Watching four women lazily swivel around in ergonomically correct office chairs, singing, while two bald dancers writhe on the floor in front of them, I struggle to process what I’m watching. “Dutee Free! Dutee Free! Dutee Freeeeeeee!” they sing out and I’m not sure if this is meant as an enticement to purchase tax free goods at the airport or if the black-clad dancers are an expression of the office workers’ souls dying.
Turns out it’s neither. Rather, it’s Spain’s entry into the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. Fire canons, key changes and men in lizard suits blazed past my eyeballs that year as I sat glued to a television in Athens. I became deeply mesmerized by the four-hour extravaganza of pop music. I’d just had my first hit of Eurovision, and I was addicted.
Ten years later I still watch every show. Whether I’m live-streaming a pixelated version on a ten-hour time difference (you trying drinking a bottle of merlot at noon on a Saturday while live-tweeting 25 musical acts), or sitting in the arena in Sweden covered in confetti, I’ve watched every year since 2006.
I’ve studied the history of the event and its ability to unite (it began in 1956 as a way to bring together a war-wounded continent) and divide (Serbia and Montenegro split the day after the finals in 2006. Their inability to agree on an entry was the final proof of their overall discord as a federation). More than anything, I’m in love with the spectacle. Sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes a train wreck of attention-seeking earnestness, the contest is entertainment escalated into frenzy too intense to behold more than once a year.
So, at this ten-year anniversary point, I took a little stock of the twelve acts that stuck with me the most over the last decade. This is my list. Not a definitive list, but my personal Eurovision favorites. None of my choices are colored by my affections for any one country. This is strictly about the music, the performance or the story behind it. If I had my own set of points one through twelve to give, this is how I would break it down:
One Point: Vilija Matačiūnaitė, Attention – Lithuania 2014
While Vilija didn’t get much attention in 2014 (she never made it out of the semi-finals), she stood tough in her Blade Runner Ballerina Barbie outfit in a contest where women are more prone to shimmy in the tiniest of costumes. Her backup dancer was a guy that got schooled a time or two that sometimes women want to get out on the dance floor without being bothered, unless of course they want to do some sort of weird shadow puppet moves with her tutu. I never figured that part out, but whatever.
Her lyrics: “You saw me chattin’ with my girls at bar (true) / We’re all pretty / You told me I look like a movie star / But I’m not naïve,” were the Eastern European feminist precursor to Meghan Trainor’s “No.”
Two Points: Les Fatals Picards, L’amour à la Française – France 2007
France is charmingly schizophrenic when it comes to their acts. Some years they passionately spend their performances on deep emotional topics as if they were on ‘a very special episode of Eurovision’, and other years they gleefully troll the audience with singers who roll onto stage in a golf cart like Joaquin Phoenix on the David Letterman show.
This particular year saw a band in tight hot pink satin suits with a stuffed toy cat as a shoulder adornment, gamely singing a song in French and English (Frenchlish? Englench?) that’s so ah-dor-ah-ble it makes me want to get up and run circles around my television.
Three Points: Donatan & Cleo, My Słowiani – We Are Slavic – Poland 2014
I’m not sure if this act is progressive or regressive. Stunning Polish women alluringly churn butter and use washboards to clean clothes on stage while their ample bosoms spillith over Halloween-sexy versions of traditional costumes. It’s a curious mash up of folk tune and driving hip-hop, old world and new, taking power and giving it away. It’s a quintessentially kooky Eurovision act and I admire it for that. That and lyrics like “We like to shake what mama in the genes gave us” which remind me that not everything translates well.
Four Points: Rodolfo Chikilicuatre, Baila El Chiki Chiki – Spain 2008
Spain. Oh Spain. This reggaeton parody was packed with so many gems: falling down “drunk” backup dancers, a pompadour wearing lead singer playing a toy guitar, and lyrics that ran the gamut referencing everything from dancing “doggy-style” (perrea! perrea!) to Michael Jackson and Robocop to the political incident when the King of Spain said “Why don’t you shut up?” to Hugo Chavez. This act, and song, is forever etched in my brain and always makes me giggle.
Five Points: Sjonni’s Friends, Coming Home – Iceland 2011
Days before performing his song “Aftur Heim” (in English: “Coming Home”) at the Icelandic national finals for the Eurovision Song Contest, 37-year old Sjonni Brink died of natural causes. His family and friends decided to form a tribute band and sing his song at Eurovision for him. Eerily prescient, the lyrics are both spine-tingling and uplifting. Moments like this are another reason I adore the contest. I dare you to watch the video now without simultaneously tearing up and smiling. They made it through the semi-finals to perform in front of 185 million viewers worldwide in the name of their friend.
Six Points: Aram MP3, Not Alone – Armenia 2014
I watched Aram’s video prior to the live performance in Copenhagen and I enjoyed the song but wasn’t swept away. Cut to sitting in the audience and watching him live. He begins quietly reassuring us that we’re not alone, and then the stage seemingly starts swirling around him as if he were an energy vortex. The strings swell and his voice, underscored with arpeggios, builds into a roar. It was then that I was like, “whoa, I actually LIKE a Eurovision song for being something other than cheesy.” It’s powerful and beautiful and feels way too short.
Seven Points: Cezar, It’s my Life – Romania 2013
If you’ve never witnessed a glittery vampire singing castrato-style opera to dub step beats while nude-clad dancers roll out of his afterbirth, well then you just don’t know Eurovision. This is classic ESC and a major reason I became addicted. Honestly I’m getting worried that the contest is getting a little too homogenized and acts like this are a thing of the past. I need these performances in my life, therefore I will be instituting the hashtag #keepEurovisionweird from here on out.
Eight Points: Dima Bilan, Never Let You Go – Russia 2006
Russian singing sensation and mullet purist Dima Bilan’s first run at the contest with “Never Gonna Let You Go” was my favorite. Though he won in 2008 with the help of Olympic “platinum” medalist Evgeny Plushenko skating around him on a tiny patch of artificial ice, his 2006 performance was less polished and more fun.
Twist jumping in acid washed jeans and dancing on a prop piano containing a ballerina-statue-type dancer, he was delightfully goofy. Plus Dima’s accent while singing the lyrics “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, love’s carving it in the stone” had me singing “…love’s coming, it’s in the zone” for years before I looked it up. Which was yesterday, for this post.
Nine Points: Silvia Night, Congratulations – Iceland 2006
Dressed like an 18th century Vegas showgirl with unicorns for backup singers, this Icelandic act was the biggest troll Eurovision has ever seen, garnering more boos in history from an audience who clearly was not in on the joke.
A satirical act, described as magnifying the worst of modern human behavior, Silvia sang an entire song congratulating the audience for being the lucky ones to be saved by her performance. She slides down a gigantic high-heeled pump, has a direct line to god (“What up dog? I’m saving the world!”), and declares “Oh look! A golden shower!” while yellow tinsel sprays down on her. Golden years of Eurovision, I say.
Ten Points: Verka Serduchka, Dancing Lasha Tumbai – Ukraine 2007
Ukrainian drag queen, comedian and TV star Verka Serduchka might really have had one of the all time great songs of Eurovision. I can’t listen to it without dancing around like a fool, which is why it took me longer to write this. Stuffed into a metallic silver dress that looked like it might burst open any moment like a tin of Jiffy Pop, she sang in German, Russian and English. With a disco ball on her head, she strutted the stage while her silver lamé-wrapped school boys jumped around stiff-armed to an ever-increasing tempo. Magic. Just…Eurovision magic. Verka came in second to a super serious Serbian ballad and I feel like that might’ve been the seminal moment that started ESC down its current path of mainstream popsters. (#keepEurovisionweird)
Eleven Points: Alexander Rybak, Fairy Tale – Norway 2009
Until the scoring system changed this year, mop-haired Alexander Rybak’s “Fairy Tale” was Europe’s highest scoring winner, ever. Cuter than a basket of puppies, he sang a catchy song about love lost, breaking strings as he furiously fiddled along. Rounding out his act were back-up dancers doing one of the hardest plank workouts I’ve ever seen while his 1970s Superstar Barbie singers tra la la’d in the background.
I remember this year so well. My husband and I bought the CD in Ireland and played it as we drove around the country. We immediately picked Alexander as our winner. During the finals we hunkered down in our hotel room in Brussels eating pizza and drinking beer, screaming at the television like football fans in a stadium every time he got twelve points. Thank god he won or we would’ve upended the desk in our room (if it hadn’t been bolted into the wall).
My Twelve Points Goes To: Elnur and Samir, Day After Day – Azerbaijan 2008
Never will there ever be an act that I will love more. I can’t imagine anyone can top the insanity that was Elnur and Samir in 2008. It doesn’t matter that they came in 20th; they will always be my winners.
This act has everything. It’s a rock opera with two singers that possess screams Axl Rose would sell his soul to the devil for, which is convenient because that’s what Samir is dressed as. It’s got story: dueling good and evil; the angel and the devil cackle at each other with such ferocity that fire cannons explode on stage. It’s got inventive use of props: the devil pours a chalice of blood on one of his demon-y dancers. You guys! A CHALICE of BLOOD! Which he POURS on a backup dancer!! It’s got a moral, but I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll stop gushing about this magnificent piece of musical lunacy and let you watch it for yourself. Do it. Watch it right now.
I’m sure you’ll come back to me and ask, “What. Did I. Just watch?” And I’ll smile and say, “Eurovision, baby, you just watched Eurovision.” You’re welcome.