A children’s choir, men in Viking hats waving miniature flags and ice skating accompanists, it was hard not to get caught up in the melodrama of this contest
If extraterrestrials were to abduct your favourite singers and replace them with slightly unconvincing doppelgängers the experience would surely be akin to watching the Eurovision Song Contest in its 21st-century incarnation. The competition’s days of high kitsch apparently behind it, modern Eurovision entrants are endlessly slick and manicured so that they seem like plastic variations of actual pop stars.
This can make for faintly uncanny viewing: the performers remind you of someone better known, with just enough difference for it to feel creepy. That’s certainly been the response of a few to UK hopeful Molly Smitten-Downes, a pleasant warbler who nonetheless suggests a laboratory experiment in which elements of Kate Bush, Florence and the Machine and Adele are blended in a petri dish.
There were also several moments of half-recognition during the first semi final, at Copenhagen’s B&W Hallerne. From Armenia, Aram MP3 – the sort of naff sobriquet at which Eurovision continues to excel thank goodness – looked like Robin Thicke and sang like Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Ukraine’s representative exuded a whiff of Katy Perry, Belgium’s came off as a bloke doing a Celine Dion impersonation, Latvia’s merry troupe arrived in Copenhagen dressed as a TK Maxx Mumford and Sons (alas the similarity extended to their musicianship).
On hand to rescue us from the landslide of well-intentioned ululations were commentators Scott Mills and Laura Whitmore. As per BBC regulations, they approached the spectacle with chipper incredulity. If not quite on a par with Terry Wogan’s twinkling sarcasm – as recently upgraded by Graham Norton – their voiceover was suffused in skepticism, though, unfortunately, their wit didn’t so much sparkle as glower dully (and was easily surpassed by the tweeter who felt she had fallen into hysterically camp movie Black Swan).
“She is singing…and dancing – and that’s hard to do,” was Mills’ assessment of Estonia’s Tanja (he was mercifully restrained interviewing Austria’s bearded-lady entry Conchita Wurst). “It’s a human hamster wheel. I’m really excited,” chimed Whitmore later on – one of those sentences you will only ever hear at Eurovision. They proceeded to speak over the Danish hosts – rude and, more to the point, headache inducing as you struggled to keep track of two inane monologues simultaneously.
Against the backdrop of its stand-off with Ukraine, Russia was a potential bogeyman. However, twins the Tolmachevy Sisters were weapons-grade adorable – Russia defused an awkward situation by serving up the musical equivalent of a cutesy internet cat video. Plus, the siblings dressed like trainee Jedi knights, swayed on a seesaw and began their performance with hair entwined (not that the pyrotechnics prevented elements in the audience booing after they made the final).
As pop stomper followed pop stomper and the parade of power-ballads grew to a deafening onslaught, you inevitably started to tick off a checklist of cliches. A children’s choir, men in Viking hats waving miniature flags, ice skating accompanists, cringe-prompting introductory snippets (in which contestants recreated their national colours with balloon animals, confectionery, etc) – all were present and correct. The biggest departure was the use of three presenters rather than the traditional his ‘n hers arrangement. This felt excessive, particularly as the two guys in the line-up were dead ringers (to distinguish, one had trendy specs, the other slightly more stubble).
Of the 16 semi-finalists, only ten would march on to Saturday’s Eurovision proper. The tension wasn’t exactly unbearable – surely not even the most fanatical Eurovision fan was biting nails over Montegenegro or Moldova’s continued participation. Still, it was difficult not to be caught up in the melodrama as San Marino reached the finale for the first time and Shakira-channelling Portugal suffered a tearful elimination. Roll on Thursday as another tranche of Europe’s finest karaoke serenaders do battle.