Eurovision serves up lavish spectacle — and a big win for Ukraine : Pop Culture Happy Hour The 66th Eurovision Song Contest took place in Italy over the weekend. Every year, dozens of countries face off in a competition full of pageantry, strobe lights, and sparkles. But Eurovision isn't just a talent search. It's also a lavish spectacle that attempts to unify the world in song. This year's winner was Kalush Orchestra, from Ukraine.

Eurovision serves up lavish spectacle — and a big win for Ukraine

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The 66th Eurovision Song Contest took place in Italy over the weekend. Every year, dozens of countries face off in a competition full of pageantry, strobe lights and sparkles.


But Eurovision isn't just a talent search. It's also a lavish spectacle that attempts to unify the world in song. This year's winner was Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine. I'm Glen Weldon.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today we are talking about the Eurovision Song Contest on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


THOMPSON: It's just Glen and me today. The Eurovision Song Contest has produced a decent number of superstars over the years, including ABBA and Celine Dion. Just last year, Italy's Maneskin won Eurovision and became a worldwide sensation, crossing over to the U.S. charts and many other countries. The way Eurovision works is they begin with 40 countries, each of which nominates one song by one artist. Five of those countries get to skip the semi-final round for some reason and go straight to the finals - those countries are the U.K., Spain, Germany, France and Italy - while the other 35 countries perform over the course of two nights of semi-finals.

On Saturday, the 25 finalists performed in Turin, Italy. We heard everything from towering ballads to chill folk pop to glam metal to dance pop bangers. In the U.S., the whole show was on Peacock, who wisely got the great two-time Olympian Johnny Weir to serve as America's very enthusiastic tour guide to Eurovision. Eurovision's point totals are determined by the combination of a jury vote, made up of representatives from the 40 participating countries, and an audience vote, which has a huge bearing on the outcome. This year, Ukraine finished fourth in the jury vote but was an overwhelming favorite of the voting public.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Four hundred and thirty-nine points.


THOMPSON: Those 439 points plus 192 points from the jury gave Ukraine the second highest vote total in Eurovision history. The country that wins Eurovision hosts the following year, so emotions will run deep at Eurovision 2023. Your top five for this year are Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden and Serbia.

Now, Glen, you are our designated Eurovision superfan. I'm a little bit more of a tourist, so I'm going to need you to - I'm going to need to draw on your expertise here. Give me your initial takeaways from Eurovision 2022.

WELDON: I mean, it's - the show is such a pleasure to watch, right? I mean, when's the last time you could say that about anything that runs four hours and - what? - 10 minutes. They manage somehow to keep it tight. There's lots of impressive spectacle on display, of course, but the stage presentations are such a variety so it doesn't feel like you're ever repeating yourself. And this thing moves along at a fast clip until, of course, suddenly it doesn't when we hit the jury scoring, which is a slog every year. But it's a fun slog. And it's made up for so much by that popular vote. It is so exciting, so wild, and so unpredictable - never more so than this year with that 439 vote. I mean, other countries were getting three points, 200 points or somewhere in between. And that just kind of put everything over the top and reduced the jury score to rubble.

The other thing is that we both watched the semi-finals, and I was surprised at how some performers who did great in the semi-finals had some wonky vocals here in the final. To a greater or lesser extent, Czech Republic, Sweden and Italy all had different kinds of pitch issues. Finland had exactly the same kind of pitches as it did in the semis, but...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...Made it through anyway.

THOMPSON: Very consistent in their pitch issues.

WELDON: And when I heard - you mentioned Johnny Weir - when I heard that Peacock had selected Johnny Weir to be the U.S. host/commentator, it just - it's one of those moments when the universe meets your expectations, right? It's like, well, that seems somehow cosmically inevitable. And he is great at that very weird job. He should do it every year. He's a superfan, but he's also well aware that he's not necessarily talking to superfans. And he welcomes first-time watchers in with all kinds of historical context. The winner was widely predicted, but it was still so exciting. I love this show.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, I had a very similar reaction. And I agree. I thought Johnny Weir was great. I found myself getting very quickly - very emotionally invested. I took careful notes on each performance as it went through, and I particularly was pleased with the semi-finals and the way the semi-finals just blazed through, like, 17 or 18 performances in, like, two hours.


THOMPSON: It is a feat of production that should not go unremarked upon. And each person's tastes are different. I was surprised there was as much jury enthusiasm for the U.K. as there was. I certainly had kind of my rooting interests. You had yours. We'll get to those in a minute. But I also think it was absolutely inevitable that world events were going to cast a long shadow over this Eurovision.

Eurovision takes place kind of in the spirit of peace and unity and kind of reconciliation through music, and Ukraine was bound to be a sentimental favorite. I think - I remember kind of going into Ukraine's performance thinking, if this clears a certain bar, this is going to inevitably win. And I think the important thing here, in addition to the politics and the meaning behind having Eurovision held in Ukraine next year, is I think Ukraine put together a really catchy song and a really dynamic performance with tons of energy and break dancing. It was a combination of kind of folkloric music and hip-hop that was really kind of danceable and dynamic. And let's actually hear a little bit of Kalush Orchestra.


KALUSH ORCHESTRA: (Singing non-English language).

THOMPSON: It is an earworm...


THOMPSON: ...And that really, really worked for it. So it was nice to be able to say Ukraine won Eurovision, and Ukraine won Eurovision with a very, very catchy song.

WELDON: Right. They certainly weren't coasting. They knew going into this that they had the goodwill of the world on their side. They also knew that Russia was banned from competing, and that factors in because Russia usually does really well in Eurovision. It usually gets through the semi-finals very breezily, and then it does well in the finals. But, yeah, this mix of traditional - not just folk melodies but folk costumes and folk instruments with, you know, a rap - with a hip-hop dance break. I mean, that is new. And that's one of the weird things about Eurovision is that you get these kind of mashups that when they work, they really work.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And, I mean, it's interesting because Eurovision is really trying to unify as much as possible, and they try to keep politics out of it to the extent that they can. But you just reach a point sometimes where your very presence in this competition is political.

WELDON: Absolutely.

THOMPSON: Now, Glen, I know I can always count on you for a taxonomy. You have talked before about the taxonomy of Eurovision songs, but why don't you refresh our memory? Give us a taxonomy of the kind of songs you hear on Eurovision.

WELDON: All right. Well, this is very subjective, but you got your bops, and you got your ballads. And this was a very ballad-heavy year. There were 13 ballads out of the 25 songs that we heard. Ballads are slow. They're emotional. They're sincere. There's usually no dancing or no backup dancers. They just plant themselves at the center of the stage, and they, you know, look melancholic. That's a ballad. There's also bops, of course - up-tempo, catchy tunes which are full of dancing. They're made for dance floors. They have sexy backup dancers. And then there's a subcategory of the ballads. That's the anthem. We didn't get a lot of anthems this year, and I was surprised. But maybe it's just been that kind of year - a lot of ballots, no anthems. That's when it's very stirring and bombastic, and it's about defiance and people standing and posing defiantly. We only get three of those. We get nine bops, 13 ballads and three anthems, by my reckoning. And that tells me something about this year, I think.

THOMPSON: About the state of the world itself.

WELDON: Exactly.

THOMPSON: Well, what were some of your favorites?

WELDON: I loved Norway. We both loved Norway. They came in with a song called "Give That Wolf A Banana." And this song - it's a joke, but it's also a banger.


WELDON: It also really slaps. And that - you know, we talked about "American Song Contest" before, Stephen, and I have this thing about how we can't, here in this country, get the tone right. Here's how you do it. You make fun of a thing, as they were doing. This is a parody song.


WELDON: They're making fun of Eurovision even as they are knocking it out of the park with such perfect execution of the thing they're making fun of. "American Song Contest" could never. That's what I loved about this.


SUBWOOLFER: (Singing) And before that wolf eats my grandma, give that wolf a banana. Give that wolf, give that wolf. Banana - yum, yum, yum, yum-yum-yum. Yum, yum...

THOMPSON: It is a novelty song. It is a parody. It's a pastiche. You have two people in wolf masks and people who were sort of dressed as bananas. And there's this whole dance routine with it. And I just grinned my face off the entire time. And that song gets stuck in my head. Like you said, if you're going to satirize something, if you're going to parody something, you have to be prepared to do it better than...


THOMPSON: ...The thing that you are satirizing or parodying. And I think Subwoolfer, the band from Norway, did that. What are some - give me some other highlights 'cause I - there's some overlap in some of our favorites.

WELDON: Well, one of my favorites was Monika Liu from Lithuania. She sang a song called "Sentimentai." And the vibe she's giving you in her slinky, sparkly dress and her Dorothy Hamill haircut is '70s variety show musical guest.

THOMPSON: Oh, yeah.

WELDON: She is singing this song in Lithuanian, and there's lens flare spotlights behind her. And she does this thing that a lot of the other acts didn't do, where, when the camera comes on stage and kind of swoops around them, most of the other performers will just follow the camera with their eyes, kind of hungrily looking into camera, daring the audience to love them. She merely acknowledges it. She is flirting with the camera. She doesn't chase the camera. She just lets the camera come to her. She lets the audience come to her. It's fantastic. Let's take a listen. This is Monika Liu from Lithuania.


MONIKA LIU: (Singing in Lithuanian).

WELDON: And the song is a lot of fun. It's very Liza. It's very slinky and fun, very cabaret - loved it.

THOMPSON: Nice. Well, I want to put in a good word for Chanel from Spain...

WELDON: Oh, yes.

THOMPSON: ...Who just gave you a dance pop bop with really, really, really, really dynamic dancing on stage. They do not lip-sync. And this is a very, very, very hard song to sing while she is dancing as hard as she was dancing. But that song is a jam. Let's hear a little bit of "SloMo."


CHANEL: (Singing) Take a video, watch it slow mo, mo, mo, mo, mo. Booty hypnotic, make you want more, more, more, more, more. (Singing in Spanish). If the way I shake it to this demo...

WELDON: One song that kind of crept up on me, I wasn't prepared to like it as much as I ended up doing was "Saudade, Saudade" by Maro from Portugal. It's a very quiet song. It's a very restrained song, and it's all about these kind of beautiful harmonies. And it is just giving me such classic Portuguese/Brazilian chords in those minor key. It's reminding me - it's giving me very Caetano Veloso. It's this beautiful song of just melodies and longing that's right there in the music. You can hear it.


MARO: (Singing) Saudade, saudade. Nothing more that I can say says it in a better way.

THOMPSON: I want to shoutout one more sleeper, and that's from the Netherlands. The artist S10 has this song called "De Diepte," and every time I heard it, I liked it more than when I heard it the previous time. That song really, really crept up on me, and that's a very challenging thing to pull off at Eurovision. Obviously, you want to get out and grab as much attention as you can, but this song was a real grower for me. Let's actually hear a little bit of it.


S10: (Singing in Dutch).

WELDON: The hook of that song is just oh, oh, ah, ah, and yet it is so powerful. It sinuates itself in your brain in a really fun way. I really love that song, too.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I just really enjoyed the overall vibe of this. And for me, the tone of this night was set right in the beginning. You know, obviously this is just in the American broadcast with Johnny Weir, but Johnny Weir comes out wearing lace pants, a white tux jacket, silk fingerless gloves, these gigantic white angel wings and, with a knowing smirk on his face, says the theme of this night is subtlety.


JOHNNY WEIR: The theme of the night is subtlety.


WEIR: It's go big or go home because in this contest, anything less is simply unacceptable.

WELDON: He is made for this. He was born to do this. And also, he's getting the crew on his side. You can hear them laughing at what he says. It's got that - very much "The Soup" vibe.

THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, I think we can agree, we are all on Johnny Weir's side and all on Eurovision's side. We want to know what you think about this year's Eurovision. Find us at and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Glen Weldon, thanks so much for being here.

WELDON: Thank you.

THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to now. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all tomorrow.


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