Eurovision 2018 is around the corner, and if you don’t know why your Euro friends are clucking at you like a chicken — “Bucka-mhm-buck-buck-buck / I’m not your bucka-mhm-buck-mhm-buck-mhm” — it’s about time you caught up.
Start talking about the Eurovision Song Contest in North America and it inevitably brings up puzzling questions. One of the questions I’ve heard this year is “Why is the UK in Eurovision, if they decided to leave the EU?” Of course, Eurovision and the European Union (EU) are distinct entities. Eurovision preceded the EU and most of its predecessors by many years (and unless European legislators get their act together, Eurovision will probably outlive the bloc as well). This is often a surprising revelation for many, as is the fact that distant Australia — closer to China than Europe — gets to participate (or that Israel is one of this year’s leading contenders — see the chicken-clucking, above). If anything, all this reveals the European construct as the project — or artifice — that it is.
To be honest, the EU itself might be better seen as an outgrowth of Eurovision, not vice versa. The characteristic quirkiness of Eurovision embodies the European spirit, in all its diversity and uniformity alike, more effectively than any of the EU’s political institutions. It’s a pastiche of stereotypes, interspersed with creative efforts to up-end stereotypes. It’s forever torn between dueling and dualistic dilemmas: whether to perform in English or obscure regional dialects; whether to be daringly political or self-consciously status-quo; whether performers ought to take themselves seriously or give full reign to their joyous, quirky, inner folk selves.
But why are countries as far afield as Australia, Belarus, and Israel in the competition? Despite its name, Eurovision isn’t just about geographical Europe. It’s produced by the European Broadcasting Union, which is a federation of public service broadcasters that has grown since it came together in 1950. It now includes full members in 56 different countries, and associate members in a further 20. The Eurovision Song Contest was launched by the broadcasting union in 1956, and eligibility to participate in the competition is open to all member broadcasters. This explains why countries like Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey have all been eligible at different points to compete. It doesn’t explain Australia: the Land Down Under (which has built an avid following for the contest since the ’70s) was invited as a special participant for the contest’s 60th anniversary in 2015, and the invitation apparently stuck.
Nor do all countries participate every year. Georgia boycotted the event when it was invaded by Russia and not permitted to enter an anti-Putin song; Lebanon was admitted entry in 2005 but subsequently barred when it refused to guarantee uncensored coverage of Israel’s performance; and Turkey, which for many years was a fan favourite, left in 2013 citing dissatisfaction with the rules (a period also oddly coincidental with the country’s dip into dictatorship and crackdown on anything fun). Other countries have also dipped in and out for various reasons over the years.
Complicated history aside, this year’s Eurovision entries span the gamut of everything that makes Europe great, mediocre, and downright awful. Let’s take a look (while it’s the live performances that count in the end, we’ll use the official videos for the purpose of this overview).
All You Need Is Love
Let’s start with love, a perennial theme for many entrants. There’s Spain, whose love song “Tu Cancion” starts off sweet and cute, full of promise, but then ruins itself with a trite and stereotypical slide into heteronormativity (yes, performers Alfred and Amaia are real-life boyfriend and girlfriend). The Celts, on the other hand, easily show up their Iberic counterparts. Ireland goes where Spain doesn’t, unveiling a beautiful, inspiring, heart-bursting video of cute gay boys in love. (Ryan O’Shaughnessy’s song “Together” spawned reports of a potential clash with Russia’s homophobic broadcasting laws — Eurovision member broadcasters have to broadcast the live finalé performances or face being banned from the contest — but apparently the rumours were overblown. Either way, O’Shaughnessy’s tweeted his scorn at Russia’s state-sponsored homophobia, so fingers crossed the live performance won’t be watered down.)
Host country Portugal — last year’s winner — steps up with an entry about love of a different kind. “O Jardim“, written by Portuguese singer-songwriter Isaura and performed with Judy Garlandesque beauty by Claudia Pascoal, is a moving tribute to Isaura’s grandmother, and the garden that meant a great deal to them both.
From Love to Swords in the Belly
At times, Eurovision is like those moments in grade-school art class. The teacher asks everyone to share their drawings with the class, and they are of course mostly full of puppies and birds and sunshine, except for that quiet kid in the corner who produces a palette full of skulls and corpses. This year, that kid in the corner is Malta, which perhaps didn’t realize it was a song competition and instead submitted a dystopic sci-fi horror film. Well, at least it’s a fashionable one. (“Taboo“, by Christabelle Borg, is in fact a very personal song about mental health, so bonus points for that.)
Then there are the countries struggling to maintain a polite, respectable status quo. There’s Germany, whose contribution “You Let Me Walk Alone” (we get it, Germany — you’re feeling the Brexit) by Michael Schulte sounds exactly like that cheesy corporate American pop band. (Which one, you ask? Oh right, every one.) Of course, as one of the “Big Five” top financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union, Germany (along with France, Spain, the UK, and Italy) is automatically guaranteed a spot in the finals.
Last year, France tried to be radical by electing a brand new political party to government, only to have it turn out to be the most status-quo centre-right party anyone could possibly have invented. Their troubled state of mind is reflected in their Eurovision offering, which strives to look cool, but is musically unexciting. Nevetheless Madame Monsieur’s “Mercy” is rescued from being just more replicated bland white pop music thanks to both the gorgeous cinematography along with the meaningful song content: it’s based on the true story of a baby girl born to Nigerian refugees on a boat heading toward Europe. Okay, points for that.
Sweden grabs most boring entry (which is quite appropriately Scandinavian) with Benjamin Ingrosso’s “Dance You Off“. The Danes, on the other hand, surprise by out-gothing everyone — except Malta — with the rousing Viking anthem “Higher Ground“. Surprisingly, it’s actually about anti-violence, said singer Rasmussen (who also performs in an ’80s cover band called Hair Metal Heroes) in an interview, as only a Viking could put it: “the song is about being able to take a step back and solve conflicts in a different way than just thrusting a sword into the belly of someone you are facing.” Ah, yes. Small steps.
And then there are always those dissonant aspirations; the submerged national fantasies that emerge only for Eurovision. The video for Poland’s pick features palm trees, while the Czech Republic makes brilliant use of camels. An angsty Switzerland rebels against its reputation for neutrality by sending a veiled warning to the rest of Europe with the new Molotov cocktail-throwing classic “Stones“, by Zibbs. (no, Zibbs is not the latest yodelling hip-hop artist to hit Eurovision; it’s apparently Swiss street slang for siblings. Yes, Zibbs are sibs. Obvs.)
But the country that wins the ‘You Never Saw This Coming’ award for 2018 is The Netherlands, who dish up an impeccably European country-and-western tune, “Outlaw In ‘Em“. (By a Dutch singer who calls himself Waylon. No, it’s not his real name. And yes, that Waylon.)
Eastern Europe, for the most part, drifts between bland and weird. Albania is disappointingly bland this year, while Romania offers a potential Brexit anthem for other wanna-be Leavers: “Good-bye“. Bulgaria, meanwhile, strives for the lofty heights of philosophy, with the esoteric “Bones” (“Wanna thrive in the dust of the universe / And way into unknown / So I love beyond the bones”), which, despite its bizarre lyrics, has turned out to be a crowd-pleaser. Russia, meanwhile, stares down Europe with the defiant track “I Won’t Break” (performed by Julia Samoylova). It’s perhaps a reflection of Russia’s frosty relationship with the rest of Europe that theirs is the only video on YouTube to garner more down-votes (26,000) than likes (16,000).
As for the top contenders? With 43 competitors this year, it’s impossible to comment on them all, but here’s this commentator’s top seven.
7. Serbia, which has competed as an independent nation since 2007 (their debut effort won the contest that year), offers its strongest song in over a decade. “Nova Deca” is by Sanja Ilic and his group Balkanika, which is devoted to preserving the country’s Byzantine medieval musical traditions. That opening flute move can’t be beat.
6. We can’t not give a nod to Finland‘s Saara Aalto, who represents the spirit of internationalism better than anyone. A prolific singer, actress and voice artist, she voiced Princess Anne in the Finnish edition of Disney’s animated film Frozen (as well as voiced characters in the Finnish version of Pokemon), and has starred in Finnish stage versions of the musicals Wicked and Jesus Christ Superstar. She’s famously multilingual: following her unsuccessful effort to compete in Eurovision in 2011, she released a version of her Eurovision entry “Blessed With Love” in Mandarin Chinese, and has since become a surprise star in that country (she released a full album in Mandarin in 2013). In a determined effort to grab votes from other countries, the openly lesbian singer has recorded acoustic versions of her Eurovision song “Monsters” in no less than 34 different languages. She’s described her style as “epic love pop”, and the video for “Monsters” is a superbly sultry demonstration of the genre.
5. As already mentioned, Ireland deserves a lot of praise for the queer nonchalance of “Together“. Beautiful song, beautiful video, beautiful sentiment. Ryan O’Shaughnessy’s uncle was a Eurovision competitor in 2001; Ryan’s got a strong shot at bringing home the trophy his uncle did not.
4. Moldova taps into the Euro-spirit with surprising pizazz, offering the upbeat dance-able and politely cheesy track “My Lucky Day” by DoReDos. How Euro is it? So Euro they left Moldova to go film the video in Greece. Given Greece’s poor offering, perhaps they’ll pick up some extra votes from their southern neighbours. (Yes, voting blocs are a Eurovision thing)
3. Norway surprised the world with one of the boppiest, and silliest, songs they’ve ever produced: “That’s How You Write a Song” by Alexander Rybak. Check it out: it’ll be stuck in your head until the next Brexit referendum.
2. Czech Republic‘s “Lie To Me” by Micolas Josef is an irrepressibly boppy piece featuring horns, camels, and lines like “I know you ‘bop-whop-a-lu bop’ on his wood bamboo” and “plenty motherfuckers wanna eat my spaghetti” (censored for the contest version, of course). It’s impossible not to love.
1. Israel‘s Netta Barzilai, breakaway audience favourite with more social media likes than any Eurovision song ever, nets the competition with her song “Toy“. The former kindergarten teacher brings a remarkable track about “the awakening of female power and social justice.” Israel often keeps a low profile at Eurovision, but when it goes big it really goes big. In 1998 Israel famously got its last Eurovision win thanks to trans musical artist Dana International. (The country’s racked up three wins altogether, even though its first win in 1978 was officially denied by some of its political foes, such as Jordan, which ran fake news stories claiming Belgium had won.) “Toy”, composed by gay Israeli songwriter Doron Medallie, has sparked controversy due to its use of a ‘looper’. Eurovision rules forbid the use of recorded vocals on stage, but they’ve decided to permit the looper so long as the vocals it uses are recorded and looped on stage during the live performance. It’s a performance the world will be eagerly anticipating.
We’ll have to wait until 12 May to learn the winner. That gives plenty of time for readers to familiarize themselves with the contenders, and with the wonder which is Eurovision. The consortium is talking about expanding to launch spin-offs: Eurovision Asia, maybe even an American version. That would be the death knell of Eurovision, much as too-rapid expansion and globalizing greed may have doomed the EU. Right now Eurovision — with all its quirks, its complicated voting, its ever-disputed rules, and the radically different values and identities it allows to clash so dissonantly, mostly harmlessly, and at times even harmoniously, on stage — remains a delightful preserve of modern global folk-culture; the last vestige of 20th century hope and optimism. The fact is, that much like the European project when it’s not bogged down by nationalism or neoliberalism, Eurovision too is weird, complicated, with almost incomprehensible structures. But despite all this, it works, and we love it. The 2018 winner has yet to be crowned, but so long as the contest remains true to its quirky and complicated roots, the real winner will be, as ever, Europe itself.