Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eurovision 2012: Summary of Semi-Final 1

This year's Eurovision Song Contest host is Azerbaijan, probably the only country in the history of the competition to enjoy the distinction of having hauled its own citizens in for questioning at the Ministry of National Security over the way that they had voted in previous contests. Which is befitting a country that would also arrest a man in a donkey suit.

But Eurovision, the song contest that gave us ABBA, Celine Dione, and—did I mention ABBA?—continues to put on its cheery Joker face, insisting that it remains a celebration of peace and love, and that the host country, lovingly presented throughout the telecast in slow-motion, high definition glory, is paradise. Throughout Semi-Final 1 we are informed that Azerbaijan is "The Land of Poetry," and "Snow," and "Friends," although none of the Azeri people's friends are Armenians. Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in a so-called "frozen conflict" over a piece of territory called Nagorno Karabakh. This is just a dumb Eurovision blog, so all you need to know about that whole thing is that it is one of several flash points around the world that could lead to World War III. As a result of the tension, Armenia is boycotting this year's Eurovision, and odds are good (unfortunately, for their political aspirations) that they will not be missed. That's what happens when you stomp out of a room in protest; everyone forgets you were ever there. Especially when there are 18 countries performing tonight in this first of two semi-finals.

To quickly explain to any Eurovision virgins what is going on here: Eurovision is a song contest started in 1956. It's sort of the granddaddy of the whole "Idol" concept. Each participating country sends a song, performed by a representative (who can come from pretty much anywhere; Canada's Celine Dion famously sang the winning entry for Switzerland in 1988), and then people across Europe (and a few other places, such as Israel) call in to vote for the song/country that they liked best. You cannot vote for your own country's song.

The winning country gets to host the competition the following year. Last year, Eldar and Nigar (given the more Anglicized names "Ell and Nikki" for Western audiences) from Azerbaijan sang the song that I very famously* predicted was going to win the whole thing. It really was worthy, but as soon as Azerbaijan won, the Eurovision organizers carved those cheerful Joker smiles onto their faces with pen knives, because in truth they knew this was going to be a political headache, considering that Armenia had frequently used Eurovision as a political platform in the past, and Azerbaijan bars Armenians from entry into their country. Anyway, like I said, Armenia boycotted, so...problem solved. Sure makes things easier for everyone when you just give up.

Let's go! Eighteen countries compete tonight—ten will advance to the final. On Thursday another batch will compete and another ten will advance. And to add to the fun, three Croatian friends and I are betting a nominal amount of money on which countries those will be. We are watching Semi-Final 1 in a kitchen somewhere in Zagreb.

From the always-cheery, exclamation-mark-peppered Eurovision website: "The hosts of the show are Nargiz Birk-Petersen, Eldar Gasimov who won the Eurovision last year as part of Ell/Nikki and Leyla Alieva who are all eager to welcome the millions of viewers to Baku for tonight's show!"

The off-camera Croatian narrator talks all over the hosts' greetings, which is annoying, and friend Zrinka, who is responsibly drinking tea while the rest of us pound KarlovaĨko beer, explains a new rule change that he is describing. I'll get to that in a moment, but about the rules in general...Eurovision constantly changes its voting rules in an effort to ensure that the process of selecting a winner is as undemocratic as possible. This is due in part to past complaints about "bloc voting." That's where, say, Ukraine votes for neighbor Russia and Russia votes for Ukraine. It's been traditional for Western European countries to pick on the Eastern ones for bloc voting, although Scandinavia and many other regions have been guilty of this for years.

Eurovision's undemocratic process is also due to certain countries' affluence; the countries with the largest TV viewing audiences and who put the most money into staging the competition tend to be handed several competitive advantages, including the fact that—and this is really unbelievable, but (really, fuck, I cannot believe I'm writing this)—the top five "biggest" countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK) get to SKIP THE SEMI-FINALS AND GO STRAIGHT TO THE FINAL. It's like saying that the athletes from the countries that fund the Olympics the most can skip all the qualifying heats and go straight to the final races. It's like saying a candidate for the Republican nomination for president could just buy the party's nomination—thank God that stuff doesn't happen in America. Anyway, this "skip right to the final" thing is why these irritatingly-labeled "big five" countries are RIGHTLY HATED by the rest of Europe, so much so that I am writing in ALL CAPS to YELL my DISENCHANTMENT.

So the new rule Zrinka explained to us...If your country is not performing in that night's semi-final, you cannot vote in that semi-final at all. That means that some countries tonight will get to enjoy a bloc voting advantage (for example, Romania and their Romanian-speaking neighbor Moldova both hit the stage tonight, so each can vote for the other), but poor Latvia has been cleaved from Lithuania and really has no friends to help it through this semi-final.

Montenegro is first up, with Rambo Amadeus, who has the distinction of having the best name and worst song of the night. Every year a country makes the mistake of mocking the competition by sending some joke entry, and it always backfires. That's because Eurovision is obviously ridiculous to begin with, and we viewers are OK with that. The song here is called "Euro Neuro," and the song is as crap as that title. Rambo Amadeus stumbles around like the last unloved drunk guy at a wedding reception, in a disheleved tuxedo, doing spoken-word poetry to a jazz funk soundtrack. He performs beside a Trojan horse while banners with messages like "Give me a chance to refinance" are unfurled. I am reminded of William Shatner's performance art.

All four of us in that Zagreb kitchen (Ivan, Sisko, Zrinka, and myself) vote "NO" on this guy. Nice knowin' ya, Rambo Amadeus.

Next up is Iceland's pretentious "Never Forget." Lots of serious facial expressions, and there's a woman who switches back and forth between playing violin and singing. It's terrible, but it has all the elements of a Eurovision winner, and so all four of us vote "YES."

The first of the inevitable leggy ha-cha-cha-cha girls performs. Greece's Eleftheria Eleftheriou sings "Aphrodisiac." Isn't this supposed to be a family show? "I want your aphrodisiac!" she yelps from atop mile-high legs. She's cute; the song is awful. But with Greece having such a tough time of things in the European Union, it seems a pity vote is inevitable. Plus, ha-cha-cha-cha! All four of us vote "YES."

Latvia are next with "Beautiful Song." It sounds like a masterpiece after Greece's "Aphrodisiac," but let's face it, these plain-looking women in their plain dresses are plainly not igniting the audience. And, as I mentioned earlier, neighbor Lithuania can't vote tonight, so Latvia are stranded. Nonetheless, somewhat hopefully I give them a "YES," while my friends more prudently offer three "NO" votes.

Albania's Rona Nishliu is next, belting out "Suus." I am informed that Albania suffered a terrible tragedy recently: at least 13 people were killed there in a university bus crash. Pity for Albania may carry them through to the finals.

But it turns out Rona is actually an excellent singer, and pity might not be necessary to get her through. In fact, she is probably the best singer of the night. The problem is that the song she is singing is terrifying. She howls and roars and barks and snarls and shrieks her way through it, eliciting applause from the audience throughout. It may be a case of the best singer singing the worst song of the night (except for "Euro Neuro"). I never want to hear this ever again. But audience applause indicates it will go through; three of us vote "YES" and Zrinka is the holdout with her more hopeful "NO."

Romania sends leggy ha-cha-cha-cha girl number two in the form of Mandinga. Song is an agreeable enough piece of Latin pop fluff. Moldova will vote for them as well tonight, so it seems a good bet it will advance. Four votes "YES."

Switzerland serves up some emo-esque rock thing called "Unbreakable," where we are informed that "You can do anything you want/It doesn't matter how hard it is." That's the sort of Eurovision lyric fans of the show love. No matter how untrue that is. I vote "NO," and the other three vote "YES."

Belgium sends a sweet, innocent young woman to sing a sweet, innocent song with the forgettable title, "Would You?" Props to backlighting her at the start of her performance in the flimsy dress, however, to counter all that innocence. But four out of four of us vote "NO."

Finland is next. The song is good—maybe even "great," at least in that "In the Kingdom of the Blind the One-Eyed Are Kings" sense. The singer has great poise. But I vote "NO" because she is singing in Finnish Swedish**, and generally it's not a good idea to sing in a non-English language at Eurovision. Yes, there have been recent Eurovision winners who sang in their native, non-English tongue, but it's a very rare thing. People would rather hear bad English than good Swedish. Anyway, "NO" from me, but three "YES" votes from the others in that Zagreb kitchen.

Israel sends out a foppish guy fronting a goofy band performing something like 50's rock 'n' roll. It's actually pretty difficult to watch. "We're quirky and fun!" they seem to cry—desperately. Four "NO" votes.

San Marino, The Country No One Knows About, performs next. OK, a little geography. Tiny San Marino is surrounded by Italy, but since Italy is an automatically-advancing "big five" country, and therefore is ineligible to vote in the semis, San Marino will get no Italian votes tonight. Song is a sort of synth poppy thing with the timely title of "The Social Network Song," and the timeless subtitle of "Oh Oh - Uh - Oh Oh" appended to it. I'm on the fence on this one, but I decide in the end to vote "NO." My three friends agree.

Cyprus sends us leggy ha-cha-cha-cha girl number three. The moment she opens her mouth to sing, the blood in all our veins turns to ice. She is horrible. Horrible! The only way she is going to get through is via sex appeal. Two of us, myself included, vote "NO," but the other two wager that sex appeal will win the day for Cyprus.

As of this semi-final, my pick to win the whole competition is Denmark. The song is catchy, safe, and sung by a cute young woman who wears a fetching sailor hat and epaulets. She sounds rusty when she begins, not as good as she did in the Danish competition where she was originally selected (yep, I'm a Euro music junkie), but the song gradually wins people over. Four out of four of us vote "YES." On to my third half litre of beer.

Russia's entry has gotten a lot of attention. The song is sung by a group of adorable old babushkas who perform in traditional folk vocal style before techno beats start playing underneath them. Old women singing to techno! How cute! They mime baking bread. The "maybe it's true" story, I am told, is that they are raising money for a church. It would take a heartless person to vote against them.

I am such a person. They are actually quite bad. As an insufferably pretentious music nerd, I have listened to many such folk performances from Ukraine and Russia, and I have to say these women sound pitchy, a bit off time, and damn, this whole concept is just shameless pandering, isn't it? I see Vladimir Putin chortling over a vodka. "I'm brilliant!" he says before sinking the shot, for he probably rigged the selection process to get them through in the first place. "No one will DARE vote against a group of adorable old women!"

A quick cut to the audience reveals a bunch of people waving their flags with moderate gusto and slightly bored expressions, as if they are saying, "Hey, I guess this is supposed to be fun or something!" For a moment I wonder if the lyrics the kindly grandmothers are singing are: "Russia will drink your blood/From the goblets of your skulls!" Anyway, there's absolutely no way this won't advance. All four of us vote "YES," recognizing that terrible inevitability.

Hungary sends a perfectly agreeable and catchy rock song called "Sound of Our Hearts" by Compact Disco, and seeing that there are not many viable rock entries in this semi-final I reckon they're more likely to get through than that Swiss group we've already forgotten about. So, three "YES" votes, with the abstaining "NO" coming from Zrinka, who at this stage has been very unimpressed with the entries in general.

Austria sends Trackshittaz, a rap duo who, about a year ago, an Austrian friend once personally apologized to me for. Let me reiterate: they are called "Trackshittaz." "Trackshittaz" and "Aphrodisiac" in the same night; a very raunchy Eurovision 2012! Three of us vote "NO," but Zrinka finds the song quite catchy, and it's true that you can even hear people in the audience chanting along to it.

Moldova sends a likeable enough guy, and there haven't been many likeable enough guys in the competition for the women and gay men in the TV audience out there to vote for. Plus, Romania will vote for them tonight, so I vote "YES" along with Zrinka on that one, and the other lads vote "NO."

Finally, Ireland sends its most adored cultural icon after the leprechaun: a Jedward. These identical twin brothers represented Ireland last year, and they placed very well (Ireland landed in 8th place in the final). They wear white Flash Gordon-esque outfits. I am informed that they have had their hair insured. I think it would be great if Ireland sent Jedward to every Eurovision from now until the day they die.

With that, it's on to the voting. For about half an hour, citizens from 18 countries phone in their votes, but we Croatians and pseudo-Croatians are powerless to affect the results and will have to wait until Thursday to have our say in Semi-Final 2. During the break there is a long performance of traditional Azeri folk music, and we see that the leggy Greek singer is getting into it, ha-cha-cha-cha.

Finally, the results are announced, with the usual unfunny "draw out the suspense" teasing from the host. Who will be the 10 who advance?

Montenegro's Rambo Amadeus - Hell no! You can't mock a contest that already knows it's ridiculous.

Iceland - Yes! Look serious and wield a violin and your chances are pretty good.

Greece - Yes! Ha-cha-cha-cha!

Latvia - No! Which leaves me wondering, why did I throw away my prediction on them despite all the evidence to the contrary?

Albania - Yes! Which means you should bring earplugs to the Saturday finale.

Romania - Yes! Ha-cha-cha-cha number 2.

Switzerland - No! Who can even remember this act?

Belgium - No! Too sweet and safe and…zzzzzzzz.

Finland - No! And this beomes a subject of much debate between my friends and me. I continue to go by my, "If it ain't in English, it probably ain't advancing" argument. Actually, if folks are going to sing in English more, more entries should use the word "ain't."

Israel - No! It was so crazy wacky! Oooo, my head hurt!

San Marino - Oh oh - uh - no no.

Cyprus - Yes! Ha-cha-cha-cha number 3. A pretty face and legs will get you far in life.

Denmark - Yes! And I repeat, I think this sounds like it could be the overall winner.

Russia - Yes! Of course you can't vote against adorable babushkas.

Hungary - Yes! It was the one rock-ish number allowed to survive the night, and will ensure at least a tiny bit of variety on Saturday's final.

Austria - Hell no! They were called "Trackshittaz"!

Moldova - Yes! "He's such a happy and nice young man, let us vote for him!" Plus, there was a hora.

Jedward. I mean, Ireland! - Of course! Who wouldn't want to see that performance again, if only to gawk?

With that, the results of our betting pool are as shown below.

Yep, I won. B-) I collected enough money to buy half a sandwich today. Which is good, considering yesterday I received a formal email from my office requesting my letter of resignation. Seems I have spent too much time over here. Anyone have any need for a writer who specializes in Eurovision song contests?

See you after Semi-Final 2.

* Actually, nobody noticed or cared.

** Thanks to Ksenija, who corrected me on what language the Finnish singer was singing in. Who'd a thunk Finland would send a singer who warbled in Swedish? Reports Wikipedia: "It is the second time Swedish lyrics are used for a Finnish entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, the first being 'Fri?' performed by Beat in 1990."

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