Much like the Sanjaya phenomenon on American Idol in the US, the public support for 'Jedward', as they came to be dubbed by the British press (and they are now competing under that name in Eurovision), seemed to be driven by Simon Cowell's clear distaste for them. The identical twins are undoubtedly horrible dancers and singers, but their hammy gimmick act won the hearts of the British public. But can they win the hearts of Europe? The UK is most likely to vote for them, and there will be some in continental Europe already familiar with them from watching British X-Factor. The song is actually quite catchy, but in order to win they would need to majorly polish their dance moves and I'm not sure I see that happening. Still, they've got something. But their main gimmick is going to be seriously undercut by the fact that Slovakia's entry this year also features identical twins. Here's the video of the Jedward song which, for some reason, was shot at the Eiffel Tower in Paris (trying to woo those continental votes?)
Meanwhile the country that made them famous may be looking at their best chance to win the contest in a decade, fielding a boyband from the early 2000's called Blue. Apparently these guys were a big deal, though they never crossed the pond to the US. I have no idea if people know who they are on the continent. But the bookies have favoured them to win the contest. I have a feeling this may just be irrational name recognition early in the game though, sort of like those early US presidential polls that favour people like Donald Trump and Fred Thompson to win the primaries. I think the song and the group are just dreadful. Here's the video, I couldn't even sit through the whole thing. Yeccch. If they win I'm going to take a bath with my toaster.
This will actually be my fifth Eurovision since moving to Europe in 2006 – before I came here I had never heard of the contest. When I describe it to Americans I usually call it a combination of American Idol and Miss America. By this point I'm a little obsessed with it, perhaps because there's nothing like it in my home country (or continent). And this year I'll actually be at the final in Dusseldorf, I got a press pass and be covering it from the press room. Since I've started watching it there have been good years and bad years – 2007 and 2009 were definitely the best. This year seems a little lacklustre, a sort of Eurovision on a budget judging by the rehearsals I've seen so far. No big camp numbers to speak of, and a lot of slow, soft songs. And several countries who have been fielding excellent entries over the past several contests – notably Ukraine, Greece and Turkey – have fielded quite bad entries this year.
Italy returns to the contest
This big story this year is the fact that Italy will be participating again for the first time since withdrawing from the contest in 1997. For 14 years they have been the only European country consistently not participating in Eurovision. There are conflicting stories about why Italy left the contest. The official version was that the broadcast in Italy had received poor ratings several years in a row and Italy no longer felt the cost was justified. Back then Italy was one of the 'big four' countries who had to fund the majority of the contest (when they left Spain took their spot). There are other theories about why they left, involving political machinations by Silvio Berlusconi. In the end, who knows.
But the 14 year hiatus means that by this point few people in Italy remember what Eurovision was. I'm always rather astounded that I many Italians I know my age or younger don't know what Eurovision is. And if they do know what it is, they think it still has the same staid format as it did in the 1990's. When Italy last competed in the contest it was kind of a sad relic, the format was dated and interest was low. But in the early 2000s the format was modernised and updated, particularly to accommodate all of the new entrants that were coming in from the former Soviet bloc. The lifting of the old requirement that each country has to sing in their national language (which was thought to give Ireland, Malta and the UK an unfair advantage) has meant most songs are now in English and are more accessible to the broad European public.
Disappointingly, the Italians have chosen a colossally boring jazz number for their underwhelming return to the contest. It was the winner of this year's Sanremo festival, a domestic Italian singing competition. Apparently Italians think this festival is world-renown, because whenever I would ask my Italian friends why Italy doesn't participate in Eurovision they would say, "Well, we don't need it, we have the Sanremo festival." I've never seen the festival but if this is the calibre of songs that win that contest, I think you all are better off in Eurovision! Here's the video.
With Italy again participating it will mean the highest participation in a Eurovision song contest ever, with all European countries participating except the Czech Republic and Montenegro (excluding microstates). I can't seem to find an explanation for why the Czechs aren't fielding an entry this year, does anyone know? They were out last year too. It's impressive to see such a massive participation this year, it means Eurovision is only getting more popular rather than less (contrary to what many people think).
The best of 2011
So who do I think is going to win this year? My heart might belong to the Jedward song, but I think Sweden has the best shot. As the country which perhaps takes Eurovision more seriously than anyone, Sweden’s national finals – called Melodifestival – are always closely watched. This year’s winner Eric Saade was the runner-up in last year’s Melodifestivalen contest and he is relatively well-known in Sweden. 'Popular' is an uptempo pop song with slick dance moves and some gimmicky stage theatrics that always goes down well with the audience. It's already reached number one in Sweden. Check out his winning performance at Melodifestivalen:
The dance moves aren’t as polished as they could be but based on his rehearsal in Dusseldrof today it seems the staging has improved significantly since Melodifestivalen. And maybe they can fix the timing on that glass cage breaking by then! Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s extremely attractive, especially considering the contest’s large gay following. The music video made for the song is pretty slick too. So my money’s on this one.
Norway is also a bookie favourite. It’s kind of an odd entry, as you can see it’s very representative of Norwegian culture! This year Norway chose a Norwegian-Kenyan singer who sings part of the song, which has a Caribbean flavour, in Swahili!
The Scandos are certainly representing this year, and Denmark is another bookie favourite. They’ve fielded a Britpop-style band called A Friend in London with the song New Tomorrow. It’s very catchy, and the Britpop genre was a recipe for success for Lena last year (maybe he should also try to do her bizarre cockney accent). It definitely sounds like something you could hear on the radio, and he’s got a great look. Definitely one of my favourites this year.
Hungary has also been favoured by the bookies as a possible winner for this year, but I’m not sure I understand why. It’s ok I guess, and she’s got a nice voice. But why is she singing to a water bottle?
Germany and France not in the game
Germany, which won last year with Satellite by Lena (thus why they are hosting it this year), has unsurprisingly chosen a song that will guarantee that they won’t have to host the expensive contest two years in a row. They’ve actually just had Lena do another song. Apparently her career hasn’t taken off in Deutschland, despite the phenomenal gangly-teenager dance moves she displayed last year. I actually kind of like this song though, I think it shows off her unique voice better than Satellite did and shows she’s grown up a bit. It's definitely not going to be in the top 5 though.
France has also fielded an entry guaranteed not to win. It’s a rather forgettable operatic song except for the one interesting fact that it is entirely not in French – it’s in Corsican. When I first heard it I thought it was Latin actually, since I’ve never heard Corsican before. I doubt it will kick off the same controversy that Sebastian Tellier’s 2008 entry did though. The fact that Tellier's song was even partly in English caused such a scandal in France that it was actually brought up on the floor of the French parliament! But since Corsican is a constituent part of France, I guess they can’t complain this time can they? At least not without being politically incorrect.
Spain, which also automatically makes it to the final because they are one of the “big 4” (now big 5) who pay for the contest, is also definitely not a winner. The song is almost incomprehensibly bad and sounds really dated. Even the music video looks like it was shot 20 years ago. Spanish friends, why was this selected?? Was it because of the trauma caused by last year’s stage-jumper?
The worst of 2011
Of course a big part of the fun of watching Eurovision isn’t just the good entries, it’s the bad ones! And this year, our cup runneth over. Where to start? How about this bizarre entry from Estonia where a girl sings on a mini recreation of New York City singing about “Rockefeller Street” (a street that definitely doesn’t exist).
Over in Estonia’s sister country we have an equally so-bad-it’s-funny entry from Finland. Beyond the fact that this looks like a carbon copy of Belgium’s 2010 entry from Tom Dice, the content of the song is incredibly sappy, even by Eurovision standards! It’s a guy with a guitar singing about a little boy who goes on a mission trying to stop climate change. Please make it stop!
Speaking of performances that make you cringe, this year also marks the completely unnecessary comeback of Dana International of Israel. Dana made headlines in 1998 when she became the first transsexual to win Eurovision. Since then she’s had a relatively successful pop career in Israel and hasn’t strayed far from the contest that brought her fame. She wrote the song for Israel’s 2008 entry and she was one of the biggest hits at the 50th anniversary Eurovision celebration in Copenhagen in 2005, with her song being chosen as one of the 14th best Eurovision songs of all time.
But sadly her voice is clearly not what it used to be, and her comeback entry this year "Ding Dong" is difficult to watch. She’s had to enlist five backup singers to drown out her croaking vocals, and the song itself is pretty forgettable
Greece is another laughably bad entry, with an embarrassing rap followed by a screeching melody sung by a very uncomfortable-looking man. Greece usually fields very good entries so this is quite disappointing.
And speaking of disappointing, Ukraine’s entry this year breaks my little heart. For the past four years they’ve consistently been my favourite Eurovision nation, starting with the whirling drag queen Verka Serduchka who came in second in 2007 and continuing on with Svetlana Lobodo’s crowd-pleasingly camp explosion in 2009. Ani Lorak’s Shady Lady and last year’s ballad were also very good. But this year? Well, the less said about it the better!
So, I’m quite excited for next week! It should be an interesting experience to be in the press room at least. I am braced for the insanity!