Lithuanians are really, really into the Eurovision Song Contest. On Saturday night I went out into the old city with Richard, an English bloke who lives here. The first bar we went to, which made its own very good beer, was dead. I think there was one other group of people in there. The second bar, a very cool and trendy place in a cellar, was completely empty. We asked the barman and he said it was because everyone was home watching the Eurovision Song Contest. I thought he was joking, but Richard assured me it probably was the case.
Eventually we spied a bar which seemed to be buzzing, went inside, and discovered that the reason for its busy-ness was that it had a big screen showing the Eurovision. People were cheering, whooping and going crazy, particularly when the Lithuanian number started up.
For any readers not from Europe, I may need to supply a bit of background here. The Eurovision song contest has been going on annually for years and years (I think I heard last night it was the 51st year). It involves every European country selecting a song to be performed in competition with every other country. When I was young this wasn’t too many countries, since the Warsaw Pact didn’t enter, since it was all too decadent or something, and anyway, there weren’t that many countries in Europe back then. Now there are bloody loads and there appears to be one more every year (as I type this Montenegrins are going to the polls to decide whether to start another one). It has always been a fairly rubbish event, that us world-weary and cynical Brits have tended to look down upon, and I honestly can’t remember ever thinking it was a worthwhile competition which one should cheer on ones favourites in. (And it certainly wouldn’t empty the pubs on a Saturday night). But since the collapse of Eastern bloc, the new entrants have certainly taken it to their hearts and really see it as a way to put themselves on the map.
The other big change is in the nature of the songs and the voting system (which may be related). At some point (possibly with advent of mobile phones) the voting went from being some kind of national juries charged with awarding the points from each nation, to being a public voting thing (I’ll leave you to decide whether this is a valuable progressive step towards democracy in everyday life or an opportunity for mobile phone companies to make money from each SMS-ed vote). In tandem with this change, the songs have more and more tended to be all sung in English (so as to appeal to a greater proportion of the pan-European voting public), and the songs themselves have become less and less important as it has become more vital to catch the eye and be memorable (especially since the audience now has to sit through so many songs). Last year, for example, the Moldovan entry (which despite the gimmick was easily the best one) incorporated an old woman wandering round banging a big drum while this mad group of nutters sang about grandma banging the drum. Last nights featured “Lordi” a group of heavy-metallers from Finland in mock horror masks. The most common eye-catcher used by many nations is to try and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in terms of having scantily clad attractive women singing or dancing around the singer in some way.
The Lithuanian entry, which had everyone so excited last night, was 6 blokes in suits doing a number about how they were the Eurovision winners and urging people to vote for them. It wasn’t a song as such, but more of a football chant. I learned later that it was kind of a jokey but deliberate attempt to subvert the format – the blokes are all TV personalities here, and they deliberately didn’t have any women on stage with them. The ended up coming 6th, Lithuania’s best ever performance, which probably says something, though I don’t know what.
The most comical part is the voting. Each country votes separately and then gives points to the top ten vote receivers there. Plus you can’t vote for your own country’s song. What this in effect means (it certainly seems from last night) is that immigrant populations sway the votes considerably. Germany, for example, gave maximum points to Turkey’s entry last night. While Russia finished second largely based on the fact that they got maximum points from lots of the nations of the former USSR which still have large Russian minorities, plus Israel. Also there is a lot of neighbourliness, with Scandinavian countries giving their top points to their neighbours, and even the former Yugoslavia putting aside the past to vote for each other in a touching gesture of post-civil war fraternity. Lithuania got maximum points from Ireland, in what I thought was testament to the Irish love of a good joke, but was told today that it’s because there are loads of Lithuanians in Ireland.
Romania, whose song I didn’t see, pipped Lithuania for 5th place. (Lot of votes from Moldova, surprisingly). Hungary didn’t take part for some reason. Perhaps a sudden rush of good taste, or a feeling of being above it all. Or maybe they just forgot to send in their entry forms this year. They were in it last year; I remember their song, which was quite a good one, though sung badly – in direct counterpoint to the Romanian one which was a bad song sung well.
Oh, and the Finnish horror rockers won by a country mile, despite not having a widely spread diaspora. Obviously the mask thing worked. Or perhaps because Finland produced most of the voting equipment that will have been used by the electors of Europe.