LONDON – When the Eurovision Song Contest was canceled last March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vasil Garvanliev, Northern Macedonia’s contribution, was upset.
“All my life I had scratched my butt to get there and my journey didn’t even start,” 36-year-old Garvanliev said in a telephone interview. “I was devastated.”
For Garvanliev – and the hundreds of millions of fans of the event – Eurovision is far more than a dazzling high-camp song competition. “It’s the Olympic Games of Singing,” said Garvanliev.
Last March he was sitting on his bed, depressed, he remembered, before picking up a keyboard for comfort. He started to pick out a soft melody on the instrument, then lyrics popped up in his head. “Wait, it won’t be long,” he sang, “trust your heart and just stay strong.”
“That song came out of me,” said Garvanliev, “and I thought, ‘Holy smoke, I have something beautiful here.'” Of course, “I didn’t know it was going to end for this year’s Eurovision.” Garvanliev added. “I didn’t even know I was being asked back.”
But in January, after an excruciating eight month wait, Garvanliev was invited to perform in this year’s competition – one of 26 recurring acts from Eurovision 2020. Scheduled for May 22nd in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 2021 is likely to be the strangest edition of the competition, the ever held – a high bar given the previous winners were Abba and Lordi, a Finnish heavy metal act whose members disguise themselves as monsters.
The arena will be used to 20 percent. Only 3,500 spectators cheered the participants and stayed seated to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading. The event is officially part of a series of attempts by the Dutch government to find out how to safely host large-scale events. Participants have all made pre-recorded versions of their songs in case they catch Covid-19 and are unable to perform.
But perhaps the most unusual aspect is that all returning attendees will play a different song than the one they had planned for the 2020 event. In a competition known for one-hit wonders that disappears from view almost immediately after the competition ends, this year’s entrants must prove they don’t fit this pattern.
“This is our difficult second album,” said Garvanliev, referring to the phenomenon of bands fighting for their early success. He hoped his 2021 song “Here I Stand” wouldn’t fall into this trap.
The contestant facing the greatest challenge of capturing last year’s magic is Dadi Freyr, Islands Act, with his band Gagnamagnid. Last year Freyr was the favorite, winning thanks to his song “Think About Things,” a catchy disco number about his newborn child.
By the time Eurovision was canceled, the song’s video had been viewed millions of times on YouTube. It soon went viral on Twitter and TikTok as well after families started playing variations on the video’s dance routine while locked down at home.
“It changed my life, this song,” Freyr said in a video interview. Prior to the pandemic, Freyr was generally only booked for shows in Iceland, he said. Suddenly he was selling tours around Europe.
“I’ve probably had one of the best pandemics,” Freyr said.
Freyr’s contribution this year is another catchy disco track called “10 Years”, this time about his marriage (“How does it get better and better?” He sings in unison). He felt like he had to keep the track in the style of “Think About Things” as the Icelanders voted for a fun disco tune to represent them in the competition, he said. It still took 12 tries to come up with a new song he liked, he added.
The track hasn’t gone viral yet, but Freyr said that didn’t bother him. “I haven’t tried to restore success because I know it’s impossible to predict anything like this,” he said. “Happiness has to be part of it.”
Four other Eurovision returnees said in interviews that they found the pandemic to be the biggest hurdle to writing a new hit. “I didn’t write at all for the first three or four months of the pandemic,” said Jessica Alyssa Cerro, Australia’s contributor, who acts as Montaigne.
“I kind of got into November and was like, ‘Hmm, I should probably start working on this Eurovision song right?'” She added.
Jeangu Macrooy, the Dutch entry, said in a telephone interview that he was facing similar problems. “I got no inspiration – I just sat inside,” he said.
Then, in December, while trying to contribute to the competition, a number of thoughts and feelings bubbled inside him about George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Soon he had conjured up the lyrics to “Birth of a New Age”, an uplifting track about “The Anger That Melts Chains”. Macrooy said he hoped it would speak to anyone who stands up for their rights now, whether they be colored, LGBTQ or otherwise marginalized. The refrain of “You can’t break me” is sung in Sranan Tongo, the lingua franca of his native Suriname in South America.
“It’s an ode to people who take their place and say,” I deserve respect and to be accepted for who I am, “said Macrooy.” I couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t lived through 2020. ” , he added.
He recently dreamed of people dancing on the track and said: “If that doesn’t happen at Eurovision, it will be uncomfortable”. (The event’s current coronavirus safety rules prevent dancing.)
For Montaigne, such dreams are a thing of the past. She recently found out she would not travel to the Netherlands to compete after Australian officials ruled that her participation was too great a risk for coronavirus. Instead, Eurovision fans have to see the backup performance of “Technicolor”, which it recorded in March.
Montaigne said she agreed with the decision, especially knowing that the pandemic in the Netherlands is far from over. Thousands of new cases of coronavirus are reported every day. “It would have been so bad if I had been the person who brought the coronavirus back to Australia, where we sit in stadiums and have fun dancing and touching each other,” she said.
Even without attending, she still has a story to “tell my grandchildren,” she said. She is the only Eurovision candidate to miss the event twice due to a pandemic.