So, here we go. Off to Russia, with its homophobic policies, criminal businessmen and ruthless suppression of journalistic dissent. The perfect venue for a competition that promotes international harmony and has a huge following amongst the LGBT community. Only the contests of 1969 (in Franco’s Spain), 1990 (in what was still Yugoslavia) and 2004 (in Turkey) have been held in countries with comparably iffy human rights records.
Of course, bread and circuses in front of 38,000 is quickly going to quell most of the dissent, and the first act of this particular circus kicked off with a typically weird interpretation of the legend of The Firebird, before the audience was subjected to the first appearance of the hosts. As usual, this was a male/female combination consisting of a Barbie doll and a dodgy game show host with eighties hair and the look of someone who has indulged too much and too long in cosmetic surgery and fake tan. And, as usual, they bulldozed their way through the evening with relentless rictus grins, leaving a trail of mangled English in their wake. “HELLO EUROPE!” he bellowed. “HELLO MOSCOW!” she screeched. Shortly afterwards they were joined by two slightly terrified-looking young girls before the competition got underway.
Interspersed with some over-fussy postcards and large letters that appeared to spell “semolina”, came the acts. Montenegro was a forgettable pop song with a mildly distracting dancer. The Czech Republic had Super Gypsy (vying with Pants Man for the title of Most Rubbish New Superhero). Belgium had an Elvis impersonator wearing a lot of make-up and looking worryingly like he might drop dead from a heart attack at any moment.
Belarus had clearly decided that what Europe needed was more hair metal and acres of white spandex, and Petr Elfimov duly complied. Perhaps aided by the tightness of the trousers, he hit notes almost as high as the Swedish entry, performed by a renowned opera singer with a slightly unnerving resemblance to Ulrika Jonsson.
Armenia served up the Cheeky Girls covering Rachel Stevens’ Sweet Dreams My LA Ex in the style of Siouxsie Sioux, and they were followed by a couple of actually-quite-decent entries from Andorra and Switzerland. Quite decent but, placed mid-show amongst the usual madness, fatally forgettable. Turkey’s Dum Tek Tek was the first nonsense title of the year’s contest, and the umpteenth recycling of their winning entry from 2003. Then came the big Political Statement Song: the Israeli entry, performed by an Arab singer and a Jewish singer. Any effect this has on the peace process is likely to be fairly minimal unless they win (and they aren’t among the favourites), but it was refreshing to have such a straightforward ballad.
The next entry, from Bulgaria, could be described as many things, but straightforward would not be one of them. Its male singer, like Petr Elfimov, giving Sweden’s soprano a run for her money in the top-C stakes, the performance was further embellished by dancers on stilts and a woman with hair last seen on Jennifer Rush in 1986. Any fears that Eurovision might have become too bland, too homogenised and, worst of all, too professional, were assuaged.
A low-key ballad from Iceland provided much-needed relief, before the Macedonian entry gave the audience two frizzy-haired rock twins and a man who was probably their dad. Relatively conventional dance-pop ensued for the next couple of entries from Romania and Finland, and then came Portugal.
Portugal are one of the perennial underdogs of Eurovision, having entered more times without winning than any other country. A sweet folk-pop number, performed in Portuguese, looked like it probably wouldn’t do anything to change that. But then, right at the end, the lead vocalist was clearly so overcome by the occasion that she started to cry. In a way, it was a far more shocking moment than Bulgaria, Belarus or any of the other more out-there entries had managed to provide: someone for whom performing in front of a global audience of hundreds of millions was a moment of amazing, overwhelming import.
A singer for whom the experience is familiar is Chaira. Having come third for Malta in 1998, and second in 2005, here she was again, hoping to go one better once more with another full-on power ballad. After she departed, this left just one more entry, Bosnian band Regina, big enough in their home country to support the Rolling Stones, and with what felt less like a call than a flag-waving rallying cry to the masses.
The masses then cast their vote and, after an interval act featuring fake lesbians taTu, the results were revealed (in no particular order – the exact outlay of the semi-final votes won’t be revealed until after the final). A whirl of flying envelopes, a great deal of pratting about with a “magic button” and bizarre pronouncements (“Who will give more for the next winner?”; “You can’t imagine what an allergy we have here, ladies and gentlemen”) produced the following outcome:
A clean sweep for Scandinavia, as Sweden, Iceland and Finland all made it through, whilst Armenia, Romania and Bosnia also qualified. No surprises as Turkey made it through, nor Israel or Malta. The real, and very pleasant surprise, of the evening though was the qualification of Portugal. Clearly the audience had been moved by those tears, and hopefully also by the song itself.
So, ten are through, and another ten will join them on Thursday night. Among the competitors are hot favourites Alexander Rybak (for Norway) and Sakis Rouvas (for Greece) – whether the second semi-final produces the eventual winner remains to be seen…