Eurovision 2017: A Primer for Saturday Night Viewing

The Eurovision Song Contest is being held this Saturday in Kyiv, Ukraine. Their theme is “Celebrate Diversity,” which is somewhat ironic considering the geoblocking in the U.S., Canada, and Brazil, and the three white male hosts.

No matter. Here’s our guide of the big Eurovision story lines this year, and who to watch for in the contest.

Russia’s Withdrawal
The lead up to the contest has had plenty of political controversy. Ukrainian officials alleged that Russia’s selected entrant, Yulia Samoylova, had illegally traveled to Crimea in 2015 after Russia’s annexation. In response, Ukraine issued a 3-year travel ban against Samoylova. It was widely speculated that Russia was fully aware of the conflict that would result from her selection, and Russia’s choice of Samoylova (who uses a wheelchair due to a childhood medical condition that robbed her of her ability to walk) was a cynical, deliberate attempt to provoke Ukraine. The EBU ultimately weighed in, saying that while it encouraged the participation of all countries, it respected the local laws of the host country. Russia subsequently announced it was withdrawing from the contest this year. Yulia Samoylova, incidentally, performed again in Crimea on May 9, the day of the first Eurovision Semifinal.

Russia’s absence from the contest this year has opened up a potential power vacuum. Russia can generally be relied upon to get votes from many former Soviet bloc countries because of the large number of ethnic Russians there and shared pop culture. One thing we will be watching for on Saturday is how those points are distributed. Do other Eastern European counties (e.g., Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus) benefit? Or, will the those votes simply be distributed to the songs each country likes the best?

Who’s in the Mix to Win?
All eyes are on Italy. Almost immediately after winning Italy’s prestigious Sanremo festival, Francesco Gabbani’s “Occidentalis Karma” became the odds leader, and he has stayed there ever since. As of the time of writing, the official video has amassed over 110 million views on Youtube (10 times more than anyone else in the competition). The question wasn’t whether Italy would win, but by how much.

And then, Tuesday’s Semifinal included a preview clip of Italy, part of a standard effort to showcase 3 of the Big 6 who have automatic entries into the Final. The full live Eurovision performance is available to watch on YouTube. Gabbani’s performance was unfocused and sloppy, leaving some to wonder if the frontrunner is going to choke. Though the horserace has gotten more interesting this week, he remains the favorite.

If not Italy, then who?
Portugal, that’s who. Yeah, that’s right, Portugal. The country with the longest Eurovision drought in history, who in 48 previous appearances has never won, is in with a shot this year. “Amar pelos dois” is a gentle cabaret ballad that sounds like a recent discovery from the Great American Songbook. But Salvatore Sobral’s unique stage presence completely draws you in. Look for a lot of jury love here, as well as a potential groundswell of public support for the underdog.

Bulgaria is also in the conversation. “Beautiful Mess” is a modern pop ballad with an attractive staging that features on-screen animation. Though only 17 years old, singer Kristian Kostov is a mature, poised performer, and he delivered a very strong performance in Semifinal 2. Unlike the other two contenders, which are going 9th and 11th, respectively, Bulgaria drew the second half of the final and is slated to go 25th out of 26 songs.

Other countries in the mix to place very well on the night are Sweden, which has a prime second half draw and a clever staging involving treadmills; Armenia, with a fab song, a fab staging, and a fab diva; Hungary, with a Roma-inspired pop song; and Belgium, who struggled in rehearsals but has a song with undeniable commercial appeal.

What about the cheese?
Oh, there’s cheese. 2017 is a vintage year for cheese. Sunstroke Project from Moldova is back this year. They initially rose to fame at Eurovision 2010, when Epic Sax Guy became a global meme. The members of Sunstroke Project are eager to recapture their moment in the sun, and yet, they’re also relaxed and clearly enjoying their experience this time around. “Hey Mamma” is wildly fun and, yes, gives us more epic sax.

Romania’s song is called “Yodel It!” As you might expect, there is yodeling. As you might not expect, there are glitter cannons.

The Master of Rennet, however, is Jacques Houdek from Croatia. “My Friend” is 2017’s answer to Cezar’s “It’s My Life.” Only more so. Prepare yourself.

And in case you think it is all going to be camera tricks, fire curtains, and giant images of the artist on video projection, rest assured we still get some stage props. Keep an eye out for Austria’s moon, Ukraine’s big head, and U.K.’s mirrored fan. As if you could miss them.

How to Watch in the United States
For those of us with access to extensive cable packages, Logo will be broadcasting the Contest with commentary from Michele Visage and Ross Matthews. Though the announcement came late, Logo has been publicizing it over the last two weeks. Let’s see if more than 52,000 Americans tune in this year!

Those of us in North America without access to Logo have been stymied by geoblocking thanks to the deal the EBU signed with Viacom. At least the good people of Sweden and Germany are there to help us out. If you run into problems at Eurovision.tv, try catching the broadcast at svt.se or eurovision.de.

Updated 5/12/2017: Since we posted this primer, Portugal has overtaken Italy as the odds leader. Looks like a lot of people are putting money down on Salvador. It looks like game on!