I know most of my readers are from North America, and will probably have little idea on the spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest every year. It is what it sounds like, a yearly gathering of singing sensations from Europe and its peripheral countries. But if you have so much as caught a glimpse of the competition, you’ll know that it has as much to do with displays of singing talents as Miss World has to do with the advancement of outer beauty.
Last year, I accidentally channel-surfed my way to Eurovision and the bitter sarcasm that poured out of Terry Wogan’s running BBC commentaries. Eurovision voting can be extremely political. Last year this time, with oil and gas prices running at an all-time high and Putin thumbing his nose at the US and his EU counterparts, practically every Eastern European and Balkan country attempted to buy some political goodwill (and keep their heating running in the winter) by voting Russian.
One year later, so much has changed! Disgusted by year after year of political voting and “rubbish”, Sir Terry Wogan left the coverage after 35 years on the job. Commodity prices have since collapsed, and the world economy – Europe not excepted, is in shambles. The shenanigans and over-the-top ridiculousness of years past was relatively tamed. But you won’t know it from watching the show this year. Just bear in mind last year, the Russian winning entry had a back-up violinist, plus a skater in the ice rink to keep him company. A pair from Azerbaijan re-enacted an angel-and-demons ditty straight from Dante’s Inferno.
This year, host Russia tried to pull out all the stops by putting on a Beijing Olympic equivalent of an Eurovision. The show started with a Cirque du Soleil performance, and ended (before the voting) with a self-contained plastic trampoline filled with water and swimmers (I know it makes no sense to write either) that were lowered onto the audience. Eager hosts even attempted some jokes in the two Eurovision official languages – English and French. Although it must have been awkward in an audience that for the most part, understood neither.
But Saturday night, with some wine in hand and a laptop in front of me, I twittered the three-hour odyssey that culminated in the Norwegian win.
To truly appreciate the Eurovision, one needs generous servings of alcohol, a suspension of taste, and a genuine enthusiasm for everything kitsch. The show kicked off with the winner from last year running through three imaginary paper-filled walls with a hook on his jacket. Not deterred when his jacket got stuck on the hook, he then proceeded to wow the crowd by performing aerodynamic leaps around the stage, followed by his tortured writhing that no doubt sent flutters to countless females all around the continent. Did he understand with a song called “Believe”, no such angst-ridden deliveries are in fact necessary?
But such is the problem with Eurovision, where many countries submit entries with English lyrics. In some cases, one must wonder if the words were in fact fitting for the raw and sometimes, excessive emotions exhibited by their earnest masters. In other cases, one muses if the singer had simply memorized the lines phonetically a week before the contest.
Even more confusing is the combination of bilingual, sometimes trilingual lyrics. Just when you had affirmed the presence of English, the singer suddenly reverts to some other tongue that leaves you utterly confused. But not before switching back to English, sometimes with a sprinkle of French or Russian or whatever else they fancied, during the refrains.
A trend that was picked up from last year was the increasing prominence of violins. Perhaps inspired by the Russian winning entry, both Estonia (6th place), and the winning Norway had singers showcase their skills on the violin.
Norway’s Belarusian-born Harry Potter (aka Alexander Rybak), whom, with thick eye-brows and a face that looks 16, sang about a girl from “years ago, when I was younger”. Lyrics made less sense as the song progressed, but distraction was served in the form of Cossack soldiers doing some kind of traditional Slavic dance around the stage. A couple of flower girls in pinkish purple dresses purred and swooned in the background. All this resulted in the severe disorientation that is common during one’s Eurovision viewing experience.
Estonia was ambitious in its urban symphony, and the troupe consisted of a lone violin-wielding female performer, a few cellos in the background, and a couple of backup singers. All possessed less charisma than the Japanese anime character which the lead singer was made-up to look like. Perhaps to counter the excessive energy of the Greek entry (coming up), the sequin-clad ensemble barely moved throughout the entire performance.
Another venerable mark of the Eurovision is the popularity of the colour white with male performers. I suspect it is a conscious channeling of the prince-in-shiny-armour-on-a-white horse syndrome. Only instead of white horses, those muscular hunks now don all-white uniforms in its various incarnations.
Take Bosnia, where group is suited up in white, Coldplay inspired military attire with long trench coats. The lead singer’s hair looks as though it has not met shampoo for weeks and was subsequently styled by Dracula. And because I cannot understand Bosnian, I can only assume that he is singing about some serious sufferings from his facial cringes.
Muscular, tanned, sporting tight pants and a t-shirt that is at least two sizes too small, Greek’s lucky 13 at first glance looks like a cross between David Hasselhoff and Ricky Martin. The routine is surely choreographed by a cheerleading squad, the arms works are reminiscent of Sparky Pulastri’s “magic fingers” from Bring It On. I was also strangely fixated by his t-shirt, which lifted up and down rhythmically with his hip movements. At one point, continuous thrusting by this middle-aged cheesecake becomes vaguely uncomfortable, and one is excused for thinking this kind of dancing is only found in back alley gay clubs. Only instead of florescent lightings and a white springboard, the moving figure would be inside some kind of a hanging cage, dressed in nothing but a thong, and with Kylie Minogue in the background.
At this point, I must complain that for all the extravagance, the Russian organizers must have short-changed its camera crew. There was an excessive number of cameras panning from the top of the stadium, and a severe lack of shots on the stage. The screen often zoomed from one corner of the stage to a panoramic view, before settling on some strange corner of the stage with little continuity or logic.
None could’ve been more obvious than the German entry in its recruitment of Dita von Teese during its finale performance. Halfway through the song, I realized the Russian camera crew had no clue who she was and what role she had to play in the song. There she was, the most famous burlesque performer in the world stripping down to her costume, and the camera continued to pan on the pony-tailed piano guy and two backup dancers.
By the time von Teese descended the steps for a stroll, the whole thing seemed utterly ridiculous. For a jazzy swings song that parallels Christina Arguilera’s Back to Basics, the requisite mood somehow got side-tracked into some twilight disco fair. For starters, the stage flashed bizarre colours found in teacup rides at night country carnivals, the pianist feigned grooves in his black polo t-shirt (did he lose his suit?) and his Mafia-esque ponytail, the backup dancers looked like magician’s’ helpers.
The lead singer attempted to seduce the screen with his over-plucked eyebrows and his stage wind-blown and unbuttoned shirt. So far, so tolerable. But where he lost me, was when his shirt got undone, and the various blings on his hand and neck started to compete with his magically shimmering pants.
Dita von Teese later expressed her shock at how Germany, not to mention her top picks, were all nowhere near the top rankings. Oh Dita, you and me both. Picking winning entries at the Eurovision is something reserved for the professionals, aka, the Europeans. North Americans really just don’t get the head game of it all.
At first, we examine the situation with the sincerity of voting for American Idols, where legitimate talents are celebrated. Then we see the Finnish death metal band winning, followed by a three-ring Russian circus, and decide to go for the ridiculous. But we are again disappointed. Because if the Ukrainian Madonna/Britney temptress, complete with gladiators and her own drumming set cannot come up on top, then there is no sense to be made from this.
I was later informed that winning in the Eurovision has little to do with competency, level of fame in performers, or sex appeal, but has everything to do with either political sensitivities (which were low this year), or the catchiness of the song (very high this year). Case in point? The Azerbaijan entry, all jokes aside, consisted of three solid lines of lyrics.
For a complete blow-by-blow account of the night’s events, check out my Twitter stream from Saturday night.