Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts on the Evolution of Popular Music

One thing that troubles any music addict is the possibility that, despite diligently casting his net into the vast sea of European pop and dance music day after day, he might still have missed some choice fish. This worry prompted me to perform a more thorough analysis of the European pop and dance charts from years gone by.

I began my research by compiling a few dozen European countries’ pop charts from the year 2000 (in some cases pulling data from every pop chart from every single week of that year—pretty arduous). I selected 2000 because that was the year I first fell in love with Europop music. Back when I actually mucked around in 2000, I got most of my relevant music education from one Romanian radio station on the internet. Certainly, I reckoned, there were many songs that had not only had escaped my net; they had swum in entirely different oceans. So I collated my chart data and then jumped onto YouTube, which houses an impressively large percentage of those songs.

My 2000 Excel spreadsheet wound up with 1084 unique songs on it. That might seem like a lot, but in fact it’s a low number. In a typical year of combing today’s charts I usually hear about 5000 songs. The 4000 song gap is explained by the fact that many countries today produce and publish weekly top 40 charts, but they don't archive these, so digging a decade into the past is a bit of a challenge. I should add that I continue to uncover interesting chart archives, and so the 2000 experiment remains one in progress—with plenty more adds to come. But even if 1084 is a relatively low number, it's still quite a lot of tunes to get through; I spent months digging through them, in fact.

Anyway, I got through that, and then I moved on to the music of 2001. After that, somewhat confusingly, I went backwards, tackling 1999, which I figured would be more interesting to me than moving forward to 2002 since 1999 was the year before I had fallen in love with the Euro sound, and thus I figured it would yield more surprises.

So here I was—and still am—listening to thousands and thousands of pop songs from these years, and with more years to follow. Considering this insane level of diligence, naturally, some friends asked me, perhaps hopefully, if I had learned anything interesting at all. I answered lamely that I hadn’t really gone into this with the intent to learn anything; I was just looking for good songs. I admit I also enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia (watching old music videos is a pretty trippy time-travel experience).

Now, thick in the throes of 1999 music, I feel I am beginning to see an emerging picture of pop. This essay is an attempt to crystalize my current impressions, which will undoubtedly change next week. But let’s start a conversation.

We’ll start that conversation with a hypothetical question from you. You might ask me, “How much has music changed, on a scale of 1 to 10, over the last 15 years, with 1 being ‘no change at all’ and 10 being ‘completely fucking different music’?”

“Five!” I might once have barked back, because "five" is always the answer when one is asked to rank something on a scale of 1 to 10, unless that something is the attractiveness of your significant other. But now I would say that the question itself is flawed in this instance. That’s because it implies an assumption, which is that music evolves in a steady, progressive way, linearly transforming at a slower or faster rate (our 1 to 10 scale indicating the speed of that transformation). But in fact, while gradual evolution in music is certainly real (consider how changes in recording technology have changed the sound of pop), and ideas are sometimes exchanged between genres which reinforces the impression of a chronology of change, this is only part of the story, and might even be the less important part.

I wrote “music evolves in a steady, progressive way” because I wanted to highlight a popular misconception about the theory of evolution, and this is important to our understanding change in popular music. Evolution is, generally, not progressive. It’s simply a mechanism for change in organisms. The thing that makes change possible on the genetic level is mutation. We often imagine dramatic X-Men levels of transformation via mutations—mutations which bestow either super-beneficial advantages to the recipient or, on the other hand, fatal hindrances. In other words, mutations that greatly help or greatly hinder one’s competitiveness in the battle to be “naturally selected" to fuck and make babies which carry our genes onward—currently our only bid for biological immortality.

But most mutations are neither helpful nor harmful. They’re just random. Maybe I carry a gene that can metabolize the pint of Guinness I am enjoying right now at Meehan’s in Vinings, Georgia 0.5% more efficiently than the average person. So what?

The dinosaurs were as well-evolved as any group of animals living today, and they might still be here had it not been for a random cataclysm (a 6-mile wide asteroid) that, to be honest, most of modern life would not survive, either. If one could clone a dinosaur, Jurassic Park-style, the animal might very well outcompete today’s species. The dinosaurs did not become extinct because “something better” came along to shove them out of the way, or “progress” occurred in mammals and the dinosaurs “failed to innovate.” It was, in fact, quite a cosmic joke: the mammals survived the asteroid impact precisely because they had been out-competed by the dinosaurs, and thus were tiny, scurrying things that, thanks to their tiny size, were capable of subsisting on vastly smaller amounts of food than a 177-foot long Diplodocus.

My point is that music evolution is similarly non-progressive. Rather than picturing popular music as something evolving steadily in a continuum, becoming more advanced year by year—whatever that means, music being “advanced”—music is really more accurately thought of as a series of overlapping, random fads. Most of these fads have about a three or four year lifespan. There is the year of build-up, perhaps punctuated by one good idea that catches fire. This is followed by a year where the imitators step in and the sound becomes inescapable. Then, there is the dying-off, a two-year period of steadily waning interest. An interesting thing is that these fads generally seem to be independent of one another, and they are not especially dependent on particular technological innovations either, which means that each of these fads could effectively be exchanged with any other fads from different years. Thus, chronological dependency is destroyed. Any sort of progressive evolution in pop music is illusory.

I will start with smaller examples and build up to bigger ones.

In 1999 and 2000, pop songs were filled with Spanish guitars. Whether this was a result of Carlos Santana’s remarkable career second-act with his single “Smooth,” or whether he was buoyed by a pre-existing Spanish guitar trend I do not know, but Spanish guitars were de rigueur in Y2K-era pop music (Kaci’s “Paradise,” is one example, so is Christina Aguilera’s and Ricky Martin’s “Nobody Wants to Be Lonely,” and the list goes on, probably by the hundreds). Today you hardly ever hear Spanish guitars in pop music. In fact, peddlers of the Spanish pop sound from 2000 (consider Enrique Iglesias) were themselves fully enveloped in the arms of electro-pop by 2011 (“Tonight [I'm F**kin' You]”).

1999 is known by dance aficionados as the Year of Trance, the energy of which was perhaps best captured by the mix compilations Gatecrasher: Red and Gatecrasher: Wet (so called because they were tie-ins to Sheffield’s Gatecrasher club). 1998’s Energy 52 “Café Del Mar” remixes were a significant warning shot of the Year of Trance that was to follow. In 1999 we had it, and by 2000 trance was also infecting popular European pop music (e.g., Alice DeeJay’s 2000 single “The Lonely One” which is effectively a poppier version of Agnelli & Nelson’s 1999 trance monster “Everyday”).

But the dying-off period for trance came quickly. People grow tired of any genre, and at some point will move on to just about anything else new and novel. Benny Benassi’s delightfully screwy electro hit “Satisfaction” in 2003 was one of the biggest of those trance killers; after its success a flood of pop dance tunes were released with those distinctive buzzing sounds (usually roughly appended to sampled 60s, 70s, 80, and 90s pop standards—Royal Gigolos’ “California Dreamin’” is a perfect example). It’s worth noting that the Benassi-esque fad, like trance before it, also lasted about three years.

And finally, we get to boy bands (a silly aside, but I can't contain myself: I never understood why they were called “bands,” since the fellows in them only provided the vocals; alliteration evidently trumped common sense). In conducting my currently ongoing research into the year 1999 I have had to listen to five treacly love ballads from the band Boyzone, which was a miserable experience because I am not a 13-year old girl from 1999. N-sync, Backstreet Boys, Westlife, and Five are but four examples of boy bands putting out singles in that one year—and those are just the English-language groups. They were wildly popular. Clearly, they made a lot of money for somebody. But in 2010 you couldn’t find a single boy band. No money in it anymore. The extinction event seems to have occurred sometime around 2002.

The Spanish guitars, the boy bands, the sound of melodic trance—all of these pop cultural indicators seem so far away, now. We hear these elements and think to ourselves, "How old the music seems!"

But why couldn’t the year of trance have been 2009, with the music sounding exactly the same? For that matter, today’s electro-house/hip-hop could have been created in 1999—the technology existed then. And why aren’t we just coming into the boy band phase now?

I realized then that we were not seeing progressive evolution, but a series of fads. The fads and the associated memories we hang on the years during which those fads were in progress are generally the source of our impressions of old music sounding, well, old. The fads seldom cross-pollinate in any significant sort of way; they seem to be started by random ideas generated by people working in relative isolation.

I can tell you why fads die out—boredom. There are only so many boy-bands, trance songs, and Spanish guitars one can take before one pines for the next new thing. And I can even tell you that you can expect each fad to last around three years. What I can’t tell you is what the next trend will be.

Anyway, that’s what I think about the evolution of pop music right now.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Eurovision, and Strategy

Azerbaijan's Eurovision 2011 win means that country will be hosting Eurovision 2012 on its own turf. The problem is that Azerbaijan is at war with another country that regularly sends Eurovision delegations: Armenia. The war is often described as a "frozen conflict"; the two countries are sort of like struggling arm-wrestlers, neither of whom can overcome the other one. The fuss is over a territory in Azerbaijan called the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR), which is occupied by ethnic Armenians and that operates as a de facto country, although it technically exists on Azerbaijani soil (naturally, in playing the public-relations game the NKR presents itself as a country). Flare-ups regularly occur around the NKR border, with casualties from time to time.

The consequence is that neither Armenian nationals, nor people in other countries who are of Armenian descent, and nobody at all whose passport shows signs of its owner having made a visit to the NKR (excepting diplomatic work), are allowed entry into Azerbaijan. This presents a fascinating political dilemma when it comes to Azerbaijan hosting Eurovision 2012. How can Azerbaijan bar an Armenian delegation from competing at Eurovision, a contest whose peace-and-love-trumps-politics idealism is captured by its heart-shaped logo?

Rumors have started to circulate that Armenia might boycott Eurovision 2012. It's interesting that one of the people advancing these rumors is Ismayil Omarov, general director of Azerbaijan's Public TV & Radio Broadcasting Company, who stated in a press conference on Tuesday, "As regards the involvement of Armenian representatives in this contest, I have been informed that the Armenians said they would not participate in the contest when asked about it. If this is really so, then I regret it..."

That's a pretty fishy thing to put out there; a rumor that even Mr. Omarov confesses is hearsay. It's like a right-wing radio host saying, "I hear that Barack Obama boils and eats babies. If this is really so, then I regret it."

No doubt, Mr. Omarov's rumor is the product of wishful thinking on his end. The best thing that could happen for Azerbaijan is for Armenia to boycott Eurovision 2012. Then, Azerbaijan can conduct business-as-usual, no longer forced to confront the complicated issue of permitting travel for Armenians into Azerbaijan. Armenia will imagine that it is making a big statement, when in fact few will really notice their absence.

(To the rest of the world, an Armenian boycott would only affirm what we already know, which is that Armenia and Azerbaijan do not get along. So what is the value of making that obvious statement? Also, you can be the elephant in the room so long as you remain in it, but once you walk out, how quickly you are forgotten.)

So may I make a suggestion? From the Armenian perspective, the best thing to do right now is wait and think. While doing so, Armenia holds all the cards, whereas to boycott is to fold one's hand. There is plenty of time to make a decision (for example, I see that Hungary did not announce their intention to participate in 2011 until December 2010).

But when the time for action comes, it seems the most sensible thing for Armenia to do is to announce their intention to participate in Eurovision 2012.

From the Azerbaijani perspective, the negatives would include, obviously, a headache regarding the method for allowing Armenians into their country (if at all; though a refusal would be a public-relations nightmare for Azerbaijan). And one scenario likely to keep Azerbaijanis awake at night is the potential for Armenian would-be terrorists to make a violent statement on the international stage that is Eurovision. The security challenges would include not only the need to assure the safety of Baku's people, but to also guarantee the safety of the Armenian delegation (Azerbaijan would not want its Eurovision to go down in the history books like Munich's Olympic games of 1972).

But nothing worth doing is ever easy, and if all goes well at Eurovision 2012 it might be a positive sign that progress can be made in peacefully settling these countries' differences. A successful Eurovision 2012, with Armenia's participation, could be the start of a thaw, ever so tepid though it might be.

Something has to give in that region eventually; why not use a cheery song contest as the vehicle for releasing some of the pressure? Of course, doing so might also trigger an all-out earthquake. It's certainly a gamble, but seeing that the only alternative is a conflict seemingly frozen for perpetuity, it seems one worth making.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mr. Lava Reports - Summary of I SO TOTALLY CALLED EUROVISION 2011!!!!!!

The official Eurovision site roars: tonight is “The Grand Final!” of Eurovision Song Contest Düsseldorf 2011!!!! In addition to learning which song will win, we will also learn the identity of the next country to host Eurovision, since the competition moves to the winner’s home turf the following year.

38 countries fought for a chance to be in tonight’s final, with 20 surviving this week’s battles. Five other countries lamely automatically advanced—the so-called “Big Five,” (France, Italy, Spain, the UK, and Germany; though Germany would have been afforded this courtesy anyway, since they won last year, and last year’s winner also earns that privilege).

The BIG FIVE are not big because of their talent (please), or their track record at winning Eurovisions (pretty terrible), or even the sizes of their dicks (teensy dicks), but rather because of their large potential television audiences and the dollars they in turn invest into the contest. I explained all this in a blog entry that Blogger deleted due to a catastrophic IT error on their end earlier this week; they say one day that entry might get restored.

If you’ve seen the semi-finals you're in for some deja-vu. The choreography and camera angles and costumes and, of course, the songs themselves are all the same—with the exception of those five cut-to-the-front-of-the-line SUPER DUPER FIVE qualifiers. Fuckers.

The audience, led by some unseen male cheerleader, sings the Eurovision theme. There are no lyrics, so we hear a spirited roar of "Da-da-das."

Here we go!

Tradition dictates that last year’s winning song opens the competition. Cleverly, host Stefan Raab launches into a performance of Lena’s 2010 winning-tune “Satellite"—reinterpreted as a high-energy big-band number. Stefan may be a comedian, but he has musical talent as well (check out his amusing “Wadde Hadde Dudde Da” from several years ago to see what I mean). Co-hosts Anke and Judith prove to be capable doo-woppers. And then Lena herself joins in! It's brilliant.

“Lena! Lena!” the crowd chants! Lena will be back on stage later, as a real competitor for Germany once more.

The streaming webcast suffers from a noticeable split-second delay between audio and picture.

A 90 second time-compressed film showing the transformation of Düsseldorf's arena from football stadium to Eurovision venue follows. Then the voting process is explained: it's a 50/50 split between the popular televote from the great unwashed (like on all those "Idol" shows) and each country’s mysterious Star Chamber jury of supposed music experts.

Let's go let's go let's go!

As in the semis, every artist is introduced by a short clip showing a random "everyday" person from the representative country experiencing some aspect of Germany. We learn, for example, that in Germany, Moldovans are employed as window-washers, and that Romanians deface walls with graffiti.

Finland's too-sweetly earnest “let’s save the environment” songster takes the stage. As occurred during his semi-final performance, when the giant planet earth rises behind him on a massive video screen, the crowd roars their approval. “EARTH!!!!!” they cry, weeping ecstatically.

Dino Merlin got saddled with the dreaded opening slot in Thursday’s semi-final, but luckily was remembered all the way to the end of the show. So here he is again—tackling the number two spot. He's the oldest performer in the contest, which generates instant sympathy for him. But he earns his respect, too. He is a terrific showman.

On Thursday, the audience clapped enthusiastically along to his tune, which was a nice sentiment, but the arena's acoustics led to a delay which threatened to throw off Dino’s timing. The Eurovision web site announces that the problem has been solved; instead of wearing the usual one "in-ear" playback earpiece, he will wear two—in the same ear. No, sillies!—one in each ear, to drown out the over-enthusiastic but less-musically gifted audience. This proves a good call; as he starts to play, the audience clapping delay becomes a noticeable problem once more, but he marches through. It’s a fine performance. This crazy old coot has something going on.

During the next country intro clip, the audio-visual synchronization issues are resolved. Now we’re rockin’!

Denmark takes the stage with their “surprise hair” lead singer, whose locks are combed straight up in the air Jedward-style (more on Jedward later) and frozen in place by at least two cans of hairspray. Song sounds perfectly polished. Lyrics are about saving the world. Here's an interesting fact about this song: it’s crap.

There is not a single BIG HUGE MEGA FIVE country among the first ten, meaning loyal Eurovision viewers will have to endure at least 40 minutes of performances they’ve seen before.

Lithuania is next of those, with their Andrew Lloyd Webberish song, complete with the singer’s sign-language interpretive gestures. No kidding; when she breaks out the sign-language, approving applause erupts from the audience—presumably from all the deaf people who were, until that moment, contemplating a refund for their ill-advised investment.

Hungary is up next with its disco torch song, “What About My Dreams?” Well, what about them? Singer is a needy woman for sure. Enthusiastic crowd starts clapping along, off-time. I hope she's wearing two in-ear pieces like Dino. Song is big and gay. And damn catchy! Energy level in the arena rises.

And then comes Jedward! Wait-wait-wait Eurovision. SLOW DOWN. Are we going to use up all our high-energy performances before the halfway point? We face a potential premature ejaculation.

As Jedward, those skinny identical twins from Ireland with their own "surprise hair," spring and bounce about the stage, we begin to realize, oddly enough, that they are actually…pretty talented? Jedward begin to acquire an underdog appeal, further augmented by the appearance of the next act.

That would be traditional pretty-boy Eric Saade, here to sing his miserable—yet Eurovision-perfect—song "Popular." He wails about his desire to become popular and tells us that his body "wants you, girl." We breathe a sigh of relief when we realize that this will be the last time we will ever have to see this performance again. Oh no—unless he wins! *Shudder.*

Estonia is up next with their cutesy/strange dollhouse-come-to-life performance. It’s a weird song, but shouldn’t we appreciate an unorthodox effort? Singer Getter Jaani is cool enough in my book to do whatever she likes. But will Europe agree?

I am surprised that Greece survived the semi-finals. Here they are again. A grunting, snorting rapper stomps out on stage. Then he is joined by a handsome but dour big-voiced singer. They are “Loucas Yiorkas featuring Stereo Mike.” I am going to take a wild guess and assume that “Stereo Mike” is the rapper. What a ponderous piece of shit. Is this some sort of modern art lament over Greece’s collapsed economy?

This is followed by the other “they really shouldn't be here” country, which is Russia, who offer a baby-faced version of James Dean. The singer's name is "Alexey," a point driven home with the subtlety of a falling anvil when the background dancers turn around revealing letters attached to their backs which spell out “ALEX.” Should I be excited? Apparently we have a Russian star in our midst! Note: all the Moscow journalists who heroically pointed out how terrible Russia’s entry is are now dead.

At last, something new: a BIG HUGE FUCKING FIVE country! France is tipped by some to win, says the Wall Street Journal. I said “no way” when I read that article on Friday night—after having consumed several Harp lagers, which made me even more opinionated and belligerent. The WSJ reports that it's great that he's singing opera, and that he sings in the Corsican language. I say opera sucks, and (besides the Corsicans) who in Europe gives a fuck that he sings in the Corsican language?

And who does this guy’s hair? It looks as disheveled as mine! Except that I’m not performing in front of 100 million people right now!

Another so-called BIG MASSIVE SUPER DUPER FIVE COUNTRY!!!!—Italy—is next. Their tune is sophisticated because it’s jazzy. It sounds like a thousand other sophisticated, jazzy tunes you’ve heard from several dozen well-groomed jazzy-pop dudes. In other words, Italy, like France, has tried too hard, and will not win Eurovision this year. I don’t think they’ll even crack the top 10.

Let’s go backstage and meet the performers! Dino Merlin stumbles through an interview with Judith, revealing his obviously limited English, and explains that, as a returning performer to Eurovision, everything is “in rewind.” We love the guy even more. The happy feeling Dino's interview leaves us with is then trampled when we learn that A Friend in London’s lead singer is wearing half a shirt.

Switzerland’s “oh that was nice, I guess” song is next. The Twitter feed scrolling alongside the streaming video is revealing: a couple of people exclaim she has forgotten the words to the song! I don’t think many people noticed. If you are the Swiss delegation and you are reading this right now, let me assure you: you didn’t lose because you forgot the lyrics.

And now, it's Blue, representing the LET US SAY "HALLELUJAH" TO ANOTHER BIG! FIVE! COUNTRY! known as the United Kingdom. Ten years ago this man group was the even more boring version of Westlife and 5ive. Fortunately, this is the most up-tempo song Blue has ever performed. But—whoa—major pitch problems right before the chorus! We cringe.

What’s funny about Blue’s performance is that English speakers often laugh at other countries' campy Eurovision performances, but if you dubbed Dutch on top of what we just saw we would be witnessing exactly the same kind of silliness.

Oh no, it's time for Moldova's Zdob şi Zdub, whose manic performance is to Eurovision what Robin Williams is to comedy. I'm too exhausted to say any more.

And then it's Germany's Lena!!!!! We brace ourselves for a big roar from host country Germany! And there it is!

Cleverly, for the intro clip, they use Anke, Stefan, Judith, and Eurovision's behind-the-scenes crew as the representatives for Germany.

Lena takes the stage. The song is slinky, with appropriately slinky choreography. This song is too cool to win. But we make a startling observation. Tons of sexy singers have flaunted their long, long legs during the competition, but Lena is the first performer who actually acts sexy. She flashes come-hither glances into the camera, captured in extreme close up. We readjust ourselves. Ohhhhhh, Lena.

Romania is up next. It is foarte boring!

As a whole, the show is making impressive time. We are 80 minutes deep, and 16 out of 25 performances have taken place. Every Eurovision song clocks in at nearly exactly three minutes, there are no commercial breaks, and there is a minimum of host interruptions.

Leggy Austria is up next. Song is a gospel pop ballad thing, which might sound boring when I put it that way, but it’s actually pretty impressive thanks to the abundant vocal talents of singer Nadine Beiler.

Azerbaijan, my pick to win the competition, perform another rendition of the world’s greatest high school slow dance song.

I'm running I'm scared tonight!
I'm running I'm scared of life!
I'm running I'm scared of breathing!
Coz I adore you!

There is no greater paean to true love in Eurovision 2011 than this song. I'm tearing up at the memory of it. But their voices sound ragged! Will that cost Azerbaijan?

In a semi-final recap I said that Georgia's lead singer was as talented as her band’s song was terrible. Similarly, Slovenia’s singer is as hot as her song is boring. “There’s no reason I should cry-eee-yaiiii!” the Slovenian woman wails. "O yeah, I’m never gonna let CHEW! No one will ever treat CHEW right!"

More backstage interviews, this time with cute Eric Saade, who says he has to pee—awwwww, he’s just like us, for we, too, pee! Then, we learn that the whole competition is staged, because they have already manufactured the official DVDs for Eurovsion 2011—for sale right now on the website!

Iceland return! So cute and full of smile! Maybe they win? You never know! ;-)

The last HUGE ASS FUCKING FIVE country takes the stage: Spain. Their lead singer has the biggest eyes of anyone in the competition—you can see her blink from the back of the arena. She also has the biggest mouth. That’s a compliment! In true stereotypical Spanish fashion we are served a happy fiesta of a song, performed with that mile-wide smile. Well all right—I guess that was fun, thanks!

Ukraine returns with the sand animation woman. There is also a singer singing something in front of her!

Serbia is up with their 1960s "Laugh In" performance that needs only Goldie Hawn in go-go boots to be complete. “Sock it to me!”

Time for the last act of the night. It’s Georgia’s nu nu metal group. It’s terrible, but only because the whole nu metal genre is. But for what it is, the performance goes very well. Until—whoa!!!!! Singer chick goes way off time during the microphone distortion part. A literal poor note to end on.

So that means there have been three overt mistakes in this competition (as far as I can tell): UK’s Blue guy going way pitchy before the first chorus, Switzerland reportedly forgetting the words, and this. Live TV, folks!

Time to recap the performances. They show snippets of all 25 songs. For Switzerland’s they choose to extract the “Nanananananananaanananana” part, maybe because the singer had forgotten her..well, forgettable... lyrics?

To pass the time before voting results are revealed, they show, as host Stefan Raab says, “Music that you don’t have to vote for." It's a live music performance from a German guy! The world collectively rises from their chairs and heads for the bathroom.

But then Hamburg singer Jan Delay takes the stage. Most journalists at this point would just make a comment about the funny German man running around in a plaid suit, blue tie, and fedora. But you’ve landed in more experienced hands. Jan has had a huge number of hit singles in Germany, some of which are catchy in any language. He opens with “Oh Jonny,” a raucous 2009 song (the video for which is a fun homage to The Blues Brothers). Then he rips through the even-better “Klar," delivered with more energy than the already excellent original. Jan Delay rocks! He makes passing the time before the results a pleasure.

Hosts Anke, Stefan, and Judith, who also hosted the semi-finals, seem to have found their groove at last. Stefan carries Anke over his shoulder up some steps on the stage. Facing the backdrop behind the stage, he roars “Tear down this wall!” (for you younger readers, that's a cutesy Berlin Wall-reference). The wall behind the stage divides into two and dramatically parts, revealing the pod-like rooms containing the excited Eurovision competitors behind it.

And with that, it's time to tabulate the votes. 43 nations voted (each of the nations that sent delegations to the competition). Each of the voting countries is represented by somebody who pops up on a video feed and reveals how that country's votes were distributed. A country cannot vote for itself. One country gets 1 point, another 2, then it goes 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and then the big points: 8, 10, and 12 . So 12 points is the maximum. It’s alternative voting—and it makes sense! Well, not everyone agrees, but I approve!

“Feel Your Heart Beat!” is the official slogan of the competition, and seriously, the tabulation of the votes gets the heart racing. I want to take a moment to say that everyone who fought their way here through the semi-finals should go home feeling like a winner. Which obviously does not include "The Big Five."

One by one the countries reveal their votes, each set of results changing the rank order of competitors. One country pulls ahead, then another. In text I can only summarize the larger picture:

Many Western European countries are sore about Eastern European, Balkan, and Caucasus counties “bloc voting” for their neighbors. So, during this round of voting, we see the affirmation:

1) Slovenia gives 10 points to Serbia and their maximum of 12 to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
2) Serbia gives 10 points to Slovenia and 12 to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
3) Bosnia and Herzegovina gives 12 points to Slovenia.
4) Croatia gives 8 points to Bosnia and Herzegovina and 12 points to Slovenia.

Former Yugoslavia hasn’t been this unified since Tito! Brotherhood and unity! Also:

5) Cyprus gives 12 points to Greece.
6) Turkey gives 12 points to Azerbaijan.
7) Romania gives 12 points to Moldova, and…
8) …Moldova says “right back atcha, Romania."

Yeah, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus totally bloc vote! Fuckers!

Except, the open-minded notice other things:

1) Norway gives 10 points to Sweden and 12 points to Finland (It's worth noting that Norway’s votes were cheered, while several of the above were booed).
2) Germany gives 12 points to German-speaking neighbor Austria.
3) San Marino gives 12 points to Italy, the country that surrounds them.
4) The UK gives 12 points to Ireland.
5) Portugal gives 12 points to Spain.

Some voting points of interest:

1) As the results come in, Ireland rises up to third place at one point. I remember when Ireland cynically sent--I'm not kidding--a puppet one year and failed to make it to the finals. Jedward are nearly as nuts as that, but the response this time around has been much more positive. Real people trump puppets, I suppose.
2) Ukraine offers 8 points for Russia, but 12 for Georgia (a country Russia partially occupies). Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko made a big deal about sticking by Georgia during the Russian/Georgian conflict a few years ago.
3) Armenia gives 10 points to neighbor Georgia and 12 to Georgia-supporting Ukraine.
4) Belarus doesn’t offer their 8, 10, or 12 points to Russia, maybe a reflection of recent tensions between the two traditional allies? We wonder if the Belarusians even got to watch an uncensored version of the competition? Over there they probably think Belarus made it to the finals and won. Belarus gives their 10 points to Ukraine and 12 to Georgia.
5) Oh, and Albania gives 12 points to their neighbor and drug trafficking partner across the Adriatic, Italy.

The Eurovision glory that once was Russia's now fades.


1) When Poland pops up to announce their country's voting results, the presenter tries to be funny by taking deliberate, interminable pauses between the scores. The joke flops and rightly outrages the audience; even host Anke looks steamed.
2) Jedward’s performance scores several top marks, including 12 points from Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
3) Bulgaria’s 10 points to Greece and 12 for the UK make me think, “Bulgaria is a country I might not visit soon.”
4) Israel's results announcer touchingly pays lip-service to "our greatest Diva," Dana International.
5) Azerbaijan’s vote presenter, singer Safura, is va-va-VOOM!

By the time 21 of the 43 countries have voted, it is a horserace between Azerbaijan and Sweden, with Sweden looking the strongest. But Norway, Denmark, and Finland have now all voted, and so the bloc voting potential is exhausted for Sweden. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has Turkey’s inevitable 12 points to look forward to.

The 22nd country to vote is Turkey, and—surprise!—Azerbaijan gets 12 points.

Azerbaijan also receives 12 points from Russia and Malta. San Marino gives 10 points to Azerbaijan and 12 to Italy—which of course does not help Sweden.

The Azerbaijani lead grows, and singers Ell and Nikki get increasingly excited and teary-eyed. Sometimes Azerbaijan gets only 8 points, but then the 10 and 12 points are awarded to distantly-lagging countries, which does not affect the top standings. Sometimes, close competitor Sweden gets 12 points, but in the same round Azerbaijan claims another 8 or 10, minimizing the impact. And at some foggy point—it’s not certain when while the events are unfolding; it will have to be all picked apart later—but at some point it becomes clear that Azerbaijan has accumulated an insurmountable lead. When only two countries’ votes are left it is absolutely clear even to the most mathematically-challenged that Azerbaijan has won.

Interestingly, Italy springs forward near the end (I was very wrong when I predicted they wouldn’t make the top 10, though the revisionist historian in me now calls it a pity vote in acknowledgement of their sulky 13-year absence). The consequence of Italy's surge is that Sweden’s “Popular” becomes less so, landing in third. Sand animation woman (with a singer) from Ukraine settles into fourth, Denmark’s “surprise hair” rock band is in fifth, sly old Dino is sixth for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece is in seventh for some incomprehensible reason, and the Jedwards are in eighth—a fine finish for Ireland. Georgia’s nu nu metal efforts lands in ninth. Defending champions Germany take tenth.

Estonia winds up next to last—poor Getter. And Switzerland’s pleasantly boring tune takes the dreaded bottom of the barrel position. The Swiss singer is cute; I’ll give her a shoulder to cry on. Just as long as she promises not to sing. "Nanananananananaannaananananaanananananananananaanananananana!"


So Azerbaijan won it all.

Judith led the ecstatic Ell and Nikki (Elbar and Nigar in their less-Anglicized forms) from the waiting room to the stage to sing their song once more. John Williams’s Olympic music played during their walk, linking the good-will spirit behind the Olympic games to the shared idealism of Eurovision. As the two pretty singers performed their song one more time, we realized they were hoarse, no doubt from screaming with joy for the last forty or so minutes. Funny; those voices, run-ragged by the adrenaline of the previous hour, made their performance even more touching.

The best song won! I'm tearing up again! Forgive me!

I’m really just a hack over here, writing strings of jokey observations about the competition. The real story comes from my friend Liana, who runs the excellent IANYAN Magazine, which focuses on Armenian affairs. She noted, as the closing credits scrolled past, that tweets had already begun surfacing from Armenians calling for a boycott of Eurovision 2012.

Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked in a “frozen conflict.” When the USSR collapsed, new borders were drawn, and various people wound up on opposite sides of those borders. An ethnic-Armenian group in Azerbaijan secured a territory, now known as the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR). They occupy it to this day. The NKR has its own government buildings, embassies, currency, and post offices. Its border is heavily mined, and people are shot and killed around it every year. The conflict is "frozen" now, but something must give eventually.

Armenians, who have failed to gain acknowledgement from Turkey for a Turkish-perpetrated genocide against Armenians that the vast majority of historians (and a pre-Presidential Barack Obama) agree occurred, and who are also embroiled in the aforementioned dispute with Azerbaijan, are, naturally, unhappy.

But why end a Eurovision article with gloom? Most commentators, including Armenian ones, are admitting that Azerbaijan’s song was the worthy winner. A boycott is likely the worst Armenia will do (though I'm sure Eurovision's security detail must be worriedly contemplating the terrorism potential in 2012). As for Azerbaijan, any military action to take back the NKR would be poorly timed just before hosting Eurovision.

If Armenia does not boycott Eurovision 2012, Azerbaijan will have to figure out what to do regarding issuing travel visas to Armenians. Currently, Armenians are barred entry to Azerbaijan.

Yes, the next year could be very interesting indeed.

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?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mr. Lava Reports - Looking Ahead to Semi-Final Two

Blogger finally restored this entry on 18 May. It was originally posted on 11 May, then deleted about 24 hours later during a catastrophic Blogger failure. I have backdated this entry to its original post date.

In light of various performance catastrophes (e.g., “Boom Boom [Chucka Chucka]),” nine Eurovision competitors were kicked off the field this Tuesday. In theory, that means nine countries worth of people are not going to tune into the finals on Saturday. After Thursday night's second and last semi-final, a further nine countries worth of people will be doing something else Saturday night. Every country that fails to watch the final is, directly or indirectly, lost revenue for the Eurovision Song Contest, but of course, with varying degrees of financial power and a wide range of populations amongst them, some countries are more profitable to “lose” than others. So, by measurement of population alone, Turkey’s departure on Tuesday was the most disastrous. On the other hand, San Marino and Malta will be little missed.

This cruelly Randian financial logic is effectively why we have “The Big Five” countries, which are given an utterly unfair free pass to the Eurovision Finals on Saturday in order to guarantee viewership and reward associated investment. The Big Five are France, Germany (which would have gotten a pass anyway this year, since the previous year’s contest winner also automatically advances), Italy (undoubtedly seeking placation after a sulky 13 year absence from the contest), Spain, and the United Kingdom. These countries contain the overwhelming majority of Europe’s people and have decent to strong economies, which translates to more viewers and more dollars that ultimately wind their way back to the competition. In other words, the demands of the free market drive greedy/sensible Eurovision to adopt an unfair, non-competitive tack when it comes to dealing with the five biggest backers of Eurovision. This sort of paradoxical logic, where capitalism smoothly blurs into Animal Farm “more equal than others” non-competitive favoritism, is the sort of stuff that drove the trust-busting Republican Theodore Roosevelt nuts.

Speaking of curtailed democracy, one can make a compelling argument that this conundrum is why the jury system was reintroduced into the contest in the last couple of years (the official reason was to counter supposed “bloc-voting,” a phenomenon Big Five countries especially harped upon where countries vote in a knee-jerk manner for their neighbors). So, a chunk of the votes are cast by the people of Europe, and another chunk come from mysterious panels of supposed music experts based in each country, which I will henceforth call “Star Chambers.”

But we can boo and hiss the jury system and the Big Five on Saturday! I just wanted to offer you a little foreshadowing. Thursday night is all about selecting another ten delegations to send to the finals, an activity which, from Eurovision’s bean-counting perspective, also amounts to learning which nine countries’ TVs will be dark on Saturday. I’ll be watching, and will offer a complete synopsis afterward. I’ll also come clean about how well my own predictions went. I'm not feeling so confident about those, considering all the aforementioned weird forces at work!

Mr. Lava Reports - Loving Belarus

Evidence suggests that Belarus invented a face-saving story to spin the reason for why their original Eurovision Song Contest 2011 submission, “Born in Byelorussia,” had to be scuttled.

Belarusian singer Anastasiya Vinnikova takes the stage Thursday night at Eurovision Semi-Final Two singing “I Love Belarus,” and it will likely be your only chance to see this gawk-worthy disaster in the making, since the song hasn’t a prayer of advancing to the final (though voting it through might be a worthwhile prank).

Belarus’s original Eurovision 2011 song offering was called “Born In Byelorussia,” a celebration of life in the good old days of communism—which for Belarus continue! The lyrics to that earlier effort included: "Born in Byelorussia! USSR time! Byelorussia! Crazy and so fine!"

Sensing controversy, something image-hypersensitive Eurovision does not want any of, on 3 March 2011 the event organizers pressed for a lyric change, tactfully noting in a press release that “questions and doubts have come up regarding the lyrics of the Belarusian entry,” and further explaining that
“The song quoted memories from Soviet Union times as well as the historical name of Byelorussia, which is not officially used anymore these days.”

But a different story is told in a video posted to YouTube on the following day, 4 March 2011. The channel, which says it originates from Russia, with an associated website that includes specialized looks at Belarus's and Russia's Eurovision history, reports that the song was performed before last year’s cut-off date, and was therefore disqualified for non-political reasons.

Either way, the result was a complete overhaul for the song, which brings us to “I Love Belarus.”

Can you think of one good reason not to love Belarus? Except the police brutality, mysterious “suicides” of investigative journalists, and the arresting of opposition leaders? Well, I could think of several. Like how President Lukashenko, elected in 1994, now appears to be their president for life. And how the government announced plans to ship jailed opposition leaders’ kids to orphanages. Or the nagging suspicion that the president himself was behind a recent subway bombing (the government is trying to pin the blame on, once again, those mysterious, omnipresent “opposition figures").

But who cares what reasons I might have for not loving Belarus? I'm just a fake Eurotrash DJ! Let’s take an objective survey of today’s newspaper headlines instead:

The Wall Street Journal: “Russia Refuses to Bail Out Belarus”
Reuters: “Russia refuses to bail out wayward ally Belarus”
AFT: “Belarus opposition journalist goes to trial”
Monsters and Critics: “EU lawmakers call for a suspension of Belarus hockey championship”
Index on Censorship: “Five former presidential candidates now on trial in Belarus”
New York Times: “Belarus Currency Plunges After Rule Change”

But perhaps today was just a bad day. Or maybe everything you’ve just read is suspect, because…

Kyiv Post: “Lukashenko: Information war unleashed against Belarus.”

See? I’m just part of the conspiracy!

Mr. Lava Reports - Predictions for Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final Two

These are my predictions regarding who will survive Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final Two Tomorrow:

Austria | Nadine Beiler - “The Secret Is Love” | Prediction: YES
Belarus | Anastasiya Vinnikova - "I Love Belarus" | Prediction: NO
Belgium | Witloof Bay - “With Love Baby” | Prediction: NO
Bosnia and Herzegovina | Dino Merlin - “Love In Rewind” | Prediction: YES
Bulgaria | Poli Genova - “Na Inat” | Prediction: YES
Cyprus | Christos Mylordos - “San Aggelos S’Agapisa” | Prediction: NO
Denmark | A Friend In London - “New Tomorrow” | Prediction: YES
Estonia | Getter Jaani - “Rockefeller Street” | Prediction: YES
Ireland | Jedward - “Lipstick” | Prediction: YES
Israel | Dana International - “Ding Dong” | Prediction: NO
Latvia | Musiqq - “Angel In Disguise” | Prediction: YES
Macedonia | Vlatko Ilievski - “Rusinka” | Prediction: NO
Moldova | Zdob și Zdub - “So Lucky” | Prediction: NO
Netherlands | 3JS - “Je Vecht Nooit Alleen” | Prediction: NO
Romania | Hotel FM - “Change” | Prediction: YES
Slovakia | TWiiNS - “I’m Still Alive” | Prediction: NO
Slovenia | Maja Keuc - “Vanilija” | Prediction: NO
Sweden | Eric Saade - “Popular” | Prediction: YES
Ukraine | Mika Newton - “Angel” | Prediction: YES

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!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mr. Lava Reports - I'm Dreaming of a White Eurovision

Like garrulous seagulls lured by crackers, a flock of shrieking white people has descended upon Düsseldorf for the Eurovision Song Contest 2011 (the first semi-final is held tomorrow). While it's true that three countries' delegations did not get the memo and sent unusually dark faces (these offenders are Norway, San Marino, and the UK--the last country having sent a man-group with one black dude in it), the remainder of the 43 competitors are wondrously light-complexioned!

This is great news for disgruntled Germans whose Aryan causes have been severely curtailed by anti-discrimination laws for decades. At last, an unabashed celebration of white culture will be held on German soil!

Human snowflakes of goodwill are settling on the Altstadt under the auspices of the towering stuffed remains of Knut the Polar Bear, a snow-white martyr for the Aryan culture that transformed Germany into the leading European power that it is today (it must be said, though, that Knut's looking a little ragged on account of being picked apart by souvenir hunters--couldn't the city have sprung for extra security?).

White though this Euroworld may be, it is not intolerant, for even Israel's Jews have been warmly welcomed on Düsseldorf's soil. That's because today there is an even greater enemy to confront: the Muslim masses that threaten to overthrow Europe and force the burqa upon us all. Do you want to wear a burqa? Fuck no!

(Muslims, it should be said, are also represented at Eurovision. They look pretty white, don't they?)

A whiter celebration--and a whiter collection of tunes--you will never find than at Eurovision 2011! Why, three nations from the Caucasus will perform in tomorrow's semi-final! Slovenia's song entry is actually called "Vanilija"!

While Europe's Top 40 is filled with the likes of American and British R&B performers of dark complexion (Rihanna, Tinchy Stryder, Snoop Dogg, Puff Diddly-Do-Good), Eurovision remains white white white! And so, standing here in the Altstadt today, I feel like one among millions of Caspers--as in the friendly ghosts--drifting like pale plankton through a pasty white sea of Eurolove!