Eurovision leaves West behind

May 24, 2012

Is the Soviet Union finally conquering Europe? Since 2001, five former Soviet republics have won the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual jamboree of Euro-pop music where no costume is too extravagant and no effect is too over the top.

As last year’s winner, Azerbaijan gets to hold the contest this time around. The final takes place Saturday in Baku, at the just-finished Crystal Hall on the Caspian Sea, and it seems as though the sentimental favorite is the Russian group called the Buranovskiye Babushki, a group of six grandmothers in traditional dresses who may not be the tops in the harmony department but more than make up for it with wrinkly cuteness.

Their set features a replica of a big traditional Russian stove, and one of them goes through the motions of baking a tray of goodies while they sing. They don’t sing in Russian — they’re from a region called Udmurtia, and their song is in Udmurt, a language related to Finnish.

Well, most of it is. For the refrain they slip into English:

Party for everybody! Dance!

Come on and dance!

Come on and dance!

Come on and . . . Boom! Boom!

When they performed at the first semifinal Tuesday evening, the crowd loved it. The absolutely cutest gap-toothed granny is
Natalya Pugacheva, an elfin
76-year-old who, according to her biography, had just one year of schooling before going off to work on a Soviet collective farm.

She’s the oldest competitor in Baku — but just barely. The
United Kingdom’s entrant is
veteran singer Engelbert Humperdinck, six months her junior. He’ll sing “Love Will Set You Free” on Saturday.

But is Humperdinck too fluent? Though Eurovision contestants love English, it’s a peculiar brand of fractured, heavily accented, straining-at-the-bounds-of-meaning English that usually carries the day.

Rambo Amadeus, singing for Montenegro, appeared on stage in a dark hooded cape, let out a cartoon-villain howl, and sang, according to the posted lyrics:

Euro skeptic,

analfabetik, try not to be

Euro Neuro don’t be skeptik,

hermetic, pathetic, analfabetic

forget old cosmetic . . .

Analfabetic? Anyway, unlike the Russian babushki, he didn’t make it past the semifinal.

Eurovision has taken place every year since 1956, and it’s supposed to be all about bringing Europe together. Its most famous winners were Abba, the Swedish band, who sang “Waterloo” there in 1974.

Azerbaijan happens not to be in Europe. And culturally it’s not exactly Scandinavian.

For one thing, given Eurovision’s large gay following, Azerbaijan is a decidedly unfriendly place for its mostly closeted gay community.

The country is run by one of the more authoritarian governments among former Soviet republics. Journalists and dissidents have been jailed, beaten and murdered. Corruption? Crystal Hall was built by a company that turns out to be owned by the family of President Ilham Aliyev, according to a nonprofit group called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Another non-European competitor, Armenia, stayed away from this year’s contest. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war 20 years ago, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, and neither country has been able to put the past behind it. As many as a million refugees from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh fled from Armenian forces during the war, and their presence in and around Baku remains a symbol of Azerbaijani outrage. Aliyev has used Azerbaijan’s oil wealth to ramp up military spending dramatically, and from time to time he threatens to resume fighting.

Azerbaijan also has tense relations with its neighbor Iran, which has a sizable Azeri minority. Maybe that gives Eurovision a little unintended piquancy this year. What must the mullahs be thinking?

Brand-new London-style taxis — except that they’re purple — whisk Eurovision visitors around the glitzy but still lovely city of Baku. A medieval Persian core is surrounded by blocks of exuberantly art nouveau buildings that date to the last oil boom, a century ago. The breeze coming off the Caspian carries more than a whiff of petroleum, but that, after all, is the stuff that gives the city a reason to sing.

Though they take part, the English tend to be a bit snide about Eurovision, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. But pop at its most delirious demands a strange kind of sincerity. Maybe that’s why the locus of Eurovision has been shifting to Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. Amid crime, corruption, authoritarianism and disillusionment, pop is something to believe in.

Party for everybody! Why would any Russian, or any Azeri, or anyone at all, want to argue with that?

Come on and . . . Boom! Boom!

See more videos from Eurovision on the Style Blog.

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