mardi, mai 15, 2007

Luis & DJ watch the Eurovision semi-finals

OK, it's time to talk about Eurovision. Actually, Wikipedia has an alarmingly-detailed entry on Eurovision 2007 which provides all the details for this year's competition, including a lot of nerdy statistics and such. Also, the main article on Eurovision provides a lot of background.

Eurovision started back in post-WWII Europe as a way to bring back together a group of countries that had recently been bombing the crap out of each other. Organized by a conglomeration of European TV broadcasters, the competition requires each country to submit a song. The songs are then performed in a long showcase that is broadcast around Europe (and now around the globe), followed by a complicated process of voting. The winner usually gets nothing more than the honour of having won (although they are almost always courted for recording contracts afterwards), but the country they represented gets to host the competition next year. This is a rather ambivalent prize, since on the one hand the country enjoys a spike in tourism and an opportunity to advertise itself as a tourist/business destination, but on the other hand the cost of hosting the event can be prohibitively expensive for smaller countries. Even the economically-strong Ireland found itself in financial straits in the 90s, when it won Eurovision three times in four years.

There are several specific rules to the game, although they have changed over time. They are well-summarized in another Wikipedia article as well as in a section of the main article devoted to rules, but here are the main ones:

  1. One song per country (the first competition in 1956 being the exception, with two songs per).
  2. The country must be part of the European broadcasting community. This currently includes liminal countries like Turkey, Georgia, Morocco, Israel and Jordan (although not all of them have taken advantage of the opportunity).
  3. From 1966 to 1972, and again from 1978 to 1998, the entrants were restricted to singing in their own native language. This was dropped because that tends to give anglophone countries an unfair advantage, and also exacerbates cultural tensions in countries that are multi-lingual or have significant minority language groups.
  4. The song must be newly-composed. It can't have been recorded or performed publicly before the competition (although one can perform it within a certain window before the competition as promotion).
  5. Performers do not need to be citizens of the country they represent; thus, Céline Dion sang for Switzerland in 1988
  6. No more than 6 people on the stage
  7. The song must be performed live (not lipsynched) without vocal backing tracks. Before 1973, performers were required to sing with a live orchestra. Before 1998, host broadcasters were required to provide a live orchestra if the performer so chooses. Since 1999, performances have been done exclusively to instrumental backing tracks, with some performers incorporating other instruments on stage.
  8. Broadcasters are not permitted to insert commercials during the performance or voting phases.
  9. Broadcasters cannot interview participants or fans before the voting phase is completed.
  10. The competition is won on points. Each country votes for songs (other than theirs) by assigning a set of points from 1 to 8, and then 10 and 12. Thus, the favourite song would get 12 points, the next favourite 10, and so on.
  11. Originally, votes from each country were decided by an internal jury, but since 1998 almost all countries have used some form of televoting, which has the additional advantage of generating income for the contest (those calls aren't free).

The list goes on. While the competition has mostly become a campy, kitschy confection, the complex latticework of rules and regulations are taken seriously and hotly supported or contested. Indeed, there is a whole audience of fans that take great interest in the minutiae of the contest.

Similarly, the details and politics of the voting process is often of prime interest for many viewers. The point system is such that the relative standing of competitors can vary widely as each country announces their votes, thus heightening the suspense. In addition to the interest of seeing how your aesthetic decisions align (or don't) with those of other countries, there is a political side to the voting that is exasperating for some and fascinating for others. For example, many of the former eastern-bloc countries give each other the highest points, while neighbouring countries like Finland and Sweden often vote for each other. Since the advent of voting-by-phone, some countries tend to give their highest points to the nations that also provide them with immigrants, such as Germany voting for Turkey. A more interesting turn of events this year was when all of the former Yugoslavian states--who no more than 10 years ago were killing each other in droves--gave each other high points, or when Turkey gave Armenia it's highest score ("Sorry about that whole genocide thing, guys.").

Anyway, DJ and I spent the evening watching the semi-finals, which included all the crazy that I could want. We ate junk food, drank rather strong cocktails, and howled with delight as a chunky opera singer from Slovenia sang to us in a tattered leather bodice, a Danish drag queen did a flashy, glam-y song called "Drama Queen," and the French entry included a falsettist with a dead cat on his shirt. Also, one of the hosts for the show is called Nikko Leppilampi (shown below). How awesome is that? I'm totally naming my next pet Leppilampi.

Also, I was thrilled to see my favourite central-asian country, Georgia, compete in Eurovision for the first time. The singer, Sopho Khalvashi (სოფო ხალვაში) looked great in a classy red dress, her song was catchy and a bit Björk-ish, she was surrounded by four male dancers in traditional Georgian regalia, and she had great stage presence. More importantly, she had a pretty impressive set of pipes on her; one of the interesting things about the rules of Eurovision is that singers must perform live and without vocal backing tracks. As a result, it's usually painfully, painfully evident when somebody can't stay in tune. Anyway, hooray Georgia! She actually got through the semi-finals and into the finals, where she placed a very respectable 12th.

In the past decade or so, there has been increasing grumbling from Western European countries ("old Europe") as the winners in past years have been almost exclusively from Eastern European countries, many of whom have never won the contest before. There are many reasons for why this has come to be, mostly revolving around Western Europe developing a dismissive and ironic distance from the competition while other countries have become increasingly invested in Eurovision as a place to argue for their Europeanness (and thus access to the EU). Anyway, you can see what I mean in this nifty hot-to-cold graphic that was posted on Wikipedia. Essentially, the redder countries placed higher in this year's competition.

OK, this post is already getting too long, but here's a few links to interesting articles and amusing commentary on Eurovision. Coming tomorrow, the Eurovision Drinking Game!

MetaFilter Eurovision Comment Thread
Someone posts a link to the live internet broadcast of Eurovision, and a group of MeFi users provide a play-by-play commentary. Hilarious in it's own right, but doubly so in tandem with the show.
Hitting the Right Notes
Stephen Moss of Guardian online's Comment is Free section gives an amusing editorial for the Eurovision finals, arguing that the UK needs to take it more seriously. Plenty of comments after the article, too.
GoFugYourself's Eurovision Coverage
I love the gals at GoFugYourself; they bring bitchy wardrobe critique to a whole new level. Although they didn't have the advantage of watching the competition on TV, they nonetheless wrote a stirring tribute to the insanity.
But How Did They Sound?
A review of this year's Eurovision contest by Bryan Coll for Times magazine online. Everyone seems to be more interested in the insane tinfoil-wrapped drag queen from the Ukraine than the earnest, fist-clenching, ugly-younger-sister-of-K.D.Lang winner from Serbia.
Anyone for Sopot? (A Eurovision rant)
An editorial in an English-language Finnish magazine, critiquing Western European critics for complaining about recent Eurovision results. Includes a surprisingly lucid discussion of the politics and aesthetics of Eurovision participation and spectatorship.
BBC photo gallery
11 pictures taken from the event.

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