It’s two minutes into the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 and I already have chills. I’m watching something a lot of British people thought we’d never see: a Eurovision hosted in the U.K. After years of abysmal performances and frustration, the U.K. finally changed the narrative last year, finishing in second place behind Ukraine. Because of Russia’s invasion of their country, Ukraine is unable to host, so the northern English city of Liverpool has stepped up to host on their behalf. The show was opened by Kalush Orchestra, Ukraine’s winner from the last year, who triumphantly returned with their heart-pounding hit “Stefania.”
Eurovision is a tricky concept to explain to people who haven’t grown up watching the contest with family each year. (I used to be allowed to stay up “extra late” for the results.) It’s an annual contest which started in 1956 with just seven countries competing. But now it’s evolved into a 43-country-strong contest, held over a week with two semi finals, which is watched by an estimated global audience of 180 million. This year, for the first time, the rest of the world will be allowed to vote, too.
Part of Eurovision’s allure — and also what can be maddening about it at times — is the sheer variety of music and performance on display. One minute, you’re watching a timeless pop classic, and the next you’re watching something completely bizarre that makes you wonder whether the brownie you just ate had an extra-special ingredient. As the 26 finalists paraded across the stage — to a soundtrack of iconic British music, from Eurhythmics to The Chemical Brothers, and performances from former Ukrainian entrants such as Tina Karol and Verka Serduchka — the diversity and eccentricity of this year’s contest was on full display.
Befittingly for a show held in the home of The Beatles, tonight’s show is brought to us by the BBC and is being presented by a foursome: British singer and TV star Alesha Dixon, Ukrainian rock star Julia Sanina, British actor Hannah Waddingham (of Ted Lasso fame) and Irish comedian Graham Norton, who is a national treasure in the U.K. The lineup is representative of the contest’s core message: that it might be held in the U.K., but it’s a collaboration, where the contest is being hosted on behalf of Ukraine. Right from the get-go, the show’s intro featured Ukranian and British musicians performing alongside each other. And the linking videos feature the finalists alongside landmarks from the U.K. and Ukraine.
Even within the first five performances, there are many moments that you quite simply wouldn’t get anywhere else. Austrian duo Teya & Salena opened the show with a performance which felt very Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly-coded. Poland’s entry, “Solo” by Blanka, brought Caribbean-inspired beats to Liverpool, with flames and a dramatic dance breakdown. Then there was Serbia, a moody and science-fiction electro rock song with astronauts and aliens.
Next came our first big contender: France. Often, France enters dreary and forgettable love songs. But this time, La Zarra brought a bop, suspended high above the ground in a glittery gown. It was camp personified. And as if gay men weren’t fed enough by that, France was followed by Cyrus. Its entry, Andrew Lambrou, might not win the competition, but he definitely has the best biceps. Then, another favorite: Spain, serving what can only be described as “Game of Thrones excellence.”
Suddenly, the caliber is taken to a whole new level by Sweden. Returning for a second time is Loreen, who won for Sweden in 2012. If successful, Loreen will be the first woman — and only the second person ever — to win the contest twice. A win for Sweden would also tie the country with Ireland for the most Eurovision wins ever. Loreen’s vocals on the heartbreaking anthem “Tattoo” — a song she told Rolling Stone she recorded in just an hour and a half — have never sounded more stunning. The dramatic staging that sees her battling the elements, writhing around on the stage. At this point, it’s easy to believe she might make history.
A few acts later — including Italy’s Marco Mengoni, who is quite simply one of the best-looking men alive — we get to Finland. Käärijä’s heart-pounding banger “Cha Cha Cha” — performed in barely-there neon green outfits, because why not? — had the audience on their feet and the entire stadium shaking. It gave me the same rush of adrenaline that you get when you think, for a split-second, that you accidentally texted the person you’re shit-talking behind their back a huge rant about how awful they are.
Sweden and Finland might be close together geographically, but tonight they represent two distinct versions of Eurovision. If Loreen represents the “credible” side of the contest, then Finland represents its novelty factor. In different ways, both are excellent examples of what Eurovision does best, so whoever wins might tell us something about where the contest is headed next.
Several acts later — including Belgium’s queer-empowerment anthem — we’re reminded of a very real conflict when Ukraine takes to the stage. The linking video featured Tvorchi, Ukrain’s entry, on a backdrop of Kyiv and Belfast, Northern Ireland. It’s a fitting choice, because up until 1998, Northern Ireland was a conflict zone. Last month marked 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement, which ushered in an era of peace which once seemed unimaginable. Considering the surrounding context of the war, it’s virtually impossible not to be moved by “Heart of Steel,” a song which Tvorchi told Rolling Stone, is meant to inspire people to overcome obstacles and be the best version of themselves.
After Norway gives us a yassified Scandinavian Anne Boleyn fantasy I never knew I needed, Germany’s Lord of the Lost provides the obligatory screechy rock song of the evening, which is somewhat of a tradition. Then we move toward the end of the show, where Croatia reminds us of how truly bonkers Eurovision can be. Its entry is a group of bearded men who, at the start of the performance, are all dressed in various forms of drag and costume. Then, the group strip down to their undergarments as a giant rocket flares behind them. It’s unhinged in the best way.
Closing the show is the U.K., with Mae Miller somehow managing to walk down an incredibly high staircase without falling on her ass. The song is a chilled, low-key breakup bop which reminds me of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules.” Miller has become a beloved figure in the U.K. since she was chosen to represent the host nation and, although a win is unlikely, she did us proud. I want to have a drunk chat with her in the smoking area of a gay bar and tell her she looks fabulous.
As I watch Sam Ryder — the man who made tonight possible by coming second for the U.K. last year — perform his new song “Mountains” alongside Queen drummer Roger Taylor and a group of dancers and musicians with prosthetic legs, I find myself feeling genuinely moved. This continues when a group of former Eurovison contestants — from Italy’s 2019 runner-up Mahmood, Sweden’s Cornelia Jakobs, and Liverpool’s very own Sonia — arrive on stage singing a medley of remixed British pop classics by Liverpudlian artists, including John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Mel C’s “I Turn to You” and Atomic Kitten’s “Whole Again,” concluding with the official anthem of the city: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Eurovision 2023 was a moment of defiance for Ukraine. With Russia still banned from the contest, the show was a remarkable statement of solidarity with a nation that, even as the music was playing, was still being bombed. Ukraine’s culture, music, and flair was weaved into every part of the show — and it was all the better for it.
The night was also a triumph for the BBC, the U.K.’s public broadcaster, who have managed to strike just the right balance between excitable hosts and gracious co-hosts with Ukraine. In recent months, the BBC has been embroiled in high-profile scandals, one of which led to the resignation of chairman Richard Sharp after he failed to disclose an £800,000 loan he secured for former prime minister Boris Johnson. But this show has reminded me why the BBC — and indeed, public service broadcasting — is important, and how powerful it can be when it’s done right.
By extension, Eurovision has shown us the best of the U.K. — a country which has found itself trapped in repetitive culture wars imported from the U.S., while the very real issues facing its citizens are neglected. There is something special about a nation that has spent so much of the last few years shunning its neighbors finally realizing that it is at its best when it is positive and outward-looking. Tonight’s show was a show of solidarity with Ukraine, but it was an olive branch to the world.
The last night I can remember like this was the London 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony. The idea that the ceremony represented a high-point for the U.K. is disputed — after all, the Conservative government had already been in power for two years and were already starving public services of money. Just a year earlier, London was taken over by riots. But others argue that we should embrace and celebrate the ceremony’s progressive roots.
Judging by the decade that followed the 2012 Olympics, the opening ceremony might only be remembered fondly because it preceded a decade of decline for the U.K. There is no way of knowing whether Eurovision will defy that trend, but these two cultural moments do share something in common: they showed us how good the U.K. can be if we want to be.
Whether or not this is a moment of redemption — or a point where the U.K. decides to change its narrative — remains to be seen. To be honest, I won’t hold my breath.
In the end, it was Loreen who made history for Sweden, solidifying Sweden as next year’s host, on the 50th anniversary of ABBA’s Eurovision victory. And perhaps Eurovision’s two dominant sides — its novelty and its more earnest music — aren’t actually in conflict with one another. They’re thriving together. As for the U.K., it might have finished second last, but for one night, I felt how good we can be when we’re outward-looking and open-hearted. That is a lesson far more important than winning.