Monday, July 15, 2013

Set 39: When We Were Alive

The boom-boom beats return in another celebration of European pop and dance tunes new and old. Set 39 also includes guest stars Edward Snowden, Russell Brand, and members of the cast of Django Unchained and Debbie Does Dallas in a veritable orgy of Eurodance pleasure. Listen now or download for a rainy day. :-)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Set 38: VIKA

In addition to being a meditation on rebellion and protest in daily life, it is a big dumb boom-boom dance set. ;-)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Set 37: Arcus

The set was plotted in three different countries and recorded in two (Croatia and Ukraine). The set begins with a snoring hummingbird dreaming of traveling to Europe on the eve of December 21st 2012. It ends one minute before she awakens to a brand new world. It's dedicated to my many friends at Ljubljana, Slovenia's Arcus Bar.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Club and DJ Culture Sucks in '12: The Lost Promise of the Late 80s and Early 90s

DJ Shadow once addressed the issue of "Why Hip Hop Sucks in '96" in a compact 46 seconds. The goal of this essay is to address why club and DJ culture sucks in '12. Unfortunately, it will take more than 46 seconds for me to do that, because the reasons involve a lot more than "the money." I will not address "why dance music sucks in 2012" because I don't agree with that statement. Tons of good dance music continues to be produced every year—not that you would know from going to most clubs.

Many of today's gamefully-employed DJs and satisfied clubbers will not agree with the premise of this essay, since obviously they have already found their happy niches in the club scene. If you are in that group, stop reading now and stay happy! I'm jealous! Things have worked out well for you!

Instead, I'm writing for an audience of people who do not enjoy clubs, or who, when I tell them I am a DJ, regard me sadly. I am writing to the person who, when I describe my love for house music, hoists his guitar in the air and says, "You might not know what this is, DJ. It's called 'a real instrument'!"

If you're in that audience, I apologize for the current state of the club scene. But I assure you, it wasn't always this bad. You punk rock fans will appreciate the fact that in the late 80s and early 90s acid house and hardcore techno fueled a massive socio-political act of cultural rebellion, akin to 1967's summer of love and the punk rock year of '77. There are no obvious lyrics in Eon's "The Spice" to help out your understanding of this, but the rave scene had many political aims, the most significant of which revolved around the concept of "common land" and just whose land that was, really. This dance-driven cultural movement so worried Britain's conservative government that Parliament launched an attack on rave/dance/traveler culture via the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, often known as the "repetitive beats" law due to its picking specifically on raves. Dance music was seen as a greater threat to public order than hippie or punk rock culture ever were.

I wish to take you back to a time when DJ'ing was provocative and entertaining, when I and countless others were inspired by the imaginations of those then-current, now-legendary DJs, who dabbled in daringly creative transitions, genre-bending gymnastics, and real personal expression. Fortunately, such DJs still exist, but they are seldom heard anymore. How did all that late 80s promise turn into such a gloomy present?

1) The decline of the commercial club

It was a different world for music in the years immediately following the 1988 acid house revolution. One critical difference was that music had to be physically manufactured, then distributed to record stores. This limited the number of songs available at the time, making it easier for music enthusiasts to stay on top of multiple music genres. Another difference was that the concept of the pop remix was in its infancy, and many rock and pop songs received either no remixes at all or remixes that extended but otherwise barely transformed the original tunes.

A 1992 student disco in England would play the original versions of Snap!'s "Rhythm is a Dancer," Felix's Italian house hit "Don't You Want Me" (a sample from which was recently snagged by Snoop Dogg and David Guetta), The Shamen's "Ebeneezer Goode," ABBA's "Dancing Queen" (then enjoying a resurgence due to the release of ABBA Gold), James's then-classic indie pop tune "Sit Down," punk band Daisy Chainsaw's "Love Your Money," and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

That's a pretty eclectic set of tunes.

Today, when you go to a typical commercial club, you will not hear this sort of variety. You will hear instead an electro R&B tune followed by another electro R&B tune followed by another electro R&B tune. Then the DJ will drop one or two of those Scandinavian house tracks, which broadly sound a lot like the electro R&B tunes (hell, they even share the same melodies, considering that a lot of today's R&B artists are singing/rapping on top of samples from those hits).

Had Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" come out in 1992, the DJ, likely not having a remix at his or her disposal, would have been forced to figure out a way to slip the original song into the set, perhaps tossing some breakbeat record behind it. It would have required some creativity and imagination, and the results could have been either disastrous or breathtaking. Either way, they would have been unique to that DJ. I used to grin when I heard such genre-bending transformations successfully served up on the fly.

Today, DJs either invent on their laptops (or wait for somebody else to invent) an electro/house remix of today's pop tunes. Why? Because then it will "fit in" with the rest of the set. In other words, the message today is that consistency of sound is good and variety is bad.

I heard a terrible remix of Adele's "Someone Like You" in a club recently, terrible not because the added dance production destroyed the emotional impact of the original (in fact, sometimes such a recontextualization can be interesting, though I don't feel that that was the case here). The main problem was that the remix was handled in the most cliched manner possible. I'd even propose that the mix was cynical. And to think Adele was signed to XL records, that mighty once-underground breakbeat label from the early 1990s. An emotionally-wrenching song becomes just another DJ dancefloor tool, indistinguishable from the stuff around it, now replete with the same sounds and same builds as all the other songs around it, played by a DJ who lacked the imagination to figure out in his or her own way how to drop it.

The primary consequence of the philosophy of maintaining musical consistency in the commercial club is the lack of contrast. Remember my hypothetical 1992 student disco playlist? Eclectic tunes allow different emotional buttons to be pushed. Without contrast, the music becomes emotionless wallpaper. The drunks in the club will disagree, of course. They will sing "emotionally" to Flo Rida's "Good Feeling." But they'll sing to anything after six Vodka Red Bulls. Fact is, the feeling is gone.

But what the commercial scene ruins the underground scene salvages, right?

2) The decline of the underground club

I have been to many good underground clubs in recent years, but I am going to describe the underground club that I find has become the most common sort of underground club.

Underground club DJs generally enjoy no more freedom in terms of song-selection than do commercial club DJs. They are usually locked into a single genre and judged by hipsters who make gagging signs on the dancefloor when something is not perfectly beat-matched. Many of the DJs I've met are just fine with that arrangement. Hey, that's just the way it goes; it's a business!

At one time, one could expect to hear eclectic DJ'ing in the underground scene, with multiple genres being mashed together in creative and imaginative ways (I once heard a bootleg recording of an early Andrew Weatherall DJ set where he threw Pink Floyd's "On the Run" alongside house tracks). Today, it's dubstep to the left, drum 'n' bass to the right, and minimal techno dead ahead. Essentially, a DJ must align with one of these genres or, even better, something more obtuse, like "minimal-dark-housestep." Thank you, hipsters!

In both the underground club and the commercial one, the expectation from the clubber is that regardless of whether one walks into the club at 11 PM, 1 AM, or 3 AM, one will receive an instant injection of one's favorite music then and there. Thus, the DJ can't be holding off on his or her drum and bass mini-set until the end of the night; the clubber expects it now! Or dubstep now! Or, in the commercial club, current electro R&B dance hits now! And all the time! And so the DJs play the same music all night long in order to offer that instant gratification to the clubber whenever he or she might arrive, which necessitates that there be no deviation from that genre.

Which means, once again, that there is no contrast in the night's music. And without contrast there is no room for emotion or real personal expression on the part of the DJ.

3) The rise of the genre-DJ

Boring, genre-focused "underground" music nights are a reflection of the rise of the genre-specialist DJ. One of the biggest ways dance music fans killed their own music scene was by elevating certain genre-specialist DJs to godlike status. Consider trance hero Armin van Buuren, who has roosted at or near the top of the DJ Magazine annual DJ polls for over a decade now.

To understand the rise of the genre-specialist DJ, one has to understand the enormous amount of change dance music underwent during the period of punctuated equilibrium that followed the 1988 acid house revolution. Music journalist Simon Reynolds said it best:
"Ten years ago [Mr. Reynolds was writing this in 2000] was still physically possible to monitor the best output of every subgenre—a full time job, sure, but do-able if you were dedicated and determined. There weren't that many scenes to check, after all—everything was under the umbrella of house music back then, even techno. Today, it would take all your time and energy to stay on top of drum & bass, or minimal techno, or garage, or any single genre—such is the high turnover of releases, the vast number of independent labels and self-released records. This double whammy of stylistic splintering combined with ever-increasing volume of releases is the reason why people increasingly get on a narrowcast track and become obsessed with just one kind of music." ([link here])
Of course, this change in dance music fans was only one part of the feedback cycle between themselves, clubs, and DJs. With the increasing Balkanization of dance music, the genre-specialist DJ rose to prominence to cater to his or her devoted flock of tunnel-visioned obsessives. These DJs were worshipped, literally called "Gods," and it wasn't long before some of the vainer ones were striking Jesus-on-the-cross poses behind the decks.

The genre fans and DJs reinforced one another, and then the "superclubs" profited via their own genre nights. Consider: if a club owner were trying to find a dubstep DJ, and Candidate 1 spun several genres of music, including dubstep ("Hell, I like to throw fuckin' Willie Nelson on top of dubstep!"), while Candidate 2 said he was a founding member of the Deep Dubstep Kollektiv (motto: "Dubstep Forever—Or Go Fuck Yourself"), who would you hire? Deep Dubstep guy, of course—he LIVES the scene, and even more importantly, due to his devotion to one style of music he probably has a devoted, built-in-audience of dubstep-dedicated followers who will pay the cover to get in. And the other guy is just a hack, right? Even if the idea of Willie Nelson/dubstep sounds pretty interesting—and pulling such a thing off would be even more artistically challenging.

In 2003, the legendary Andrew Weatherall, a DJ who resisted being pigeon-holed back in the early 1990s and who continues to be a bit of an enigma today (I hear lately he's been into rockabilly), was asked in an interview in Spannered magazine, "A lot of people see you as a jack-of-all-trades in terms of production and DJing. What do you think of today's trend to align yourself with a certain style or genre?"

To which he replied:
"The thing is, with the phrase 'jack-of-all-trades,' you know what comes next—'master of none.' I think it's a polite way of calling them a dilettante, someone who is doing it as a bit of a hobby, flying around doing this that and the other…I wouldn't say I'm a jack-of-all-trades, because that's probably what I was ten years ago. But that wasn't down to wanting to fit in or jumping on bandwagons. It was a genuine love of every form of music, and people gave me the opportunity to play it. So, there would be people who would go 'Oh, he's not a proper "whatever" DJ,' but I never considered myself to be that. I was always someone with a good record collection that spanned all genres, who every now and then people were good enough to say, "Come and play for me," and pay me—admittedly small amounts when I started, £75 wages, £150 on records. I can see the funk in a hip hop record that's 90 beats per minute and in a drum and bass record that's 180 beats per minute, and if someone is good enough to let me play, and play long enough to cover all bases, then I will cover all bases. I actually think I am reasonably good at it now. Yeah, four or five years ago I was a bit of a 'jack-of-all-trades master of none' [Mr. Weatherall is being very modest here], but then I think people saw through that and saw the fact that enthusiasm probably overrode the lack of technical ability."
Older DJs remember a time before the acid house revolution when they were into other styles of music (punk rock, indie), unaware that just around the corner was a sound that would change their lives. So they were already accustomed to the concept of listening to a wide variety of music genres. When a few years later they started DJ'ing in clubs, they were not averse to beatmatching, say, Big Country's "In a Big Country" with a house record. The multi-genre concept was just second-nature to many of these DJs due to the relative newness of the house sound.

My philosophy has always been that if you think one style of music can express the full range of your emotions, then you must be one boring mother fucker. Sure, a trance fan will claim that trance is a really broad and versatile style of music, but that is an extremely relative and dubious claim. The people who hate clubs and your favorite DJs know better. When they complain that "the music in this club all sounds the same," they've pretty much nailed it.

When a genre-specialist DJ hits the decks, what do we miss out on once again? Yes, contrast. And what happens when you remove all the contrast in music and make everything consistent? That's right: musical wallpaper. You've stripped away the emotion and room for personal expression.

Damn, everything we've discussed so far is about that. It's like the DJs, club managers, and fans colluded in order to destroy any expressionism in today's dance music scene. Well, via this relentless feedback cycle of genre-specialization, they did.

4) The elevation of technology over music

There was a time when the conversations I had with DJs revolved around music. I remember hanging out with Tommie Sunshine (who later worked with Felix da Housecat, signed to the legendary International DeeJay Gigolos label run by DJ Hell, and composed the soundtrack to Snakes on a Plane—OK, so the last one is kinda weird, but it's a living!). We'd talk about music. Music! He'd pull out records and rave about his tunes of the moment. He introduced me to such varied things as DMX Krew and Atari Teenage Riot. And, demonstrating the breadth of his music tastes (he was not averse to dropping Van Halen's "Runnin' With the Devil" in his sets), he'd also speculate on what the future of indie shoegazers My Bloody Valentine was going to be ("I hear the next album is going to be a drum and bass record—isn't that just insane?"). Hell, we'd even talk about literature (he recommended that I read W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence), because DJ'ing and life to Tommie was art.

It's no exaggeration to say that nowadays at least 9 out of every 10 conversations I hold with other DJs consist almost entirely of the other DJ quizzing me on my DJ equipment, and then telling me what I need to get. "Don't have [mixing program X]? There's your problem." Some talk endlessly about speaker systems, others about touch-screen interfaces, and these chats go on painfully forever because there is just so much equipment out there to discuss.

Tunes almost never come up. No longer are there enthusiastic, fanboy exhaltations like, "Man, Yves Larock's 'Zoo' video is fuckin' brilliant!" or "That Knife Party 'Internet Friends' is such a perfect song for these times!" All I get is pity that I'm DJ'ing on Pioneer CDJ-400s.

For a long time, a pair of Technics turntables were the weapons of choice, and everything was spun on vinyl. I suspect that this is why DJs were able to focus more on the music, which was always what mattered the most anyway (don't let a DJ who talks endlessly about the design of subwoofers convince you otherwise). But once a lucrative technology market was developed around DJ'ing, with the potential for DJs to constantly and continuously upgrade their expensive equipment (to the delight of the monied manufacturers), DJs focused more and more on winning the technology pissing contest with their peers and less on the music.

Only a very monied DJ can afford all the latest tools of the trade all the time. So, just as we fret that politics today is controlled by moneyed-interests, many of us DJs have a fear that DJ'ing will become more and more the domain of people with money instead of talent, and that the rich but talentless will cockblock the more artistically gifted from landing club gigs.

Happily, maybe 1 in 10 conversations I have with other DJs do focus on music. I know you guys and gals are still out there. You are the ones who, like the folks who inspired us "back in the day," were motivated to get into this whole DJ'ing thing because of the music itself. Wow, what a concept!

5) Too much alcohol, not enough drugs

One thing that contributed mightily to the inspiration of our favorite rock artists in the 60s and 70s was drugs. Well, we DJs who don't know what a guitar is are actually very empathetic to that concept, because it was no different with the dance music scene of the 80s and 90s.

The soundtrack of the warehouse rave was acid house and hardcore techno, but inside the heads of many ravers a soundtrack scored by drugs—particularly ecstasy, and (despite the name of the movement, to a lesser extent) acid—played an accompanying melody. Ecstasy elevated positive thinking and buoyed feelings of good-nature between clubbers. Acid was a different thing; it turned the mind inward, opening profound new avenues of self-awareness for those who took those trips.

Today's club drug of choice is Vodka Red Bull. As comedian Bill Hicks famously pointed out, "You're in a ballgame or a concert and someone's really violent and aggressive and obnoxious. Are they drunk or smoking pot?" Swap "on ecstasy" or "on acid" for "smoking pot" and the point remains the same.

Warehouse raves drew the suspicion of drug-busting authorities who noted, upon raiding them, "Hey, here is a room full of dancing people and no alcohol!" That's how alcohol-free and drug-driven the formative years of modern dance music were. Now, as drug use appears to be on the decline, dance music fans pour into clubs, which in turn pour Vodka or Jack into their glasses.

People hear this argument so many times that they become numb to it, but fuck it, let me say once again: alcohol is a horrible drug. I know from too much personal experience. It often fires up one's worst emotions while simultaneously clouding judgement, which inevitably leads to you furiously deleting those ill-advised Facebook posts the following day. Alcohol is addictive and it physically destroys you. Really, if you drink a fair amount, do not click this link. Stay in denial!

But we remember the horrors of ecstasy deaths in clubs back in the 1990s, right? Well...
"Statistics culled from the United States and the United Kingdom report only 7 ecstasy-related deaths per million users of the drug...when compared to the 625 alcohol-related deaths per million drinkers that occur each year." [link here]

Fact is, in the last week alone I've heard two different people angrily use the word "cunt" while drunk—one to describe Irish Eurovision performers Jedward, and the other to describe me (she's actually a good friend). I have never known a stoned person to use that word. Unless it was in a friendly way, like, "I love ya, ya big fuckin' cunt you! Get over here!"

And so clubs have become less-inviting places than they once were.

So it's neither your imagination nor a case of rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia. Things really were better once. But take all the above into account and you begin to understand how dance music, which opened the decade of the 90s with such promise, became, by association with club and DJ culture, widely-perceived as the village idiot of the music scene.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Eurovision 2012: Summary of the Grand Final

It's Saturday night in Baku, Azerbaijan, host of Eurovision 2012! Thanks to its far-flung location on Eurovision's generously sprawling European map, which also includes Israel ("My favorite European country," friend Ana says drily), we realize they must be starting at midnight local time. Hopefully the folks over there have had their siestas, but even if they haven't, the technicolored, cranked up to 11 pageant should keep people awake, at least until Estonia takes the stage.

If you've seen Semi-Finals 1 and 2, you have already seen most of the performances. A total of 36 acts, each representing one country, performed on those two nights, with 16 getting the axe and 20 advancing. So, everyone is a winner tonight! Except for the six countries that automatically advance to the final. One of those countries is Azerbaijan, rewarded, per Eurovision tradition, for having won the competition the previous year. The other five countries are called "The Big Five" because they have the biggest wallets. They have bought their way to the finals, and so we hate them with all the hate a hateful hating heart can hate.

The show opens with a huge fireworks display. It is estimated that for every firework that lights up the sky 25 Azeris starved to death. I'll be making up a lot of statistics like that in this report.

The singers of last year's winning entry take the stage and perform a truncated version of their "Running Scared." Song brings back warm fuzzy memories of 2011. It really is a good tune.

Our hosts introduce a time-lapse film of the construction of the Baku Crystal Hall, and we try to catch, at its beginning, a glimpse of the forcibly-evicted and unfairly compensated former residents being whisked off the property.

In our Zagreb kitchen our goal tonight is to pick the top 10 highest-placing countries, and also the overall winner.

The corpse of Engelbert Humperdinck takes the stage for the UK, representing the first "Big Five" Country. Your grandmother loves it, but there's no way it will make the top 10.

Hungary's pop rock entry is next, but after all we've seen in the semis there's little here to get our hearts racing.

Albania is next, and so, having been alerted by the previous performance in Semi-Final 1, we screw in our earplugs. Once again the singer howls, shrieks, bellows, and lets out one ear-piercing scream that shatters all our bottles of Karlovačko beer.

Between performances we view propagandistic bumper segments celebrating Azerbaijan and some of its cities, each segment given a title like, "Azerbaijan: Land of Horsemen," or the oddly-phrased "Baku: City of Drive." Copiously missing is "Azerbaijan: Land of Imprisoned Journalists." Actually, cute co-host Nargiz Birk-Petersen was once a journalist in Azerbaijan (thanks, Wikipedia), which perhaps explains why she now lives with her husband in Copenhagen.

Lithuania offers their fun performance, wherein a dull ballad transforms into a disco dance tune, complete with a one-handed cartwheel from the singer.

I could not remember Bosnia & Herzegovina's Semi-Final performance. Rather than look it up on YouTube, I decided it would be more fun to be surprised tonight. Well, I've forgotten it again.

The adorable Russian grandmothers are next, in what is the most shameless pandering of tonight's competition. I guiltily experience a moment of horror as one of the babushkas, or babushki to be more correct, stumbles toward the camera. "Run away! Run away!" Do I have a phobia of old people? Hey, there was this old guy wandering through the underground mall today near the Zagreb train station, and he was just howling to no one in particular. What was that all about? Damn, I'm turning into an old person myself. I'm depressed!

Iceland's much-too-serious entry isn't going to cheer me up, either. Please, put away your violin.

Cyprus rolls out ha-cha-cha-cha girl number one, and several toes are tapping in that Zagreb kitchen. No, it's not very good, but after ponderous Iceland I'll definitely take this. Every swing of her hips is a little bit of Prozac. I like it more than I did the first time around. We realize around this point that friend Zrinka has an impressive knowledge of the words to most of the Eurovision entries tonight.

France, the second "Big Awesome Five" country, performs, and the gay segment of the audience will likely enjoy the topless male gymnasts leaping around leggy diva Anggun. But there's nothing really special going on here. Zrinka is singing along to it, though, thanks to her French instructor who handed her the lyrics earlier this week.

Italy is "Big Mother/Big Fucker Five" country number three, and serves up a swinging tune warbled by quite the hottie. Wow. It's pretty good! Italy is a "Big Five" country I can support!

Estonia's Ken doll is up next with his boring ballad. How did this get through the Semi-Finals?

Norway offers the "Tooji," a species of mammal genetically-engineered a quarter-century ago to win Eurovision in 2012. He has the funky dance moves, whips his head around in dramatic time to the beat, and grins on command. Zrinka describes him as "scary." The song is toe-tappingly catchy.

Host Azerbaijan offers its automatically-advancing tune, "When the Music Dies." It's OK.

Romania's ha-cha-cha-cha performance from Mandinga opens with a moonwalker clutching a bagpipe that looks as if it were designed by Dr. Suess.

Denmark's sailor-hat and epaulets-wearing girl performs her "Should've Known Better," which continues to please us.

Greece's ha-cha-cha-cha girl performs her horrible "Aphrodisiac" tune, shaking her ya-yas, her ta-tas, and her na-nas.

Sweden's Loreen, who channels every Kate Bush performance ever (there's "Wuthering Heights"! There's "Running Up That Hill"!), offers her crowd-pleasing tune. By Eurovision standards, this is pretty great. For our betting pool tonight, I have picked Sweden to win the whole thing.

Turkey is next. I was unimpressed by Turkey in the semis, but Ana and Zrinka make a good case for this quirky young guy's likeability. It will probably land in the top 10, since Turkey always does well thanks to its strong, Euro-wide diaspora.

Two Big Five countries follow, Spain and Germany, and that's all I'm going to say about them.

Malta is next with the fancy footwork guy. This guy's moves during one part of the chorus totally makes the performance watchable. And he knows it, which is why he performs that footwork bit for the cameras in the wings just before he takes the stage. If you did this move in a club, every woman in the room would sleep with you.

FYR Macedonia offers its strong and competent performance. Singer Kaliopi's vocals are powerful and spot on, and the song's melody packs a punch. Kaliopi is 45 years old, and demonstrates that she is every bit the seasoned professional. A performance like hers makes ha-cha-cha-cha Greek girl's "Aphrodisiac" look really stupid.

Speaking of stupid, here come Ireland's identical-twins Jedward in their "Starlight Express" outfits! Performance ends with them being doused with water—that can't be good for their microphones. Is that even safe? Poor as the song is, I still think Ireland should send Jedward every year.

After that bit of silliness, Serbia's intense Željko Joksimović takes the stage. Somebody recently sent me an e-card that read, "When Led Zeppelin is playing you shut the fuck up." Well, when Željko Joksimović is singing you shut the fuck up. This guy has a really intense presence. "It's because he's Serbian," Ana explains. At song's finish, it's clear that Macedonia and Serbia fatally Balkan body-slammed Jedward between them.

Ukraine offers the last ha-cha-cha-cha girl, whose song, friend Ivan notes, sounds utterly stolen from David Guetta. Former prime minister turned political prisoner Yulia Tymoshenko is tapping her foot to this in her Kiev jail cell.

Moldova finishes with its folk-influenced pop tune, which includes a hora. Nice, but it's not going to be a top 10 finisher.

Regarding our betting pool, we ditch the idea of wagering money this time around. Thus, Ivan voted more "from his heart" than from his head. We try to predict which countries will be in the top 10, and which one country will win the whole thing.

Ana and I predict Sweden will take it all. Ivan's heart tells him Macedonia. Zrinka is fond of Romania.

People across Europe, and those other not-exactly European countries that participate in the contest ("the sun never sets on the Eurovision empire") phone in their votes. You cannot vote for your own country, and so countries often vote for their neighbors, which has become a subject of controversy in Eurovision circles where this practice is referred to as "bloc voting." Since Western countries seem to sulk about this the most, I wonder if the term "bloc voting" is really a thinly-veiled allusion to "The Eastern Bloc"?

Time for the results. Each of 42 countries reports its voting results via live video feed. "Hello, Eurovision! Vienna calling!" the Austrian announcer might say, and then the numbers come in. One country's entry receives 1 point, another 2, then 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Then it's "the big points," which go up 8, 10, and 12. This is why "[fill in the name of a country] douze points!" has become a catch phrase in Eurovision circles, sort of like the "perfect 10" used to be in gymnastics before that got retired.

First off, we see that bloc voting is alive and well in the Balkans. Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia offer their top 12 points to Serbia; Serbia gives theirs to Macedonia; Macedonia gives 10 to Serbia and 12 to Albania; Bosnia & Herzegovina gives 10 to Serbia and 12 to Macedonia.

It's also alive and well in many other countries that have enjoyed close cultural and historical ties. Cyprus and Greece trade their 12 points. Autocratic Belarus, which last year attempted to send a song celebrating good old "U.S.S.R. times" before Eurovision said "Non") gives their 12 points to Mother Russia. Ukraine, which lately seems to be traveling down the road to Belarus, gives 10 points to Russia and 12 to former Soviet republic Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan and Turkey trade 12 points; Armenia, their shared thorn in their sides, boycotted Eurovision this year. In what often elicits the biggest groan of the night, Moldova gives 12 points to Romania and Romania gives 12 back to Moldova. And, very sneakily, since everyone likes to roar about Balkan abuse of bloc voting, the UK slipped 10 points to the miserable Jedward from Ireland ("There you go, lads, don't go spending it all in one place"). Ireland was not similarly impressed with the Humperdinck, however.

Scandinavia is much better behaved this year than usual when it comes to that whole bloc voting thing. Sweden gives 10 points to Serbia and 12 to Cyprus. Norway gives 10 points to Serbia and 12 to, OK, Sweden, but Sweden's song is really strong this year—tons of countries are handing it 12 points. Most surprisingly to my friends and me, Denmark and Norway sink to the bottom of the standings; neither country receives any big point assists from their neighbors.

Most amusing moment in the voting: Finland's results are reported by metal band Lordi, whose lead singer is dressed in full monster make-up. He announces that 8 points are going to "The hotest babe in the competition. Actually, six of them. Russia!" Russia's strategy of sending adorable grandmothers has worked out very well. They stay at or near the top of the list throughout the night.

As the results keep coming in, the top 10 solidify more and more, and the clear front-runner puts more and more distance between itself and the rest of the pack. Soon it's very clear: Sweden's "Euphoria" is going to win the whole thing, with more than a hundred points stretching between it and the second-place babushki.


Serbia clenched third. If you turned all the 10's and 12's Serbia got from its Balkan neighbors into zeros, Serbia would have fallen by only one spot to fourth place (of course, it's a silly hypothetical, since who knows how those 10 and 12 points would have been redistributed, but it tells you how strongly Serbia's song performed across Europe).

Host Azerbaijan was inexplicably in fourth, Albania's ear-shattering scary woman entry came in fifth (and later prompted this piece of journalism—thanks JP), and the boring ballad sung by the Estonian Ken Doll took sixth, which is weird. Turkey took seventh. Germany came in eighth, which is also weird. The more deserving Italy took ninth, and Spain finished 10th.

In last place was Norway whose "Tooji" probably had the worst Eurovision experience by any measure. The UK, Hungary, Denmark, and France rounded out the bottom five.

So, yeah! I predicted the winner for Eurovision—though not as decisively as I had back in 2011 when I figured Azerbaijan had it pretty well locked up by the end of Semi-Final 1. I did very poorly in picking the top 10. Most of us in that Zagreb kitchen, myself included, picked only 5 out of 10. I thought Norway and Denmark would be in the top 10, but they wound up in the bottom five. I never would have guessed that Germany and Estonia would wind up in the top 10.

Once again, Eurovision proved predictable in some of the dreariest of ways. For example, somebody needs to tell Romania and Moldova to stop exchanging those 12 points—do you have to be so obvious? But in other ways there were plenty of surprises. It was actually a pretty good field of entries this year. No, really! I mean, for a Eurovision, this was a pretty fun spectacle.

One last footnote. Since the Croatian commentator was talking over all the results, I missed a significant moment. From Wikipedia: "Before submitting the results from the German jury, Anke Engelke gave a live statement on the human-rights issues in the hosting country, saying: 'Tonight nobody could vote for their own country. But it is good to be able to vote. And it is good to have a choice. Good luck on your journey, Azerbaijan. Europe is watching you.' She was the only commentator to address human rights during the event."

Now that everyone has left the building, I have invited back my friend from Georgia, Anri Jokhadze, who offered the best performance not to advance to the finals. This is what Eurovision is all about. Enjoy!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Eurovision 2012: Summary of Semi-Final 2

Time for Eurovision Semi-Final 2! Sprinkle me with glitter and punch me in the face!

For those unfamiliar with Eurovision, I refer you to my recap of Semi-Final 1. For those without the will to click, here's a brief summary of what's going on tonight. A bunch of countries submit one song each to the contest, people across Europe vote for their favorite song, and the 10 most popular songs in tonight's field of 18 advance to Saturday's final. You cannot vote for your own country and you can only vote in the semi-final in which your country participates. And six countries skip the semi-finals completely and automatically advance to the finals. Confused? That's because the rules are stupid.

The hosts banter awkwardly in heavily-accented English. They explain the whole "Big Five" thing, where five countries get to skip the semis and go straight to the finals essentially because they are rich. This is really irritating and not fair. Fuck the Big Five. The sixth automatic advancer is last year's Eurovision-winning country, Azerbaijan. Because Azerbaijan won last year, that country has the honor of hosting this year's contest in the capital city of Baku, "The Sunny City," or "The Sport's City" [sic], or "The City of Jazz" depending on which propagandistic bumper segment shown during the telecast you wish to believe. Copiously missing is "Baku: The Center of Repressive Governance," but since it has so much to offer it's understandable that some of its charms have been omitted.

My friends and I (Ana, Ivan, Jelena, and Sisko) are seated in a Croatian kitchen, and we have bet five kune each on the results. We are also joined virtually by Ksenija in Ljubljana, who texts me her choices.

Here we go! Serbia's Željko Joksimović offers a strong performance. At one point the Kenny G-ish saxophonist strolls behind the singer, miming that he is playing despite the fact that we hear only strings. Many Balkan countries are performing tonight, which means they all have neighbors who might vote for them. Six votes "YES."

FYR Macedonia follows with a powerful and tasteful performance of its own. Once again we all vote "YES." We begin to worry that tonight's competition might actually be good, i.e., boring.

So thank goodness the Netherlands send out a woman wearing an American Indian headdress. We are uncertain what language she is performing in, until it slowly dawns on us that it is English. Europe has long had a tasteful fascination with Native Americans. Three "NO" votes, three "YES" votes.

During the "Come visit Azerbaijan—if you dare!" propaganda bumper segment we learn that Azerbaijan has a "Palace of Sheki Khan," and I start thinking "Sheki Khan let me rock you that's all I wanna do/Wanna love you wanna hold you wanna squeeze you too."

I try that joke out on my Croatian friends, but they don't seem to get it, maybe because not a lot of people remember Chaka Khan, but more probably because it just wasn't all that funny. Pretty interesting, huh?

Malta sends out a smiling, dancing robot man. He is a Gattaca-like model of Eurovision perfection. The song is OK, but then he does this astonishing fancy footwork thing, and we howl with joy. "Let's see that again!" we cry, weeping and clapping ecstatically. Later, during the recap, the producers wisely select this part of the performance as the highlight. All of us vote "YES."

Belarus will never advance in a Eurovision song contest because the "Last Dictatorship in Europe" (so bad a place to live that it makes Azerbaijan look good) has no friends. This bland rock band gives it their all. It is sad to think that later tonight these earnest young men will board a bus and take the long journey back to Minsk. There will be many misadventures along the way. Tears will be shed, laughter shared, and some friendships will turn into…something more. The bus will break down several times. Tires will be changed and new engine parts salvaged from various junk piles in Georgia and Russia. Never underestimate Belarusian ingenuity. Finally, in the middle of the night many months later, that beaten-up bus will arrive in Minsk, come to a stop, and then, with a mighty shudder, fall completely apart. President Lukashenko will greet each of the band members with a firm handshake. His other hand, held behind his back, will clutch a revolver. Four of us vote "NO" and two vote "YES."

Portugal offers the first of three songs tonight that will enjoy the distinction of receiving a unanimous six "NO" votes from us.

At last, we have a ha-cha-cha-cha woman, courtesy of Ukraine. "Be my guest!" she bellows while electronic dance beats pound behind her. A scary crowd of zombie Sims dance behind her on a giant video screen. It's really something. Four "YES" votes; two "NO."

Sofi Marinova, a well-known "chalga" singer in her native Bulgaria, performs "Love Unlimited," but despite the English title she sings in Bulgarian. This reflects a nice aspect of tonight's competition: there are lots of people singing in their native tongues. I don't remember hearing so many different languages in previous contests.

As Ana explains to me in that Zagreb kitchen, if you're sending a song to represent your country, and your native language is not English, it seems silly to sing in English. By the same token, if you come from the Netherlands and sing in English while wearing an American Indian headdress, you are colossally stupid.

Two Balkan countries, the ones I have been living in in recent months, are up next. We are not enthusiastic. Slovenia offers a Very Serious and Dramatic performance that is rewarded with a unanimous six "NO" votes from our panel. Croatia follows with a dull ballad that also garners six "NO" votes. Croatian and Slovenian nationalism is dead.

Sweden's Loreen is up next. She channels Kate Bush. Song has thumping beats and is very catchy. Hers is a real performance. It's the most interesting song of the night. This could even win it all. Six "YES" votes.

The most amazing performance of the night comes from Georgia. Anri Jokhadze begins by singing operatically while dressed as a monk. The robes come off, the leggy dancing girls appear, and Anri runs manically all over the stage, singing, dancing, and at one point pounding a piano. This guy should get his own TV show. Fuck that—this guy should get his own TV channel. Four votes "YES," two votes "NO."

It's a tough act for Turkey to follow. To complicate that country's chances even further, their song is shit. A skinny guy in a shiny black jacket tries his best to land the tween girl/gay male vote, but after Georgia's whirlwind performance the song's dullness and the singer's own lack of talent are palpable. Men dressed as bats jump around behind him. But as surely as they committed genocide against the Armenian people, tons of Turks througout Europe will vote for him anyway. Three votes "YES" and three votes "NO" from our Zagreb/Ljubljana panel of experts.

Estonia is next with a dull performance by Ken doll Ott Lepland. Four votes "NO" and two votes "YES."

Slovakia offer a hair metal band, and most of us assume that as there are no other hair metal bands in the competition they will get enough votes tonight to reach the finals. Best part of the song is the impressive opening shriek. Five votes "YES" and one vote "NO," from Ksenija, texting from Ljubljana.

Norway evidently kidnapped last year's "popular" Swedish singer Eric Saade and cloned him in order to create something called a "Tooji." The Tooji, Wikipedia notes, is "a Norwegian singer, model and television host." Song is big and dumb and gay and…really catchy! Four votes "YES" and two votes "NO."

Our last Balkan country, Bosnia & Herzegovina, performs. I have no memory of this song, but according to my notes our panel gave it three votes "YES" and three votes "NO."

Lithuania is last. Singer Donny Montell sings that "love is blind" while wearing a blindfold. But why is he wearing a blindfold? Oh, wait, I get it! Song is a dull ballad. Fuck, we have to end on this note? No! Because halfway through, Donny tears off the blindfold and does an improbable gymastics move as the tune transforms into a raucaus, banging dance song. Now everybody loves Donny Montell! We're clapping and shrieking and jumping up and down. Well, three of us anyway, who vote "YES," while the other three vote "NO."

Time for Europe to vote. For the first time ever I vote in a Eurovision song contest. I realize I am not a Croatian citizen and that the Eurovision police may track me down and lock me up for this transgression. I've already ditched the cell phone. But it was worth it. Clicking "send" was more exciting for me than casting my first vote in a U.S. presidential election. I cast my vote for Georgia, since I don't think the other entries I enjoyed tonight will need much help to get through.

When we return from a commercial break, we find that all the Eurovision winners of the last five years are belting out a manic and out of tune cover of ABBA's "Waterloo."

Random aside: according to the official Eurovision website, "Wireless microphones are not allowed in the premises of the Eurovision Song Contest."

Time for results!

Serbia - Yes! A worthy performance, no doubt further aided by bloc voting.

FYR Madeconia - Yes! Another safe, sort of dull, but perfectly competent entry.

Netherlands - No! Indian headdress—ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME NETHERLANDS?!?!?!

Malta - Hell yes! Fancy footwork dude is too cool to fail.

Belarus - Hell no! They're on that bus to the Minsk Death Camp as you read this.

Portugal - No! Since Spain is an automatically-advancing BIG FUCKING FIVE COUNTRY, and thus was ineligible to vote in tonight's semi-final, Portugal got no help from its neighbor.

Ukraine - Yes! The only ha-cha-cha-cha performance of the night gets through.

Bulgaria - No! Not a lot of chalga fans outside of Bulgaria.

Slovenia - No! Why on earth would we ever want to sit through that again?

Croatia - No! Slovenia and Croatia were both bad, but Croatia was the worst of the two.

Sweden - Hell yes! This could win the whole thing.

Georgia - No! Robbed! Definitely the best performance of the last two nights not to advance. And so went my 3.75 kuna vote.

Turkey - Yes! The Turkish voting bloc throughout Europe is a formidable thing. Think about that next time you order a kebab in Paris.

Estonia - Yes? Really? Yes! But-but-but...Fuckin' hell!

Slovakia - No. Hair metal is denied in Eurovision 2012. Only Ksenija in Ljubljana made the right call here.

Norway - Hell yes! Denmark (who performed on Tuesday), Sweden, and Norway all have strong entries. Look for all three to finish in the top ten on Saturday.

Bosnia & Herzegovina - Yes! It's good that this got voted through, since I have no memory of it. Now I can look forward to seeing/forgetting it again on Saturday.

Lithuania - Hell yes! We want to see that performance again.

The winners of tonight's betting pool: Sisko and Ksenija, who both picked 8 out of 10. The results are below:

And so Semi-Final 2 comes to an end. I'm really hung-over. Not sure how I'll make it through Saturday night's grand finale. "Eurovision! It Will Kill You!"