America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest

Hard Rock Hallelujah
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 22 2006 5:04 PM

America, Meet the Eurovision Song Contest

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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.

Greece's Anna Vissi
Greece's Anna Vissi

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"?

Finland's Lordi. Click image to expand.
Finland's Lordi

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.

Sweden's Carola
Sweden's Carola

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.

Mike Atkinson divides his time among Nottingham, London, and the Derbyshire Peak District. He blogs at http://troubled-diva.com, and he can be contacted at mikejla@btinternet.com.