Eurovision 2021: What to Watch for in Rotterdam

Hard to believe that after the tumultuous year we’ve had, we’ll soon all be gathered around our television screens watching Eurovision 2021 in Rotterdam, finally back in the land of Balkan ballads, diva bangers, international rivalries, high camp, and everything else that draws millions of viewers to the Eurovision Song Contest every year. 

But of course, every Eurovision is unique in its own way. Ever-changing political dynamics and global music trends all leave their mark on the contest and give every edition a little special something. And lest we forget, we’ve still got COVID-19 to deal with. So, what makes this contest different from all other contests, you ask? Here are some things to watch for in this 65th year of Eurovision, the Grand Final of which takes place on May 22nd:

A Pandemic-friendly Global Event

After the tragic cancellation of the 2020 contest due to COVID-19, the organizers were dead set on making sure that the show would go on in 2021, and with numerous contingencies in place, Eurovision was ready to go on in any potential scenario. Thankfully it seems that most of the acts this year will appear in person, but in case anyone can’t perform in Rotterdam, each country was required to film a “live on tape” version of their performance that will be shown during their slot. This will be the case with Australia, as SBS decided they wouldn’t be sending their delegation to the Netherlands this year for safety (and probably financial) reasons.

The organizers also announced that they would allow in an audience of 3500, so the artists aren’t playing to an empty room. That said, this is about 20% of the arena’s capacity, meaning that the Ahoy will still be mostly empty, so it will be interesting to see if and how the lack of a stadium-full of screaming fans affects the energy of the broadcast and the performances. On the other hand, the fact that the Green Room (where the other delegations hang out during the show) will be situated smack in the middle of the arena means that this year’s acts will have a full view of their fellow contestants cheering them on, which could make for a fun atmosphere and bring out the best in their performances. 

A Very Diverse Eurovision

Diversity takes many forms, and this year’s edition of the song contest hits a lot of them. Musically speaking, we’ll have one of the widest arrays of genres and styles gracing the Eurovision stage in quite a while. Everything from your typical Swede-produced bangers to rootsy spirituals to electro-swing to glam rock to ethno-rave to whatever is going on in Latvia will be broadcast to millions of viewers across Europe and beyond. 

Also notable is the number of artists of color representing countries that are significantly majority-white: Jeangu Macrooy, representing the host country of the Netherlands, is originally from Suriname; Tusse, representing Sweden, is a Congolese refugee; Israel’s Eden Alene is the daughter of Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants; Benny Cristo from the Czech Republic is half-Angolan; Austria’s Vincent Bueno’s parents are both Filipino; Australia’s Montaigne also has Filipino roots; Malta’s Destiny has a Nigerian father; Senhit from San Marino’s parents are both from Eritrea; and Russia’s Manizha is a refugee from Tajikistan. Some of these artists have faced significant discrimination and racism at home, yet are ready to show the world that their countries aren’t just the ethnic and cultural monoliths we often think they are.

Two of the acts above, however, are actively coming to Eurovision with strong messages about their identities and the struggles they’ve faced because of it. Jeangu Macrooy’s song “Birth of a New Age” is not only a celebration of his Surinamese roots but a starkly political song about perseverance in the face of adversity, one that will resonate with any member of an oppressed minority. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that reverberated globally last summer, “Birth of a New Age” has a deeply relevant message for Europe about the lingering effects of colonialism. 

Russia’s Manizha is coming to Rotterdam with a multi-layered critique of the way Russian society treats women and minorities (try being both!) that is rooted in the artist’s own experiences of racism and sexism as a woman with Tajik roots. On the surface, “Russian Woman” is about the absurd expectations women face in the country regarding how they act and dress, but woven into the fabric of the song with some clever use of linguistic ambiguity is a challenge to the people of Russia to accept Manizha as one of their own instead of making her feel like a foreigner in her own home. Her staging concept will also highlight the diversity of the Russian Federation, with one outfit incorporating textiles from dozens of the country’s ethnic groups.

Diversity, of course, isn’t just racial or ethnic. A whole host of the acts this year, including some of the ones already mentioned, identify as queer. Though many parts of Europe are very queer-friendly, there are countries where the LGBTQ+ community faces significant discrimination. Thankfully we have artists like North Macedonia’s Vasil who are championing the rights of their community both at home and on a global stage. 

Don’t Forget the Politics!

What would Eurovision be without the politics? Despite the European Broadcasting Union’s insistence that the event be completely apolitical, sometimes the outside world can’t help but creep into the broadcast.

One of the most oft-heard critiques of Eurovision is that the voting process is rigged and that countries all just vote for their friends (a phenomenon known as “bloc voting”). While whether or not bloc voting actually affects who wins is highly debatable, some countries certainly benefit from this particular quirk of the voting system. One of its biggest beneficiaries in the past has been Russia, who tends to get high scores from other former Soviet countries, but over the last decade, Russia has managed to alienate some of its former friends. On top of that, two of Russia’s biggest point-givers, Belarus and Armenia, aren’t participating this year. That basically leaves Azerbaijan and Moldova as Russia’s only likely sources of the coveted douze points, as Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic countries have become less reliable votes (though they still tend to give Russia some points). But who knows, maybe the LGBTQ+-supporting vocally-feminist UNHCR ambassador Manizha can charm them back into the fold!

Speaking of Armenia and Azerbaijan, their never-ending conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh tends to occasionally rear its ugly head at the song contest. While Armenia withdrew from this year’s Eurovision due to the most recent hostilities, Azerbaijan’s representative Efendi has spent her summer being very vocal about her beliefs that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of her country, even going so far as to post this questionable photo (and a bunch of other propaganda) on her instagram. Basically, don’t be surprised if this comes up in Rotterdam somehow.

And if you’re wondering what happened to Belarus, they attempted to send a song so deeply offensive that Alyaksandr Lukashenka must have written it himself (actually it was a very pro-government band called Galasy ZMesta, but the point stands). After a very vocal outcry by Eurovision fans, the EBU told them to try again, and when the second song apparently didn’t pass muster either, Belarus was disqualified from this year’s competition. 

Of course, Israel’s participation in the contest has long been controversial, and the latest flareup is bringing up very familiar calls to ban the country from Eurovision (even from Jedward). We probably won’t see this come up as often as we did in 2019, when the contest was held in Tel Aviv, but look out for some attempts at sneaky activism.

Oh, and if the UK does badly (again), it’ll take approximately 5 seconds for locals and TV pundits alike to blame it on Brexit and not literally anything else. But here’s hoping James Newman’s uptempo banger can keep the UK out of last place this year. 

‘80s Coming Back

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that not long ago the 1980’s resurfaced all across the world of music, television, fashion, and instagram influencers, and because Eurovision is always slightly behind the trends (cheugy, if you will), this seems to be the year it all comes bubbling up to the surface, like one of Iceland’s volcanoes.

Let’s start with the songs: we’ve got a few tracks with big 80’s throwback vibes with Greece, Lithuania, and Poland all heavily referencing the musical and visual aesthetics of the era. And then we have Denmark, who could have competed in Eurovision 1985 and not felt at all out of place.

Ok, so a few songs have a throwback vibe. That’s cool. But then rehearsals start and…

Yes, cool pinks, blues, and purples actually do look much better on camera than warm colors. But there’s a line between just using cooler colors for effect and everyone using 80’s neon. (There’s more.)

So Who’s Gonna Win?

Predicting Eurovision winners can be, in the words of one Duncan Laurence, a losing game. Sure, sometimes it’s obvious, as in the case of the aforementioned Mr. Laurence. In other years, bookmakers don’t have a clear answer, and what Europe chooses depends on many variables, not the least of which is how good the actual performances are. 

But one thing that separates this year from previous editions is that the odds are pretty damn close going into the contest, and more or less anything can happen. Particularly in a weird year where a lot of the acts were internally selected (many returning from last year, when they were also internally selected), we don’t have a great idea of how they’ll do on a big stage in front of an audience of millions. This is where acts who really shined in national finals this spring, such as the aforementioned Manizha from Russia, Norway’s Russemusik legend-turned-mental health advocate Tix, or Lithuania’s delightfully kooky The Roop, may have an advantage. 

But according to the odds, three countries have the best chance at the trophy. France’s representative Barbara Pravi adds a dramatic flair to the country’s iconic chanson style in her song “Voilà“, elevating a genre that already boasts a global cultural cachet with impressive vocals and stirring emotion. Even a slightly elevated version of the song’s minimalist but extremely effective staging concept in France’s national final could be enough to take the top spot at Eurovision. In complete contrast are Italy’s glam rock hotties Måneskin, whose track “Zitti e Buoni” manages to combine sex appeal and effortless cool with dirty guitar riffs that will entice old-school rockers and angsty teens alike. Finally, Malta’s Destiny brings an unbelievable powerhouse vocal to her electro-swing empowerment anthem “Je me casse,” which might just be the antidote to a year of quarantine that Europe has been looking for. Plus, she won Junior Eurovision back in 2015, which means she knows what she’s doing. 

What’s a competition without a dark horse, though? We’ve got several this year: Bulgaria’s tribute to Billie Eilish has broad appeal if Victoria can manage to capture the magic and intimacy of her acoustic performances; Iceland’s Daði og Gagnamagnið were big favorites to win last year’s competition, and this time they’ve doubled down on their wacky antics; Gjon’s Tears from Switzerland has spent the last year honing his songwriting and vocal chops and come back with a gorgeous, crescendo-y ballad that could sweep the juries; and San Marino somehow got Flo Rida to add a verse to Senhit’s “Adrenalina,” which even on its own just objectively slaps.

Unfortunately for Senhit, even Flo Rida might not save her from the large number of female club bangers in the lineup this year. Between San Marino, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Azerbaijan, Serbia, and Moldova, viewers looking for the perfect post-COVID song of the summer may end up splitting their votes. 

After the depressing year we’ve had, does Europe still have an appetite for emotional ballads, or will they coalesce around a bop for the ages? Guess we’ll just have to watch the show and find out!

Ok, so where do I watch?

If you live in a participating country, then it’s easy! Just tune in to your national broadcaster (here’s a list) at 9pm CEST on Tuesday, May 18th (first semi-final); Thursday, May 20th (second semifinal); and Saturday, May 22nd (Grand Final)!

For US viewers, this year the contest will be streamed live on Peacock! You can sign up for a free account to watch the semi-finals and the Grand Final, all taking place at 3pm ET/12pm PT on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday respectively! (If for some reason the free version doesn’t work, they also offer a 7-day free trial of Peacock Premium).

For Canadian viewers, the contest will be broadcast on OMNI Television.

If you’re elsewhere in the world, you can tune into the YouTube stream on the official Eurovision YouTube channel. Unfortunately, the stream is blocked in Australia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, United States and the United Kingdom. If you find yourself geoblocked, some of the national broadcasters have accessible streams that you might be able to tune into if you’re ok with local-language commentary. Here’s a list!

And here’s a totally unrelated article about VPNs.