The 57th Eurovision Song Contest is taking place this week in Baku, Azerbaijan. The first semifinal is Tuesday, the second Thursday, and the final is Saturday. As the American spiritual home of Eurovision, we here at Broad Street Hockey are committed to giving you the coverage of this momentous week that you deserve.
Held every year since 1956, the contest was created as a way for European countries to battle through songwriting instead of previous methods they'd tried like doing battle through enormous wars. The success of this idea is indisputable:
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You just try nitpicking at those stats.
But over its many decades Eurovision has aged into something that only slightly resembles its early incarnations. The contest is now held over three nights in stadiums and arenas that seat tens of thousands, and over a hundred million viewers make it the most watched non-sports event on television world wide.
And it's also turned into something decidedly insane. As they say, you can't spell "Eurovision" without "W-T-F."
So in alphabetical order, here is a stroll back through Eurovision history, presenting the best WTFs from each country's Eurovision history (admittedly skewing a bit recent).
51 countries have competed in the Eurovision Song Contest in its illustrious, sparkly history. Because Serbia and Montenegro was sort of an interim country and only competed twice (and never did anything especially WTFish) we're going to skip them to keep it at a nice round 50.
Here we go. Enjoy.
ALBANIA - 2009
As this is the first one, I thought I'd use the opportunity to walk you through the evolution of a Eurovision WTF (don't worry, most entries will be far more succinct). Albania was the first country to select a song for the 2009 contest, and actually did so in late 2008 at their annual song competition called Festivali i Këngës. Kejsi Tola, who at 16 years-old just barely was old enough to compete at Eurovision, won Festivali i Këngës with the song "Më Mërr Në Endërr." She sang in front of a full orchestra and barely moved.
To try to promote their entry in the months between her selection, the song (which had been translated into English fairly jumbledly and reduced from 4:17 to under three minutes) was given a promotional video, which was essentially Kejsi dancing in front of Windows Media Player for three minutes. The Albanian TV station Radio Televizioni Shqiptar may lack budget, but they do at least own a green screen. Keep in mind while watching the clip that this technological triumph was only made like three years ago. Like, during the Obama administration.
Then it was time to compete live in Moscow in the second semifinal in Eurovision 2009. And by that time, the RTSH organizers had made several transformations to Kejsi's song, look, and performance. Please, discover them for yourself.
To review, Kejsi is now wearing a tutu, dancing, and being groped by someone who looks like Charlie from Always Sunny as green man (but with more disco ball-type mirror shards). Meanwhile, mime twins dance and form a human staircase for her to ascend.
Did all this WTFery work? Probably. Albania qualified for the final and eventually finished 17th (out of the 43 countries that entered that year).
ANDORRA - 2007
Tiny Andorra (population: 84,000) entered the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in 2004, but in six attempts never made it out of the semifinals and hasn't tried again since 2009 due to budget issues. Andorra was a casualty of often singing in a language (Catalan) that isn't exactly popular in most of Europe, and the intense neighbor/diaspora voting that dominated most of the last decade.
Without any diaspora to speak of and with only two neighbors (Spain and France who are too big to worry about tiny Andorra), the country often fell well short. Andorra probably should have qualified with their environmentally conscious rock song in 2007, but the contest format that year meant that finishing 12th out of the 28 nations in the semifinal wasn't enough.
The WTFiest part of this entry isn't so much anything specific to it, but rather just to mention that while all vocals in Eurovision must be live, there is currently a rule against playing music live. So those guitars and drums that these nice Andorrans are playing so passionately aren't plugged into anything and you're just hearing a tape. Kinda lame.
ARMENIA - 2011
If you know where Armenia is (east of Turkey), you know that it's not European at all, by most reasonable definitions of Europe. But like a handful of other countries on the periphery of Europe, Armenia wiggled its way into the European Broadcast Union and thereby Eurovision, and has been a perennial force to be reckoned with ever since arriving in 2006. In their first five entries Armenia never finished outside the top 10, finishing 8th, 8th, 4th, 10th, and 7th.
But in 2011, everything came crashing down for Armenia.
Despite some desperate enthusiasm and a very impressive boxing ring that somehow emerges from her backup dancers, Emmy's pugilistic pep didn't make it out of the semifinals, a knockout blow for a country that had never missed the final (or even finished in the bottom half of it).
To add insult to insult, the 2011 contest was won by Armenia's rival Azerbaijan, which meant that Azerbaijan would be the host of Eurovision 2012, and meant that the Armenians were ultimately forced to withdraw from this year's contest due to safety concerns about traveling to Azerbaijan. Those concerns seem completely legitimate. In 2009, only 43 Azeris called in to vote for the Armenia song, despite it getting a top 10 finish in the contest and doing well in most every other country's voting. Those people were summarily interrogated by Azerbaijani authorities as to why they had voted so traitorously. It will be interesting to see this week how much (if any) mention is made of the Armenian absence this year and the troubling free speech/human rights issues in Azerbaijan that caused their absence. Assuming Azerbaijan doesn't repeat (which no one has since Ireland in 1992-94), Armenia should be back in the fold in 2013.
AUSTRIA - 2003
In the 2003 edition of the contest (which was held in Latvia, by the way), Austrian stand-up comedian Alf Poier sang/talked about farm animals in German. He was also surrounded by cutouts of farm animals for good measure.
Naturally, Alf came in 6th out of 26, Austria's best finish in the contest in the last 23 years. One must not try to understand Eurovision.
AZERBAIJAN - 2008
This year's host and defending champions Azerbaijan (which is even further southeast away from Europe than Armenia) made their debut in 2008, with this bizarre good vs. evil duet by Elnur and Samir. It features angels, demons, a costume change, and a plot I don't entirely understand. Not to mention some brutally shrill vocals.
Azerbaijan took this mess and finished in 8th place, which showed the incredible voting power of their diaspora. That high finish wound up being their weakest to date--Azerbaijan finished 3rd, 6th, and 1st in their next three tries (all of which were decidedly less satanic).
BELARUS - 2011
Belarus has only been in the competition since 2004, but there were a lot of WTF entries for me to choose from. I went with their most recent because its WTFness is probably the most unique. It's the only entry in Eurovision history that is straight-up Soviet-esque propaganda. And there's nothing subtle about it (unless you think screaming "I Love Belarus!" over and over could be code for something else).
Anastasiya Vinnikova, the bizarrely huskily-voiced lead propagandist of the song, was originally going to sing an only slightly less obvious propaganda number that was ultimately disqualified called "Born in Byelorussia."
"Born in Byelorussia" (which was at one point titled "I Am Belarusian") yearned for the days of communism with subtle lyrics like "When I was wearing the star / back in the U.S.S.R." and "Born in Byelarussia, USSR time/ Byelarussia, got you on my mind / You're my passion, do it old-fashioned."
BELGIUM - 2009
Belgium was one of the seven countries that competed in the first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, but has only managed to win the thing once (and that wasn't until 1986).
Belgium has entered a lot of quirky stuff in their time, but I have to give the WTF spot of honor to the Elvis impersonator they sent in 2009, who earned only one point and came perilously close to 0 and the dreaded "nul points."
Pretty thoroughly awful stuff.
As a palate cleanser, here's a bonus Belgian entry from 2003, which finished second and just barely missed out on winning. It's sung in an entirely imaginary language and is a good reminder that Eurovision music doesn't always have to suck.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - 2008
Bosnia often gets stuck in a dirgy rut of Balkan ballads, but when they shake free of it they can be pretty awesome. Case in point, this absolutely insane entry from the 2008 contest in Belgrade, featuring clothesline choreography and knitting brides. It's pretty awesome stuff, and pretty cool that a country whose recent history has been so shitty can take itself so un-seriously on occasion.
BULGARIA - 2009
Bulgaria is an old country but only first emerged onto the Eurovision scene in 2005. They've only made the final once since, and really don't seem to understand what it takes to make a successful Eurovision entry on a very basic level.
Case in point, this epic disaster from 2009. Krassimir Avramov, who won over voters in his national selection show in Bulgaria by talking about how big a deal he was in the US (I mean, you've heard of him, right? Right? Oh.)
They realized somewhere along the way (after they already committed to a medieval theme in a very high-budget promotional video that featured things like boobs and midgets and broken dolls and women with their hair braided together--a lot like a Stefon description of New York's hottest club) that he was awful, and so they decided to flank him with three female backup singers (who were never so much in unison as in competition with each other) and two dancers on stilts. Because really, why not?
It's like the audio equivalent of a spinal tap. I don't expect anybody to crash and burn quite this badly at Eurovision 2012, but one can always hope.
CROATIA - 2006
Croatia has had a few down years at Eurovision lately, but this entry from 2006 remains a highlight.
Why is this a WTF, you may ask? "Sure, Ben," you say, "there's a bizarre ethnic instrument no one has ever seen before, folk dancing, and the removal of an already revealing skirt, but that's all standard Eurovision fare in this day and age!"
And you are right, friend. But what really makes this a WTFer is what the lyrics actually mean, which unless you know Croatian you were unlikely to have picked up on. The title "Moja Stikla" translates to "My High Heel," and the chorus discusses how her footsteps prevent grass from growing. Then there's a bunch of random interjections "Hay, straw, cheese, salami!" and a spirited "Africa paprika!" It makes no sense at all and it doesn't care. And that's sort of what Eurovision is all about.
That's all for Part 1, thanks for reading and watching. We'll have Part 2 (Cyprus through Hungary) and a thread for the first semifinal of Eurovision 2012 (at 3:00 pm EDT) tomorrow. Clear your schedule.