Yes, the Eurovision Song Contest has left us for another year, and yes, this post is late , but I was at a party, and could not post my thoughts in live time. I want to share with you, dear readers, my thoughts on this year’s Eurovision.
Hello Baku, this is Washington DC calling.
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that even a bad Eurovision Song Contest can be turned into a great experience by attending a Eurovision party.
That was what happened to me this year. Going in, I was thoroughly unimpressed with this year’s crop of never-to-be-heard-from-again pop stars* and their songs. Yet after attending the party hosted at the Austrian Embassy in Washington DC (apparently the first live broadcast of the competition in America), I came away thinking that this was one of the best Eurovisions that I had ever seen. Granted there was nothing like “Satellite” or “Volare” and there was certainly nothing to compare with ABBA, but the charms of Eurovision 2012 cannot be denied.
Before I can talk about the good and the ugly, both of which were in abundance at the competition, I have to talk about the bad: the host Azerbaijan. As a gay man, even an American gay man, I feel that Eurovision is my rightful property and I resent seeing it appropriated by homophobic countries that tread on human rights. This is Azerbaijan (and Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, etc.), whose homophobia was, exacerbated because of a pissing match it had gotten into with Iran over the last few months. Azerbaijan repeatedly insisted that the nation hated gays and they were not welcome. No doubt that is true, but to all those countries in the European Broadcasting Union that hate the gays, I have a message for you: stay the hell out of our competition. (I cannot imagine how hard it must be to be a homosexual in Azerbaijan, and my brothers and sisters there truly have my sympathy.)
Azerbaijan also has an atrocious record on human rights in general, and leading up to the competition there were protests to try and focus the world’s attention on that records rather than on the government’s stated goal of attracting more tourism. Alas, I fear the protesters were as successful as the Argentine protesters of the 1978 World Cup. I saw in the Daily Telegraph‘s liveblog of the event that there was violence, but I have not yet determined that for myself beyond the blog’s single Twitter message.
The Crystal Hall was very nice and the fact that it lit up in the colors of each nation’s flag prior to the performance was charming. It does not negate a lack of freedom and liberty.
Every Eurovision is influenced by the previous year’s winner in some way. I was positive that this year would be chock-full of male/female duets like last year’s ear-bleeding atrocity “Running Scared,” a song performed by Ell & Nikki (formerly Eldar & Nigar), two utterly lifeless individuals who screeched at each other, all the while looking like they just met prior to taking the stage. Fortunately, a lack of chemistry was not the lesson learned. No, this year’s also-rans imitated the Azerbaijan couple by wearing all-white. White costumes was a recurring theme, and fortunately a rather innocuous one. And like with every year, the winner was someone who deviated from the previous year in every way possible. Loreen was decked out in black.
Of course we were still subjected to Ell & Nikki (again in white) as they screeched “Running Scared” to each other again one last time (please God!). A year had passed and they still completely lacked chemistry. Then Ell put on a tuxedo and joined two women to present the competition. Nikki, who lives in London, was shunted away until she presented the winner’s trophy. Probably she was being beaten for leaving the country.
Now I have a confession to make: despite fanatically watching Eurovision for the past eight years (trust me Europeans, that puts me in the 99.999th percentile among Americans), I had never been to a Eurovision party before. I had no idea what to expect, although I did suspect it would be fun. And it was. There was a lovely Danish woman who waved German and Danish flags throughout the afternoon. She was kind enough to paint a German flag on my arm. Danish lady (whose name I never found out) got crazier and crazier as the contest went on, and was already dancing around with wild abandon well before the Danish entry appeared. I loved her and her utter recklessness, a stark contrast to her stoic German friends.
The other important person in the Embassy that day was my boyfriend, whose comments and judgments I valued enough to write them down and will even share a few.
The opening show was quite spectacular, perhaps the most spectacular ever, although with the exception of Greece from 2006, I tend not to remember the opening ceremonies. This number alternated between faux ethno-music and flying acrobats in glow-in-the-dark white outfits. It was impressive though; my boyfriend turned to me and said, “I would hate to be Armenia right now.”
Azerbaijan is apparently the land of fire, and fire was very much abundant on the stage during the opening number and many of the entries. The contest’s slogan this year was “light your fire,” which I suppose is meant to be inspirational, but it really only served to remind me that Jim Morrison and the Doors, whatever their flaws, would never do Eurovision.
And speaking of old musical acts with deep flaws, the first entrant was Englebert Humperdinck for the UK, but before we get to the Hump, I did want to point out that the hosts this were generally not as annoying as in previous years. Which is not to say I enjoyed them, but they were serviceable. Perhaps I just didn’t hear them well enough. And in that stubborn Eurovision tradition, the hosts still repeated everything in French despite the fact that only one country and parts of two others in this year’s competition actually use French as an official language. Quelle charmant.** We also got to see a video of the Crystal Hall built in 60 seconds, and all I could think is that this is what happens when you don’t have unions.
Englebert Humperdinck sang a power ballad called “Love Will Set You Free” on behalf of the UK. The Hump is an odd entry into Eurovision. Usually the UK votes on who to send, but the BBC opted not to let the same public that chose DJ Daz, Scooch, and of course, Jemini have any say whatsoever in this year’s entrant. In theory this was a smart move, but the BBC seemed to forget that (1) as good a singer as Englebert Humperdinck may be, when your last hit came just after the Stone Age, people tend to forget you; and (2) the rest of Europe really hates the UK (okay, well England really), and Eurovision is when they can prove it. The Hump’s song was decent enough, and he sang it well. There was also a key change, a dancing couple in the background, and a waterfall effect of pale orange light. Standard Eurovision fare. The song was also incredibly dull, and the DC audience was pretty sedate throughout the whole thing. This despite the fact that (1) we know who Englebert Humperdinck is in this country; and (2) we kind of like the UK over here in America. It was no surprise that he came in second to last. I bet every British person is secretly weeping inside.
The second entry was from Hungary, “Songs of Our Heart” by Compact Disco. I was offended by his voice; he was like a Hungarian version of the douche rock epitomized by the posers of Nickelback. My boyfriend agreed but added “with 80’s synth.” The liveblogs of both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph compared Compact Disco to Savage Garden. Welcome to the 80’s, Hungary.
Yet even the pain from Hungary could not compare with the sheer agony inflicted by Rona Nishliu of Albania. If you ever wanted to know how Azerbaijan tortures its political prisoners, I suspect it’s by making those poor souls listen to Nishliu sing. It wasn’t just awful, she actually sucked the enjoyment from the room. Her song “Suus” was completely unmemorable so she had to make sure we remembered her somehow. Ergo, she shrieked her way through it. Seriously. She shrieked into a key change. And then she just abandoned the concept of key altogether like some unholy mixture of Eurovision and Arnold Schoenberg’s nightmares. But there was more to her than just ear-murdering singing. She also wore what appeared to be a basket on her head with a long braid that resembled a snake lying across her chest. The DC crowd was openly hostile to her. Unfortunately the DC crowd was not the European voters. How this did not come in last place, how this even made the finals is a mystery to me that I can only assume has to do with bloc voting. Instead it was in the top 5. I weep for Europe.
Next up was Donny Montell of Lithuania whose real name is Donatas Montvydas. He sang a song called “Love is Blind” and as Lithuanians apparently do not understand metaphor, he came out wearing a sequined blindfold. It was a typical sappy Euro-ballad, but then he ripped the blindfold off and started doing some pretty nifty break dancing/gymnastics moves. There were also pole dancers in a background display. Don’t ask. In any case, the DC audience loved it, wildly applauding and cheering. It was the first song that they got into, and really it was the first song that truly showed what Eurovision was about. This is not necessarily a compliment.
Bosnia’s entry, Maya Sar took the stage to sing her song “Korake ti znam.” Bosnia was clearly going for class, but quite possibly at the expense of pitch. I can only describe her outfit as “sparkle armor.” She played the piano and sang, and then she left the piano and sang. That’s about it. There was little life to the performance, but it did mark the first appearance of the wind machine. The DC audience was not into this one.
They were however into the Russian Grannies (not their actual stage name but how they will be eternally known) who took the stage next with their song “Party for Everybody.” I wrote about them already, so I don’t want to spend too much more time on them, but I will say that everybody loved them in DC (with the lone exception of my boyfriend who despised them). The DC audience was clapping and singing along with them. I’ll say it again, the Grannies are a gimmick act, but it’s an original gimmick and a cute one. The Grannies eventually finished second, but it was a very odd thing. Almost every nation awarded them some points, but only Belarus gave them the full 12 points. Has any second place team every finished with so few 12 points? Make of that what you will. I hope they made enough to build their church.
No one would seriously want to follow that, and that unenviable task fell to Gréta Salóme & Jónsi with their song “Never Forget,” which I have already disobeyed. I do recall that they seemed like a creepy, Icelandic version of Secret Garden. They got a good reception from the DC audience, but that was because there was an Icelandic family with small, cute, blond children at the front of the room waving their national flag. One of my favorite Eurovision songs ever, Selma’s “All Out of Luck” was from Iceland, as is of course the genius that is Bjork. Iceland actually does understand music, so this entry baffled me. Next year I think they should send their volcano with the unpronounceable name. I can’t imagine it would be worse.
After Iceland’s completely forgettable ballad, we got the first completely forgettable shake-it song of the night, Cyprus’s Ivi Adamou singing (in the finest Eurovision tradition of quality lyrics) “La La Love.” She appeared to be dancing on Greek ruins alongside some very leggy and limber female back-up dancers. This song got a fairly big response from the DC audience which surprised me because I did not think that the DC audience was the Greek voters in disguise. (Yes, they got 12 points from Greece.)
La France. I actually liked Anggun’s song “Echo (You and I)” when I saw it on YouTube. Anggun has a beautiful voice, and to my shock there was actually some English in the song. The song is tailor-made for gay bars and clubs all over Europe, and bonus! at the competition, Anggun was accompanied by hot, shirtless male gymnasts. Anggun is a stunningly beautiful woman with a good stage presence. The problem, and this is a big one that could not be overcome, is that her voice, while very pretty, was not big enough for the song. Given the production and the venue (and the wind machine), the song required someone with a huge Merman-like voice, and Anggun’s is very subtle. Too subtle. That was a fatal disconnect. Also she represented France.
When I first caught a glimpse of Italy’s singer Nina Zilli, I thought she was Fran Drescher. When I saw her on stage though, it was clear that she trying to be the late, great Amy Winehouse. Big mistake. Amy Winehouse was one of the great vocalists of the past decade; she employed a thoroughly unique sound married to a retro vibe. Nina Zilli is none of those things. What the hell was she thinking? And by that point the DC audience was restless and I could not actually distinguish any song lyrics anymore.
Ott Lepland took the stage to sing “Kuulu.” It was a nice enough, generic power ballad that was completely boring and not special in the least. The boyfriend said that is was actually Sarah Brightman’s “There For Me.” Stealing other people’s songs, another fine Eurovision tradition.
I hated Norway’s entry “Stay.” But I am also very conflicted because I love Norway’s singer Tooji. Tooji may very well be one of the most beautiful men on the planet. He’s also a trained social worker, which means he is either a really decent human being or an incredibly messed up one. I really wish Tooji had not been saddled with such a hideous song. It was so awful it hurt my feelings. Apparently Europe agreed with me as Norway came in last place. Again. They hold the record. Last place is something that Tooji did not deserve given the Albanian entry in this competition (happy birthday, Tooji). My boyfriend tried to tell me the song was not as bad as I thought it was, but eventually even he admitted that yes, it was horrible. Poor Tooji.
At this point we got our first look at the Green Room, which as my boyfriend pointed out, was neither green nor a room. The presenter spoke to Englebert Humperdinck. I always tune out the Green Room segments, because they are inane, and I don’t care.
Next up is the host nation. On behalf of Azerbaijan, Sabina Babayeva (wearing all white) sang “When the Music Dies,” and the joke just writes itself. Nevertheless, I will try (a la Daniel Tosh) to get in as many different jokes as I can. When the music dies? It was a mercy killing. When the music dies? By this point, the music is a zombie. When the music dies? After the Albanian entry. When the music dies? Every year at Eurovision. Thank you; I also do Bar Mitzvahs.
Romanian entries are always the clear beneficiaries of bloc voting. They are never good, but always fulls of of bells and whistles. Every Eurovision gimmick imaginable (except for a decent song) has been tried by Romania. They are always near the top though because the surrounding countries always give Romania high marks. This year’s gimmicks included fire shooting from the stage, a moonwalking bagpipe player, and two female violinists who bent down backwards so far I thought they were doing a limbo competition. I don’t actually recall the song “Zaleilah” because the band Mandinga was drowned out by all the percussion. In DC, cute children were dancing to it, and the audience applauded, although by this point the alcohol was probably setting in. The lovely Danish lady was dancing wildly. Her waving flags threatened to put out the eyes of anyone who didn’t also enjoy the song.
The next song got the lovely Danish lady even more exited because it was her home nation’s entry. “Should’ve Known Better” sung by Soluna Samay, or as I call her “Julie the Cruise Director.” Julie wore a sailor’s hat and a jacket that looked like it belonged to a cruise ship captain who loved nothing more than giant shoulder pads. Both the jacket and the hat were covered in soot and appeared to have been purchased from a Greek fire sale. (Take that, Terry Wogan. I can insult a Danish entry better than you can.) The performance was like something on a cruise ship too. My boyfriend, who loved Denmark (the country), also went crazy alongside the lovely Danish lady. For my part I was not sure there was much to go crazy about.
It is well-known that Cyprus and Greece always give each other maximum points, which of course happened this year too. It was less well known that this year they would share the exact same song. Or that both the Greek and Cypriot entries were rereleases of every Greek Eurovision entry ever (except for Antique). The Greek singer, Eleftheria Eleftheriou, was actually born in Cyprus. She called her song “Aphrodisiac,” but really let’s just call it “Standard Greek Entry.” Given the way Greece decimated the European Union’s economy, Ms. Eleftheriou is very lucky that this year’s competition was actually held in Asia.
Sweden. Yes, this was the song that won. Yes, this song was the odds-on favorite to win. Yes, the Swedes are now tied for second place for most Eurovision wins with the UK, France, and Luxembourg(?!?) and are the likeliest to move into a solo second place in a future competition. And yes, Loreen now stands proudly with her predecessors ABBA, Charlotte Nilsson, Carola, and the Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley boys (Herreys). But none of that explains why “Euphoria” won. Like the Russian Grannies, Loreen got the entire DC audience actively involved (not just the Swedes in the audience), clapping and dancing and cheering. I was not a fan before the contest, but her performance was completely awesome, and it made me a convert.
After Sweden we got a brief interlude to remind that us Lys Assia, the first Eurovision winner, is alive and well, was in Crystal Hall, and has nothing else to do other than attend Eurovision every year.
Like following the Grannies, following Loreen was always going to be difficult. Unlike Iceland who followed the Grannies, Turkey has a built in voting bloc so position mattered very little. The DC audience loved Turkey’s entry, probably because the backup dancers formed a human boat with their capes (the song was called “Love Me Back” but there was a nautical theme, I think. I don’t know. Turkish entries are always bad.) The band was called Can Bonomo. Imagine someone put bats, the Village People, pirates, and Goths in a blender. That was Can Bonomo.
My boyfriend was not a fan of the Spanish entry before Eurovision, but after Pastora Soler sang her song “Quédate conmigo” it became his favorite entry (he still says it should have won.)*** And I will second that it was an awesome song. Soler has a gorgeous big voice and she commanded the stage. The DC audience was rapt and gave her wild applause. But it was also a fait accompli that she would not win because (1) the powers that be at Spain told her they can’t afford to host next year’s competition, which Soler repeated to anyone who would listen; (2) Spain has few natural allies; and (3) she sang in Spanish, and songs that are sung in English are far more likely to win the competition (which is why Ireland and the UK cleaned up in the years when nations could only enter songs in an official national language–and why neither Ireland or the UK has won since the rule was abandoned.)
Next up, Germany. As there were lots of Germans in the DC audience (again, held in the Austrian Embassy), Germany would always be popular at the Eurovision party. While German pop music may seem like an oxymoron, since I have been watching regularly Germany has produced the highest overall quality of entrants. Texas Lightning, Roger Cicero, and of course Lena have all represented Germany with varying degrees of success, but providing universally high enjoyment. I almost always dislike the German entry prior to the contest, but once I see it on stage it usually ranks among my favorite entries. This year a very cute, scruffy boy named Roman Lob wore a silly, woolen hat and sang a very nice song called “Standing Still.” He ended up placing better than Lena did last year, but obviously not as well as she did the year before.
Malta got a surprisingly loud reception from the DC audience for reasons that I still cannot figure out. I can only guess there are a lot of Maltese people who live in DC, but I did not see a single Malta flag. It was a fun song, a very good Eurodance song that had people dancing and singing at the Embassy. The singer was Kurt Calleja and the song was “This is the Night,” but to me he was a “not-Chiara” singer who sang a “not-Chiara” song. One of these days I hope to see Malta host Eurovision. Please make it happen, Europe; you gave it to Azerbaijan.
I refuse to put F.Y.R. in front of Macedonia as Eurovision insists on doing. F.Y.R. stands for “Former Yugoslav Republic of” and it’s there because the Greeks get pissed off when they are reminded that Macedonia is not just the ancient Greek kingdom that gave us Alexander the Great. Really though, after this year does anyone care about hurting Greece’s feelings anymore? I bring this up because this is the only interesting thing about Macedonia. The song,”Crno i belo” (sung by Kaliopi) began nicely enough, but got progressively worse. Apparently Kaliopi is a big star in the Balkans, which would account for why she placed as well as she did. Also, bloc voting. Macedonia is always the bathroom break song.
Ah, Jedward, the bane of my existence. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh… but just a little. Jedward are a particularly no-talent pair of twins that Ireland sent last year and then sent again for reasons that probably have to do with not wanting to win Eurovision for an eighth time. Jedward look like Justin Timberlake clones cross-bred with alien mutants from a Hollywood B-movie, and their space-age outfits only solidified that impression. The DC audience went wild for Jedward for reasons that I cannot fathom. For my own part, I wanted to boo them. It’s the only entry I wanted to boo, and I had to suffer through Albania. The song was called “Waterline” and it included a water fountain, which is an ironic touch for the land of fire. At one point they made a heart with their hands, but given that they have made a big deal about how they have never kissed a girl, I can only assume that heart was a way to tell the world they love each other, much like those creepy Czech twins who did porn movies for Bel Ami. At the end of the number, they stood in the middle of the fountain as it dripped water on them, giving us visual proof that Jedward is all wet.
Serbia. Željko Joksimović tried to win the elusive Eurovision title that he just missed out on in 2004 (he came in second). This time he sang a drippy ballad in his native language: “Nije ljubav stvar” which translates into the nonsensical title “Love is not an object.” Joksimović came in third this year. He was doing really well while Balkan states were voting, but once they were finished he fell behind the Russian Grannies. I cannot remember the song for the life of me, although in my notes I wrote that there was a key change and some pyrotechnics. Also the lovely Danish lady (who my boyfriend swears was not actually drunk, just Danish) was slow dancing by herself to the song, which was quite a feat. The audience liked it, but there was a definite Serbian contingent which skewed the balance.
Ukraine, much like Greece, always send the same song reworked. It’s always a solitary woman singer (or a drag queen) singing a big song with a big voice about something completely incomprehensible. This year they got Gaitana, a half-Ukrainian half-Congolese singer (and yes, it caused a stir in racist Ukraine) who has an amazing set of pipes much like the great Martha Wash. She is also a drop-dead gorgeous woman. The song is called “Be My Guest” and it is probably a good thing Gaitana did not win because Disney is a very litigious corporation. If there is any fairness, Gaitana will get a contract to record in a country that would truly appreciate her voice and her talents. We in America could use another soulful voice now that Donna Summer has left us.
Finally the last entry was
Romania’s second chance from Moldova. By this time I was completely bored. Moldova, like Macedonia, is always uninteresting but get votes because it has many neighbors. Pasha Parfeny sang “Lăutar.” I have notes from this entry, but for the life of me I cannot remember why I wrote what I did. Something about a guy with a small voice singing around female dancers in vinyl dresses.
Instead of the half time show, which I cared absolutely nothing about, I wanted to tell you all the wonderful things in Azerbaijan which were shown to the audience in those clips that came on the screen in between acts so that the stage hands could set up for the next song. According to this official propaganda Azerbaijan has the following things: art, tradition, polo (apparently played with golf clubs), cars and roads, horses, dancers, a boardwalk, swimming and canoeing, food (always a good thing), rugs, flames, buildings, bikes, folk theater, tea, mausoleums, oil rigs, horse racing, arm wrestling, camp fires, and homosexuals. Okay, that last one was not intentionally featured in the clips. You know what else wasn’t featured? Human rights. Also Armenia.
The voting was kind of dull. Loreen took the lead after the second country and never let go. Once the voting got out of the former Soviet and Balkans blocs, Loreen only increased her lead. She won with 372 points. The best part of the voting was seeing Mr. Lordi in full monster regalia present Finland’s scores. (He wasn’t very good at it, but it was amusing and in DC we appreciated the nostalgia and the subtle Finnish humor of having him present.) The real battle was for second, and in the end the Grannies, the other favorite, edged out Serbia’s ballad. 18 of the 42 nations gave Loreen top marks. Compare that to the next highest, a tie between Serbia, Albania, and Azerbaijan, who got douze points from only four countries. Loreen completely dominated the voting. By country number 37 or so, it was mathematically impossible to catch her. Nikki from Ell & Nikki presented Loreen with an ugly crystal microphone trophy as the Swede star tried to compose herself so that she could sing the traditional reprise of her song.
My final thoughts are about the nature of the contest itself. Eurovision, despite its camp and love of the gays (from the West anyway) is perhaps the most conservative institution in Europe. To wit, Eurovision has been around since 1956. It has seen the rise of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Rufus Wainwright, the Ronettes, and the Ramones, disco, Dolly, Dusty, Dylan, Patti, punk, Aretha, Annie, Etta, soul, nu soul, Philly soul, blue-eyed soul, Northern soul, Sleater-Kinney, Sade, synth, house, heavy metal, hair bands, hair metal, hip-hop, Hendrix, hard rock, soft rock, arena rock, Gaye, glam, trance, techno, Tina Turner, Tropicália, Tapestry, folk, funk, Fela Kuti, Cash, Cohen, Karen Carpenter, Nico and Neko, Nina Simone, nueva canción, Motown, Madonna, Miriam Makeba, Michael Jackson, Jobim, Joplin, Bruce, Brill (Building), Brown, Bono, Bowie, Bjork, Bossa Nova, and a zillion other artists, innovations, innovators, and styles. Eurovision steadfastly refuses to acknowledge innovation. Even when those innovations are seemingly incorporated (such as Lordi), those songs still miss the forest for the trees. They are all ultimately cheesy pop songs designed, like the modern American record industry, to be pleasing and inoffensive to the largest number of people possible. One act alone was able to transcend that seemingly insurmountable handicap of being Euro-cheese, which is why ABBA is Eurovision’s lone gift to the world.
That is the real reason why, as much as I enjoy Eurovision as a spectacle, I am glad it is only once a year. Sugar is tasty, but too much of it rots your teeth.
* Like with almost everything about Eurovision, please assume that there are invisible quotation marks around pop stars–or in fact around anything that is complimentary of the songs (such as calling them songs). Eurovision, is perhaps the purest distillation of Susan Sontag’s definition of camp from her famous essay in which she wrote the following:
Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.
** I actually have no idea if that is proper French or not. I don’t really care either.
*** He just watched Spain’s entry again and is furious that Soler didn’t win. His exact quote: “They should have just stopped the contest right there and sent everyone else home. Russia came in second? Come on. Take away the oven and the outfits and just have the six women singing on stage then no one would have voted for it. If Spain performed on a giant tortilla and had people dressed as tomatoes doing back flips it would have scored higher. Europe is ridiculous.”