So last night was the start of this year’s run of one of my favourite TV things ever. Sweden’s Melodifestivalen is their ridiculously, gloriously over the top method of choosing who to send to the Eurovision Song Contest. It is basically the X Factor on poppers. In stark contrast to the United Kingdom’s approach to picking a Eurovision contestant – which usually involves a 45 minute rush-job involving either a bunch of charm-free no-hopers or faded Z-listers competing over a dreadful slice of cheap tat that they misguidedly believe will be “fun for Europe” – Sweden take their selection process very seriously indeed, and have succesfully transformed it into the biggest TV event of their year.
The basic premise is that over the course of 6 weeks – comprising four semi finals, a second-chance round and a grand final – genuinely big-name acts compete alongside a few newcomers, all with original songs that they hope to take to the big event in May. Such is the popularity of the show though, that for many just getting to the final is the goal, with entire album campaigns being planned around their participation and careers being made and ruined on the whim of the Swedish televoters. It is absolutely gripping viewing, even if you don’t speak the language. Here’s what went down last night…
The major cultural events of other countries can reveal a lot about the peculiarities of their native people, and if first performer Sean Banan tells us anything, it’s that the nominally polite and reserved Swedes have a surprisingly juvenile sense of humour. A big comedy star with a number of novelty hits under his belt, Banan was a sort of gurning Chico figure without the charm. It is impossible to adequately describe just how dreadful this entire performance was – suffice to say that the comic high point was the moment when he picked his nose onstage while a bevy of scantily-clad Swedish beauties groped his behind. Still, the Swedes seemed to like it and he qualified for the Second Chance round.
Once that unpleasantness was out of the way, things took a more musical turn with a country-inflected ballad from girl group Abalone Dots – a sort of Swedish Wilson Phillips with Banjos. It was pretty, and a welcome relief from the unmitigated shite that preceded it, but ultimately quite dull. One of the lower-profile names in the lineup, they came 7th out of 8, which was a surprise to no-one.
Perhaps the biggest shock of the night was the performance of The Moniker, a Mika-esque singer-songwriter who had one of the biggest hits of the contest last year with the irritating but undeniably catchy ‘Oh My God’. Unless you’ve seen that performance – which was staged like the Amyl-fuelled dreams of Will & Grace’s Jack Macfarlane – you’ll struggle to comprehend that his stage show this year; in which he wore a cowboy hat and pinstripe pants while scary Phantom of the Opera-masked Violinists played in the background, was relatively toned down. The song was that most curious of things, a country sex ballad. The Moniker is not a man one fantasises about gittin’ down ‘n’ dirty with, and the “on and on and on and on” chorus really felt like it did. He finished dead last.
A welcome injection of glitter followed with three fabulous Swedish mamas called Afro-Dite, making a comeback ten years after winning the whole shebang in 2002 with Never Let It Go. Their new single The Boy Can Dance was an energetic disco number with fabulously uncomfortable chicken-in-a-basket choreography. It was a bit drunken aunts hit the karaoke, but great fun all the same, and they were visibly devastated to narrowly miss qualification when they finished 5th.
One of the biggest acts of the night were Dead By April, a hard rock outfit who had already scored two Platinum albums and a massive #1 single. Their song made me wonder whatever happened to Linkin Park, and was certainly not for me, but their fanbase plus the inevitable anti-pop vote saw them easily qualify straight to the finals.
The award for train-wreck of the week went to former A*Teens popstrell Marie Serneholt. Dressed in an unspeakably hideous gold catsuit, Marie remained rooted to the spot throughout her performance of the lyrically baffling “Salt & Pepper” and never had a prayer of going anywhere. Her dark expression when it was revealed that she’d finished 6th suggested that her agent would be sleeping with the herring before the night was out.
Actor Thorsten Flinck is best known for playing psychopaths, and he appeared to be chanelling his former roles in his disturbing performance of “Jag Reser Mig Igen”. Despite a voice that sounded like Shane McGowan gargling a box of drawing pins, he somehow made it to the Second Chance round, clearly picking up the “I hate this contest and everything it stands for” vote.
The best was thankfully saved for last with electro-miserablist Loreen, who put me into what can only be described as a gay coma with her pulsating dance number, complete withe eye-catching Memoirs of a Geisha-inspired choreography. Her live vocals were spot on, and the whole package worked perfectly. She went straight to the finals and must be a strong bet to win the whole thing. I could imagine it making a big impact in Baku come May.
So that’s that. Not a bad start to the show at all, although only two songs (Loreen and Afro-Dite) will be making my iPod. If you want to tune in, the show streams live at 7pm UK time on http://www.svt.se. It really is very much worth watching, if only to make you more depressed when the BBC intern realises he’s almost missed the deadline and puts in that frantic call to John Barrowman .
Note: SVT have a policy of removing all of the qualifying songs from youtube until the week of the finals, so there’s no point in me embedding them. You can probably find them if you do a bit of googling though.