This was my first time watching the show live (or at all, for that matter), after all, it hasn't become part of Canadian consciousness for obvious reasons (although with the immense popularity of the North American "Idol" franchise, maybe this will change). I have therefore discovered for myself what everyone else in Europe already knew. For starters, I felt like I was watching a Miss World pageant more than anything associated with music, right down to the elevated sense of importance (come on, NOBODY truly believes that these are the BEST songs these countries have to offer), kitschy glitz, and C-list celebrities. The Miss World pageant retains a huge fanbase in the Far East, substitute "Far East" with "Former Eastern Bloc countries" and you have the Eurovision song contest.
The voting patterns are dominated by nationalistic connections or lack thereof, and I was surprised to see which former adversaries have decided to forgive and forget, at least for the purposes of this competition. I was a bit surprised to see all the former Yugoslavian republics voting for each other en masse, having seemingly forgiven each other for their past civil wars, whereas the hometown Finns booed every mention of Russia, having seemingly NOT forgotten the Mannerheim line. Mass hatred was in effect, as it has been for the past few years of the competition, for the "big four" countries (France, Germany, Spain, UK), who have received automatic byes to the final since 2000 and are likely resented for it. Not the mention the whole "screw those guys for being puppeteers with the entire EU" thing. To borrow a phrase once used about the New York Yankees, voting for the Big Four must be the Eurovision equivalent of voting for General Motors. Much love was spread by the largest immigrant minorities within countries (i.e. Germany giving 12 points to Turkey, Israeli top marks going to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus), and the Eastern Bloc nations furiously pimped each other's songs, leading to an eastern domination of the standings as never seen before.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to catch all of the semi-final or the finals, but from what I saw, Russia was the clear winner. Of course, I'm a sucker for Tatu-inspired pop with hot Russian girls in black suits. Georgia used a similar blueprint, with a thumping techno-dance track that was among the strongest tunes in the competition, but got very little respect from the voters. Ukraine cornered the market on weirdness, with more silver lame and oversized eyewear this side of a 1970's Elton John concert, and nearly won the crown purely based on spectacle. Sweden thought that the world needed a reincarnation of the Darkness with visuals straight from a Hives video, and they were completely wrong in that respect. The Irish were participating in a completely different competition from everyone else, giving high marks to the most traditional/folk-sounding tracks in the contest (e.g. Lithuania) as well as keeping thing traditional with their own contribution. These songs were completely ignored by virtually every other country. I couldn't help but feel a little bad for the UK, who pulled out all the stops with a wannabe-crowd pleasing dance paean to international flight and friendliness (almost like the second coming of Danish pop stars Aqua), only to get absolutely no respect (or votes) from any countries other than Iceland and Ireland.
Solely based on sticking power, the only song whose tune remained in my head long after the semifinals (and finals) were over was Turkey's entry "Shake It Up Sweetheart". That says a lot more about the inane catchiness of the song rather than any interesting songcraft in the song itself, but I suppose that's the whole point in a competition like Eurovision, so kudos to Kenan Doğulu for that. As for the champion Serbs, I'm not too sure what propelled them to the top, besides the Eastern and ex-Yugoslavian voting bloc that operated somewhat independently from the competition itself. Voters that wanted substance over style, grit over showmanship, passionate lyrics over passionate costume design, must have been drawn to Marija Šerifović's "Prayer".
For a fine example of the cultural differences between Europe and the America's, look no further than the "controversy" over this year's Israeli entry, "Push the Button" by Teapacks. Despite a catchy chorus, multilingual lyrics, and totally bonkers performance filled with energy and crazy costumes, the song didn't even come close to making the finals. What about politics, you ask? Israel didn't have a great year in terms of international accolades, but 1998 was no banner year for Israeli international diplomacy either, and yet Europeans had no issue in voting Dana International's "Diva" into the champion's spot. To this day, the song is considered one of the most memorable in Eurovision history. Why? Well, Dana International received loads of pre-show publicity because she is a transsexual, which fed her pre-show hype and created the kind of notoriety that Europeans feel comfortable with. If a comparable situation arose in the United States, it would be a true controversy, with tons of special interest groups lobbying to have her banned from the competition. In Europe, they eat that stuff up with a spoon, which is why Ukraine's Verka Serduchka nearly won this year. But what do you have to do to risk getting banned in European circles? How about a song that makes light of the threat of nuclear war? Now *that's* a considered a controversy, because G-d forbid should Europe grow a set of balls and actually tackle a problem instead of feigning neutrality and hoping that it'll go away all by itself.
Of course, one could argue that politically-charged lyrics have no place in Eurovision at all, but there are precedents for such songs, such as Mariza Koch's "Panaghia Mou, Panaghia Mou" (Greece 1976, about the Turkish occupation of Cyprus, and Kojo's "Nuku pommiin" (Finland 1982, another song that makes light of the threat of nuclear war). These songs might have stirred some controversy and were not received well (Finland finished last in 1982), but they weren't banned, nor was their banning even considered. It's no surprise that yes, once again, Europeans expect Israelis to play by different rules than everyone else.