While the Oscars, Emmys, and other American award shows are fading into irrelevance, Europe’s big splashy annual entertainment competition, Eurovision, whose 2022 finals took place in Turin, Italy, last Saturday, seems to get bigger every year.
Bigger, and worse. There used to be such a thing as a great Eurovision song. This is not to be confused with an actual great song, of the sort written by Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. No, a great Eurovision song is in ABABCB form, with a catchy chorus, a love lyric direct to the point of childlike witlessness, and (usually) a big key change going into the final stretch. It’s not overly painful to listen to, and it’s decidedly fun to dance to. Two textbook examples: the 1999 winner, “Take Me to Your Heaven,” sung by Sweden’s Charlotte Nilsson, and the 2000 winner, “Fly on the Wings of Love,” sung by Denmark’s Olsen Brothers. (Yes, Scandinavians are particularly good at these things, the grandmother of all great Eurovision songs being Abba’s 1974 winner “Waterloo.”)
Over 20 years later, I can still remember all the words to the Nilssen and Olsen songs. By contrast, as the closing credits of this year’s Eurovision were scrolling, I couldn’t remember any of the songs I’d just heard. I remembered other things, to be sure, but not the songs. For example, I remembered — and will probably have nightmares about — the creepy costumes worn by the Norwegian contestants, an anonymous duo named Subwoolfer who cover their faces with yellow wolf-head masks and who sang an instantly forgettable tune called “Give that Wolf a Banana.” It’s widely believed that the people behind those masks are the Ylvis Brothers, whose novelty number “What Does the Fox Say?” went viral worldwide in 2013 and has accumulated 1.5 billion views. I do hope that Subwoolfer really is (are?) Ylvis, because Norway doesn’t need two wacky duos like this.
Significantly, this year’s Eurovision — the 66th — was reportedly the first ever without a song in French. During the more than two decades that I’ve been watching this show, it’s been interesting to see the Francophone elements gradually slip away. The hosts used to speak both English and French — indeed, quite a lot of French. But English became increasingly dominant, and in 2016 and 2017, the hosts didn’t speak any French at all. French resurfaced in 2018, but then vanished again and hasn’t come back. This year, even France’s own song wasn’t in French (it was in Breton, spoken by 200,000 people in Brittany); the only chance to hear a soupçon of French was when the representatives of France, Belgium, and Switzerland reported their jury votes. If this topic is entertaining to ponder, it’s mostly because Francophones take it so seriously. In 2008, a French government official kicked up a fuss when it emerged that the country’s Eurovision entry that year, Sébastien Tellier’s “Divine,” had English lyrics. French Wikipedia actually contains an unintentionally hilarious page, “Langues au Concours Eurovision de la chanson,” that features charts, graphs, and obsessive details, including a list of the language(s) in which every Eurovision entry ever was sung,
Eurovision has seen other changes, of course. Early on, it was simply and elegantly staged — a singer, standing in front of a curtain, backed up by an orchestra with a tuxedoed conductor. As recently as 20 years ago, you could get away with a dude alone at a piano. No more. Presumably because the producers of Eurovision realize that the songs themselves are insipid, the show has relied increasingly on production gimmickry — frenetic camerawork, elaborate rear projections, every imaginable kind of lighting, backup dancers doing cartwheels and backflips, illusions of fire and smoke and explosions and waterfalls, etc., etc. The effect is to make you feel as if you’re stuck inside a pinball machine in a Las Vegas casino on the Fourth of July.
This year there was one big new twist: voting irregularities. Beforehand, there’d been concerns that pro-Putin hackers — angered that Russia had been yanked from competition because of the war in Ukraine — would disrupt the online voting system. Last Wednesday, there were indeed cyberattacks on the Eurovision website (as well as on the sites of the Italian Senate and Defense Ministry, presumably payback for Italy’s hosting of the show). Then, after last Thursday’s broadcast of the second semi-final, the Eurovision Broadcasting Union (EBU) issued a statement saying there’d been “irregular voting patterns…in the results of six countries,” namely Azerbaijan, Georgia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, and San Marino; consequently, the EBU had been forced “to calculate a substitute aggregated result” for all six countries in both the second semi-final and the final based “on the results of other countries with similar voting records.”
At the Saturday finals, there were further problems. At some time after midnight, when the vote seemed to be trending in a very clear direction, the vote counting in several countries mysteriously stopped, and when it resumed a couple of hours later, the numbers started moving in another direction. Just kidding. What really happened was that during the part of the show when the tallies from the various national juries are reported remotely by representatives of those countries, three of the countries, Azerbaijan, Romania, and Georgia, were AWOL — a first — and a Eurovision official had to step on camera to report the votes.
This year, the voting itself was of special interest. Nowadays, it’s a two-part process: first the votes of all the national juries are reported; then the phone-in votes by TV viewers are added in. On Saturday, when the juries were finished having their say, the United Kingdom’s entry, Sam Ryder’s “Space Man,” was on top, followed by Sweden and Spain; but the juries of Poland, Moldova, Latvia, Romania, and Lithuania — all potential targets of Russian imperialism — gave their coveted twelve points to “Stefania,” performed by Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra. And when the public vote came in, it turned out to be a record-breaking tsunami in favor of Ukraine. Needless to say, it was more a gesture of wartime solidarity than a barometer of musical taste. But then, this sort of thing is nothing new at Eurovision, where Balkans reliably vote for Balkans, Baltics for Baltics, Nordics for Nordics. The reaction from President Volodymyr Zelensky came quickly: “Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” (At this writing, Vladimir Putin has yet to be heard from.) Yes, there have been complaints — reasonable enough — about the intrusion of politics into a song contest. But perhaps it’s not such a terrible thing that, in the end, this year’s Eurovision wasn’t about bad songs but about a good cause.