Monday, May 26, 2008

Eurovision 2008

I know, I know, it's been a couple of days now. But the Eurovision Song Contest is always worth writing about.

Now, some of you are American, so a bit of background is probably unavoidable. Eurovision is a ridiculous annual song contest organised by the European Broadcasting Union. In its early days, people took it vaguely seriously. Even as late as the seventies, people like Abba would still crop up from time to time. But basically, as far as western Europe is concerned, the whole thing has drifted off into a parallel universe of extreme kitsch. As a general rule, no credible artist would go within a mile of the thing. This turned it into a weird competition based on finding the best Eurovision Song, an unfathomable sub-genre bearing no relationship to anything that sells to anyone, anywhere. In a way, this made it surreally wonderful.

But in the last few years, things have changed, because Eastern Europe has joined en masse, bringing the total number of entrants to 43, and forcing the introduction of an elaborate semi-final system. And the Eastern Europeans see things a bit differently. They understand full well that the whole thing is a bit ridiculous - the Baltic states in particular have been entirely willing to take the piss. But over there, genuinely successful acts are prepared to enter. And some of these Eastern European countries aren't that interested in writing Eurovision songs. Why, they enter songs that local people actually like.

This has created a bit of controversy, because the western countries have been doing very badly in the last few years, while the eastern countries cheerfully dole out maximum points to one another - culminating in this year's event, which was won for the first time by Russia. Britain, meanwhile, came last. Cue the usual whining and complaining about political voting. Why, if only those dastardly ex-commies would play fair, we British would have won.

Let's get serious. The British entry was crap. Only two countries in the whole of Europe voted for it at all - Ireland and San Marino, if you're wondering. It was a mid-paced anaemic disco record, a genre which hasn't been fashionable anywhere in the continent for a good twenty years. It didn't even make the Top 60 when released in Britain (although in fairness, it'll probably climb next week). But the winning Russian song...

...was getting solid votes from the western countries too. It's a ballad that does nothing for me at all, but it's the sort of thing that actually does sell across the continent, performed by Dima Bilan, a prettyboy singer who's already successful in his home country. Now, I have no desire to hear this thing ever again. But I have no trouble believing that people voted it for it because they liked it. Hell, it's better than Westlife.

So much for the winner. Here's a selection of other songs you might have missed - and, for the benefit of those of you who DID sit through the whole show, I've tried to dig out the promo videos instead of the Eurovision performances (which are usually a bit blurry). There's nothing as spectacular as LT United or Lordi this year, but there's a lot of generally... interesting stuff across the board. It's an unusually strong year in terms of quality.

Let's start with Ani Lorak of the Ukraine, because this is perhaps the last refuge of old-style Eurovision. It's a big epic pop dance number, tragically undermined by its godawful English language lyrics - as exemplified by the title, "Shady Lady". Of course, that's only a problem if you speak English as a first language, so naturally it came second.

If you can get past the lyrics, it's not bad. For something a little more modern, here's the third-place song - "Secret Combination" by Kalomira, the Greek entry. This actually does sound like something that would be a hit around Europe. But then, that'll happen if you shamelessly rip off Timbaland. I can see this actually getting a release in Britain. (Hopefully without the bloody great watermark on the video, but it's the best I could find.)

We've had rock songs before - in fact, Finland tried again this year, with a second-rate Iron Maiden. But here's Turkey's Mor ve Otesi, with "Deli", which appears to be the first attempt at emo.

According to Wikipedia, these guys have been around for twelve years, and they're very big in Turkey. Heaven only knows what they're doing in Eurovision, but I approve of any country entering a band they actually like. Perhaps we should try it some time.

And now for something completely different. Plucky little Latvia, going for the ultra-camp angle.

Magnificently stupid. And now a real treat - "Day After Day" by Elnur and Samir, the very first Eurovision entry from all the way over in Azerbaijan. I know what you're thinking: do they even have camp in Azerbaijan? Well, here's your answer. Look out for the remarkable vocal solo at 2:20.

But we haven't even touched on the really weird stuff yet. Here's "Pokusaj" by Laka, a truly remarkable entry from Bosnia-Herzegovina, which takes a bit too long to get going, but after a few listening, turns out to be rather brilliant. There's almost a hint of Arcade Fire in there.

Now, I mentioned earlier that, with a whole 43 countries entering, we now have a semi-final system which everyone has to go through. Everyone... except for five countries. The host nation (the previous year's winner) goes through automatically. And so do Britain, Germany, Spain and France, because they put up most of the money. You can imagine how that goes down in the rest of Europe.

The British entry was crap anyway. The Germans sent in No Angels, a girl band who mutilated their song by singing it a mile out of key, and who came joint last with us. But France... France is in a strange mood this year, entering indie synth songwriter Sebastien Tellier, who chose to sing in English.

A lot of people are saying this is the best thing in the show, and by conventional indie-pop standards, that's unquestionably true. But it's not a Eurovision song; great as it is, it's just not that sort of mass-appeal pop song. Full marks for trying, but I suspect a lot of the eastern Europeans thought France was taking the piss, faced with Tellier's endearingly shambolic performance and Bontempi arrangement.

France wasn't taking the piss. Spain was taking the piss.

Now, this track seems to have been through quite a few mixes, so let's go with the live show...

I kind of like it, against my better judgement. ("Tres! El Michael Jackson! Quatro! El Robocop!") But a reggaeton parody? That's pretty damned obscure even for the British - god only knows what they made of it in Minsk.

Anyway, all told, I'd say this was an unusually good year for the Eurovision song contest, and Britain's crashing defeat was wholly deserved. You could make a strong case, in fact, that this is the closest Eurovision has been to a "real" song contest in years...