The Contestants (Continued)
Russia and the Other Former Soviet States: First we have to deal with Russia, because Russia is big, and the center of the former Soviet bloc (both in Eurovision and politics.) Russia first entered in 1994, and every time Russia did not win, the Russians cried foul. This is a very Russian reaction to pretty much everything. In 1997, Alla Pugacheva entered the contest and only placed 15th. Now, dear reader you probably have no idea who Alla Pugacheva is, but she is a legend in the former Soviet Union. Forget Dusty Springfield, this was like Judy Garland entering Eurovision–and only placing 15th . . . to Katrina & the Waves (please, please, please stop laughing.) That Alla Pugacheva is also a huge icon for Russian gays makes the Judy Garland connection even more appropriate. At some point Russia decided it really wanted to win Eurovision, probably after it saw that Estonia and Latvia had already won. In 2003, Russia sent in the big guns with t.a.T.u., the pretend-lesbian teenagers who had hit albums all over the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States. Everyone thought t.a.T.u. was going to win. They came in third. Russia was pissed (in the American sense, not the British.) A few years later (2006) Russia sent Dima Bilan, who I believe is physically incapable of performing a song without gimmicks coming out the yin-yang. He played a white piano and midway through a ballerina rose out of it. He only placed second (the one good thing about Lordi’s victory), and again the Russians were pissed. By this time though, Ukraine had also won the competition. Two years later, Russia sent Dima Bilan back with even more gimmicks (such as 2006 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko skating in the background) and a lousy song that Russia marketed the hell out of to its neighbors. You want to know how badly the Russians wanted to win Eurovision? The entries were performed in English. Once Russia won, the nation collectively lost interest and sent in more lousy entries, but this time without the Moscow marketing machine behind them.
As I mentioned before Estonia and Latvia had won in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Their entries are forgettable. In fact, pretty much every entry from the Baltic states has been forgettable except for one entry from Latvia called Wolves of the Sea, which has to be seen to be believed and one entry from Lithuanian that was so bad, I wished pain on the performers LT United. The entire “song” was a mock-football chant: “We are the winners… of Eurovision!” They lost. (They were also jeered by the crowd, which never happens.)
Moldova has yet to do anything memorable, and the same would be said for Belarus if not for the spectacular bomb that is My Galileo. Me, I love the song. Once you understand the lyrics (admittedly no small feat even though the song is completely in English), you get that it’s actually a pretty clever pop song. However, it is near impossible to understand on a first hearing (or second or third), so alas, the larger European audience missed out.
Ukraine, unlike every other former Soviet state, has had exceptionally memorable performances, none more so than its 2004 winner Wild Dances, sung by
Xena the Warrior Princess Ruslana. My words cannot do it justice. Go ahead, and watch. I can wait. See what I mean? In 2007 and 2008, Ukraine finished second. Neither song was particularly good. The 2008 one was a fairly innocuous and mediocre pop song called Shady Lady. The 2007 song on the other hand, nearly caused an international incident. It was performed by Andriy Danylko in his drag(?) alter-ego Verka Serduchka (it’s a little hard to tell, Verka does not look like a woman), and the song(?) was called Dancing Lasha Tumbai, which is gibberish. The Russians heard a supposedly anti-Russsian message in the song, and (as always) they were pissed.
Switzerland: Switzerland was the first winner. Lys Assia won with the song Refrain in 1956. She then singlehandedly began another Eurovision tradition of former top-performers returning for a second (or third) bite at the apple when she returned in 1957 (8th place) and 1958 (2nd place). For the next three decades Switzerland had almost no success, but then in 1988 in Dublin a French song c0-written by a Turkish songwriter (and a Swiss composer) was sung by a Canadian from Quebec wearing a ridiculous outfit apparently from Mars. The song, Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi, won. The singer was Céline Dion.
Malta: If you only casually watch Eurovision, you may be excused for thinking that Malta only has two pop singers, and the nation just recycles them. If you watch Eurovision more than casually, you would know that Malta has far more than two pop singers, but they fall into two paradigms: (1) Chiara and (2) Not-Chiara. Malta has placed second twice and third twice. Chiara was only responsible for one of the second place finishes and one third place finishes, but for all intents and purposes there is no one else. Without having met her or knowing anything about her life, I can say with absolute certainty Chiara is the best friend every gay man wants to have. The 2005 edition was the first time I actually watched Eurovision and for the most part, I got exactly what I expected. But then Chiara came on stage, in an elegant red dress and started singing Angel. It was a beautiful song and a very simple performance. It is a crime against nature that Chiara came in second to Greece’s generic Shake-It song. 2005 was actually Chiara’s second Eurovision; she had previously come in third in 1998 behind Dana International and the UK entry Imaani. Chiara blessed Eurovision again in 2009 with a new song What if We. However, in a year when both Chiara and Patricia Kaas brought their luminosity to the competition, the winner was Alexander Rybak. It was almost enough to make me swear of Eurovision forever. Why doesn’t Chiara do better? Malta has no neighbors.
Portugal: Portugal is quite possibly the most mediocre country in Eurovision history. There are no highs and few lows, but by and large Portuguese entries have in no way distinguished themselves ever. Which is not to say they have all been bad or even mediocre. I loved the 2008 entry and I have a fondness in my heart for the 2009 song too. Otherwise I cannot remember any other Portuguese entry. The strangest thing about Portugal though is that thus far the Portuguese has not formed a bloc with their neighbor/frenemy Spain. Although Spain always got support from Andorra, they have never gotten (nor given) full support from Portugal. This is why neither Spain nor Portugal will ever win the competition from hence forward. What is most tragic about Portugal’s tepid songs is that the Portuguese gave the world fado, one of the finest and most dramatic musical traditions in recorded history. Yet, as far as I can tell, Portugal has never sent a fado song to Eurovision. If I were in charge, I would send a fadista, dressed all in black with only a Portuguese guitar for accompaniment as he or she sang (voice dripping with saudade) as though shouting headlong into the winds of fate. The audience would be transfixed, the competition would be elevated to a level previously undreamed of, and some crap from Eastern Europe would win.
The Balkans (minus Greece) and Central Europe: I honestly have nothing to say here. Serbia won (deservingly) in 2007 with an ethno-ballad, Hungary had a fabulous entries in 2007, and Slovenia sent in strong entries in 2001 and 2007. The highlights of 2007 aside, this is far and away the worse region for Eurovision songs, particularly Macedonia (or as it is referred to at Eurovision, F.Y.R. Macedonia.) It’s also the strongest bloc.
Israel: The last nation I am going to talk about, and one that I have a special fondness for. When I went to Hebrew school, I learned songs that I always thought were Israeli folk songs. It turns out that they were Eurovision entries that placed well. My favorite of these songs was Gali Atari & Milk and Honey’s song Hallelujah, which won the 1979 competition. It is a song that is so cute and sweet that it makes you want to (metaphorically) hug it and pat it on the head–all the more so after you see the performance. Seriously, it’s cute. This was actually Israel’s second win at Eurovision, a repeat victory. The year before Izhar Cohen & Alphabeta won with A-Ba-Ni-Bi. It’s a nifty little song with aspirations of disco, but not nearly in the same class as Hallelujah. A-Ba-Ni-Bi continues the strain of silly titles that runs throughout Eurovision; it is an Israeli Pig-Latin equivalent (the Bet Language) and the title is part of the song’s chorus, which translated from both Hebrew and the Bet Language to “I love you.” A-Ba-Ni-Bi is “I”. After the joint victories of 1978 and 79, Israel did not win again until 1998 with Dana International which I talked about in a previous post.
In the 19 years between victories, Israel had two consecutive second place finishes in 1982 and 1983, both songs I learned before I already knew before I learned they were in Eurovision. The first was Avi Toledano’s Hora which is a good enough song. The second was Ofra Haza’s Chai, which is fantastic, not least because of Ofra Haza’s perfect voice (although if it sounds a little like Hora, that is because Avi Toledano composed both songs.) Chai means “alive” and the song–which was performed in Munich, Germany–is about how she and the people of Israel (which can be translated as either the State of Israel or the Jewish people) are still alive. It came in second, but it should have won. Ofra Haza was one of Israel’s greatest talents, and very deserving of her international fame. Sadly, she died of AIDS in 2000.
Of all the competing nations, I do not think any have sent either the number of well-regarded pop stars or as much overall talent as Israel has. Looking over a list of Israeli entries, I see a bunch of names that would be familiar to me even if I knew nothing about Eurovision. The list includes Ofra Haza, Shlomo Artzi, Avi Toledano, Rita, David D’Or, and Achinoam Nini (Noa). In 2009, Noa entered the competition with Mira Awad, a gifted Israeli Arab singer. They sang a well-meaning but ultimately very bland “message” song.
Thus ends the Eurovision Guide for the Perplexed American. Watching the contest is a fun way to spend half a day, and allegedly alcohol makes it better, although I have yet to test that theory. I suggest watching it with a group of friends who are very critical and catty, but who also love camp.
There are always rumors that some American variation of Eurovision will come to these shores, but nothing ever comes of it. There are two reasons for that: the first is that states don’t have the intense history and competition with one another that European nations do. The second is that Eurovision is completely commercial free, which is wonderful from a viewer’s point of view and awful from a network’s point of view. Commercials would make an already long and drawn out competition even longer and more drawn out. Therefore it is probably for the best that we leave Eurovision to the Europeans (and company) and just watch it once a year so that we may mock that most gaudy and delightful spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest.
FInally, my fellow Americans, if you have any questions or comments either about Eurovision or the videos that I linked to, please leave some comments, and I will do what I can.