Review: The Eurovision Song Contest, Baku, Azerbaijan, May 26, 2012

Logo of the Eurovision 2012 CompetitionI don’t remember the first time I saw the Eurovision song contest; I presume it was not long after I moved to Britain. I do recall being appalled: bad, tuneless song followed bad, tuneless song. Worse, the performers were often off key, as if they hadn’t sufficiently rehearsed or were tone deaf. What on earth is going on, I wondered. Why were the nations of Europe participating in this contest? Why were the people around me talking about it so effusively? The only saving grace was the inimitable Terry Wogan’s commentary: he punctured the dreary silliness of the proceedings with sharp and hilarious quips. Nevertheless, I didn’t make a point of tuning into the competition until the advent of the internet: the fun of it is talking about the contest with others, and seeing hundreds, if not thousands continue in the tradition that Wogan set for us to follow. Although his departure from presenting the programme was a great loss which is still keenly felt, at least Twitter is a veritable fountain of verbal barbs that are worthy of the master.

It was in this spirit that I approached this year’s contest. Usually there are camp songs and insane songs and tedious songs. There are ballads sung in languages too obscure to make a dent in the top ten. There are daft costumes and intriguing gimmicks; this year, Russia put forward a group of grandmothers who were trying to raise money to rebuild their church, and Slovakia entered a “hair metal” band which had fallen through a hole in the space-time continuum from the year 1988. Additionally, there is always at least one song that makes you wonder what the people of that particular country were thinking: Montenegro’s “Euro Neuro” was so lacking in musical coherence that it seemed unlikely that anyone had seriously vetted it. It’s very rare that one finds a genuine keeper, like Raphael Gualazzi’s “Madness of Love”, which was Italy’s entry in 2011: this tune was deemed so high quality that it was used as part of the soundtrack for a Robert De Niro film.

Raphael Gualazzi – Madness of Love (ESC Version) OFFICIAL VIDEOCLIP

The only song approaching “keeper” status this year was the Israeli entry, written by the band “Izabo”; their claim to be European is not geographically justified, nevertheless, their song “Time” seemed to be not only apropos but a winner. It was musically interesting, plus the lead singer Ran Shem-Tov plays the guitar well and has developed a unique style. Of course it failed to get through the semi-finals: this was more than likely due to political reasons.

Izabo – Time (Israel) 2012 Eurovision Song Contest Official Preview Video

Those behind the United Kingdom’s entry, which was sung by vintage crooner Englebert Humperdink, probably would love such an excuse: certainly, bad luck had a role in it. Being first in the queue of 26 was not optimal. However, much of the blame should reside with Mr. Humperdink himself: he was terribly off key. I believe he was befuddled for some reason: his answers in a brief interview during the programme were less than fully coherent. Furthermore, his song wasn’t particularly memorable: the title, “Love Will Set You Free” was ideally suited for sarcastic ripostes: e.g., Love will set you free, but not win you anything. Or: Love will set you free, nul points will leave you empty handed.

Even if Mr. Humperdink had been able to summon up the ghosts of melodies past, it is unlikely he would have triumphed. Victory requires navigating a series of voting blocs: he would have first had to climb over the Balkan bloc, which elevated a forgettable song from Serbia into contention and propelled upward an Albanian anthem whose singer essentially yelled for much of the performance. The latter song was so awful that it frightened my cats; they cowered under the dining table as it proceeded and wouldn’t emerge for several minutes after it finished. Had Humperdink been successful in overcoming that group’s lack of taste, then he would have had to vault over the Greco-Cypriot alliance, dashed past the Austrian-German-Swiss nexus and escaped the frosty clutches of the Scandinavian axis. Britain’s only friend in this, generally speaking, is Ireland: however they delivered the coup de grâce in this instance by awarding the United Kingdom only 4 points.

In the end, Sweden won by producing a modern sounding number which was sung by a sub-par Kate Bush impersonator; no doubt it will be played in dance clubs throughout Europe for the several days before people get bored with it. All’s well that ends well? See you again next year? Well, not quite. It’s worth noting that Azerbaijan isn’t a democracy in the traditional sense of the word: the Presidency belongs to the Aliyev family, and has already passed from father to son. Rallies by the president’s political opponents are not permitted. Political prisoners are still being held, despite protests from Human Rights Watch and the European Parliament; Azerbaijan is also noted for its use of torture and blatant police brutality. Oil revenues are what sustain this wretched state: without them, it is likely it would be just as much in ferment as Egypt or Libya have been recently. Azerbaijan isn’t an avatar of free enterprise either: it ranks 91st in the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic liberty, mainly due to its lack of protection of property rights. Hand in hand with this, corruption is rife: according to Transparency International, Azerbaijan placed 143rd in its perceptions index, tied with Nigeria and Belarus. The competition provided a blatant manifestation of this problem: the Azerbaijan entry for 2012 was sung by the daughter of a prominent general.

The organisers of the contest have made no comment; rather, they’ve retreated to the flimsy excuse that the competition is “apolitical” in nature. The artists could have said more as well; when pressed, Mr. Humperdink politely declined to answer. In essence, Azerbaijan received free publicity for the messages it wanted to send, mainly about its new-found modernity arising from its oil wealth. It also utilised the interludes in the competition to advertise itself as an ideal tourist destination. If there was an overriding message, it was “European, just like you”, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, as Baku has recently been rejected in its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, this was probably the only opportunity they will have to market themselves for the time being. But should they have had the chance at all? In order to join the European Union, a nation must pass certain criteria in relation to economic and political structures: it wouldn’t do the contest much harm if it exercised some discernment of this kind.

But it won’t. The one overriding motif of the competition is that while musical styles may change, costumes may get more wild and pyrotechnics may become ever more grand, its essence never alters. It will remain as a singular form of entertainment, where the pleasure derived by the audience rarely arises from the show itself, but rather from the buzz around it. Next year, it will be held in Sweden: no doubt there will be countries who send singers dressed as forest elves, entries which stretch the English language to breaking point and yet another Maltese anthem that pairs the words “fire” and “desire” into a rhyming couplet. Despite the complaints that are made about voting blocs and the commentariat’s musings about the point of it all, we’ll all be back with quips at the ready.

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