The Same old Song and Dance

The New York Times reports on the utter sham and humiliation that is Russia’s participation in the Eurovision song and dance contest:

One year it was the thinly veiled taunts of a doughy Ukrainian drag queen in silver-sequined accouterments that chafed Russian sensibilities. This year has brought a Georgian disco troupe with a song poking fun at the Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, along with a Swedish techno group that recently set off a minor diplomatic dispute with a show featuring Russian soldiers, go-go dancers and a man in a bear suit dancing to the Soviet anthem.

It’s all part of an international melodrama, playing out to the pounding, thump-chick, thump-chick of the Eurovision Song Contest, the half-century-old European pop music carnival famous more for its glitter and fluorescent spandex than for its catchy melodies. And more often than not, in recent years, Russia has found itself the butt of the jokes, satires and downright nasty remarks, as artists wrangle over the unresolved complexes and insecurities born of the Soviet collapse and the pains of European integration.

This year, though, the commentary promises to carry a special bite, because Moscow will host the competition, similar to “American Idol,” in just under a month.

Political dramas have emerged elsewhere, of course. This year’s entry from Israel, featuring an Israeli Arab singer and a Jewish pop star, has stirred political passions there.

But the competition in Moscow this year takes place against a backdrop of growing Russian assertiveness — in political and military affairs, as well as in athletic and music competitions — that has prompted a skittishness in European capitals that extends from the political arena to the disco floor.

That assertiveness, for reasons that remain elusive, has extended to Eurovision. Russia has reportedly pumped huge resources into its quest, attained last year, to produce a Eurovision champion. Last year’s winning act featured Dima Bilan, a Russian pop singer with a mullet hairdo, gyrating on stage as Yevgeny Plyushchenko, the Olympic champion figure skater, pirouetted on a patch of artificial ice. The American rap artist Timbaland helped write the winning song, “Believe.”

That victory in Belgrade, Serbia, which gave Russia the right to host this year’s event, prompted an outpouring of patriotic fervor. Mr. Putin called the win “yet another triumph for all of Russia” and personally ordered one of his top deputies to organize the 2009 event.

“For whatever reason, in Russia this contest is taken very seriously,” said Artemy Troitsky, a Russian music critic. Government-run television channels, he said, “make people feel that the Eurovision Song Contest is like an annual Stalingrad battle.”

While Eurovision has given early exposure to pop culture giants like Abba and Céline Dion over the years, many Western European countries seem to approach the contest with a bit more mirth and far less seriousness. (A puppet turkey represented Ireland last year, for instance). In the spirit of democracy, past winners have been chosen in direct elections that counted telephone calls or text messages. Voters could select any contestant except for the one from their own country.

But Russia’s Eurovision victory last year, and Serbia’s the year before that, prompted Eurovision organizers to change the voting rules for 2009 to include a panel of professional judges after complaints about what many in Western Europe derisively referred to as “bloc voting” from Eastern European countries.

“At the very beginning of the year, I said Russia would win this for political reasons, and they did,” Sir Terry Wogan, Britain’s Eurovision host told the BBC in an interview last year shortly before announcing that he would end his 35-year run because of bloc voting. “The U.S.S.R. has begun to be a bit bearish again, and I think, in general, the former countries of the U.S.S.R. are feeling a little nervous.”

There are also fears that a clash of values could erupt between the competition’s conservative Russian hosts and the more liberal-minded guests expected to pour into the capital. Calls for a gay pride march in Moscow to coincide with the competition met with a stern rebuke from Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who has called public gay rights events “gay propaganda” and “satanic acts.”

At a news conference in December, when the mayor of Belgrade handed over the symbolic Eurovision key to Mr. Luzhkov, the Moscow mayor promised that foreign gays and lesbians would be allowed to freely enter Russia like anyone else.

“Come and relax,” Mr. Luzhkov said. “There is no problem with that. But not on the streets and the squares.”

Stodginess like this has subjected Russia to attacks — some playful and some not — from other countries in the competition, most often from Ukrainians and Georgians, who had ousted Russian-backed governments through so-called colored revolutions some years back.

Verka Serdyuchka, a middle-aged Ukrainian drag queen, incensed Russians at Eurovision 2007 with her song “Dancing Lasha Tumbai,” a made-up phrase that many took to mean “Russia, Goodbye.” This year, Eurovision officials requested that Georgia change the politically tinged lyrics of its tune, “We Don’t Wanna Put In.” After the obvious reference to Mr. Putin in the song’s chorus, they sing about how “the negative mood is killing the groove.”

Still steaming after Georgia’s utter defeat in a short war with Russia last August, Georgian organizers decided instead to pull out last month, claiming that Eurovision officials buckled under pressure from Moscow, though Russian officials deny any involvement.

“In our case this year, it has been proven that this is an absolutely political competition,” said Kakha Tsiskaridze, one of the producers of Stephane and 3G, the group behind “We Don’t Wanna Put In.” “After Moscow called us hooligans and said we should not be allowed to perform in this competition, we were pushed out without any real explanation.”

Russian officials have responded to each song slight angrily. After the dancing bear performance by the Swedish techno group last month at a Eurovision preliminary contest in Stockholm, the Russian ambassador to Sweden recommended that the performers be “treated in a psychiatric hospital.” (The group was not selected to attend Eurovision in Moscow.)

But internal controversies could be Russia’s undoing this year. Anastasia Prikhodko, the singer selected to represent Russia at the contest, has caused an uproar because of her ethnic Ukrainian roots. It has not helped that she is performing a song written by a Georgian, with a chorus sung in Ukrainian.

7 responses to “The Same old Song and Dance

  1. bloc voting… meh. On the one hand it is, yes, similar tastes in music (a Scandinavian tends to find an average Balcan entry much too garish, for example, and pretty much no-one “gets” the Spanish or Finnish entries every year) combined with a sense of recognition: of course you’ll vote for a country that you kind of like rather than for one that you haven’t even heard much about.

    on the other hand it’s about immigrants. Germany and Cyprus almost always give 12 points to Turkey and we all know how “friendly” Cyprus is with Turkey… Likewise the Russian votes in the Baltics… Overall there seem to be less people immigrating from Western Europe to Eastern Europe (duh!) and then voting for their country from their new location. And it might not even be a conscious choice to specifically then vote for YOUR country, but just a matter of taste from your previous cultural background.

  2. The fact of voting former USSR countries for Russia tells that between our people there is mental connexion, in spite of effort of their goverments and antirussian propaganda.

    • The “mental connexion”, sweetie, seems to be a repulsed hatred. You really need to put the vodka bottle down and get out more.

      • I heard vodka “Stolichnaya”, wich is maded by “PepsiCo”, is very popular in US. Paradoxically, may be, I like whisky.

  3. No agly”muff”, it shows that there is no loyalty to the state they live in amongst the Russian minorities living there.

  4. You devised explanation, which is suit you. good job

  5. For the record, of the seven countries that gave Russia the maximum 12 points last year, six were former Soviet republics and the seventh was Israel, all with large Russian diasporas. Moldova gave them 10, as did Serbia.

    When Serbia won last year, it was with the help of maximum votes from all five former Yugoslav republics. I think you can see Terry Wogan’s point.

    I happened to see the Russia first channel news the day after the 2007 contest. I wondered why the news reader was so glum faced when talking about something so frivolous as Eurovision. He clearly felt that the Russian nation should be seriously disappointed at being beaten into 3rd position by the Serbian entry and the Ukrainian drag queen. He then said that an international musicologist had analysed the three songs (including the mediocre entry by a Russian girl band) and concluded that the Russian entry was technically the best.

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