Eurovision: Portugal's sibling act wins over the cynics
‘Yes, Eurovision is silly but if you dislike it you’re basically a monster’
The winner of the 62nd Eurovision song contest is Portugal’s Salvador Sobral who wrung his hands delightfully while singing the sweetly, string-laden throw-back ‘Amar Pelos Dois’. It was written by his sister, Luisa, who sang with him at the end.
Portugal hadn’t won the contest once in 53 years and, frankly, we were beginning to worry about them. It was also The Irish Times’s favourite song (I think I can speak for the whole paper) so, for once, Europe made the right decision and all is right with the world. Frankly after Brexit and Trump we needed this.
Ireland’s entry, Brendan Murray’s ‘Dying to Try’, didn’t even qualify for the final. As an Irishman at Eurovision these days you get used to people pitying you. “Johnny Logan, Linda Martin… what happened, Ireland?” asked a flag wearing Swede called Juha Piik. Then he squeezed my shoulder supportively. “Don’t worry, you will win again sometime.”
It was momentarily easy to forget there was a Russian-fomented conflict in eastern Ukraine
The night before the final, Kiev looked beautiful. The fountains were lit up, fire-breathers and bands were dotted around Maidan square and the Eurovision village was filled with families and friendly people happy to give me detailed directions (a woman drew me a map at one point). It was momentarily easy to forget that there was a Russian-fomented conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Then, this morning, a sign went up in Maidan square reminding people, in English and Ukrainian, that the death toll in Donbass “is the price we paid for every single day we live in peace.”
You can also buy toilet paper with Putin’s face on the sheets in the shops here and geopolitics has even infiltrated the contest. The Russian contestant, Julia Samoilova, was forbidden entry to Ukraine for playing a concert in contested Crimea. Russia refused to send a replacement. She played another concert there on Tuesday.
Unsurprisingly there were policemen and soldiers everywhere and searches and scans at every venue. This didn’t seem to dampen any of the enthusiasm.
Eurovision is, I now realise, a glittery Utopian bubble. Before the show, amid the usual flag-draped, face-painted fans, I spotted a couple of Jedwards, a princess, people dressed in national costumes, a sort of glittery Jedi, some pearly kings and at least one man in a fez, a rainbow cape and a T-shirt declaring he had the “Body of a God’ (it was above a picture of Buddha).
Inside in the venue Kiev’s ex-boxer mayor, Vitali Klitschko, gave a press conference about the planning. It was preceded with a video that included a touching tribute to the hundred people who died at the Maidan in 2014 “for a European future” and succeeded by about 20 minutes of selfies with Eurovision fans (the people in the press centre aren’t all journalists in the traditional sense).
At ten o’clock Kiev time, the three male hosts, Oleksandr Skichko, Volodymyr Ostapchuk and Timur Miroshnychenko, (this year’s tagline, incidentally, is “celebrate diversity”) began to marshal a massive three hour simulcast that stretched across Europe, from its frozen Scandinavian north to its blistering Australian south (Europe is more a state of mind than a continent at Eurovision).
There were self-deprecating skits, an ethereal interval performance and unnecessarily sleazy “banter” with female jury members from “the lads” (it was their way of “celebrating diversity”, presumably).
In the midst of the voting came the sad news that Israel would no longer be performing (their government, in a strike against to press freedom, has shut down the Israel Broadcasting Authority).
There were also appearances from previous Ukrainian winners - Jamala, who won last year (but this year was briefly interrupted by a streaker), and Ruslana, who won in 2004, and has in recent years bravely diverted much of her energy into social activism and politics (you can’t get away from politics at Eurovision). And then, of course, there were the finest 26 pop songs that Europe, from the UK to Israel, had to offer.
Here’s a summary:
Ukraine’s own O’Torvald generated power chords before a giant blue head which shot lasers from its eyes (my catechism is a bit rusty, but I think this was “Jesus”).
Moldova’s Sunstroke Project did a jaunty dance and married their backing singer brides (the marriage is, I believe, legally binding).
Belarus’s Naviband manoeuvred a large speed boat through a CGI city (ersatz locomotion is a bit of a theme of this year’s contest).
And Israel’s vocoder-tonsiled beefcake and his grinding chums danced their way out of danger when the stage sporadically went on fire (cowboy builders).
Croatia’s excellently operatic Jacques Houdek was my second favourite act (after Portugal), because he duetted with himself and sometimes I do that when I’m stressed. But I had one quibble. He began by saying - “There are only two ways to live your life - one is as though nothing is important the other is that everything is important” - when for accuracy he should really have added a third way (“live your life as though some things are a bit important sometimes”).
My third favourite was Italy’s Occidentali’s Karma, a very entertaining song about materialism and cultural-appropriation ironically sung by a spiv from a 1960s Brit-flick. You might remember it as “the one with the monkey” (he performed alongside a prancing man in a gorilla suit) or, possibly, as you’re an Irish Times reader, “the one that referenced Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape”.
The Eurovision can really surprise you sometimes. Romania’s Ilinca and Alex Florea demonstrated, for example, that yodel-rap is actually a viable genre. I loved this song. Unfortunately, they also deployed two big silver cannons on stage which was a bit dangerous given how miffed and unpredictable Russia is right now.
UK also toyed with politics as Lucie Jones sang ‘Never Going to Give Up On You’ to the assembled nations of Europe (Yes. The Brits are just mocking us now).
And Azerbaijan’s Dihaj may also have been doing something political… for all anyone could make out. She sang about “skeletons” to a horse-headed man who was sitting on a step ladder. I was pretty sure I’d dreamt this act after Tuesday’s first semi-final, but it was on again tonight, so either I’m having a prolonged nervous breakdown (a possibility, I’ve been here since Monday), or it really happened. Anyway, it was intense and I liked it.
Germany’s Levina was less intense. In fact, she was so relaxed she started her performance lying down. Greece’s Demy sang about love whilst topless hunks larked about in an electrically treacherous paddling pool (I suppose it kept them off the streets).
Armenia vogued. The Netherlands En-Vogued. Lush-larynxed Australia treadmilled. Austria’s Nathan Trent, with his power over the crescent moon, opened a portal to hell and summoned the dark soul of Ed Sheeran (I know Ed Sheeran isn’t dead - I just presume he has a house in hell).
And Bulgaria sent us a freakish child with the voice of a grown man. I liked this precociously big-voiced infant and wished him well.
For the most part, a good time was had by all. Yes, Eurovision is silly - with its bellowing divas, demented fiddlers and outlandish props - but most good pop is silly and the Eurovision actively brings people together with music, often good music. If you dislike it you’re basically a monster.
It is, as European Broadcasting Union executive supervisor Jon Ola Sand told me, “a non-political battlefield where countries can show their similarities and their differences.” And tonight, as always, harmony reigned (except for the streaker). So goodbye lovely Kiev. Roll on Portugal.