Stuff We Like: Eurovision!

May 15, 2020

Ed note: I (Sarah) strongly recommend you open this post in a new tab, then open all the links in subsequent tabs and savor each one individually. It’ll take awhile. It’ll be worth it- trust me. It took me over an hour to edit this, partially because I was making sure the links were accessible geographically, and partially because I was watching song after song. Repeatedly. I am now so high on Eurovision Endorphins I could float onstage and perform. This post is a complete flipping delight, so thank you to Catherine Heloise for this glorious assemblage of links and letters. And please note: some of the YouTube footage that’s available elsewhere in the world isn’t available in the US – so we tried to find comparable video options. Cheers!

Hi, my name is Catherine and I am a Eurovision tragic. Every year, I count the days until the Eurovision Song Contest. I hold viewing parties on each night of the semi-finals and final, with costumes and themed food and Ken-in-a-dress-cakes (why Ken-in-a-dress? Because pretty much every Eurovision contest I’ve seen has had at least one man in a dress or in full drag – not to be confused with the handful of transgender singers who have also graced Eurovision with their fabulousness over the years). Since Australia began participating in 2016, I have held slumber parties on the night before the final, so that we can all get up at 5am and watch the competition, live, in our pyjamas – and, most importantly, vote.

Behold, the glory of Ken!

I’m not quite as obsessed as some. My Eurovision godson (who caught the bug when his mother brought him to one of my parties in 2012, and I could not be more proud) actually watches all the individual country finals, live, at all sorts of ungodly hours of the night, and votes wherever it is permitted. I know people who have planned European trips and conference attendance around attending the semi-finals. A small, but significant, number of Australians party all night on the Saturday before the finals, the better to greet Eurovision and the dawn in their most outrageous outfits on Sunday.

(It should be noted that the Europeans I work with all find this absolutely hilarious, because nobody in Europe gets anywhere near as excited about Eurovision as Australians do.)

Tomorrow night would have been the 65th Annual Eurovision Song Contest, held in Rotterdam, Netherlands. But alas, something decidedly less musical decided to go viral this year, and so here we all are.

The Eurovision organisers have done their best to comfort us in our time of Europop deprivation by offering a series of Eurovision At Home concerts, where we are treated to the sight of Eurovision singers performing their own music and covers of other Eurovision songs in their apartments (sometimes with flatmates or family members roped in to be backing dancers and singers), and there will be a special Europe Shine A Light concert, which I will certainly be watching with my friends via our online chat channel. Several countries are putting on their own Eurovision Tribute shows, of which the UK’s Isolation Song Contest looks to be a highly entertaining example. Even the robots have gotten in on the action, with a contest in which AIs compete to try to create a Eurovision-style song (the results are… extremely odd and occasionally subversive).

And over here on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Sarah has very kindly invited me (well, acquiesced to my hopeful badgering) to write a post celebrating all the things I love about Eurovision. Of which there are many. So very, very, many. I tried, I really tried, to reduce this to a top ten list of favourite songs, but I just couldn’t do it. My first attempt had 27 songs on it. My second, 36…

Anyway. For those of you who are missing Eurovision as much as I am this weekend, I hope this post will be a celebration of all the over the top, bizarre, beautiful, sometimes tacky, occasionally glorious, but always fabulous spectacle that is Eurovision.

And for those of you who have never been blessed with the opportunity to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, I trust that by the end of this post you will understand a bit more about what the competition is, why Australia is part of it*, and perhaps gain an inkling of why I love this competition enough to get up at 5am for it year after year, despite being decidedly not a morning person…

* Ha, not likely – even we aren’t entirely sure how that happened, but we are going to cling on for dear life – there will be no kicking us out now!

First, a little background. The Eurovision Song Contest started back in 1956, with a mission of promoting peace and unity in Europe after the Second World War. It was initially a fairly serious, conservative music competition, with everyone singing in their own languages, and politics strictly forbidden.

Pretty much all of that has changed. These days, Eurovision is more of a show than a concert, and special effects, backing dancers, wind machines, and outrageous costumes are the order of the day. It is extremely, extremely out and proud – the LGBTIQA community embraced Eurovision in the 1980s, and has never looked back – and most countries choose to sing in English (with the exception of France, which absolutely never does, except when they are singing a song parodying English tourists).

As for politics…well. I could write a whole essay on this, but several people already did, and this article is already unreasonably long, so if you are interested in that, I suggest you read one of those.

You’ve probably heard at least one or two of the more old school Eurovision songs in your time, even if you’ve never heard of the contest before – Volare (Italy, 1958), Puppet on a String (UK, 1967), Save your Kisses for Me (UK again, 1976), and, of course, Waterloo (Sweden, 1974) all found their way onto the wider world stage, or at least the radio, along with many others.

(And I don’t know if Dschinghis Khan did, but I think we can all agree that they ought to have.)

Hu! Ha! Hu! Ha!

Beyond that…well, I think the best possible people to answer the question of what Eurovision is are Petra and Måns, who hosted the contest for Sweden in 2016. Also, I have a massive crush on Måns, so I’m going to share videos of him any chance I get.

What is Eurovision?

As for the question of how Australia got involved… well, SBS, our public broadcaster that specialises in international news and films, began broadcasting it back in 1983. It got popular fast, and we eventually started sending our own commentators to cover the event, much to the bemusement of the performers and hosts. And finally, in 2016, as a special treat for the 60th anniversary of the competition, we were invited to participate as a one-off, and we did so well that they let us keep coming back.

…Or, more probably, Europeans find our extreme enthusiasm for Eurovision confusing and hilarious, but also sort of cute, and they couldn’t bear to see our sad little faces if they told us to go home. We are the kitten who miaowed at the door until one day you fed us and now we live in your house. But to our credit, we’ve been sending pretty good songs…

But this is far too much talk and nowhere near enough songs.

Since I am evidently incapable of coming up with a top ten list, I have instead decided to provide you with a field guide to the many elements that make up Eurovision, featuring some of my favourite examples.

Because I’m Australian, it’s going to be heavy on the kitsch and light on the power ballads (seriously, I’ve seen how the other people who are up at 5am in the morning vote. Given the choice between Serious Ballad and Yodel Rap, Australians will go Yodel Rap every time). I make no apology for this – kitsch is fun, and, to my mind, most of the point of the exercise. It’s also going to be heavy on songs from the last twelve years or so, because that’s when I discovered Eurovision myself. And it’s probably a skewed list in innumerable other ways that I haven’t thought to mention. Don’t worry, you’ll have your chance to correct the record in the comments!

1. The Costume Reveal

In my view, it’s just not a proper Eurovision Song Contest without a costume reveal. This move was pioneered by Buck’s Fizz of the UK in 1981, with the song “Making your mind up!”, and it is exactly what it says on the box. Halfway through the song… well, watch the video, and you’ll see. Sadly, costume reveals have gone out of fashion in the last couple of decades, though 3+2 from Belarus had a rather wonderful costume one in 2010 with “Butterflies”. The effect was lovely (and bonus points for the dramatic reveal on the Eurovision key change), but the song itself sadly didn’t do a lot for me.

My top pick for the costume reveal really has to be Moldova’s Sunstroke Project, with their 2017 song “Hey Mamma”. Upbeat bouncy music, epic sax, bouquet microphones, and an excellent costume reveal – what’s not to like?

I’m not that defendant boy

2. The Power Ballad

It’s also not Eurovision without a power ballad. The most quintessentially Eurovisual power ballads are those where the singer is clad in white and has a wind machine behind them. Throw in a Eurovision Key Change (where they modulate into a higher key for the final verse or chorus), and you have a true drinking game classic. Australia tried this formula on our second outing, with Dami Im’s “Sound of Silence” (music video link for those who can’t access the final version) in 2017, and came very close to winning (though politics helped us out on that occasion – the two favourites that year were Russia and Ukraine, and I think a lot of voters took one look at both and voted for the country as far away from that particular argument as possible). Actually, on re-watching that clip, there’s no wind machine, and not much of a key change after all, so maybe that’s how Ukraine pipped us at the post…

I also have a soft spot for “Love Injected”, sung by Aminata of Latvia in 2015 – I love the contrast of the lightness of her voice in the chorus combined with that huge chorus. And if you want something completely different in the same genre, Rona Nishliu of Albania gave us something fairly extraordinary back in 2012, with her performance of “Suus”. I’m honestly not quite sure whether I even like it, but it is absolutely compelling.

But probably the most iconic power ballad of modern Eurovision is Conchita Wurst’s “Rise Like a Phoenix”, which won Eurovision for Austria in 2014. I honestly can’t think of anything useful to say about this one – you should really watch it for yourself.

From the fading light I fly…

3. Tradition!

The traditional costume, traditional music style, or traditional dance, modernised and translated into Europop and sequins is always a popular Eurovision choice, and there are many different directions in which it can be taken. Inga and Anush from Armenia brought a very glamourous version of national costume and musical style to Eurovision in 2009 with “Jan Jan”, and it’s still one of my favourites.

Donatan and Cleo of Poland, on the other hand, took a rather different approach to traditional costume and singing style, complete with cleavage and extremely suggestive butter churning with their 2014 song “We Are Slavic”. It’s hilarious and, um, not very subtle. They scored points from nearly everyone, but only Italy was sufficiently secure in its appreciation of breasts to give them the much coveted ‘Douze Points’ (twelve points, the highest score a country can give another in Eurovision).

Meanwhile in Turkey, Can Bonomo dialled traditional Turkish dancing up to eleven, in his song “Love Me Back” (2012), which added capes, sailors, and a pretend boat, and made me infinitely happy. (It didn’t hurt that the singer and dancers were all pretty gorgeous). I could watch this one again and again, honestly.

My ship is made from hope, she’s searching for your bay

Alternate link in case the one above is being weird:

 

Another delight in this genre is Greece’s 2013 entry, “Alcohol is Free” (rehearsal clip here), by Koza Mostra, on traditional instruments and somewhat traditional costume. The poor singers got a nasty shock when their song did a little bit too well in the voting and looked for a while as if it might win. Hosting Eurovision is notoriously expensive, and there’s an art to writing a song that is good enough not to embarrass you, but not good enough to risk a victory that your country can’t afford. Fortunately, they came in sixth, and I have never seen anyone look quite so relieved.

But the only possible winner in this category would have to be Russia’s 2012 entry, “Party for Everybody”, sung by the Buranovskiye Babushki, a choir of Russian grandmothers who sing traditional music at local weddings – but aren’t afraid to write a hopping party song, while baking piroschki in a giant oven on the stage. Russia is, shall we say, not entirely popular with much of the Eurovision viewing crowd, but this entry very nearly won their year, and wound up with a very well-deserved second place.

Come on and dance!

4. The Political protest

…Speaking of Russia.

As I implied earlier, Eurovision is extremely political, and most years produce at least one item for this category. Ukraine’s Verka performed a song for Ukraine in 2007 titled “Dancing Lasha Tumbai”, with lyrics that just happened to sound an awful lot like “Russia Goodbye”, though he claimed that it was actually a Mongolian phrase for “whipped cream”. (He had more luck with this claim than Georgia did when they wrote a song which had the chorus “We don’t wanna put in”, which was banned from the competition because it sounded way too much like “We don’t want Putin”). And to complete the trio (though there are many more) of songs that have really irritated Russia, Ukraine’s 2016 entry, “1944” by Jamala, about the deportation of the Tatars by Stalin, was also nearly banned for being too political. It was finally deemed to be historical rather than political, an interesting line to draw, but it’s unquestionably a powerful song – and in fact, it won its year.

But my favourite of all the political Eurovision songs is unquestionably Lithuania’s 2010 entry “Eastern European Funk” by InCulto, which had some pointed comments to make about how Eastern Europe is treated by the EU. Is it as good as, well, any of the songs above? In all honesty, probably not. Is it in good taste? Also no. But does it have giant foam instruments, a kazoo, falsetto singing, and the most ridiculous costume reveal I’ve ever seen in all my years of Eurovision viewing? Yes, yes it does.

Look, I never claimed to have sophisticated Eurovision tastes.

No Sir we’re not equal no, though we are both from the EU.

5. Pop Opera!

…but speaking of sophisticated, I do love me some pop opera. I have, with difficulty, pared this category down to just two songs, but I could never choose between them. I still feel that they were each, in their own way, the pinnacle of Eurovision, and sadly robbed of their glory!

The first is “It’s My Life”, by Cesar from Romania in 2013. He has it all – a vaguely vampiric costume, which rises to out of the ground to form a volcano-like pedestal; backing dancers so naked and suggestive that you really want to be careful where you watch the video; random dubstep; and an absolutely remarkable voice – the way he just goes up at the end of the first verse, and then keeps going – that’s some amazing counter-tenor magic right there. It’s camp, and ridiculous, and musically brilliant, and he was ROBBED, I tell you!

Love is high, so high.

The second, if you will pardon me a moment of patriotic pride, is Australia’s 2019 entry, “Zero Gravity”, by Kate Miller-Heidke. I can’t believe we put a fairy on a stick surrounded by flying Dementors and made her sing opera and still didn’t win, frankly. But seriously, I love everything about this song – Kate’s voice is incredible, and that staging is gorgeous, and the whole thing reliably makes me cry every time I watch it. Also, how many Eurovision songs are there about post-partum depression? Not many, I suspect.

You’re so heavy, I have got to let you go.

We are putting three clips here, because the official one from the Grand Final sadly doesn’t work in the US. So the second clip is the very simply staged version from the Australia Decides competition, and the third one provides side view video from the dress rehearsal, which hasn’t got such good sound quality, but should give you a sense of the staging, which really was exceptionally lovely.  (And if you want to see them getting her on stage, this clip shows that part, too – and you can hear the audience singing along, which is very cute.)

 

6. The Europop Classic

I’ll tell you a secret – I’m not quite sure what makes something Europop. The internet is not helping me much on this, either, though it tells me that ABBA founded the genre. But for the purposes of this essay, I’m defining it as fun, upbeat, pop songs that you might dance to or hear on a European radio station. These are songs that are fairly low in gimmicks, that are easy to sing along to, that are, in a word, just fun pop songs. And they often win, and launch careers.

First in this category has to be the gorgeous and talented Måns Zelmerlöw, who won the Eurovision contest for Sweden in 2015 with his song, “Heroes”.

We are the heroes of our time, but we’re dancing with the demons in our minds.

Zelmerlöw has subsequently become Eurovision royalty, co-hosting for Sweden in 2016 (and performing the perfect Eurovision parody song, “Love, Love, Peace, Peace”), being a guest host and guest performer at, I think, every subsequent contest and a guest performer at many local competitions (including Australia this year – my Eurovision godson was very excited to see him in person, and tells me that yes, he really is that charming. Swoon!).

Ed. note: if you want to really “understand” Eurovision, this is the one to watch. 

Step 1: Get everyone’s attention…

Also from Sweden (and if you are getting the impression that the Nordic countries dominate this competition, you’d be right) is Loreen, who brought a bit of Kate Bush / Indie style to Eurovision in 2012, with her winning song, “Euphoria”. She also ushered in an era of somewhat more serious Eurovision songs, which is rather a pity in my view, but the song itself is fantastic.

Of course, nothing can make Cyprus put in a serious song if they don’t want to, and Elena Foureira definitely didn’t want to in 2018. Her song, “Fuego” has everything – a huge voice, a great dance beat, energetic backing dancers, and a glorious, flame-coloured bodysuit. I love it.

Finally, neither my German postdocs (who changed their stripes overnight from utter disinterest to superfans when Germany won in 2010), nor my husband (who never claimed disinterest in the first place) would forgive me if I failed to mention Lena, who won the competition with her song “Satellite”. This is a cute, boppy song, and I absolutely adore Lena’s accent, which is a strange mixture of German and British and I don’t know what.

I even painted my toenails for you, I did it just the other day..

7. The Gimmick

I love these ones so much. Sure, Eurovision is theoretically about the songs, but let’s face it, is there really any song that wouldn’t be improved by a flaming piano, pirates, figure skaters, half naked gladiators, a unicycle a dancing astronaut or a giant hamster wheel? Of course there isn’t. So let’s have a closer look at some of Eurovision’s more bonkers entries of the last few years.

First off – the Yodel Rap. I wasn’t kidding about that, you know. Romania brought the genre to Eurovision in 2017, with Ilinca ft. Alex Florea and the song “Yodel It”. This also brought a lot of attempted yodelling to our loungeroom. Spoiler: none of us are ever going to be as good as Ilinca, and the cat was not impressed, either.

Yodele, yodeleioo!

Semi-Final version for those who can see it; slightly less glitter-cannon enhanced version for those who have the channel blocked in their country.

Speaking of things that Australians like (but Europeans do not), “Space”, by Slavco Kalezic was only going to get a brief mention in the list above, but when I sent the link to Sarah she said “Holy cow”, and anything that brings out the divine bovines probably deserves a wider audience.  This was Montenegro’s 2017 entry, and it *inexplicably* failed to get through to the finals, despite having a costume reveal and helicopter hair.  (Europe has a depressing tendency to vote out the really bizarre acts early, though I note that my fellow Australians awarded him 7 points, because we are to be trusted when it comes to voting for helicopter hair).

Show me your super powers

“Hard Rock Hallelujah”, by Finland’s Lordi is technically not a gimmick, but it is so far outside the Eurovision norm that I think it belongs in this category. And the costumes are something else again. There is even a costume reveal of sorts in the last verse, presumably to reassure the audience that this may be hard rock, but it is still Eurovision.

We’re the Supermonstars, We chant the anthem of the Phantoms

And I can’t possibly end without including my absolute favourite Eurovision gimmick ever – the incredibly clever staging in DoReDo’s “My Lucky Day”. Moldova is perhaps my favourite Eurovision country – they are reliably entertaining, and always do something a bit different to everyone else. I recommend watching both versions below the link if you can – the second one gives you the backstage view as well as the front view, and it’s amazing.

Something tells me we can make some music

Two links again – the first is the official one, with better camera angles, but may not be visible in the US; the second one you will definitely be able to see, and it’s almost cooler than the first one – it shows both what’s going on out the front of the stage and what it looks like behind the panel.

8. The Modern Folk Song

This is another category that I adore, but which usually doesn’t do very well, alas. I love songs with gorgeous vocal harmonies, and these have them in spades. I still haven’t forgiven Europe for failing to vote for Greta Salóme and Jónsi of Iceland in 2012. “Never forget”, indeed – this is one of my favourite songs ever to come out of the contest.

I’ve already expressed my adoration for the beautiful Rasmussen and his peaceful Viking friends (that would be the time I shoehorned a Eurovision song into a book review of Charish Reid’s Hearts on Hold), but just in case you missed it the first time, here they are singing “Higher Ground”. (Another swoon!). I could just listen to this one forever, honestly.

On a very different note, I have a perverse fondness for this gentle happy hippy anthem, “Cake To Bake”, presented by Latvia’s Aarzmenieki. It’s silly and sweet and makes very little sense, but I adore it anyway.

But there can be only one grand finale for this post, and that is a modern folk song that actually won the competition in 2009. 2009 was the year when everyone brought a violin to Eurovision (seriously, so many violins), but one violin ruled them all, and that was the violin of Alexander Rybak, whose song “Fairytale” received the highest score of any Eurovision song before or since. And honestly? It deserved to. It’s a great song, Rybak is a fantastic violinist, and his backing dancers are enormous fun. Douze points from me.

Years ago when I was younger, I kinda liked a girl I knew…

And that, my friends, brings me to the end of this Eurovision Squee! If you’ve actually clicked on all the links, you’ve probably watched the equivalent of two entire Eurovision Song Contests, and are well on your way, I hope, to becoming a fellow Eurovision tragic. If you haven’t…well, I’ll never know, will I?

But seriously, the Eurovision Song Contest really is a wonderful project. For 65 years, it has given European countries the opportunity to come together as a community, to express their cultural identity, to showcase their talent, to, perhaps, express a certain amount of competitive nationalism in a non-aggressive way, and to delight us with colour, kitsch, epic staging, and, at least a few times every year, some amazing songs.

That’s not a bad track record for a song contest.

And this is where I very enthusiastically invite any other Eurovision tragics lurking in the Bitchery to share their favourite Eurovision songs in the comments. What have I missed? Restore the balance! And let’s have an online Eurovision Party to remember!

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