Welcome..Europe!. Oh my God, this is enormous!. And it’s only gonna get bigger. By 2000 they had a big screen at the side of the stage for those guys in the bleachers who can’t see the stage ( a screen which seemed seriously out-of-synch when it slipped onto camera but I will happily stand corrected by anyone who was there). Co-presenter Kattis carried on the tradition of Swedish women in leather dresses after Ulrika two years earlier. Was there ever a contest when you just knew, after a song, that IS the winner. “Fly On The Wings Of Love” was the classic case of a performance, just three minutes, changing everything you thought about a song. The lead singers charisma, the laugh, the vocoder bit, the light-pens in the audience, the fireworks, it was a tour-de-force that had me bowled over after I had only previously regarded the song as one that might steal a few of the wrinklies votes from Ireland’s “Millennium of Cheese”. The most fascinating thing about Eurovision 2000 was the absolute chasm (we’re talking Grand Canyon here) between those countries, mostly in Northern Europe, who are sent poppy, televoter friendly songs in English and those countries sticking with the traditional songs, that may well reflect their culture better, but are not going to vacuum up votes in the age of free-language and televoting. The sophisticated ballad that needs a few listens to kick in (like say France, Switzerland 2000) was being ignored in favour of crowd-pleasing instant catchiness. How the more traditional countries reacted to the challenge would be one of the more interesting aspects of Eurovision in the years to come.
The Danish presentation was certainly different. The venue was enormous with people able to wander around freely during the songs, and many thousands relying on the giant screens for their view and a standing area that looked suspiciously empty most times the camera panned over it (how annoying given the paucity of tickets for non-locals). The dumb idea award for 2001 went to whoever decided that the presenters had to speak in rhyming couplets. The novelty wore off after about two minutes. However the stage was fantastic and the production very efficient. The trend towards 100 percent English language continued with only three songs containing no trace of English, Spain, Israel and Portugal, two of which were relegated. France broke an old taboo by concluding their song in English, one of no less than six countries to mix English with their native tongue. After their dire results in the previous three years, it was good to see both France (4th) and Spain (6th) submitting excellent songs and reaping the rewards. However, I guess we will never know if France, or 3rd place Greece for that matter, would have done even better if their entire song had been in English. What to make of the result? Well again a crowd-pleasing song won, the “happy happy” song of the night, whilst Norway’s “sad sad” came equal last. One worrying development for the viewer is that the commentators now appear to know the final results before we do. The scores are faxed in a few goes prior to being announced in order to combat fraud. It was clear at least in the UK that Terry Wogan knew the final result a few juries before the end when to all appearances the outcome was still in the balance. This is a worrying development – remember the tension of 1998 and FYR Macedonia’s 12 points – that excitement will have gone if the presenters reveal all beforehand. Still, there was some good news this year, at long last a black singer has won Eurovision, long overdue, Turkey and Greece are swapping votes, and the Scandi-mafia theory was blown away even if the Baltic mafia theory wasn’t. However Estonia was a worthy winner and a cool venue for 2002.
After some early uncertainty about their ability to stage the contest, Estonian television proceeded to put on a wonderful show. In several countries the profile of the contest was raised this year. The Spanish singer was selected from a ‘Pop Idol’ type show which gripped the nation. In the UK the Song for Europe actually contained some singers that people had heard of too! Jessica Garlick was already a star and pulled off a super equal third place which probably exceeded most observers estimations. After a period when male singers excelled, it was back to fairer-sex domination this year. The top 5 songs were all performed by female soloists, only the third time that this has happened in Eurovision history (after 1969 and, er, 1998..). The EBU responded to the concerns about disadvantageous early draws and decided that the playback clips just before voting would go out in reverse order. Maybe there were other factors, but there was a marked improvement with 3 of the first 5 songs finishing in the top seven. The voting very quickly turned into a two-horse race between Malta and Latvia, who had both given “big” performances with strong visual elements (which the more cynical may call gimmicks) . Both countries received votes from every other country, with the exception of Romania, who ignored them both!
Another Baltic-staged contest and another country winning the contest for the very first time. After waiting 12 years for a country to achieve a debut win (after ex-Yugoslavia in 1989) the last 3 years have brought 3 consecutive countries winning Eurovision for the first time. This sequence of events has occurred twice before (1956/57/58, predictably, with Switzerland, Netherlands & France, and 1966/67/68 with Austria, UK, & Spain). It was also an extremely close contest at the business end. Only 3 points separated the top 3 songs. The only other time in ESC history that this happened was the 4 way tie in 1969. Quite remarkable for it to happen with the current scoring system. The Baltic stranglehold was well and truly broken, Estonia had their worst result since their debut and the hosts Latvia finished second-bottom after being one of the pre-contest favourites. The United Kingdom brought off a spectacular “nul points” that was a God-send for this little website (even a link from a BBC website news page!). Many other old assumptions were knocked for six, too, as songs from very early draws and non-English songs did very well. There was some controversy when the Irish televote result arrived too late to be officially verified and the backup jury vote was used instead. After such a very tight finish the Russian TV company has been campaigning for the release of the Irish televotes (the jury awarded no points to Russia, nor Turkey for that matter!).
2004 saw some big changes. For the third time in the history of the contest there was a pre-selection after the national selections but before the big night. However, unlike in 1993 and 1996 that pre-selection didn’t take place until 3 days before the contest and was promoted as a “semi-final”, broadcast to virtually all the countries who viewed the final, utilizing the same venue and the same hosts. 36 countries entered in total, if one includes the eliminated “semi-finalists”, and amazingly all 36 were allowed to vote in the final. As anyone with an ounce of foresight could have predicted, the “semi-final” songs that made it through to the final did disproportionately well once there, in fact no less than 5 of the top 7 had the extra exposure of the semi to help them on their way. The invitation to all 36 budding countries to vote also meant of course that the massed ranks of ex-Yugoslavia and ex-USSR were give full rein to lavish votes upon each other. The Russian song, for example, which was delivered with the worst performance seen on an ESC stage in many a year, earned enough points from the apparently “eliminated” ex-Soviet Union nations to qualify for 2005. Maybe more than ever (and maybe because of the “semi”- exposure) theatre was more important than song as the aggressive shows from Ukraine and Greece pulled in the votes. The atmospheric Serbian song with a long instrumental intro was also visually powerful.
The organisers persevered with the semi-final, now just two days before the grand final. Some big favourites came to grief in the semi, including the hotly tipped Whitney-Houston-esque Dutch song, the Icelandic entry sung by 1999 runner up Selma and the much hyped Belarus entry which had been parachuted in at the 11th hour to replace the original chosen entry by uber-diva singer Angelica Agurbash. This year saw an absolute glut of “ethnic” (ie. Turkish/Shakira) sounding songs. The “whiff of the souk” (copyright Terry Wogan 1980-2005) was everywhere. In the end only the Greek variation did well. After a slow start in the voting, when maximum points were being sprayed all over the place, in the space of what seemed like just a few countries votes, Greece stormed into a clear lead that was finally decisive. One interesting facet of this contest was the return of the ballad as Malta, Israel and Latvia put forward compelling ballads that took three of the top five places.
The 2006 contest finally saw victory for Finland after four and a half decades of trying, as “death metal” band Lordi romped to victory in Athens. They put together a killer publicity campaign garnering coverage all over the world, they “were” the face of Eurovision 2006 well before the contest, and a spectacular stage show cemented their victory. There was a thankful reduction in ethnic-lite songs after 2005 but they still proved quite popular with the voters as Ukraine and debutants Armenia made the lower reaches of the top ten. Athens audiences were hit with a series of gimmick entries which did predictably well with the viewers looking for quirky novelties. Lithuania sang “We Are The Winners Of Eurovision” and stormed to their best ever placing. Ireland’s honour was restored with a top ten finish thanks to their sending the very accomplished Brian Kennedy, with no gimmicks at all. The advantages of being in the semi-final were again apparent as the ten qualifiers filled all but two of the top twelve places, and once again the countries eliminated in the semi-final (and Serbia/Montenegro who weren’t even in the contest) were allowed to vote, leading to another interminable voting sequence, which was made doubly tedious by the top three placings being well sorted way before the end. Neighbour and diaspora voting still played it’s part, but the top nine songs were well ahead of the rest and widely supported across Europe. There followed a huge drop-off in points as the songs from 14th to 21st wallowed in mediocre points return. France and Spain finished in the bottom four for the second consecutive year, and Malta were only saved from “Nul Points” by the non-participating Albania.
Helsinki hosted the fifty second contest and what a stunning production it was. The array of entries for the whole event was perhaps as diverse as it had ever been, including light opera, teen guitar pop, jazz and blues (or at least Eurovision takes on those styles). The semi-final however dismissed a lot of the variety as no Western country qualified and we were treated to a glut of pouting Slavic divas going through to the final. After a few years when there has been overt diaspora voting it’s defenders always exclaimed that it never affected the destination of the grand prix. Well all that changed in 2007 as, in a contest with no obvious standout song, the unrivalled kings of ex-pat voting called in all their diaspora present and correct and it gave them victory. Among others Turkey and Armenia did way better than deserved for the exact same reasons. Apologists of the system claimed that Western Europe voted for the East too, but 95% of that vote was from countries like Austria, Switzerland and the Benelux countries with huge immigrant communities. The hot favourite from Ukraine, Verka Serduchka, was just too bizarre to counteract the Serbian operation (although it did become the biggest hit from the contest, including making the UK top 30), and as the previous year the western countries and especially the “big four” dominated the foot of the scoreboard. Three of the most successful countries in Eurovision history (Ireland, the UK and France) filled the bottom three positions.
Hopes ran high for the 53rd contest as the EBU acknowledged the problem of ex-pat/neighbour voting, by organizing two semi-finals with the countries seeded to break up as many traditional voting patterns as possible. This meant a broader range of final qualifiers for the grand final, as the Nordic countries fared particularly well. Come the final though, there was no change in format as all forty-three participants could vote, and sadly the same voting trends that had now become entrenched played out almost identically to 2007. The word many weeks before the contest was that Russia was desperate for a win, and all the stops were pulled out, including less than transparent draws for running order (although that’s hardly a new phenomenon at the contest) and even shifting a commercial break to accommodate the Russian stage props. Thus the final result was no surprise, nor the string of twelves (and little else) from Armenia’s ex-pats, nor the strong showing of Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Ukraine On their debut this year, Azerbaijan showed that they could soon join that little club of countries with a debilitating (for the rest) head-start. To no-ones great surprise the big four again finished near the foot of the scoreboard. The UK sent Andy Abraham who finished last of all (on countback), but several leaked back-up jury votes have suggested he would have finished much higher with a mix of juries and televotes, giving some credence to Sir Terry Wogan’s comments that a black singer will not get votes from the masses in Eastern Europe. The late Sir Terry resigned his BBC commentary job at this point.
The 2009 contest saw an attempt by the European Broadcasting Union to rein in the excesses of 100% public voting by ensuring that 50% of each country’s vote came from a jury of five musical experts. This did not apply to the semi-finals though, and pretty much all the countries who qualified in 2008 also did so a year later, with the exception of Serbia (kept out by the one “jury save” going to Croatia in a delicious snippet of Balkan irony). Come the final though, the voting change immediately manifested itself after just a few set of votes, and by the end of voting, Ukraine, Greece, Russia and Armenia were licking their wounds. At last a song could prosper no matter how few ex-pats or neighbours it had. The other story of 2009 of course is the utter supremacy of Norway. Quite possibly the biggest Eurovision landslide of all time (we’re still measuring Alexander against Gigliola and Sandie!), the voting rapidly became a race for second place. But a vibrant race with genuine excitement at where each “douze points” was going. Eurovision was back with a boom bang a bang!