I was in Globen last night, Monday 9th May, for the Jury performance for the first Semi Final of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest. This was the first time the acts would be performing in-front of a big paying audience after weeks of rehearsals. Sergey Lazarev, the Russian megastar, has spent his Eurovision well away from Western Europe. He’s continued on with his massive tour around Russia and neighbouring satellite states and only ventured to Eurovision preview events in Moscow and Tel Aviv, the latter of which had an invite only audience.
Monday night was the first chance a Western European audience got to witness him in action. Globen wasn’t quite full, but still packed a punchier atmosphere than most Jury performances offer. At song eight was the ultimate in dad disco from Serhat, the Turkish-born TV show host who has managed to represent San Marino this year through who knows what negotiations behind closed doors.
It’s exactly at this point the show needs a saviour to take it by storm. Lazarev was the person chosen by the producers to sing ninth and the crowd went wild for his highly-choreographed number. He clambered across his stage prop Super Mario style before ending up atop the huge platform blasting the top notes triumphantly.
In one moment he became the hero of our times.
Dancing With The Russian Demons In Our Minds
We don’t have to go back too far to find a Russian Eurovision entry that has been adored by Eurovision fans, and any casual fan will remember the adorable grannies who hobbled across the Baku stage and captured the hearts of millions. They finished 2nd. Eurovision fans warmed to the minority-language village choir; here was a group which really shouldn’t have been representing a nation as powerful as Russia was.
For comparison the year before in 2011 Russia’s song was written by the man behind Lady Gaga, RedOne, churning out handsome popstar Alex Sparrow and flashy light-up costumes. Indeed Russia’s sole winner in the Song Contest came from Dima Bilan, performing ‘Believe’ in 2008. The National Final that year was billed as a battle between pop icons Dima and Sergey, who in the end came 4th with the Europop ‘Flyer’. It was Dima though who went on to rope in Olympic figure skating champions and massive American producers to make ‘Believe’ into a song passable enough to win the Eurovision Song Contest, aided by Dima’s huge popularity in the former USSR countries that suddenly in 2008 made a massive voting bloc.
Moscow’s hosting of the Contest in 2009 was extravagant. The scale of the competition was lifted once again by the huge arena setting. We haven’t had a Eurovision stage as colossal since, and it’s going to be a long time until we do again. The rouble was strong and Russia was flashing its cash to show what it could do with an international platform. Looking back it seems obvious, with a World Cup bid coming up, Russia was determined to show the Eurovision Song Contest would be a huge success and prove the country would do a brilliant and safe show.
It’s Far More Than Just Putin
A disruption to the ‘look how amazing we are narrative’ came in two forms. The first was from a disgruntled Georgia, still furious at Russia’s military involvement on their breakaway states in the north of the country, by withdrawing after its original submission, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’, was disqualified on political grounds. Another stumbling block became the LGBT community, who tried and failed to tie Eurovision with gay rights events, but did attract international media attention to the plight.
Eurovision and the gay community have become increasingly intertwined. While far from everybody in the bubble and in the OGAE membership with tickets on the floor, they are arguably the most significant ‘bloc’ at this mega party of culture and song. They know a thing or two about the political struggles that have become tougher for the LGBT community with the infamous ‘anti-gay law’ about spreading gay ‘propaganda’ in Russia. This kicked in during the summer of 2013, just after Russia was represented by the Swedish-written peace ballad ‘What If’.
That irony got worse. In Russia a late announcement confirmed former Junior Eurovision winners the Tolmachevy Twins as Russia’s entrant for 2014. Nothing could be more innocent than two fair-haired teenagers with a song called ‘Shine’; although it was well performed and packaged in Copenhagen, ‘Shine’ was never a fan favourite.
Come voting, however, the ‘computer generated algorithm’ that churned out a voting order that kicked off with two huge scores to Russia. This generated an immediate Twitter backlash but also one that resonated around the old shipyard on Denmark’s Eurovision island. People booed. Russia’s song wasn’t popular, even if the girls were, and Russia was a target for an anger from Eurovision fans that had been brewing. Thankfully for that crowd ‘Shine’ drifted after that early flurry, leaving the victory of the night went to LGBT role model extraordinaire Conchita Wurst.
The Eurovision fan community still had unfinished business at Russia. Dima Bilan’s appearance in London for Eurovision’s Greatest Hits resulted in one of the most hostile receptions known in Song Contest circles. The crowd booed hard, forcing a re-record of his introduction. Last year Russia sent local heroine Polina Gagarina to Vienna, complete with big blue eyes that could seduce any camera. Was the thought here to send the most fragile-looking star they could to play innocent? Polina was far from innocent on stage however, producing a power vocal that made Russia a contender for victory.
Eurovision fans debated booing long and hard after Dima’s appearance, with the EBU even getting involved with talks of ‘anti-booing’ technologies (pre-recorded applause would be a more appropriate description) and bringing executives to talk with fan club Presidents. The message was clear, we have heard you but don’t do it any more. So the fans changed tactics, and instead pride flags were unveiled across the audience when Polina sang in position 25.
However when it came to the voting, the fans were not in camerashot. That fabulous algorithm conveniently decided a run of Russian-friendly and power-ballad loving nations would kick off the forty-country satellite link up, and Polina took the lead. Fans got agitated. Russia was not meant to win, Russia could not host Eurovision. ‘I would not be safe in Moscow, or St. Petersburg, or Sochi…. I couldn’t go to Eurovision…’
It wasn’t aimed at Polina, but the boos came out. In a rapid turn during the middle of the voting, the favour swung back towards Måns Zelmerlöw from Sweden. Sweden was the alternative and by default Sweden became the saviour, becoming victorious to some of the loudest cheers a Song Contest has ever had.
The Lazarev Factor
Regardless, Russia are exceptional at this whole Eurovision business, with four top ten placements in a row. Even before any songs were heard for the 2016 Contest Russia and Sweden were tied in the bookmakers odds – these countries have a powerhouse reputation for bringing the best. Determined to make a second place into a first place, Russia had to up their game just a notch more.
In comes Sergey Lazarev, who still has achieved a splendid pop career take off despite his 2008 defeat in the national final and after turning down numerous approaches from Russian TV previously. He’s been convinced to take part by a ‘Dream Team’ of composers, managers and creative directors headed by Philip Kirkorov, who is considered Mr. Eurovision in Eastern circles. His Greek partner-in-crime Dimitris Kontopolous has never finished outside the top ten in his six different Eurovision compositions for five different countries.
The song itself is a crowd-pleaser. Gone for the first time since 2012 are any peace themes in the lyrics – instead a rather straight-forward love story is presented. In terms of genre, it harkens back to a Song Contest from about 8 or 9 years ago: a flamboyant pop track with the key change in exactly the right place. At 124 beats per minute it’s a stomper that’s just a touch slower than chart pop music, but perfect for the disco divas in EuroClub. This is the style of music that stereotypical Eurovision fans adore, and it’s little surprise it ended up at the battling for the top of the OGAE Poll of worldwide fan clubs, with points from every country. Uncharted territory for a song from Russia.
Couple the song to Sergey himself. This is a Russian artist coming to Eurovision and straight into giving interviews to gay magazines. Speaking to Swedish publication QX, Sergey recognises that he is a gay icon and has gay fans, and even is quoted saying he is perfectly OK for fans to fly the rainbow flag during this performance. Sergey has even made major statements on gay rights to Russian-language press. In 2013 he criticised the ‘anti-gay laws’ for dividing different communities, rather than bringing people together. His answers have always been very carefully worded, but always lean on the side of gay inclusion in society rather than surpression. Note too how on Wednesday night in Stockholm Sergey is headlining at Eurovision Village…in a night organised by Stockholm Pride…which isn’t the first or certainly last Pride event he will perform at.
Being asked about rainbow flags has frankly been the toughest question Sergey has faced. After his collapse in St. Petersburg last month, the result of a hectic schedule and a body craving rest and recuperation, made his health the focus of Tel Aviv interviews. Turning up in Stockholm, his Press Conference was timid even by Eurovision standards. This ranged from asking about his daily schedule, how his stage concept was created, and the significance of his wing tattoos. Deep stuff. Sergey gets glossed over with nobody in the Press circle wanting to dare to ask anything that might make life more controversial for him. Polina certainly didn’t get the same gloss over last year where LGBT issues put her on the spot.
And finally without trying to make anybody sound shallow, it’s not gone unnoticed that Sergey Lazarev is a bit of a hunk. The topless pictures of him circulate on my timeline on a repeating cycle. Playing devil’s advocate here, but maybe Russia realised sending a blonde femme fatale was not the answer in this gay-dominated arena. The answer all along was a strapping hunk who poses in tight pink trousers for music videos would be far more enchanting.
For reference, Sergey Lazarev has described his track ‘You Are The Only One’ as being ‘about a girl’, and there’s little chance of him making any statement controversial enough to splash across Western media headlines this week. However here he is performing probably the most expensive and slickest routine of the 2016 Contest, in a style of music that is gay-friendly and doing his best to win not for Russia necessarily, but for his own musical career.
Into The Grand Final As Favourite
Suddenly on Monday night in Globen, nobody mentioned Crimea. Nobody mentioned gay rights. Nobody even considered uttering a boo. Sergey was the star attraction and delivered to a rapturous Globen. He’s odds on favourite to win the Semi Final, and is almost certain to start the Grand Final as the hot favourite.
I have no doubt he’ll get the same eruption of love on Saturday night when he takes to the stage. Should the voting be close, some fans may still have itchy feet and use that vocally. Not in any way against Sergey, but against the thought of a two week trip to this apparent behemoth of a nation with an irrational fear of attacks and persecution that has not yet been shaken off. Sweden, or another country in with a chance, may find itself willed to victory just to avoid that scenario, however unpopular the Scandinavian alcohol prices are.
However, should he win, I think the danger of a mass walk out or a riot are off the cards, and I wouldn’t have said that last year. Some fans might sigh, some fans might be dejected at the thought of a trip East, and some might already be blaming the political voting as normal. But nobody will begrudge Sergey his chance and his moment. He’s managed to play the PR game as well as he possibly could to ride over the Russian storm.
Russia could host the Song Contest tomorrow and would without question do an excellent job of the infrastructure and organisation. Whether it’s what the people at home want is a different question, and a certain section of jurors and televoters will likely have an anti-Russian stigma still attached. Maybe it’s all justified, and that is not my place to say, but at some point in every saga the bad guy must be given a chance to redeem him or herself. This negative fairytale villain character can not stigmatise Russia forever, and as a Eurovision community we need to show respect to all countries as we would expect to ourselves.
I’ll raise my vodka to you in Moscow next year if you do the same.