style guitars in the verses, and some crunchy power chords under the soaring vocals in the chorus. Then comes the bridge, and it goes Metallica for 16 bars and then back to U2-meets-Muse. Not bad, but nobody's going to mistake these guys for Lordi any time soon.
Belgium returns to the singing-lady-in-a-gown formula; their lady, though, seems frozen as if struck by stagefright. I really hope she's alright.
Sweden brings the electro-funk, with a song seemingly made for H&M changing rooms. Very slick, but that's to be expected.
Bulgaria has a teenager singing soaringly over melodramatic minor-key piano chords and glitchy beats. They seem to have the Eurovision formula down pat.
And finally, here comes France. A young woman in a mini-dress singing, half in English, half in French, as computer-animated panoramas of Paris swirl in the background, Inception-fashion.
And, after the interval acts (Ukrainian Fake Kraftwerk weren't half bad), the voting is over, and here come the tallies:
Sweden gave their 12 to Portugal, and 10 to Australia. San Marino, Latvia and Israel also gave 12 to Portugal, who are building up quite a sizeable early lead. Meanwhile, the UK is near the top of the second quarter of the chart, an uncommonly good position. Of course, it's still early days.
With half of the votes in: Portugal has a clear lead, with 186 points; second is Bulgaria, with 132. Australia, meanwhile, is at #5 with 70 points. The UK is near the bottom of the second half, with 39 points, which, by British standards, is an exceptionally good result.
And here comes the UK's first douze points, delivered by Lee Lin Chin from Australia, elevating it to near the middle of the first half. At this stage, it's probably safe to say that Portugal's got the jury vote.
Spain, meanwhile, is doing very poorly, being the only country stuck with nul points, on the opposite end of the table from its neighbour. The second-last is Germany.
The jury votes are in, with Portugal winning. But the audience vote is yet to come; last year, Australia won the jury vote, but Ukraine beat them on the popular vote.
And the winner is: Portugal (758 points), followed by Bulgaria (615) then Moldova, Belgium and Sweden. Australia came 9th. Meanwhile, the UK dropped to 15, second from the top of the bottom half, which is still an extraordinarily good result for the UK. (The country I voted for, Norway, came 10th.)
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?
Well, it's that time of year again, and so I will be providing live commentary on Eurovision; this year, live from Vienna. So watch this space:
It's kicking off with style; for the introduction, the Austrian hosts have done a good job of melding sophisticated 1990s club pop à la Robert Miles with Austria's historic musical institutions, including the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Boys' Choir; orchestral strings and brass and smooth synth pads; or as Graham Norton said, “most things you'd want there, and some things you wouldn't, like an Austrian rapper”.
Slovenia; 20:20: a red-haired woman in a white lace dress sings her lungs out, accompanied by a mohawked dude on piano and an interpretive dancer; Mohawk Piano Dude tries to steal the show, winking cheekily at the camera, and the dancer plays frenzied air violin.
France; 20:25: a chanteuse in black sings something melancholic, over gentle minor-key piano and strings, imploring a lover to not forget her; projected behind her is a computer-generated wasteland, a metaphor for her forlorn love. Symbolism, and we're only two songs in. As the song wends to its climax, she gives it everything.
Israel; 20:29: Funky and muscular, in a boy-band sort of way, with Latin beats and middle-eastern violin in the chorus. It lifts the tempo a bit.
Estonia; 20:33: another faintly anguished male-female duet in overwrought minor key, like the musical equivalent of a Brazilian telenovela. I think the female vocalist actually cried towards the end; method acting.
UK; 20:37; the UK's entry this year calls itself Electro Velvet. Their shtick is a sort of MIDI-ragtime, underscored by a 4/4 house beat, and blinking LED costumes. This is what happens when steampunk electro-swing gets diluted for mainstream consumption, I guess.
Armenia; 20:41; six musicians, of Armenian heritage, all from different continents. Figures in black cloaks standing in the mist over projected celtic knotwork. The music itself doesn't live up to the witchy visuals, instead sounding like a Whitney Houston B-side, with the obligatory chugging power guitar riffs kicking in in the choruses.
Lithuania; 20:45; I think this one could be in with a chance; it's a catchy, inoffensive pop number, with little about it that is odd or weird in any way.
Serbia; 20:49; a Classic Eurovision Power Ballad, which halfway through, casts off its costumes and turns into a hi-NRG disco stomper.
Norway; 20:53; “A Monster Like Me”; another for the Anguished Ballad genre; this one's quite subtly done. I think they're also in with a shot.
Sweden; 20:58; another song which starts introspective and explodes into a stomping hands-in-the-air club anthem. Also a strong contender.
Cyprus; 21:03; a chap in 1950s-style glasses singing over an absentee guitar accompaniment. The way they break it down and bring it back up is quite subtle, though this may be too inoffensive to win.
21:06; and here comes Australia, who, by rights, shouldn't be there, and who are represented by former reality-TV contestant Guy Sebastian, who comes across as a bargain-basement Bruno Mars; the brass in the song is also a bit reminiscent of Uptown Funk. I'm not going to bet on it winning, but if there's any justice (and there isn't in Eurovision), it'll get more votes than the UK.
Belgium; 21:11; the singer looks about 14; Belgium's entry is a minimal affair, all black and white and a sparse electronic beat.
Austria; 21:14; Austria's The Makemakes, not to be confused with Australia's The Fuck Fucks; though to be fair, it'd be difficult to get the two mixed up. The Makemakes are soulful piano-driven soft rock, though to their credit, they do set the piano on fire halfway through the song. Also, I wonder if they chose a guy with long hair and stubble on purpose.
Greece; 21:20; a sequined blonde lungsmith brings the minor-key melodrama, with her ballad of emotional anguish, One Last Breath
Montenegro; 21:25; the second song not in English today (after France); by coincidence, its title, Adio, means goodbye in both French and Montenegrin, the language it is sung in. Balkan strings and stomping beats are the order of the day. It's a well-crafted Eurobanger, which should do better than it probably will.
Germany; 21:28; Germany exports most of the world's electronic music software, and quite a bit of it undoubtedly ended up in the production of this number. It could do well.
Poland; 21:32; no saucy milkmaids this time; instead, an understated minor-key piano ballad which is actually quite decent. The singer, Monika Kuzynska, is a former professional pop star whom a car accident left in a wheelchair; during the middle of the song, screens on the side of the stage show black and white footage of her earlier career.
Latvia; 21:36. “Love Injected” is the title of this song; perhaps it sounds more appropriate in Latvian. The song itself starts off as glitchy electropop, though soars into torch-song territory in the chorus, as per the Eurovision rules, before a wonky breakdown. Not bad.
Romania; 21:41; the third non-English-language song, peformed by veteran Romanian band Voltaj, shares its title with an abandoned children's charity the band supports. The suitcases on the stage underscore this connection, marking the band out as Good Guys, which is probably just as well, as with his bald head, goatee and all-black wardrobe, the frontman looks like a Satanic film villain. The song is a competent number, and the emotional angle and production may work in its favour.
Spain; 21:44; urgent strings, percussion, capes and a bare-chested male dancer; this is (part of) what Eurovision is about. Should do well.
Hungary; 21:49; Hungary's chanteuse swapped her unpronounceable-in-English name for her nickname, which is, perhaps unfortunately, Boggie. The song never gets beyond a simple guitar accompaniment and some platitudes vaguely about war and injustice.
Georgia; 21:53; from peace to war, Georgia's entry is titled “Warrior”, and starts with smoke, lightning-like strobes and thunderous drums. The singer appears on stage attired in what looks like crow feathers, fixing the camera with her gaze. It's almost as if Björk's Hunter were a Eurovision number.
Azerbaijan; 21:57; more mist and moonlight in the near east; this time, an earnest young man sings his heart out as two dancers gyrate in the smoke-machine fog. The song's title is Hour Of The Wolf, which is perhaps more dramatic than the song itself.
Russia; 22:01; quite slickly produced, and likely to do well; Russia presumably really want to win, partly to make up for the humiliation of having been indirectly responsible for last year's victory. The song itself is fairly neutral, though the theme (a million voices singing in unison) could, in some contexts, sound ominous.
Albania, 22:05 Strings, pounding drums, acoustic guitar and soaring female vocals; Eurovision-by-numbers.
Italy; 22:09 More operatic than most; a bit of Pavarotti, a bit of Mantovani and the inimitable style of Italian screen drama; the images of Roman statuary shrouded in smoke and flames underscores the classical drama, as three tuxedoed tenors belt it out.
22:54: and the votes are being tallied. First up is Montenegro. Serbia got douze, but that's to be expected.
22:56; Malta voted; the UK was saved from ignominy with one point, but Australia got six. I suspect Australia will do best from the countries it had many immigrants from. 22:57:; Finland voted, Sweden is leading, with Russia close behind.
22:58: Greece gives Australia five points; also not unexpected. Also look for strong Italian backing. Speaking of which, Italy is leading.
23:00; Sweden, Italy and Russia keep changing places at the top. Russia is leading.
23:05; looks like Russia will get it. Wonder whom they'll invade during next year's final. Perhaps Latvia, who only gave them 10 points?
23:08; Russia's vote is supposed to come up, but is met with boos. The announcer has to admonish the audience to refrain.
23:10; Australia gets 8 points from Denmark. They're at number 5, with 47 points. The UK, in contrast, has one point.
23:11; Australia gets a further 8 points from Switzerland, and has now overtaken Belgium.
23:17; Sweden just gave Australia douze points, taking them to 79
23:19; and Australia votes, represented by cult icon Lee Lin Chin. Sweden gets the douze. The UK gets bugger all. At the halfway mark, Russia leads by some 14 points, with Sweden in second place.
23:26; Australia gets its second douze, from Austria.
23:27; Russia only got five points from Slovenia; Sweden got 12, being just nine shy of the top.
23:29; Russia only got six from Hungary, with Sweden getting 10, and Belgium the 12.
23:30; and here's Nigella with the UK's results. Russia gets six, Australia gets 10, and the 12 goes to Sweden, taking it to the slimmest of leads.
23:33; Lithuania has spoken; the other two Baltic states did well, and Sweden did as well. Russia got zilch.
23:36; now Sweden has a commanding lead, after the Russian vote collapsed in several countries. Ten countries to go.
23:38; Russia's vote comes up (this time for sure!), people boo. The Russian anchor chews the scenery: “Twelve points from Russia go to RUSSIA! Just kidding”
23:40 Looks like Eurovision will be in Stockholm next year.
23:42 Australia gets 8 points from Iceland; is comfortably holding on to number 5. Sweden's lead extends further.
23:43 Cyprus; Russia gets only two, and Greece only eight.
23:44 And Sweden has it. Grattis på din Eurovisionseger.
23:49 And the final tally is: Sweden 365, Russia 303, Italy 292; Australia is at number 5 with 196. The UK, meanwhile, languished third from last, with five points; only France (four points) and the two German-speaking countries, with nul points between them, were below it. Which is hardly surprising, given that the UK appears to be averse to be seen to be taking Eurovision seriously. Being one of the funding members, the UK's place in the final is guaranteed; and so, the UK plays the thick posho of the Eurovision scene; the rich kid who isn't particularly good at anything, but has never had to be, because of their privilege, and consequently regards everything with an air of condescending boredom. This does not go down well with the other European nations; meanwhile, their earnestness appears irredeemably naff from across the Channel.
Australia, however, gets Eurovision in a way that Britain, ostensibly in Europe, or at least anchored off the coast of it, though not of it, doesn't. Perhaps for the same reason that Australia gets coffee in a way that eluded the UK until a decade or so ago. Because more of Australia's cultural DNA comes from the Continent, via a few waves of mass migrations, diffused via the SBS TV network; a sort of Australian proto-Channel 4, only initially set up to show news and programming from the home countries of migrants, and eventually imbuing a proportion of Australians of all backgrounds with an appreciation of everything from Krimis to giallo. At some point, SBS started broadcasting a delayed feed of Eurovision on the Sunday following the final, and this eventually became an excuse for a party. Unlike in the UK, the subject was not regarded with sniffy disdain; perhaps there was no need to defensively stand apart from the Europeans as, on the other side of the world, nobody would mistake you for one, or perhaps it's a sort of Neighbours/Eastenders contrast between sunny, easygoing (if, arguably, at times naïve) cheer on one hand, with an eeyorish, beaten-down misery and/or barely repressed anger on the other.
In any case, for whatever reason, the EBU invited Australia to participate, strictly as a one-off, and Australia, fielding a reality-TV contestant, came a respectable fifth, with almost 40 times as many points as the Old Country. Australia has thrashed the Poms this way before, but this usually took place on a cricket oval. And this was with a reality-TV contestant; think of what Australia could have done if they made more of an effort, and sent its real talent. Like, say, TISM, or Regurgitator, or the musician who played the Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road. Of course, this was a one-off, and Australia will not be participating in Eurovision again; unless, of course, whoever makes the rules up as they go along decide to invite them back.
The results of Eurovision 2014 are in, and, as reported here, the big winner was Austria's Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag performer, with a resolute and melodramatic torch song titled Rise Like A Phoenix. Wurst (whose real name is Tom Neuwirth) won a runaway victory, with 290 points and a string of 12s, including ones from countries who might otherwise haver found a bearded drag performer too transgressive. The runner-up was the Netherlands, 52 points behind with a rather nice piece of slow-burning Americana.
2014 was arguably the most geopolitically charged Eurovision Song Contest in years, if not decades; the kitschy music equivalent of the World Chess Championship of 1972, in that, within its formalised, tightly circumscribed arena, the tensions of an active geopolitical fault line manifested themselves. As back then, the fault line was between the West and Russia, only the ideologies and alignments were different.
One thing that was evident was a collapse of Russia's public image at Eurovision; no longer were they another country in friendly competition; they were the enemy, the face of oppression. Their performers (two teenaged girls who, to be fair, probably had little to do with the invasion of Crimea or anti-gay laws) were booed, as was their announcer during the voting, or the few instances of other countries, mostly former Soviet satellite states, giving Russia douze points. Also telling were the low scores which Russia got; whereas in the past, states bordering Russia or containing large Russian-speaking populations (as most former Soviet republics did, thanks to Stalin's population transfer programmes) could be counted on to give Mother Russia a solid vote, this largely seemed to collapse. This seems to support reports of a schism between ethnic Russian minorities in countries such as the Baltic states and the state of Russia, with many Russian-speaking citizens of other countries deciding that their feelings for their linguistic homeland don't translate into loyalty to an aggressive authoritarian regime.
An obvious proximate cause of this collapse was the Ukrainian crisis; within days of the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia annexing the Crimea and making threatening noises at the rest of Ukraine (and some to say Finland, the Baltic States or even Alaska may be next in the hungry Red Bear's sight). Finally, the half-hearted pretence that Russia was a democracy (albeit a managed one, like, you know, Singapore or someone) and a member in good standing of the community of peaceful, cooperative nations was discarded for good, and a more brutal, Hobbesian order asserted itself for all to see. And no longer shackled by the need to feign liberalism or tolerance, Russia has been moving as rapidly at home as it has abroad; just this week, a law requiring bloggers to register with the government has been passed.
Russia's anti-gay laws, and the tacitly state-sanctioned persecution of gay Russians by vigilante groups had already been on the radar, particularly in the context of Eurovision (which, whilst not specifically a gay event, has always had a strong gay following, because camp). The disproportionately harsh prosecution of Pussy Riot, whilst attracting less criticism in more conservative countries, didn't do Russia any favours either, and the gradual closing down of opposition media and occasional unsolved murders of journalists did not make for an optimistic mood. Recently, these elements have been converging to form an image not of a country struggling with democracy and pluralism, but one governed by an ideology which holds these ideas in contempt as signs of weakness, a country where closing itself off against the outside world. The ideology of Putin's Russia is what they call the Russkaya ideya (Russian Idea), or sometimes “Eurasianism” or “National Bolshevism”; explicitly anti-liberal, mystical rather than rationalistic, strongly authoritarian and hostile to foreign influences. The ideology is new, though it is synthesised from a strain of absolutism that has existed in Russia, in one form or another, since the time of the Czars: the State being at the centre of things (the “unique state-government civilisation” that is Russia, according to its ideologues), and all power flowing from it. Even the Russian Orthodox Church, with its enhanced influence in the new order, is subordinate to the state; in Russia, God serves the Czar.
It is not clear whether, had Russia kept its troops within its borders, paid lip service to liberalism and pluralism and not said anything about gays and “traditional values”, Conchita Wurst would have won, certainly by such a large margin; her song was good, in a Bond-theme sort of way, but not overwhelmingly superior to everything else. The Netherlands' entry (which came second), for example, was quite good, and there was a sentimental case for giving the gong to Sweden, it being the 40th anniversary of ABBA winning and all. (Sweden's entry was in the good-but-not-memorable Eurovision standard basket, which, geopolitics notwithstanding, might well have sufficed.) Undoubtedly some of the douze points Austria got were a vote not so much for the music but for what it represented and, perhaps more importantly, against what an endorsement of it represented a rejection of.
With liberalism as anathema to this new cult of Holy Russia, Eurovision has been in its sights for a while; Russian legislators have condemned it since last year, and there are calls to set up a rival one, one with firmly enforced “traditional values”. (This wouldn't be the first time something similar happened; during the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact countries briefly attempted to run a song contest to rival Eurovision; it was held in Poland, and was by all accounts a ramshackle affair. Interestingly, neutral Finland participated in both Eurovision and it.) In any case, Conchita Wurst's resounding victory will probably do little to calm the situation, but is likely to embolden those in Russia calling for restrictions on such foreign imports. (Their proposed solution, to omit the offending song in Russia, would be forbidden under EBU rules; some years ago, Lebanon ended up dropping out of Eurovision because the rules did not permit it to ban its citizens from voting for Israel.) It would be unsurprising if Russia (and perhaps some politically dependent states like Belarus) are notably absent from next year's contest, and the new cultural iron curtain becomes slightly more opaque.
Another interesting consequence may be that of Russia ending up owning a certain type of reactionary conservatism, making it less palatable abroad, and forcing conservatives in eastern Europe to choose between siding with the Great Bear across the border or siding with the gays and feminists within their own borders, establishing a geopolitical schism much like the Cold War one, only this time with elements of the Right rather than the Left being beholden to Moscow. We are already seeing admiration for Putin from the envious beta-males of the populist Right, from UKIP in Britain to teabaggers in America; if Russia succeeds in establishing a “Conservative International“ (along the lines of Stalin's Comintern) and drawing like-minded reactionaries and authoritarians abroad into its orbit, we may soon see Alexander Dugin's books on Eurasianism (in English translation, from a state-run publishing house in Moscow) alongside the Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises and Bill O'Reilly that fill the reading lists of the right-wing fringe.
Well, that time of year is upon us again; that's right, it's the Eurovision final, this time coming from Copenhagen, and presented by Kaspar Juul from Borgen.
Eurovision is, paradoxically, a bigger thing in Australia than the UK; some of that is undoubtedly due to there having been mass immigration from continental Europe to Australia in the mid-20th century, and an infrastructure of ethnic broadcasting set up during Australia's progressive era, which ended up priming the public to better get Europe. In contrast, in the UK, Europe seems paradoxically further away, being something that one feels obliged to put some distance—as much as possible, really—between oneself and. The UK is technically part of Europe but half resents its place there (as a glance at any British tabloid newspaper will show) and in any case feels a bit above all those ridiculous garlic-eaters across the Channel and their daft customs. In that there may be a sense of insecurity; the continent is perhaps regarded much as the class beneath one's own is, as something which one is at risk of being categorised in by observers if one doesn't do a good enough job of distinguishing oneself from it.
Were I in Melbourne, I would probably be at a Eurovision party. (Actually, were I in Melbourne, I would probably be asleep, and going to a Eurovision party some 18 hours later, but I digress.) In the UK, I have only been to one Eurovision party over the past almost ten years here, and that was a somewhat sedate affair compared with the ones back home, with more filling out of scorecards. One won't find any respectable local pub airing Eurovision on their big screen, and the handful of bars that do sell tickets, hire performers to hype the crowd up and otherwise double down on the kitsch, to the point where the activities in the pub drown out the actual contest on TV. I am told that this is not the case on the Continent; that you can't throw a currywurst in Berlin without hitting a Kneipe that's showing Eurovision. However, being neither on the continent nor in possession of sufficient articles of sequinned clothing, here I am on a sofa in North London with an iPad and a laptop, watching it and liveblogging about it. This post will be updated as things happen.
20:03: And here come the BMX Ninjas.
20:14: And here's Kaspar. And was that an inflatable boxing kangaroo being waved above the audience?
20:19: Ukraine's entry sounds like the filler from a Mariah Carey album in the early 90s, or an off-brand Whitney Houston substitute. Meanwhile, neighbouring Belarus's effort seems to be syncopated R&B from deep in the Uncanny Valley.
20:34: Azerbaijan seem to be quite into visual effects. Their intro video was an interesting use of light painting, and the background projections were pretty nifty (though the gothic cathedral graphics didn't look very typically Azeri). The song, a tasteful piano ballad that almost survived the belted vocals, seemed to have been sourced from Scandinavian songwriters.
Was that Skögafoss in Iceland's intro video? Anyway, their number was fun; colourful costumes and a lot of energy. Slightly trite subject matter, but that all goes with the territory.
20:36: Norway had a tattooed dude singing a morose yet soporific number in a minor key; a bit of a downer, and I suspect it won't do spectacularly well, but I could be wrong. Romania seem to have entered the usual Eurodance ballad, with 90s rave synth presets galore and gratuitous high-note hitting. Their intro video was clever; reflections of fireworks on water to form the Romanian flag.
20:41: Armenia going from generic piano-balladry to NIN-lite industrial-glitch with cinematic strings.
20:44: And Montenegro brings a Slavic take on My Heart Will Go On, right down to the tin whistle. The projection-mapped sparkles from the rollerblader's skates are aa nice touch, though. I wonder whether they're added to the broadcast or actually appear under the glass floor?
20:47: And here's Poland's answer, whose gist seems to be “Slavic girls are hot”. They even sing the third verse in English for those whose Polish isn't too good. Inauthentic folk costumes and a Missy Elliott-styled backing track.
20:51: Here comes Greece, with its London-raised rapper toasting over a fairly standard Eurodance backing. Also, a trampoline.
21:01: And here is Austria's entry, fronted by bearded drag performer Conchita Wurst; whose presence caused the Russians to demand a boycott or the right to ban Austria from their broadcast. I'm guessing that they didn't get it, given that Russia's still in the running. Lebanon famously had to pull out some years ago as they couldn't get their demand to ban their citizens for voting for Israel. Mind you, Russia is not Lebanon; it'll be interesting to see if this very camp and distinctly non-straight performance will be aired in Russia; the EBU may have to slap the Russian state broadcaster's wrist if they don't.
Anyway, Austria's performance was a classic torch song; poignant and melodramatic. Meanwhile, neighbouring Germany has three ladies with a double bass and an accordion. The singer is another soul/gospel belter in the Carey/Houston vein.
21:13: Sweden seems to be in with a chance; a somewhat conservative choice, but well executed. Conservatism, however, is not a chance one can make against France this year; they've eschewed the customary white-gowned-lady-and-grand-piano in favour of three zany dudes clowning around and rapping (in French) about being unable to grow a moustache, over a nicely varied dance beat. Whether that puts them behind or ahead of the hipster zeitgeist is up for debate.
And more twins, this time from Russia, this time female and with hair tied together. The set they're standing on looks like a temporary bridge (possibly a reference to the annexation of the Crimea?); anyway, I suspect that they might do as badly, through no fault of their own, as Britain did in the wake of the Iraq War.
21:18: Italy probably wins the most-appetising-intro-video award. Their song, meanwhile, is vaguely rock-styled, in a slightly 1980s way. Lots of white jeans and flying-V guitars; and golden laurel leaves.
21:28 Slovenia's entry seems fairly generic, in that off-brand-Roxette-knockoff vein that is part of the Eurovision formula, though the singer plays her own flute. Finland has a band that look like what
21:40 Switzerland are in the running for the most-innovative-intro-video gong. Their actual song was a sort of quasi-Mumfordian dance-pop. Hungary, meanwhile, has a half-American singer whose father was a soul singer who worked with Lou Reed. This guy can sing. And then the chorus breaks into 1990s-vintage jungle beats.
21:42: Malta are doing Uplifting Soulful Folk. Great Cthulhu help us.
21:50 Denmark get points for the song title (Cliché Love Song) and for the use of forced perspective in the intro video. The song itself stays in the pop formalism, winking through the fourth wall; it's self-aware kitsch. It doesn't come anywhere near the realms of the sublime that Eurovision touches at its best, but then again, this year hasn't so far been a good year for that; no monster metal, Romanian vampire opera or other heavy weirdness.
21:53 The Netherlands have a tasteful piece of slow-burning Americana. It's pleasant and not overwrought, and thus probably won't do well. Nonetheless, in terms of songcraft, it is a particularly nice example.
21:55 San Marino? Ah, San Marino; one of those weird tiny European enclave-states. Anyway, their song is pretty standard Eurovision fare.
21:57: And here comes the United Kingdom's entry; the intro video, of course, was made of Routemasters. The song, meanwhile, is a welcome improvement on the usual half-arsed fare Britain sends in. We might just finish in the top half of the rankings after all.
22:12: And, in the break, the Danish sense of humour manifests itself, in a humorous ditty, embodying every Eurovision cliché, about the number 12 (the maximum score a country can get), which kept segueing into a song about China, for some obscure in-joke-related reason. This was followed by a contribution from Malta's Junior Eurovision champion, an 11-year-old whose voice is, unfortunately, not quite as melodious as it is powerful.
22:45: Anyway, the votes are starting to trickle in. First in is Azerbaijan. Austria and Poland got 1 and 2 respectively; seems sexuality, either homo- or hetero-, aren't vote-winners over there. Russia bagged 12, followed by Ukraine, unsurprisingly; when Russia's douze points was announced, boos could be heard. Austria made up for it with 12 from Greece.[...]
A few thoughts about Eurovision 2013 (which I watched slightly later than most people, having had prior commitments on Saturday evening):
- Firstly, Romania were robbed. Their entry (Klaus Nomi Dracula doing giallo eurodance with a dubstep breakdown) was, in my opinion, by far the best of the night, and barely ended up in the first half of the chart. It ended up considerably behind Moldovan Volcano Dress Lady (whose sets were impressive, though) and Belgian Justin Bieber (who was pretty weak tea).
- It's amazing how Russia can manage to make a saccharine song about world peace sound vaguely threatening.
- Bonnie Tyler's song for the UK was a bit bland (as someone else called it, “total eclipse of her art”). She also seemed to be heavily medicated on stage, as if wincing through a haze of painkillers. (The sacrifices one makes for one's country?) The UK didn't come anywhere close to winning, though managed to get the votes of half a dozen or so countries and scrape a respectable middle of the bottom half of the board, which, by UK standards, is good. Last place went to Ireland, whose entry, as far as eurodance balladry with taiko drumming go, was quite good.
- The intro video for the show showed a caterpillar travelling from Baku to Malmö, hitching rides on hot-air balloons (the dominant form of transport in Azerbaijan, not counting bleak Soviet-era trains or oligarchs' limousines), boats, mopeds and trains. The winner this year was Denmark, with a polished but conventional number. Which means that the intro video for next year's one will be a lot shorter, involving only a crossing of the Öresund Bridge.
- The bits between the songs, laid on by the Swedish hosts, were quite entertaining; at about half time, they had a local comedienne playing what is apparently a popular Swedish TV character, Ebulliently Clueless British Lady. After the songs, there was a humorously self-deprecating musical number about Swedish culture, which was quite entertaining. Coupled with the video “postcards” introducing songs being about the entrants' countries, not the many glorious facets of the host country, the overall effect was a lot different from the meticulously polished and vaguely authoritarian spectacles presented by ex-Soviet host nations. A lot more lågom and less arriviste.
Some takeaways from Eurovision 2012:
- Azerbaijan's Eurovision budget seems to have run out some time after the building of the stadium; hence the reused footage in the interstitial tourism ads they show between songs. But, as they are proud to inform us, they have electric light. And tea. And horses and horsemen. And, judging from the clips, Baku looks like quite a livable metropolis, as long as you're heterosexual and not inclined to take an unwelcome interest in the way you are governed. They're very proud of those flame towers, it would seem.
- This time, the UK seemed to have taken it seriously; rather than sending a few talent-show contestants to demonstrate what a joke they think the whole thing is, they sent veteran crooner Engelbert Humperdinck. As was pointed out, Humperdinck was older not only than most if not all of the other contestants, but than 22 of the countries competing as well. His song was actually not bad, and he performed well. He came second-last; some said it had to do with Britain drawing the shortest straw and getting the first slot, and consequently being forgotten by the audiences, though it could just as well be residual antipathy to Britain in Eurovision.
- Last place went to Norway, who had a fairly average club-pop number sung by a buff young man of Iranian heritage. Its main value was probably in annoying the Iranian theocracy, which is Azerbaijan's southern neighbour and has issued statements condemning Azerbaijan for hosting a “gay parade”. Of course, the odds of there being an actual gay parade in Azerbaijan are next to non-existent, though compared with its neighbour, it may well be edgily cosmopolitan.
- Norway's humiliation is compounded by the fact that the crown was taken by its neighbour and rival, Sweden. The Swedes entered a slick piece of dance-pop which had already topped the charts in half a dozen countries, though, which strikes me as a bit dodgy, at least in spirit, suggesting that, just as the Olympics has become a marketing exercise backed with SWAT teams and missile batteries, Eurovision is well on its way from being an endearingly amateurish exercise in peaceful cultural exchange to being a trade fair for the commercial pop music industries.
- If not the Swedes, who should have won? Well, Albania's entry (fronted by a female “experimental jazz singer” with a powerful voice) was good. Malta's entry deserved to end up somewhere higher than the arse-end of the rankings where it landed. And the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's entry combined melodramatic balladeering with chunky metal guitar riffs in the finest eastern-European Eurovision-contestant tradition.
- Ireland once again entered Jedward, who can be best described as if 1980s boy band Bros were played by toy trolls. This time, they were dressed in silver space/robot suits, which (perhaps in an appropriately regional touch) looked like something from one of those low-budget Turkish knock-offs of Star Wars or Star Trek. Though this didn't change the fact that both their song and performance were mediocre.
On the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest, Der Spiegel has a piece on a group of academics who are looking at what the competition says about European cultures:
Take the 2007 winner, Serbia's Marija Serifovic. Many interpreted her act to be that of a campy, butch lesbian, but Gluhovic argues that people in the East viewed it differently, noting that the song's title, "Molitva" ("prayer"), is almost the same word in many Slavic languages. Viewers in Prague, Zagreb or Moscow may have been more inclined to think of the song as a prayer for a Serbia where EU sanctions against the former Milosevic regime had only just been lifted.
One thing neither academic disputes is the fact that countries in Eastern Europe and far beyond are investing heavily in their Eurovision acts as a way of polishing their images abroad. From Kiev to Moscow to Baku, tens of millions of euros have been spent on campaigns to burnish their images at Eurovision. Two approaches have proven highly popular -- either attempts to "self-exoticize" a country's "Orientalness" or Eastern culture, or to bring in famous producers to emulate Western pop styles.And while new arrivals go for nouveau-riche glamour to make an impression, those closer in seek to tone their appearance down, to distance themselves from their arriviste neighbours, not unlike the English class system:
Despite all the exuberant performers, some new entrants take a conservative approach. Researchers working on the Eurovision 'New Europe' project have seen a trend in Poland in which the country eschews the more outlandish performances adopted by some of its neighbors in favor of more mainstream pop. "In terms of their look and the way they sound, they have a strategy of disidentification with the more exotic East, thereby claiming its position in the Central European cultural core and values." The strategy has been a loser in terms of votes, however.Meanwhile, there is the question of Eurovision's campness and function as a signifier of gay identity, particularly in places where open homosexuality is disapproved of or worse:
At times, she continues, Eurovision can be outrageous, and at others downright silly, which all plays into its camp appeal. And in the past, Eurovision was a "secret code or club" for being gay in countries like Ireland, where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993. "You had a secret and your friends had a secret and you had those parties every year," Fricker says.
More recently, Eurovision has underscored differences in acceptance of homosexuality in different parts of Europe that give little reason to celebrate. When Belgrade hosted the contest in 2008, welcome packages for Eurovision attendees included warnings against displaying same-sex affection in a city that gets low marks for gay-friendliness. Moscow, which hosted in 2009, isn't exactly known as a bastion of tolerance either.Interestingly enough, in Australia, where Eurovision is broadcast most of a day later (a function of Australia having a lot of descendants of European migrants with connections to their old countries; the US, incidentally, doesn't have Eurovision, and Americans I've spoken to have found it befuddling, in the same way westerners see Japanese game shows), Eurovision isn't seen as a specifically gay thing, but rather a piece of kitsch to have a good laugh at with friends. This seems to be particularly common in the inner-city areas, populated by bohemians and avant-bourgeoisie who, thanks to SBS, have a finely tuned taste for Euro-kitsch.
Norway may now be paying the price for granting the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident (or enemy of the people, if you prefer) Liu Xiaobo; first an invitation for Norway's Eurovision-winning singer Alexander Rybak was withdrawn, and then, Norway's entrant in the Miss World beauty contest, held on Hainan Island, failed to place among the top five finalists, despite having been tipped as the odds-on favourite to win.
The Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet reported the opera's composer Thomas Stanghelle said the Chinese claimed it "wasn't possible" for them to co-operate with Norway or Norwegian artists at present. He said the reason given for the cancellation was that China wants to punish Norway over the awarding of the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo."
The Null Device's somewhat cursory impressions of Eurovision 2010 (two days late, due to your humble correspondent's hectic schedule; BBC iPlayer, it must be said, is very useful*):
Some of the strongest songs this year seemed to be coming from the Balkans, with Serbia, Greece and Turkey putting on strong performances and Romania having solid songwriting. (Serbia's use of Balkan brass got them points in my opinion; it's always good when a country's entry references its local musical traditions rather than merely sinking into the mire of generic power-balladry or Eurodance.) Germany's winning entry was OK, though not spectacular; there was an element of cabaret there, which most of the commentators seem to have missed, focussing on the singer's (not entirely convincing, IMHO) attempts at a Lily Allen-esque mockney accent. Norway, Belgium, Ireland and Belarus fulfilled the quota of syrupy kitsch, and Russia's somewhat ungainly performance scored somewhat of an own goal.
Britain, meanwhile, richly deserved its last place; while Britain is the world's second-biggest exporter of recorded music, its Eurovision entries are invariably lowest-common-denominator dross; even if they recruit commercially proven middlebrow hitmakers like Lord Lloyd-Webber and Sir Pete Waterman, the inherent British disdain for Eurovision as an institution seems to shine through. This year, they seem to have dusted off and reheated one of PWL's offcuts from the 1990s and gotten a plastic-faced 19-year-old to front it.
One thing I have noticed was that few songs' writers' names seem to be typical of the song's country; there seem to be a lot of Scandinavian names popping up, and the odd Anglo-Saxon one (though some of those could be pseudonyms chosen for commercial reasons). Cyprus did one better, by hiring an actual Welshman to front their entry.
* notwithstanding the inexplicable lack of an iPhone-formatted MPEG4 of the Eurovision final. In case you were wondering, Flash video playback on the Mac still sucks.
A man in Azerbaijan was recently interrogated by the National Security Ministry for having voted for the Armenians in the Eurovision Song Contest:
"They wanted an explanation for why I voted for Armenia. They said it was a matter of national security,” Nasirli said. “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like, 'You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?' They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go."It is not known whether the same treatment was dealt to the (exactly) 42 other Azeris who voted for Armenia.
This is not the first time that politics have clashed with Eurovision voting; some years ago, Lebanon withdrew from the contest because, to participate, they would have had to allow their citizens to vote for any contestants, including the Israeli ones.
There is now an Asiavision Song Contest. A company named Asiavision Pte. Ltd. (which sounds like they're based in Singapore) has licenced the Eurovision format, and the inaugural Asiavision Song Contest is expected in mid-2009.
"The format is highly suited to the Asia region and its people who love popular music and have a strong national pride", says Andreas Gerlach, CEO of Asiavision Pte. Ltd. "Asia today is all about competition, economically and politically. The Song Contest is a friendly competition between cultures. Like in Europe, the universal language of music will help to bring people closer together and nurture mutual understanding in the region," Gerlach believes.
The annual song contest is planned to be a six-month regional and national tournament culminating in the Grand Final. The song contest will be distributed in the following countries: China, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Macao, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Targeting the most populous region in the world with more than three billion people the show has a potential audience of over 500 million viewers. A number of broadcasters have indicated their desire to be the Host Broadcaster for the first ever Asiavision Song Contest.Australia is notable by its absence from this list, and presumably won't be sending competitors there. I imagine that Australians will continue to watch Eurovision (broadcast on the Sunday after, due to time differences), often having parties to do so. Whether Asiavision will get broadcast there (i.e., whether SBS will pick it up or it'll be confined to some ethnic-interest cable channel) remains to be seen.
So that was Eurovision for another year; Russia took home the first prize with a rather ordinary ballad (in English, produced by the famous Russian R&B producer Jim Beanz), followed by Ukraine and Greece, with equally cheesy and uninteresting tracks. The highest of the not-entirely-boring tracks was Azerbaijan's angels-and-devils ballad at #8, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina's inspiredly surreal piece at #10. Latvia's (Swedish-written, English-speaking) pirates came in at #12, Spain's toy-guitar-wielding mentalist took #16, France's Sebastien Tellier turned #19 (though, to be fair, he didn't seem too comfortable with his new role as chanteur), and Croatia's folk-chanson accordionists and cranky old man were at #21, one step ahead of Finland's heavy-metal berzerkers. Meanwhile, the UK came in last, despite their entry being less piss-takingly laughable than the previous two years'. (In fact, one of the UK's best showings in recent years was Daz Sampson, the middle-aged bloke pretending unconvincingly to be a teenage hip-hop gangsta; figure that one out.)
And Sir Terry Wogan has said he may quit doing the commentary, in protest against the blatantly politicised bloc voting and Eurovision being "no longer a music contest".
Tonight will be Eurovision 2008, that annual spectacle of kitsch, histrionics, cultural misunderstandings and political skulduggery. There are 25 entrants this year, the videos of whose entries the BBC has kindly hosted on its web site.
As a public service to those following the competition, The Null Device has provided a handy table of the salient qualities of these entrants:
So that was Eurovision 2007. A bit of a surprise; the Serbian entry which won it seemed rather lacklustre compared to some of the others, but romped home in the voting, presumably due to Serbia being located in a geographical/demographical sweet spot. Interestingly enough, Eastern Europe dominated the voting, with the highest-scoring western-European nation being well in the bottom half of the rankings.
There were a few highlights: Georgia's entry started off as a traditional torch song by a woman in a red dress, but then morphed into eurodance, and then the dancers whipped out swords and started dancing about, Cossack-fashion, with a wild glint in their eyes. France eschewed the usual white-gowned piano balladeer in favour of a troupe of Dadaist mimes in Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes, highlighting the ridiculous side of Gallic culture. (Fat lot of good it did them, they ended up something like third-last. I guess it's back to the chanteuse and pianist next year.) Romania's entry was a bit like France's on a budget; five blokes dressed like the habitués of a slightly unsavoury tavern, singing "I love you" in every language on earth. The music was vaguely gypsyish, and sped up dramatically towards the end. Neighbouring Bulgaria's started off like Dead Can Dance with extra percussion, and then went electro. And, of course, there was Ukraine's entry, with its sequined, uniformed drag queen, looking like Elton John crossed with Austin Powers. It had camp and kitsch in spades, and raised a few questions. What, for example, was the significance of them counting in German, and did they really sing "I want to see Russia goodbye", and if so, how did that make it past the vetting process?
The lowlight was probably Ireland's entry, which was pure, unadulterated Celtic kitsch of the most obvious variety, and quite deserving of its final position at the bottom of the board. This year, though, nobody got a nul points, and they limped home with 3 points or somesuch. Britain did a bit better, largely thanks to Malta giving them 12, though their song was stuck firmly in the mid-1990s. And the teeth on that stewardess were frightening; granted, Scooch, as uninspired as they may be, were a lot less cringeworthy than last year's entrant (a middle-aged bloke pretending to be a teenage hip-hop street thug, surrounded by dancing "schoolgirls" who, apparently, were borrowed by Turkey this year). And I'd have to give a dishonourable mention to Russia, whose entry was a piece of soullessly machine-extruded commercial pop, trading on sex appeal (sample lyric from the three immaculately coifed girls doing the singing: "put a cherry on my cake and taste my cherry pie"; ooh-err!) lacking any of the madness or wrongness that makes for an interesting Eurovision entry.
The other competitors: Belarus (incidentally, the last remaining state with a KGB) had black-clad female dancers scaling walls like assassins and John Barry-esque strings over its power ballad. The full might of the Swedish culture industry was unleashed in the form of 1970s glam rock attired in monochromatic retro cool. Latvia's entry was in Italian, and like a low-rent version of The Divs. Germany had a bloke named Roger Cicero (son of Herr und Frau Cicero, I presume) doing a Sinatra-lite swing number, in German. Armenia's entrant seemed to follow, stylistically, in the footsteps of that other great Armenian singer, Charles Aznavour, only with an overwroughtly woeful and somewhat strained ballad. And Turkey's entrant was a short, hirsute man wearing a red jacket and a broad grin, surrounded by belly dancers Terry Wogan persisted in pointing out were British. Presumably giving the United Kingdom something to be proud of even should they have ended up with nul points.
While some speculated that Lordi's astounding triumph last year (reprised in the Lord-of-the-Rings-esque opening video) would have opened the door for a flood of hard-rock/heavy-metal bands, this did not entirely come to pass. Finland followed up their win with a new genre, which could be dubbed, Tolkienesquely, MOR-Goth, consisting of torch songs with emo-esque lyrics and plenty of black clothing and gothic makeup. The other main Lordi-influenced act was Moldova, whose song sounded like the sort of alternative-rock song that ended up on Hollywood action-film soundtracks in the late 1990s; all minor-key strings, crunchy metal power chords and drum loops.
The promotional videos played before the musical numbers were done quite well, executed as whimsical stories featuring elements of Finnish culture. Some of the odder ones featured a goth riding a rollercoaster, hackers coding computer demos at the Assembly festival, a heavy-metal festival full of corpsepainted teenagers, a troupe of clowns giving an athlete an instant makeover so he could enter a restaurant, a twattish-looking bloke in DJ headphones playing the pipes at the Sibelius monument, and Santa Claus playing chess with one of the Moomins. Oh, and lots of mobile phones (Nokia, of course); the Finns, it seems, use them at the dinner table, and even propose marriage with the help of their cameraphones. Other than mobile phones, heavy metal appears to be a big part of the Finnish national identity; other than the promos, there was the entertainment during the vote-counting break, which featured the heavy-metal string quartet Apocalyptica, as well as acrobats.
Last but not least, one has to mention the astonishing phenomenon that is Krisse, the somewhat frightening-looking young woman with the pink puffer jacket and big ponytails plucked from the audience to interview competitors, stumbling through questions and going on about herself (sample question: "on a scale of 9 to 10, how beautiful am I?"). For some reason, she reminded me of Leoncie.
The European Broadcasting Union is threatening to bar Israel's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest because of its "political" lyrics. The song, "Push The Button" by Teapacks, appears to allude to suicide bombings and/or the threat of Iranian nuclear attacks, and possibly mention Israel's nuclear weapons in somewhat ambiguous tones.
The words of the song - in English, French and Hebrew, - have already been interpreted as addressing fears of a strike by Iran as well as attacks by Palestinian militants. In one verse the band sing: "The world is full of terror/ If someone makes an error/ He's gonna blow us up to biddy biddy kingdom come/ There are some crazy rulers they hide and try to fool us/ With demonic, technologic willingness to harm."The lyrics (well, the English ones) are reproduced; the article says it is "an occasionally Queen-like musical blend of rap, rock and more oriental sound", though in my mind, I can hear a faux-Jamaican accent.
The shortlist of potential UK Eurovision entrants has been announced. The UK could be represented by ironic cock-rocker Justin Hawkins, hip-hop group Big Brovaz, one of two former manufactured pop band members, or one of two newcomers. It is confirmed, though, that the British champion in the contest will not be Morrissey, Ace Of Base, nor anyone named Goth Opera. Nor, for that matter, last year's #19, middle-aged hoody Daz Sampson, about whom the semifinal presenter had this to say:
"I can't wait to see what tricks the acts have up their sleeves this time. Can anyone top DJ Daz's troupe of school girls?Actually, yes; it's quite likely that anyone can.
The Wikipedia page on this year's Eurovision Song Contest has some details about the UK's possible representatives:
Swedish act Ace Of Base have expressed an interest in representing the UK in Helsinki, however this has been denied on their official website, along with a denial that they were even asked by SVT (Sweden) or the BBC (UK).. Also the Norwegian drag act Queentastic  and the 2006 UK Representative Daz Sampson (who will be dueting with Carol Decker) have also expressed an interest in participation. A group from Devon, Goth Opera want to enter a song this year with a song in protest to its move from a Devon country estate. None of these artists are confirmed by the broadcaster. The BBC have confirmed however, that Morrissey is in talks with the BBC about writing a song for the national final.Nice to see that Britain is maintaining the standards its entrants have become synonymous with over the years.
A few items from Music Thing: this account of one hip-hop head's attempt to recreate the talkbox sound à la Roger Troutman, with instructions on how to build your own talbox from an amp, a speaker, a plastic bowl and some plastic tubing.
And here is a disco-dancing lesson from a Finnish TV programme, with the instructor showing the moves and then demonstrating them to the sound of Dschingiz Khan's Moskau. Eurovision's in good hands.
(via Music Thing)
America may soon have its own Eurovision-style song contest. Of course, with America being, in its own eyes, the extent of the world, the contest will be between the 50 states. And since the states don't have their own national broadcasters, it will be run by commercial TV network NBC. In other words, it will probably turn out like American Idol or something, with little of the cross-cultural weirdness that makes Eurovision the kitschfest it is; expect to see big-haired Christians from down south, the odd multiply-pierced freak from San Francisco and a lot of standard saccharine ballads/MTV-style R&B-pop with perhaps a bit of local colour thrown in (that'd be banjo picking or tex-mex or perhaps the odd Celtic Mood, and not Balkan folk melodies or anything quite so leftfield), not to mention an excess of the sort of cloying earnestness America leads the world in.
Is anybody else reminded of this Onion article by the idea?
Finland's metal monsters ran away with Eurovision, winning it with 292 points; a lead of 44. The runners-up were: Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania and Sweden.
The bottom 3 were: France, Israel and Malta, with Malta
being the only ones to get nul getting one mercy point from Albania. I guess eyebrows just don't do it.
Lordi are taking to the stage, kissing the Greco-American woman, holding up the prize and giving a mighty roar, and getting back on stage with a reprise of their winning song as the credits roll.
And now we come to the voting, a display of national rivalries and political horse-trading set in front of picture-postcard backdrops.
Finland's leading the voting handsomely; the screen showed a bunch of fans in KISS-army/monster makeup celebrating.
The Cypriot representative was blatantly political, announcing that he's voting from "the only divided capital in Europe", and delivering the 12 points, in song, to Greece.
Anyway, we're about halfway through the vote, and I'm calling this one for Finland (leading 163, with Russia following with 137). Eurovision 2007 will be coming to you from Helsinki.
The Turkish entry involved a woman with extremely bleached hair, singing from deep in her throat over a funky-disco backing track.
And Armenia has a chap in a sequined hoody surrounded by girls with long ponytails like the anti-Daz Sampson. Apparently he's singing in English, though you can't really tell. And now they're doing a bondage routine with black tape.
The Greek woman hosting the show sounds extremely American, both in her accent and the exuberantly bubbly way in which she says that everything is "amazing". If you had a shot every time she said the word "amazing", you'd be catatonic by the end of the night.
And here comes Nana Mouskouri in a flowing white robe and her trademark geek-chic glasses.
I don't know about you, but Lordi get my vote; the Latvians would have been my second preference.
Ireland's entry is fairly boring; just a well-coiffed gent in a suit singing banalities about every song being a cry for love or something. Bland and inoffensive and guaranteed to be impossible to laugh at, and thus to be easily forgotten.
And Sweden's entry follows the national tradition of sounding like ABBA. This year, they're ripping off "The Winner Takes It All". The singer has a Christian symbol inscribed on her bicep in black texta and scarily white teeth. I am told that she won Eurovision for Sweden in 1991, and then ended up joining some kind of Christian sect. That makes two representatives of fringe religious groups so far.
Have a guess what the French entry was like. They were a hardcore pirate-punk band. No, I lie. It was a lady in a long frock singing a ballad.
Croatia has resisted the temptation to do Eurodance/R&B/international saccharine ballads, and have a folky number, with dancers in national costume, a chap playing a ukelele with a bow (shades of Sigur Rós there?) and a funny-looking woman in a red frock. Did she really just sing "Afrika Paprika"?
And Greece's entry is Bonnie Tyler trapped in Anastacia's body, and a rather unique costume.
And here comes Finland, with the mighty Lordi doing "Hard Rock Hallelujah". They're a bunch of blokes in sci-fi monster/alien latex costumes doing a somewhat tongue-in-cheek metal-pop, replete with unusually comprehensible Cookie Monster vocals. Check out the impressive bat wings on the lead singer (that's the chap raising the battle axe towards the sky). I am informed that Lordi are a mainstream pop radio fixture in Finland.
Ukraine, meanwhile, have Eurodance with cossack dancing.
Lithuania are on now. Their entry is a bunch of guys in suits doing a football chant going "We are the winners of Eurovision, we are we are!", with megaphones, over a muscular backing track, strutting around and dancing spasmodically. I think they're meant to be a comedy act.
And here comes the UK, harnessing Chav Power with Daz "ASBO" Sampson, a balding neckless geezer in a yellow tracksuit top, doing a rap ballad about being a teenager, surrounded by dancers dressed as schoolgirls. It looks like it has been a long time since he has had a teenage life as well.
Russia had a mulleted, wifebeater-clad Glenn Medeiros impersonator named Dima Bilan doing a ballad, and a human statue emerging from a white piano.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is jumping on the hip-hop-dancing bandwagon, with a Balkan melody and the power of cut-off denim shorts. As Terry Wogan said, "the legs have it"/
The Romanian number is a piece of high-energy eurodisco with the usual house beat, hoover presets/mid-90s dance-music sounds, ballet-style choreography and a few hamster squeals. It's technically not bad, and slightly less dated than the Russians' entry.
Oh, and the Latvian acapella act before was rather impressive. If this was a meritocracy, they'd be likely to win; Wogan said that they'll probably come last.
Your Humble Narrator is watching the Eurovision Song Contest. We're up to song 6 (Spain's Las Ketchup doing a number titled "Bloody Mary"; given that the chorus seems to go "Duty Free Duty Free Duty Free", I think it's about cheap booze).
The first few songs have been interesting enough. Moldova did a vaguely hip-hop-flavoured Latin-dance-pop number with choregoraphy that ventured across the line between raunchy and wrong. The Israeli entrant (by a black American member of some Black Hebrew sect or other) was a syrupy R&B ballad, partly in Hebrew, which may have been about world peace, Zionist nationalism or neither. The Swiss entry was 100% pure Eurofromage.
We're now on to the Maltese entry, a pumpin' disco number. Those are some serious eyebrows there. And now we've got some German banjo-pickin' country music, with a blonde singer and a Bert Newton lookalike wearing a cowboy hat. Yee-ha!
The contenders in this year's Eurovision contest look like a pretty varied bunch, a bit more eclectic than the usual generic Eurodance/R&B/Pepsi-pop. Finland is entering a black metal band with a song about Satan, the Icelandic contender reads more like Leoncie than Björk, and the UK is harnessing the power of the chav subculture by getting a street thug sans teeth to do a rap titled Teenage Life. The entire spectacle airs in the UK on the 20th (presumably with the usual arch commentary by Terry Wogan), and elsewhere at similar times.
Mulleted and mustached Molvanian pop idol Zladko "ZLAD!" Vladcik, tried to enter last year's Eurovision contest with his catchy retro synthpop ditty "Elektronik Supersonik", is back. His 2005 entry (also disqualified) is much darker, hearkening back to the perplexing 1980s European trend of minor-key synthpop songs referencing obscure religious heresies and points of theology. It is titled "I am the Anti-pope", and the video featured an ecclesiastically-garbed Zlad being whipped in slow motion by a goth chick in a nun's habit, who is also seen playing a keytar. Some sample lyrics:
I am the Anti-Pope.
I am the Anti-Pope.
Like a lion kills an antelope.
Like a hammer hits a cantaloupe.
Like a neck in a hanging rope.
Like a germ in a microscope.
Like a witch reads a horoscope.
Like a cutter stabs an envelope.
Eurovision flashback of the day; check out the funky costumes, headgear and facial hair; they're like something from some roller-disco in outer space. Apparently they're the ones who did that "Moskau" song too.
Eurodisco cheese of the day: Zladko "Zlad" Vladcik, "Elektronik - Supersonik", available with MP3 and video. This was Molvania's entry in the recent Eurovision song contest, and is somewhere between Ladytron and Mahir Cagri or something. I believe the Chaser/CNNNN people are behind this.
Eurovision explained, by a blogger/sociologist type. You know, I may have to watch/tape the replay next weekend.
The songs themselves have evolved in interesting ways. Diggi-loo Diggi-ley represents the high-point of the nonsense-chorus Eurovision song, designed to appeal to the multi-lingual audience. This lowest common denominator approach produced successes throughout the first thirty years of the contest, including such classics as Boom-Bang-a-Bang (UK), Ding Dinge Dong (Netherlands), A-ba-ni-bi (Israel) and of course Diggey-loo Diggi-ley. (I promise I am not making these up.)
The breakup of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union in the 1990s caused all kinds of problems for the contest (too many countries) but also injected a fresh dose of bad taste. Countries like Slovenia, Estonia and Romania can use odd native instruments to produce Euro-Heritage songs, and also have the advantage of being 10 or 20 years behind the rest of the world in terms of popular music genres.
Was the UK's catastrophic loss in the Eurovision contest the result of European resentment of Britain's strong ties to the U.S.? The Graun suggests it might be. But what is Britain (the birthplace of laissez-faire capitalism, spiritual home of the Anglosphere and to America what Greece was to Rome) doing hanging around with those cheese-eating communist surrender monkeys in the first place?
Perhaps this is a clear sign that a closer union between Britain and the E.U. is a bad idea, and Britain (most of whose economy is run from the U.S. anyway) doesn't belong amongst the Euroweenies and should, in the immortal words of Vanilla Ice, ditch the zero and get with the hero: sever its ties with Brussels, make the pound sterling a denomination of the Greenback and seek union with the mainland of America. (Mind you, chances are only the crackpot fringe of the Conservative Party would actually advocate that; Washington certainly wouldn't, as London is useful for relaying orders to Brussels where it is right now. Besides, if Britons got the vote in Congress, they may object to their island being used as a missile shield for the continental 48 states and such, or even push to abolish the death penalty, liberalise drug laws, restrict assault rifle ownership or do other such outlandishly un-American things. 59 million new Americans would tend to skew things quite a bit, and possibly even threaten the Republicans' winning streak.)