For many Americans, Eurovision seems downright baffling, an equal measure of national grudges, camp, and actual pop music. This is not entirely wrong. The Eurovision Song Contest is the world’s longest running annual international song competition, having been broadcast annually since 1956.
Members of the European Broadcasting Union, as well as Australia (it’s complicated), each submit a song for the competition. The artist performs the song live, in a performance that involves either outfits lighting up, bizarre staging, confetti cannons, or all of the above. Each country has two sets of votes: one from a professional jury of music critics from the country and one from the viewing public, decided by televoting.
The winner gets a small boost in popularity but – unless they’re Celine Dion (who won for Switzerland one year), Buck’s Fizz or ABBA – rarely goes on to have international success (unless they were already famous). The winning country hosts next year’s competition: Eurovision 2017 is hosted by the Ukraine, which won last year with “1944” by Jamala, a powerful ballad about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union during World War II. Coincidentally, Russia isn’t in the competition this year. Each year also has a theme. This year’s is “Celebrate Diversity,” so naturally the Ukraine has three white men hosting the program.
Partly because of the hosting clause, entries used to run the gamut with regards to actually being good, as some countries simply didn’t want to host the competition (mostly Ireland). Past Eurovision entries have included things like a singing turkey vulture puppet, a football chant, an innuendo-laced song about airline safety, a flaming piano, a pair of hyperactive twins with foot tall hair, and Verka Serduchka. Nowadays, most everybody submits something safe no matter if they want to win or not, but occasionally we get something that hearkens back to the campy days of the mid 2000s.
The first two semi-final rounds have already happened, narrowing the playing field from forty-two entries to twenty-six. For Americans, the finals will be simultaneously broadcast on Logo, Saturday May 13, at 3pm EST. Here are a few highlights from the songs that have qualified for the finals.
ITALY: “OCCIDENTALI’S KARMA” – FRANCESCO GABBANI
My running favorite to win the competition, “Occidentali’s Karma” is a send-up of the West’s obsession with various Eastern cultures and religions. Thankfully, the song doesn’t stray too close towards blatant Orientalism (though the staging is a tad too generic Asian), keeping away from sitars and giving the instrumentation a fun, bright, poppy beat. “Karma” might also gain some pull when compared to last year’s winner, “1944,” a legitimately good song but one that people thought a bit too heavy for Eurovision. Plus, the staging has a man dancing in a gorilla outfit. It’s been far too long since we’ve had an amazing song with silly staging and monkey suits seem pitch-perfect for that sort of thing.
MOLDOVA: “HEY MAMMA” – SUNSTROKE PROJECT
Can Moldova recreate the success of 2010? While they didn’t win Eurovision that year (the winner was Germany with “Satellite”), Sunstroke Project’s performance of “Run Away” has become immortalized in internet history: their saxophonist, Sergey Stepanov, is Epic Sax Guy. And if they want to recreate the sheer meme-ability of Epic Sax Guy, Sunstroke Project’s going to have to bring a lot to the table with their song’s staging and choreography, something which they certainly succeeded at in the semi-finals. “Hey Mamma” is a fun pop song with, as expected, amazing instrumentation. In a sea of dreary ballads, it’s so reassuring that we’ve got one entry that’s pure, unabashed, sax and violin solos, microphones hidden in bouquets level of fun. My mind knows that Italy will probably win but my heart desperately wants Moldova to win.
ROMANIA: “YODEL IT” – ILLINCA AND ALEX FLOREA
It’s the Year of our Lord 2017 and we’re going to listen to yodeling combined with rap in an international song competition, with staging that involves cannons of the non-confetti kind. I’m so thankful that even if they don’t win, Romania’s bringing enough confusing camp for multiple countries. Once you look past the yodeling of the chorus, “Yodel It” is a halfway decent pop song with an amazingly catchy chorus…but then again, with a song like this, you don’t look past the yodeling of the chorus in the first place. You gotta get a gimmick, after all.
CROATIA: “MY FRIEND” – JACQUES HOUDEK
Eurovision does performance art? Houdek sings a duet with himself, half in a breathy pop voice and half in the MOST OPERATIC BARITONE KNOWN TO MAN. And it’s all him! The song is kind of beautifully jarring and more ‘confusing’ than ‘good’, but the technical proficiency to swap from pop to operatic at the drop of a pin amazes me. This probably isn’t going to win. But especially now that the song’s made it to the finals, “My Friend” is something people are going to be talking about just due to how absolutely odd it is.
PORTUGAL: “AMAR PELOS DOIS” – SALVADOR SOBRAL
This song’s a favorite of mine just because of how simple it is. “Amar Pelos Dois” is a simple, no-frills ballad. Sobral lovingly lilts his phrases over romantic strings and violins. It’s sweet, a “Moon River” style ballad perfect for romantic montages of falling in love. The song’s simpleness is it’s charm and what helps it stand out from the big, ostentatious far too serious ballads that Eurovision has plenty of this year. I worry that the song might be too simple and too sweet for this competition that places such a focus on spectacle, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Portugal settled comfortably near the top.
ISRAEL: “I FEEL ALIVE” – IMRI
I know there was a song in there somewhere. But to be honest, I was distracted by biceps. There’s no officially posted video of the actual Eurovision performance itself but even from the gif above, you can see just how much biceps there are. This is a performance that knows it’s got a boring, very American Top 40 influenced song, and focusing most of it’s effort on typically Eurovision staging: pyrotechnics, strobe lights, and blatant fanservice. Good job biceps, you get to advance to the finals.
MONTENEGRO: “SPACE” – SLAVKO KALEZIC
JUSTICE FOR SLAVKO. This beautifully nonsense campy ode to space as a metaphor for sex was tragically robbed of a spot in the finals. This is me being 100% serious here, in a land of bland ballads, I am so annoyed that Kalezic and his bizarre braid didn’t manage to at least win over some hearts. It’s a beautiful, campy, slightly trashy pop mess but dammit, it’s a pop mess that everybody’s going to be talking about. One of the song’s lyrics is “I’ll protect you if you come my way / let’s soar through the Milky Way” for crying out loud. The staging involves Kalezic wearing a mesh shirt, glittery trousers, and whipping his braid around in like it’s an actual whip and not attached to his head. If you’re someone who’s only going to watch the finals, at least listen to this and hear what could have been.