For the first time in two years, the Eurovision Song Contest will take place on Saturday, pitting the countries of Europe (and some invited interlopers, like the American rapper Flo-Rida) against each other to see who can write the catchiest pop song of the year.
Originally founded as France’s big idea to prevent World War III, the half-century-old tradition requires participants to submit an original, apolitical song and accompanying performance. The countries each get points they distribute to who they think did best and the points often fall to cultural kin or geopolitical allies, meaning the countries that play favorites least often have an outsized impact on who wins, since who they give the most points to will be less predictable than, say, Spain and Portugal always giving each other 12 points (and always losing).
Through the years, Eurovision’s trademark tackiness – it’s the kind of contest that Abba won handily – has evolved into an over-the-top spectacle of sequins, pyrotechnics, bad impressions of American artists, even worse English, and, uh, whatever this is. This year promises to be special for two reasons: the 2020 contest was canceled, giving countries an extra year to prepare, and the bleak global zeitgeist created by the Chinese coronavirus pandemic has apparently inspired contestants to abandon the boring ballads that typically plague Eurovision for a slate of songs that are nearly all great to dance or mosh to, but not to cry to.
Brush up on your Americans’ guide to Eurovision and prepare for a wild weekend of pop music nationalism below:
Ukraine: Go_A – “Shum”
“Shum” is, quite simply, a masterpiece that may just be too good for Eurovision. The song and the video – apparently shot in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – are a complete assault on the senses, a euphoric blend of European warehouse rave and tribal spring dance. It has everything a Eurovision winner should: copious nods to the country’s culture (the song adopts traditional folk songs to shepherd in the spring, the video, again, is SET IN CHERNOBYL), irresistible calls for audience participation, and a clear understanding of the zeitgeist. Much like the folk song it is based on, “Shum” is clearly meant as a chant to dispel the coronavirus pandemic as much as the winter, and the participants in the dance can be seen stripping off their personal protective gear. It’s not subtle, and after all Europe has been through, it shouldn’t be.
Rest of the Top 5
Lithuania: The Roop – “Discoteque”
Lithuania decided to take the exact opposite approach to the pandemic that Ukraine did. Rather than celebrate that it is over, The Roop wrote a song about making the best of it and just dancing alone in your room. While we’re all probably out of patience for the kind of person that celebrated lockdowns as a chance to bake bread and learn yoga, this doesn’t make the song any less effective – it has the basslines and groove energy to flood the giant Eurovision stage and get the whole crowd dancing (ironically, together). Come to remember a time when nightclubs were a thing, stay for the so-intense-it-can’t-be-serious choreography.
Israel: Eden Alene – “Set Me Free”
Israel’s entry in the contest is culturally and geopolitically significant for a ton of reasons: the fact that Israel itself is fighting to defend its citizens’ right to live against a robust – and internationally supported – terrorist campaign; the fact that Eden Alene, who is Ethiopian-Jewish, is representing the country amid spurious accusations of “apartheid” from the far left; the fact that Alene will be attempting to hit the highest note in Eurovision history. None of this would matter, though, if the song wasn’t good – and the song is exactly the quality you’d expect from a four-time contest winner. Like the first two entries on this list, it’s hard not to interpret the title command as a demand for sweet release from coronavirus limbo, and the yearning intensity of the tune sets it apart from The Roop’s optimistic embrace of isolation and Go_A’s brute willpower attempts to end the pandemic.
Portugal: The Black Mamba – “Love Is on My Side”
Now this is how you do a ballad at Eurovision. Spain and Portugal both love to send ballads, possibly hoping that showcasing vocals over actually entertaining the audience will score more points, and it almost always ends in disaster. “Love Is on My Side” is a powerful, soaring, ambitious ballad, however – it’s not just some guy lamenting that his girl left him or begging her to stay, it’s a heartfelt call to hope, and it works both melodically and paired with the minimalist smoky cabaret aesthetic Black Mamba brings to the stage. It’s how Conchita Wurst won the contest, and it may prove a path to victory for Portugal, too.
Belgium: Hooverphonic – “The Wrong Place”
“The Wrong Place” really doesn’t sound like anything that has ever won Eurovision before. It’s haunting, atmospheric, and fairly downbeat. It’s extremely addictive and sets its mood expertly, as does the music video, which feels like reading an Edgar Allen Poe short story. I would not rank it as high on the list of potential winners because it isn’t a song meant to rile up a crowd, so it is difficult to imagine excited fans phoning in to support it, but it is certainly one of the most original, near-perfect entries in the modern annals of Eurovision history.
The Worst of the Worst
Cyprus: Elena Tsagrinou – “El Diablo”
The powers-that-be at Cyprus’s Eurovision commission thought that a love song to Satan would somehow be controversial in 2021. They are somehow not alone in this – remember Lil Nas X? I barely do – but that doesn’t make this entry any less cringy, starting with the lyrics: “hotter than sriracha on our bodies Ta-Taco tamale, yeah.” (note: no culture considers Mexican and Thai food inherently Satanic).
The Exorcist is almost half a century old. Satanism is just an especially obnoxious subset of libertarianism these days. Nobody cares that you’re in love with “El Diablo,” save for some Cypriot Orthodox priests, and one hopes that “Orthodox priests” aren’t the target audience that Eurovision songwriters have in mind when they get to work.
And the early aughts DJ Sammy “Heaven” sound is almost just as dated.
Germany: Jendrik – “I Don’t Feel Hate”
In the classic American film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the titular musician, Conner4Real, releases a song called “Equal Rights” calling for the United States to legalize gay marriage – a year after the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage the law of the land.
“He’s writing this song for gay marriage, you know, like it’s not allowed… it’s allowed now,” a very confused Ringo Starr, who for some reason agreed to be in this movie, comments.
That’s exactly what “I Don’t Feel Hate” feels like. Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag queen, won Eurovision almost a decade ago. The Eurovision Song Contest boasts a prodigious LGBT fanbase and is globally regarded as one of the world’s most gay-friendly events. Eurovision is so gay that the predictable scolds in the Putin and Erdogan regimes have protested that it may not even be a safe space for straight people anymore. So who is the target audience for this song? In what universe is this necessary?
Spain: Blas Cantó – “Voy a Quedarme”
Spain boasts a formidable music culture rich in both folk traditions and mainstream popular music superstardom. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ever get around to flaunting any of this at Eurovision and it shows – it hasn’t won a contest in 52 years. A major reason for this is that it keeps sending what feels like the same exact stale ballad every year. This year it’s “I’m Going to Stay,” but in recent years it’s been “Stay with Me,” “With You Till the End,” you get the idea. In a year like this, when even notorious downer Iceland submitted a pleasant disco tune, the lack of originality is even more unforgivable.
Serbia: Hurricane – “Loco Loco”
It speaks very highly of this contest that this one even landed on the worst of list, and it’s a little unfair because there were entries that I enjoyed less, but they were simply too forgettable to even merit a negative superlative. I had fun watching this, but I’m not sure the intent of the video landed.
So many questions. For one, plenty of Eurovision entries throughout history have been attempts to copy successful American artists that made it big shortly before the contest. This year alone audiences have been graced with both a knock-off Linkin Park and a fake Lizzo. But… was anyone clamoring for a revival of 1980s Miami girl group Exposé?
And then there is the whole faux Latin thing. At least one must assume it’s a “faux” Latin thing since these women are representing Serbia. Is this cultural appropriation? Should I be offended? And if I am offended, is it because I’m a big-haired Latina or because I’m a big-haired Jersey girl? Do these Serbian pop starlets even know what New Jersey is? I left this video far more confused than I began it.
Russia: Manizha – “Russian Woman”
I really didn’t want to dismiss this one just because it’s woke Russian feminist rap but… it’s woke Russian feminist rap. Rapping at Eurovision is always a risky endeavor – never forget Rambo Amadeus of Montenegro’s sweaty, disoriented whining about the European debt crisis in 2012’s “Euro Neuro” – and Manizha is probably better than most Eurovision rappers. That said, this song sounds like 20-second snippets of nine different songs cut into one track. It never decides exactly what it wants to be, wasting the audience’s time along the way.
Bonus: Should Have Won Last Year
Russia: Little Big – “Uno”
The Chinese coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest, but not before the contestants had submitted their songs and official music videos. And taking a look at the entries, maybe it’s a good thing it never happened, because Russia – yes, Eurovision’s greatest villain, the same Russia that had the gall to send this tone-deaf geriatric spectacle in 2012 and then threaten to create its own rival song contest, again – would have won, hands-down.
Little Big is a tacky techno band clearly in on its own joke, an act in the same artistic family as the Village People or LMFAO. Their aesthetics scream 1970s but much of their music sounds like the only song they had ever heard before writing music is Da Rude’s “Sandstorm.”
“Uno” sounds like a poorly thought-out attempt to break into the Latin music market – and looks like a Sabado Gigante parody – and yet it’s overflowing with the one element missing from almost all mainstream pop music today: fun.
There was no contest, and it’s a shame Little Big gracefully stepped aside this year to allow another artist to shine, ceding their spot to the unlistenable Manizha.