Complaints about neighborly voting have been a constant since the first time Denmark and Iceland gave each other points, but how political does Eurovision voting really get? Sometimes the real world rears its ugly head and current events could have a negative impact on the Song Contest.
In 2003, shortly after the Iraq war began, the United Kingdom sent the pop duo Jemini to Eurovision with their song “Cry Baby.” To say Jemini flopped is an understatement: for the first time in its long Eurovision history, the U.K. not only finished last, it finished with the dreaded nul points.
Sir Terry Wogan, during his commentary for the BBC, said, “I think the UK is suffering from post-Iraq backlash.” Martin Isherwood, the composer of “Cry Baby,” echoed the sentiment: “I think politically we are out on a limb at the moment. As a country I think we paid the price last night.” Even Jemini singer Chris Cromby thought the theory had credence: “With the countries across Europe something has rocked the boat in a way. We don’t think it was fair we came last because we gave the performance of our lifetime.”
Of course, the theory falls apart when you watch Jemini’s miserable performance. Cromby later said, “The monitors weren’t working, Gemma couldn’t hear herself, so she was out of tune.” So perhaps European opposition to the Iraq War did have an effect on voting in 2003, but there was no year where Jemini were going to place anywhere but bottom of the table with that performance.
Which brings us to Russia’s participation in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The European Union and NATO are trying to isolate Russia over its actions against Ukraine in Crimea and former Soviet states are increasingly nervous over the ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Could the fallout of the Ukrainian crisis trickle down to Eurovision voting?
Take a look at the countries in the first Semi-final: Russia faces off against Ukraine, as well as Estonia, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Moldova. Will these countries give Russia points? They all have large ethnic Russian minorities who could influence the televote. They also have non-Russian majorities that could also influence the televote in the other direction. And then there are their respective juries, who could spike the televote results (as anyone who remembers the fallout of Azerbaijan neglecting to give Russia any points during last year’s Song Contest will attest).
If ever there was a year to test just how political Eurovision voting can be, you would think this would be it. But there is one additional factor to consider in all this: Russia’s song isn’t good. Here are the Tolmachevy Sisters with “Shine”:
This year’s Russian selection process was chaotic: broadcaster Rossija 1 had originally announced there would be a a national final in December. They then postponed the final to a later date, before finally opting for an internal selection. The rumor was that Sergei Lazarev was that selection. However, at the last minute, the Tolmachevy Sisters were announced as Russia’s representatives.
The Tolmachevy Sisters won Junior Eurovision in 2006 with their song “Vesenniy Jazz.” They also made an appearance when Russia hosted Eurovision in 2009, flying to the giant stage on the back of a firebird during the opening number of the first Semi. (You had to be there.)
The music for “Shine” is by Philipp Kirkorov and Dimitris Kontopoulos and the lyrics are by John Ballard, Ralph Charlie, and Gerard James Borg. There are a lot of familiar names there: Kontopoulos and Borg make regular appearances at Eurovision, and Ballard and Charlie teamed up with Kontopoulos to write “Hold Me” for Azerbaijan last year. Meanwhile, Kirkorov will be familiar to Eurovision fans not only as Russia’s representative in 1995, but also as one of the songwriters of Belarus’ 2007 entry “Work Your Magic” and Ukraine’s 2008 entry “Shady Lady” (with Kontopoulos).
Kirkorov told the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets (per a translation by ESCKAZ) that he signed on to write the song on March 6 (just 11 days before entries were due to the European Broadcasting Union). Kirkorov and Kontopoulos wrote “Shine” the next day. Having heard “Shine,” I can believe that. I don’t know when Ballard, Charlie, and Borg banged out the lyrics, but all told the whole thing feels like a rush job.
“Shine” goes for a late 1960s flower-power harpsichord-driven pop sound. The effect is muted a bit by being over-orchestrated. In particular, the chorus of the song is drowned out by strings and ding-dongs. It’s not the worst song, but given the past work by these songwriters (particularly “Shady Lady”), they had the capability to do much better.
The lyrics, meanwhile, seem to have been pulled out of a hat full of cliches. The line “Living on the edge/Closer to the crime/Cross the line a step at a time” is particularly cringeworthy.
In any other year, we’d be lamenting this as a missed opportunity, particularly because the Tolmachevy Sisters are trying to make the jump from Junior Eurovision success to Eurovision glory. But they now have the unenviable task of putting on a pleasant face to supplant the ugly image of Russia that many European countries now have. Russia has made it to the Final with worse songs, but if the extenuating circumstances are in play, then I wouldn’t expect “Shine” to play more than one night in Copenhagen. That is, if those voting know or care about the extenuating circumstances.