With the defeat of far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in Sunday's French election, Europe breathed a sigh of relief. It's no time to relax just yet, but at least for the rest of the week the continent can turn to more fun diversions. And on that note - Sunday also marked the start of Eurovision week.
Of course, the Eurovision Song Contest isn't the same politics-free distraction it once was. This year's competition is in Kiev, following Ukraine's shock win last year with an unabashedly anti-Russian song. After a viciously clever trap set my Moscow, Russia has pulled out of the 2017 contest. Their absence will be keenly felt this week.
Every year, countries try to emulate the previous year's winner. 2017 has been no exception. To match Jamala's haunting winning song about the Soviet genocide and deportation of Crimean Tatars, we have a whole crop of dark, brooding songs this year about serious subjects. But none match the emotional intensity of Jamala's performance last year.
Given that her win was so controversial (political entries aren't supposed to be allowed in the contest, and many thought Ukraine's entry was more political protest than music), it will be interesting to see how Ukraine chooses to reprise the performance this year. This is typically done during the first semi-final, which will be tonight. Will they double down on the intensity, or try to go with a lighter staging as an olive branch to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) - the organiser of the contest which isn't very happy with Ukraine at the moment.
From genocide to a dancing gorilla
At first, this year's expected winner seems like a drastic contrast to Jamala. A Italian man with a funny mustache dances awkwardly and sings about "Chanel" and "sex appeal" while a man in an ape costume struts behind him. Classic Eurovision camp, right?
Francesco Gabbani won Italy's San Remo song contest in February with this song, which is actually a brutal critique of the pathological state in which Western society finds itself in 2017.
It's called 'Westerner's Karma', and its about people clinging to Eastern traditions as a mood of anxiety descends across the West. The song is a critique of this impulse, pointing out that people are doing so superficially. In the lyrics, Gabbani appeals to people to look to science and reason instead.
“It describes the situation of Westerners, their models and their way of seeking refuge in the Oriental rituals for comfort," Fabio Ilacqua, the man who wrote the song together with Gabbani, said last month. "Westerners are turning to oriental cultures like tourists who go into a holiday village. Oriental cultures are seen as an escape from the stress, but they were not born for this. It’s the trivialisation of something profound”.And the dancing gorilla? It's a reference to "The Naked Ape" a 1967 book by famed anthropologist Desmond Morris. Its a reminder that through all of our efforts as humans to find meaning, we are still just dancing apes.
"Behind the ape there’s the modern human being, one of the 193 species of apes described by Desmond Morris, the only one without hair," said Ilacqua. "We are clothed men but inside we still have lots of characteristics deriving from cavemen”.There are a lot of things going on in this song. You can also find a Karl Marx reference in reference to our modern addiction to social networks ("all knowing with the web, cocaine of the masses, opiate of the poor").
"Honorary members of the selfie-addicted anonymous - cleverness is out of fashion: easy answers, pointless dilemmas," he sings. "Drops of Chanel are pouring on aseptic bodies. Save yourself from the smell of your own kind."So, the anticipated winner is following the recent trend for Eurovision songs 'of substance'. The voters today want the winning song to be about something serious, people reckon. Witness Sweden's winning entry in 2015, which while being a very catchy pop song was also about bullying. The year before, bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst from Austria won with a song interpreted (rightly) as being about triumphing in the face of homophobia.
The problem, of course, is that nobody who can vote for the song will understand any of this. While Ilacqua initially told Italian media after the San Remo win that they would change the lyrics to English for Eurovision, Gabbani quickly squashed the idea (perhaps, some have suggested, as a result of pressure from Italian broadcaster RAI).
Language is a sensitive issue in Eurovision. Until 1999 countries were forced to sing in their national language - an imposition insisted on by France. Paris finally relented after the UK and Ireland won five years between them in the 1990s. Most countries then switched to singing in English.
These days only France, Italy, Spain and Portugal consistently sing in their native language, and every year there are two or three more that follow suit. 95% of the contest's lyrics are now in English.
Since the end of the language restriction only one song not in English has won - Serbia's 'Molitva' in 2007. Melodically it's a powerful song (although with laughably camp staging), which it allowed it to get over the language hurdle. In fact, the lyrics in Serbian are kind of dumb. It was better that people couldn't understand it.
Italy will have the opposite problem. It's a very catchy tune and builds up to a big crescendo. The bookies seem to think the audience won't mind that they can't understand the lyrics.
But my suspicion is that the audience will catch on that there's something else going on here, and not knowing what it is will bother them. The national announcers may briefly explain the meaning before the song starts. And some countries (but not most) run subtitle translations during the songs. But I have a feeling viewers are just going to be left confused.
The song won San Remo in large part because Italians thought it was clever and timely. None of that will come through to people who do not understand Italian. And that's most people.
In addition, Italy has the handicap of not being in the semi-finals. The 'big 5' countries (UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy) do not have to qualify in order to compete in Saturday's final round, like all other countries do. The idea is that because they pay the most to stage the contest, it would be an indignity for them not to participate in the final.
The problem though is that the two semi-finals in the week before the grand prix have become increasingly popular. At this point, many people have already made up their mind about what country they are voting for before the final has even started - based on what they saw the week before.
The EBU has tried to rectify this problem by showing clips from the music videos of the big 5 during the semi-final broadcasts, but it hasn't helped. The big 5 often come at the bottom of the heap. For Italy, this means they will lose a lot of potential voters on Saturday who have already made up their minds before they ever see the Italian performance.
As an Italian citizen, I would love for this to win. It would be thrilling to see Italy win again, especially after the 14-year ban on Eurovision put in place by Silvio Berlusconi in 1997 (Italy rejoined the contest almost immediately after Berlusconi was overthrown in 2011). Ironically, Italy last won in 1990 with a song called 'Insieme 1992' - about the Maastricht Treaty which was being ratified at the time. That treaty created the European Union in 1992.
As a result of the ban, there is a whole 'lost generation' to Eurovision in Italy - people under 30 who don't know what the contest is. A win would go a long way to getting Eurovision back into Italian hearts, which has been a slow five-year process since reintroduction.
I will probably vote for Westerner's Karma. But I wouldn't bet money on it. I think the public will be more in the mood for a meaningless distraction this year. More on that later.
For several weeks last month the bookies had Belgium ranked as the second-most-likely country to win Eurovision 2017. My country of citizenship and my country of residence in the top two, I couldn't lose!
The song, 'City Lights' by Blanche, is very dark. The singer describes an urban hellscape, where two people meet, "all alone in the danger zone". It is slow and haunting. Like some of Belgium's previous entries in recent years, it's good but it doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't build up to any moment.
The odds of Belgium winning went way down two weeks ago after people saw Blanche's first rehearsal in Kiev. It was always going to be a struggle to build an interesting stage performance to do with this song. Even the music video is just filled with Blanche standing forlornly around various ugly buildings in Brussels.
Perhaps Belgium over-judged the apocolyptic mood. Last year's winner was dark, but it is also energetic and builds into an incredible, mournful crescendo. Belgium has a good song, but it just can't be matched with a strong performance.
Sweden sweeps in
I think the bookies are misjudging the public mood. Yes, emotional songs with a strong message have won over the past several years. But I have a feeling this trend is dying down.
With people unable to understand the Italian song and unable to stay awake for the Belgian song, I suspect that Sweden's more traditional pop diddy is going to fill the vacuum.
It is about pretty much nothing - a guy telling a girl that she's beautiful. But it has a creative staging with a gimmick - the singer and his backup dancers start backstage before emerging onto the stage one-third of the way through, and then walk on treadmills as they sing. It's silly but the movement of the walking stays with you in association with the song. Over the past few weeks I've found myself strutting down the street every time it comes on in my headphones.
The bookies seem to think that people won't want to vote for Sweden because they just won two years ago (this would be their third win in five years). But let's get real here - most viewers barely remember who won the previous year. I doubt this will be a big consideration for voters.
So, I predict Sweden will win Eurovision 2017. But I hope that Italy wins. Aside from my sentimental reasons, I would love to see the trend for winning songs that are actually about something continue.
There are other songs I like this year. I LOVE Iceland's 'Paper' - another dark song with haunting vocals that sound like Robyn. Australia's song 'Don't Come Easy' is also excellent, but I predict it will score very poorly with the public (people still don't understand why the country was invited to compete three years ago).
I also like Armenia's 'Fly With Me', Hungary's 'Origo' (interestingly, sung in Hungarian), and Portugal's 'Amar Pelos Dois'.
France has fielded a good entry with 'Requiem' this year, and the fact that they've changed the stanzas to English shows they think they have a shot at winning (the bookies seem to be increasingly under that impression also). The chorus is still in French. The music video is just dreadful though, a cliché-ridden bore that looks like it was produced by a cut-rate French tourism agency.
I would be remiss if I did not give a special mention to Montenegro's entry, 'Space' by Slavko Kalezic. It definitely gets the award for campiest entry this year. These types of entries used to be a lot more common, especially from Eastern European countries that didn't realise how mega-gay they came off to the West.
Over the past five years, the entries have become so slick and polished that the EBU is worried about losing the significant portion of the Eurovision audience that tunes in for the trainwrecks. They want more camp entries, especially to satisfy the British audience (where Eurovision ratings are among the highest). So they'll be very happy with this submission from Montenegro, and will hope for more like it.
And I have to confess, I kind of love the song.