It’s been a tough past 12 months for democracy. Panic, disenfranchisement, obstructive voting tactics, not to mention the seemingly inevitable descent into fiery chaos. It says something about the sheer stakes of it all when the literal fascist candidate in France “only” getting a third of the vote is one of the year’s high points. Yet never fear, my friends, for this week, we shall welcome back one of my continent’s greatest institutions, one that will enthuse even the most skeptical voters.
That’s right - It’s Eurovision Week!
The 62nd Eurovision Song Contest kicks off this week in Kiev, Ukraine, with the semi-finals taking place on Tuesday and Thursday, then climaxing with the greatest display of kitschy pop and wind machines ever witnessed by humanity. Our presenters will be an all male trio, a first for the competition, and the welcoming motto for the evening is “Celebrate Diversity”. Cheesy as hell, but given the current political climate and Ukraine’s own problems, it’s ultimately more radical than first imagined.
Generally, Eurovision is supposed to be a non-partisan affair, a unifying experience where music and love come before inter-national squabbles and decades long wars. That doesn’t stop every losing country — not just the UK, but honestly it is mainly us — whining that their loss is down to silly political voting, but it keeps up the illusion of an even playing field. It’s just a coincidence that the Scandinavian countries keep voting for one another, honestly! This year, things are a bit tenser.
Ukraine’s winner from the previous year, Jamala, took home the prize with her song, “1944,” a suitably dramatic ballad with themes of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union. Winning was a big deal for Ukraine, as they had withdrawn from the 2015 competition due to costs, made all the sweeter because they took home the prize over Russia, who have been gunning hard for the past few years to take home the prize again. “1944” was a surprising victory song. For one thing, it was nowhere near the best song of the night (Australia took home that honour - yes, Australia is in Europe now, just go with it), and its obvious political lyrics seemed like grounds for disqualification. Eurovision prohibits songs with explicitly political content, but this one got through, and it stormed to victory.
Russia, obviously, weren’t delighted with this, and their strategy this year seems to have been to troll back at Ukraine, but way less effectively than they manage other major hijackings of democratic processes. Their choice for the contest, Yuliya Samoylova, had a decent enough song, but nowhere near the quality levels of years past, but she had previously performed in Crimea, entering the region via Russia, which is illegal in Ukraine, so they barred her from entering the country for the competition. Ukraine’s Eurovision organizers were even called out by the EBU, who run the competition, for political abuse.
That’s a shadow that will inevitably hang over this year’s show, but from a purely musical stance, this year is at risk of being kind of dull. Eurovision at its prime is a shamelessly silly festival of cultural pride and drag show-style theatrics. It’s the only concert where you can hope to see choreographed baking, sexy butter churning, gnome-hatted men on unicycles, singing turkey puppets, and Jedward on one stage. It’s a contest that can be won by anyone, from ABBA to glam metal Finns Lordi to Celine Dion herself (we had to pretend she was Swiss for a bit). It’s the one night where you can participate in a drinking game with the rule “take a shot every time someone does the heart gesture with their hands” and be soundly sloshed by 10pm. You have to take it just seriously enough for it to be truly effective.
Yet it feels like a lot of countries are taking it a little too seriously. It used to be against the rules for a country’s entry to sing in a language that wasn’t their native one, but now practically everyone sings in English for maximum appeal, and a non-English language song hasn’t won in a decade. Ballads are popular, but now the scourge of dull little boys with acoustic guitars has taken full force. We let Australia in and suddenly they’re way better than the UK! What’s next, letting America in? Well, you can now legally watch the show on Logo. And we did let Justin Timberlake perform in the half-time show last year, although he didn’t seem to know what he was singing at. Still, times have changed.
As a Brit, Eurovision is a mixed bag. We don’t really seem to care about the competition anymore, too invested in the half-truth that the whole glittery affair is too politicized for poor little Britain to ever win. Never mind that in years where we send great songs, we fare far better (Jade Ewan and Andrew Lloyd Webber of all people got us into the top 5 a few years ago), it’s just too easy for us to send a reject from The Voice or a nostalgic act like Bonnie Tyler and pretend our loss isn’t our fault. Jedward beat us twice! This year, I expected nothing and I’m still disappointed by our entry, even more so since 90s pop favourites Steps recently released their first new single in years and it was practically lab-bred to be a Eurovision masterpiece. In a post-Brexit Europe, where we’re somehow even more of a continent-wide laughing stock than usual, the best we Brits can hope for is that our host Graham Norton gets drunker than usual and loosens up his lips for the glorious commentary.
There are 42 entries of varying quality and stage production ready for your ears, but here are five you should keep in your minds as potential winners.
Now this is some classic Eurovision. It’s a super cheesy and blissfully catchy pop number, steeped in early 90s nostalgia that’s sung entirely in Italian and wholeheartedly commits to its melting pot themes of religion, technology and generally mocking westerners who co-opt Eastern religions for cheap karma. Oh, and when he performs it, there’s a dancing man dressed as an ape on stage. Believe it or not, this is currently the bookies’ favourite to win the entire competition, and I’m kind of rooting for it. Bring the bonkers back to Eurovision.
Okay, I’ll level with you. I don’t like this song. This is such a disappointment to me. Sweden are a fully and earnestly dedicated Eurovision country and have given us some of the contest’s best winning songs. Think “Euphoria” by Loreen, “Heroes” by Måns Zelmerlöw, and yes, “Waterloo: by ABBA. Pop is Sweden’s greatest export next to IKEA and Skarsgards. But this song? All I can hear is “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake and it depresses me. It is very modern Eurovision though, and I think it will do well. it helps that Robin is a handsome young man and his staging includes some OK GO style treadmill choreography, but we could have had Loreen again!
Bless Valentina Monetta. She’s represented the tiny principality of San Marino four times at Eurovision, although she’s only qualified for the final once (also a first for the country). This year, her latest attempt is a duet with unknown American singer Jimmie Wilson, and for a song about the Spirit of the Night, it’s rather staid and lifeless. Catchy enough, but it feels like an entry she wrote a decade ago and left in a drawer until now. Fun fact: Jimmie Wilson moved to Germany to star in a Barack Obama musical. I’m sad that wasn’t submitted as an entry.
I’m always excited when I hear a non-English entry, and Portugal’s song this year is a sweet piano and strings based number with Edith Piaf vibes that makes me momentarily forget I hate ballads. It’s a timeless song. You can imagine Portugal submitting this a few decades ago and still doing great with it. There are questions surrounding whether Salvador will be able to perform, as he suffers from a heart condition that’s left him struggling to get through rehearsals. My heart still belongs to Eurotrash, but if a ballad is to take home the top prize, I want it to be this one.
The home nation’s entry are a rock band, although it’s more that mid-2000s pop-punk sound with shades of My Chemical Romance, but not as lyrically interesting. Still, it sounds exactly like something I would have listened to as a teen - edgier than pop but still relatively non-threatening - and it’s always fun to see rock in Eurovision, although Lordi was the zenith of that trend.
Thank you, Montenegro! Now here is an entrant who has committed to the Eurovision ethos. This is pure Eurovision camp beauty. It’s a RuPaul’s Drag Race lip-sync for your life in the making, with Kalezić strutting for filth, clad in leather trousers and waving around a super-long braid of hair like a Mortal Kombat character. Apparently, Kalezić has been met with opposition from many in his own country, where the constitution still bans same-sex marriage and the Orthodox church retains much power. With celebrations of diversity the rallying cry of the contest this year, this would be a fun and sharp number to take to the final.
Let us know what song you’re rooting for this year, or your favourite song from the many decades of the contest, or just share your confusion in this entire affair. I’ll leave you with Ukraine’s true Eurovision peak.