/ Leigh Alexander / 12 am Sun, May 27 2012
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  • Pop and politics collide at Europe's awesomely trashy song contest

    Pop and politics collide at Europe's awesomely trashy song contest

    You know the Ameri-centricism Europeans make fun of? I might have been an example of that, having not really heard of the Eurovision Song Contest until 2010 – and even then, the only reason I’d heard a thing about it was because of the Epic Sax Guy meme, spawned by Moldova’s hilariously neon-infused, incredibly euro-centric performance that year.

    This year, a bottle of cranberry Finlandia and nearly four hours of completely un-ironic enthusiasm opened my eyes.

    Luckily, I have a lot of British friends. One of them, game developer and unapologetic pop music aficionado Ste Curran, is spending the weekend with me here in Brooklyn, and although he’s quite a flexible houseguest, one of his immutable demands was that we get a group together and tune into the Eurovision Song Contest, which was streaming so that we could get it here in the U.S. this year.

    Ste’s one of those people who’s absolutely immune to irony, and occupies every one of his interests with absolute sincerity. That means to join Ste in anything – even in what you’d assume is absurd, trashy Europop – means it crosses from ironic game into eager analysis.

    The Brits generally wrap Eurovision in a veil of cynical commentary, but it was fun to gather a group of friends and dive into this weird, complicated political competition in a state of total innocence.

    First up, a prebriefing on some of the most exciting contestants: Ste’s favorite was Loreen from Sweden, an exotic-looking soloist of Moroccan heritage. Her ingenue’s concentration and endless dark hair put me in mind of Molly from Widowspeak, a band presently popular here in Brooklyn.

    Then there's Lithuania’s entry, a sincere young man whose song starts out a bit Clay Aiken before busting straight up into Jamiroquai territory. My favorite, though, was Norway’s entry Tooji, whose hoodie-clad frontman (of Iranian origin) is jaw-achingly handsome, despite the fact you get the idea nobody with lady-parts would have a shot at him. Look and swoon!)

    Let’s back up: in the Eurovision competition, each nation elects an act to represent it in a pan-European competition – a sort of musical Olympics. The prize isn’t just national honor, but the opportunity to host the competition the following year. Yes, hosting nations earn essentially a four-hour advertisement for the glories and victories of their turf, as Azerbaijan showcased this year (“Land of Tea!” it promised in an interstitial, much to the consternation of my British guests) – but it’s also quite expensive. Azerbaijan built an entire new stadium, complete with all the special effects and fireworks of the post-Idol era.

    Also, I know little about Azerbaijan beyond civil rights abuses my Euro friends tell me of; it's fascinating they’ve gone to such expense to stage this show, with all its swivel-hipped males and bondage-danger body displays.

    The same friends have also explained to me nobody really wants to win Eurovision and end up bearing that hosting cost--just to make a proud showing. Each participating nation can allocate points toward their favorites, the exception naturally being that no nation can vote for its own entry.

    Naturally, this means politics and national allegiances bear heavily on the outcome--Greece and Cyprus, as usual, each allocated their largest share of points of one another, to zero applause.

    Lordi, Finland’s ambassador to the contest results, came onscreen wearing his heavy-metal monster costume, promising to award its share of points to the “hottest, cutest” contestants.

    It is, in fact, the greatest collision of Europop aesthetics with bloc politics of which any naïve American could conceive. Even if you have more arch appetites than mainstream pop songs, you can be persuaded to appreciate the particular recipe of factors that reliably cause everyone to jump up and down in a club, potentially with shrieking. And when it comes to Eurovision, it seems pop acts can nail that recipe – and still lose, because the Eastern European nations all want to give their points to one another, same for the Scandinavian nations, and the songs with the greatest international top 40 potential can go completely overlooked. Seriously, it is so weird.

    A total of 26 nations entered the Eurovision Song Contest. I was passionately interested in Norway’s entry, with its guaranteed song structure – thrumming beat, implacable middle-eastern choral flavor, iconic dancing, babe frontman – but also an advocate of Sweden’s wonderfully weird Loreen and her logic-defying body movements.

    I’d love to be enlightened on what factors determine the contest performance order, but the UK was first, and their entrant was someone I’ve actually heard of: balladeer Englebert Humperdinck. I ultimately adored his song, a painfully sincere British Johnny-Cash-meets-Barry-Manilow universal love tune ("It’s like we’re actually trying this year,” reflected one of my UK companions). I could honestly picture myself having a little cry to this after a late night in the bar. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if an old-world tune, sung by the plastic-surgeried lips of a past-era chanteur, ended up sweeping this entire bass-pumping lightshow?

    It finished second from last.

    “We are to Europe what Japan is to the rest of Southeast Asia,” laments my UK pal. “Because we’re on an island, and because of our accomplishments, we’re seen as a bit smug. Of everyone in Europe, we were the last ones to have a great empire.”

    If there were an international song contest, which suddenly seems to me a way more spiritually-sound way to promote national pride and global unity than the hyper-expensive Olympics, America would not often prevail.

    I recommend that everyone watch all of Eurovision’s contestants for themselves, even thought there are panflutes and rock violins.

    Much of the music would be embraced at a renaissance fair. Russia’s entry stages a handful of elderly grandmothers performing traditional song and dance to a club beat – it’s either the sweetest act of subversion you’ve ever seen or a total cop-out, an ironic pitch to the late ‘90s cynics who thought Hampsterdance was rad. It’s the most obvious avatar of the weird line these contestants straddle between ironic awareness and wide-eyed obliviousness.

    As each contestant unveiled its three-minute act (all are time-constrained), part of the fun is compulsive hashtagging. I’m a video game journalist; my readership is mostly into interactive entertainment and social media and has little tolerance for my regular stints spamming my feed about party behavior. I expected to lose hundreds of followers as I virtually livetweeted Eurovision – but instead I gained hundreds, had dialogues with people in countries I barely knew existed. I’m embarrassed that I underestimated the size of the #Eurovision juggernaut.

    When one of my friends thought it funny to tweet a quip I made about Malta (“isn’t it just a place made up for James Bond to go to?”), I heard from incensed Maltese. When I tweeted my staunch desire for Norway to win with its epic Timberlake-esque dance jam, I got thanks and debate and virtual beer toasts.

    I thought the Ukranian entry was brilliant: A parallel universe Cher with incredible pipes, a set of hologram-neon backing dancers and a sprinkling of dubstep backbeat, she has the potential to be an international direct-to-gay-club superstar. Turkey’s group was memorable and bizarre – ripped from an imaginary Broadway pirate musical, the dancers even formed a boat with their capes by the end. And Macedonia’s black-haired metal queen rocked it, evoking a kind of late 1980’s metal drama that probably makes that woman from Evanescence wish she had been born a decade earlier.

    When the voting phase commenced, though, I saw what I’d been warned about in terms of Eurovision's politics. My beloved Norway – they brought the best pop song, and it is a song contest – was shafted constantly. Meanwhile, Serbia, whose entry was not memorable enough to register at all, received support from almost every country for obscure reasons: my friends think they had a lucky place in the song order.

    That said, I’m not at all displeased that Sweden’s Loreen won. Her impassioned, snowflecked solo was just the creative side of commercial, the kind of song that broadens horizons. She's adorable. I don’t have any data about the degree to which Eurovision leadership translates to universal success (Once in a while — Ed.), but I’d totally be first in line to buy tickets to a Loreen show around here in Brooklyn.

    After it ended, though, we totally played that Norway song again. I wish we could go out tonight and just ask for it from the DJ. What a fun time; what a weird time.

    Photo: Loreen of Sweden performs her song, "Euphoria", after winning the Eurovision song contest in Baku. Photo: David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

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