After a troubled gestation with lots of hiccups and hurdles, the world (or at least many parts of it) just got to see the end result of some artful recovery work by a team of Swedish experts.  The first semi-final of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest took place in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine last night.

For those who follow Eurovision religiously, and many do, along with the 200 million plus viewers who just happen to watch it on TV each year, this was a huge relief.  The protracted bidding process, where five Ukrainian cities fought for the rights to host, along with a sudden mass resignation by the local production team in February meant that Eurovision 2017 was on a do or die knife-edge.

With less than three months to go before the first semi, Ukraine was in dire straits.  With the gargantuan task of producing the most watched TV production in the world in such a shortened timeline, the only people physically capable of achieving this objective had to be not just believers but evangelists for Eurovision – enter Christer Bjorkman and his crack team of Swedish associates who for many years between them have produced the Swedish national heats – Melodifestivalen, two recent Eurovision finals in Malmo and Stockholm, and have produced other Eurovisions, such as the massively successful Moscow event in 2009.

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Kiev also had the PR issue of still being in major dispute with Russia and the fact that Russia was banned from the contest this year on a technicality. Many regular fans who attend Eurovision this year opted to sit out this year’s event for fear of being caught up in possible violence or an international incident.  As I write this, the day after the first semi-final, everything is going remarkably well, but there is still time for a situation to arise.  We had heard that Russian nationalist thugs were going to arrange a demonstration this week, but nothing seems to have come of these threats.

The unveiling of the Eurovision stage last night at the first semi-final revealed a simple but stunning structure with a leviathan of a “chandelier” hanging over the stage – a robotic lighting contraption unlike anything seen before.  Eurovision is a highly sought after opportunity via which lighting and sound companies can demonstrate their new technology.  Most viewers of the TV show have no idea exactly what goes on during the preparation that makes this a huge annual spectacle.  From a simple theater production in 1956 to the 20,000 seat arena production today, this is not just one of the most complex entertainment productions, but also a major opportunity for boosting the host city as a destination for tourism.  Kiev is doing all it can to show the world how welcoming and stunningly beautiful the city is.  Sights, food, hotels, the friendliness of the people (and their mastery of English) all make this a vastly preferred destination compared to our visit to Eurovision in Moscow a few years ago.

In discussing Eurovision, there are so many threads, so many political and social angles that can be examined and discussed, one can sometimes forget that it is actually a simple music contest – so to the music.

Last night’s first Semi Final was a smooth running production, but the results put the betting fraternity a little off-kilter.  Fans and bookmakers alike expected Finland, Iceland and Montenegro to go through to the final on Saturday, but all three stumbled and failed to get enough votes.  Surprisingly, with three Nordic countries in the first semi (Sweden, Iceland and Finland), one would have expected them to buoy each other’s votes, but instead, poorer songs and performances by Greece, Cyprus, Moldova and a very wobbly and amateurish Belgium won places in Saturday’s final.  One of the major fan favourites, Belgium, with a unique video and great hook, fell as flat as a pancake, or at least a belgian waffle in the arena.  Blanche, the singer is only 17 years old and her anxiety and fear was palpable in her face as she struggled to get through the song.  However, it seems that the residual momentum the song has through millions of views on YouTube, may have carried it over the threshold.  Today, it is the immediate benefactor of a further surge in YouTube viewings.  Quite perplexing.

Tomorrow, we will see what another 18 countries have to offer, including favourites such as Estonia, Israel, Bulgaria, Austria and a love it or hate it entry from Romania called “Yodel It”, which is dividing the Eurovision community as a hybrid of rap and yodelling.  I happen to like it a lot!  It’s a lot of fun and very well produced, the rapper, Alex is the genuine article with a great stage presence, and Ilinca, the female half of the duo is a genuine yodeller.  Eurovision always has something new every year and this year it’s “yodelrap” which will score big tomorrow and in the Final on Saturday.

To be fair, anything original this year should be sailing through to the final, because never has there been such a glut of ballads at Eurovision, and average ones at that.  Only one rock song is in the mix this year – a great effort by the host country’s very popular O Torvald group with a song called “Time”.  There a surprising number of closet rockers (like me) who watch Eurovision, and their televotes can be guaranteed to go to O Torvald.  It is over ten years since the Finnish rock band stole the title in Athens in 2006, and it might be another ten until we see a rock song take the trophy again. Nevertheless, O Torvald will do their country proud by making it to the top ten of 24 countries competing in the final.

If you are in the States and are intrigued enough to watch the Eurovision Final, it broadcasts on the Logo hosted by Ross Matthews and Michelle Visage of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame.  Expect to be impressed and perhaps discover a new obsession – It’s like American Idol on steroids, with a whole load of political intrigue and bloc voting.  You might even be tempted to book your tickets to Milan or Lisbon next year, if one of the much favoured countries Italy or Portugal win.

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