Mike Atkinson

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest #4 – Hard Rock Hallelujah

Posted in features, Slate by Mike A on May 22, 2006

Originally published by Slate.

On the long-awaited Eurovision finals night, I felt rather exposed. A few weeks earlier, an edict circulated among the British fans: Since our entry—”Teenage Life,” by Daz Sampson—was to be performed by a rapper and five young women dressed as schoolgirls, wouldn’t it be marvelous if we could all lend our support by attending the show dressed in school uniforms? It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

Having managed to secure a ticket to the sold-out show only three days before, on Saturday I found myself marooned in the middle of a mostly Greek section of the audience, six rows from the front of the stage of the Athens Indoor Olympic Arena. Most of these people were there only to see local superstar Anna Vissi perform her power ballad “Everything”—and they displayed precious little interest in the other 23 songs in the contest. Openly bored by the endless procession of acts, some chatted on their cell phones, some conversed with neighbors—and some cast suspicious sideways glances in my direction, wondering what on earth an inappropriately dressed middle-aged Englishman was doing in their midst.

Behind me, and stretching all the way back to the farthest-flung corners of the arena, the atmosphere was quite different. As usual, the various national delegations were grouped into a colorful array of mini-conclaves, each marked by national flags, banners, and costumes. As each song was announced, a different group leapt to its feet, flags aloft, all but drowning out the opening few bars and sending security staff scuttling to ensure the flags didn’t interfere with the cameras’ sightlines. It’s a constant game of cat and mouse—especially toward the center of my row, where a particularly over-excitable bunch of Maltese were unable to keep to their seats for more than a few minutes at a time.

For all the pointless organizational hassles that beset Eurovision all week, the Greek hosts excelled themselves in staging the event. As transmission of the 2006 contest commenced, an astonishing tableau vivant descended from the back of the arena and passed over the audience, causing gasps all round. Above our heads, an array of expressionless young men in laurel headdresses—sprayed from head to toe in gold paint and naked except for the tiniest of minishorts—had been strapped to a slowly moving gold sphere. Elsewhere, various Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats and dancers vied for attention. In a contest whose presentational style has long adhered to a “more is more” philosophy, this deserved an award of its own.

After all that excitement, the first few songs came as something of an anticlimax, since most of the hot favorites were stacked up in the middle of the draw. In our section of the hall, the underwhelming Latvian entry—sung a cappella and accompanied by human beat-box effects—was upstaged by the late entrance into the VIP seating arena of last year’s winner, Greek singer Helena Paparizou. All heads turned as Paparizou tried and failed to slip unnoticed into her seat alongside a grim-faced bunch of dignitaries who looked as if they would rather be elsewhere. And who could blame them, as the hapless Latvians wheeled out the least successful stage gimmick in living memory: a pint-sized robot that wobbled along the stage in an awkwardly low-tech fashion.

Over the past few years, four distinct genres have prevailed at Eurovision: up-tempo bubblegum pop, traditional power ballads, “peace anthems” that invariably call for international brotherhood and understanding, and a category best described as “ethereal folksy-ethnic,” which makes much use of Riverdance-style choreography, gypsy fiddles, panpipes, and the like. This last category has always fared particularly well in the voting, so hopes were high for Norway’s Christine Guldbransen, its sole exponent in this year’s contest. Guldbransen’s entry, the winsome “Alvedansen” (Elves’ Dance), impressed few during rehearsals week—but the Greeks in the audience cheered it to the rafters. Every year brings its dark horse—ignored by the fans but popular with the voting millions—indeed, “Spot the Dark Horse” is one of our favorite games. Could it be Norway’s turn this year?

An even more tumultuous reception greeted Romania, whose belting “Tornerò” evoked the “Ibiza trance” dance music genre of the late 1990s. The performance climaxed with a break dancer donning protective headgear, climbing onto a podium, and spinning on his head for a full 24 seconds, his T-shirt collapsing around his shoulders to reveal a bare torso. The effect was rather like watching a roast chicken rotating on a spit. The crowd went wild.

In stark contrast, Lithuania’s “We Are the Winners” was met by loud booing. Performed by what looked like a bunch of middle managers partying at the end of a corporate outing, the “song” consisted of little more than a repeated chant: “We are the winners! Of Eurovision! Vote, vote, vote for the winners!” The joke wore thin by the end of the first minute—but it was precisely the sort of “so bad it’s good” nonsense that tends to perform well in the voting, upsetting the sensibilities of the Eurovision purists who think the show went downhill when the live orchestra was replaced with backing tapes in 1999.

As Greece’s Anna Vissi took to the stage, the arena erupted. Indeed, over the ensuing three minutes it was almost impossible to gauge her performance of “Everything,” since her vocals were all but drowned out by the sustained roaring of her supporters. This felt less like a competition entry and more like a premature victory encore, and that was reflected in the misplaced triumphalism of Vissi’s performance. Surely we could have expected better from the country that invented “hubris”?

This central run of strong favorites concluded with the Finnish hard-rockers Lordi, whose storming rendition of “Hard Rock Hallelujah” was accompanied by a dazzling pyrotechnic display. The band’s monster masks and the lead singer’s slowly emerging pterodactyl wings were merely the icing on the cake. It’s hard to see how it could fail.

Favorably drawn 22nd out of 24, Sweden’s Carola was a former Eurovision winner who was aided to victory in 1991 by the judicious use of a wind machine. Taking no chances in 2006, the wind machine is back—specially imported from Sweden with its own dedicated Swedish operator. No other artist divided opinion so sharply during rehearsals week as Carola, a born-again Christian with an unappealingly guarded manner in interviews and a peculiar expression—especially when asked awkward questions—that is best described as “beatific.” On the night, her reception was largely positive—though about 20 percent of the crowd openly jeered her.

With all the performances completed, a video montage reprised the highlights of each, as voting commenced across 38 nations. Over the course of the next hour, a succession of spokesmen and -women from around Europe delivered the results from their respective countries in a marathon live linkup that passed without a technical hitch. (In earlier, less technologically advanced times, the various communication breakdowns were all part of the evening’s entertainment.)

Each country submits votes for the 10 songs that record the highest number of telephone votes. The 10th-place song receives one point, the ninth-place song receives two points, and so on. The only variation to this pattern occurs for the songs that place first and second; these receive 12 points and 10 points, respectively.

At the start of the voting, the fiercely partisan Greek audience—still confident of a resounding victory for Vissi—booed any nation that dared to award less than six points for “Everything.” By the end, as it became increasingly clear that Vissi would struggle to finish inside the final Top 10, the Greeks were reduced to cheering even one- or two-point results, grateful for anything they could get. Greece finished ninth.

Finland quickly emerged as the leader, chased only by Russia (with its ballerina emerging from inside a grand piano) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (a classy, gimmick-free ballad). As the Finns’ lead grew, the hall became more restless, with boos growing louder with each successive awarding of 10 or 12 points. The Greeks next to me—now emerged from their torpor—became increasingly angry. “This is all about show—not music! It is all political! I am never watching Eurovision again!”

With regard to the thorny issue of “political voting,” they had a point. Finland received the maximum 12 points from fellow Scandinavians Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as nearby Estonia. Still, political voting will get you only so far, and it has never yet created a winner. Finland consistently picked up high votes from all across Europe—including, to the open-mouthed horror of my outraged neighbors, from Greece itself.

By the time Lordi were announced as the winners of the 51st Eurovision Song Contest, the boos had reached a crescendo. Opinion had split into two camps. On one hand, perhaps victory for a heavy-metal act would breathe new life into the contest and open Eurovision up to a greater variety of musical genres in the future. (At the winners’ press conference, Lordi’s lead singer called it “a victory for open-mindedness.”) Since making its Eurovision debut in 1961, Finland has endured possibly the least success of any participating nation. Not only have the Finns never won before—they had never even finished inside the Top Five. It would be churlish to begrudge them their victory now.

On the other hand, was “Hard Rock Hallelujah”—essentially a conventional pop song in heavy metal drag, enlivened by outlandish costumes and dazzling pyrotechnics—really the best song at Eurovision 2006, or had the voting millions merely been seduced by the novelty and the comedy factor? Then again, is democracy ever fair?

Whether Lordi’s victory proves to be a turning point or a freakish blip, perhaps the most dramatic changes to the future of the contest lie in the wording of a press release that quietly emerged three days ago. Not only is NBC working with the European Broadcasting Union on the development of a U.S. version of the contest; negotiations are also under way for productions in Canada, Australia, the Middle East, and Africa. The director of the European Broadcasting Union has publicly speculated that “perhaps we can create the first world contest including the winners from each region.”

As the global franchise starts to roll out, could the “suits” be moving in, corporatizing and homogenizing the eccentric little pop show that so many of us have loved since childhood? For fans like me, this was a sobering thought upon which to dwell, stumbling home from the after-show party in the first light of dawn. Perhaps we should enjoy the daftness while we still can.

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest #3 – Will I Be Vacationing in Sarajevo This Time Next Year?

Posted in features, Slate by Mike A on May 19, 2006

Originally published by Slate.

Chris Higgins has been reporting on the Eurovision Song Contest for the British magazine Gay Times nearly every year since 1998, when the Israeli transsexual Dana International stormed to victory in Chris’ home city of Birmingham with the show-stopping disco anthem “Diva.” For Chris, and for many others like him who travel at their own expense, on vacation from their regular jobs, the contest serves as an annual random holiday generator.

Among the convivial tribe of full-time fans and part-time journalists who meet just once a year, hailing each other like long-lost friends, the announcement of the winning song carries an added frisson of excitement, since it determines the location of next year’s contest. In the bars and cafes around the Athens Olympic complex, and within the makeshift tent inside the press enclosure that has been charmingly named the “feed station” (what are we, cattle?), speculation is already rife.

Will we be off to Berlin next year? Bearing in mind some of the organizational absurdities that have beset us all week, a touch of seamless German efficiency would be most welcome.

Or will the Finnish hard-rockers Lordi send the circus up to Helsinki? No area of Europe takes Eurovision more seriously than Scandinavia, and the after-show parties would be second to none—particularly with regard to the supply of alcoholic beverages, which have been rationed to an absurd degree this week by our Greek hosts. (Upon entrance to last night’s post-semi-final after-party, we were each handed a single drink token, to be redeemed at a string of empty bars that had no facilities for accepting cash. Never was the cultural clash between Greek moderation and Northern European indulgence more clearly illustrated. Some predictably ugly scenes ensued.)

Most intriguingly of all, could Sarajevo be Eurovision’s host in 2007? This year’s Bosnian entry—a classy ballad from Balkan superstar Hari Mata Hari—has been a strong contender from the start and duly confirmed everybody’s predictions by sailing through last night’s semi-finals.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s chances will also be assisted by the ever-controversial phenomenon of “political voting,” in which neighboring, friendly countries vote for each other regardless of merit. (Greece and Cyprus have been awarding each other maximum points since time immemorial, for example. This annual ritual used to be roundly booed. These days, it is more likely to elicit ironic applause.) This former Yugoslavian territory has a particularly staunch set of allies who will ensure that Hara Mati Hari places highly on Saturday night.

These allies include Serbia and Montenegro, whose citizens will be voting despite being unrepresented in Athens this year, after a political row that proved impossible to resolve.

The selection process for the 2006 Serbian entry was dogged by controversy, climaxing in a near-riot on live television when the winning song was announced. The victors, a boy band called No Name, who also represented their country in 2005, hail from the minority state of Montenegro. Their song was widely interpreted as a thinly veiled call for Montenegrin independence, much to the annoyance of the majority Serbian population. (On Sunday—just one day after the Eurovision final—Montenegro is holding a referendum on independence from Serbia; a “yes” vote will result in the country formally splitting in two.) After taking to the stage in Belgrade for the customary winner’s encore, a storm of abuse from the studio audience—accompanied by a barrage of bottles and chants of “Thieves! Thieves!”—brought No Name’s performance to a swift halt and sent them fleeing the venue under the protection of security guards. Immediately afterward, the second-placed Serbian act commandeered the stage for their own reprise, claiming victory by default. The incident relegated even the death of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to second place in the following day’s news. And you thought that Eurovision was just some campy little piece of light-entertainment nonsense? Wars have been waged over less.

Even as I write, the first dress rehearsal for Saturday’s final is taking place next door in the Olympic Indoor Arena. A live feed is being beamed through to the press center, and clusters of fans-turned-hacks are assembled in front of the screens, offering instant opinions on the show as it progresses.

The United Kingdom’s Daz Sampson is looking stronger than ever, with every nuance of his schoolgirl choir’s witty choreography being picked up by the cameras. Ireland’s Brian Kennedy is through—much to the relief of several Irish fans who dared to doubt his chances. Greece’s Anna Vissi—a massively popular star and a ubiquitous media presence—is giving it the full diva treatment, sinking to her knees at the end of her impassioned power ballad “Everything” and causing more than a few giggles among some of the more hardened hacks. But the loudest laughter is reserved for France’s Virginie Pouchain, who scarcely hits a correct note throughout, several times veering so wide of the mark that a collective wince ripples through the room. It has been this way all through rehearsals week. Virginie has a lot of work to do, or she will be gracing “Eurovision’s Funniest Moments” clip shows in perpetuity.

The next time you hear from me it will all be over, and people like Chris Higgins and me will be starting to research accommodation options in Berlin, or Helsinki, or Sarajevo … or, more likely than not, since Eurovision is rarely predictable, somewhere else entirely.

If you do manage to secure viewing access to Saturday night’s extravaganza, then I guarantee you nothing but solid-gold entertainment from start to finish. And if you happen to spot me, on the far right of Row 6, dressed in school uniform to show support for Daz Sampson, then do please let me know. We Eurovision fans live for such brief moments of glory.

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest #2 – The Pain of Victory

Posted in features, Slate by Mike A on May 18, 2006

Originally published by Slate.

As any Eurovision veteran will testify, there’s a particular spirit of jovial bonhomie among the contestants that is unique to the event. It cheers the soul to see members of rival delegations loudly exchanging greetings, praising each other’s songs, swapping flags, and generally cheering each other on. Would that all international competitions were like this.

Still, behind all the smiles and warm wishes, you might detect a glimmer of fear. Winning Eurovision is a great honor—but it’s also something of a poisoned chalice. Once the celebrations are over, the winning country will swiftly find itself landed with the huge responsibility of hosting the next year’s contest. It’s a sobering realization.

Sure, there’s financial support from fellow members of the European Broadcasting Union, but a logistical nightmare awaits any hapless victor, and woe betide any country that wins the contest too regularly.

During the mid-1990s, Ireland had the dubious fortune of winning Eurovision four times in five years—a fate that was rumored at the time to have cost their national TV company dearly. Some mischievous commentators have speculated that the Irish have been quietly dodging victory ever since—as their subsequent poor showings would seem to testify.

Ten years on from the last Irish victory, that may be about to change. Brian Kennedy is the first Irish entrant in living memory to enjoy any sort of significant recognition outside his homeland, having sustained a successful recording career for 16 years—and a close recording and performing association with Van Morrison for six of those years. His self-penned entry, “Every Song Is a Cry for Love,” is the sort of syrupy ballad that would normally have me covering my ears in horror—but, having heard him perform it several times during Eurovision week here in Athens, both at rehearsals in the Olympic Indoor Arena and at the various official parties, I find myself warming to it. There’s something of Aaron Neville in Kennedy’s upper-register delivery, and the song itself has the sort of basic emotional pull that can really hit home after the third complimentary vodka.

Nevertheless, and in common with 23 of this year’s 37 competing songs, Kennedy has to succeed in not just one but two international telephone votes—a situation that can in part be attributed to the collapse of communism.

For the first 30 years of Eurovision’s existence, participation was mostly limited to Western European nations (with the notable exception of Israel, which is eligible to compete despite not being in Europe at all). However, since the fall of the Iron Curtain—and more particularly since the disintegration of the Soviet Union—Eastern European nations and former Soviet republics have been queuing up to join the circus. It is almost as if participation in Eurovision is viewed as setting the final symbolic seal of legitimacy upon their new-found independence. Ah, the power of popular song!

Understandably, sitting through nearly 40 giddy dance routines, upward key changes, erotic semi-stripteases, and the like would try the patience of even the most die-hard Eurovision fan—not to mention the lengthy voting procedures that occupy the second half of the broadcast. (I could cheerfully spend the next three days talking you through the labyrinthine complexities of the voting and scoring system, but I sense that we all have better ways of spending our time.)

Something had to give. And so, two years ago, the Eurovision Song Contest split itself in half. Tonight, the 23 nations that received the lowest number of votes in last year’s contest—plus plucky newcomer Armenia—will battle it out in a live semifinal. The 10 countries that receive the highest number of telephone votes will then graduate to the Saturday night final, where they will join the 10 most successful countries from last year—plus a select group known as the “Big Four” (France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom), which are granted automatic finalist status due their major financial contribution toward the event’s running costs.

As became all too apparent last year, the perceived benefits of “Big Four” status can come at a terrible price. Was it hubristic complacency on their part or simmering resentment on everybody else’s that resulted in the bottom four places in the final being occupied by the self-same countries? If this pattern continues, it could have worrying consequences for the future funding of the event. After all, who would want to sponsor ritual self-humiliation?

Perhaps with this in mind, three of these four countries have noticeably raised their game in 2006. (We shall pass quickly over the forgettable French ballad, which is a prime candidate for what has become known as “nul points” status—the awarding of precisely zero marks from the massed hordes of tele-voters. It is an achievement for which the Norwegians have become famous.)

Spain has fielded the best-known act in the 2006 lineup: Las Ketchup, who scored a massive international hit in 2002 with “Asereje (The Ketchup Song).” Cautiously sticking to a tomato-based theme, their song is titled “ Un Bloody Mary Por Favor.” Ketchup and vodka—not exactly the most appetizing of combinations, is it?

Meanwhile, Germany has opted for a delightfully easygoing country-and-western love song. This has charmed press and fans alike during rehearsals week and has been a huge floor-filler every night at the official parties. In among all the desperate gimmickry that surrounds it, “No No Never,” by Texas Lightning stands out a mile. If there is one characteristic that could be said to unite all the winning songs since the introduction of telephone voting in the late 1990s, it is that they share some sort of indefinably heartwarming, lovable quality. This year, Germany has it in bucket loads. Could we be looking at Berlin in 2007?

Turning toward my own home country, there have been smiles all around the British delegation this week. A strong set of rehearsals has confirmed that Daz Sampson has fielded the United Kingdom’s strongest Eurovision entry since Katrina & the Waves stormed to victory in 1997 with the anthemic “Love Shine a Light.” There is no other entry this year quite like “Teenage Life”—a curious pop/rap confection that comes across like an unholy blend of “Gangsta’s Paradise” and “Another Brick in the Wall.” Sampson’s ebullient performance is further strengthened by his backing dancers: a troupe of feisty young women in school uniform who cavort about in a makeshift classroom, complete with wooden desks and chalkboard. Politically correct? Maybe not entirely. Entertaining? Most definitely. Much like Eurovision itself, in fact.

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest #1 – Whose Three-Minute Pop Ditty Will Rule The Continent?

Posted in features, Slate by Mike A on May 17, 2006

Originally published by Slate.

ATHENS, Greece—Forget the Grammys, forget the MTV Music Awards. Drawing an estimated audience of 300 million viewers, the annual Eurovision Song Contest—now in its 51st year—can stake a legitimate claim to being the world’s most watched regular music event. Despite this, the show remains entirely unknown to all but a handful of Americans.

This situation may be about to change. Earlier this year, NBC announced that it had acquired the rights to develop and screen a U.S. version of Eurovision, in which the 40-odd competing European nations will be replaced by the 50 states of the union. With preparations under way for this year’s Eurovision, which takes place on Saturday in Athens, this is an ideal time to offer an introduction to the phenomenon.

Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Eurovision fan, with a deep affection for the show that stretches back to childhood. As such, I have frequently had to defend it against the cultivated sneers of friends and colleagues. For while the contest is taken deeply seriously by the rest of Europe, whose popular music it can reasonably be said to represent, it is mostly regarded in the United Kingdom, where I live, as a camp joke. Unashamedly populist in nature, Eurovision’s relentlessly upbeat, major-key feel inevitably jars with sophisticated British notions of creativity and cool. After all, didn’t we single-handedly invent modern pop music? How dare these foreign upstarts try to sell a second-hand reading of our own culture back to us!

In theory, Eurovision’s aim has always been to discover “the best song in Europe,” with the focus on “song.” In practice, things don’t quite work out so simply. Since the majority of the viewing public will only hear the competing songs once before casting their telephone votes, it is imperative that each performance creates an instant impact to ensure that it stands out from the herd.

So, every trick in the showbiz book is thrown out, in rapid and dizzying succession. Dance routines start from a base level of “frenetic” and escalate upward. (This year, there’s an awful lot of break dancing.) Costumes start at “florid” and expand outward—in many cases, quite literally. (The gown worn by the Swedish contestant covers most of the stage space behind her, and the monster costume worn by Finland’s lead singer sprouts outsized pterodactyl wings during the final verse.) Mid-song costume changes are not unheard of; mid-song costume removal has become almost common, ever since a 1981 British victory in which the male performers tore off the skirts of the female performers, to a lyrical cue of “And if you wanna see some more!” (On reflection, perhaps the United Kingdom isn’t always as sophisticated as it likes to think it is.)

Meanwhile, each country’s props department works overtime to create the supreme staging gimmick—with mixed results. The Russians have a ballerina emerging from a grand piano, scattering rose petals. Ukraine has a huge jump-rope. Iceland’s Silvia Night slides onto the stage from a giant white stiletto and pulls a telephone receiver from an outsized stick of candy. Finland has the biggest pyrotechnic display; Sweden the biggest wind machine. At Eurovision, size matters. (All of which makes the Latvian effort—a diminutive and decidedly low-tech junior robot—look ill-advised.)

This “instant appeal” imperative also stretches to the songs themselves. Due to a restriction dating from the show’s genesis in the 1950s, when pop music was obliged to fit the strictures of the 7-inch vinyl format, no song is permitted to exceed three minutes in length. This ensures a tight discipline in their construction, into which a variety of well-worn tricks are squeezed. Each song must grab the listener’s attention within the first few seconds, and each song should build to a suitably exhilarating conclusion—usually by means of an upward key change before the final refrain.

When it comes to that all-important chorus—which is reprised in a memory-jogging video montage just before the telephone lines open—the melodic hook should ideally be underpinned by a short, memorable phrase, using lyrics that are simple enough for the international, multilingual audience to grasp. In this respect, nonsense language can be a great boon: Previous winning songs have included “La La La,” “Boom Bang a Bang,” “Ding Ding-a-Dong,” and the splendidly dumb “Diggi Loo Diggi Ley.”

As you may have gathered by now, there is nothing remotely hip about Eurovision, which generally runs at least 10 years behind developments in youth-based genres, if not 20. Rap and metal have finally been accepted, albeit in small, sanitized doses. Modern R&B has yet to make any sort of impact; “emo” probably never will. However, this stylistic conservatism does ensure a continuing appeal to the sort of traditional, multigenerational, family-based demographic that is rapidly disappearing in our tightly segmented multichannel age.

For my part, what I like best about Eurovision is its charmingly unspun quality. It has never become overcommercialized; sponsorship is present but discreet. It has never been co-opted by the major record labels, being largely organized by a federation of national television companies. And touchingly, there is still a sense of adherence to almost quaint notions of international harmony and cooperation; competition remains largely good-natured and untainted by overt greed.

Yes, the Eurovision Song Contest is flagrantly camp—that overused and much devalued term—but like all the best camp, it retains a certain innocence and sincerity at its core. So, when the 10th dolled-up pop moppet in a row gushes at her press conference about what a deep and humbling honor it is to be representing her country, and our eyes roll upward in exasperation, we also know that, deep down inside, she actually means it. And I, for one, like that a lot.