Soundtrack to the Eurovision Song Contest 2017

Wherein I share Opinions about Events.

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In my Superlative Albums I Wrote About in 2017 list, this album was awarded the Galinda Upland Gold Star for Most Popular Album
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Ladies and gentlemen, I am in love. That mousey boy from Portugal has ensorcelled me, with his scruffy mug, his tentative gesticulations and his deep, soulful, melted-chocolatey-brown eyes. He has stolen my heart, along with thousands of others from across Europe and the world, just like he stole his dad’s ratty old blazer. His sweet, lilting ballad is reminiscent of understated torch songs of yesteryear: sentimental, but never saccharine. Senhor Sobral is hotly tipped for a podium finish in tomorrow’s grand final, and I can only hope that will mean more reaction shots of him and his sister being utter dorks in the green room. Salvador — more like Salvadorable, am I right?

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I’ll skip the contextualising. You know what Eurovision is. You know what’s at stake. Without further ado, I’ll get straight into writing nice things about other acts I like.

What kind of Australian would I be if I didn’t wave the flag for our very own Isaiah Firebrace? Despite a little hiccup in the first semi, he remains smooth and self-assured. His stylish performance is sure to go down a treat with Europe — they love us, and we love them, and we love them for loving us and they love us for loving them.

Speaking of all that jazz and the instruments often incorporated therein, Moldova has brought back that sax guy the Internet adores for a second crack. The SunStroke Project have kept it simple this time with a contemporary toe-tapping number and contrastingly elegant wedding-themed costuming. Elaborate choreography is for other people — dance moves this simple can be done in perfect unison, to hypnotic effect.

Armenia’s Artsvik struts down the stage, flanked by two voguing women whose simple geometric cuts compliment her intricate braids. Her dancers’ arms appear to sprout from her own shoulders as she wails up and down that Dorian mode like some great bepantsuited goddess.

Since emerging victorious in 2013, Denmark has submitted middling entries, but I have my fingers crossed that resident diva Anja Nissen will turn things around. She’s at home on that stage, bringing a magnetism to her performance that few other solo acts match. Though being sandwiched between Italy and my precious jelly baby Salvador in the running order is unlikely to do Anja any favours, she can still blow the whole place down.

Year by year, the Netherlands are backing away from repeating the country trimmings that earned them silver in Copenhagen. This year’s song is not especially harmonically complicated, but it doesn’t need to be because god damn, that blend is impeccable. Anyone with a lick choral experience will be blown away by sister trio OG3NE. So good.

Nipping at the heels of Ireland’s record number of wins, Sweden is Eurovision’s most consistently excellent modern competitor (and host — our beloved Petra Mede could smize those Ukrainians under the table). Every year they are in it to win it, and in Kyiv they keep that momentum going with a funky retro negging anthem. The treadmills are used to sleek and sexy effect; it’s surprising how much difference just walking forward can make to providing a sense of motion. Plus, Robin Bengtsson, in his sharply tailored suit, brings a very particular, frosty Nordic allure. They’ve got a top ten spot locked down.

With his warm, easygoing Mediterranean charm and decidedly dweebier dance moves, Francesco Gabbani was my unparalleled favourite of this year’s selection, until he very recently yielded to my dear honeypie Salvador. Italy have been smartly selective since returning to the competition in 2011 — there are only a few songs each year whose lyrics stray from the three traditional topics (I love you, I love myself, I love the world; arguments abound as to whether the first should be split into two on the basis of reciprocation) and this is one of them, by far the most thoughtful Eurovision song in years. It remains to be seen how cropping it down by the better part of a minute from the national final will impact its chances. Much of Francesco’s appeal stems from his zany freestyling during the verses, both of which had to be trimmed down substantially to meet those oppressive EU regulations. But that choreography is a stroke of genius. There is always an abundance of sick moves to be sure, but there are almost none that can be done from the comfort of your couch. Like a latter-day Macarena, this one has that elusive inclusive simplicity, and it would surprise nobody if Italy takes the gold in Kyiv.

All of the traditional Eurovision staples proudly return for the 2017 competition. A poor, overclocked wind machine. Recursively stacked key modulations. Head to toe white outfits, double points for a flowing floor-length gown. Three or four power ballads, of varying quality. Costume changes, indigenous instruments, Valentina Monetta, slick eighties throwbacks, and most obligingly, Israel has volunteered the requisite troop of sizzling beefcake to perform a sweaty, athletic dance routine. And of course, the language roster is yet again uncomfortably anglocentric.

I find it far more compelling when an act chooses to sing in their own language rather than English. One connects with one’s mother tongue on a completely different emotional level to any other, no matter the fluency, and an audience of hundreds of millions can hear and judge that connection, or lack thereof. Every year there are perhaps a dozen dispassionate performances that the singer clearly understands only vaguely, or worse, has a hard time navigating. Awkwardly fumbling through a strange landscape of shape and sound is seldom an enjoyable listen, and it has been a long time since Eurovision’s last charmingly oblique ABBA-style wordsmith crafted a novel new metaphor, or judiciously selected a perfectly imperfect adverb, or played around with syntax in ways that fluent speakers would never dream of. Greece’s pintsize pop star Demy laments that her relationship is “so self-destroying,” Maltese chanteuse Claudia Faniello yearns to once again fill the “vacancy within [the] heart” of her former lover, and one third of that sublime Dutch trio promises to “strongly fight” through adversity.

These translations are so perfunctory and utilitarian, and inevitably get in their own way if they haven’t already fallen flat; native-language texts are always much more vibrant. If only more countries took a leaf from the book of France and Italy and Portugal, who always prefer to sing in their own language. Only seven of this year’s forty-three set a toe beyond anglophonic territory (including my sweet beagle boy, Salvador), and that’s including Croatia’s half-assed effort as one whole ass.

Eurovision has always flown with the prevailing winds, each year presenting a refreshed snapshot of the state of pop music (generous quantities of retro acts notwithstanding). Gone are the wubba-wubba dubstep breakdowns from the misty, primordial backwater swamps of the early 2010s, replaced by skittering hi-hat polyrhythms and choruses of short distorted loops. Slinky minimalism is in. Among those with their fingers on the pulse are Bulgaria, ticking both the boxes with dashing flair, and Belgium, whose downplayed entry really seems to have struck a chord.

I confess I’m not a fan of the live performance. Blanche seemed disengaged and disinterested, and, like several other solitary figures this year (the fabulous Slavko from Montenegro for one, grumble grumble humbug), was swallowed up in that huge empty stage (unlike my fragrant cherry blossom, Salvador). It was a fairly static performance of quite a good song. The album version shines a much more flattering light on Blanche — her flighty, husky vocals are given the space to breathe that live performance often disbars. Blanche’s song still seems to have tapped into an incredible zeitgeisty popularity. She’s just seventeen, and I’m sure some minor criticism from me won’t put a dent in the big things that are surely in store for her.

Another superior album version is Poland’s sultry power ballad, stuffed full of delicious timpani rolls and dramatic string sawing. You have to show off when on stage, of course, and Kasia Moś dropped her stoic studio stateliness like a large hot potato (not dissimilar to my tender ginger stem, Salvador) for the stock-standard vocal gymnastics that got her through the semis. But Kasia and Blanche both dig a little deeper on the album, for a richer and more rewarding listen, though not rewarding enough to absolve Kasia of her cardinal sin: rhyming ‘fire’ with ‘desire’ and ‘higher.’ Slovenia got little love on the night, but when we can put Omar Naber’s sparkly blazer out of mind, his treacley Disney-lite ballad really comes alive during the bridge.

It can go the other way, of course: Serbia’s Tijana Bogićević brought a smoulder to her second semi performance, which was somehow flattened out of the album mix. Norma John from Finland were a critical favourite but failed to impress the audience with a lovely, minimalistic ballad, brushed with subtle electronics that pop much brighter through headphones. And most memorably, Australia’s very own Dami Im took home silver last year (as well as the juries’ first place) largely due to her earth-shattering belting, improvised tremendously, well after studio recording had wrapped up.

Then there are the acts that aren’t especially strong in either format. Lithuania and Macedonia’s songs in particular feature some pretty threadbare production. Despite dressing up as a vampire slayer and Beyoncé from the 2013 Super Bowl respectively, neither Fusedmarc nor Jana Burčeska managed to attract as much attention as they may have hoped. After last year’s fizzy Lithuanian banger — one of the few to claim the elusive five-star rating in my iTunes — this is especially discouraging. At least Jana has a wedding and a baby to look forward to. (Christ, public proposals are a risky move, aren’t they? I live for those videos of huge song-and-dance numbers that end with blunt rejection. Schadefreudtacular.)

Of course, all countries have their Eurovision ups and downs through the years, though some are certainly downier than others. When we think of less popular Eurovision countries, our minds do lend more weight to recent performance. Switzerland has spent the last decade in a holding pattern of harmless bromides. Lightning did not strike twice for Germany, and indeed since then has not struck anywhere in the vicinity. Despite all its bottom-of-the-table finishes, we gloss over the fact that the UK took fifth place in Moscow with a ballad from the pen of Andrew Lloyd-Weber, and eleventh in Oslo with a spicily-anticipated boy band reunion. We forget that the UK is tied for third most successful Eurovision country, having won a grand total of five times, and if we look at the numbers, another contender for worst country presents itself: it is in fact Portugal that has participated the longest (since 1964!) with zero wins. Perhaps my delicate soufflé Salvador will have something to say about that soon.

As far as I can see, there are two main factors contributing to the UK’s recent underwhelming performance: the general quality of their entries is indisputably poor, and the mutual antagonism between the kingdom and its tributary continent is memetically infamous. BBC commentator Graham Norton takes after his predecessor, the much-lauded Terry Wogan, both Irishmen spouting bitchy quips and generally looking down on the whole shebang. I hasten to specify that the two cover only the final, leaving junior lackeys to commentate for the semis — if the UK doesn’t have to compete, it is apparently not worth watching. It’s hard to shake the conclusion that their patronising attitude has shaped the views of the British public for the worse.

The juries and voters will have to find a way to deal with this year’s paradox: the UK is taking its ball back and leaving the EU in a huff, but has also sent quite a good song to Kyiv — it’s co-written by barefoot sylphgirl Emmelie de Forest. Lucie Jones is rocking a Botticelli vibe, performing from within a sparkly, mirrored shell. It’s all golden particle effects and passionate balladry, and is generally a very strong act. I’m seriously considering voting for her. But despite the bookies’ optimism, with Russia’s absence this year, someone will need to provide a vessel for the European antipathy they typically split halfway. I’m guilty of voting for Russia for the past two years, but justified it to myself as supporting stunning Polina and handsome Sergey rather than their government. In such a polarised political landscape (the bulk of opinion gravitating to one particular pole) I don’t know if many others will do the same for the UK.

Among the countries with uppier reputations is Azerbaijan, who have never failed to qualify for the final in their ten stellar years of participation, half of which earned a top-five finish. This year, goth meets art-nouveau as Dihaj slips on a silky kimono to represent her country. I’m not completely convinced that the chalk and the horse-ladder-man are as thematically resonant are they are meant to seem, but homegirl knows how to rock a bold lip, and delivers one of the catchiest entries of this year’s crop.

On the other side of the catchiness coin, we find Estonia squandering a serviceable hook on a dry, languid duet that proudly namechecks Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. No, not The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Koit’s melodramatic posing had me literally laughing out loud, more McCleod’s Daughters than Magnum. Laura would have been far better off performing alone, and she seems to know it. They were one of many entries this year that leaned on a clean, monochromatic aesthetic, drawing again from that inexhaustible well of cultural trends. Cyprus spent far too much time drowning in an ocean of white, while Bulgaria used the interplay of black and white to great effect in their disarmingly simple entry. Kristian Kostov nailed those vocals, displaying particular control over a creamy falsetto range. His alma mater (that jacket is clearly Durmstrang, Myf and Joel, despite that artfully tousled fringe) should be proud of that stylish performance, and a top-five finish is on the cards for sure. Fashion trends are cyclical of course — one need only glance at a runway or magazine to know that we will soon be waving goodbye to the trusty old skinny jean in favour of wider denim — though the ever-flattering head-to-toe black will not soon fade into the annals of history. Switzerland took the opportunity to push ahead of the curve, staging their entry in fluffy pink and canary yellow. Those delightful folk Timebelle certainly stood out visually. This was their best entry in years, the chorus making cunning use of phonetic resonance, and it’s a shame that it was passed over for admission to the final.

Timebelle seemed to be really enjoying themselves all throughout the evening, especially when joking around backstage. The line between drama and melodrama continues to blur this year, some entries coming down firmly on the side of the overwrought, and it’s a delight to see people just relaxing and having fun. Eurovision is a competition, to be sure, but it’s still entertainment. Moldova and Montenegro both grok that this year, the former serendipitously overlapping with snazzy songwriting that has already won over my vote. Those delightful Swedish backup dancers will be smiling all the way to the top ten, though the same unfortunately cannot be said for that cute Timberlake acolyte from Austria. (Though of course it can be said for my toasty marshmallow boy, Salvador.) Nathan Trent left a charming impression, adorably censoring the word ‘ass’ out of his jaunty little radio-friendly ditty. Heaven knows what his mother said when she heard him utter a ‘damn’ in the second verse. I couldn’t say it’s a standout, but I’ll happily enter it into medium rotation.

Another cheerful little standout is Romania’s novel yodel-rap fusion dance. Look carefully at the stage and you may spot some headbanging sheep. It makes such a change to hear a young woman with such nimble, fine control over her voice, especially when pitted against many singers who strain to hit those high notes. Other entries were not lucky enough to have songs written to cater to their strengths and to downplay their weaknesses (like my tiny sprout man, Salvador): Albania’s Lindita can fell whole buildings with her skyscraping belt; the Czech Republic’s Martina Bárta has a warm, cosy, jazzy tone; and Jacques Houdek’s split personality comprises exactly one voice that could have propelled a very good pop song to the top ten. Each of these three acts has a (single) lovely voice, let down by lacklustre songwriting. Handy hint: if I, a non-speaker of Italian, can parse much of your libretto fairly easily, you are not trying hard enough. Leaning into operatic influences only works under two circumstances: unironically diving in, like Italy’s superb bronze medallists in Austria, or turning it into a goofy self-parody, as Sweden did in Moscow. Il Volo swept away audiences around the world with their magnificent, rich harmonies, whereas Malena Ernman loosed tactical blasts of soprano pyrotechnics (as well as the literal variety) from within her glamorous white gown against a cheesy, cliché dance beat. She sang the chorus in French, naturally, and I loved every second of it. Do not half-ass your gimmicks, folks. Whole ass, or no ass at all.

And do calibrate your irony-meters. Latvia and Greece both sent hopelessly outdated EDM tracks that sound like Calvin Harris demos circa 2012. I suspect that Triana Park’s was meant to be a winking homage, judging from the Coldplay-feat-Katy-Perry aesthetic they were rocking, but it was kind of a mess (unlike my little croissant, Salvador), especially after sending modern envelope-pushing electronic tracks for the last two years. Justs got so enthrallingly into his performance in Stockholm, while Aminata reigned elegantly from her station in the centre of Vienna.

At the end of the day, 2017 has been a good year for Eurovision: a year of dancing gorillas, bayou cowboys, overextended stationery metaphors and some seriously excellent eyebrows, and it looks like my tasty eclair Salvador is in with a chance — his odds have been narrowing all week, and in a stunning development late last night, he finally leapfrogged long-time first-place favourite Francesco Gabbani. But even if Italy does snatch that (well-deserved) gold, Portugal is still on track for its best placing ever. Who needs nicely tailored suits when you could swim in an adorably oversized jacket instead?

Whatever happens, my darling husband Salvador and I shall always stand by one another.

Thank you for your attention.

Best of luck to all.