When the pandemic struck Europe in March 2020, the culture and events industries were badly impacted. Festivals were cancelled, tours were cancelled, shows were cancelled, but worst of all… Eurovision was cancelled. The three-night musical smörgåsbord had never been cancelled before in its sixty year history – and given that its original ethos was to unite Europe in times of difficulty, its presence was sorely missed. If you didn’t know that Eurovision actually takes place over three nights and not just one, consider yourself informed, because you’re not going to want to miss the semi finals this year. Yes, Eurovision is back, baby, and better than ever (well, depending on who you ask). Most of the artists scheduled to compete in 2020 are back too. Having had a year of time to prepare their 2021 entries, they, along with the new contestants, have cooked up an incredible playlist of songs, ranging from hard rock to hyperpop. And this time, unlike last year, one of these songs is actually going to win.
Nobody won last year, because to actually hold a contest would have been unfair on the host country, the Netherlands, and would also have voided the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)’s insurance policy. As a result, we’re back in Rotterdam as scheduled and, despite the obvious limits that the coronavirus has brought, the city has stepped up to the plate. Organisers had devised four potential scenarios for Eurovision depending on the severity of the pandemic by May 2021, ranging from everything as normal (sadly, a pipe dream) to what would essentially be a four hour Zoom call. Luckily, fate has been kind to us and, for the audience at home, Eurovision 2021 should seem largely normal, as there’ll be a reduced audience, live performances, interval acts, voting. For the acts, less so; everybody has to be quarantined in their hotel room outside of rehearsals and the actual shows, and of course all the usual festivities surrounding the contest have been cancelled. This is a shame, because the parties, club nights and camaraderie between contestants are some of the best things about Eurovision. Most contestants however, especially those returning, are grateful to be going to Eurovision at all. Armenia and Belarus won’t be back, sadly – the former due to the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and the latter due to the fact that the entry that was sent was essentially a thinly-veiled piece of pro-Lukashenko propaganda (as well as an awful song). The biggest casualty of coronavirus, however, is Montaigne from Australia, who along with her delegation has essentially been banned by SBS (Australia’s broadcaster) from travelling to the Netherlands. Her performance will actually be a ‘live on tape’ video from Australia which has already been pre-recorded under the supervision of an EBU delegate. Whether or not this will really work remains to be seen, but I worry that this decision has effectively quashed Australia’s qualification chances, which is a shame because Montaigne’s song “Technicolour” is a good song, and a step in the right direction for the country.
Despite this, everyone else (last-minute infections aside) should be present and correct in Rotterdam, and as rehearsals prepare to kick off this week, the betting markets are preparing to go into overdrive. This is a very open year, but some of the favourites to win include Malta’s 1920s-inspired female empowerment anthem “Je Me Casse” (sung by a former Britain’s Got Talent contestant!), France’s Édith Piaf-esque chanson “Voilà”, Switzerland’s car-crash ballad “Tout l’Univers” (no, literally – watch the video), and of course Iceland’s returning act Daði Freyr, whose synthpop ode to his baby daughter, “Think About Things”, went viral last year. Other favourites include the aggravatingly young and talented Italian rock band Måneskin, San Marino’s Flo Rida collab (no word on whether he’ll be in Rotterdam yet) and, purely in my humble opinion, Greece’s 80s revival dance banger. That said, there are a good ten acts which could feasibly take the win, as well as another ten which are wonderful but unlikely contenders and which I couldn’t possibly hope to do justice to in such a short article (though if you want my recommendations, listen to the songs of Russia, Belgium, Ukraine and Czechia). And, of course, things can change very quickly in Eurovision – 2018’s second place act Eleni Foureira of Cyprus was languishing near the bottom third of the odds before rocketing to first place after rehearsals.
Now, is the UK amongst these potential winners? Unfortunately, the answer is probably not, though that doesn’t mean that our entry “Embers” won’t do reasonably well. Even if the song doesn’t do so well, it still represents a big improvement on the UK’s previous white bread entries. There’s a tendency to view Eurovision songs out of context and to decide that a specific song deserves a certain placing – winner, top 5, left hand side of the board, and so on. Unfortunately, lots of songs which do deserve these great results simply don’t attain them – not because they were robbed, but because there are 38 other songs in this competition, and contrary to popular belief, a lot of them are really good! Only one song can win, but every year has several deserved potential winners. That’s why I hope that wherever James Newman (brother of the singer John Newman) comes, the UK can be proud of having sent a credible song which, incredibly for the BBC, was actually written by its performer. The BBC’s new collaboration with record label BMG is intended to be the beginning of a rebranding of the contest’s image for artists, and I fear that if they don’t get the good results that they’re hoping for then the BBC’s approach will begin to regress. James is up against an extremely strong cohort of songs and performers this year, but “Embers” is still easily one of the UK’s best entries of the 21st century. Whatever happens on May 22nd, I hope he knows that he certainly has not embarrassed himself.