Hungarian Metal, Israeli Pop, Dancing Robots: It Must Be Time For Eurovision

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 10, 2018 12:25 pm

Fans of key changes, pyrotechnics and nonsensical lyrics are getting ready for their equivalent of the World Cup, taking place in Lisbon, Portugal this week, the first time the country has hosted the competition. The 63rd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest semi-finals start Tuesday and continue this Thursday, with the singing competition's grand finals on Saturday.

Each year, the contest is hosted by the previous year's winner, with an audience estimated to be around 180 million people worldwide. The contest helped launch the careers of Abba and Celine Dion, and is known for its idiosyncratic, over-the-top performances.

Salvador Sobral won on behalf of Portugal last year with an understated but emotional performance of his song "Amar Pelos Dois." After winning, Sobral decried what he called "fast-food music," a seeming swipe at the cheeseball pop that is Eurovision's bread-and-butter.

He told the crowd at the time that his win "could be a victory for ... people that make music that actually means something. Music is not fireworks, music is feeling. So let's try to change this and bring music back, which is really what matters."

Despite Sobral's overtures to the higher-brow and the progress to that end his win represented, it appears it could be a short-lived victory — most of this year's favorites to win fall firmly into the category of campy, classically Eurovision, pop.

This year's favorite to win — at least, according to bookies — is Israel's entry, the song "Toy" by Netta. It's a catchy dance number, buttressed with a message of female empowerment, with Netta declaring: "I'm not your toy, you stupid boy." And for reasons not entirely made clear, she and her backup dancers also lean heavily into what can only be described as a chicken dance routine.

The betting public also think Norway's Alexander Rybak (who was behind 2009's winning entry, the song "Fairytale") might win with his on-the-nose "That's How You Write A Song." It's a cheesy, upbeat tune that... well, features advice on how to write a song. Eurovision does not shy away from the meta.

There's another favorite going into the contest that breaks from the cheesy to take on a political issue. Madame Monsieur's "Mercy," France's entry, is an electro-pop tune inspired by the story of a baby named Mercy, born to a refugee on a French rescue ship in the Mediterranean.

Finland, Cyprus and the Czech Republic have also fielded strong contenders.

And it's not just pop music competing. There's opera from Estonia; country from the Netherlands; metal from Hungary. But it wouldn't be Eurovision without performances that leave you unsure of what, exactly, just happened.

San Marino, the micro-state with a population of just 33,000, has taken an early lead when it comes to inexplicable staging, with its entry featuring miniature dancing robots and a rapper from San Marino's (presumably) nascent rap scene recommending personal strength in the face of online bullying: "If they dissin' you on Twitter / Don't get sad, don't be bitter / Don't give up and be a quitter / Show em' you're better."

The finale of this year's Eurovision Song Contest airs in the United States on Logo TV Saturday, May 12, with semi-finals scheduled for May 8 and 10.

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If you're a fan of a certain kind of European pop music, this Saturday is a big day. It's the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, the platform that most famously launched the careers of ABBA and Celine Dion. Forty-three countries have submitted acts with original songs for this year's competition. This weekend, some 180 million fans around the world are going to be glued to their screens to hear pop offerings like this by Benjamin Ingrosso of Sweden.


BENJAMIN INGROSSO: (Singing) Just want to da-da-dance you off. So don't you da-da-dare wait up.

MARTIN: NPR's Andrew Jones is among the superfans visiting Lisbon for Eurovision. Hey, Andrew.

ANDREW JONES, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. What are you liking this year?

JONES: OK. Well, as it is many years, it's all about the cheesy pop music this year at Eurovision.

MARTIN: Of course.

JONES: So one of the songs that is really certainly setting the clubs alight but also I think is one of the bookies favorites to win is this Cypriot entry. It's called "Fuego."


ELENI FOUREIRA: (Singing) 'Cause I'm burnin' up and I ain't coolin' down. Yeah, I got the fire - ah, yeah, ah, yeah, ah, yeah, ah, yeah, ah, yeah - fuego.

MARTIN: I love it.

JONES: Absolutely, and it's, you know, super dancey (ph) as you can hear. And so, you know, picture the stage. You have this singer and her backup dancers. They're in these skintight outfits. They're dancing. They're whipping their hair all over the place. There are so many, so many pyrotechnics, Rachel.

MARTIN: Well, "Fuego," hello, Andrew - you're going to need some pyrotechnics.

JONES: Listen, literal staging is definitely something Eurovision leans into hard. But, you know, it feels like you're in a Mediterranean nightclub, and that's the sort of thing that can oftentimes absolutely get the votes.

MARTIN: All right. So a lot of cheesy pop, but there also tends to be at least one act that's just weird, right? I mean, I think I remember last year there was Romanian yodeling.

JONES: Absolutely. Well, I think we got you to yodel on the radio, Rachel, so...

MARTIN: Did we? I think I tried to forget that maybe.

JONES: Check the tape, check the tape. You know, I'm not going to say you can top the Romanian yodeling, but Israel is certainly making a push for weird and wacky, and their entry is called "Toy." It's by a singer named Netta.


NETTA: (Singing) Bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm - boy - bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm - I'm not your - bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm, bawk'm - I'm not your toy (ph).

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yeah, that's weird.

JONES: But let me tell you how it looked actually on stage. So you had Netta, the singer. She's got three backup dancers who wore these pink-and-black jumpsuits, and they're doing the most expressive dancing you can imagine. And there is this recurring theme of both the singer and her dancers doing, like, a chicken dance. It's a lot, but if you believe the betting websites, it could actually win as well.

MARTIN: The U.S. is not in this competition, right? So how do...


MARTIN: How do we make American audiences care about Eurovision, Andrew?

JONES: Well, we give them very entertaining commentators to make fun of it all is what we do. In the U.S., it's going to be airing on Logo TV, which is a cable TV channel sort of aimed at an LGBT audience. And so there is commentary from Ross Mathews, who is a judge on "RuPaul's Drag Race," and Shangela, who was a contestant on the show. So I called up Shangela yesterday to say, if you were to try and convince an average American why they should be watching, what would you tell them?

SHANGELA: I'd say, baby, listen. Now, I know that you have a lot of things that you could do with your Saturday afternoon, but what of those things is going to leave you possibly with your jaw on the ground? What is going to make you feel like you spent the best afternoon of your life? That would be watching Eurovision because this is not only a singing competition, but this is the singing Super Bowl of the world. OK? This is the singing Olympics. So get your life, get your popcorn, and come on over and watch Eurovison.

MARTIN: Get your life, get your popcorn.

JONES: Absolutely. I don't think you can argue with that logic.

MARTIN: Absolutely not, absolutely not. NPR's Andrew Jones covering Eurovision from Lisbon, doing the hard work. Thanks so much, Andrew.

JONES: Any time, Rachel.


DOREDOS: (Singing) Number one, keep rollin'. Say you're real, I'm hopin'. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.