Mike Atkinson

Eurovision 2009: a night of a thousand key changes.

Posted in features, The Guardian by Mike A on May 15, 2009

(Cover story, Guardian Film & Music, Friday 15 May 2009.)

Brace yourself for the Hell Machine, some Balkan bombast and a rendition of ‘skiddly buffely boodely bump’ as Mike Atkinson tips 10 potential winners of Eurovision 2009.

Sweden – the camp one

Language buffs might be drawn to the Eurovision Song Contest for its cultural plurality. A statistician might revel in the quirks of its voting system. A homesick expatriate might place an emotional stake in the success of his or her homeland, however justifiably (most former Soviet or Yugoslav republics) or foolishly (all points west of Prague). But for Britons, the contest represents one of the last outposts of that most devalued of currencies: high camp. And in this year’s finals in Moscow, the camp comes no higher than Sweden’s daring fusion of light opera and throbbing eurodance.

Graced with the voice of a song-thrush, the shoulders of a stevedore and the lung power of an industrial dehumidifier, Malena Ernman is an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano with serious chops: she’s played Carmen and Dido, sung at Vienna and Glyndebourne, and worked with Barenboim and Rattle. Tomorrow night, equipped with little more than a feathery frock, a souped-up karaoke machine and a mask-flaunting dance troupe, she faces an audience of 100 million, whose unqualified respect might not be forthcoming. If camp’s comedic power resides in the gap between intention and effect, then the gap here is one in which we may all gratefully luxuriate.

Malta – the plucky one

No country is more eager to win Eurovision than Malta, and no country has displayed greater loyalty to the hapless UK – even to the point of awarding the full douze points to Scooch, in 2007. There’s no getting away from it: we owe them.

With that in mind, you are urged to gaze charitably upon the delightful Chiara, who returns to the finals for a third attempt. Granted, there’s nothing immediately ear-grabbing about What If We, an old-fashioned ballad that mires itself in metaphysical riddles (“What if we could be free? Mystify our wisdom in time and one day we’ll see”). But know this also: Chiara has form. She came third in 1998, second in 2005, and her hardcore Eurovision fanbase adore her still-can-do spirit. Underestimate her at your peril.

Turkey – the toddler-talking one

Times may change, but a Eurovision cleansed of lyrical toddler-talk would be a bleak place indeed. With this in mind, we must commend its few remaining exponents. Moldova has us merrily shai-lalai-ing; Armenia chips in with some sturdy takituk-takituk-takituk-ing; and Germany goes the whole hog, inviting us variously to “do the skiddly skiddly bo”, the “skiddly buffely boodely bump” and most winningly of all, the “ring-a-bing bing”.

But it’s to Turkey’s Hadise that we must turn for a toddler song title – first pausing to admire her way with a double-edged compliment. “No one can kiss like you do – as if it’s your profession,” she purrs. Surely there are better ways to a man’s heart than suggesting he snogs like a rent boy?

Düm Tek Tek is the hotly tipped, rump-shaking ditty in question, its title an onomatopoeic representation of Hadise’s wild, unfettered heartbeat. In other words, it’s a Turkish version of Boom Bang-a-Bang. And for that alone, we must salute it.

Bosnia and Herzegovina – the war-weary one

There’s a certain strain of butched-up Balkan bombast that always does well at Eurovision, to the bafflement of those deprived of sufficient opportunities to acquire a taste for it. This year it’s the Bosnian rock band Regina who look set to galvanise the former Yugoslav voting bloc into phone-stabbing action. Bistra Voda (Clear Water) couples a stirring tune with poetic, impressionistic lyrics and distinct military overtones; you could imagine it performed by a weary, battle-scarred marching band, still defiant in defeat. Watch out for a striking Socialist Realist tableau vivant, in which the players adopt the noble, faraway gazes of Worker Hero archetypes. Or are they merely refugees from a Sarajevan production of Les Miserables? It’s hard to decide.

Norway – the bloc-straddling one

Where football leads, Eurovision follows. As countries of birth or residence become ever less relevant when it comes to assigning players to teams (Ronan Keating has co-written this year’s Danish entry, for instance), cynical tongues have seen fit to wag at Norway’s apparent outsourcing of their entry to Alexander Rybak, a Byelorussian. What neater way could there be to unite two of the major voting blocs, the Slavs and the Scandinavians?

In fairness, Rybak has lived in Norway since he was four, giving him every right to assert his Norwegian identity. During the fortnight of rehearsals, press conferences and parties that have preceded tomorrow’s finals, he has presented himself as a model of accessible, unassuming charm – and it’s these qualities that make his self-penned song Fairytale such a strong tip to win. Indeed, it has been the universally acknowledged red-hot favourite for so long that its supremacy has rather deadened the fun of trying to pick a winner.

Stringed instruments are big news at this year’s Eurovision – nobody quite knows why – and Rybak’s nimble fiddle breaks lie at the heart of Fairytale’s appeal. Granted, his irrepressible sunniness does clash with the lyrical despair (“I don’t care if I lose my mind, I’m already cursed”), and there’s an awkward tautology in the opening line (“Years ago, when I was younger”) which sits oddly with the winsome boyishness he projects – but Rybak has just turned 23, and is hence clearly entitled to have a “past”. Fairytale’s spell palls swiftly on repeated exposure, but it would be churlish not to wish him well.

Greece – the age-inappropriate one

We last saw Sakis Rouvas at the 2006 finals in Athens, as presenter rather than contestant. Those who recall his graceful, high-wire-assisted descent on to the Athens stage will be heartened by this year’s continuation of the “man in flight” theme – although this time round, as the Greek entrant, his execution is altogether more earthbound. In other words, Sakis gets to jump off his podium a lot, barking “Fly!” upon each descent, with a misplaced optimism that would have shamed Icarus.

A fully fledged heartthrob at home, Sakis seems blissfully unburdened by self-doubt – but at 37, his age might just be starting to catch up with him. So as you watch him shimmy and thrust, playing eternal peek-a-boo with midriff and man-cleavage alike, you can’t help questioning the age-appropriateness of all this galumphing around. Still, there’s plenty on stage to distract us. The posing platform briefly becomes a conveyor belt, before morphing into a giant sunbed, upon whose half-open lid Sakis triumphantly perches. Unmissable stuff.

Ukraine – the kinky one

In a comparatively unchallenging year for the Eurovision props department, it falls to Ukraine’s frankly alarming Svetlana Loboda to go the whole hog, bolstered by an equally arresting troupe of swarthy hunks and “anti-crisis girls”. Brace yourselves for a riot of eye-popping gimmickry – from the so-called “Hell Machine” that dominates the stage (essentially a set of giant MDF cogs, but let’s not puncture the metaphor), to the drum kit on wheels that is heaved towards centre stage in the closing moments. The overall aesthetic combines interwar industrial dystopianism – think Chaplin’s Modern Times, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – with bare-chested centurions who appear to have been drafted in from a Derek Jarman film.

And all this for a mispronounced ode to the male posterior – “You are sexy bom; really crazy bom.” You sense that someone on Svetlana’s design team must be having the time of his life.

Russia – the tactical no-hope one

And so to the vexed question of “political voting”, and the apparent refusal of eastern European countries to cast votes for their western counterparts. Until last year, the standard anti-conspiracy theory ran like this: political voting might bump a mediocre song up a couple of notches, but it has never created a winner. Besides, non-conspiracists would say: how exactly does one organise a conspiracy based on not voting for people? But at the 2008 finals, with former Soviet republics submitting nearly a quarter of all votes cast, most agreed that a tipping point had been reached. How else to explain the triumph of Russian-language superstar Dima Bilan, and his resolutely unmemorable song Believe?

Stung into action by a surging tide of western dissent, Terry Wogan fulminating at its helm, the authorities have tried to reassure those suspicious of the east by reintroducing a jury system that will count for half of each country’s votes, with votes from TV viewers accounting for the other half (since 2002, TV viewers have controlled the whole vote). Theoretically, jurors are drawn from a select pool of music business experts, and charged with the solemn duty of evaluating each entry strictly on its songcraft – but if past practice is any measure, then any country deploying pan pipes, Gypsy fiddles or power ballads stands to be rewarded handsomely.

None of this need concern this year’s Russian entry, as every effort has been taken to ensure that Moscow won’t be playing host again in 2010. Anastasiya Prikhodko was parachuted into the selection process at the 11th hour, and whole sections of her song Mamo are caterwauled in Ukranian, in effect dampening local support to a containable minimum. Besides, every final needs its toilet break. It’s a service, of sorts.

France – the dignified, face-saving one

For the so-called “big four” (France, Germany, Spain and the UK), whose annual financial contributions to Eurovision guarantee automatic passage to the finals (payola didn’t die, it just became transparent), crunch time has come. Long since barred from the top half of the scoreboard, and presumably weary of forever bankrolling their own ritual humiliation, all four countries have raised their games – even the French, habitually impervious to being slighted by the rest of Europe.

Patricia Kaas is a multimillion-selling institution in her homeland, so there’s nothing she needs to prove tomorrow night. Indeed, her gimmick is that there’s no gimmick. Alone on a bare stage, she smoulders; she emotes; she delivers. Her song – no, her chanson – is John Barry with a twist of Jacques Brel; it’s Charlotte Rampling sulking in a wet-look trenchcoat; it’s a jaded nightclub turn at the end of the evening. It’s a grower rather than an instant hit, to be sure – but it could be the “growers” that stand to gain most from the reintroduction of a jury system. Although for safety’s sake, a last-minute burst of Gypsy fiddling possibly wouldn’t go amiss.

United Kingdom – the ovation-inspiring one

Dare we dream? OK, so the combination of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren might have gifted us with little more than a glorified upgrade of the X Factor winner’s template – as if the world was crying out for another That’s My Goal, When You Believe or A Moment Like This, for pity’s sake. But to dwell on It’s My Time’s generic standing-prouds, breaking-throughs and moah-ments risks missing a crucial point. Its whole raison d’être is to grab votes, and if that calls for a syrupy show tune, then so be it.

Boosted by a superb place in tomorrow’s draw (the 23rd song of 25, sandwiched between undistinguished offerings from Romania and Finland), “our” Jade Ewen has everything to play for. An unarguably accomplished vocalist, she sells It’s My Time like a trouper, taking us on a three-minute journey from nervous hesitance to triumphant certainty.

In a night of a thousand key changes (don’t even think of planning your Eurovision drinking game without factoring them in), Ewen gets to ride the most show-stopping, ovation-inducing key change of them all – just as the camera pans round to reveal Lord Lloyd Webber himself, modestly placed behind his piano, and doubtless flushing with demure pride at a job well done.

Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s