ESC 2010 Reviews: Ukraine
Like many of the newer entrants into Eurovision, Ukraine tends to take the competition very seriously, bringing their biggest stars to the stage year after year. However, more than any other nation, they tend to go for the full-on spectacle, complete with leather bikinis, insane choreography, controversy, shirtless Trojan warriors and the occasional drag queen. They’ve never missed a Final since the system began, and despite the fact that they’ve only performed in seven ESCs before 2010, they’ve come away with a victory and two silvers.
Their debut entry, 2003’s “Hasta La Vista”, was somewhat forgettable, and only made it to 14th place, but it didn’t take Kyiv long to get back on its feet. With only their second entry, Ruslana’s “Wild Dances“, Ukraine stomped and spun its way into Eurovision history, claiming the nation’s first victory. (Sharp-eared readers might recognize the song from the soundtrack to “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”, from the “Radio Vladivostok” setting!) Since her win, Ruslana’s continued her success, having recorded a total of seven albums in both English and Ukrainian, and has even collaborated with Missy Elliott. In Ukraine, she’s an icon, spokeswoman, and UNICEF Ambassador, campaigning against human trafficking and for the environment. Just as her Eurovision performance shows, Ruslana’s a force of nature.
Kyiv hosted the ESC the next year, 2004, just as the Orange Revolution was in full swing. Despite Eurovision’s general ban on political songs, the home team sent rap artists GreenJolly with “Razom Nas Bahato, Nas Ne Podolaty (Together We Are Many; We Cannot Be Defeated)“. The main theme of the song was a send-off of the old Chilean saying “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido”, and the original lyrics name-checked President Viktor Yuschenko. However, not even their favorable position as host nation could keep them exempt from the rules, and despite a passionate performance (and slightly modified lyrics), they scored a disappointing 19th place.
2007 brought on possibly the most insane performance in Eurovision history, blending comedy, dance…and tinfoil. Ladies and Gentlemen…may I present to you the incomparable, the unforgettable, the…inexplicable…Verka Serduchka:
The lovely Verka is a mix of Dame Edna, Mrs. Doubtfire, and that crazy modern dance teacher you had in college. She’s also actually a he. Verka’s the alter ego of Ukrainian comedian Andriy Danilko, and is a celebrity in her own right, having recorded ten hit albums. Her second-place finish was marked by a bit of controversy (but what good ESC is without it?), as the song’s title, “Dancing Lasha Tumbai”, was misheard by some viewers as “Dancing Russia Goodbye” (although Verka insisted that she was singing the Mongolian words for “whipped cream”, in reality they were just nonsensical syllables).
In 2008, Ukraine scored its second consecutive silver medal with Ani Lorak’s “Shady Lady“, which to me is the epitome of Eurovision Pop: take a gorgeous girl with a huge voice, put her in a tiny dress, plop her in front of four strapping backup dancers, and have her belt out a disco number that you can hear echoing all the way to Minneapolis. At the time, my alt-rock sensibilities prevented me from admitting it, but now, two full years after Ani Lorak stormed the stage in Serbia, I can say it: I LOVE this song! I still listen to it pretty often, and it’s my go-to song for dancing around my apartment like a maniac when I’m sure nobody’s watching. If you liked “Shady Lady”, I recommend that you check out her album “Solntse”, especially the tracks “Ptitsa” and “A Dalshe…”
Lucky for me, Ukraine’s 2009 song, Svetlana Loboda’s “Be My Valentine (Anti-Crisis Girl)” was a perfect continuation of the high-energy path that Ani Lorak set upon in 2008. Svetlana’s another well-known entity in her homeland, and after her insane performance on the stage in Moscow, she was the talk of Europe, as well. Eventual winner Alexander Rybak claimed that he only feared losing to Loboda, and with her bevy of Trojan soldiers backing her up while she pole danced and spun on her self-described “Hell Machine” (which she supposedly had to mortgage her home to pay for), I can understand how he could be intimidated. The song was hypersexualized, manic, over-the-top…and a total blast. Sadly, it ended up in 12th place, Ukraine’s lowest score since 2005.
Despite the recent model for slick and spectacular Eurovision songs from Ukraine over the past few years, 2010’s national selection was a complete and utter mess. Back in December, it was announced that Vasyl Lazarovych was the singer chosen by the Ukranian broadcaster, NTU. However, it was soon discovered that Lazarovych and the head of the network were close personal friends, and accusations of back-room deals started flying. Soon after Vasyl’s song, the sleepy “I Love You” had been chosen, a new national government took over, and the head of the network was replaced. It was announced the previous result had been scrapped, and that an entirely new National Preselection would take place (including Vasyl, to be fair). After all of that, 24-year-old Alyosha was selected to represent Ukraine with her rock ballad “To Be Free“.
You’d think it would be over by that point, right? Wrong. It turns out that “To Be Free” had been briefly released to the public over MySpace and Amazon since 2008, rendering the song invalid for Eurovision competition. Sadly, this was figured out after the EBU’s deadline for song submission had passed, so NTU had two choices: cobble together another entry, and be held to a significant fine for each day that passed without a song, or withdraw from the competition. Lucky for us, Alyosha had another song stuck in her back pocket, so this year we’ll hear “Sweet People” in Oslo.
Alyosha is coming to Eurovision with a message, probably more so than any other song this year. In interviews, she notes how she was born less than two weeks before the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in her home country, and that she has grown up with a keen interest in environmental issues. The promotional video for “Sweet People” was filmed in Prypiat, a ghost town destroyed by the meltdown, and Alyosha has started what she calls the Ecovision 2010 initiative, lobbying world leaders to take stronger stances on environmental topics such as conservation and nuclear safety.
It took me a long time to appreciate “Sweet People”, especially because I’m still coming down from the high of “Shady Lady” and “Be My Valentine”. But Alyosha has a strong voice made for a hard ballad like this, and her heart’s definitely in it to win it. But the Second Semifinal is incredibly challenging, and there are an inordinately high number of ballads. But, as the results from the First Semifinal show, anything can happen. I wish her well in all of her endeavors, and I wish her well in Eurovision.