Lithuania's candidate, Donny Montell, sings "Love is Blind"...blindfolded.
When I first heard about the Eurovision Song Contest, an amicable competition in which each European country sends a musical act to represent it, I imagined an evening of refined entertainment, a bit like a televised symphony performance.
I was very, very wrong. Founded in 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest has evolved into a mecca of kitsch. Typical things you might see during the show include: female backup singers with winged hair...and butterfly wings attached to their evening gowns, pyrotechnics, flashy choreography, bare legs and daring décolletés for the ladies and bare chests for the men, gimmicks that are usually completely unrelated to the song being sung (actual examples: sand painting on a projector, Olympic medalist Evgeni Viktorovich Plushenko skating on a mini-ice rink), and so on.
The Eurovision does not encourage subtlety. And while some acts do show impressive talent -- notably, ABBA and Celine Dion (representing Switzerland for some reason) were both discovered here – a majority of them run the gamut from soupy pop or techno, to downright amateur-seeming. They often appear to have been chosen to represent their country for the flashiness of their performances, rather than their musical skill.
InCulto, Eurovision 2010
The Eurovision is something you roll your eyes over, yet delight in. Even as you bemoan the fact that high scoring acts frequently get votes based on visual appeal – and, even more commonly, because of political and cultural affinities between countries – you still want to see how everyone will do.
Thanks to my boyfriend and his mother, I’ve become a diehard fan of the event, eagerly looking forward to it every year. When the show started last night, I was excited even before the opening act had ended. A huge spectacle featuring previous winners and a countless number of dancers in a mix of traditional and over-the-top, tacky costumes, it perfectly captured what the Eurovision was all about.
But that’s where the resemblance ended.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. There were some issues these past weeks leading up to the contest. For one thing, this year’s host country, Azerbaijan (last year's winner - the country whose act wins hosts the following year's competition) has been accused of human rights violations. On a slightly less serious note, Spain’s singer, Pastora Soler, made headlines when she told an interviewer that her advisors had asked her to do everything possible not to win, since her country can’t afford the millions of euros it would take to host the event next year. She later rescinded this comment, saying she was joking, but no one forgot about it.
Human rights violations and the financial crisis are sobering indeed. Maybe they somehow influenced the seemingly untouchable kitsch universe that is the Eurovision contest. Because this year, the norm wasn’t flashy costumes and choreography (though there were some impressive pyrotechnics on the new Crystal Hall stadium’s stage). Instead of white, or fluorescents, or pastels, the color of choice for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest was…black.
Not only did most performers wear the somber shade; the cavernous stadium and its big screens seemed often to fill the space with the color, so that singers, musicians, and even the dancers that surprisingly few acts boasted, were swallowed by the void. On top of that, a majority of the artists in black also had pretty sensible-looking clothes. For example, Kaliopi, a talented singer from Macedonia, looked like someone going to a job interview.
The occasional bright spots of color –Cyprus’ Ivi Adamou who sang the delightfully cheesily-titled (and surprisingly catchy) “La La Love”,
or the tacky fringe dress and odd costumes for the act from Ukraine, or the whimsical, yet couturish frocks on the dancers from Moldova’s act, were welcome sights.
Moldova's Pasha Parfeny, and dancers
Even the cheesiest and most inexplicable performance of the night,
(no, not Jedward, Ireland's representative for the second time in a row)
Can Bonomo, from Turkey, who sang a song that might have been a lesser number in a high school play about sailors, were dressed in drab grays and dark blues. If it hadn’t been for the nautical theme, I would have thought: "Dracula: The Musical", and I was delighted when the French commentators compared them to bats.
(If you can't see the video, click here to watch it - it is totally worth it!)
The winner of the competition was not, sadly, my favorite - Nina Zilli, who's like an Italian-style Amy Winehouse,
(If you can't see the video, click here to watch it.)
but rather an artist who was very much in the spirit of the evening. Beating out an adored group of brightly-dressed grannies from Russia, Swedish artist Loreena, whose single was already at the top of the charts in her home country, earned an incredible amount of votes. A Gothic-looking twenty-eight-year-old whose face is often partially hidden by a long curtain of black hair, Loreena sang a pretty standard techno-pop song (though she does truly have an impressive voice). She wore a modest one-piece black pantsuit and a sort of transparent kimono over it. Her entire performance more or less consisted in her singing and moving in strange ways while a fan blew her kimono’s sleeves up. It made me think of being a teenager and putting on my own show to Evanescence’s first CD when I was alone in my bedroom.
(If you can't see the video, click here to watch it.)
Whenever she was announced as the person with the most voting points from a country (each country gives out a certain number of points to candidates, and can't vote for themselves), she seemed quietly moved, not exuberantly cheerful like a typical Eurovision victor. At times, she even held a hand seemingly protectively around her stomach. The boyfriend and I worried she was going to be sick.
So that was 2012’s Eurovision: very little glitter.
As for France, as usual they were one of the lowest-scoring countries. Only, this year it wasn’t because they’d decided to do something unlike the typical acts. Instead, as I watched pop singer Anggun, a beautiful woman with a decent voice, singing an instantly-forgettable song while wearing an incongruous and absolutely stunning outfit created by Jean-Paul Gaultier, with bare-chested male gymnasts dressed like they’d just come from the gym doing flips and other moves around her, I realized that after years of struggling to find a way to win while still staying a little avant-garde, the French had given up.
Maybe if the song had been catchier or the gymnasts better dressed, or if there’d been more pyrotechnics, they would have gotten more points. But no one, not even the French commentators, who are usually at least somewhat hopeful at the start of the evening, seemed to think we had any chance of winning. Instead, they politely expressed their support of Anggun, then began the annual and expected riffing on all of the performers and international vote readers. It’s one of the best parts of the Eurovision (if you're watching it in France), and it was thankfully unchanged by the current trend. The only thing dark about the French last night, was their sense of humor at times.
For me, this year’s Eurovision was sort of like a horrible vision of what could be. What if the competition did get more serious, and came to resemble a night of cultural enrichment? Now that I’ve seen the toned-down version, I want the old glitter and fire and butterfly wings back!
If you live in a country where you don't get the Eurovision Song Contest on TV, but you want to see more, there are a lot of videos posted on sites like YouTube.
To read about last year's very different Eurovision Song Contest, please feel free to check out what I posted then