December 17, 2011

Eurovision 2011

The previous post I'd been meaning to write for a long time (proof: I was talking about it back in May on Eric Zorn's blog!), but what finally pushed me into it was that it became easy to get at old Facebook posts. (Also, I had free time.) This post is thus a development of running commentary I made on Facebook last May during the live broadcast of the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest.

First, a quick spin through the entries that washed out in the semifinals showed only a couple worth mention:

  • Norway with "Haba haba" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was catchy, and points for making the key line be in, of all things, Swahili!
  • Armenia with "Boom boom" (mit/ohne Postkarte) had a great driving beat in the main parts, and a sultry little rhumba thing going on in the intro and bridge. Cute thing they did with the boxing ring, too. No love from the voters, though.

Then the main event began. My first impression: the stage looks like a humongous uterus from overhead. Then the announcers started singing, admonished everyone that this was a "serious" TV show (ha!), and proceeded with more spectacle. Too much fun. Finally, we got to the main event; the postcards were nifty, with that foreshortened video technique that makes everything look like a model train layout, showing a person living in Germany who is from the country about to perform, ending with a view of the theme ("Feel your heart beat") translated into the home language(s) of that country, either spoken or written. Très mignon.

  1. Finland "Da da dam" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was a cute song but with weak vocals. I liked it generally, but it already seemed unlikely to win.
  2. Bosnia and Herzegovina "Love in rewind" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was hugely fun to watch; they looked like great amateurs. The song itself was decent, though I thought it a little less upbeat than it could be. I figured they'd place in the middle someplace: well enough, but unlikely to win.
  3. Finland "New tomorrow" (mit/ohne Postkarte) surprised me by being a second song (already!) with a "heal the world" theme, after Finland. This one was pleasant to listen to and well executed---a keeper for sure. Possibly a contender if this was otherwise a weak year; likely in any case to get lots of points.
  4. Lithuania "C'est ma vie" (mit/ohne Postkarte) started out weak, but warmed up as it went, the first of several power ballads of the evening. I loved the use of sign language—I still wonder which one it was—as well as the use of French for flavour (most of the song's in English). Given that Lithuania can count on a certain amount of support from the Baltic bloc, it seemed like it had a moderate chance.
  5. Hungary "What about my dreams" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was a great disco-pop song performed by a woman wearing a completely ridiculous dress. I thought it would do well, but we still hadn't seen a real showstopper.
  6. Ireland "Lipstick" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was, OMG, ridiculously bizarre and awesome. It has just enough schlock to catch your attention, but also with a catchy, driving beat that will make it stick in your head. This one seemed like a serious contender.
  7. Sweden "Popular" (mit/ohne Postkarte) came next, and following on Ireland, I thought, "yes, those first five were just warmup". This is Euro-tronica at its best, with better dancing and a cuter lead singer. Sweden ftw!
  8. Estonia "Rockefeller Street" (mit/ohne Postkarte) gets points for effort, and there's nothing really wrong with it, but seemed a little too meh to go anywhere. The pink dress is intense, though.
  9. Greece "Watch my dance" (mit/ohne Postkarte) really shouldn't have made it past the semifinals. This is a terrible song, where the rap verses don't go with the echoey big vocals, and neither goes with the driving-beat backing tracks, and... a balalaika in the music? Nice gymnastics in the dance, though.
  10. Russia "Get you" (mit/ohne Postkarte) had the presentation of a boy band but with a more clubby sound that got better as it went. Cute gimmick with the light-up jackets, but it didn't seem like a serious contender.
  11. France "Sognu" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was astonishing: opera! And in Corse! And the guy with this incredible voice is only 21. What. a. voice. My jaw hit the floor on this one; the performance really goes to 11. So out of the mainstream that it was impossible to guess its ranking; it could do terribly or awesomely. But, wow.
  12. Italy "Madness of love" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was the first Italian entry in decades, and it was like they'd been saving up; this was great: a fast foxtrot that owes a lot to the old standards but manages not to sound out of date. It wouldn't sound out of place in a Michael Bublé show—nice work, deserving of a very high rank.
  13. Switzerland "In love for a while" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was another foxtrot, this time with an affect suffused with cuteness, in the lyrics, in the background video, in the floating soap bubbles, in the ukulele and xylophone. I love this song, although probably just a mid-range scorer.
  14. UK "I can" (mit/ohne Postkarte) meh. This was as meh as they get. Meh meh meh.
  15. Moldova "So lucky" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was schlock at its best. You see hats like that and you know it's going to be good (for some definition of good). The unicycle adds to the effect. As for the song itself, it had its moments in the middle, and they're clearly having fun up there. Not exactly winning material, though.
  16. Germany "Taken by a stranger" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was the followup to a winning song from last year, and not really up to the task (although I didn't like Lena's 2010 offering that much either, so.) She does exuberant better than she does come-hither, I think. Compelling bass beat, interesting silver dancers, but not likely a second win for her.
  17. Romania "Change" (mit/ohne Postkarte) draws you in with its catchy swing beat, and you just can't help grinning and dancing to this one. The singer has the cutest smile, and keeps grinning for the camera; hard to judge its chances, but it's one of my favourites from the show. Definitely one to grab for the ballroom collection, in any case. :) (And: another change-the-world song.)
  18. Austria "The secret is love" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was only the second power ballad, and not technically bad, but sort of forgettable.
  19. Azerbaijan "Running scared" (mit/ohne Postkarte) sounded lovely enough, but the random wandering about the stage was a little odd and distracting. I thought, at the time, that it was headed for a good honorable mention.
  20. Slovenia "No one" (mit/ohne Postkarte) was nice, but forgettable.
  21. Iceland "Coming home" (mit/ohne Postkarte) had me hooked from the first bar. It's a a slow but serviceable quickstep, and perfectly enchanting. The lyrics are charming enough on their own, but especially poignant when you know that the composer himself actually died before he could perform it, and these are a bunch of his friends that got permission from his widow to take the song to the ESC anyway. It hits me right in the sappy, and I love it.
  22. Spain "Que me quiten lo bailao" (mit/ohne Postkarte) is really bringing the upbeat latin. A fun little samba to put a smile on your face. Not my #1 but it's up there.
  23. Ukraine "Angel" (mit/ohne Postkarte) HAS THE COOL SAND ARTIST. The song's nice and all, but the super-mega-points are for bringing the sand art. Nobody's paying attention to the song, they're all watching the sand.
  24. Serbia "Čaroban" (mit/ohne Postkarte) channels the late 1960s perfectly. Fun! It certainly stands out from the other 2011 songs that way; and very well-executed. Didn't seem like a winner, but it was good enough that it was a possibility.
  25. Georgia "One more day" (mit/ohne Postkarte) closes out the evening with a surprising hard rock piece. Not my cup of tea, but they did such a good job that it seemed like it could be a sleeper hit (and in any case a nice closing piece).

Overall, my personal assessment was that the top performances were Sweden, France, Romania, and Iceland, with honorable mention to Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, with the overall #1 to Romania—not that these were the ones that I expected to win (I put Sweden and Ireland as likely candidates there).

In the event, my top choices had a rather, er, mixed performance:

Switzerland25 (last!)

Of those, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Italy did, but the rest weren't too shocking. I was not expecting Azerbaijan to do so well, though, and their support was across the board, so it wasn't down to bloc voting or anything. Well, we'll see what next year brings!

"Praying does seem wiser than hoping at this point." --Rachel Maddow

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Eurovision primer for the American noob

So you're an American, and every once in a while you hear about this song contest called "Eurovision" that those crazy Europeans do, usually with a clip of some outrageously schlocky and amusical act that makes you cringe and have serious doubts about any claim to taste that the Europeans might once have had. (You might also know it as the answer to a trivia question about ABBA, who won in 1974 with "Waterloo", subsequently breaking out into the wider European and world markets.)

I'm not entirely sure why the Eurovision song contest almost universally holds that reputation, although I think they went through a bad period a while back that they're still recovering from. But while there's a certain amount of schlock, the majority is a serious effort, and while there is a strong leaning towards pop songs, there's always a pretty broad range of genres represented. For instance, consider Rändajad, the 2009 entry from Estonia:

This is not "pop" by any reasonable definition, and it most certainly isn't schlock. What it is, is gorgeous. As it happened, that one didn't win its year (it took 6th); the winners are often pretty good, but in any given year some of the best songs are further down-list. The power ballad "My heart is yours", from Norway in 2010, is a good example:

For my money one of the best songs from that year, but it only placed 20th (out of 25 finalists). Speaking of genres, though, one of the most personally appealing aspects of the ESC is that year after year it has an incredibly high ratio of great ballroom-dance-able songs. The song "I wanna", the Latvian entry from 2002, is a great (if slightly fast) cha-cha:

Marvellous bit of trick costume work, too, and I'd wager that most or all of those dancers had some significant ballroom training. That one actually did take 1st place in its year, with medium- to high-point votes from nearly every other country. The full table is on the Wikipedia page for that year; essentially, each country gets to vote for ten other countries, with the top two receiving 12 and 10 points, and the rest receiving 8 down to 1 point. (The scores are read at the end of the competition in French and English, so the exclamation "douze points"—12 points—has become a catchphrase for the whole contest.) And if you like the text-message voting systems now used on everything from American Idol to Dancing with the Stars, you can thank Eurovision, which pioneered this voting mechanism for the ESC back in the 1990s.

I originally got hooked on the Eurovision Song Contest in 2009, when Alexander Rybak's win was all over the BBC news page due to massively breaking the record number of points. So I watched it on Youtube (of course), and I quickly discovered three things:

  • The related links at the end of a Youtube video of an ESC song often include many other songs from that year and other songs from that country;
  • If not, you can always do a search for "ESC <year> <country>" and find at least three copies; and
  • There are, perforce, thousands of these by now and if you don't set yourself a limit you could be at this for a very long time.
You can literally pick a random year and a random country and start anywhere.

I ventured into some of the earlier years, too. The ballroomy songs were even more common then, as in Sweden's entry from 1959, a tango called "Augustin":

I find this performance perfectly captivating. Brita Borg's voice is gorgeous, and the storytelling is strong—although if you don't speak Swedish (as I don't), you might find it helpful to check out the indispensable Diggiloo Thrush, a comprehensive listing of all ESC entries ever, along with their placings, lyrics, and translations into English (and in some cases other languages as well). The balladic storytelling songs continue to show up in later ESCs; the 1969 entry from Netherlands, "De troubadour", is a haunting one:

Again, translation at Diggiloo. As a general rule, the more recent the ESC, the more songs are in English; there was a rule in place for a while that countries had to perform in (one of) their national languages, which is fun for language geeks like me, but was sort of unpopular; since "everyone" speaks English, the English-speaking countries were seen to have an unfair advantage (and maybe they did; UK and Ireland did win fairly often in those years). But even after the rule was dropped, there are still plenty of great non-English entries, such as "Dis oui" ("Say yes"), the 1998 entry from Belgium and in my opinion among the best ESC songs ever:

Here we also see one of the features of ESC that has been standard since the 70s: the "postcard" before every song that (logistically speaking) gives them a chance to reset the stage, and usually includes photos and videos of the host country (in this case the UK). It also gives each local broadcaster a chance to announce in the home language, since the main ESC broadcast is primarily in English or French; depending on where the Youtube uploader is from, you'll get voiceovers in any number of different languages over the postcard. The above video is apparently off BBC---that's Terry Wogan you're hearing there.

Part of the reason Eurovision is largely unknown in the US is, of course, that it doesn't get broadcast here. The internet is a great resource for European expats as well as for us Americans that got hooked remotely: between Youtube and the various info sites (especially Diggiloo and Wikipedia), we can access the whole 50-year-plus trove of great songs. Furthermore, Eurovision has long been at the cutting edge of broadcasting technology (and often uses the ESC to test/showcase new stuff); for several years now the whole live broadcast has been streamed at for anyone abroad who cares to watch. Next year's is broadcast from Azerbaijan on 26 May; tune in with me!

"The only weapons we have are simplicity and convention." --Jonathan Edwards

Posted by blahedo at 04:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack