Love Is Blind: Embrace The Slavic Power Ballad And Become Obsessed with Eurovision

Loreen performs "Euphoria."
Three years ago, a single song decimated my belief that I understood pop music. Kejsi Tola, an Albanian sixteen year-old with a throaty alto, performed "Carry Me In Your Dreams" in the 2009 Eurovision semifinals, and for the first time in my history of pop adoration, I had tuned in. A Eurovision neophyte, I had no frame of reference for what I saw: Kejsi, in music-box couture, was writhed upon by a man in a sequined green bodysuit; two four-foot men in identical mime facepaint breakdanced on either side; she herself maintained clamp-tight focus while her compatriots tumbled and rolled around her, eventually forming themselves into a human staircase for her to ascend and be lifted down from.

But the song itself ensorcelled me, even as I had to listen past my own culture shock to hear it; Tola's voice ascended through the chorus, clear-eyed and brave, even as she plead to be sublimated by a suitor's desire, and the acrobatics she performed mid-verse caused the notes to slip and bend as they escaped her mouth, lending an accidental emotional verisimilitude to the performance. And, while I lay sprawled in naive disbelief that songs so universal and arresting could exist in so separate a musical ecosystem, I at last got a taste of the true moon's pull of Eurovision: "Carry Me In Your Dreams" not only did not win, but it placed seventeenth, drawing the fewest points an Albanian song has ever received in the Eurovision finals.

Welcome to the greatest song competition on the planet.

Seen at arms' length, Eurovision is quite uncomplicated for a transnational competition; the NBA finals look like the Scottish Premier League system by comparison. Eligible countries may submit a representative artist and song to compete in two rounds of semifinals and one round of finals, each of which are broadcast to the entire EBU. Each round of voting is performed half by jury and half by viewer text; the winning country goes on to host the competition the following year, and may advance directly to the finals. Studying the minutiae of the rules hints at what makes Eurovision so idiosyncratic—the top five economic contributors to Eurovision also get a bye past the semis; sampling is prohibited, but singing in a made-up language is allowed—but it's also important to understand that Eurovision acts as a microcosm of European politics, play-acted once a year.

This is less metaphorical than one might assume. Since no country may vote for itself, countries with similar cultures—Greece and Cyprus; Spain and Portugal; Ireland and the UK—frequently vote highly for each other, regardless of song quality. (Last year, when Cyprus gave Greece the maximum points allowed, for a bloated, plodding mess vacillating between a self-important yowl-fest and a penned-by-committee rap embarrassment—think "Linkin Park for the Athenian matron set"—the booing threatened to drown out the announcer.) Cultural blocs, like the Baltic nations or countries within the Scandinavian peninsula, have similar habits, though generally more strategic; Serbia's entry, Željko Joksimović's "Nije ljubav stvar," was this year's best song from the Greater Yugoslavian bloc, who rewarded it with a commensurate number of votes—and so it placed third.

Grappling with the context of Eurovision all at once is an exercise in both deconstructing kudzu-threaded decades-old rulesets and in armchair cultural study, and I will not blame anyone for scrolling from the first Wikipedia link directly to the first YouTube embed. But for those sticking to the text, an apology is in order, because I am about to reveal to you just how great Joksimović placing third is, by which I also mean, how much more one has to study to get the most out of Eurovision: in all, the contest consists of 42 different songs, one per country, 36 of which have to fight it out for 20 slots during the semis. Even if you don't do all the footwork to build the proper cross-cultural context around Eurovision Week, it is nearly impossible to juggle three Now compilations' worth of entrants in your forebrain without engaging in some amateur research beforehand.

So let me help you out. Each year I try to assemble a loose system of organization for partitioning each year's songs into pet subcategories, since within such a structure, it's much easier to judge entries on their own merits. Here are some of this year's subsets.

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