We binge watched Eurovision yesterday.
It’s been a hectic couple of weeks here in Baja Canada and a great many things have happened that I will likely be posting about in the near future, but sometimes you just have to stop and marvel at the sheer over-the-top absurdity of an event that is both inexplicably and somehow completely understandably one of the most popular broadcasts in the world.
Eurovision, for those of my fellow Americans who have somehow not managed to run into it, is basically a cross between American Idol and the Olympics. It began in 1956 as a way to encourage cross-cultural contact and cooperation after World War II, and the basic set up is that each European nation (now broadly defined to include such countries as Israel, Azerbaijan, and Australia) would submit one song to perform at a contest, with the winner taking home a snazzy little trophy and no doubt a fat recording contract somewhere. Maybe something else too. I don’t know. They hold this event every year (though it, like so many things, was canceled last year during the plague) and it is a grand and glorious monument to ridiculous and joyful excess.
It’s nice to have such pointlessly enjoyable things in the world, I think.
Apparently this was the largest public gathering of any kind in Europe since the pandemic began, a celebration of public health and vaccines, and that has to be applauded.
We were away last week visiting my mom and on the long drive home Kim managed to find the Spotify playlist of all the songs in this year’s competition and it occupied us for most of Ohio. If you’ve ever driven across Ohio you know what a valuable service this is. Some of the songs were fun and some were forgettable, but by the end of it we were looking forward to seeing the show.
They have two separate semi-final shows, each with slightly less than half of the contestants. The five countries who pay for most of the event – Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the UK – as well as the current host country all get automatic passes into the finals, which isn’t the advantage that you’d think it would be if history is any guide. The poor guy from the UK ended up with zero points when all was said and done, and the Germans had three. For comparison, the winners had over 500.
We fired up the recorded shows Saturday afternoon and watched the acts from Semi-Final 1, skipped over the judging since we figured we’d know who hit the final when we got there, and then watched the acts from Semi-Final 2. Later we got to the final, where we saw them do their acts all over again.
The 80s are back.
You didn’t know this, but it’s true. Bright blues, reds, and purples. Shades. Synthesizers. WHAM! wannabes. Speaking as someone for whom the 80s were the wild days of youth, I’m not sure this is a good plan. The 80s had some nice things, but by and large popular music wasn’t one of them.
We liked most of the acts, though some more than others. It was a strong field this year, the experts said, and presumably they know such things. We especially liked the ones who performed in their own language rather than the default English that makes songs more salable afterward. That added a nice quality.
There are certain standard characteristics to a Eurovision song that become really obvious as you watch – they’re mostly power ballads, usually with uplifting or empowering lyrics, and with rare exceptions generally in major keys and 4/4 time. You can dance to most of them, if you are so inclined, which makes the exceptions stand out even more. The rules now require that all instrumentals be prerecorded and all main vocals be live, though backing vocals can be either depending on how you feel.
Also, they’ve gone berserk with the lighting. Way back a million years ago at the Sochi Olympics they debuted that system that projected all sorts of immersive images on floors and walls and this was the standard at Eurovision. Digital pyrotechnics – flames, explosions, flashes – competed with abstract shapes and lines, strobes and lasers, and random jarring images of all kinds on both the massive backdrop behind the singers and the floor on which they stood. There were piercing lights coming in at all angles, all plainly visible in the air which implied a certain amount of particulates floating about in order for them to be visible. The lighting crew certainly gave all.
There were also the four hosts, whom I am sure are perfectly fine people offstage but who were clearly paid by the hour to drag things out as long as possible – especially when announcing results – and whose shiny banalities reminded me of The Hunger Games and not in a good way. I kept waiting for one of the backup musicians – perhaps one of the drummers, in an homage to the 80s in general and This Is Spinal Tap in particular – to meet a grisly end live on television. The hosts had an impossible job so I’m not going to be too hard on them, but I can’t say I was bothered when we fast-forwarded over most of their bits.
There were 26 songs in the final, which is a lot of songs for one evening when you think about it. I think I did pretty well in predicting them since nine of my top ten from the semis made it in, as well as a number of others that I liked. Should have bought a lottery ticket.
You can divide these into a few basic categories.
First, there were the classic Eurovision songs – big, fun pop songs designed to get stuck in your head and played at dance clubs around the world. In this category my favorite was probably Cyprus, whose song "El Diablo" was clearly about a woman going into a relationship with a Bad Boy but was condemned by some humorless ecclesiastics as devil worship and the performer just ran with it. It’s catchy and fun. Russia’s entry was also a thumping good time, half in Russian and half in English, and the Belgians put together an odd song about a woman and her Johnny Cash t-shirt that was fun. Malta’s song was sassy and exuberant. San Marino had this odd little rap song featuring Flo Rida, who is conspicuously not San Marinese but I gather that’s not against the rules either. I spent several entertaining minutes contemplating Mr. Rida as a Eurovision winner and the effect this would have on his career, though in the end that was not really much of a concern for him.
My favorites were in the “slow, sad song” category, as is my usual habit. I was seriously hoping that Portugal would win the whole thing, though I was shocked to see that the singer was a slight man with a beard since he sounded like Aretha Franklin when I heard the song without the visuals. I also loved the Bulgarian entry, which had the best title of any song in the contest (“Growing Up is Getting Old”). In a contest with ever-more-elaborate costumes where the default female outfit was a short dress made mostly of rhinestones over a body stocking, the Bulgarian singer’s decision to perform in sneakers and what looked like pajamas was charming.
I’m a sucker for the East European/Middle Eastern sounding ones as well. Ukraine and Azerbaijan both had fast-paced songs centered on the wailing female vocal line with odd interval leaps that you find in that genre, and they were a lot of fun.
Somehow in there were two heavy metal songs, one from Finland – whose performers probably had the best time of anyone there, as near as I could tell – and the other from Italy. The Italians eventually won, and I was happy to see that.
But the most entertaining category of songs were the weird ones – the ones where you had to think long and hard to convince yourself that you were actually seeing the national entry of an actual country into a major cultural event and not some tequila-induced hallucination that you would regret mightily in the morning.
Norway sent a guy with Tourette’s Syndrome who calls himself TIX (because of course he does) and performed in a white fur coat with giant wings while chained to four dancing demons.
The German entry was what can only be described as a jug-band song called “I Don’t Feel Hate” performed by a smiling man who clearly felt he was getting away with something and who shared a stage with a number of costumed assistants, including someone dressed as a hand. The person inside the hand costume had a hat on that looked like a middle finger and when she held up her left arm it looked like a peace sign, but she didn’t always have her left arm raised and that did change the message somewhat. I think I was the only person in the world who liked this song (best online comment I saw: “Oh, great. German whimsy. This will end well.”) but hey – I like what I like.
Iceland’s group was what the Will Ferrell movie was all about – a collection of people who clearly enjoyed being the nerdiest human beings in the province and who performed in matching sweaters.
But for sheer aggravated what-the-fuckery, the Lithuanians took home the prize. Between the rubber-duck-yellow outfits, the completely over the top choreography, and the general air of a Saturday Night Live sketch that nobody knew how to stop before they found themselves selected to perform for real, it was a moment in television history that may never be topped. I can't tell you how much I loved this performance.
We stayed up until after 1am watching this, having successfully avoided hearing who won all day.
In a world that is relentless in its demand that you be serious and weighed down with concerns and worry, a day full of nonsense is a day well spent.