Friday, May 13, 2011

Mr. Lava Reports - Summary of Semi-Final 2

So what's on tap for tonight's Eurovision Semi-Final 2? Belarus's nationalistic dance anthem, a beloved transsexual Eurovision legend from Israel, and probably the first semi-final featuring two sets of identical twins.

Our webcast is preceded by an endlessly cycling advertisement for Schwarzkopf! The official beauty partner of Eurovision! It occurs to me about the twelfth time around that "Schwarzkopf" literally means "blackhead."


Yesterday's hosts, Anke, Stefan, and Judith, are back. Will controversy-averse Eurovision un-muffle them enough so that they might make one—just ONE—joke about Belarus?

We learn that the 10 advancing countries from last night's semi-final (plus the "Big Five"--more on them below) are seated together at the front of the stage, which means most of Tuesday night's winners are being rewarded for their success with a long, lonely, conversationless night, since their neighbors are unlikely to speak their language. Serbia's Edie Sedgwick-channeling Nina, who is singing her tune in Serbian, looks particularly long-faced.

After the short, introductory clip, featuring those sooper-coolo tilt-shift camera lens opening shots (see Tuesday's report, if Blogger hasn't deleted that already), Bosnia & Herzegovina take the stage. The gray-haired guy with the guitar is Dino Merlin, who has had a decades-long history in music—he was performing back when the bulk of the Balkans were called "Yugoslavia." He's probably the most senior of the competitors in the contest. Sure, I like looking at all those leggy woman singers, but after a hundred of them strutted their stuff in Semi-Final 1 it's refreshing to see him up there. He proves that with age comes experience, and he whips the crowd up with his catchy little tune. He looks like an underdog, but also a sly old dog. We love him; we want him in the final.

In 2007 Austria left Eurovision after loudly complaining about bloc voting, which is what they call it when countries vote in knee-jerk fashion for their neighbors (Eastern European ones were most harshly accused of this, though Scandinavia did this a lot too). Now that their fellow German-speaking next-door neighbors have won a Eurovision and are hosting this year's contest, guess who has returned?

True to Eurovision form, Austria offers us, yes, a leggy singer: Nadine Beiler, sporting a smart bob. It becomes obvious that the audience is punchier than they were on Tuesday night. They were enthusiastically clapping along to Dino's tune, and now they roar approval during Nadine's a cappella opening, doing a sort of, "SING IT, SISTER!" thing, if Europeans actually say stuff like that. It's a bluesy ballad, probably good enough to advance.

Europe's largest Muslim nation, The Netherlands, now take the stage. Through some bizarre warp in the time-space continuum, it appears that Evil Bryan Ferry circa 1974 has been catapulted into modern-day Düsseldorf to perform this drammatical piece of crap.

Belgium offers an a cappella group, complete with requisite beat-boxing. It's quirky, but in a conventional sort of way. You know, like how some people think they're quirky because they like Björk, but everybody listens to Björk. The group is talented, but an a cappella tune could never be A Song for Europe. However, it's a shame they probably won't get to face off against the UK's Blue on Saturday, to show how talentless that man group is by comparison.

The first of our two sets of twins take the stage tonight, and this (once again) leggy pair are called…"TWiiNS"!


They have had a number of successful singles in their native Slovakia ("Compromise" being my personal fave). But this is a bland ballad. Think back to Azerbaijan's goosebump-good "Running Scared" from Tuesday night and you realize just how plain this is by comparison.

Speaking of Azerbaijan, we join host Judith in the Tuesday-night winners section, where she interviews Ell and Nikki, the Azerbaijani darlings of Tuesday night's show. When singer Ell takes the microphone to charm the audience with his fluent German, he effectively seals his country's destiny to win this year's contest. Incidentally, their song, "Running Scared," listed under the duo's non-Anglicized names of Eldar and Nigar, has appeared on Slovakia's pop chart this week (though, loyally, not as high as TWiiNS's song).

Ukraine takes the stage with a bland tune, but who cares? They have that awesome sand-animation woman, who won "Ukraine's Got Talent" a few years back, doing the background visuals! Remember her? The video was blogged and emailed and tweeted and farted all over the place! So here she is being awesome again. Meanwhile, cute singer Mika stands in the foreground singing some sort of song. Ukraine is guaranteed a spot.

At some point, during those intro clips where they show natives from each of the competing countries exploring Germany, you expect that they are going to get stuck with a country with no German representation. What will they do, then? Actually, could that country be Belarus?

Moldova's Zdob și Zdub take the stage! They're crazy! See their tall, pointy hats? As you watch this frenzied performance, you begin to think that they need only one more thing, and that's a girl in a fairy dress riding a unicycle. Then a girl in a fairy dress on a unicycle comes riding out, and you throw your hands in the air and say, "ENOUGH!" The band has had a respectable history making pop tunes that have rocked both Moldova and Romania, but this song is a mess, with so much banging on the kettle that it renders the viewer senseless. It's the noisiest song you will ever nod off to. (Check out "Everybody in the Casa Mare" for some better Zdob și Zdub.)

We beat up Sweden's song already.

Cyprus sends out some humorless guys dressed in black, a sort of Bauhaus boy band, and they tilt at absurd angles in unison—slowly...slooooooowly!—from one side to the other, and me getting SLEEPY! Just as my double chin hits my chest, enter the screaming woman whirling a lamp like a bola over her head. This literal rude awakening is punctuated by chunky nu metal guitars borrowed from Tuesday night's Georgia performance. Perhaps I was wrong the other day when I said that Georgia's nu metal sound seems dated; Cyprus is confirming a slowly-dawning and all too terrible truth: that there might be a nu metal revival in the works--nu nu metal! Fuck me!

Host Anke recycles the postcard joke I mentioned after Semi-Final 1.

A Turkish friend told me that after her country's defeat in Semi-Final 1 a long-running debate was re-ignited over whether Turkish Eurovision groups should sing in English or in Turkish. In fact, this same general conversation is held by almost every Eurovision delegation. I think about this as I watch Bulgaria take the stage. Singer Poli Genova opts to sing in Bulgarian, and in fact her song is a perfectly catchy piece of toe-tapping pop rock with some fist-pumping anthemic flair. But will the rest of Europe support a Bulgarian-language song?

The dilemma regarding singing in English vs. one's native language is this: some feel that it is better to sing good, non-English lyrics than to subject an audience to terrible, trite English-language ones garnished by thick accents. However, if no other country's voters can understand your lyrics, of what benefit is it to sing in your own language? It's a toughie.

Up next, a Macedonian guy (singing in his own language) performs an homage to a Russian woman. "Rusinka" is rhymed with "Vodka" and "musica." There's a jumping accordion player. It is the first—but maybe not the last—song this evening to feature a performer shouting into his microphone…through a megaphone. Not sure what the fuck is going on. Scared.

Only at Eurovision could one write that the emotional highlight of the night may have been offered by a transsexual Israeli singer. Dana International, whose song "Diva" won the contest in 1998, is back, and the audience roars with respect. Unfortunately, Dana's Eurodancey tune sounds like it could actually have been written in 1998. In 2009's Moscow Eurovision contest, LGBT rights activists were beaten by police; that would not have been a good one for her to come back to. Nice to see Dana having her moment in Düsseldorf. No chance in hell of this advancing, though, and Dana's parting words, suggesting a sort of closure, seem to acknowledge this.

Then it's back to business as usual: Slovenia offers another leggy singer. She's a super cutie. She wears thigh-high boots and a short dress well. But the song is ponderous. Then it becomes interminable. And it's only been going on for a minute.

One tranquilizing performance deserves another, so Romania's Hotel FM oblige with a forgettable tune laced with platitudes about changing the world and how we need to work together to—hey, is this Finland's song from Tuesday night?

Hosts Stefan and Anke appear on tape performing a medley of Eurovision hits. The joke is that they get progressively more violent with one another as they perform. The comic punching sound effects don't work, though showing the two of them bloodying one another up and spitting out teeth at the end is a bit gutsy. Maybe the comedy will get more risqué? Are Belarus jokes coming?

Estonia takes the stage. I‘m biased; I love singer Getter Jaani, whose "Parim pave" and "Saladus" are superb. This English-language tune, on the other hand, is bloody awful. But she does a nice little magic trick with a handkerchief turning into a cane, and she is fascinating to watch as she runs around a set of shoulder-high buildings like a toy doll come to life, blinking exaggeratedly and gesticulating wildly—she turns in a real performance. Might just be puzzling enough to get through.

And now, at last, the moment we've been waiting for: Belarus!!!!!

Oh, wait—right. Before the performance comes the intro bumper clip. So are there any Belarusians in Germany? Well, turns out they found some at a hockey game! And considering that yesterday European lawmakers were demanding that the International Ice Hockey Federation ditch the 2014 championship in Belarus to protest human rights abuses and political fraud over there, the timing is a bit sad.

Well, here goes nothing! The music begins, and we think, sure, we already know that Belarus's flag-waving "I Love Belarus" is doomed. But when Anastasiya Vinnikova opens her mouth, an even greater problem becomes apparent: she is a terrible singer.

Europe watches this bizarre, nationalistic orgy through splayed fingers. Then, a strange thing occurs—an emerging sense of sympathy. Everybody hates this song, and everybody hates the Belarusian government and its autocratic president, but why take it out on this poor singer? Sure, she has assumed the mantle of Belarusian ambassador with ten times the zeal of Leni Riefenstahl, but surely she's misunderstood?

Then Anastasiya's skin splits in half, peels off, and slides slowly to the floor like two shed halves of a long leather coat. Standing in her place is none other than Belarusian President Lukashenko himself, with glowing red eyes and a flashing torrent of blue sparks cascading from his mouth. Actually, that didn't happen, but it's an effective metaphor for what we are witnessing.

With a wave and a smile, it's all over. Wow. Belarus. Am I really going to…miss you?

That should be an easy act to follow! But Latvia is up next, and they offer a pop-rock-dance-rap hybrid that predictably fails as pop, rock, dance, and rap.

Denmark's A Friend in London takes the stage, and their lead singer has evidently taken hair-styling pointers from soon-to-emerge Jedward: his locks are combed straight up into the air like a surprised cartoon character's. The song is a torturously languid piece of schmaltz. All we can think is, "Send out Jedward! Send out Jedward!"

And then it's Jedward! I mean it's Ireland, represented by Jedward!

To the uninitiated, Jedward can be described as identical twin versions of Pee Wee Herman crossed with Animaniacs and topped with two feet of hair combed straight up into the air—like that guy's from A Friend in London.

They open with one of the twins singing while his brother lies down on the stage directly in front of him, shoe to shoe, mimicking him like a living shadow. That's cool. This is followed by a great deal of jumping and running around, reminding me of their memorable interpretation of "Ghostbusters" on "The X-Factor," the show on which they were discovered.

It is stupid great. But compared to these super-caffeinated Jedwards, the Eurovision crowd looks unusually still, or are they stunned? Please, please, please vote this through! It will be the perfect antidote to just about everything we will have to endure on Saturday.

Now co-host Judith sits down with the contestants on stage, flanked by Jedward, who through their hyperactive babbling and mugging just might blow their chances. Shut up, Jedward, shut up! There's still fifteen minutes of voting left!

Hosts Anke and Stefan do a little skit to fill some of that time. "Name two things that do not go together," Anke asks Stefan. To which Stefan replies, "England and penalty shootouts. " Boos erupt throughout the arena. It's the first moment of real comedic edginess thus far! Is this a positive sign that they have been saving their best material for the finals? In any case, I'm pleased that Anke and Stefan finally got a reaction from the crowd.

Vote tabulation time. For our entertainment, breakdancing group Flying Steps from Berlin perform their "street smart" "moves" to some "Bach" on "piano." I am tired of the whole "Let's mix classical culture with urban culture and shift everybody's paradigm!" thing. Now the piano stops, which means the inevitable techno-fied Bach will soon come in, which it then does. Oh no! A ballerina enters. You know it's working. Viewers are right now saying, "I never thought of ballet in this context before!" or "I never saw breakdancing in this light before!" You chumps!

I'm too cynical to be a Eurovision dance choreographer.

Co-host Judith talks with Lena, who sits in the "Big Five" section of the audience. The "Big Five" are the five Eurovision countries that advance automatically to the finals, because they have large populations and invest more money into the competition. Yes, it's completely unfair. Lena is the singer of last year's winning entry, and she is competing once again for Germany on Saturday. Lena excitedly explains that we have just watched Eurovision. Judith says hello to the other performers seated around her. The UK's Blue, a man group, but not the Blue Man Group—I'm getting confused—anyway!—Blue are yucking it up behind Lena, while Britain watches Blue yuck it up on BBC 1 2 maybe it's on 3.

The results are in!

A brag. I picked 8 out of 10 correctly. How sad is that? My 8 correct predictions:

Austria, the leggy woman with the bob one—THROUGH!
Bosnia & Herzegovina, the with age comes experience one—THROUGH!
Denmark, the "I copied Jedward's hair" one—THROUGH!
Estonia, the singing doll one—THROUGH!
Ireland, the Jedward one—THROUGH!
Romania, the boring OK one—THROUGH!
Sweden, the most terrible thing you'll ever see but it's completely perfect for Eurovision one—THROUGH!
Ukraine, the sand animation woman with some singer in the foreground one—THROUGH!

The two I got wrong:

Macedonia, the homage to "Rusinkas" one—THROUGH!
and finally
Slovenia, the cutest of all the leggy singers but with the worst song one—THROUGH!

Farewell to my picks Bulgaria (Bulgarian-language curse) and Latvia (four failed genres in a single tune).

And farewell to Belarus's Anastasiya Vinnikova, who begins the long, lonely walk home—literally, since she cannot afford public transportation—to a country that will likely not host the 2014 international hockey championships. If you see her, can you give her a ride to the EU border?

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