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The annual kitsch ritual is about the only thing in Europe that’s working — but barely.
As Greece pushes the euro zone towards a possible Armageddon that could tear apart the European Union, at least one experiment in uniting the old continent is still going strong: The Eurovision Song Contest.
Millions of music fans will this Saturday tune into the finals of a talent show that can appear jaw-droppingly strange to the uninitiated, but is for many countries one of the most important cultural — and sometimes political — events of the year.
Though it shows no signs of fatigue in its 56th year, this eclectic mix of national pride, pan-European bonding and barnstorming kitsch isn’t immune to the euro crisis, not least because victory carries the bittersweet reward of hosting next year’s hugely expensive final.
No stranger to controversy thanks to a voting system that some say recognizes cross-border bickering rather than musical talent, the contest has this year generated new disputes courtesy of host country Azerbaijan’s questionable record on human rights.
And while outsiders may disregard it as inconsequential, Eurovision’s global cultural impact shouldn’t be underestimated. In previous years it has helped launch Swedish pop group ABBA, Canadian singer Celine Dion and, of course, Finnish horror rock act Lordi.
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In additional to this legacy, Eurovision has many quirks. It allows non-Europeans like Dion to perform, and includes Israel among member nations. It has a penchant for unintentionally retro sounds. And there’s always the looming fear that a contestant strikes out with “nul points, like British act Jemini managed in 2003. And that has earned it a cult status.
Yet for countries like Azerbaijan, which is staging this year’s Eurovision thanks to the voraciously-promoted talents of Ell and Nikki in 2011, it is also serious business. The oil-rich country has spent $134 million on the event’s Crystal Hall venue in Baku and cleared swaths of its capital in a pre-event spruce up.
“For some nations it’s one of the very few platforms on which they can promote themselves,” Paul Jordan, an academic who has carved a career out of analyzing the song contest, told GlobalPost by phone from Baku.
Such a public relations exercise is timely for Azerbaijan, which is bidding to host the 2020 Olympics in the face of heavy criticism from human rights organizations.
Amnesty International has demanded the release of 17 people arrested during protests last year and an end to a crackdown on demonstrations. Human Rights Watch says six journalists and a blogger have been unjustly imprisoned.
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Azerbaijan, which has also had to deal with a fittingly bizarre spat with Iran, which derided Eurovision as a “gay parade,” has bluntly dismissed the complaints.
According to Jordan, these are unlikely to impact on the contest which, he says, exists in its own “bubble.” But, he says, the euro crisis is a different matter with tight finances reining in spending on some acts.
“Previously, countries would host parties to promote their entries and give away freebies, but this year has certainly been much quieter,” he added. “Greece in particular has been very quiet. There’s hardly any money there, whereas in previous years they threw money at it.”
The crisis has also spilled into the music. Last year’s Portuguese entry was a melodic response to austerity titled “Luta É Alegria,” or the Struggle is Joy. This year Montenegro fielded “EuroNeuro” by Rambo Amadeus, featuring lines such as: “Monetary break dance/Give me a chance to refinance.”
Sadly, for fans of turbo folk, Rambo Amadeus didn’t clear the semi-finals, having been voted off in favor of acts including Russia’s Buranovskiye Babushki, a twinkle-eyed group of singing grandmothers. Their “Party for Everyone” offers no meaningful protest lyrics, just an on-stage cake baking routine and classic Eurovision couplets such as: “Come on and dance/Come on and boom boom.”
Although Buranovskiye Babuskie are currently among bookmakers’ favorites to win, second only to the frantic techno terpsichore of Sweden’s Loreen, successful acts must navigate a landscape of age-old alliances and hostilities when each country comes to register its votes.
Says Jordan, such “bloc voting” is cultural rather than political. For instance, former Yugoslavian countries may vote for Serbia’s Nije Ljubav Stvar, with judges ignoring old enmities because his music is popular throughout that part of Europe.
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“We need to keep it in perspective a little bit,” added Jordan. “It’s a Saturday night television show and people aren’t thinking about politics.
“That said, there are issues like those between Azerbaijan and Armenia, two countries which are technically still at war. When 41 people in Azerbaijan voted for Armenia in 2009, they were hauled in by authorities as a threat to security.”
While Azerbaijan clearly has the funds, if not necessarily the political reputation, needed to run a smooth Eurovision, the question remains whether Europe’s debt-stricken nations could manage should they win this year.
The logical solution for countries such as Greece or Spain would seem to be fielding poor quality acts to deliberately avoid victory, but Jordan is doubtful either would stoop to such tactics. “Both have got quite strong songs in my opinion,” he says.
And with “Aphrodisiac,” Greece’s Eleftheria Eleftheriou offers an upbeat slice of Eurovision pop, with lyrics that, perhaps when viewed through the prism of her country’s parlous economic situation, could be also be taken as a serenade to Europe’s bankers:
“Over and over I'm falling/ You make me dance dance like a maniac/ You make me want your aphrodisiac.”
Or perhaps not.