Friday, March 9, 2012

Eurovision 2012: Russia’s Buranova Babushkas

With the impending return of spring comes, across Europe, the first signs of an annual ritual casually making itself known on the cultural calendar once again. That’s right, it’s the Eurovision Song Contest, which I spotlighted in a piece you can read more about here

Russia first participated in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994 and has competed continuously every year since 2000. They even hosted the competition in 2009, as part of the reward for winning the Contest the previous year. They take this contest seriously there. With the increasingly larger presence in the global market Russia continues to occupy, it follows that they would attempt to participate in the cultural climate, as well. They’ve largely stuck with English-language hits to generate greater appeal and potential crossover success on the pop charts. Russia has done well in the last decade and a half, winning in 2008 for native pop singer Dima Bilan’s pan-European smash ballad “Believe” (which included a memorably bizarre appearance from Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko), and placing in the top three five times total. At one point, the faux-lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u. came in third, around the same time that they briefly enjoyed American success with their hit “All the Things She Said”. Last year’s entry, Alex (Vorobyov) Sparrow’s “Get You”, was even produced by RedOne, the man who co-produced Lady Gaga’s blockbuster album The Fame.

A word must be said about the selection process for each country’s entry. Usually left to their own devices to choose the entry, the winner is often selected by popular vote, depending on the nation. While the Russians have generally favoured high-gloss pop music, their selection this year is downright bizarre. The winning entry is Buranova Babushkas and their song “Party for Everybody”, which was chosen by the public over returning favourite Bilan and t.A.Tu.’s Julia Volkova and their blockbuster duet, amongst others.

For those of you who speak Russian, yes: “babushka” as in grandmother. These eight women hail from a tiny village called Buranova in Udmurt Republic in the Urals. Having competed in the Eurovision selection contest in 2010, these grandmothers came third in that national competition and have won the right via public vote to represent Russia at the big contest in Baku, Azerbaijan in May. The song isn’t even in Russian, but in Udmurt, with the chorus in English. My Google skills tell me that the non-English lyrics generally sing of the routine in daily life in that village: kneading dough, lighting the oven, laying out tablecloth while waiting for the children to come home. It is light years away from the flush of new wealth in cosmopolitan Moscow and is much closer to the simpler existence in small villages in Soviet Russia (or one might imagine).

Let’s face it: this selection is the American equivalent of choosing notorious American Idol also-ran William Hung to represent the country, should the U.S. actually participate in Eurovision. They are not professional singers by any means, nor are they accomplished vocalists, with the production overwhelming the voices and a beat that could have come from having a karaoke machine make love to a drum machine. The costumes are traditional and are likely hand-made. And yet, as with so many reality-show contestants, the Buranova Babushkas have a compelling back story. Their only purpose for entering Eurovision is to raise awareness and money to build a new church in the village of Buranova, which numbers only 650 in population. And let’s face it, it’s rather endearing to hear this story and watching them dance with abandon, much like this remarkable Mandarin remake of “Bad Romance” with seniors. I’m just saying that they likely don’t prioritize public opinion other than for the purpose for which they came to Eurovision. Plus, after the first minute or so, the clip is immensely catchy.

How will the Buranova Babushkas fare at Eurovision? Just remember that Alex Sparrow’s entry was designed to win the contest outright, given how American it sounded, and it placed fourteenth. Also remember that an outright bizarre entry like Verka Serduchka almost claimed pole position in 2007.