Call me a masochist (or whatever), but even after sitting through the often cheesy but extremely popular annual song festival that is Eurovision and even penning a blow-by-blow review in May 2012, I’m back again this year. What is it about this spectacle that has captivated many in Europe and beyond ever since its inception in 1956? Several reasons, perhaps. Big pop-music spectaculars seem to do reliably well among the public, and many folks do of course tune in because they want to hear good new pop tunes (after all, some great music and performers have been launched or enhanced by Eurovision, perhaps the most famous being Sweden's ABBA, which won with “Waterloo” way back in 1974, and Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988).
But of course nothing is ever that simple, and there’s always so much more going on below the surface. For example, it’s also a little like the Olympics in terms of nationalism. Sure, we all want to witness “sporting excellence” or whatever, but most everyone’s also rooting like mad for the home team – or if they can’t because the home team has been knocked out of the running, their neighbors or allies (indeed, the politics of the whole thing has been much remarked upon, as has the marked tilt toward Eastern Europe in recent years – indeed, yesterday the The Guardian in the U.K. came out with two sets of predictions, one based on performance in the semifinals (Netherlands, Denmark, Greece), and the other based purely on geopolitics, in which Greece also scored well but so did Russia and Azerbaijan). Other reports, meanwhile, had bookmakers favoring Denmark, with a possible challenge from Norway.
I also think that the cheese and the kitsch is part of the fun for many – as is the prospect of performers perhaps falling on their faces or making fools of themselves, intentionally or otherwise (the image of one performer waddling around in a giant penguin suit still haunts me from one of the first times I watched the contest, as does the spectacle of a practically mummified Engelbert Humperdinck from just last year).
So now, without further ado, from Malmö, Sweden (and if you want to skip right to the winner, which was indeed Denmark, scroll down to number 18)…
1. France: “L’Enfer et Moi” – Amandine Bourgeois The blonde winner of France’s version of American Idol five years ago definitely projects a kind of a brooding charisma – maybe a little Amy Winehouse, perhaps a little Courtney Love – and this witchy slow rocker “Hell and Me” seems to fit her well (as her Eurovision bio even affirms), evoking unsettling stuff like Fifty Shades of Gray, Fatal Attraction, and your crazy, vengeful ex (above is the music video version, complete with voodoo dolls). A little intense to start off with, but what the hell – er, enfer…
2. Lithuania: “Something” – Andrius Pojavis I’m sure this scruffy, earnest 29-year-old, who’s been singing and/or playing in bands for most of his life, is a very nice fellow. But the song he both wrote and composed was hard to sit through – coming across not so much obnoxious (the music part is actually tuneful enough) as amateurish, between the waggling eyebrows, gesticulations, and lyrics like “If you don’t know I’m in love with you/ When summertime falls It becomes untrue/ Because of my shoes I’m wearing today/ One is called Love, the other is Pain.” Um, next…
3. Moldova: “O Mie” – Aliona Moon An up-and-comer in Moldova at age 24, redhead Aliona (her real last name is Munteanu) did a nice job vocally with this relatively low-key bit of business in Romanian, backed by four boys in white (one at a piano, the others shimmying around behind her). But the most impressive thing about the performance was probably her swooping hairdo – at one point dramatically echoed by flames projected onto her dress. I felt like the song itself, though, wore thin a bit quickly.
4. Finland: “Marry Me” – Krista Siegfrieds Already quite a year for gay marriage, and now Eurovision too! “Bouncy,” “brash,” “energetic,” “infectious,” and “campy” describe both song and singer (and also co-writer) here. Flouncing around in a wedding dress, with back-up singers/dancers (dubbed “ Team Ding Dong,” I kid you not), dressed up like bridesmaids and groomsmen, the 28-year-year-old blonde sure looked like she was having fun out there. But the kicker was a big lesbian smooch at the end. The whole thing is to protest the Finnish parliament’s refusal to approve marriage equality, you see, and some of the less enlightened participating countries this has created quite the ruckus. So safe to say this one wasn’t destined to win.
5. Spain: “Contigo Hasta el Final” – ESDM Even if hardly new, this is kind of an interesting group, whose initials stand for the Spanish for “The Dream of Morpheus.” This trio of thirtysomethings – a girl from the Canary Islands and two dudes from the green northern province of Asturias – began 11 years ago as a folk pop band with Celtic influences (the Celts lived in north Spain before Ireland and Britain, FYI), and “With You Till the End” kicks off with Asturian bagpipes. Very likeable, melodic bubblegum (the vid above is the music video, of course, not the stage performance), but I felt it wasn’t going to knock anyone’s socks of – and this is from someone who has a weakness for Spanish pop.
6. Belgium: “Love Kills” – Roberto Bellarosa Another winner, in 2012, of a local version of American Idol, this 18-year-old from Wallonia (aka French Belgium) may be from a family of soccer jocks but definitely comes across a bit emo. The song has a catchy enough hook, but do it and its singer evince enough personality to offer any chance of pulling out Belgium’s first win since its only other one to date, in 1986? A performance on the wan side in particular left me unconvinced.
7. Estonia: “Et Uus Saaks Alguse” – Birgit Õigemeel Tiny Estonia is very big on song contests domestically (I’ve even been to a couple), and I find it tends to send sweetly tuneful entries to Eurovision; this one (“New Beginning” in English) is no exception. I lke that Birgit sings in her native language, and in her flowing white gown she also unquestionably has that pretty-girl-next-door thing down pat. But charming as I found this tune and her performance, I somehow felt they wouldn’t be quite enough to pull off Estonia’s second win (the first was in 2001).
8. Belarus: “Salayoh” – Alonya Lanskaya This was a driving, pretty good minor-key number from Europe’s only remaining hardcore dictatorship, from a gorgeous blonde (in the singing racket since 2005) backed by a trio of backup singers, a pair of beefy dancer dudes, and a giant mirrored disco ball. They certainly tried mightily “to make it into cha-cha,” to echo the lyrics, but didn’t quite get there.
9. Malta: “Tomorrow” – Gianluca Bezzina Boy, was this different from Malta’s club-electronica-style entry last year. It’s a sweet, whimsical, corny ditty about a love story between an uptight guy and a girl who’s a spontaneous free spirit from a band fronted by a 23-year-old who is, shall we say, hardly classically handsome, and whose other salient point is that his day job, for less than a year, has been medical doctor. A cute package, all told (hey, is that a ukulele?), but destined to get lost in the shuffle – and the YouTube views definitely backed me up on this.
10. Russia: “What If” – Dina Garapova Good morning, Tatarstan! Apart perhaps from her origin in one of its far-east ethnic republics, Russia veered back to a pretty conventional entry after last year’s granny-group novelty act. This was a nice, melodic, uplifting and upbeat bit of business from an attractive winner of Russia’s version of The Voice, with a backup group of two girls and two boys. Pointed lines include “what if we chose to bury our guns.” You listening, Vladimir Putin?
11. Germany: “Glorious” – Cascada With nearly a decade’s worth of success under her glittery leather bustier, 31-year-old Deutsche dance diva Natalie Horler fronts this Eurodance trio belted out a big performance amid all manner of sparkles, strobes, and spotlights. There was a spot of controversy surrounding this song in February when a German newspaper alleged that it was plagiarized from the 2012 Eurovision winner “Euphoria,” but the accusation was debunked (and what a dumb move that would’ve been, anyway!). It’s certainly in a similar vein, but obviously this year the voting went in a different direction.
12. Armenia: “Lonely Planet” – Dorians Another quirky story: the quintet Dorians dates from 2008 and has enjoyed some success in its native country. But the main notoriety for this rock ballad probably derives from its composer (as opposed to lyricist) – none other than Tommi Iommi, guitarist for the English metal band Black Sabbath (Armenian TV apparently approached him, and he “sent something over.” Liked the music, found the lyrics a little plodding (you can subtly tell, for example, they were written by someone whose first language isn’t English).
13. Netherlands: “Birds” – Anouk A pop star in her country since 1997, 38-year-old Annouk Teeuwe wrote and co-composed one of the more unusual offerings of the evening – no gimmicks or throbbing drum track, to begin with, plus slower and more lyrical in its pacing and quirky in its imagery (the music video centers around a suicidal ballerina). I certainly found it compelling, in its own way, even if the lyrics are a bit of a downer – but never likely to be a big crowd pleaser, IMHO.
14. Romania: “It’s My Life” – Cezar I was more than happy to give 33-year-old Florin Cezar Ouatu my best wishes, and indeed things started out on a foot. But before 45 seconds were up, he’d soared into a falsetto and stayed there for the rest of the song – and call me conventional, narrow-minded, or whatever, but I found it both distracting and creepy. Then there was the black sci-fi get-up – who was he trying to channel, a showbusy Dracula or vintage Prince or David Bowie? And finally, I kept thinking of the (much superior) hit of the same name back in the 1990s from Dr. Alban. Better luck next year, Romania.
15. United Kingdom: “Believe in Me” – Bonnie Tyler After the Engelbert Humperdinck fiasco last year, there was no excuse for this total eclipse of common sense. Bonnie has had a good career and at age 62 she’s still looking good (certainly better than The Hump) and singing pretty well. And this tune by the old Nashville pro Desmond Child is nice. But this was the best one of the world’s top musical powers could do? Apparently so, thanks to a choice from some anonymous BBC executive. If it’s possible, as some say, that for various reasons there’s a Eurovision bias against Britain, the Brits have to go the extra mile to be appealing, not stick in yet another aging singer and forgettable song. Jeez.
16. Sweden: “You” – Robin Stjernberg This round-faced 22-year-old former boybander with biggish hair may have a home-field advantage, for whatever that’s worth in Eurovision, and despite slightly distracting choreography I found a lot to like about this danceable number. But it doesn’t have quite the appeal of last year’s Swedish winner, “Euphoria,” and I had a feeling that other strong contenders in a similar vein could make it tough to repeat this year.
17. Hungary: “Kedvesem” – ByeAlex Bearded, bespectacled, and pretty grunge-looking, 29-year-old Alex Márta from eastern Hungary performed his the sweet, gentle “The One For Me” against the backdrop of whimsical animation from the song’s music video. Nice enough, and certainly indie in feel, but, c'mon, dude, where's the paprika? With little charisma or sizzle, this was obviously always long-shot city in a context like this.
18. THE WINNER! Denmark: “Only Teardrops” – Emmelie de Forest All of 20 years old and hailing from North Denmark, Emmelie has been in the music biz for just over a half-dozen years and is known for her folks/blues sound and her penchant for performing barefoot. Performing this catchy minor-key ditty, sure enough, there is she, all neo-hippie with unwrapped tootsies, surrounded by drummers drumming and a piper piping (no lords a-leaping) – not to mention a projected backdrop of soaring flames. I’d read that plenty of bookies had pegged this act to win, and given that, plus the quality of the song/performance, this result is hardly a shocker.
19. Iceland: “Ég Á Líf” – Eyþór Ingi Gunnlaugsson Born in a northern Icelandic fishing village (imagery reflected in the music video for this tune), this Vikingishly hirsute, blond 29-year-old (whose first name BTW is pronounced “ey-thor”) also turned in a sweet gentle ballad called “I Am Alive” that swelled at the end but still struck me as a little outmatched by the competition tonight (loved the stylized North Atlantic backdrop, though). A real pleasure to watch.
20. Azerbaijan: "Hold Me" – Fabrid Mammadov I liked this romantic ballad, delivered with some soul from a very presentable 21-year-old chap, musically (even if the onstage bit with the dude writhing in the lucite box kinda lost me). So did a lot of other people; the voting blocs certainly had potential to rack up points here, and critics who follow Eurovision also felt this could be a winner. And in fact it did come in second.
21. Greece: "Alcohol Is Free" – Koza Mostra/Agathon Iakovidis Um, it's hard to know what to make of this half-dozen-member act. It's certainly very Greek-sounding and -feeling (and -looking, especially the older gent with the major mustachio). All I can say is, here in Sweden alcohol is in fact quite pricey. Oh, whatever, just watch the video.
22. Ukraine: “Gravity” – Zlata Ognevich Born in Russia but raised in the Crimea, Zlata is already a star in Ukraine, and the music video of this catchy tune involves phantasmagoric butterflies (were they consciously trying to echo this year’s Eurovision logo?), hummingbirds, unicorns, and floating islands in the sky. Here live there was plenty of gimmickry, too – not just fireworks and a stage flooded with dry ice but an entrance, for some reason, being carried onstage by a 7½ -foot dude in a feathered cap (huh?).
23. Italy: “L’Essenziale” – Marco Mengoni I also have a soft spot for Italian pop, and while I found “What’s Essential” from Marco, 25, a pleasant listen, it hardly struck me as up to some of the stellar hits I’ve loved over the years from the likes of Umberto Tozzi, Eros Ramazotti, Fabio Concato, Mina, Giugni Russo, etc. Not to mention the performance was kind of limp. He’s got a good voice and potential, though, so I intend to keep an eye on him.
24. Norway: “I Feed You My Love” – Margaret Berger Well, all the Nordic nations certainly made it onboard for the finals this year, didn’t they? Not surprising, I suppose, considering the venue. Anyway, when amid throbbing chords and strobe lights, blonde, white-clad Margaret stepped forward onstage, I thought, OMG she looks exactly like a cousin of mine, whose dad happens to have Norwegian ancestry. But I digress. Another heavy favorite for a win or top showing, this pounding number sounds vaguely like it should be a James Bond theme or something – a little ponderous for my taste. But what do I know?
25. Georgia: “Waterfall” – Nodi Tatishvili & Sophie Gelovani Delivered amid flowing dry ice by duet Nodi, 27, and Sophie, 29, this is a melodic if sugary pop tune, with a lush arrangement, that got Georgia into the finals, unlike last year. Maybe after sitting through two dozen songs, I'm a little "popped out," but while "Waterfall" has some of what it takes to score points with voters, unlikely to go all the way. Tbilisi come, easy go, I guess.
26. Ireland: “Only Love Survives” – Ryan Dolan I found a fair bit to like about this dance tune by black-leather-clad Ryan (all of 18 years old, and actually hailing from Northern Ireland) and partner Wez Devine – catchy, danceable, and well crafted lyrics. The accompanying stage antics, meanwhile, put out kind of an urban gay vibe, with tribal-tattooed shirtless hunks banging on huge drums. I didn’t feel this one would ultimately survive the voting, however, and my instinct was right.
Whew...good night and thank you, Magaldi. See you in Copenhagen.