Eurovision sage Ste Curran is unhappy. His favorite Eurovision contestant of 2014, Israel's Mei Finegold, has been eliminated from contention already, during the second semi-final. He is arms-folded in the corner, a pantheic pop-god who isn't getting his way.
This is my third Eurovision, and my second one spent in London, where the awesomely-gaudy European song contest is often an object of insincere cynicism, great sighing, and secret joy. England will never win it, of course, and here they pretend they don't really want to.
Lifetime Londoner Curran got me into the annual tradition one year ago while visiting me in New York, with a little help from an absolutely-unforgettable bottle of cranberry Finlandia. The phrase "guilty pleasures" is not in his vocabulary — you can't understand how admirable that kind of earnest enjoyment of pop music is until you have seen the look in his eyes when he sings Taylor Swift's Love Story at Karaoke. Now I'm immersed; I'm a natural. I live this, now. And you know — it seems like Eurovision is getting more popular among Americans. You don't have to thank me, everyone!
So I end up at his friend Jude's apartment crowded among other people who take the Eurovision song contest with joyful seriousness. Everyone has score cards and drinking-game bingo cards a friend has printed. There are a few worries about this year's competition, besides the fact husky, amazonian Finegold is out. One of them is Finland. Finland's song this year is a straight rip of some theoretical The Killers track, pleather jackets and all. Also, there aren't quite enough brr-a-a-a-ap dubstep backgrounds overall in the song contest, and altogether too much whistling, too many handclaps.
Wait, we're split on the handclaps. "Handclaps are basically good, unless it's the fucking Pipettes," Ste demurs, while Mei Feingold's "Same Heart" plays in the room before the show begins.
"This was really the best song," he says, with a mournful look.
It has a strong key change toward the end, and strong key changes are my weakness — my favorite pop song is the Thong Song, after all.
But back to what matters, this year. As an American, the most surprising thing to me when I got into Eurovision (besides how embarrassingly-few flags I could recognize and how few of the countries I could find on a map) is how political the voting actually is. It's not really a contest about the best song.
So what will become of Ukraine's entry, a dark-haired Kesha-alike (the song is even called "Tick Tock") whose act features a man running inside of what looks like a giant, luminous hamster wheel (hashtag "misandry")?
Moldova, Poland and Romania are likely to vote for Ukraine, someone tells me. Russia, which has sent two girls (Ste: remember "Prussian Blue"?) tied together by their pale blonde ponytails, is going to get boo-ed, everyone reckons.
A friend who has been living in Eastern Europe tells me that Hungary is currently in the grip of extremist politics — which makes the fact that their singer is a dark-skinned man who emigrated to Hungary (expressly to compete in Eurovision?) rather interesting. In spite of all this, I like Hungary's slow-building number, "Running", which Ste says is about child abuse.
I am with Austria's entrant, Conchita Wurst. Belarus petitioned against Eurovision because of the lightly-bearded drag performer "propagating a lifestyle" — we are all rooting against Belarus anyway, with its smarmy Robin Thicke-alike singing a song called "Cheesecake." Definitely this year's villains.
You know? In spite of myself, I like Poland's sex-positive, super-handclappy "My Slowianie (We Are Slavic)". The live performance, which features lots of pigtails and what looks like traditional Eastern European dress is fairly demure relative to the official music video, which features lots of close-up cleavage shots, lewd and slow butter churning, and the English language lyrics "Shake what your mama gave you."
Romania has a pretty cute duet this year. I absolutely feel they were robbed last year, when they entered stunning operatic Cezar, rising slowly into the air like a dark vampire lord. They've come with a much more palatable pop tune this year. I'm alone in being interested in Azerbaijan's dark, mopey Tori Amos ballad "Start a Fire." We are a little bitter about France's "Shit LMFAO" (Ste) and Germany's "shit Robyn" (Ste again).
We have a drinking game, printed off of the internet. One time you're supposed to drink is if "a woman is barefoot." This happens before the song contest has even technically begun, as it shows footage of last year's winners from Denmark, who is as a result hosting this year's event. They won with "Only Teardrops," which was much too Celine Dion for my taste. Not surprised she is the first one barefoot. Ah, fire on stage! Take a drink.
The contestants enter. Russia gets booed, but so does Poland, apparently for being too sexy. Will justice defeat misogyny? We drink because of a confetti explosion, and that wasn't even on the list. Are we meant to drink whenever someone speaks Danish? Can you drink when they warn about "flashing lights and strobe effects," or just when they're actually on stage?
This year, each contestant's performance is preceded by an elaborate mini-movie of the performer assembling his or her nation's flag out of household objects. The Belarusian smarmer is shown building his out of hockey pucks. When I tweeted, during the semi-final, that I hated this song, someone tweeted back that I wasn't smart enough for it. Mr. Belarus keeps winking at the screen.
Try Tweeting about Eurovision one year. Every criticism of a song attracts an angry national. Oop, Iceland is on!
"Let's do away with prejudice," sings an entire group of Icelandic men, each wearing a different brightly-colored suit, pop-dancing like they're OK Go. "Perhaps you are thinner, or one who likes your dinner… we got to get together on this, cross this problem off our list!"
Norway fails to do something really cool and metal, fielding a ballad called "Silent Storm" and a singer who stares at the camera, trying to cry. Romania's pumping duet features the debut of the female singer on a green-screen, dissolving into starlight before she really walks out on stage (drink, we think). The male singer plays a ring-shaped piano—or pretends to.
The man from Montenegro is a "lonely sea without a breeze." There is a ballerina slumped on the stage. "Has he killed her?" someone wants to know. Poland's sexy butter-churners lay it on thick. Sorry, I like it. This is the only song I would listen to in another context. Next is Greek's laddish Spring Break DJ set, featuring trampolines. I can smell the Axe body spray ("Lynx" in the UK) from here. Definitely the second-worst after Belarus, if you ask me. I tweet; a Greek person calls me a "yank."
Austria's Conchita Wurst is radiant, framed in giant flaming phoenix wings, glittering eyes, with an amazing key-change. The whole room erupts in applause. She is the one we want.
All my friends want to kiss German Robyn (Her name is Elaiza), but I can't really find anything to like about her song. Maybe it's the shot of Jagermeister I was handed to toast Germany. Sweden arrives with an earnest ballad: GO AWAY, WE'RE TRYING TO HAVE EUROVISION HERE. We do a shot of cointreau, because France is coming on.
Guys in checkered shirts and curly hair are traipsing back and forth across the stage singing "C'est comme ci, c'est comme ca" as pictures of mustaches appear on the screen. The song is called "Moustache." It goes, "I want to have a moustache". After a minute we all have to admit the song is not that bad.
"But imagine," says Ste, "you're at a party, and there's a knock at the door, and it's these guys!"
Russia's Valley of the Dolls passes without interest or incident. Italy presents a brilliant Rome-is-burning, gilded laurel, babe-crawling-on-the-ground jam we all like more than we thought we would. Slovenia has a great song, despite the demure ballgown and flute. I have almost convinced Ste that it's very alike to Mei Feingold's Same Heart. He nods softly. I am making progress.
Why did we do a shot of Sambuca? Finland's answer to The Killers are on. I hear this is the kind of music everyone here in Britain listened to when they were in college in the early-2000s. I have to confess that I recently went to an "early noughties" disco party, and after eight double whiskeys "Mr. Brightside" came on, and I got excited, and I danced and I jumped up and down. But I'm not quite drunk enough for the Finnish Killers.
Spain's singer mopes in fake rain. Don't like it. Switzerland's Sebalter has a song called "Hunter of Stars" which features PROMINENT WHISTLING. Is this cornier than Iceland? How long have I been here? How many night buses will I have to take to get home? "This is a fucking ringtone," shouts Ste.
Oh, here's Hungary's Running man. The dancers engage in a lyrical power struggle. It really is about child abuse. I'd prefer this song if it wasn't so creepy, but that's probably true of all Eurovision songs. Best not to know what the lyrics are.
Here is Malta. This is straight-up awful. I would describe it, but Twitter did it better ("Mumford and FUCK YOU"). Why are we drinking Limoncello? Denmark, our hosts, perform "Cliche Love Song," a Bruno Mars rip featuring scat impressions that has the whole stadium jumping.
Three songs left. I feel bad for San Marino going on so late (my friend Harjeet's score sheet just reads "I give up" at this point). Everyone sings The Police's Every Breath You Take over The Netherlands' earnest crooner, because the bass line is exactly the same. UK is on last… I have a little bit of Bell's whiskey left in my personal bottle. Let's toast it to the UK.
Half an hour falls into space. We do makeup to make ourselves look like Mei Finegold and gossip in the kitchen. Then it's back to gathering eagerly around the TV, eating cold leftover garlic bread from Pizza Hut: Eurovision!
The voting starts. Most people seem to agree on Hungary. Russia votes for Belarus and everyone boos. It is tight. Sweden, Austria and Hungary keep swapping for the leading position. Weird politics throws votes to Malta and the Netherlands. This is the most intense voting situation I've ever seen, with Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, Armenia and Sweden constantly battling for high position.
Moldova gives some points to Russia, but more points to Ukraine. Ukraine gives most of its points to Austria. And it's Austria, usually, winning the votes, and with each set of votes Conchita gets a little closer. So do the Netherlands, though, with its embarrassing Disney-ride fake-Americana country ballad. At one point it looks like the Netherlands might even win.
I get into fights on Twitter about the country music: "This shouldn't be allowed!". "This isn't about you, American," someone tweets. I reply, "EVERYTHING IS ABOUT US". But I'm glad there's no America in this contest. It doesn't have anything to do with us, and that is rare and wonderful. Nobody in England cares that England came in 17th place.
No. Everything is about Austria's Conchita Wurst, more radiant, more luminous, tearful, overwhelmed and humble than you can believe one person can look. Here she is. She looks really shocked, a violin string, a gilded pillar of gratitude. Oh god, we love her. We howl, we applaud. She deserves it. It was such a good showing. It was such a good show. It was good, again. We are okay; we are all okay. For now.
Two night buses home. All of these international shots to be reckoned with in the morning. Twitter followers lost. But for now, everything is fine. RISE LIKE A PHOENIX.
Photo: Reuters/Mogens Flindt/Scanpix Denmark