Following the Eurovision Song Contest’s cancellation in 2020, fans of the show have never been more excited to see the annual kitsch-fest return to their screens from Rotterdam. And as ever, Eurovision 2021 has brought a lively mixture of pop, sequins and drama — both on and off the stage.
As we gear up for Europe’s greatest celebration of the unashamedly camp, The Calvert Journal is bringing together controversy and impossibly catchy tunes served up by this year’s New East entries.
Known for her feminist and pro-LGBTQ+ views, Tajikistan-born singer Manizha will sing Russian Woman — a part-rap caricature of Russian womanhood. The song title has not gone unnoticed by nationalists and Russia’s right-wing lobby, who have levelled criticism at the artist both for her progressive viewpoints and her alleged lack of credentials. (One pro-government journalist claimed that a “migrant who has made a career of the LGBTQ+ agenda” had no right to represent Russian women, even though Manizha moved to Moscow at the age of three).
Despite the backlash, Manizha will bring her message of empowerment to the Eurovision stage in symbolic unity with the women of Russia. The singer, who claimed to have created the world’s first Instagram music album in 2016, will appear on stage as a Russian doll, in a dress made from fabrics sent to her by women from all over the country.
Has being cooped up at home left you brooding on the passage of time? Victoria knows the feeling. Her heartfelt ballad Growing Up is Getting Old may be a slow burner, but its evocative strings and piano — interspersed with the ticking of a clock — hits home. Add in the real black and white footage of Victoria’s childhood and we’re more emotional than when we found out Eurovision 2020 was cancelled (almost).
After depriving us of nightlife, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen many of us attempt to recreate a much-craved party atmosphere in our own living rooms. The Roop channel our (slightly desperate) need for fun with their electro-pop number Discotheque, which is all about dancing alone at home and being okay with it: “Let’s discoteque right at my home / It is ok to dance alone.” Any lockdown disco is sure to be improved by the dance routine on display here, which references the group’s childhood idols including David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and even Lithuanian basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis. With their moves embodying their party-inspired name — “to roop” is an archaic English term meaning “‘to shout” or “to make a great noise” – it’s easy to see why Lithuania is second among the New East bookies’ favourites for Eurovision 2021.
We come to Eurovision for the fun, but we surely stay for the drama. Albania’s Anxhela Peristeri does not disappoint: the soulful strains of her emotional power ballad Karma are the cry of a woman who blames herself for her world falling apart, while a clarinet, fiddle and double bass provide the folkloric flavour associated with Balkan ballads. Although she will sing in Albanian and enthusiastically declares Albania as her homeland, Anxhela has family connections to Greece and has been courting the Greek vote via TV interviews, impressing presenters and viewers with her fluent Greek. Only time will tell whether this will be a rare year that Greece trades its traditional 12 points to Cyprus in favour of Albania. How does Anxhela plan to celebrate receiving her first douze points at Eurovision? “I will kiss the cameraman,” she told eurovision.tv. Green room staff, you have been warned.
“There are times when I remember back / Wish to hug the child about to crack”: it’s a rare thing for childhood trauma and rhyming skills to come together in harmony. North Macedonia’s Vasil takes us on a journey through disappointments and struggles to reach a moment of triumph — “They all tried to break us / Not knowing it’s what makes us” — in a stunning embodiment of the immortal words of Taylor Swift. Haters gonna hate, after all. And, indeed, they did. Filmed in Skopje’s Daut Pasha Hamam, home to the National Gallery’s permanent collection, Vasil’s video for Here I Stand drew ire for its featuring of an artwork — a triptych by artist Janeta Vangeli — that was just a tad too similar to the Bulgarian flag for some people’s comfort. Adding fuel to the nationalist fire, Vasil confirmed that he holds Bulgarian citizenship, leading Macedonian Radio Television to form a special commission to establish whether the singer was guilty of spreading Bulgarian propaganda. A heartfelt Facebook plea and an edited music video later, Vasil is on his way to Eurovision.
Well-read fans were delighted to hear that Ukraine’s entry for Eurovision 2021 was to be none other than Taras Shevchenko, otherwise known as the father of Ukrainian literature. Alas, the literary giant himself won’t be making a comeback in Rotterdam, but his contemporary namesake will take to the stage as part of Ukrainian electro-folklore group Go_A. Their track Shum (meaning “Noise”) takes inspiration from vesnianka, ancient folk songs and dances traditionally forming part of a spring ritual. As the group’s entry for 2020, Solovey (“Nightingale”), was sadly destined never to make it to the contest, Shum will be the first entry sung entirely in Ukrainian to grace the Eurovision stage.
One country notably missing from Eurovision this year will be Belarus, after band Galasy ZMesta had not one, but two songs disqualified from the 2021 contest. Their first offering, entitled “Ya nauchu tebya” (“I’ll Teach You”), put “the non-political nature of the contest in question”, according to a statement by the European Broadcasting Union. With lyrics such as “I will teach you to toe the line”, the song sparked a backlash over the perceived mocking of Belarus’ pro-democracy protests — a claim strengthened by band members’ previous vocal criticism of demonstrators. The band’s second attempt, Pesnya Pro Zaytsev (“Song About Hares”), was deemed a little less bucolic than its title might suggest, and was disqualified again amid claims of latent political references and homophobic language. The refusal of Belarus’ state broadcaster, BTRC, to reselect the country’s planned 2020 act VAL due to their opposition views, (the station alleged the duo “had no conscience”), has also not exactly bolstered the case for Galasy ZMesta’s proposed entries being entirely apolitical.
An honourable mention on this list goes to Athena Manoukian of Armenia, who had been due to represent the country at Eurovision 2020 with her song Chains on You. In March, the Public Television Company of Armenia announced its decision to withdraw from this year’s contest due to fallout from the country’s military conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Athena may not get her moment in the spotlight, but her track is well worth a listen — not least because it represents a rare R&B-inspired entry for the Eurovision catalogue. Despite the disappointment of not performing this year, Athena has a message of encouragement for the Eurovision audience: ‘‘Don’t give up on your dreams. Ever. Work hard and trust the timing of your life. Love you,” she told The Calvert Journal. Wise words, Athena.
The 2021 Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Rotterdam, with two semi-finals on 18 and 20 May, and the final on 22 May 2021.