So, what did you do last weekend? Other than get some running in and listening to DNTO‘s final episode (gosh, I miss that show already), I watched something on television I had never watched before, and I imagine not a lot of my fellow Americans never had the chance to do so either.
On Saturday afternoon, May 14, Logo aired the Eurovision Song Contest here in the United States. There are some on this side of the Atlantic Ocean who perhaps have heard of the contest, but for the unfamiliar, here’s a complex description: There’s this broadcast service in Europe called the European Broadcasting Union. One entity within the European Broadcasting Union is called Eurovision. Every year since 1956, Eurovision conducts and broadcasts a continent-wide song contest. Almost every country that’s part of the European Broadcasting Union (and even a handful outside of Europe) submits one song to be performed at the contest. Hundreds of millions of people tune in every May for the final round, making it the biggest non-sporting TV event on the planet. The viewers watch the performances, then grab their phones and vote for their favorite song (“televoting” is the term). As a result of the separate votes by viewers and each country’s jury of experts, songs are awarded points based on how they ranked in each participating country. The song with the most points is the winner, and the country it originates from gains a sense of patriotic pride for the next 12 months.
Okay, you’ve read the complex description. Now, here’s the simplified version: It’s the glitziest, kitschiest music show you’ve ever seen.
Yep, Eurovision (as the contest is commonly referred to in shorthand and I will do so as well here) is famous (infamous?) for adding more than a pinch — okay, the whole damn shaker — of camp and showmanship to the song performances. From ginormous video and lighting displays to singers and dancers in extravagant costumes, Eurovision performances really go over the top. It’s that glitz and glam, along with the inclusion of LGBT icons both recent (Hovi Star this year, Conchita Wurst a couple of years ago) and historic (ABBA in 1974), that has given Eurovision a cult following within the gay community. And that attraction made it fitting for the LGBT-oriented Logo, who was afforded the privilege to air the first ever live telecast of Eurovision in the United States.
It was good, too, that Logo, from the portions of Eurovision that I watched, provided a sense of “yeah, this is big but it shouldn’t be taken completely serious” to the proceedings, thanks to the off-screen commentary of Carson Kressley and Michelle Collins. Hearing about Eurovision in the past, I always got the sense that it’s an event that is taken way too seriously. But it is indeed taken seriously, by viewers as well as officials in the participating countries. Reading just about the bidding process for the host city (which is always located in the country that fielded the previous year’s winning song) gave me the impression that Eurovision is like the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, and (ugh!) an American political convention all rolled into one.
But enough about the background. I can hear you shouting, “Gee, Allison, what about the performances?!” Okay, okay. I didn’t get to watch every single second of Eurovision… or rather, the Eurovision finals, which Logo broadcast on Saturday (there were two semifinal rounds during the week). But there were indeed some performances that stood out for me and I still recall a few days after the broadcast. Unfortunately, I can’t find accessible videos to most of the broadcast’s performance segments, presumably because Eurovision locks the streaming rights tighter than a drum (although Eurovision’s YouTube page has some pre-produced music videos). Here, though, is some of what I recall:
- “Alter Ego” was the entry from Cyprus and performed by the band Minus One, who appeared in a setting right out of an ’80s hair band video (tight, dark outfits; cages with dancers). All that was missing was a blonde wig on the bald-headed lead singer. The song itself wasn’t a heavy metal song, though. Indeed most of the songs in the competition sound as if they would instantly fit on a Top 40 station the kids like or the Adult Contemporary station down the dial that their parents insist on listening to.
- “Sound of Silence” by Dami Im was Australia’s entry. Now, you’re saying at this point, “What? Australia? But Australia’s not in Europe!” Well, I agree with you (and so does geography). But as noted above, sometimes Eurovision invites an interloper or two into the fray. And the performance was a pretty good one, so much so that ***SPOILER ALERT*** the song was the runner-up in the competition. (And to prove it, here is a video of the performance posted by someone in the audience in Stockholm.) Dami has some awesome vocals, and her dress was awesome enough that the fabric appeared to light up at one point, although I think that’s due to the LED panels below her. Of note, too, is Dami’s movements at around the 1:00 or 1:30 mark of that video where she’s gesturing as if she’s moving around computer graphics on the Starship Enterprise; though it was a cool segment in that video, it looked better on the broadcast (favorable camera angles for the TV folks, I imagine).
- “I’ve Been Waiting for This Night” by Donny Montell. Having the singer in Lithuania’s entry look like the Justin Bieber type couldn’t hide the fact that this power rock ballad would be perfect for the above-mentioned adult contemporary station with the not-very-adventurous playlist that parents like to tune in and rip off the knob to. Heck, I half expected this song to be added to the older-skewing AC radio station we have here in Madison — which would be an improvement, as their playlist is older than dirt. Seriously.
- “You Are the Only One” by Sergey Lazarev. Hands down, this Russian entry had the most visual appealing pyrotechnics of the night. You see Sergey in the photo at right? He is not really standing on a iceberg that’s flying through space. Five seconds earlier, it was some filament in the LED screen. About 30 seconds before that, it was a series of rapidly disappearing “blocks” on which Sergey appeared to be climbing upward. No, seriously, he appeared to be stepping from block to block, which makes me think there was a movable visual component to the screen behind him that was not obvious to the viewer’s eye (and they did a good job hiding it). This performance was proof positive that Eurovision pulls out all the visual stops when it comes to getting a song over.
- “1944” by Jamala. This Ukrainian entry stood out head and shoulders above the rest, with a truly emotional performance and powerful lyrics and subject matter that helped it become ***SPOILER ALERT*** the champion of Eurovision 2016. The song’s somber content recalls a tragic time in 1944 when the Joseph Stalin-led Soviet Union deported members of the Crimean Tartar ethnic group from the Crimean Peninsula, among them Jamala’s great-grandmother. Many died or starved during the deportations, and it wasn’t until decades later that some of the survivors were allowed to return to Crimea. It’s the same Crimea that was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, an annexation opposed by those in that same Tartar minority. All of that makes for a potentially politically-charged song. Political subtexts of any kind are prohibited in Eurovision, however. But Jamala insisted, and Eurovision officials agreed, that there was no political subtext in “1944,” whose lyrics, in both the English and Crimean Tartar languages, are a combination of darkness, pleading, hope, and demands from the outside world. (Oh, a side note: “1944” was among a very small handful of songs in the competition not exclusively sung in English. Several years ago, Eurovision did away with the rule that a country’s entry had to be sung in its official language. If anyone wonders whether English seems to be the language that makes the world go round, for better or worse, you have some proof here.) Jamala’s performance of this song, which had a post-win end-of-show reprise that can be seen here (thanks, BBC), had a bit of visual darkness with the notably sparse beat, but the hopeful moments were punctuated by dazzling, curving streaks from the LED displays below and behind her, among them a sprouting tree that certainly symbolized hope.
- “Walk on Water” by Ira Losco. I really dug the disco/dance beat in this entry from Malta, so much so that I wondered on Twitter how soon we would be hearing it at the dance club on a Friday night.
- “If Love Was a Crime” by Poli Genova. This entry from Bulgaria had a pretty nice beat as well. But what struck me in the performance was the visual appeal of the singer’s costume, which featured white reflective areas around her shoulders and legs. Well, they actually didn’t reflect light so much as they actually lighted up; this can be seen at the 3:10 mark of this performance video. If I plan to run at night as Allison, I want an eye-catching outfit just like Poli’s. For safety reasons, of course.
After all the entries were performed, viewers got to “televote” their choices. While the voting and tabulations took place, there were some “interval” moments to keep the audience occupied. The most memorable of these acts that was shown on Logo was a replay from one of the semi-final shows during the week yet perfectly tied in with the theme of Eurovision 2016, “Come Together.” The dance performance, titled “The Grey People,” had a theme reminiscent of the dark issue of migrants entering Europe and the harsh backlash some of them are facing from the natives (“Come Together” meant uniting to reduce the nationalism and the resulting backlash against the migrants). The performance ended with the dancers washing some of the grey makeup and dust from their outfits and eventually stepping off the stage and going into the crowd. It was a pretty powerful performance.
But the most important part of Eurovision was about to begin: The tabulation of the votes. The voting system was changed this year, giving equal weight to the preferences of each country’s professional jury and audience. Both groups’ preferences were ranked via points (12, 10, 8, 7, etc. down to 1), meaning each voting country had an equal say in the matter — although they could not vote for their own country’s entry (e.g. Ukraine’s jury and audience could not vote for “1944”), thus assuring that no bit of home country favoritism could unfairly skew the vote. That’s not to say they couldn’t vote for (or against) their neighbors. Officially or not, politics has always had a way of creeping into the Eurovision voting, as I’ll elude to below.
The jury voting was presented first, one country at a time. And if you didn’t get enough kitsch in the performances, you could definitely see a little bit in the outfits of the vote presenters. I’ll mention two of them here, beginning with the presenter from Hungary, who looked as if she was auditioning for a local news standup report. Seriously, she had the conservative outfit, she had the microphone at the ready, and she had a busy crowd behind her. All that was missing was one of those cheesy slogans the local TV news stations can’t seem to get enough of (e.g. “We take action for you!“).
Then there was the pair of presenters from Ukraine. And, whoa boy, did they bring out the flash to their costumes. The other presenters were conservative in style, but these two… well, these two didn’t forget to add culture to their outfits… although I fear they imbibed on some of that champagne. The Logo commentators were right in this aspect: Somebody is going to pick these outfits for their next Halloween costume.
But those were the jury results. The “televoting” results followed, and the hosts really knew how to build the suspense. The Logo commentary noted that the long suspense-building pauses rivaled Ryan Seacrest’s pauses on American Idol. Going from the lowest viewer vote total to the highest, the suspense resulted in the above noted win for “1944” and Ukraine. And it was a good choice in the end; “1944” is indeed a powerful song with a powerful message.
But was everyone happy about the result? Well… of course not, and here is where I fear that nationalism may have creeped into the reaction. There was the reaction from some in Russia claiming political bias among the juries and griping that their entry should have taken home the trophy since it was tops among the audience voters. Then there was an online petition set up to ask the European Broadcasting Union to void the results and strip “1944” of the win just because it wasn’t the top point recipient in either the jury or audience votes (the former went to the entrant from Australia). Naturally, the EBU dismissed the petition, stating flatly that “1944” and Ukraine are the rightful winners.
So, do people take Eurovision way to seriously? Well, as that last paragraph suggests, yeah. But I imagine there are much more of those who hold the belief that, hey, it’s just a music competition. Sure, there’s a lot of national pride buoyed or deflated by the results, but it’s nothing worth going to war over. And while it made most of Europe stand still for a night, I’m sure there are some who think nothing of the competition. Heck, there are those here in the States who didn’t care much for American Idol during its run, including, uh… [takes hands off of keyboard for a moment to sheepishly raise hand]
But this is coming from a person who resides in a country who has no direct dog in this hunt. And not having a rooting interest actually helps in the enjoyment of watching Eurovision. I didn’t mind turning my brain off for less than 4 hours and take in the festivities with an open mind. Hopefully, others both inside and outside Europe took that same route this year… as well as when Eurovision 2017 takes place next May.