Monday, May 16, 2016

Eurovision comes to America

Most Americans probably had no idea what hit them this past weekend when Eurovision was broadcast to homes across the country thanks to Logo TV.  Justin Timberlake even made a guest appearance, singing his latest song, but for commercial propriety reasons, it wasn't part of the broadcast.  We had to suffer through him in Europe as we awaited the final results of the week-long songfest that pits 42 nations against each other for song of the year.

It's been awhile since any of these performers achieved universal popularity thanks to their winning song.  The last person that comes to mind is Celine Dion, who represented Switzerland in 1988.  Still, the most famous winner remains Abba, which scored a yuge hit with Waterloo.  There have been other well-known performers over the years, who tried to use their universal popularity to win a trophy for their home country, like Katrina and the Waves, who brought back the crystal mic to the United Kingdom in 1997.  Unfortunately, the UK wasn't as successful when they brought Bonnie Tyler out of retirement in 2013.  She finished 19th out of 26 finalists.

The odd thing about Eurovision is that it never seems to age.  There are more and more pyrotechnics each year but the style remains virtually the same.  For a contest that sees so many countries represented, the songs have a generic euro-pop quality that doesn't translate well to American audiences.  Even the outfits seem pulled from the same racks, or maybe it is just that the 80s have come back to haunt us in fashion.

Germany's entry, Jamie-Lee and her fetish for K-pop

It was for this reason that the winning song stood out this year, as the singer actually wrote it herself.   Most contestants look for universal appeal, often hiring outside songwriters to pen them a catchy song in English.  They might or might not add a few lyrics from their own language.  Jamala took this Herculean task upon herself, determined to make a song uniquely her own, in honor of her great grandmother who was subjected to Stalin's purges in 1944.

Jamala is a Crimean Tatar who represented Ukraine.  This irked Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014.  The Kremlin fought to have Jamala banned from Eurovision over what they considered to be nothing more than a political stunt pulled by Ukraine.  Maybe so, but for once there was a heartfelt song that actually told a story, which songs are supposed to do.

All the adverse publicity helped Jamala, as the song itself didn't have any catchy lyrics and the music evoked her Tatar roots.  Usually ethnic-inspired songs do poorly in Eurovision.  She had tough competition in the Australian entry, Dami Im.  Eurovision is such a big hit down under that Australia was named an honorary participant last year and allowed to compete this year.  Jamala also had to hold her breath until the last second, as Russia's latest boy wonder, Sergey Lazarev, won the popular vote, but it wasn't enough to beat her out, as she held the edge among the judges.

Russian authorities were none too happy with the results, especially since the judges from Ukraine had given their entry 0 points.  To be fair, Russian judges scored Jamala a big fat zero as well.  Oddly, enough the popular vote from both countries was much more favorable to the rival contestants, as the Ukrainan popular vote scored Sergey first, and the Russian popular vote gave Jamala second.   This illustrated once again that people go where their heart is, and the only bad blood between Russians and Ukrainians is that generated by politicians.

Jamala and Sergey together

Eurovision has tried hard to keep politics out of its songfest, but the very structure of its program is political.  The musicians all represent countries, not themselves, and they are only there because they won their countries' preliminary rounds.  Voting is split 50-50 between a judging panel and popular vote from each country.  Usually it is averaged together and we are given an aggregate total, but this year the organizers chose to split the vote.  Hard to say if it made any difference.  Too much effort to go through the numbers and re-calculate the results.  Either way, the vote tends to split along factional lines so it is anyone's guess how the final results would have turned out.  It is only minimally based on talent.

For me, the sign-language interpreters stole the show.  They came from a variety of countries and signed in a universal code, but it is their body motions and expressions that stood out, as they often showed more emotion than the actual participants.  I particularly liked the Lithuanian interpreter.  She comes to life at the 50 second mark of this video.

I have to think none of this is going to make much impact on American audiences, except maybe ethnic enclaves that have a strong attachment to their European home countries.   However, it seems that Eurovision is anxious to expand its boundaries and who knows may even invite an American honorary participant next year to the Ukraine, which will host the competition, as it seems Russia plans to sit the next one out.

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