/ Leigh Alexander / 7 am Mon, May 20 2013
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  • Eurovision 2013: An American in London

    Eurovision 2013: An American in London

    American expat Leigh Alexander has had her first Eurovision party as an embedded foreigner in London. It went well.

    It's Sunday morning in London, where I'm living as of less than a week ago. I've got a hangover and kitchen cleanup duty, and on top of that, I'm out £10. An actual live baby fox entered our house last night. Last night was Eurovision. I've had my first Eurovision party as an embedded foreigner.

    Wait, I'll tell you all about it, but let's back up a bit, first. My first Eurovision was last year in my New York home, playing host to English friends. Before that, I'm a little embarrassed to say I knew hardly anything of the pan-European song contest, and in watching it I experienced the kind of wonderment that's sadly pretty rare for us Americans: the world is so big.

    I was also fascinated to learn about European politics in the guise of a pop competition. The winning nation has to host next year's event (this year Eurovision was in Malmo, Sweden, thanks to Loreen's victory last year) – but that's an expense some countries don't want. Sometimes when a country votes for you, as Portugal is wont to do for Spain, it's less support for your song and more trying to stick you with an inconvenient expense. Eastern bloc nations or Scandinavian countries have obvious alliances, where loyalty supersedes popularity or quality. It's not so much that the best song wins, but that the best-placed song wins.

    Without a guide I might have bounced off it, but thanks to the inimitable Ste Curran – game designer, One Life Left radio show host and Eurovision Sage – I had an amazing time. This year we weren't at the same party, but his complete sincerity as regards the song contest, alongside his pure urge to immerse himself in unmitigated joy, are still with me.

    “The ‘general' opinion in Britain is that Eurovision is ridiculous, a joke: dumb, homogeneous pop music for a competition that's decided more by politics than artistry," Ste writes me, when I extend clutching fingers for emotional support by mail. “‘Eurovision' as an adjective is more a pejorative than anything: everyone knows about it, lots of people watch, but largely to laugh. Appreciation for the event is often soaked in irony, the coward's way to enjoy anything. Never commit your heart to anything, never get hurt."

    This 2007 Eurovision performance by Verka Serduchka of Ukraine is what I show my U.S. friends who don't know what Eurovision is. It's spectacular, and hilarious, and so genuinely awesome that if I'm in a bad mood I just put it on and it fixes everything. Try it.

    Yeah, the pop songs are funny whether intentionally or not, and one should laugh. But truly enjoying Eurovision is about empathy for its narratives, Ste asserts: "Every four minutes a new artist appears, does everything they can to win the hearts and votes of 125 million people," he says.

    “Think of that: for each of the performers this is their moment, as big a moment as they'll ever have, their World Cup, their Olympics, representing their country; likely the most visible they'll ever be and perhaps the single high point of their lives," he says. "They have trained and practised and dreamt and worried and oh my God here it comes, everyone is watching them, it is happening right now."

    When I asked him what I should do at my first Eurovision party in London – a recently-blooded Eurovision fan (who still dances to Loreen's “Euphoria" and Tooji's “Stay") – his main piece of advice was to turn off the commentary. That and to watch out for regular, if ill-advised, dubstep breakdowns among all the songs.

    UK commentator Graham Norton can get a bit derisive at times, right? When each contestant was introduced with a little visual montage of their home life, Norton called the framing convention “a bit banal." On Russia's singer's creatiive background, he said “she loves paintings, and... things."

    “People often mistake the British allergy to taking anything at all seriously for cynicism," friend and British writer Laurie Penny explains to me. There are only a very few things, like Doctor Who and binge drinking, that we allow ourselves to enjoy unironically. Eurovision isn't one of them, particularly because we consider ourselves culturally and creatively superior to almost every other national entrant, despite our terrible food, horrible weather, Tracey Emin and Coldplay."

    “We're also poor team players and worse losers; whoever invented the idea that it's the taking part that counts was not from the Home Counties," she adds. “So, we're only allowed to have fun watching Eurovision as long as we pretend to hate it and groan all the way through, and then console ourselves after another unsuccessful year with the idea that we're not really part of Europe anyway. Despite all of that, I imagine the growing xenophobic consensus in the screaming bear pit that passes for political debate in Britain right now would be blown wide open were anyone to suggest withdrawing from Eurovision."

    Interesting! Now, on the big night my housemates made snacks – chips, oven pizza, and crusty things with meat in them that I've yet to fully understand. We went to the “American" section at Tesco, a shelf that had Aunt Jemima maple syrup (England has perfectly fine maple syrup and there is no reason to spend £6, or, like, $9, on the Aunt), and Lucky Charms, and strawberry-flavored marshmallow Fluff. We bought the Fluff. Everyone was surprised to like it on white bread with peanut butter. Yeah, that was my contribution to our Eurovision party. I'm sorry.

    London is a place where people are fine with dipping Pringles in guacamole, and where guacamole is an odd, sour treacle resembling an avocado in color alone. It was good, though. Our housemates are wonderful, our friends are wonderful. There was some really nice liquor, and I think even Ste would agree with me that's all it takes to have a Eurovision party. Last year Ste brought me a bottle of cranberry Finlandia vodka as a house gift. I can't even tell you what all we drank this year.

    Properly watching Eurovision requires a little research – there are semi-finals and eliminations rounds ahead of last night's Grand Final, and it's best to educate oneself ahead of time so that you know who you want to root for in the main event, whom to tell your friends about, when you can take a cigarette break and when you need to tell the whole room to quiet down and pay attention.

    Last year there were a lot of songs we liked. This year I hitched my star to only one nation: Romania, and the incredible operatic acrobatics of Cezar Ouatu – a spangled, handsome Dracula accompanied by lyrical dance renditions of romantic blood rituals. My friend commented that songs called “It's my life" or including the lyrics “it's my life" generally represent a sort of tough everyman aesthetic, but in this case, the Romanian life is ballet blood sacrifices.

    There's even a dubstep breakdown halfway through the performance that serves to remind what dubstep breakdowns can actually be good for. Oh man. Standout superstar of Eurovision 2013.

    I couldn't wait for our friends to see Romania's entry. France was up first of all, with a blonde chanteuse in a fringed dress who reminded us all of Tina Turner (Graham Norton snarked about her being a little bit like Courtney Love). Her last name is “Bourgeois". No, really, it is.

    Our friend Paul couldn't wait for us to see Lithuania's entry, a Morrisey-ish guy who used to be in a band called “Hetero," if we heard correctly, and sang a song about being in love because of one's shoes. Seriously.

    Next up was Moldova's entry, who had a La Roux-ish coif and a massive dress that slowly elevated her taller and taller into the air. A Hunger Games-ish pattern of flames evolved across the dress; she was a real Girl on Fire, and I remember liking the song, but nothing else about it. Oh, but Finland's though, we'd already heard about – a cheerleader sort of lady in a saucy wedding dress singing a song called “Marry Me," which was more than a little misogynistic lyrically.

    To address that criticism, “Marry Me" employed a trite sort of “surprise reveal": The tuxedo-ed backup dancers were actually women, and the singer kissed one of the women at the end of the song, which offended Turkey and threatened to interrupt the Eurovision broadcast in that country. Powerful gay marriage anthem this wasn't; I also heard rumors the singer wrote the song to enjoin her boyfriend to propose.

    Belgium's was the sort of entry that reminds me of my friend Ste's encouraging us all to remember that for every silly pop act on that stage we might be tempted to have a laugh at, for those performers, this is their momentous big day on the world stage. Belgium's song itself wasn't especially remarkable, but the way the singer cupped his face at the end and hopped up and down to all of the applause was one of those touching Eurovision moments.

    All I remember about Belarus is how much the song made me wish there were a “best legs" prize in Eurovision, is that a horrible thing to say, she came out of a disco ball, it was incredible. There's an interesting war going on in Eurovision between showmanship and actual excellent pop song, and a lot of times stunning showmanship lets people forget it's a song contest, and could you dance to it in a club and so forth.

    Ah, there was the Maltese Doctor (Malta's entry was fronted by an actual adorable young doctor), with a sort of strummy twee jam band song that set everyone in the room to abrupt and fevered swaying. Think the Plain White Ts and their grating marshmallow-Fluff “Hey Delilah," that sort of thing. A collective awwww went up around the room here, and as much as any of us would gag to hear such a thing on the radio, the band looked so familial, so cheerful and sweet, it was hard not to like their performance.

    Russia's performance last year was a set of dancing grannies, either an earnest subversion or an ironic cop-out (probably the latter, let's be real). This year Russia brought something more sincere, a balladeer that might have been even a little too dour, a little too restrained – aside from some lovely luminescent technology toward the end that saw audience members' glow bracelets glimmer on in convincing ripples as light-jellyfish seemed to rise through the air.

    Germany came with “Glorious," an absolutely blatant rip-off of winning song “Euphoria" from Sweden's Loreen last year. I kind of liked Netherlands' Anouk and her patently un-Eurovision, minor key-heavy “Birds." Her odd voice put me a bit in mind of a Janis Ian or Melanie Safka kind of singer. Ukraine's act got voted very highly in the end, but she reminded me of a listless Rebecca Black-alike.

    Erm. Okay. So. Here's where we got drunk and preoccupied, suddenly deciding that we would register with an online betting site and place £10 on Romania to win Eurovision. Not that we thought they would, really. We'd seen the odds sheet. But I was carried away with Eurovision fever, and thought if one is going to bet on Eurovision, why not do so in commitment to SPIRITUAL RIGHTNESS? The least opportunistic, least-cynical bet I could make?

    It all degenerates from there, really. A baby fox broke into our house. A REAL LIVE BABY FOX. It was quite distracting. Then, our neighbor one house over yelled at us to be quiet because it was “ten minutes to one" (in New York, if someone tells you to quiet down on a Saturday night you yell even louder). People got into deep dialogues on the carpet and couldn't remember which member of Black Sabbath wrote Armenia's song (it was Tommy Iommi).

    Azerbaijan had A SHADOW MAN DOING DANCE POSES IN A GLASS BOX. Seriously, that staging was brilliant. I heard one of the acts had a newly-nationalized American singing for them and that she was awful, but I never got to see her.

    And yeah, my last note on Eurovision has to do with Graham Norton comparing the representative Ukraine had elected to announce its votes “Sideshow Bob." Tooji, who sang my favorite song last year, gave out the votes on his home Norway's behalf. It was nice to see him again. Denmark won, overall, as most people predicted they would going into the Grand Final.

    Denmark's song was fine. The tinny drums and panpipes were a bit too Celine Dion for my taste, but the performers were captivating, the gold confetti was transporting, and I have to admit the tune is catchy. I'm still humming it a day later. It's no Romania, but it's all right.

    At the time, by the end of Eurovision 2013, I was so busy drunk-Tweeting and trying to force the hashtag #RomaniaWasRobbed to trend that I hardly remember it. Denmark's singer looked like Isla Fisher and had a white dress, if I remember correctly. This year a good Eurovision drinking game would have been to drink whenever one sees a white dress (as Ste and his friends did), or whenever there was a dubstep breakdown, or whenever the TV marquee warned of seizure risk from flashing strobes.

    Oh, Eurovision. Next year I aim to be in Denmark. Bet on it.

    Photo: Montenegro's “Who See feat. Nina Zizic" [REUTERS/Janerik Henriksson/Scanpix Sweden]

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