There’s a surprisingly small amount of “Eurovision Song Contest” in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Sure, Finland’s fan favorite nü-metal group did flash a sign that said “PLAY JA JA DING DONG!!!” And there have been a few glancing references to the idea that last year’s Netflix movie might have won the annual competition a few extra fans.
But overall, this year’s Eurovision has been devised and executed like a cultural institution that needed to come back. There’s no small amount of hubris in insisting on holding the yearly in-person singing competition with certain areas of the world still very much dealing with a global health crisis. With those giant caveats, the lead-up to today’s final — streaming stateside on Peacock — shows why this continent-spanning contest has endured for so long, as well as plenty of reasons why it made sense for it to return in grand fashion.
The songs are the draw, but few 2021 events so far have proven the value of a great crowd better than Eurovision. Last year’s baseball playoffs and especially this year’s Super Bowl had a low, hard cap on the amount of vicarious enjoyment to be had from a stadium filled with too many people. There’s certainly a limit to the energy of the in-studio audience for American shows like “The Masked Singer” and “Saturday Night Live,” given the relative quality of what they have to respond to.
Yet, for the thousands gathered for Tuesday’s first night of semifinal performances, this was a Dutch crowd so primed that many cheered for presenter Chantal Janzen when she started giving a few sentences of the introduction in French. By the time the night got to the chorus of Croatia’s entry (which was inexplicably robbed, by the way), it was obvious why everyone watching was bringing Olympic-level energy after every song.
Variety had an overview this week with one of the Eurovision producers, addressing everything from the health screening process for this year’s audience to the lingering political overtones surrounding some in this year’s competition. The theme for this year is “OpenUp” — simple and obvious, but the entire production is trying to reflect that. The intros, with kitschy rooms placed smack in the middle of scattered Netherlands cities and towns, know exactly what kind of vibe to tap into before each performance. (Those giant multi-colored beams of light bouncing off all of the walls also double as a very helpful flag study.) There’s also a big contrast between each of those openings, set in largely empty outdoor areas, and the sweeping capacity indoor crowd shots. Each switch between the two is like a before and after meme, with the live 2021 half a joyful chorus rather than a deflating punchline.
As produced as those prerecorded bits are and as tight and immersive as the songs continue to be (in front of giant LED screens seemingly brought over from the unused “Patriot Act” set), there’s also been room for things to peek through the veneer. Here and there, the transition between acts takes a little longer than expected (Janzen vamps like an absolute pro) or some lone voice in the crowd “woo”s their way to momentary fame. It’s just the right amount of shagginess to make you fully appreciate the return of live performances on this scale.
And, as usual, those performances have been drenched in enough Theater Kid energy to fuel Rotterdam’s entire power grid. The interstitial videos pay tribute to past winners, and it’s been fascinating to see competing streams of nostalgia in the songs themselves. The dream of the ‘80s is alive in Denmark, even though few of those specific retro performances like theirs made it through to the Final. Portugal’s opened with a monochrome jazz club vibe. And there’s plenty of lingering mid-to-late ‘90s girl group verve coming from songs like Serbia’s.
So, with the finals on the horizon, may the best song win. No matter how today shakes out, congrats in advance to Ukraine, who managed to turn in a maximalist performance, even by Eurovision standards. A terrifying army of geodesic CGI sprinters, menacing handheld ring lights, gyrating guitar players, and a lead singer giving the greatest Rooney Mara performance Rooney Mara never gave. Spectacular. Welcome back, indeed.
The Eurovision Song Contest 2021 Final will be available to stream, both live and on replay, via Peacock.