Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mr. Lava Reports - Summary of Semi-Final 1

When you listen to the Eurovision Song Contest 2011 entries as separate entities, the one thing that strikes you immediately is their crapness. But there’s something about seeing those songs performed in the context of the competition itself that, well, sometimes actually enhances that crapness--but that at other times elevates the tunes that happen to be the one-eyed in the kingdom of the blind. Semi-Final One offers us this opportunity to reassess half the Eurovision field. So live, from Düsseldorf, Germany, let the show begin!

Tonight's hosts, Anke Engelke, Stefan Raab, and Judith Raakers, two-thirds of whom are comedians, fail to find the funny, which is miserable considering that they are obligated to make us laugh for only five minutes of the two-hour-plus show. Most of the humor consists of them ribbing one another over their ability or inability to speak other languages.

In their defense, I know from past Eurotrash experience that Stefan Raab is a funny guy. Perhaps being funny in English is more awkward to him than being funny in his native tongue. But the more likely culprit is Eurovision itself. It is clear when one visits the Eurovision official web site that the organizers maintain a very carefully-managed image that strives to avoid all controversy. They take their Euro peace and love vibe (right down to the heart-shaped logo) extremely seriously. This renders the best comic material off-limits.

Every performance is preceded by footage of Germany as experienced through the eyes of (apparently actual) visitors from each of the represented countries. Each short clip begins with that cool tilt-shift camera technique which renders the city as if it were a living, model village; and concludes with the person or persons exclaiming something in their native tongue.

And now...the performances!

The first slot in any semi-final is a thankless one; you are quickly forgotten. This semi-final's sacrificial lamb is Poland’s leggy, raven-haired Magdalena Tul, who belts her song as if clubbing a baby harp seal. She has some pipes on her, and I like the fact that she sings in her own language instead of reaching awkwardly for the less-comfortable universal language of English. But first slot + Polish language lyrics = doomed.

Norway offers a curious, African-influenced tune with quirky/irritating lyrics about things the singer’s grandmother supposedly told her:

"When as a little girl my grandma told me
That I could be just anything that I wanted to"

(which is followed by)

"When as a little girl my grandma told me
That I could be just anything that I wanted to"

Good to have singer Stella Mwangi there, though; she’s one of the only non-white faces at Eurovision 2011 this year, plus she’s quite the leggy looker. But she doesn’t hit the low notes very well. She mentions later in the show that she sang once for Nelson Mandela, but she left out the part of the story where Nelson rose from his chair, hands clasped over his ears, yelling “Shut up shut up SHUT UP!”

Albania’s tune is too much more and not enough less. “ThankyouTHANKYOU!” Scary Woman Singer bellows afterward, with a lunge.

Armenians were already depressed about their chances when “Boom Boom (Chucka Chucka)” was selected as this year’s Eurovision entry. The delegation choreographed a boxing-themed thing, in honor of an Armenian boxer who, one imagines, must have beat the crap out of a Turkish one recently in order to garner such adulation. Two autographed boxing gloves from said boxer were given to Emmy, and the fetching singer explained in a pre-show interview that she would probably toss one out to the audience tonight and save the other for some lucky audience member in Saturday's finals.

So I knew Emmy would bring the boxing gloves, but I didn’t know she’d be sitting in a giant one. The choreography is quite cute, actually. However, the song remains bloody awful--nothing can save it. Emmy yelling out “Armenia!!!!” afterward, as opposed to the usual thanking of the crowd, seems a bit low-class, too, but of course Thursday will see Belarus's none-more-nationalistic "I Love Belarus" performed, so...OK.

Turkey, that perpetual rival of Armenia's, is on next. The country offers a boring rock song featuring lyrics telling us to "live It up" because "life is beautiful."

A segment then follows where Stefan Raab and Anke Engelke lead various Eurovision singers in a sing-a-long of that old German standard “The Happy Wanderer” ("Der fröhliche Wanderer"). Once again, comedy and Eurovision don’t mix.

One of my favorite contenders, Serbia, takes the stage next. Singer Nina is all Edie Sedgwick tonight; think of the women in the Austin Powers movies if you don’t know who Edie Sedgwick was. Song is likable 60s retro-pop befitting that look.

Russia offers a terrible song sung by a chisel-faced guy channeling a less-compelling James Dean. An assisted somersault performed by the backup dancers earns a mighty cheer from the audience.

In case you got too excited watching the somersault, Switzerland hands out Ambien with an inconsequential piece of fluff. IANYAN Magazine's Twitter feed reports that apparently there is a 30 minute rewind capability in the live streaming video. Nobody will be rewinding to this.

Georgia brings back bad memories of Y2K-era nu-metal, with a fetching female singer capably belting the tune against hard rock music before this guy cuts in and starts yelling into his microphone, which creates the unfortunate impression that the country of Georgia is about a decade behind current pop music trends. However, I am impressed that at one point the singer deliberately creates vocal distortion by wrapping her hand around the mic while singing into it. She is as talented as the song is terrible.

“Unfortunately you cannot vote by telegram and we do not accept postcards,” co-host Anke informs the viewers in another failed attempt to be funny. Damn you, Eurovision.

Next up is Finland’s “Da Da Dam.” Title suggests that it will be a horror like “Boom Boom (Chucka Chucka)," but it immediately becomes evident that this guy's lyrics are significantly richer and more earnest than the ones most Eurovision fans feel comfortable listening to. It's an easily, and perhaps deservedly, mocked sentimental tale of a budding environmentalist who expresses a desire to save the earth, but compared to what came before it it sounds like pure poetry. Big roar for this guy at the end. But the rapidly scrolling Twitter feed beside the video screen displays only contempt!

Malta offers a perfectly decent, if forgettable, dance pop tune, complete with divo.

San Marino’s tune is classy, but inescapably dull. That's good; it would be a disaster if San Marino won, because it would bankrupt the tiny country if it had to host the competition in 2012.

Croatia’s leggy blonde singer (how many "leggys" can I use in a single blog entry?) can't hit the low notes, but in a weird way that's a pleasure to me, because it demonstrates how Eurovision nobly continues to eschew auto-tuning. It is the first bona-fide dance song of the night, but it’s not a scorcher. The weird Slash look-alike does not help things. Singer Daria Kinzer does one of those magic dress transformation tricks--a wardrobe change that occurs in the blink of an eye. Now that’s what the rewind feature is for. Song even has a little dubstep breakdown—let history show that dubstep debuted at Eurovision 2011 in the bridge to this song. But a shrug of a tune.

Awww, see quirky Icelanders! Icelanders always so cute! Why look at them! They no fear volcano! They kiss one another and look like Kingston Trio, except more than three!

Hungary serves up the big disco diva anthem that Croatia wanted theirs to be. I like the Hungarian-language second verse. Beat production is solid. A big gay dance song that works.

Oh Portugal always cute too! Like Iceland! Look at them in their bright, colorful clothes, colorful like a children’s book!

Andrew Lloyd Webber apparently defected to Lithuania to write that country's tune, and at one point singer Evelina Sašenko uses sign-language in order to reach out to the hearing impaired--aka, the most fortunate of Eurovision viewers.

When the schmaltzy notes to Azerbaijan’s love ballad begin, we all curl up into a defensive crouch position. And then...

The song is stunning! Beautiful!The production is completely “now,” the beats are chunky enough to keep one alert, and the synths climb dramatically behind the wonderful vocals! Azerbaijan has sent adorable, non-threatening Muslims to the contest! Big win!!!

The high bar set by Azerbaijan puts Greece in an unenviable position. Greek columns appear on stage to remind us of the glory that once was--long, long ago--Greece. A guy stomps out on stage and barks some rap thing. Then, some dude with a big operatic voice takes over. It's like one of those modern art performances where you walk out shaking your head saying, “What the fuck was that?”

We're done! But unlike all those other reality competition shows, the performance and the results show are in one package, so we will soon learn who advances to the finals on Saturday. It’s sad to think that almost half of them have to go home tonight, as opposed to most.

While the votes are tabulated, Cold Steel Drumline are sent out to remind Eurovision fans what black men look like. These guys are American--so what are they doing here? Apparently they played on one of popular German performer Peter Fox’s albums. Drumlines, are of course, awesome. But maybe not for ten minutes. A guy runs across some drums at the end--that's pretty cool.

Before the results there’s the awkward “There are some countries that have already qualified for the final…” statement, which always must ignore the obvious and perpetual problem with "the big five" who do that, which is that they earn their automatic ticket to the final due to their being the biggest financial investors in the competition. That's sort of like if the U.S., with all its lucrative Olympic Games advertising revenue, were able to bribe the International Olympic Committee to have its athletes bypass all the qualifying heats for the final races.

Results are in, announced in random order (presumably to avoid creating voter bias for the finals). The Top 10 that will advance to Saturday's final are:

Serbia, the Edie Sedgwick one!
Lithuania, the Andrew Lloyd Webber one!
Greece, the piece of shit one!
Azerbaijan, the best one one!
Georgia, the Y2K nu-metal one!
Switzerland, the nice sweet boring one!
Hungary, the blonde dance diva tune that’s better than Croatia’s one!
Finland, the guy whose song is too lyrically rich to be in Eurovision one!
Russia, the other piece of shit one!
Adorable Iceland, the Kingston Trio plus another trio one!

Which means Armenia's Emmy gets to keep the second souvenir autographed boxing glove for herself.

Mysteriously, despite the seemingly important emphasis on the random order announcement, the Eurovision web site later declares that Azerbaijan were the "Semi-Final One Winners." We kinda already guessed.

And with that, after two hours and 13 minutes of nonstop sound and fury, the web stream falls dead silent, and I am left listening to the sound of my typing.

The million dollar question is: “What will Jedward do?” The answer comes on Thursday!

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