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12 May 2022

The sweaty, glorious return of Eurovision

In Turin, hardcore fans and locals banish two long, difficult years with a Euro-pop soundtrack.

By Adrian Bradley

Eurovision, the world’s biggest live music event, is back. And the circus that comes with it has descended on Turin in northern Italy, which won the right to host the contest after the rock band Måneskin won the contest last year.

This year’s contest has the feel of a release valve for many after an incredibly difficult two years. Eurovision was one of the first major events cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020, and in 2021 a limited show took place without the usual festival that surrounds it. This is the sixth time I have attended the Eurovision finals and it’s hard to describe what a joy it is, year after year. Fans from all over Europe (I’ve decided the collective noun is a “euphoria of Eurofans”) come together to dance with abandon in a sweaty basement bar to the entry that placed 16th in 2013. (It’s “Solayoh” by Belarus’s Alyona Lanskaya, if you want to add it to your playlist.)

It seems particularly apt that this year’s contest is being held in Italy, the European country that was hit first and hardest by Covid. Walking around the Eurovision Village in the Parco del Valentino, I see Turin residents thrilled to be able to party again. For Italians the contest represents a chance to launch what they hope will be a bumper summer for tourism, as restrictions are finally lifted.

There’s another dark cloud over Europe, however, which Eurovision has found impossible to ignore: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After initially trying to maintain its long-standing policy of staying out of politics, the European Broadcasting Union, which runs the contest, responded to pressure from its members to ban Russia from taking part. Stefano Lo Russo, the Mayor of Turin, told me that the organisers could not ignore what is happening: “It’s an opportunity to promote music and the message of unity on the European level especially in a moment that is so difficult for our continent with the war in Ukraine.”

Many Ukrainians hope the contest will send a signal to the world of European unity and defiance in the face of oppression. Representing the country is the rap-folk fusion act Kalush Orchestra, with their ode to mothers, “Stefania”. The song would be an unlikely winner — its genre-mixing sound is very different to the more contemporary winners of recent years — but it is currently the bookmakers’ favourite, and it is easy to understand why. Picking up the phone to vote for Ukraine could be a way for many across Europe to send some support to the country, and the song has connected with many Ukrainians during the invasion.

[See also: When Eurovision came to Liverpool]

The song has also travelled around the world on the video-sharing app TikTok. More than 150,000 videos have been made using the song, making it one of the top performers among the Eurovision entries this year. Ukrainian flags are littered across the arena; even fellow competitors from Latvia and Lithuania were waving the blue and yellow in the green room on Tuesday night’s semi-final.

TikTok has played a big part in the transformation of Eurovision. Now in its 66th year, the contest is a far cry from the days of Sandie Shaw and Dana. In 2022 it is a slick multimedia event, with acts learning that success might come from a ten-second clip on social media.

Someone who knows that better than many is the UK’s entry, Sam Ryder, who started his pop music career filming covers in front of a green screen to post on TikTok. He’s gathered 12 million followers and, after the ignominy of the UK’s nul points in 2021, his glam-rock song “Space Man” now has the chance to bring some relief to British fans who have been desperately waiting for a good performance from their country for most of the 21st century. “Eurovision is a celebration of everything that it stands for: peace, love, inclusivity, expression, song-writing, music, joy,” Ryder said when we met at his hotel in Turin.

He’s now second favourite to win, up there with Eurovision titans like Sweden and Italy. As I queue for drinks at the Euroclub, I’m constantly pinching myself as fans from the Netherlands and France tell me, unprompted, how much they love the song. The final scores aren’t overly important to Ryder though. Instead, he hopes that the contest will allow the UK to connect with a global audience. “It’s so crucial to remember that because otherwise you think it’s just about the scoreboard, and [a low score] means you’re not liked by other countries,” he said. “That’s just not the case. I refuse to subscribe to it, because it hasn’t been my or my teams experience during this process.”

A modern Eurovision isn’t one without quirks. Norway is represented by Subwoolfer, a duo who claim to be four-billion-year-old aliens from the moon. Using the pseudonyms Keith and Jim, they sing in yellow wolf masks about their penchant for bananas. Rumours that big stars hide inside the costumes, in the style of The Masked Singer, are spreading like wildfire among Eurovision fans. Either way, this slightly mad performance will be a Eurovision earworm that lasts until 2023. Latvia’s “Eat Your Salad”, a sexually explicit song heralding the virtues of vegetarianism to save the planet, was sadly eliminated in semi-finals, but there’s still time to see San Marino’s singer ride a mechanical bull.

Eurovision fans in Turin are just happy that we can enjoy the contest in person again. When the winner is announced on Saturday night, we’ll find out where the party’s heading next year — so we can prepare to do it all over again.

What to watch out for on the night

The favourites
Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra are the favourites to win, as viewers are expected to vote in support of the country in its war against Russia. The song, “Stefania”, is a blend of dance pop, Ukrainian folk and rap that you wouldn’t hear anywhere other than Eurovision.

The UK — and it’s hard to believe I’m typing this — is also one of the favourites this year. Sam Ryder has perhaps the best staging of the contest, and belts out the big notes of his song “Space Man”. There’s a lot in this song to love, and Ryder’s bubbly personality has shone through in his public appearances in Turin.

Sweden, the powerhouse of the last couple of decades, could have another strong year. Cornelia Jakobs’s “Hold Me Closer” became a huge fan favourite after she won Sweden’s Melodifestivaalen — their national selection competition. It’s a very contemporary pop song, performed by a great singer.

The spectacles
Norway’s Subwoolfer have to be seen to believed: bright yellow wolves named Keith and Jim wearing sharp suits rhapsodising about bananas, backed by an astronaut DJ.

Armenia’s Rosa Linn performs in front of a giant tissue paper wall, which needs an army of stagehands to prop it up, before a dramatic finale.

Moldova is a small country that storms Eurovision every year. This year, expect them to get another strong phone vote with their catchy hit about a train ride from Chisinau to Bucharest, which features accordion players, violinists and the only use of the stage’s hidden drawbridge.

The hosts
You might remember the Lebanese-British singer Mika, who had hits in the 2000s with “Grace Kelly” and “Big Girl”. This year, he’s hosting with the Italian singer Laura Pausini and the MTV host Alessandro Cattelan. With two singers on the stage, it’s likely they will perform alongside the competing acts.

[See also: Ukraine’s 2022 Eurovision song – explained]

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato