Three years ago, a single song decimated my belief that I understood pop music. Kejsi Tola, an Albanian sixteen year-old with a throaty alto, performed “Carry Me In Your Dreams” in the 2009 Eurovision semifinals, and for the first time in my history of pop adoration, I had tuned in. A Eurovision neophyte, I had no frame of reference for what I saw: Kejsi, in music-box couture, was writhed upon by a man in a sequined green bodysuit; two four-foot men in identical mime facepaint breakdanced on either side; she herself maintained clamp-tight focus while her compatriots tumbled and rolled around her, eventually forming themselves into a human staircase for her to ascend and be lifted down from.
But the song itself ensorcelled me, even as I had to listen past my own culture shock to hear it; Tola’s voice ascended through the chorus, clear-eyed and brave, even as she plead to be sublimated by a suitor’s desire, and the acrobatics she performed mid-verse caused the notes to slip and bend as they escaped her mouth, lending an accidental emotional verisimilitude to the performance. And, while I lay sprawled in naive disbelief that songs so universal and arresting could exist in so separate a musical ecosystem, I at last got a taste of the true moon’s pull of Eurovision: “Carry Me In Your Dreams” not only did not win, but it placed seventeenth, drawing the fewest points an Albanian song has ever received in the Eurovision finals.
Welcome to the greatest song competition on the planet.
HOW EUROVISION WORKS
Seen at arms’ length, Eurovision is quite uncomplicated for a transnational competition; the NBA finals look like the Scottish Premier League system by comparison. Eligible countries may submit a representative artist and song to compete in two rounds of semifinals and one round of finals, each of which are broadcast to the entire EBU. Each round of voting is performed half by jury and half by viewer text; the winning country goes on to host the competition the following year, and may advance directly to the finals. Studying the minutiae of the rules hints at what makes Eurovision so idiosyncratic—the top five economic contributors to Eurovision also get a bye past the semis; sampling is prohibited, but singing in a made-up language is allowed—but it’s also important to understand that Eurovision acts as a microcosm of European politics, play-acted once a year.
This is less metaphorical than one might assume. Since no country may vote for itself, countries with similar cultures—Greece and Cyprus; Spain and Portugal; Ireland and the UK—frequently vote highly for each other, regardless of song quality. (Last year, when Cyprus gave Greece the maximum points allowed, for a bloated, plodding mess vacillating between a self-important yowl-fest and a penned-by-committee rap embarrassment—think “Linkin Park for the Athenian matron set”—the booing threatened to drown out the announcer.) Cultural blocs, like the Baltic nations or countries within the Scandinavian peninsula, have similar habits, though generally more strategic; Serbia’s entry, Željko Joksimović’s “Nije ljubav stvar,” was this year’s best song from the Greater Yugoslavian bloc, who rewarded it with a commensurate number of votes—and so it placed third.
THE SONGS THEMSELVES
Grappling with the context of Eurovision all at once is an exercise in both deconstructing kudzu-threaded decades-old rulesets and in armchair cultural study, and I will not blame anyone for scrolling from the first Wikipedia link directly to the first YouTube embed. But for those sticking to the text, an apology is in order, because I am about to reveal to you just how great Joksimović placing third is, by which I also mean, how much more one has to study to get the most out of Eurovision: in all, the contest consists of 42 different songs, one per country, 36 of which have to fight it out for 20 slots during the semis. Even if you don’t do all the footwork to build the proper cross-cultural context around Eurovision Week, it is nearly impossible to juggle three Now compilations’ worth of entrants in your forebrain without engaging in some amateur research beforehand.
So let me help you out. Each year I try to assemble a loose system of organization for partitioning each year’s songs into pet subcategories, since within such a structure, it’s much easier to judge entries on their own merits. Here are some of this year’s subsets.
To interface with Eurovision without even a begrudging appreciation of the power ballad is not possible. (Check in with Carl Wilson if you need a leg up.) Rona Nishliu, dressed like the time witch Edea and with a single, foot-long dredlock decorating her sternum—both of those compliments, mind—wears the stage like she built it and sings like it might swallow her. Her timbre becomes familiarly Björkian when she enters her high range, and once she’s there she stretches out in it. At the end she whips herself up and down the scale in a pulse-arresting climax until she, herself, succumbs to tears, and if you’re amenable to a torch song willing to immolate itself, you yourself probably got there first—enter this competition a diva skeptic and this is where your mind will be changed. All too common instead, sadly, are the mayonnaise-glops of pop balladry one generally fears when the term “pop balladry” is invoked at all—MayaSar, ostensible sophomore at Céline Tech, attempts to distinguish herself by showing off at the piano, but is upstaged by both her pauldron-shoulderpad hybrids and the diagetic panflute that wanders into the arrangement like a lost cat. Ott Lepland is what you get when you don’t even have those descriptors to work with, but you do have an extra layer of vest.
THE ROCK SONG
The rock songs may initially feel a little warmed-over to American audiences—some sonic touchstones on display here include The Fray, Coldplay and Evanescence—but the combination of Eurovision’s rule against lip-syncing and total lack of rules against miming any other instrument lead to some terrific juxtapositioning. Take Kaliopi’s door-kicker “Crno i belo,” proud featurer of maybe the sexiest sensible pantsuit I will see this year, which interrupts a profoundly implausible series of above-the-head pinch harmonics (on a guitar that definitely is not even plugged in) with singer and group namesake Kaliopi Bukleska nailing a pitch in soprano so raspy you could pass it as a bandsaw malfunctioning midway through a ream of sandpaper. Compact Disco, on the other hand, attempt to pass off a stone soup of signature flourishes—sequenced and treated drums, descending piano lines, a glimpse of dubstep’s bared shoulder in the second verse—as something more than the sum of its parts, perhaps by being Very Serious besides. (Not that it helps that their vocalist kinda looks like Gabe Delahaye cosplaying as Guile.) Roman Lob wouldn’t be out of place in a Zales commercial, which I suppose is a measure of success, but they absolutely need to find a friend who can confidently tell them when their hats look like a Draw Something picture of a condom.
(A QUICK ASIDE: Since, as noted previously, the top five financial contributors to Eurovision get to skip the semifinals, their finale performances have a little added weight. This can do wonderful things for a performance; France’s Anggun took full advantage of the power of shock and, with “Echo (You and I)”, compounded her “‘Believe’-era Cher” thesis with a backline of shirtless male gymnasts who spend the entire performance hurling themselves around and over Anggun herself, until her costume dissolves into Wonder Woman’s laundry-day corset and gold lamé panties. That most of what I can say about Germany’s Roman Lob is hat-related, on the other hand, is chiefly due to the brief window I had to experience them at all, and also to what I assume is a universal tradition of Celebratory Eurovision Drinking.)
THE BRASSY GYPSY POP SONG
Of all the genres on display that code “European,” this is the most critical to appreciate, as its performers are generally the most eager to put on a spectacle. It is hard to describe without any proper American touchstones—”unsyncopated third-wave ska” gets partway there but seems uncharitable as a comparison—but feels to me, on a cellular level, custom-made for tippled summer grab-assing, which may go some way to explain its choreography. (The week after Eurovision is always the one week all year I entertain pipe dreams about owning a huge shitty truck to pump these out of, I guess I mean.) Can Bonomo could well have coasted on his equally crooked grin and hat, but halfway through the song all his backup dancers transform their fashionable capes into an abstract fabric sailboat, transforming the nautical lope of the song into a complete aesthetic, and just to show off, they shuffle themselves right before the song’s finish and become the same boat—from another angle. Romania’s Mandinga consists chiefly of moonwalking Elvis impersonators, who themselves have brought a bagpipe and a french horn into which three smaller horns have been stuffed, and—I presume unintentionally—break into a decent interpolation of the “Ha Dance” sample right as they blow their pyrotechnics budget. But Moldova are the perennial champions of this microgenre, and Pasha Parfeny disappoints not at all—he enters in a swarm of dancers, dressed to evoke clockwork dolls, who writhe stiff-limbed all over the stage, mostly resembling robots too horny to breakdance. This, incidentally, is the most restrained Moldova has been in years.
AND SO ON
Uptempo numbers; Eurodance; Scandinavian pop; Starbucks AOR; dozens of trends have ebbed and flowed through the competition over the years. Some, like the afore-embedded Donny Montell, operate within a tradition a bit larger than befits this genre-segmentation—his sparkling, warm-hearted disco-pop “Love is Blind” (and show-stopping sideflip-into-MJ-crotch-grab) feels as much like a nod to the contest as institution as a grab for short-term victory—whereas Jedward, spring-loaded alabaster twins so energetic they appear vampiric, are laser-focused on such a specific slice of Disney pop with “Waterline” that it’d be folly to expect it to recur in the future. (Bet they said that about disco in ’77, too, though.) Also—and this is some inside baseball for my doubtlessly countless fellow JRPG stans unfamiliar with the UK pop landscape—I would be remiss to not here note that the Jedwards resemble nobody so much as the horrible twin homunculi Rico and Rucha from Tri-Ace’s Infinite Undiscovery.)
SO WHO WON?
Some people are terrific at being able to predict who’s going to sweep Eurovision, or who, at least, won’t place well despite themselves. I, despite all efforts, remain pathetic at it, and so rely on a metric close enough for speculation: Betting odds. This year, the safe bet by a wide margin was Loreen’s “Euphoria,” a song and performance so disgustingly good you sincerely need to watch it in full.
Several entrants invoked the spirit of Cher this year—to which I scream YES, PLEASE, YES—but only one immersion-blended it with Patti Smith and interpretive-danced through the first two verses as though poltergeist-yanked by individual limbs, all in light so dim she seemed scleraless. What can I say about this performance that justifies the hundreds of times I have already listened to it? Barefoot, in a kimono over a pantsuit, appearing to exorcise her own uterus, Loreen has not so much a routine as a cascade of performative juxtapositions—and right when rain-shaped glitter starts to drizzle down, a man with an MMA build Spock-warps in behind her and kicks off the finale, the shareware version of Kate Bush’s Live at Hammersmith, all mirrored bends and synchronized embraces, until Loreen rides his neck into the ground like a Sonya Blade finishing move and stands alone, landed-arrow trembling.
But while this song is undeniable and its estimated position was well-earned, something happened as the contest advanced through the semifinals—Russia started to catch up.
Russia had entered Buranovskiye Babushki, an ethno-pop band consisting of eight elderly women from Udmurtia, a federal subject of Russia culturally nearer to Finland than its surrounding republic. Their song, the undeniable “Party For Everybody,” is sung chiefly in Udmurt—the parts that aren’t were penned by the co-writer of “The Power Of Love”—and is a large-hearted paean to welcoming your children home with food and dance. (As befits any fine Eurovision entry, of course, there’s a fist-pumping “boom boom boom boom” refrain, and the ascending instrumental run at the end calls to mind the serotonin-tease arrangements of happy hardcore.) The women, who range in age from 43 to 86 and cover “Smoke On The Water,” pledged to use any proceeds they make this year to build a church in their hometown of Buranovo. When the finals rolled around, Buranovskiye Babushki and Loreen entered as the winners of their respective semifinals.
Not every Eurovision arrives at a head this pressurized. In 2009, the year Kejsi Tola entered, Norway’s Alexander Rybak obliterated the competition with “Fairytale,” a tragic ballad about an ex-lover that revolved around a yearning Celtic-flavored violin figure, which was so popular that it broke the Eurovision high score by nearly a hundred points—out of a pool of less than 500. But this year there seemed to be a narrative baked into the competition—would the Eurovision tradition of Scandinavian pop dominance repeat itself, coda-like, or would this be an underdog victory for the record books—SEPTEGENARIAN CHURCHGOING UDMURT POP OCTET UPEND EUROVISION!
Once the votes came in—Cyprus did, in fact, vote for Greece—Loreen was the victor. “Euphoria” was released as a single in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden on Friday and is already a No. 1 single in all three countries; given the exposure granted by a Eurovision win, it is a foregone conclusion that an LP will follow (doubtless also containing her previous perfectly titled, double-platinum single, “My Heart Is Refusing Me”).
So what for 2013? Sweden will host the event and get a bye into the finals along with Germany and Italy and the rest. I will be rifling through YouTube, trying to get an early bead on the next Loreen, or Tola, or Nishliu. And if you are there too, please, take it from me—get there early for the semifinals, which are often even greater.