Ever since I’ve been traveling to Europe starting in 1977 – well before American Idol or The X Factor – the Eurovision annual song contest has been a big deal for more than a few of my Old World friends and acquaintances (not to mention the local media). I got to watch it several times surrounded by Europeans, and I must say, the enthusiasm generated by this reliably cheesy collection of crazy outfits, over-the-top antics and sometimes downright goofy tunes (here's a 2010 piece I found on its most outrageous antics) can be kind of endearing.
At the same time, since it started in 1956, some great songs (and sometimes careers) have come out of Eurovision – perhaps my favorites being the Spanish group Mocedades with its luminous “Eres Tú” (1973), ABBA’s insanely catchy “Waterloo” (1974), “La La La” by Spain’s Massiel (1968), “Un banc, un abre, une rue” from Monaco’s Séverine (1971), and a pair from Israel: “Hallelujah” (1979) and “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” (1978). (Yes, I know Israel is not Europe, but they’re obviously considered honorary Europeans.)
Since the turn of the century, in addition to ever more Eurovision songs being sung in English, the contest’s focus has been turning quite a bit eastward, with winners from Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine, Serbia, and Russia. And that tendency was on full display in the finals held tonight (even though the winning song, above, was from Sweden, and therefore the proceedings will be in Stockholm in 2013). This year, 2011’s winning tune, the appropriately titled “Running Scared” (also in English) sent the competition to oil-soaked Baku, Azerbaijan – I believe the first time it’s been held in a country ruled by an out-and-out dictatorship. After getting off to a typically bombastic start, on came the 26 finalists:
1. Britain: “Love Will Set You Free” - Engelbert Humperdinck The by now rather ghastly looking 76-year-old affectionately dubbed “The Hump” by the Brits kicked things off with a draggy, morose, minor-key bit of business, and even went off-key once or twice. Bloody hell, what were they thinking? This was definitely after the lovin' (and viewers agreed, with zero or possibly single-digit points, as I recall).
2. Hungary: “The Sound of Our Hearts” - Compact Disco Sung in English, also in a minor key and fairly forgettable, but, jeez, at least more upbeat than The Hump.
3. Albania: “Suus” - Rona Nishliu Sung in Albanian, this was a slow ballad that got kinda shrill in parts, to say the least. And what’s up with the hairdo, Rona? It looked like a great big ball of yarn on top of your head. Also, close-ups were not kind - can the makeup artist!
4. Lithuania: “Love Is Blind” - Donny Montell The gimmick here was that this fresh-faced 25-year-old (né Donatas Montvydas) did the first part of his set in a glittery blindfold. Again, in English and a minor key, but I grant it offers some catchy potential.
5. Bosnia & Herzegovina: “Koraka Ti Znam” – Maya Sar A power ballad from an elegant, attractive 32-year-old from Sarajevo. Nice voice and melody, but not a particularly notable standout.
6. Russia: “Party for Everybody” - Buranovskiye Babushki Sung in Russian except for the title hook, this was far and away the novelty act of this year’s contest – a half-dozen grannies from the small Urals town of Buranovo. It's sort of a techno-amped folk tune with a choreography involving baking cookies. Cute, wrinkled old ladies and “boom boom boom” - it has to be seen to seen to be believed.
7. Iceland: “Never Forget” - Greta Salóme & Jónsi Yet another minor-key power ballad (obviously the flavor of the year). This one stuck in my mind just a bit more than others before it, but I didn’t peg it as the winner.
8. Cyprus: "La La Love” - Ivi Adamou A girl group with much more of a techno/dance vibe. Sounds like plenty of tracks I’ve boogied to in clubs over the years. Fun, but not particularly memorable.
9. France: “Echo (You and I)” - Anggun Oh, la la, if you’re into beefcake, this was the act for you. Chippendales meet the Olympics to a disco beat. As the exotically Asiatic-looking chanteuse had at a nice upbeat tune in French. she was surrounded by five highly fit, shirtless gents leaping around in all manner of gymnastics. I did kinda like this one, but still was somehow doubtful about its prospects.
10. Italy: “L’Amore è Femmina (Out of Love)” - Nina Zilli Sung in English despite the Italian title, this was a solid, upbeat pop tune, performed by lead singer Nina with three- backup singers and lots of energy. But ultimately: so what.
11. Estonia: “Kuula” - Ott Leppland Very simple, straightforward, and unflashy – a boyishly goodlooking young dude in a t-shirt and black vest backed by a single female vocalist, singing a kinda catchy, melodious ballad in Estonian that I found the most appealing and memorable of the evening. Honestly, this would’ve gotten my vote for winner, but few others voted for it except a handful from from Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Lithuania - so what do I know?
12. Norway: “Stay” - Tooji Another young guy on stage, but prettier, singing in English and with a leather jacket, dry ice, backup dancers, and a somewhat nondescript techno thang going on this time.
13. Azerbaijan: “When the Music Dies”- Sabina Babayeva The hometown favorite is a gorgeous girl with impressive pipes and feathery dress, and again wreathed in dry ice. The song’s pleasant enough, another another slow minor-key number in English. But except for the home-field advantage, I wasn’t betting on this one. But it did get a fair number of votes (brown-nosing, perhaps?).
14. Romania: “Zaleilah” - Mandinga A white-garbed six-person group with a peppy girl lead singer weighed in with another dance-clubby tune sung in, of all things, Spanish with a tiny touch of English (WTF??) and special effects including shooting flames. And where the hell did those bagpipes come from?
15. Denmark: “Should’ve Known Better” - Soluna Samay Lead singer Soluna was decked out in an outfit remniscent of "Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band," backed by mostly girl musicians (yo, that drummer chick can rock). Catchy pop tune, what else can I say?
16. Greece: “Eleftheria Eleftheriou” - Aprodisiac A chick in a short, tight, spangly dress with a high-energy quartet of backup dancers and an English-language tune with a dance beat and a noticeably Hellenic flavor (at one point the kids even break into a quick Zorba-the-Greek-style dance line).
17. Sweden: “Euphoria” - Loreen This year's winner was another slow-fast club track from a shimmying dark-haired 28-year-old (quite pretty but hardly the stereotypical Swedish look, being of Moroccan-Berber origin as she is). Atmospherics included wind, falling blossoms, and a black male dancer with a “Mr. T”-style ‘do. It's certainly slick and catchy, but in my humble opinion, while it's in my top five, it's not nearly as special as a most of Eurovision viewers obviously found it. But hey, certainly a feather in the cap of the newish multicultural Europe.
18. Turkey: “Love Me Back” - Can Bonomo An energetic and very Anatolian sounding entry from a chap in a leather jacket and sailor-type striped shirt, backed by five caped male dancers (definitely a little bit of whirling dervish inspiration there, and darned if one doesn’t look like Freddie Mercury). I took a bit of a shine to this nautical-themed ditty in English, but didn’t sense it would swim the distance.
19. Spain: “Quédate Conmigo (Stay with Me)” Pastora Soler I happen to know my way around Spanish pop a bit, and this pleasing number did well by the genre, with a lush arrangement/ instrumentation sung with soul by an elegant, white-gowned contralto with a powerful voice.
20. Germany: “Standing Still” - Roman Lob Roman’s a slightly grungy looking young bloke in a wifebeater with a scruffy beard, a couple of earrings, and wool cap. His melodic tune in English was one of the catchier ones of the evening.
21. Malta: “This Is the Night” - Kurt Calleja Of the dance-track style entries tonight, this might’ve been my favorite. It boasts a pretty irrestistible hook – and another girl drummer who can really kick butt.
22. Macedonia: “Crno i Bielo” - Kaliopi Another elegant songstess with a strong voice (reminded me somehow a little of a young Gina Lollobrigida). This tune, “Black and White,” had a great pop-rock feel, yet no particularly memorable hook. But thanks for at least singing in Macedonian, guys!
23. Ireland: “Waterline” - Jedward Mother Mary, but the Oud Sod sure has changed. This pair of androgynous blond twinks with poofed-up hairdos came across like something out of Dune or The Fifth Element. A catchy enough popster, but I found all that silly jumping about just a little too distracting.
24. Serbia: “Nijev Lyubav Stvar”- Željko Joksimović A melodic ballad belted out in Serbian by a black-jacketed 40-year-old fellow backed by five musicians, including a pair of dramatic lady violinists. Not particularly distinctive, but at least they didn't try to ethnically cleanse the Bosnian act.
25. Ukraine: “Be My Guest” - Gaitana A flower-crowned disco diva in a white-fringed dress, she’s got a voice that for me brings to mind Donna Summer or Gloria Gaynor. Hers was a spirited song with a strong brass-flavored accompaniment from a bunch of shirtless guys in skirts (and BTW it ignited a right-wing firestorm back home because Gaitana is biracial).
26. Moldova: “Lăutar” - Pasha Parfeny A goateed male singer with another high-wattage pop rocker in English and a minor key. But those girl dancers with that silly choreography - oy.
For more news and videos from this years's contest, log on to www.Eurovision.tv.
Longtime travel journalist and guidebook author David Paul Appell is CEO of Tripatini.com and its parent EnLinea Media LLC, an online content provider and social media management company.
Thanks for weighing in, Hal! Just a quick note to dispel the impression I traveled to Baku to attend in person (I wish!). Unfortunately I had to watch this via the live web site feed. It felt like I was live-blogging the darn thing! And despite everything, after looking into some of the great stuff Azerbaijan has to offer the visitor, it's moved up a couple of notches on my bucket list.
David - you do have stamina and a willingness to go an unusual mile:) While you were gone from here, the BBC America news ran a piece on this Eurovision contest in Azerbaijan last week, highlighting some of the facts you point out - including demonstrators apparently being dragged off by plain clothes "security" from somewhere outside the event venue. What was really lame however was their 30 second interview with Engelbert Humperdinck where he pleaded that he "didn't know anything about politics or foreign affairs". Perfect fit then for someone to perform in a country that's a presidential dynastic dictatorship and found that out in one minute or less reading the Beeb's own country profile online. But, your descriptions of some of the performers were probably worth the pains of making equally strange airport changes and layovers enroute between Miami and Baku. Now there may be another blog in and of itself, huh?