Why you should watch the Eurovision Song Contest

Chris May turns his critical ear to Eurovision and explains why the world's kitschiest song contest has more in common with classical music in our concert halls than we might think. A comprehensive guide to the best and worst of this year's extravaganza.

Reckon you know what's worth knowing about the European music scene? Right then: who's Lena? How about Zdob si Zdub? What's Dana International's unusual claim to fame? What's Jedward's signature look? And why is Amaury Vassili so annoying?

If you scored 0/5, chances are you weren't planning to watch this year's Eurovision Song Contest, which will be airing on SBS between May 13 and May 15. But do you really have better things to do? Eurovision is a great chance to put our often fetishistic cultural relationship with Europe – "where the history comes from", as Eddie Izzard has it – in some sort of perspective. We listen to and valorise an awful lot of awfully old European music in our concert halls, including a fair bit whose common touch, not its musical merit, is and always has been its greatest asset. We're more than capable of feigning sophistication in an attempt to justify the fact that we love the hummable popular classics more than the Second Viennese School (why else do we insightfully ask "Yes, but is it really music?" so often?). So why do we snub Eurovision, casually dismissing out of hand one of the most honest and democratic exhibitions of musical taste in the world?

Besides, the contest has lots to offer in its own right. Watching its triumphs and disasters is massively good fun, as are the displays of camply outrageous staging. Exercising your wit on them makes for a great night in. And there's even gravy in the form of the odd bit of impressive music-making. I'm enough of a fan to have checked out all 43 songs well in advance, so here goes: five of the worst and five of the best from Eurovision 2011.

The Bad – Finland: Paradise Oskar, Da Da Dam

The masked banditry of Lordi in 2006 saw Hard Rock Hallelujah notch up a surprise Finnish win that enraged Eurovision loyalists. Da Da Dam continues the country's unpredictable series of entries, and is unequivocally awful. It presents the inaptly named Paradise Oskar as a guitar-toting everyman, spreading the word with a feelgood fable in which sheer naïve optimism is the key to global salvation, viz. I'm going out in the world to save our planet. An effective emetic, this song strums unpersuasively through cycling primary chords, at the same time heaping lyrical cliché upon lyrical cliché. A slightly headlight-stricken smile suggests that the singer has some difficulty digesting his own schmaltz. Interestingly, the title, Da Da Dam, turns out to be just the very thing he (so articulately!) disavows – I guess it's a sophisticated shorthand for the blind eye turned to humanity's difficulties by all but one brave little boy. Paradise Oskar – smilingly shouldering the weight of the world while the viewers upchuck.

The Good – Slovakia: TWiiNS, I'm Still Alive

These girls look pretty similar. Don't tell anyone, but I think they might be twins. They are good at posing for music videos wearing long flowing white costumes and gazing into the middle distance. Live rehearsal footage suggests they are rather less good at singing, but not to worry! The song they are charged with selling Europe, I'm Still Alive, is one for the slow learner, taking many a dip into the trusty bin of pop metaphors. It's also a great song for a rom-com montage, but, very perplexingly, the official video is frequently intercut with footage (and audio) of sporting events and political speechgiving. This being impossible to transfer to the Eurovision stage, I confidently expect a wind machine to do the heavy lifting on the light. A nice hook is overdone, and I'm Still Alive contains too little musical material and trades too heavily on pouts and poses. Still, I like it, and my affection for it has risen since it got stuck in my head and sustained me through the entire final day of this year's national Scrabble championship.

The Bad – Lithuania: Evelina Sasenko, C'est ma vie

After what seemed like several thousand ballads in last year's Eurovision, they're thin on the ground in 2011. Lithuania, however, missed the memo, and has sent one so caricatured that it sounds like it was fished out of the wastepaper basket of the wrong Lloyd-Webber. Third-rate Broadway sentimentality, C'est ma vie (that's French, vous savez) employs the usual arsenal of concert grand and legato strings, swelling into timpani with the lot at the notional climaxes. I deplore Sasenko's irksome nose-wrinkling just prior to launch in the first big section, though I do enjoy her pronunciation of 'tribulation'. The whole affair is frankly pretty empty, and disappointingly overburdened with half-baked blue notes and ineffectual power chords. Whosoever shall vote for it, yea, they shall be judged.

The Good – Belgium: Witloof Bay, With Love Baby

Proper jazz a cappella on Eurovision? I've been waiting for such a thing for years, and I love it. The six voices (two female, three male, plus beatbox) are sure, versatile and pleasant, with a blend that reminds me a bit of The Song Company doing Martin Wesley-Smith, and which The Idea of North wouldn't at all be ashamed of. With Love Baby is a slick and polished example of an extremely difficult genre. It runs the gamut of vocal textures and timbres and combines complex part-writing and harmony with well-judged unisons, adding in some vocal percussion gimmickry for good measure. There's also an eyebrow-raising lyric or two:

Cause when I love you and you love me too

There is nothing left for us to do

But to hug and to kiss and to tug into bliss

With love, baby

The live performance I watched was sassy, well-staged and pretty much free from intonation slips. Judged simply in terms of the musicianship required to write and execute it, With Love Baby is head and shoulders above other entries, but this is Eurovision, and one suspects other criteria matter more.

The Bad – Norway: Stella Mwangi, Haba Haba

Uh oh, hope you like PC waffle. With Haba Haba, Stella Mwangi presents a nauseating aggregation of homilies about simple pleasures, self-belief and anile wisdom, wrapped up in one of the most clangingly banal melodies you'll hear this side of a Philip Glass concert. In what seems to be a nod to her ethnic heritage, we hear some nebulous aural indications of Africa in the beat (reinforced by visuals of hand-drumming), and get a few Swahili words in the chorus. But that's all it is – a nod, a most unedifying instance of pandering to the Western romanticisation of the cultural Other. What's more, it's clearly a cynical attempt to ride on the coat-tails of Shakira's successful 2010 World Cup single, what with its booty-shaking, pan-cultural backup troupe. Mwangi is a less than talented singer, and her performance is full of self-conscious arm movements and uncomfortable attempts to work the camera.

The Good – Serbia: Nina, Caroban

Effortlessly charming and catchy, and surely the song of the year. At first I thought it was about everybody having a good time in a caravan in the sixties, but – who'd have thought it? – it's actually about coming home at the end of a bad day to a man who is either magical or suave, or both. The moderate incongruity between the subject matter and the way this song is staged just adds to its endearingness. The look is fabulous: retro outfits, hairdos, dance moves and backdrop, a hatted horn section, and the glamorous, earringed Nina front and centre. Her live vocal is rock-solid, putting bubbly enthusiasm side by side with nuanced restraint, and sweeping the audience up in the key change. The backing trio provides just the right textural glue to a truly melodic song, with a couple of classy harmonic punctuations here and there. The whole affair is undoubtedly a bit ridiculous, but fair play to it, because Caroban can ultimately fall back on that rarest of Eurovision features, great-quality songwriting.

The Bad – Portugal: Homens da Luta, A luta é alegria

Well, gorblimy, isn't this the pits. Apparently, it's some sort of affirmation of Portuguese Weltanschauung, offering exhortations about the struggle of the everyday. Perhaps the current economic climate in Portugal is conducive to such stuff. But really, national identity themes or not, this song is asking for it: a line of disparate personages, collectively resembling a low-rent political rally or union strike, brandishing various cartoon placards and comedy megaphones, and meanwhile hollering out an absurd nursery-rhyme of a melody. No real idea just what they're caterwauling about, but whatever they mean, they sure mean a lot of it. Superb tactic on Portugal's part not to send either a song or any singers, thereby staving off any risk whatsoever of having to host the contest in Lisbon in 2012.

The Good – Azerbaijan: Eldar and Nigar, Running Scared

Azerbaijan is determined to win Eurovision, and consistently sends good-quality songs that underperform. I suspect that 2011 will be another variation on that theme, although this entry doesn't have the hype of Drip Drop, last year's offering. Running Scared is a sweet little pop duet, verging on soft rock, that yields up a plausible snapshot of young, vulnerable types casting about for a bit of trust and affection. Another memorable hook, and the song is well-written enough that it recurs when you want it to, and even offers some rather nice structural support in the chorus. Rehearsal footage doesn't give much away, but this just might punch above its weight if there's any chemistry between the singers. Sure-footed and enjoyable.

The Bad – Iceland: Sigurjón's Friends, Aftur Heim

I understand that this song reached the contest on a wave of public sympathy, the original singer having recently died. Frankly, it isn't too much to write home about: unattractive middle-aged men in matching crisp-collared shirts, vests and ties with a quirky, guitar-led ragtime oddity. That makes it sound more inventive than it actually is – luckily, and to their credit, I don't think Sigurjón's Friends are in this to win it. Folksy refrains and a village-festival pompety-pom tuba (not pictured) add a bit of colour, although it's the kind of colour I'd more naturally associate with central Europe than Scandinavia. The best Icelandic musicians evoke unimaginable space in their music; this song has none. Compared to Yohanna's excellent 2009 ballad, and the anthemic Je ne sais quoi last year, this is a disappointing effort from a musically creative country.

The Good – United Kingdom: Blue, I Can

It feels wrong to write this about the UK entry, but I Can has a pretty decent chance of winning. Blue seem to have rediscovered some of their old form, and somehow don't appear too bothered about associating themselves with all the British Eurovision travesties of yesteryear. I Can ticks all the boxes: a pleasing beat, vocal lines that are catchy and melodic in both verses and choruses, educated synths, and all the right boy-band sounds. The choreography is utterly nineties, but that itself adds nostalgia value. The message, perhaps a shade autobiographical, is one of empowerment and comeback. I foresee two major snags. One is the high falsetto, which I don't trust to stay solid on the night. The other is that 2011 simply isn't the era of the boy-band. Then again, this will offer some relief from a series of pretty tedious soloists. It can.

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Chris May
Chris is a musicologist, chorister, arranger and occasional composer. He hails from Sydney but now lives in Oxford, where he is researching for a doctorate on the music of Arvo Pärt. Chris was brought up with classical music from his earliest years by his mother, Classic FM broadcaster Marian Arnold. These days their tastes have diverged somewhat. Chris has also worked in the law and plays a lot of Scrabble in his spare time. Here he will be posting ramblings and reviews about all kinds of music.
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