How to Win Friends and Convince People to Watch Eurovision
If you don't know what I mean when I say the word Eurovision -- Greetings, fellow American! Much like the World Cup and universal health care, it is hard for many of our countrymen to grasp just how big a deal this thing few here have heard of or care about has become outside our borders, and how popular it really is.
I have been making a public fool of myself with regards to my love for Eurovision for a good six years now. I have evangelized to my neighbor on planes multiple times -- have you heard the good news? Eurovision is here to bless and elevate our lives! And I'm not even a little bit ironical when I tell them I think it's one of the most amazing things our species has ever pulled off. I love it completely, without shame. I love it to the depth and breadth my soul can reach. I love it so much I wrote an entire book that is no more or less than Eurovision in space (with dashes of Hitchhiker's Guide and Spinal Tap). It's called Space Opera, and, not for nothing, but it pairs very nicely with a Eurovision watch party, because by god, this beautiful mess is already the most alien thing that happens on planet earth.
This love, however, is a love that is hard to spread to others. Many people, as they go through their busy, hurried, everyday lives, develop a tragic natural resistance to camp and glam and whimsy, and it can be difficult to get past that and convince them to sit down with several ridiculous people singing ridiculous songs in ridiculous clothes and not feel ridiculous themselves.
Fortunately, I've spent six years perfecting my method of convincing people to like this crazy thing, and I am going to share it. If you are new to Eurovision, consider this your primer. If you already love it, this is how to convince Americans and other bereft individuals to get together with you and cocktails every May for the rest of your lives. If you hate Eurovision, this is but a humble, gentle suggestion that you are wrong.
What Is Eurovision?
Eurovision, boiled down to brass basics, is Europe's Got Talent meets Miss Universe meets World War I. It began in 1956 as a way to reunify the continent after so many decades of wars in the early 20th century. Just think of that. After annihilating each other nearly completely, these many countries turned to each other and decided to just…sing it out. It's an actual triumph of the actual human spirit, I tell you.
Every year, the nations of Europe, along with several which are rather emphatically not in Europe, such as Australia, send a pop singer or group to a designated city to compete with all the others for little more than the right to host the whole thing the next year and the hope of a summer hit. The costumes tend to be extravagant, the songs over the top, and the voting contentious. One cannot vote for one's own country, you see, that would be gauche. So the voting tends to cluster around certain regional loyalties, ancient enmities, and current events, so that the Eurovision final tally every year is a pretty damned decent snapshot of the political situation in Europe at the time.
It's the Super Bowl of Glam and it's fantastic.
Some people love it, some people love it and pretend they hate it, some people just hate it, but it's hard to be neutral about Eurovision. So here's how you convince a noob that it's worth their Saturday this and every year. Just speak in low, friendly, non-threatening tones so they know you only want what's best for them, and fire up YouTube.
Note: This collection of songs is not a list of the "best" Eurovision songs of the last 62 years. You can find about a billion of those lists anywhere else. It's not about best, though some of these are. It's not about showing off the depth of my Eurovision geekery. (Read Space Opera for that.) It's not even close to a complete list of all the craziest nonsense that's ever made it to the stage. It's about selling the hard-sell, and getting someone with no context into the spirit of the thing. Most of these are recent, because the classic performances are pretty static and dated. Some of them aren't even what traditionalists would classify as "good." But they ease you into what it's all about and what you can expect in the future, the good, the bad, the truly inexplicable.
1. Fairytale, Alexander Rybak, Norway, 2009
The first one is so easy and not at all alarmingly weird! How can you not like that earnest young man with his big smile and his violin! So winning! Okay, yes, there are men doing pushups or something in the background, but this is the 2% milk of Eurovision. Sweet, wholesome, and simple. Literally nothing not to like! And now that the ice is broken and our friends are a little more relaxed about the whole business, a little more certain they're not stuck in some strange musical version of A Clockwork Orange, we can move on to something a little spicier.
2. Party for Everybody, Buranovskiye Babushki, Russia 2012
Yes, this is a vaguely techno party-anthem sung by a very large number of eighty-ninety year old Russian grandmothers around a large prop of a medieval oven and at the end they serve cookies to everyone. No, it's not a weird dream you had after Thanksgiving last year. But I dare you not to smile. I dare you not to think that it's pretty cool that 200 million people all around the world were super-pumped to tune into this in 2012.
3. Hard Rock Hallelujah, Lordi, Finland 2006
Many Eurovision performances showcase traditional costumes or musical styles and instruments, so here are a bunch of very realistic demons singing a heavy metal song because reasons and those reasons are Finland and those reasons are awesome. You may not know it but Finns love heavy metal very, very much. At this point it kind of is Finnish traditional music, and Lordi is a marvelous glitter-free example of the outlandish costumes, makeup and effects Eurovision can offer.
And now that we've covered the wholesome family entertainment we can skip straight on into Ukranian drag queens.
What? You heard me.
4. Dancing Lasha Tumbai, Verka Serduchka, Ukraine 2007
In many ways, this is the classic Eurovision performance. It's all silver spangle and incredibly catchy accordion earworm and costumes that make no sense and a couple of different languages and Verka, a drag queen who looks rather like anyone you'd see at the grocery store, only with a massive silver star on his head. It's crazy and beautiful and happy and it really makes very little sense, which is how Eurovision should be.
5. We Are Slavic, Donatan & Cleo, Poland 2014
Sometimes Eurovision can be sexy. I'll leave it to you to determine if this is one of
Whatever it is, it's kind of amazing. Extremely buxom Polish ladies in traditional costumes dancing with washing boards and butter churns and buckets of mimed well-water then rapping in both Polish and English about how awesome it is to be a Polish girl while washed in a beautiful red light show. It's a little pandering and a little uncomfortable, but I love the combination of medieval implements with modern music and some pretty punk-rock riotgrrl singers. It's pure, in its way. It goes so far toward sexy that it comes out more like a cartoon Betty Boop very seriously lecturing us on the feminist implications of laundry before the invention of the washing machine before going back to full-time Booping.
6. Waterline, Jedward, Ireland 2012
This song, and indeed this artist, will be on no one's Best of Eurovision list. But I, personally, will always give it up for the Irish androids in the house.
Jedward are elfin Irish identical twins who are physiologically incapable of dancing in unison, and only one of them seems to be entirely in on the schtick they present to the world. They're a two-person boyband that has represented their country more than once (Ireland is, in fact, the winningest Eurovision nation of all time, to the point where continually hosting began to affect their national budget. It has been speculated that Jedward is their secret weapon in their quest for fiscal responsibility.)
Waterline is an awful song. But I can't stop smiling when these dorky Legolas knock-offs dance around out of sync in the water looking absurd and joyful and so, so proud of making a heart symbol with their hands. Eurovision isn't about being good, necessarily. It's about being interesting. It's about being out of this world. And boy, these two are.
7. Lautar, Pasha Parfeny, Moldova, 2012
Every time I begin my campaign of acquiring a new acolyte for the church of Eurovision, I put this one on, and every time, my boyfriend moans that it's terrible, I'm the only one who likes it, there's so many better ones, let's just skip to that one where the Turkish guys turn into a boat. (Actually happened)
To which I say: "This one has the lyric ‘This trumpet makes you my girl.'"
This song is nuts. The singers clearly have no idea what the English lyrics mean. (You used to have to sing in your native language, but they changed the rules years ago and now most of the songs involve English...and a gloriously fractured English it often is.) The backup dancers seem to be either hitting themselves or riding invisible and broken bicycles. The lead singer is wearing some kind of horror-film leather butcher's apron over lederhosen, and the whole thing is just a frenetic, high-energy car accident of color and sound. Just how I like my Eurovision. The thing is, often some of the smaller countries with less popular songs end up being my favorites, like the time that Belorussian guy turned into a werewolf. (Actually happened) It's important to show that it's not just about big budget effects. Sometimes the trumpet just…makes me their girl.
8. Rise Like a Phoenix, Conchita Wurst, Austria 2014
Here's where we subtly shift and show a different side of Eurovision -- it can really make you feel your own feelings. This song could have easily come out of a hit Broadway musical, it's that good. And a bearded Austrian drag queen stands in the middle of the stage in a molten gold dress and doesn't move a muscle and knocks it completely out of the park. It's not ridiculous, it's everything, and one of the greatest things about Eurovision is how it can whiplash you between giggling madly over a guy in a human-sized hamster wheel (actually happened) and then nail you to the floor with an onslaught of musical passion and emotion. You get both. You get it all.
9. Euphoria, Loreen, Sweden 2012
This remains my favorite Eurovision song of all time. It stands on its own, it lifts your heart, it makes you feel like you can accomplish anything. And after a long night of Russian grandmothers and Turkish boats and Cypriot Liv Tyler, this Swedish woman got up there and did capoeira barefoot in the snow and it was so beautiful and simple it took my breath away. But you can't just show somebody this song on its own and say "See, Eurovision is cool!" It has so much more power after all the gorgeous alien beat-thumping joyful madness that came before it.
10. 1944, Jamala, Ukraine 2016
It's not just about the glitter, my friends. There is a darkness and a seriousness at the heart of Eurovision. It was there in the reason for its birth; it was there while war still broke out over sixty years on the European continent and Eurovision never stopped for death, and it was there in 2016 when Ukraine won with a song called 1944 about the Russian murder of Ukrainians during that era, right after Russia had invaded Ukraine again and seized Crimea -- and you could dance to it.
Yeah. Ten minutes ago we were bopping along to a dude with a tinfoil star on his head and shit's completely serious now. That's how Eurovision rolls. It's everything in humanity all wrapped up in one bristling disco ball package and it's actually not always terribly easy to swallow. But that's what makes it brilliant.
Russia didn't even show up the next year.
11. Heroes, Måns Zelmerlöw, Sweden, 2015
Okay. It got heavy for a minute, there. Let's bring the mood up again with a happy song.
The technical effects on this one are incredible, the synchronization between the singer and the animations are precisely the opposite of Jedward. It's just a great song with a great performance, almost normal, comparatively. A nice palate cleanser and a song that has really grown on me over the years, to the point where it's quite the regular on my playlists these days.
13. Love Love Peace Peace, Eurovision, Eurovision 2016
These days, almost everyone agrees that one of the greatest songs in Eurovision history was and always will be that time Eurovision parodied itself. This song and dance number is Eurovision meets Weird Al -- a send up of all the weirdest bits of Eurovision and the secret key to winning wrapped up in a quick, jaunty tune. The stage is full of actual performers and winners, each and every prop is one that (actually happened) and at the end of this journey through Eurovisions past, your new convert should recognize a lot of them. It's the perfect way to end.
…except that you can't, quite yet.
You have to break the news to your (surely rapt) audience that when they watch Eurovision this year, it might not be exactly like this. There's been a lot of seriousness of late, and last year a guy won in a manbun and plain black suit and an earnest ballad and that's just the trend of it at the moment. Things have got a bit dire in the world and a bit dour at Eurovision (though dour for Eurovision still counts as fancy dress for everyone else).
It'll pass, the minute someone wins in a giant demon suit or with a dubstep butter churn. That's the beauty of it. Eurovision is the zeitgeist trapped in a novelty Christmas ornament. Tradition trapped in a slightly dodgy nightclub with no way to get out. It's all of us, where we are, where we were, and where we're going. It's a snapshot of a mirror in which we see ourselves, ridiculous and astonishing and cheesy and otherworldly and beautiful and stupid, reflecting on and on into the future.
See you this weekend at the Grand Final.
I'm in the midst of couple of weeks' worth of lectures, public events and teaching, and you can catch me in Toronto (for Word on the Street, Seeding Utopias and Resisting Dystopias and 6 Degrees); Newry, ME (Maine Library Association) and Portland, ME (in conversation with James Patrick Kelly).
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