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.

7. SAN MARINO: Senhit – “Adrenalina”

San Marino, Europe’s smallest country, stormed the semi-finals with a powerhouse dose of upbeat hip-hop fused with traditional folk elements. “Adrenalina” is performed by Senhit, an Italian of Eritrean descent whose official Eurovision bio informs us that “like Donna Summer she got her career started by performing in the musical Hair in Germany” (I was today years old when I learned America’s ‘Queen of Disco’ had an early career in German musicals). Senhit represented San Marino in 2011 with the song “Stand By” but did not make it to the finals. Her new track is awash in kitsch colours and stunning costumes – the headpiece with which she opens the track is remarkable. Audiences at the semi-finals were stunned to witness American rapper Flo Rida join Senhit on stage partway through and deliver a verse (he will apparently perform at the final as well). “Adrenalina” is a catchy entry and a solid song that will remain on radios long after the contest is over.

6. ICELAND: Daði og Gagnamagnið – “10 Years”

Iceland delivers a typically catchy, quirky dose of Euro-nerdiness from Daði og Gagnamagnið, which is performer Daði Freyr along with supporting band Gagnamagnið (it consists of his wife, sister, and a couple of friends; the word translates as “data plan”). Their track “10 Years” is the perfect combination of indie-pop kitsch. The performers sport garish sweaters bearing pixelated images of themselves; a look that could have emerged from a bin of cast-off costume rejects from the set of the Scooby-Doo film. The musicians dance around idiosyncratically while playing on portable keyboards. There’s nothing more Euro, really. Daði og Gagnamagnið competed to represent Iceland in the 2017 Eurovision with a similarly styled bit of oddball genius called “Is This Love?” and came in second in that year’s national final. Could this be their year?

5. FINLAND: Blind Channel – “Dark Side”

Amid a sea of lovesick crooners and bombastic hip-hop ethno-nationalism, Finland delivers the most rock-oriented entry this year. Blind Channel describe their sound as “violent pop;” their track “Dark Side” offers a sort of rap-metal with electronic elements. The aggressive masculinity of its delivery would be a turn-off if it didn’t actually slip into the homoerotic at numerous points (totally in spite of itself, I’m sure). Either way, the song’s catchy beats and rebellious lyrics make it a clear draw. “Put your middle finger up!” the band cries as the song kicks off, and they don’t let up until it ends.

4. LITHUANIA: The Roop – “Discotheque”

Vaidotas Valiukevičius, lead singer of Lithuanian band the Roop, pretty much secured their spot in the finals in the first thirty seconds of their entry “Discotheque.” Sultry beats, sexy hip gyrations, a Vulcan hand-salute, and a move that can best be described as a jazz-hands-reverse-facepalm opens the track, which looks like it was influenced equally by Little Rascals and ‘70s-era Italo-porn. Either way, the track is one of the catchiest in the competition, even if you ignore the garish yellow suits. Each of the other band members riff off into their own worlds of solo disco strangeness, coming together in hyperactive unity for the chorus to a roar of audience applause.

3. GERMANY: Jendrik Sigwart – “I Don’t Feel Hate”

Germany’s Jendrik Sigwart (who simply goes by Jendrik on stage) is the other openly queer performer to make it to the finals, with a brilliant track that is as un-German as can be. No techno, metal, or synth-pop balladry here: he plays the ukulele. This entry really defies description, fusing styles in a manner I’ve never quite seen before. The song is predominantly delivered with ukulele, morphing at the chorus into a strange yet compelling amalgam of big band-disco-dance. Jendrik’s bright pink jacket would take visual center-stage if it wasn’t upstaged by a dancer wearing a full-body, five-fingered peace sign costume.

Jendrik incorporated the colors of the rainbow flag into the set design, and the song’s lyrical content addresses homophobia head-on, arguing that hate is best responded to with positivity. “I don’t feel hate / I just feel sorry”, he sings. Eurovision philosophy in its purest form. He clarified the message in an interview with Eurovision news agency ESC Bubble: “There’s two different types of hate. For example, there’s the shallow hate, saying ‘Oh your song sucks and your hair looks weird’, and then you can say, ‘Ah I don’t care about that!’. There’s the other kind of hate, the disrespectful hate, the hurtful hate. Which is homophobia, which is racism, which is sexism, which is a religious hate. All those different kinds which I am trying to put into the music video and the stories. And there, I say, you should not ignore it. You should not laugh about it, you should act upon it.”

2. RUSSIA: Manizha – “Russian Woman”

Russia’s entry is both inspiring and catchy. Manizha is a Russian-Tajik singer; her song “Russian Woman” is a proto-feminist anthem that proved particularly controversial in a country whose authoritarian regime has been pushing a hard-line sexist and homophobic politic in recent years. Manizha’s rebel cred is authentic. The performer has participated in campaigns against domestic violence, and even developed her own freely distributed app (her mother took out a mortgage on her apartment to help fund it) to help women experiencing violence connect with support and shelters. She’s organized flash mobs against the beauty industry and has been an outspoken supporter of Russia’s beleaguered LGBTQ community, which faces violent state-sponsored persecution. When she appeared in a 2019 Russian Pride Month video, she lost 10,000 of her Russian Instagram subscribers but continues to perform and speak out in support of queer rights in Russia.

“Russian Woman” opens with Manizha spinning around the stage imprisoned within a multi-layered traditional dress, resembling a matryoshka doll. About a minute in the dress bursts open and she emerges in a red jumpsuit; the entire song phases into a sort of folk-tinged hip-hop anthem.

Cynical observers sometimes warn that regressive European countries use Eurovision as a propaganda stage, sending performers who look and sound (and frequently are) progressive and modern as a way of shoring up their image abroad, pretending they’re still part of the liberal democratic family. Belarus was disqualified for sending a troupe of overt propagandists, but perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a more sophisticated game: sending one of his regime’s opponents in order to appear like a modern, civilized European country. Regardless, Manizha won the qualifying popular vote by a clear majority (on International Women’s Day, no less), so she can authentically lay claim to the people’s support.

1. UKRAINE: Go_A – “Shum”

Ukrainian electronic folk band Go_A offer a remarkable entry; there’s a chilling dark folk edge to the piece, which fuses traditional instruments with electronic beats that intensify in speed and range to a thrilling, frenzied crescendo. The song incorporates elements of Ukrainian folk song and ritual. Lead singer Katerina Pavlenko delivers high-pitched, fast-paced lyrics almost akin to throat-singing. It’s the first time a Ukrainian entry has actually performed in Ukrainian.

In January of this year, Go_A threw together a video for their track “Shum” recorded on a cellphone. The video was more of a whimsy, but in less than a month had over a million views on YouTube. They struggled to work down the lengthy original track into the three-minute version required by Eurovision; in the end, they decided to dub it a ‘sequel’ to the track from which it was originally derived. Some video and stage renditions of the song have an eerie pandemic feel to them (gas masks, haz-mat suits) but the track is thematically linked to Chernobyl. The song draws on musical and folk elements indigenous to the Chernobyl region, which was devastated by the 1986 meltdown of a nuclear plant.

Go_A manage the improbable: they blend the requisite Euro-kitsch with their already flamboyant dark folk imagery, seamlessly combining the two. Glowing halos double as bodhrans; garish white suits hearken to Chernobyl’s haz-mat attire; bright computer graphics surround the band, immersing them in a shower of neon colour. Band members perform moves that are equal parts Euro-techno dance and ancient shamanic ritual. The effect is magnificent: perfectly Eurovision, while staying true to Go_A’s pre-existing artistic ethos.

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Who will win? Who cares, really. Eurovision is a celebration of colour, kitsch, positivity, and music; a reminder to feel good about ourselves. It’s the perfect sentiment to usher in summer, and a hopeful return to some form of post-pandemic social life.