Yes, people, it’s here again! It’s the event we’ve all been waiting for! It’s the year’s most glittering televisual extravaganza! It’s a breathtaking transnational celebration of
human rights abuses the very best in popular music! It’s an occasion so exciting that by the end of it I may very well have run out of exclamation marks! It’s! It’s! It’s…
…oh, right, the ibuprofen and the antihistamines just kicked in. It’s the Eurovision Song Contest. Again. And I’m not live-blogging it because jamming red-hot pokers into my eyes and ears would make a mess of the carpet. I recorded it earlier, and while I have managed to remain spoiler-free I reserve the right to make judicious use of the fast-forward button because, really, how much trauma can one person reasonably be expected to take in a single evening?
Also, I don’t drink, so I can’t numb the pain by doing a shot every time something ridiculous happens. Yes, folks, just for you, I am watching this sober. I hope you’re impressed.
And no, before you ask, I did not watch the semi-finals. What do you think I am? A masochist?
ANYway. So. We’re in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. And yes, I can find it on a map (Caspian Sea, left-hand side, about a third of the way up). Azerbaijan has vast, vast quantities of petrodollars. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record when it comes to basic human rights, but never mind. They won Eurovision last year, so here we are. We open with a panning shot across Baku’s skyline, a prominent feature of which is a trio of skyscrapers that are designed to look like gas flames, just in case anyone was in any danger of forgetting where Azerbaijan’s money comes from. Don’t mention the torture, or the intimidation of journalists, or the… no, really, don’t. There’s bound to be lots of glitter, so who cares about basic concepts of freedom as enshrined in all manner of international conventions and treaties?
There’s a four-hour time difference between Azerbaijan and the UK, so the show began at midnight local time. Given that Eurovision usually involves a level of kitsch that could not be brought forth without someone on the production team calling on the dark arts, this seems oddly appropriate. We start with fireworks, then ten seconds of a traditional singer, and then… oh my. It’s a troupe of male dancers in floaty white rainwear, some of which glows under a black light. And two of them fly over the audience.
Clearly, this year’s telecast is going to be even less restrained than usual.
Now there are traditional dancers. They’re elegant. They’re graceful. They’re obviously doomed. This section of the opening is tasteful, and yet it’s been allowed to go on for more than twenty seconds. That’s disappointing. And we haven’t even met the presenters yet! Well, apart from Graham Norton, snarking in the background.
Things kick off in earnest with a repeat performance of last year’s winning song, ‘Running Scared’. There are two people on a trapeze over the singers’ heads. Fortunately, we only get one verse before the number ends with big jets of flame shooting out of the sides of the stage. The subtext we’re meant to take away from this, presumably, is that any act unlucky enough to score Nul Points will be barbecued.
And now, finally – Finally! – it’s time to meet our hosts. Leyla and Nargiz. Nargiz, apparently, is a lawyer. She should sue whoever measured her for her dress, which seems to be squeezing one of her boobs out like toothpaste from a tube. And they’re joined by the faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaabulous Eldar Gasimov, last year’s winner. He’s a bit like Nick Jonas, only bland.
Ooh. Change in the rules. Phone voting doesn’t open until every act has performed. You’d think this would be the sensible way to do things, but no, it’s a first.
Aaand we’re off. And Britain’s first, represented by
a face off Mount Rushmore Engelbert Humperdinck. The outside of the hall is lit up with Union Jacks. The song is in 3/4 time, and magnificently cheesy, and Mr. Humperdinck – who really does sing ‘luurve’ – looks a bit like a chipmunk in a black single-breasted suit. There’s a pair of black-clad ballroom dancers behind him, and Mantovani wants his string section back. The song’s not bad, but Mr. Humperdinck’s big money notes at the end, I’m afraid, are a bit approximate. He’s 76, maybe he should have dropped the key a tone. It’s not embarrassing – which puts it several steps above our last few entries – but it’s also, I think, not a winner, and performing first won’t help his chances.
Now we’re off to Hungary. And yes, the outside of the hall lights up in the colours of Hungary’s national flag. Compact Disco (geddit?) with ‘Sound of our Hearts’. Power ballad, sounds like an odd cross between early Boyzone without the harmonies and late Ultravox, sung by a less charismatic Marti Pellow clone who’s wearing an oddly rigid black leather coat. Competent but uninspiring, nicely sung, could have come from any country in Europe at nearly any point in the last twenty-five years. Move on, there’s nothing to see here.
Albania. She’s a ‘devoted experimental jazz singer’, apparently. Mr. Norton tells us that she can ‘do extraordinary things with her voice. Not pleasant things, but extraordinary’. And she seems to be wearing a cruller on her head. Rona Nishliu, she’s called, bringing us ‘Suus’. The tinkly piano intro isn’t bad. Her singing, however, certainly is, although it pales next to her astonishing gown, which seems to be modelled on a British Airways club class seat circa 1993. She seems to be simultaneously channeling Bjork, Enya, and Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’, with some startling high notes thrown in, presumably to bring every dog in Azerbaijan to heel.
Now. Lithuania. Donny Montell. ‘Love is Blind’. We’re in Mathis territory. He’s wearing a sequinned blindfold. I’m kind of hoping he’ll lose his footing and go crashing over the front of the stage, because the song he’s singing is stunningly boring. Oh – no, wait, a beat has come in, he’s ripped off the blindfold, and now he’s started dancing. He’s about 22, and he dances like… well, imagine Zac Efron impersonating Miss Piggy while receiving electroshock therapy.
Five. Bosnia-Herzegovina. Maya Sar, singing ‘Korake Ti Znam’. Big shoulder-pads, grand piano, pretty voice, meaningfully tortured facial expressions. As the song gets more and more overwrought, she gets up from the piano and a wind machine kicks in. At Eurovision, this is what passes for restraint.
Six. Russia. The grandmas. Buranovskiye Babushki, bringing us ‘Party for Everybody’. Oh dear Lord, there’s a prop oven onstage and they’re wearing traditional dress. Yes, it’s a novelty act. They look like they’re having a nice time, and the oven is spinning behind them. Perhaps it’s Satanic. As the number approaches what – please, God – I hope is the climax, they pass a tray of pastries around. It’s simultaneously completely horrendous and absolutely irresistible. This, I’m afraid, is the kind of moment that makes us watch Eurovision.
Iceland. Greta Salome and Jonsi, with a song called ‘Never Forget’. According to Mr. Norton, their song is possibly more suitable for a musical than for Eurovision. Jonsi might be a vampire – he seems to have fangs – and Greta is toting a violin and grinning like she’s under hypnosis. The song reminds me a little of ‘Which Witch’, the Norwegian Operamusical, which I actually saw, and which I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to forget. It’s bland, bombastic, and not bad enough to be memorable. Unlike ‘Which Witch’.
Ooh. Cyprus. I’m going there later this year. Ivi Adamou, with ‘La La Love’. Standard-issue Mediterranean-resort Eurodisco, for some reason performed on and around a pile of books. It’ll go down a storm in the beach bars, but it won’t win this evening.
France. Anggun, singing ‘Echo (You And I)’, performing with the French Gymnastics Olympic team, whose shirts seem to still be in the suitcase they forgot to pick up at the airport. Anggun is wearing a bronze breastplate with matching net curtains (by Jean-Paul Gaultier, apparently), and she’s wasted on this song, which is another slab of white-bread Europop.
Italy. Nina Zilli, ‘L’Amore e Femmina (Out of Love)’. Nice bluesy beginning. She’s sort of like a clean Amy Winehouse. She can sing, the song isn’t bad, and she and her backing singers are clearly having fun with it. In fact, I think she might be having Albania and Iceland’s fun as well. This is about as classy as Eurovision gets, and I hope she does well. Which means she’s obviously doomed.
Estonia. Ott Lepland, with ‘Kuula’. You know what’s nice, Mr. Lepland? Singing with your eyes open. It’s terribly, terribly sincere and meaningful, and he does, at least, hit his high note dead on… oh, wait. No. He hit his first high note dead on, but not the second, third or fourth. Never mind. I feel less bad about fast-forwarding through the rest of his very, very boring song now.
(Who am I kidding? I don’t feel bad about fast-forwarding through the rest of his boring song at all. I recorded it specifically so I could fast-forward through the boring songs.)
OK. Norway. Tooji, with ‘Stay’. Norway have won a couple of times in recent-ish memory, but they also gave us Jahn Teigen, who scored nul points in 1978. This could go either way. Ooh. Acrobats. A guy in a hoodie with big rings on his fingers. Synths and a drum machine. He’s so… clean. It’s like watching Justin Bieber trying to cover the Beastie Boys. I lasted twenty seconds, I hope you’re grateful.
A momentary pause. Nargiz – whose boob is still trying to break free of the side of her dress – is interviewing Mr. Humperdinck. He had a great time and sang from the heart, apparently. That’s nice.
Now it’s the home team. Sabina Babayeva, ‘When the Music Dies’. This is Eurovision, so that title is probably redundant – music died here in rehearsals, long before we tuned in. She’s wearing a pair of dead swans as reimagined by Dynasty-era Joan Collins, and her song sounds like every power ballad you’ve ever heard. She can sing, but she doesn’t quite have the power to slam it home in suitable melodramatic style. Fortunately, there are lighting effects that can do that for her.
Oh. I just found out precisely when the music died: at the beginning of her big high note at the end of the song. Ouch. Well, to be exact, it didn’t die so much as commit hari-kiri. You can actually see the note’s entrails flailing across the front of the stage. Someone get a mop before the next act comes out. There could be a nasty accident.
Romania. Mandinga – apparently, a Romanian-Cuban combo – with ‘Zaleilah’. The singer is gorgeously curvy, the song is a giant slab of Latin-tinged Euro-cheese, and her backing band look like a gaggle of flamboyantly gay Energizer Bunnies who have somehow stumbled into the Pet Shop Boys’ video for ‘Go West’. One of them is carrying a set of toy bagpipes. Another has a bright red accordion. It’s… amazing. More like this, please.
Denmark. Soluna Samay, ‘Should’ve Known Better’. Yes, than to dress like Captain Sensible. The song is competently-executed guitar-driven indie-ish pop. Fast-forward time. That’s not what we’re here for.
Greece. Eleftheria Eleftheriou, with ‘Aphrodisiac’. There are bouzoukis – or a bouzouki synth setting, at least – along with hyperactive dancing and a catchy aa-aa-aa oh-oh-oh chorus. It’s bonkers, but possibly not bonkers enough.
Ah. Sweden. A favourite, apparently. Loreen – not Soreen, Loreen – with ‘Euphoria’. She’s like a cross between Kate Bush and Kate Ryan. No, really, she’s obviously seen Kate Bush’s dance moves from ‘Babooshka’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. The song is another slab of by-the-numbers Eurodisco, and the performance ends with her getting felt up by a dancer. It’s not completely horrible, but if this is the favourite to win, it’s a bad year.
And now Eldard’s back, introducing Turkey. Turkey’s entries are often very, very special, so I have high hopes. Can Bonomo, ‘Love Me Back’. The choreography resembles an international breakdancing class taking place in an iron foundry, flying sparks and all. The dancers have bare sleeves and grey cloth bat-wings attached at their wrists. No, I don’t know why either. It’s camper than Butlins, and the homoerotic subtext would be off the charts if the performance wasn’t so completely sexless. It’s like watching six Ken dolls do the expurgated version of a Turkish-themed disco medley. You can’t get this anywhere else on television.
Spain. Pastora Soler, ‘Quédate Conmigo’. It’s power ballad time again. It starts very soft, and builds to the pitch of a declaration of war. They’re getting a lot of use out of the wind machine this evening, or maybe her top notes caused an earthquake. She did, at least, hit very nearly all of them, which is more than can be said for several of this evening’s contestants. I think I liked the quiet bit of her song better. It was very short.
Germany. Song co-written by Jamie Cullen. Roman Lob, ‘Standing Still’. Pleasant, boring pop song. No staging tricks, just the singer, drums, piano, bass and guitar (and, um, the orchestra in the background). Where’s the cheese? There’s nothing distinctive about it at all – good or bad – which means it almost certainly won’t win.
Home stretch now. Malta. Kurt Kalleja, ‘This Is The Night’. More Eurodisco, but it’s fun – this is a very entertaining slice of disposable pop music with a catchy chorus, performed without any kind of pretentious concept by people who can actually sing, and who look like they’re having a good time on stage but don’t grin like they’ve hoovered up every illegal substance within a half-mile of the stadium through their noses.
Macedonia. Kaliopi, ‘Crno i Belo’. Another quiet, emotional beginning with a tinkly piano in the background – that and cheesy Eurodisco are this year’s two recurring musical themes. She can sing – really well – but the song goes to hell when the guitars and drums come in. What started as a pretty piano ballad very quickly descends into something that Bonnie Tyler would have rejected for being too unsubtle. Shame.
Aaaaand they’re back. Yes, it’s Jedward, the Irish entertainment industry’s joined-at-the-hip punchline, assaulting the senses with a ditty called ‘Waterline’. They entered last year as well. This year, they’ve ditched the vertical hairdos, and seem to be dressed as gold toy soldiers off a Christmas tree. The song is written-by-rote Anglo dance pop, they can’t really sing, the choreography is ridiculous, and – just like last year – they do it with magnificent conviction, even though I think I just saw the word ‘tacky’ get redefined. And yes, that’s a real fountain in the middle of the stage. They get soaked at the end, which given their costumes brings new meaning to the term ‘golden shower’. Unfortunately, the water doesn’t short out their radio mikes.
Serbia. Zeljko Joksimovic, ‘Nije Ljubav Stvar’. Everybody looks terribly serious, and he’s not the first singer this evening to start singing with his eyes closed. This is, however, the first performance tonight to feature a man in a skirt playing the clarinet. As for Mr. Joksimovic, I’m sure his mother thinks he’s wonderful, but it’s fast-forward time.
Second-to-last song now: Ukraine, Gaitana, ‘Be My Guest’. She’s dressed entirely in white tassels (OK, apart from the flowers in her hair), men in day-glo dresses break-dance behind her (sometimes they have trumpets), the video projections are a bad acid trip gone wrong, and the song is the evening’s worst contribution to the Eurodisco canon. It’s completely, magnificently deranged. Possibly more deranged than the Russian grandmas.
Last country. Waaaaah! Moldova, Pasha Parfeny, bringing us a gem called ‘Lautar’. There’s some kind of accent on that first A but I can’t be arsed to go and find the right ASCII character. He’s dressed as the woodcutter in a fairytale – yes, including a leather toolbelt – and his backing singers appear to be five big-breasted extras from ‘The Flintstones’. The song is very… Moldovan. He’s selling the song as if his life depends on it. It possibly does. The choreography is insane – at one point he does strong-arm poses while the backing singers writhe on the floor. It’s the most ridiculously kitsch performance of the evening so far, including the grandmas.
So that’s it. The presenters are back to explain the voting rules. Nargiz’s boob apparently finally escaped from the clutches of the white ballgown somewhere in the later part of the show, so she’s had to confine the girls in something a little more restrictive. Her current dress – flesh-coloured, the better to disguise any escaping boobage that might occur later - is basically underwiring with a skirt attached. Eldar looks like he’s auditioning for the role of Billy Flynn in a non-Equity road company of ‘Chicago’. The voting is now open, so we get a recap of all the songs, so it’s now time for me to fast-forward. A lot. Unfortunately, I’ve just had another snatch of Ms. Albania’s public primal scream therapy. Don’t ever say I’m not prepared to suffer in the name of writing.
The presenters are plugging the CD and DVD of this year’s songs, because of course this is music you’ll want to take home and treasure forever.
And now we have another quick reminder of all the songs. Whoopee. More Albanian shrieking.
And the voting lines have closed. This year, you only got fifteen minutes to make your futile gesture.
Interval act. Lots of lasers, a parade of torches (no pitchforks, which is perhaps lucky for Ms. Albania), traditional Azerbaijani instruments. In an astonishing coincidence, Mr. Norton informs us, the pop star who will sing the lead vocal in this interval act just happens to be married to the Azerbaijani President’s daughter. Gosh. How… coincidental. This is the sort of Big Production Number they used to do on the Oscars, only twice as big. In case you might be wondering why I put myself through this crap every year: this. This bit. There’s nothing else like it on television. Dancers, drums, exploding fireballs, singers entering suspended on a wire from the flies, a light show that makes Las Vegas look like something you’d get at Wal-Mart to put on a Christmas tree. It’s amazing. It would be more amazing this year if it wasn’t being fronted by Mr. related-to-the-President-by-marriage Azerbaijani pop star, who is – how can I say this nicely? – a bit crap. Golly, I wonder how he got this gig?
And now Nargiz is terrorising people in the green room. She’s nice to the Azerbaijani singer, who seems to be chewing gum. She doesn’t really speak to anyone else much, although she does say hi to Norway. No nationalism here, then. Oh no, not at all.
I’m going to fast-forward through a lot of the scoring, because really, who wants to sit through an hour of this? Sweden takes an early lead. The voting, as usual, at least partly plays out along weirdly nationalistic lines. Jedward got a point before Mr. Humperdinck did. Given the nature of this contest, that’s not a surprise. Belgium threw him a bone, though – he doesn’t have nul points.
Nargiz has changed dresses again – black, with everything between her neck and her knees chained rigidly into place. Probably a good idea. A spillage could have proved fatal. Not to her, obviously – I think she’s remote-controlled – but perhaps to a cameraman or a member of the audience. We’re still in the bottom three, with one point; Macedonia gave Albania twelve points. That’s utterly terrifying. Denmark, after 25 countries have voted, still have nul points. Somehow I don’t think they’re going to win. Then Iceland vote, and the tables turn slightly. The UK is now bottom, nobody has nul points.
The woman announcing the Swedish vote is amazing. She has an Estuary accent and big glasses, and looks a bit like the middle-aged love-child of Kate Copstick and Giant Haystacks.
Gosh. Now we have six points. We’re still bottom. Oh, no we’re not, we’ve got another two points from Latvia. But there’s ten more countries to vote, so there’s still plenty of time for us to hit bottom again.
Nail-biting, isn’t it?
The Finnish vote, announced by Lordi (if you don’t know already, go to Google). He’s dressed as some kind of demon from the final season of ‘Angel’. And he keeps doing things with his tongue. Why is there never a giant anvil when you need one?
And the winner is… Loreen. Not the best song in this year’s contest, and not the best performance either (come to that, it’s nowhere near as good as either of the last two winners); the UK came second-to-last. Loreen, to her credit, has apparently spoken in the press about Azerbaijan’s human rights record, which – as Mr. Norton points out – is a topic that most other contestants have avoided. So Loreen gets to do her song again, and next year’s show will come from Sweden. Lucky Sweden, they get to pay for most of it.
Overall: not a vintage year. Too much bland sludge, not enough catastrophic kitsch. No dresses that sprout butterfly wings halfway through a song, no perspex pianos, no bondage gear, and a seemingly endless succession of Eurodisco songs that all sounded pretty much the same. Disappointing, although the jaw-dropping opening number and interval act slightly redressed the balance.
Still, at least we didn’t come last ( which we did two years ago). I’ll be tuning in next year, because even in a bad year there’s nothing else quite like this on television; in the meantime, here’s Loreen. No, I don’t know why she won either.