Eurovision 2013: The kitsch and the high notes

The Eurovision Song Competition still remains the most watched non-sporting event of the year. Greece's entry is unique, but will it win?

You could ask yourself what kilts, great facial hair and free alcohol have to do with Greece, but for a Eurovision fanatic there’s no confusion.

This year, Greece’s Eurovision entry is Koza Mostra, a ‘cabaret-rembetico’ five piece ban from Thessaloniki. Already through to the final, the song “Alcohol is Free” is gaining a cult following. Despite its strange English title, it is sung primarily in Greek and features as much folksiness as there is Greek rembetico; not your usual stock euro-pop for Greece this year.

Rembetico veteran, Agathon Iakovidis and his famous moustache joins the band on stage and has been finding a bit of popularity in the host city, Malmo, Sweden.

After Loreen’s win last year with the euro house number, “Euphoria” still making its mark on the radio, many entries haven’t bucked the trend.

All except for Greece.

But, don’t be fooled, Greece is using this is a tactic. The song, although catchy, is designed not to win. Yep, that’s right, Greece want to lose.

The sheer cost of hosting Eurovision can almost bankrupt a small country, and already teetering along that line without the help of the song competition, Greece has entered a song that has all the makings of Eurovision kitsch, but not winning qualities many have predicted.

This year’s favourite is Denmark’s “Only teardrops” by the barefooted Emmelie de Forest. No coincidence the favourite is in fact a country that will be able to afford the competition next year.

It’s a testament to the popularity of Eurovision in Greece that we even see an entry. Speculation late last year had the country saying it couldn’t afford to send an entry. Thankfully, speculation it remained and competition in fact has become a beacon of hope, a welcome break from the negative crisis mantra of the media.

Eurovision actually started 58 years ago with similar intentions. After the horrors of two world wars, European leaders wanted to find a way to unify Europe without politics. In 1956 in the early days of television, a song competition called the Eurovision Grand Prix was born.

Now the competition is the most watched non-sporting event in the world and has transcended its European boarders.

Known for it’s stunningly kooky acts, the awkwardness of a live broadcast, the ridiculous pomp and ceremony and somehow taking itself quite seriously, Eurovision is a ritual for many.

In Australia, the following is quite unique. Most tune in for the laughs, while others get the chance to route for their home country.

As SBS’s Kyriakos Gold says, there’s nothing like it. Hosting the special radio station, SBS Eurovision, Kyriakos says he’s a Eurovision tragic. He hasn’t missed a Eurovision in 30 years and even listened to it over the phone in the early 90s when internet was extremely basic.

“It’s like the song Olympics of Europe,” he tells Neos Kosmos.

“It’s probably the oldest TV show, 125 million people are going to watch this on the live event and so many more in the later on broadcasts, on youtube and the Eurovision site so it’s a big platform.”

Big stars like Celine Dion, ABBA and Julio Iglesias can say that Eurovision directly launched their international careers, while thousands of others have received national fame thanks to the competition.

On the other hand, Eurovision’s rule about singing live has been the downfall for many. The high notes that always seep into a couple of Eurovision acts each year have been notorious for breaking an act’s chances. In 2009, Greece’s very popular entry, Sakis Rouvas felt compelled to apologise publicly for not performing at his best ability (lets just say it was a very breathy performance). Amazingly, he came seventh.

In launching careers and breaking them, the Song Contest has also become synonymous with political references despite its no politics rule.

Organisers still can’t stop Greece giving Cyprus 12 points and vice versa. During the fall of the Soviet Union, many ex-soviet states would give Russia 12 points to stay in the good books, as would ex-Yugoslavian states.

Kyriako thinks the point giving might not be as intentional as people think.
‘A lot of people think it’s a malicious thing, intentional point giving. But there’s another layer, a cultural layer,” he says.

“Countries used to participate in their own languages, so say a song is in Swedish, the neighboring countries will understand it. Then musically, neighboring countries understand similar kind of themes and motifs, and then there is the layer of friendships.”

But the cultural element still doesn’t stop politics seeping through to the lyrics.
The 2009 Georgian entry was disqualified because they alluded to the Russian attack of the country with the lyrics “We don’t want to put-in”.

The Greek song this year also has an interesting take on politics. The much talked about title, “Alcohol is free” actually alludes to the crisis.

“The meaning of Alcohol is free is about the social problems we have in Greece at the moment and our lives in Europe,” says lead singer Ilias Kozas.

For most countries, Eurovision is a chance show the world a controlled image of their country. About 10 years ago, most countries would sing in their language and would make their performance quite traditional. Now the trend is to sing in English, but many still use the competition to boost tourism.

“You can see with the countries that have won have been the countries that really wanted to win,” says Kyriakos.

“It’s an expensive exercise. Azerbaijan had the money last year to host it, it did wonders for their image around the world in the way that were such a progressive beautiful country when no one kind of knew about its beauty and culture, especially with the part of the world they’re in.”

Sweden now has the chance to show the world there’s a lot more to it than IKEA and vikings. Their act gets an automatic finals position, as do the big financial backers, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain. All the others will be fighting for a place in the two Semi-Finals broadcast Friday and today.

As all the acts have had their dress rehearsals and picked every single camera angle they want (yep, that’s part of the rules) many will be organising their Eurovision parties around the world.

In Australia, SBS radio is kicking off festivities with a massive party at Federation Square. Over 500 deck chairs will be set up, the competition will be screening on the big screen and there will be lots of giveaways.

The Eurovision final will be broadcast on SBS 1 for Australian audiences at 7.30pm, while the second semi-final is screening tonight at 7.30pm. SBS also have a dedicated radio station called SBS Eurovision that broadcast all finals and have daily news updates and past songs.