In 2021, it’s beyond reductive to dismiss Eurovision as a kitsch oddity. Yes, the annual song contest is kitsch and odd – Azerbaijan’s entry is a thumping tribute to World War One spy Mata Hari – but it’s also a genuine spectacle brimming with creativity. In a way, Eurovision has never been cooler. Will Ferrell’s Netflix film The Story of Fire Saga was a fundamentally affectionate send-up; 2019’s winning song, ‘Arcade’ by Dutch singer Duncan Laurence, became a global hit after going viral on TikTok.
After the pandemic rendered 2020’s contest impossible, nothing has been left to chance. Rotterdam’s Ahoy Arena welcomes a cautious, 20 per cent-capacity audience for tonight’s grand final and Iceland’s stellar entry, ’10 Years’ by Daði og Gagnamagnið, competes using a pre-recorded rehearsal performance after a band member tested positive for COVID. The show must go on, and if that means one singer – Russia’s Manizha – arrives on stage inside a giant motorised Russian doll, well, so much the better.
More than half of the finalists were re-selected by their home nation after last year’s contest was cancelled, underlining the generosity of spirit that has come to define Eurovision. Collectively, they coalesce to create an incredibly random musical brew. Furious Linkin Park-esque rock (Finland’s ‘Dark Side’) rubs shoulders with a ’90s boy-band ballad (Norway’s ‘Fallen Angel’) and a shameless Lady Gaga rip-off (Cyprus’ ‘El Diablo’). Serbian girl band Hurricane don’t deliver the night’s slickest performance, but the way they fling themselves at bolshy Europop banger ‘Loco Loco’ conjures up the devil-may-care chaos of a messy night out. Given how few of those we’ve had recently, it’s kind of life-affirming.
Of course, Eurovision wouldn’t be Eurovision without at least one baffling aberration. This year’s WTF moment is provided by Germany’s Jendrik, whose ukulele-led cringe-fest ‘I Don’t Feel Hate’ sounds a bit like Jack Johnson covering the ninth best song from an ’80s movie soundtrack. During his perma-grinning performance, Jendrik trades dance moves with a woman swallowed whole by a peace sign costume; it’s all so desperately twee it makes the average CBeebies show look like a Martin Scorsese movie.
Guttingly, this utter embarrassment places ahead of the UK’s entry, ‘Embers’, a perfunctory but not unappealing dance-pop banger from James Newman. The Yorkshireman sings well on the night but gets hobbled by basic staging: yes, his song has an effective horn breakdown, but does this mean he needs to be flanked by a pair of giant trumpets? Newman doesn’t deserve to finish rock bottom with nul points – the first time this has happened since 2015 – but nothing about his performance stands out. If we really want to finish higher next year, we need to punch up our visuals as well as our pop hooks.
Still, at least the winner is deserving. Charismatic Italian band Måneskin take the crown after dominating the public vote with ‘Zitti E Buoni’, an undeniable rock stomper with a hint of Franz Ferdinand in its slick guitar riffs. Lead singer Damiano David even remembered to tell the world “rock and roll never dies!” during the band’s emotional acceptance speech. It just goes to show that even after 65 years, there’s no real template for what a Eurovision winner should look or sound like. France’s emotive but perhaps slightly on-the-nose chanson, ‘Voilà’ by Barbara Pravi, is a creditable enough runner-up. Malta’s entry, the empowering soulful pop ‘Je Me Casse’ by 18-year-old singer Destiny, definitely deserves better than its seventh place finish.
Like this month’s Brit Awards, the whole thing adds up to a welcome reminder of the joys of live performance on a grand scale. Graham Norton’s affectionate irreverence is comfortingly familiar; past winners including Duncan Laurence and Lordi pop up during the interval; and the Dutch presenters do a thoroughly decent job. Their MVP: Nikkie de Jager aka YouTube superstar NikkieTutorials, the first trans person to host Eurovision, who has cleverly incorporated the colours of the trans flag into her outfits all week. In doing so, she continues Eurovision’s proud tradition as a stealthy vessel for LGBTQ visibility. What other show offers such an unlikely mix of the sincere and the ridiculous? Eurovision, it really is great to have you back.