Eurovision 2021 Brings Color, Camp, Kitsch, and Hope

If there was ever a year we needed Eurovision, this is it. The annual celebration of color, kitsch, and quirky positivity has returned. We highlight the 10 best songs and more before tomorrow’s final.

If there was ever a year we needed Eurovision, this is it. The annual celebration of color, kitsch, and quirky positivity – canceled last year due to Covid – returned this year and the competition final takes place on Saturday, 22 May in Rotterdam.

If anything can lift our collective mood as we stumble our way out of the pandemic, it’s Eurovision. Immersing yourself in the upbeat, visually stunning performances is one way to transport yourself to a more positive age.

Two years ago, I wrote that Eurovision – much like Europe as a whole when it’s not bogged down by nationalism or neoliberalism – is a weird, complicated, and frequently incomprehensible undertaking that works brilliantly in spite of itself, and this year proves my case. The 2021 entries are a delightful combination of talented musicianship and over-the-top stage performance.

Winning at Eurovision isn’t just about who’s the best musician. The qualities required of a Eurovision winner are an ability to channel some combination of musical talent (the least important quality, really) with a kitsch that speaks to the European soul.  An ability to draw a line in the sand between musical professionalism and unself-conscious self-mockery, and then dance back and forth across that line with gleeful insouciance. There must be brightly coloured costumes (unless you’re going for the black-suited European cowboy look). A touch of the dramatic never goes astray, and there ought to be some element that speaks to local heritage while also embracing the cultural diversity of the modern world. Wrap all that up in a bundle of bubbly joy and positivity, and you’ve got a sure-fire Eurovision winner.

Eurovision is an arena for the display of nationalism, but its effect is to dissipate that sentiment’s divisive power, infusing it harmlessly into an atmosphere of shared continental campiness. Well, it doesn’t always work that way, but that’s the idea. Bombastic ethno-nationalism is on full display in Eurovision – bright lights, thundering drums, soaring orchestrals, flags exploding into fireworks of pixels. These displays of nationalism are so over the top that they actually serve the function of revealing nationalism for the kitschy silliness that it is. The competition isn’t actually restricted to European countries; exporting and celebrating the global spirit of camp has become its more overt mission in recent years. (I’m still sore that Australia never made it to this year’s final.)

Battling Covid

Covid has plagued Eurovision for two years now. Last year’s contest was cancelled due to the pandemic. Artists scheduled to perform that year were permitted by organizers to return for 2021, but had to do so with new songs. Not all did: bands break up, coups take place, countries get disqualified. Covid never really went away, either.

After considering a variety of scenarios this year’s organizers decided to go ahead with a modified live performance. Numbers of attendees (including technicians and media personnel) were scaled back in order to allow better social distancing at the events. The final’s venue, in Rotterdam, would normally hold 16,000 spectators but only 3,500 will be allowed in. Each band was told to record ‘live’ performances for each stage of the competition as a back-up. If they got sick, their country entered lockdown or they were unable to fly to Rotterdam for the competition,  they would be permitted to use the recording. This method will be deployed for Iceland’s entry, since a band member tested positive for Covid, grounding the entire band. Other finalists and their teams have been self-quarantining for weeks to avoid infection.

Nevertheless, things happen. The Netherlands’ 2019 winner – Duncan Laurence – was scheduled to perform a special set but diagnosed positive for Covid-19 two days before the final. After arriving in Rotterdam, Ukrainian entry Go_A’s lead singer Katerina Pavlenko felt ill and had to self-isolate; she was replaced by a backup singer (Emmie van Stijn) for rehearsals. Her Covid test came back negative, so she’ll be allowed to perform.

Causes and Controversies

Eurovision always draws characters, bringing together some of the most unique and interesting performers those of us here in North America have never heard of.

There’s Norway’s Eurovision representative Tix, a performer whose name derives from the word ‘tics’, a nickname he was bullied with as a child growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome in the suburbs of Oslo. He incorporated the nickname into his stage name, proudly appropriating it from his bullies during his rise to pop stardom. He enters the finals with the song “Fallen Angel” and hopes to draw attention to issues around neurodiversity.

Some performers stand out for less savory reasons. Azerbaijan’s Samira Efendi enters the final with the delightfully upbeat, catchy hip-hop tune “Mata-Hari”, fused with traditional folk instruments and bombastic visuals (oddly, the song was originally written as Norway’s 1976 Eurovision entry). But she enters with a controversial legacy as well. During last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh War between her country and Armenia, she called Armenians “terrorists” and appeared uniformed in military PR photos supporting the country’s president, who has drawn international rebuke for his human rights record. A petition calling for her disqualification garnered thousands of signatures but no official action from Eurovision.

One country – Belarus – actually did get disqualified this year. Belarussian band VAL was selected for the (cancelled) 2020 Eurovision and should thus have been the pick for 2021. However in August 2020 reigning dictator Alexander Lukashenko rigged the country’s elections, refused to resign and protests erupted. These were met with brutality by the regime’s security forces, leading to protestor deaths, disappearances and UN-documented cases of torture and rape. VAL supported the protest movement, and were subsequently dropped by the state-controlled national broadcaster (state broadcasters run the national selection processes). The new state broadcaster’s pick,  Galasy ZMesta, submitted an entry that was seen as supportive of the Lukashenko dictatorship (“I’ll Teach You!” it was called, and that was roughly its message to the protestors). It sparked protests and petitions. The entry was disqualified under Eurovision’s rules against overt political messaging, as was a back-up entry they also submitted.

The Finalists

This year has crooners and love balladeers aplenty; always a stock-in-trade at the competition. There’s Portugal’s Black Mamba with “Love Is on My Side”, a sort of Iberian cowboy ballad. Franco-Serbian singer-songwriter Barbara Pravi stuns with her vocal delivery on “Voila”, this year’s entry from France. It’s a simple track featuring just her and a piano, but Pravi’s lush vocals almost compensate for the entry’s lack of adornment in any other respect. Almost. This is Eurovision, after all: an indelible fusing of performer and performance.

Twenty-six countries play off against each other at the final on Saturday. Here are my top ten picks from among the finalists.

10. MALTA: Destiny Chukunyere – “Je Me Casse”

Malta probably won’t win, but deserves a special mention. Their contestant, Destiny Chukunyere, is a vocal powerhouse. Daughter of a Nigerian father and Maltese mother, she previously competed in Britain’s Got Talent (2017) and won the Junior Eurovision spin-off contest in 2015 with a record-breaking score. She also performed as a backup singer in Malta’s 2019 Eurovision entry, so this will be her second time on the final stage. Her song “Je Me Casse” is a tremendous combination of hip-hop energy infused with clear disco and soul influences, and it’s incredible. Unfortunately, Destiny largely carries the entry on her own shoulders; there’s not much in the way of costume, design, or set innovation; no notable effects or dance moves. Winning at Eurovision requires a subtle je ne sais quoi in those other areas, and its absence is always notable. Still, Destiny is an incredible performer and her song merits a serious listen.

9. BELGIUM: Hooverphonic – “The Wrong Place”

Hooverphonic’s entry on behalf of Belgium – “The Wrong Place” (we assume they’re not referring to the country) – is a gorgeous and catchy song. It’s a sort of haunting electro-rock ballad with bluesy elements that earned a place on my summer playlist the instant I heard it. But it lacks Eurovision magic – inadequate attention to set, costume, delivery. The song deserves awards, for sure. Just not this one.

8. NETHERLANDS: Jeangu Macrooy – “Birth of a New Age”

The Netherlands’ Jeangu Macrooy is one of two openly gay musicians who made it to this year’s final round. Originally from Suriname, he’s lived in the Netherlands since 2014. A superb soul musician, his track “Birth of a New Age” was inspired by Black Lives Matter protests. “Skin as rich as the starlit night / Your rhythm is rebellion…You are the rage that melts the chains,“ he sings. The track’s straightforward delivery from Macrooy and two backup singers is complemented by a solo breakdancer off to one side of the stage. The stark backdrop is a wall riddled with cracks through which the light shines through; it bursts into color at the end. Lyrics are delivered mostly in English but he also sings in Sranan Tongo for the chorus (it’s the first time that language – a Creole tongue common in Suriname – has been used at Eurovision). As the 2019 winners and host country, the Netherlands automatically qualified for this year’s final.