Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Welcome to the New World of Eurovision

After a dramatic year of threatened boycotts, banned songs and host storm-offs, Eurovision 2009 in Moscow is at long last upon us. With a new voting format and a politically sensitive location, this Saturday’s finals could prove to be one of the more interesting in a long while.

Last year’s finals
in Belgrade were the last straw for many who had grown frustrated with tribal voting patterns that seemed to have completely shut out Western Europe from ever possibly winning the phone-in public voting final round. The Slavic countries of Eastern Europe have tended to vote for each other since they entered the song contest after the end of the Cold War, and for some this pattern explained why Russia’s sub-par entry-on-ice from Dima Bilan handily won last year (though admittedly none of the 2008 entries were very good). Long-time British Eurovision host Terry Wogan – a veritable institution for Eurovision in the UK - was so exasperated last year with the voting pattern that he quit his hosting job live on air!

The system’s critics alleged that the voting had turned completely political rather than recognizing “talent” (talent being a subjective word when it comes to Eurovision!). Its defenders argued that if Western Europe wanted to be competitive in the song contest again, it needed to field real entries rather than joke acts that seemed to deliberately mock the contest, such as Ireland’s singing puppet last year and Britain’s Scooch in 2007.

Fearing an eventual withdrawal of the founding Western European countries from the contest (which France, Germany, Spain and the UK do pay for after all), Eurovision has changed the voting format this year to be 50% from a public vote and 50% from a panel of music industry experts in each country. So, for instance, the winner of the UK’s vote package will be decided by a combination of the results of the public phone-in vote and the decision of a British music industry panel who are charged with disregarding the nationality of the acts and looking only at talent. We won’t know until Saturday whether these panels will also fall into patterns of national prejudice, but people seem to be confident that they won’t. This year the odds-makers have picked Norway as the favourite to win, with Alexander Rybak’s folksy song “Fairy tale”.

“We Don’t Want a Putin”

Of course last year’s voting patterns aren’t the only controversial aspect of this year’s contest in Moscow. Ongoing tensions between Russia and the west have made this year’s location uncomfortable to say the least. After Russia’s invasion of Georgian-occupied territory in August, several estates including Latvia, Estonia and Poland announced they would boycott the Moscow Eurovision. Since then they seem to have softened their stance, as they are all now taking part. Georgia was also supposed to take part, but their entry was deemed too political and was banned by the European Broadcasting Union, which runs the show. The song that won the Georgian finals, “We Don’t Wanna Put In” by Stephane & 3G, seemed to deliberately parody a popular pop song in Russia by The Putin Girls called “We Want a Man Like Putin” (no joke, watch it it’s hilarious). The Georgia song also contained the thinly veiled lyrics “We don’t wanna put in, the negative move, it's killing the groove” in the chorus. The ban on the song is the first time the EBU has ever blocked an entry to the song contest for political reasons. But it was clear the organisation was worried about offending this year’s host, especially when Putin himself may be in the audience.

Of course the publicity the song has received from the controversy is probably more valuable than actually appearing on Eurovision. The song is bizarrely number two in the UK's Music Week pop chart at the moment. It’s also getting radio play across Europe.

The Songs

It looks like Russia’s Channel One is pulling out all the stops for the Moscow show, which kicked off last night at Moscow's Manezh Exhibition Centre. Reportedly it’s going to be the most expensive show in Eurovision’s history, though the actual budget won’t be revealed until after. Comparisons are obviously being made to the over-the-top Beijing Olympics in China, another international showcase event by an emerging BRIC power.

As previously mentioned, the hands-down favourite this year with the bookies is Norway, but Greece, Turkey and Ukraine are considered to have a good shot as well. Much of the talent this year is made up of female ballad singers, and there is (sadly) little of the tongue-in-cheek camp of the past two contests. The UK’s entry, “My Time” is a light theatrical ballad penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and sung by previously unknown Jade Ewan (though UK entrants are almost always previously unknown, and almost always still unknown afterwards!).

However on the continent they often field entrants who are already famous singers. France’s entry Patricia Kaas is a well-known Gallic chanteuse who has sold millions of records. Malta’s entry Chiara is a sensation in her home country and this will be her third try for the Eurovision crown (she narrowly lost to Israeli transsexual Dana International in 1998).

Beyond the ballad belters there are also a number of orchestral folksy entries. Front-runner Norway will have a set or violins, Estonia is featuring a six-piece female string group, and Slovenia even has a string quarter with barely any vocals. Sweden and Bulgaria are both featuring operatic singers.

After receiving much criticism for its puppet entry last year (it didn’t help that Dustin the Turkey puppet was featured as a mascot for the ‘no’ vote in the Irish referendum on the EU Reform Treaty),

Ireland has gone with a more serious entry this year with a girl rock band – who I saw perform at a Eurovision preview party in London a few weeks back and loved. Perhaps this year’s entrant is reflective of Ireland’s newly humble attitude toward Europe?

Sadly there’s only a few high camp entries in this year’s lineup. Turkey's entry “Dum Tek Tek” has been the most commercially popular, as it’s scantily-clad dancers were deemed “too sexy for TV” by Turkey’s authorities. Spain’s Soraya and Ukraine’s Svetlana Loboda will both feature scantily clad go-go boys (Ukraine’s was also at the preview – it was a little raunchy!). Strangely it is last year’s host Serbia that is providing the only comic entry, with an accordion-backed funny tale about materialism called Cipela.

The semi finals will be held tonight and Thursday, and the final will be held Saturday night, all at 8pm CET. The show airs in most every country in Europe on the national broadcaster, but sadly not in North America. But never fear, you can watch the show live on the Eurovision 2009 web page!


Eurocentric said...

Great overview!

(One little point though - second paragraph, you say Bulgaria was last year's hosts, when it's Serbia/Belgrade, like you write later).

Hopefully the judge panel will iron out the politicalisation of the vote, though it will probably still pop up here and there (surely national music reps will be attuned to their markets and those of their neighbours?).

The Dustin the Turkey thing... I think most of us thought that it would go down well in Eurovision, since it was supposed to be fun/ny. The perception here was that a novelty act would do better (in recent years we've send awful traditional-Irish-like acts or bland unnoticable pop acts) but perhaps it touched a nerve - were we "westerners looking down on the competition"? (Then again, Ukraine hardly took it seriously in 2007 and still came second!)

There were those who thought it was an embarrassment to Ireland, but they were a minority.

Another factor may have been easterners in the west voting for their home countries (perhaps limited to Ireland and the UK which hosted more Poles, etc. over that last few years).

Dave Keating said...

oops ha yes meant Serbia there, will change it!