ESC 2010 Reviews: Russia
Ah, Russia. They’ve been one of the most successful entrants into the Eurovision Song Contest, but they’re also often one of the most controversial. They are the fulcrum of the Former Soviet voting bloc, siphoning votes from all over Eastern Europe. While they tend to distribute their votes pretty widely, they tend to get high marks from countries like Belarus, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Armenia, all of which were former parts of the Soviet Union. I believe this is a result of two things:
1) After so many years of being underneath the same national umbrella, many of these countries, while retaining their own senses of self, have grown to create a shared cultural experience. Between the language similarities and a shared media, these nations share a common bond that’s impossible to ignore.
2) Russia’s Eurovision songs are often fantastic! They take the competition very seriously, put quite a bit of funding down for production, and they choose artists who are known throughout the region, as opposed to taking unknowns from a “Pop Idol”-type show. Huge names such as Philipp Kirkorov, Alla Pugacheva, Mumiy Troll, Dima Bilan, and t.A.T.u have all represented their homeland in the ESC, and these faces are often recognized beyond Russia’s extensive borders.
Russia debuted in 1994, along with a number of other “Eastern Bloc” nations. Their first entry, “Vyechniy stranik (Eternal Wanderer)” by Maria Katz (also known as Youddiph), was memorable not only for its beautiful execution and soaring chorus, but for the multitasking crimson gown that Masha wore that evening. I’m not a fashionista by any stretch, but the first time I saw the video of this performance I had the urge to play “dress-up” for the first time since I was a little girl. Eurovision performances often focus on clothing being ripped off, but this might have been the first time that covering oneself up was just as eye-catching.
Their 2001 entry, “Lady Alpine Blue” by Vladivostok pop-rockers Mumiy Troll, is one of those love-it-or-hate it numbers. Lead singer Ilya Lagutenko is smarmy, vaguely androgynous, and oddly appealing. Some might see the song as creepy, but I actually liked it, in a kind of feline lounge singer sort of way.
2003 brought Russia’s most controversial participation to date, including one of their biggest musical exports. It was decided that faux-teen-lesbians t.A.T.u would represent Moscow in the ESC in Riga, and the ended up coming in an incredibly close 3rd place with “Ne Ver’, Ne Boysia (Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear)“, despite being booed from half of the audience just as much as the other half cheered (not only were the pair controversial, but they had supposedly been acting like divas during the rehearsals and press conferences). Although they had been the odds-on favorites to win (they had just released their international smashes “All the Things She Said” and “Not Gonna Get Us”), their live performance was marred by off-key and lackluster notes. If singer Yulia Volkova (the black-haired one) hadn’t been fighting off laryngitis that week, it’s possible that Turkey wouldn’t have taken the crown that year. We’ll never know for sure.
2006 saw the Eurovision debut of mulleted heartthrob Dima Bilan. His song “Never Let You Go” was insanely popular, and was only beaten in the scoreboard by Finland’s unstoppable Lordi. Bilan had been a known entity throughout the former Soviet bloc since 2003, so the impression he made on the scoreboard was not a surprise. Beyond that, “Never Let You Go” was a really well-constructed pop song with universal appeal.
Russia’s song for 2007 tried to duplicate the success of previous years: high-energy pop + beautiful faces. Serebro’s imaginatively-titled “Song #1“, despite it’s slightly fractured English, was a fun, sexy performance that came in 3rd in a hotly-contested ESC that year (beaten by a gorgeous Serbian ballad and an unexplainable entry from the Ukraine…more on these later.)
2008 heralded the return of Dima Bilan to Eurovision, and he was taking no prisoners. His song, the Timbaland-produced “Believe“, wasn’t quite the nugget of pop confection that “Never Let You Go” or “Song #1” had been, but Russia was determined to put on one hell of a show to make up for any shortcomings in the songwriting. For the show in Serbia, the Russian team arranged for a small patch of ice to be installed on stage (keep in mind, there’s generally less than a minute between songs), and had Olympic Gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko skate in circles around him, all while violinist Edvin Marton played his Stradivarius with them. The song itself might have been a bit syrupy, but you have to admit it: the Russians had balls. They won the competition handily over (in my opinion) superior songs from the Ukraine, Portugal, Turkey, and Switzerland, but more than ever, the results were marred by accusations of bloc-voting, and beloved BBC commentator Terry Wogan actually stepped down from his Eurovision duties because of it. From 2009 and onwards, national votes would be 50% televote, and 50% jury-based, as to avoid the issue in the future.
So, after all of these high-energy, high-production cost, high-profile, high-performing entries, who will Moscow be sending to Oslo?
I’m sorry…what? I half expected the cast of “A Mighty Wind” to stop by and crash the stage. When first heard Peter Nalitch’s “Lost and Forgotten”, I had no idea what to think. Especially when you think about the spectacles that Russia has given Eurovision over the past decade or so, this song sounds completely out of place. The first words that came to mind? “You’ve got to be kidding me…”
And then I realized that the joke was on me. Nalitch and his group have been making music with a heavy touch of irony for a few years now (check out his YouTube hit “Gitar“), so this song’s awkwardness is all intentional. Be that as it may, many ESC viewers are hearing these songs for the first time when they vote…will the joke go over their heads, or will bloc voting carry them through to the Final?