Every so often at Eurovision, one of the semi-finals is full of all of the best songs and the other one gets all the dregs. That’s because which countries perform in which semi-final is decided by a random draw. And this year, the first semi-final was stuffed with duds.
Before we go any further, don’t worry: the UK's act, Michael Rice, is automatically going through to the final on Saturday, because we bribe our way in - sorry, “contribute the most financially to the competition”.
And British viewers are only allowed to vote in the second of the semi-finals, for complex European bureaucratic reasons. That meant that on Tuesday night there was no British skin in the game whatsoever, so as far as the UK was concerned it was basically a warm-up event strictly for hardcore Eurovision completists.
Which would have been fine if the songs had been good. Unfortunately, they were extremely bad. Montenegro had sent a simpering six-piece who looked as if they were only singing in Eurovision as a shortcut to promoting a messianic cult.
The band, D mol, hadn't realised that key changes are generally only advisable if you’re absolutely sure you’re all singing in the same key to start with. Thankfully they didn’t qualify for the final.
Montenegro’s band were actually one of the worst Eurovision acts I’ve ever seen, except for San Marino’s Serhat, who sang as if he had only discovered what singing was ten minutes before he went on stage. This is despite the fact that he'd already competed on behalf of San Marino before in 2016 (though he didn't then qualify for the final). Yet, inexplicably, this time he actually did qualify, at the expense of much more interesting, and musical, acts such as Portugal and Poland.
Other terrible qualifiers included Slovenia, a po-faced couple whose song was largely a vehicle for a touchy-feely performance that probably should’ve been kept private.
And then there was the token novelty act: Iceland and their bondage synth-punk-metal band Hatari, who describe themselves as an “anti-capitalist BDSM techno performance art group”. They were dressed as if they’d recently found a gimp costume catalogue and purchased every single item in it. I’m not sure if you could accurately describe it as music, but at least we’ll get the chance to see if they succeed in bringing down capitalism by Saturday.
In fact, I’ve been writing about Eurovision for my entire journalistic career, mostly trying to persuade people that it’s better than they think it is, only for all of my hard work to be undone by how bad most of these acts were.
Thank goodness for Australia, then, a bright moment of genuine greatness in the dark. Kate Miller-Heidke sung pop-opera crossover song Zero Gravity, which is about recovering from postnatal depression, while wearing a spikey crown and flying above the stage on a flexible pole while vivid projected images of stars and the Earth from space moved below her. It was a stunning sight and combined many ingredients of classic Eurovision success: perfect vocals, a large dress, and a showstopping visual spectacle. The night belonged to Australia, and they’ll be hotly tipped for the final.
Another highlight was Czech Republic’s song, Friend of a Friend, which was also ridiculously catchy, and the band Lake Malawi gave a performance that was somehow quite current while also looking like a children’s TV show from the Nineties.
The non-competition portions of the evening were a lot of fun too. Dana International, Israel’s winner from 1998, sang Bruno Mars’s saccharine hit Just the Way You Are while a roving camera pressured couples in the audience to kiss live on TV. More impressive was last year’s winner Netta Barzilai singing Toy to open the show, demonstrating her extraordinary lungpower.
As for the BBC’s coverage, previous semi-final co-host Mel Giedroyc has been replaced this year by Rylan Clark-Neal, who was just as funny as Mel, but with the additional benefit of seeming to have independently made a deep, lifelong emotional investment in Eurovision. Paired with Scott Mills, the duo didn’t hold back from getting into the spirit of joyous camp the occasion demands.
But Eurovision is only just beginning. We still have another semi-final to go on Thursday night and that’s when we’ll get to see this year's most anticipated contenders take the stage, including Netherlands, Sweden and Russia. Despite the lacklustre quality of some of the acts on Tuesday night, the thrill of excitement in the air still made it feel like the start of the biggest party in Europe.