Not familiar with the Eurovision Song Contest? Ten years ago, I wasn’t either. It was May 2006, I was studying abroad in Spain, and all of a sudden everyone was talking about this …. singing reality show, I guessed? … with an enthusiasm that seemed almost American. The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual competition between European countries and, for some reason, Australia. Each country submits an original song then votes on other countries’ songs. Ireland has won the most times, which doesn’t surprise me and shouldn’t surprise you. (It’s to the extent where one year Ireland was just like screw it, we’re sending a turkey puppet. That really happened. They really sent a turkey puppet and DIDN’T GET THE FEWEST POINTS. It apologized for Riverdance.)
Learning about the Eurovision Song Contest was the only time during my study abroad semester when I could feel myself turning into an Ugly American. Because when Americans see nice things that we don’t have, we try to find a way to muscle our way in there. I mean, singing competitions? We invented singing competitions! Or, okay, we stole all our best ones from the UK. But they’re pretty good copies! However, watching the contest this year, I couldn’t deny the truth: if the U.S.A. strong-armed our way into the contest, we’d ruin it. We’d rig the votes. Our original song would have too much production and too little heart. American voters would complain about songs not being in English. We’d demand a recount (which -wow! – voters are actually doing this year after Ukraine’s win.) It’s better we watch this one from afar and not try to join in, as difficult as it is for Americans to not show other countries that we can do things too.
However, in the great American tradition, that won’t stop me from offering on my opinion on things I have no say in. Here’s what an American think about the five top-ranked songs in the fantastic 2016 Eurovision Song Contest.
Ukraine: 1944 (Jamala)
American Take: We have this rule, too. The thing about World War II always wins. The Oscars? The thing about World War II always wins. Tony Awards? The Emmys? World War II, winner. Even high school art shows: the pencil sketch or papier mache sculpture about World War II always wins. It’s nice to know that some things, like smiles, laughter, and “the thing about World War II always wins,” are the same wherever you live.
(In any event, this was haunting and beautiful, but the melody kind of sounds like when I’d make up a song as I went along as a kid. Jamala wrote 1944 about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union, and it just narrowly sidestepped the Eurovision rule against “political content” because it’s easy to interpret the song as being about the recent Russian annexation of Crimea. )
Australia: Sound Of Silence (Dami Im)
American Take: Oh come on. AUSTRALIA? If we don’t get to play, you don’t get to play. I know everybody loves you because you have the laid-back, informal attitude of America without the arrogance or divisive foreign policy, but you still aren’t European. Besides, Australia has an unfair advantage, being an enormous country whose main export is charismatic entertainers. (Dami Im, an Australian citizen, was born in South Korea, so she really has Excellence In Pop Music written on all her nationalities.) How about this: Australia, the USA and Canada can start our own contest. We’ll even invite New Zealand.
Anyway, song’s good. It has kind of a 90s pop sound, with techno-influenced backing music and soaring vocals, and I think it easily could have been the winner if Ukraine’s song weren’t about World War II. Apparently, it would have been the winner under the old voting rules.
Know who else had a song called The Sound Of Silence? AMERICANS.
Russia: You Are The Only One (Sergey Lazarev)
American Take: Tons of bonus points for the staging and graphics here. As a song? It kind of sounds like something that would play in one of those roller coaster where you’re in the dark. If I ran more, it would probably be a good running song, too. Lazarev is an enthusiastic performer with a strong voice.There’s kind of a Ricky Martin/ Marc Anthony vibe as well. Good job, Russia.
Bulgaria: If Love Was A Crime (Poli Genova)
American Take: Yo. Poli? I don’t know how things are going for you in Bulgaria – probably pretty great, you were their Eurovision pick after all – but you might belong on American radio. I don’t just mean that she’s good ( I mean, she is) but you could swap this out for any Shakira/ Rhianna/ Meghan Trainor / ANYTHING song on Top 40 Radio and I wouldn’t even notice the difference. Great, now I’m going to be singing “O, dai mi liubovta” for the rest of the day, if only because liubovta is so fun to say.
Sweden: If I Were Sorry (Frans)
American Take: Sweden: Small country, BIG talent. And everyone loves Sweden. They’re effortlessly cool, but they seem down-to-earth. Now, when I hear Swedish Pop I expect something like Abba or Robyn, or on the more modern side, something like Lykke Li or Tove Lo. I would not have expected this song. But I like it! I’m always a pushover for whichever Eurovision song isn’t as much a “big, pop production” and is more just a … song. I don’t know. Also, Frans is adorable.
There were some songs in the Grand Final that didn’t make the top 5, but maybe should have. Every year, Eurovision audiences come away that their favorites didn’t get the most votes, and I’m no different. Here are a few that I’d have liked to see with more points:
The Netherlands: Slow Down (Douwe Bob)
American Take: Sounding kind of like 1970s AM Radio, kind of like an original song for an independent film, and sort of like American new folk, this was a nice break from some of the “lots of drums, lots of vocal riffs, lots of computer noises” songs that predominate the contest.
France: J’ai Cherche (Amir)
American Take: I just love how France is all “non, non, non, we are not doing this in English. Well, some of it in English. But not all of it” I also love this song. I might be a sucker for claps, though. Might be.