Those of you who’ve tuned into my Twitter in recent weeks, expecting me to be talking about mental health, politics and therapy abuse, may have been rather disconcerted to find me live-tweeting various national selections from the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s been a fun and at times surreal ride for me, watching all these shows from across Europe and parts of Asia. I’ve seen Belarusians sing about cheesecake, Latvians sing about cake-baking. Electro-swing from Moldova! Irish sea-shanties from Germany! Oh yes, and possibly the most bizarre appeal for peace I’ve seen about the Ukraine crisis (from 2004 winner Ruslana, performing at the Belgian national selections).
I’m going to run through some of my favourites of the acts you’ll be seeing from Copenhagen, but before I do so, perhaps I should say a few words about why this contest interests me so much.
Among the hardcore fanbase – the ones who watch the national shows, blog and tweet it about it, and trek across Europe to see the contest live – I’m in something of a minority, because I’m heterosexual. Due to the contest’s rather camp reputation, there’s a strong link between the fanbase and the LGBT scene.One fan, only semi-joking described it to me, “The UEFA Cup for gay people.”
This is me at last year’s show in Malmo, Sweden, draped in the flag of San Marino.
It was an interesting experience for me, being a straight man in a mostly-gay crowd. I didn’t comment on it at the time, because I’m sure I would have got replies along the lines of, “Yeah, well, how do you think we feel 90% of the time?” Check your privilege, and all that. Even so, it was an incredibly friendly and welcoming environment, without a trace of animosity between fans from the various competing nations. I felt far more comfortable than I ever do in a football or rugby crowd.
There’s an irony here, in that some of the countries that take it most seriously are among the ones with the worst records on gay rights. This produces some amusing moments when notoriously homophobic nations enter acts with distinct gay undertones. I can’t be the only one who thought the woman onstage for Azerbaijan’s 2013 performance looked like something of a third wheel. And of course, how can Ukraine reconcile trying to ban Gay Pride parades with their 2007 entry?
Along the way, I’ve learned a lot, not just about LGBT culture but also about European culture, politics and music. Frankly, I find it a much more enjoyable and worthwhile exercise than watching some bunch of guys try to move a ball from one end of a field to another.
And on that note, here’s my top ten of this year’s Eurovision entries.
1 point goes to the bookies favourite (at the moment, though unlike last year there’s not a clear dead-cert to win), from Armenia. I can see the appeal, though to me it reminds me a little too much of Ylvis’ dubstep parody video.
2 points go to Albania, which starts off as what seems like a typical female ballad, before transforming into a rock anthem.
Israel get 3 points. As you’re probably starting to gather by now, rock is the kind of music I’ve always tended to listen to. There’s been a lot more rock in Eurovision since Finland won in 2006 with a death metal act.
To emphasise that the Eurovision is more eclectic musically than it’s sometimes given credit for, 4 points go to Netherlands, who are sending a bluegrass song.
On the subject of reputation versus reality, novelty acts are far less common than the detractors seem to think, and they usually don’t get past the semi-finals. However, there are some. Latvia get 5 points for a gloriously-silly song about baking a cake.
Iceland is a country I have a genuine passion for. I’ve been there twice and I’m going back there this summer. The countryside is both wonderfully strange and strangely wonderful. Icelanders are a friendly, informal bunch. It’s sometimes been commented on that Icelandic and British people share a similar sense of humour – very irreverent and irony-laden. They get 6 points for an act described as “Iceland’s only kid-appropriate punk band.”
Another country that intrigues me is the tiny Republic of San Marino. I’ve been there too, and it’s a beautiful place – a mountaintop fortress nestling in the Italian countryside.
This year, San Marino will be sending the same performer, Valentina Monetta, for the third year in a row. In 2012 she sang a gleefully stupid song about Facebook, hastily-retitled The Social Network Song after somebody pointed out that the rules forbid brand names. When she returned in 2013, it was with Crisalide (Vola), a truly spectacular operatic aria. As changes in direction go, it was as if the Teletubbies suddenly started deconstructing Wittgenstein. It also showed that Monetta has a genuinely impressive vocal range that shouldn’t be limited to daft novelty performances. This year’s song isn’t as great as Crisalide, but it still gets 7 points from me.
I haven’t mentioned the UK yet. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re all about to say. “It’s all political.” “Everyone hates us.” Sorry, but I think that’s total cobblers. In Malmo last year I saw a lot of warmth and love for the UK. There is a political dimension to the Eurovision, but it’s more to do with Azerbaijani and Russian vote rigging than any supposed animosity towards our colonial past. There’s a simple reason we always do badly – we simply don’t try. Where other countries hold major X Factor-style contests to pick an entry, we just wheel out has-beens like Bonnie Tyler and Englebert Humperdinck, never-weres like Andy Abraham, and never-should-have-beens like Josh Dubovie. This year, however, it’s possible the UK may have finally got it right. They used the excellent BBC Introducing resource to pick an unknown but talented singer-songwiter, and now has the best bookie odds we’ve seen in years. 8 points to the UK.
Moldova has a track record of bringing joyful strangeness to the contest, not least their 2011 entry, which looked and sounded like Moomins gone punk. This year they’ve gone…cybergoth? 10 points to Moldova.
So, who gets the 12 points? Given the links between LGBT culture and the Eurovision, it’s fitting that perhaps the best ballad this year is by a drag singer. I suspect the East European countries won’t like it, but I’m giving 12 points to Austria.
I could name a few honourable mentions that didn’t get into my top ten. Greater San Marino, I mean Italy and Slovenia certainly stirred up my preference for rock, and Spain have one of the better ballads. Norway seems to be turning into a fan favourite, though personally I found it rather dull.
I won’t be at the contest this year. Malmo is by the Swedish-Danish border, so we were staying in Copenhagen. I feel like I’ve done Copenhagen. Instead I’ll be having a Eurovision barbecue in my back garden. Can’t wait.