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Analysis & Opinion
12.03.10 Triumphant Underground
Comment by Shaun Walker

Russians seem to take the Eurovision Song Contest, scheduled to take place in Oslo in late May of this year, extremely seriously indeed. Eurovision is an annual competition held among active member countries of the European Broadcasting Union, where each member country submits a song to be performed on live television and then casts votes for the other countries' songs. Russians saw Dima Bilan’s 2008 victory in the contest as a triumph of the nation as a whole, but this year it’s not your run-of-the-mill pop star that has been chosen for the job– and it’s all thanks to the Internet.

The snow is melting, the temperature is rising and spring is here. All of which means only one thing – the Eurovision Song Contest will soon be upon us again. Last year, of course, the contest was actually held in Moscow, after mulleted imp Dima Bilan triumphed at the previous year’s contest and won the right for his home country to host the next event. Having sat through the whole horrendous affair at Olimpiysky, I was completely disabused of the notion that Eurovision is enjoyed only by those with an extremely developed sense of irony.

The assembled “journalists” from across Europe who had jetted into Moscow to cover the event took it deathly seriously. Every shiny white suit, pelvic thrust, appalling haircut and kitsch dance move drew disbelieving headshakes and raucous laughter from me and the small group of Moscow correspondents (as opposed to flown-in Eurovision correspondents) that were watching the event at the press center. But we were given dirty looks, shushed, and in some cases even abused by the worshippers of the contest who had come to Moscow for their annual party.
And it’s not just a few weirdos who seem to take this supposedly farcical competition seriously. When Bilan won in 2008, both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin sped to congratulate him, the latter calling it “one more triumph for all of Russia” (presumably not as impressive as victory in the Great Patriotic War, but close).

So, I approached last week’s Russian qualifying round, to determine who would have the honor of representing Russia in Oslo this year, with extreme seriousness. And I was amazed to see that amid some truly appalling entries, there was Peter Nalich, who had wooed the Russian Internet a couple of years ago with his catchy song “Gitar”. Complete with absurd English lyrics, comedy budget video, and a catchy tune, it was the perfect Internet hit.

The song gained Nalich temporary fame, and there followed a series of concerts at various Moscow nightclubs, though the worry was always that he was a bit of a one-hit wonder. None of the other tunes he came up with seemed as catchy or amusing as “Gitar,” and he gradually began to fade from public consciousness. But he’s now back and has the chance to hit it big time with Eurovision.

What of the song he’s chosen? I have to say, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as “Gitar.” The words are perhaps still moderately amusing and ironic, but it’s certainly nowhere near as funny. Nevertheless it makes a pleasant change from the likes of Bilan, and the awful Mamo, sung by Anastasia Prikhodko last year.

Choosing a genuinely talented musician to represent Russia at Eurovision drew sneers from the traditional cheesy pop brigade. Bilan himself, while happy to prance around the stage in a tight-fitting white vest and congratulate Nalich on his victory, had some catty words afterward. “If you remember the qualifying round in 2008, then the competition was better, there were more famous people,” he told the Trud newspaper. “As for Peter Nalich, of course he’s nothing special.”

Bilan’s producer, Yana Rudkovskaya, was even blunter: “It will be difficult for Nalich to make it even into the top ten,” she said. “He says he got famous because of the Internet, but at Eurovision it’s a different audience.”

Well, perhaps, though my personal opinion is that Nalich has more talent in his little finger than Bilan has in his whole body, mullet included. But the one serious point to be taken from all this is the growing strength of the Internet in Russia. “A resource has appeared that gives musicians the possibility to get their music to millions of people without advertising, producers, television or radio,” Nalich told RIA Novosti. “All that matters is whether the musician is good or not, and nothing else.”

Nalich was perhaps Russia’s first YouTube star, followed by Baimurat Allaberiyev, the Tajik migrant worker whose pitch-perfect renditions of Bollywood classics in various grim settings earned him a string of concerts and then a record deal. My personal tip for future YouTube stardom is Lolly Pop, a raucous underage Lolita punk group from Tyumen, that has posted a string of foul-mouthed but surprisingly catchy numbers online in recent months, mostly with videos shot on a webcam.

But even more interesting, if anything can be more interesting than Lolita punk from the Urals, is the fact that in recent months, the Russian Internet has thrown up a whole new bunch of heroes, this time political ones. YouTube is now the favoured method of solving outrageous road crimes, with the Anatoly Barkov crash, the MKAD “human shield,” and many others all being exposed on the Internet in videos that have drawn hundreds of thousands of views and forced the authorities to act.

So in a country where the Anatoly Barkovs rule the road and the Dima Bilans rule the airwaves, YouTube continues to give Russians a ray of hope for something better.
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