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Holograms, Wind Machines, and Rising Like a Phoenix: A review of Eurovision 2014

Monday, 12 May, 2014

Grab the Kleenex, dear friends. Find a strong shoulder to cry on. Hold my hand. Yes, it’s true. The 59th Eurovision Song Contest is officially over for 2014. I know, I know. It’s tragic. I’m already having hairspray withdrawal symptoms.

This year held in Copenhagen, Denmark, the only way to describe Eurovision for those who have not yet seen it is that it’s basically European Idol on steroids. What contest is complete without pyrotechnics, human hamster wheels, fire, and costumes that look like the entire cast of Wicked threw up on them? Think wind machines, glitter, and hairstyles that well and truly belong behind the Iron Curtain. With competitors from 37 countries (and viewers from countless more—hellooo Australia), Eurovision is entwined with the underlying complexities of EU tensions, all culminating in one lucky country being awarded the coveted Eurovision trophy. It is hilarious, daggy, and unashamedly fabulous.

Last year, more than 180 million people worldwide tuned into the extravaganza, then held in Malmo, Sweden. With this weekend’s spectacular arguably the most talked about in its nearly 60-year history, and some cracking best moments, viewing audience records are expected to be smashed like the Berlin Wall. More than ever, Aussies have claimed the contest as our own, with our debut performance at intermission care of the gorgeous Jessica Mauboy.

Although touted as a non-political musical contest that unites all of Europe through power ballads and fake eyelashes, this year it seems current events just couldn’t be left in the wings. Indeed, the tension between Ukraine and Russia remained the enormous, bumbling elephant in the stadium. It rose to a ferocious climax when the Russian entrants, the Tomalchevy Sisters, were audibly booed during both the semis and the grand final voting. The 17-year-old twins began their song “Shine” with interconnected ponytails that resembled a faux umbilical cord, and spent most of their time on stage on a giant seesaw. Crooning “living on the edge, closer to the crime, cross the line, one step at a time… maybe there’s a day you’ll be mine,” you don’t have to be Henry Kissinger to interpret their lyrics as mirroring the invasion of Crimea and Russia’s territorial ambitions in the former Soviet Bloc.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian songstress Mariya Yaremchuk and her somewhat ironically titled song “Tick Tock” was accompanied by a guy in a human hamster wheel and some pretty impressive hair extensions blowing in the wind machine breeze. Maria stressed the song was free from political intentions. Well, with lines such as “my heart is like a clock, you wind it with your love”, it probably was. Still, controversy arose when organisers revealed that Crimea’s Eurovision votes were counted as Ukrainian because their tallies were based on existing national telephone codes. And, for those playing at home, Ukraine beat Russia by one spot—the feuding nations coming sixth and seventh respectively.

Not to be overshadowed, the 35 other Eurovision entrants arrived at Copenhagen’s B&W Hallerna stadium armed with plenty of conversation-starters.

21-year-old Danish crooner Basim belted out “Cliché Love Song” to his home crowd, all about falling in love with a lesbian. Slovenia’s entry consisted of a woman dressed like an evil Disney character, armed with a jazz flute, while Romania’s featured a 30 second hologram of their singer Paula, uncannily resembling a fourth Kardashian sister. Greek band Freaky Fortune’s “Rise Up” was said to inspire the disgruntled Greek youth into rebellion and revolution, but really appeared an excuse for men in tight pants to jump up and down on a trampoline. Belarus’ entry “Cheesecake” was not so much an ode to baked goods as it was lead singer Teo berating his ex-girlfriend for calling him her “sweet cheesecake”. Often referred to as the European rip-off of Robin Thicke, his dance moves were a little more Backstreet Boy, and perhaps served best in moderation.

And Poland’s sexed-up, saucy “We Are Slavs” consisted entirely of washerwomen, boobs, butter churning, boobs, traditional dancing and, well, boobs. This might explain why the video has been viewed over 43 million times on YouTube, and why UK voters ranked the Polish performance number one. Apparently, nothing says Europe like a busty milkmaid.

Crowd favourite, Swedish singer Sanna Nielsen, warbled beautifully, but may need some English lessons after key chorus line “undo my sad”. But the sad was truly undone for tiny Republic San Marino, who got a little emotional after finally qualifying for the final after four failed attempts and two withdrawals for financial reasons, having only participated in the contest since 2008. It was entrant Valentina Monetta’s third time at Eurovision, and, with a population only three times larger than the actual crowd at the Copenhagen stadium, questions have been raised as to whether there are actually any other singers in San Marino who could enter.

Yes, it appeared that the theme for the night was well and truly one of acceptance. Proudly known as a gay icon, the Eurovision Song Contest stood as a strong statement against Russia’s anti-LGBTI laws, Copenhagen swarming with pride flags and expressions of tolerance.

“No Prejudice”, sung by Icelandic band Pollapönk, saw members looking like the Wiggles on LSD, in suits every colour of the rainbow, and a member of their own parliament on background vocals. “Being middle aged, heterosexual, white men makes us a majority group and we believe that we should use this opportunity to point out the injustice in the world,” the band, who are mostly pre-school teachers by day, told Gay Star News. And what was behind their decision to rock dresses on the Eurovision red carpet? One member replied simply, “it’s very comfortable to wear, and I feel sexy.”

But the resounding highlight of the night indisputably went to the winner of the Contest for 2014, Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst. With her cascading locks, piercing eyes, enviable figure, and bushy brown beard, Conchita wowed audiences internationally with her rousing rendition of “Rise Like A Phoenix”, widely touted as a genuine candidate for the next Bond theme.

25-year-old Conchita is no stranger to controversy. Following the announcement of her candidature last year, a 31,000 like-strong “Anti-Wurst” Facebook campaign began, and, in October, Belarus’ Ministry of Information called for her performance be edited out of their Eurovision broadcast, deemed a “hotbed of sodomy.” Russia and Armenia launched similar petitions against her televising. The leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party even asserted that Conchita showed that the Soviet army made a mistake in freeing Austria from occupation fifty years ago. Wow.

Still, Ms Wurst, born Tom Neuwith, clearly didn’t allow politics to rain on her spangly parade. Her “Phoenix” anthem, an ode to those struggling with identity and discrimination, was heralded a grand success and, last night, secured the first Eurovision victory for Austria since 1966 with a win of 290 points. More importantly, Conchita’s tears of shock and heartfelt thank yous saw her winning hearts all over the world. “I hope we can change just a few minds,” Wurst’s agent René Berto said. “It is just a lady with a beard. But it is like we have landed on the moon.”