The theme of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, ‘United by Music,’ announced both the annual musical extravaganza’s all-embracing intentions and its status as a joint endeavor. With 2022 winners Ukraine unable to host in Kyiv due to the war, the U.K. – last year’s runners-up, thanks to Sam Ryder’s soaring “Space Man” – stepped in to reinstall this ever more spectacular circus (along with multiple Ukrainian creative personnel) in Liverpool, birthplace of the Beatles. A declaration that this was to be the glitziest of collabs was served via a prologue that paired Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra, reworking last year’s winning entry “Stefania”, with the Princess of Wales, apparently providing piano accompaniment from within Windsor Castle. Soft power-a-go-go.
There was no President Zelenskyy address – ruled unduly political by the Eurovision mandarins, a decision that felt questionable even before Ukraine’s 2023 entry, Tvorchi’s “Heart of Steel,” implored “don’t be scared to say just what you think.” Yet the conflict in Ukraine seemed to haunt the background of several entries. Swiss singer Remo Forrer’s plaintive “Watergun” built outwards from the refrain “I don’t wanna be a soldier/I don’t wanna have to play with real blood.” The ramshackle Croatian comedy troupe Let 3, fortuitously taking to the stage as most viewers were several drinks deep, offered a mock-Russian folk song about tractors and Armageddon that took an audible swipe at Vladimir Putin (“That little psychopath”).
As we’d only just learned, Putin was using the cover of Eurovision night to fling further missiles in the direction of several Ukrainian cities, most pointedly Ternopil, Tvorchi’s hometown. That grim news landed altogether heavily in the middle of an event that has generally suggested what might happen if theater kids, rather than tyrants, ran the world; not even a great pop song can drown out some boom-bang-a-bangs. Yet Eurovision has long developed its own way of confronting reality, even if that’s just turning its back to shake a well-choreographed, gym-toned tush. As the lyrics of the Slovenian entry, Joker Out’s shruggingly mid-tempo “Carpe Diem,” translated: “The game of hatred is your thing/Don’t count on us.”
The bookies’ favourite was Sweden, represented by Eurovision superstar Loreen and her extraordinary nail extensions. Her tangled three-minute melodrama “Tattoo” stood head and shoulders above 98% of the songs in last week’s semifinals, yet arrived with its own Achilles heel – it wasn’t quite “Euphoria,” the elevating floorfiller with which the singer stormed to victory in 2012. Representing the contest’s more mischievous instincts, Finland’s Käärijä gave us fan favourite “Cha Cha Cha,” an industrial headbanger that segued into a cherishably sarcastic pastiche of Eurovision winners past. (One was reminded of an oppositional aside by the stand-up comic Stewart Lee: “See, I can do jokes – I just choose not to.”)
Going in as one song and coming out as another, the gleefully queer “Cha Cha Cha” best encapsulated the diversity for which Eurovision now stands. The contest remains equal parts beerhall, smörgåsbord and tapas bar, allowing onlookers to chew over recent developments in Europop. When, for one, did Portugal surpass their Spanish neighbors in the art of flamenco? What would an Austrian ode to Edgar Allan Poe sound like? (Not as thrilling as one might hope, sadly.) Why was bestubbled Cypriot Andrew Lambrou apparently singing his broken heart out from the second circle of the Inferno? German rockers Land of the Lost gestured towards a unifying theory, bellowing “we are blood and glitter.” They still finished last.
Like theater kids, Eurovision can seem relentless: for two of its four hours, it’s one damn song after another. Yet this year’s edition flowed better than most; it made for livelier viewing than most of the BBC’s Coronation coverage. The backstage interviews were typically inessential (recurring response: “I don’t know what else to say”), but our coalition of hosts – Graham Norton, Alesha Dixon, Julia Sanina and “Ted Lasso’s” Hannah Waddingham – proved briskly professional, and the skits covering scene changes were comprehensible, mostly painless, and sometimes genuinely funny. (Though Norton’s commentary box stand-in Mel Giedroyc had the best line, on Loreen’s nails: “Imagine taking your tights off with those.”)
The rejigged voting process remains a superb innovation, opening up the dourly sensible national jury system to the whims of the viewership, tasked with giving a final, imperial thumbs-up or down. Jury darling Loreen duly sailed in front, over a listless Italian ballad. (It wouldn’t be Eurovision without one inexplicable contender in the mix.) Then, however, the public barged in, the unruly mob at a lavish town hall meeting. Norway surged from 20th to 2nd. Käärijä amassed 376 points in one go. If Loreen’s midnight-hour victory – clawing herself over the line finally – came as a mild disappointment, that was because it felt a very safe choice. But there are places in Europe where safety must seem a very great luxury right now.
“Eurovision Song Contest 2023” is now streaming via the BBC iPlayer.
Executive producer: Andrew Cartmell. Executive in charge of production: James O’Brien. Series producer: Lewis Thurlow. Head producer: Mark Harnell. Senior producer: Kieran O’Brien. Technical producer: James Bonnar. Host producers: Alyona Synegina, Kim Allinson, Hilary Whitley. Senior contest producer: Maxime Klein Nagelvoort. Contest producers: Sita Patel, Amy Fung. Line producers: Caroline Lloyd, Cherrelle Redley Murrain, Leah Rumbol, Sophie Huda, Anamaria Hennessy, Sara Hulme. Assistant producers: Rosie Smedley, Mica Rowe, Nikki Dennis.
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