Eurovision landed on the mighty Danube in Belgrade in May of 2008, and so too did a record number of delegations from all over the continent. It had been decided a while before the contest that there would not be one semi final in 2008, but two, in order to accommodate the growing number of nations. The tiny principality of San Marino came to join the party for the first time, but unlike other first-timer Azerbaijan, did not mange to secure a place in Saturday’s final. Hosted by television presenter Jovana Jankovic, and 2004 entrant Zeljko Joksimovic (who had not only penned songs in the past, but written Serbia’s 2008 song for Jelena Tomasevic), it opened with, as usual, a reprise of the reigning winner Marija Serifovic, who welcomed Europe to Serbia and the Belgrade Arena – one of the largest on the continent with the potential to seat around 23 000 people. The stage was an epic creation of organic screens which were placed to symbolise both the Danube, and the Sava, Serbia’s other main river.
After a love ballad from Romania came the UK, who had drawn slot 2 once again. Andy Abraham, who had been runner-up in one season of ‘The X Factor’, had not been the favourite in his national selection, but was equipped with a higher quality of song than his country had participated with in 2007. ‘Even If’ was an up-tempo Motown-inspired anthem which used flashing lights and live music to complement Andy’s strong voice. There was really nothing to complain about until after the voting when the UK found themselves in last place with Germany and Poland. Speculators wondered if it was Abraham’s ethnicity that had done it, but the more likely explanation was that the UK had once again become the victim of the partisan voting that had been dominating Eurovision since the dawning of the televoting age. Germany had sent one of their most popular bands to Belgrade, who had sold millions of albums, and had more than one top ten hit, but they too ended up at the bottom, with no allies to back them up.
The closest thing to a novelty act in the final was that of Laka from Bosnia & Herzegovina. The first indication was his emergence from a washing basket as the first verse began. His sister accompanied him by dancing madly down the catwalk in a skirt covered in apples, and by throwing bouquets from the backing vocalists who happened to be dressed as brides, into the audience. This was discovered not to be that unusual when it came to light that Laka had used live chickens as part of his entertainment in the Bosnian final. Despite the chaos, the song, ‘Pokusaj’ (meaning ‘try’), was quite good quality pop-rock, and perhaps the performance’s eccentricity helped it be memorable and rise to a respectable 10th place.
Sending an artist who has already done well at Eurovision was becoming a reliable formula in the naughties. Sweden decided to cash in on this by bringing in their most recent winner, Charlotte Nilsson, who, since 1999 in Jerusalem, had married and now went by the name of Charlotte Perelli. Her song ‘Hero’ was refreshingly un-ABBA like, but still in the genre of schlager pop, which has become a Swedish stigma, and so was similar to many before it. The star looked just as luminous onstage as she had nine years previous, wearing a mini-dress in silver (one of two must-have colours seen in this year’s contest) and sky high stilettos. As always, the Swedes had provided a polished and well-choreographed performance. But although she got a substantial round of applause, it was not to be for Charlotte a second-time around.
Georgia’s second entry was about peace and was sung by a blind woman called Diana Gurtskaya. Her and her backing singers and dancers achieved an amazing costume change which involved enveloping themselves in a giant sheet to transform from black leather to white satin, in a matter of seconds. Azerbaijan also used this symbolism to great effect with their debut ‘Day After Day’. Elnur & Samir appeared on stage as an angel and a devil respectively, singing in English about the battle between good and evil. Towards the end Samir was disrobed by a dancer to reveal a white suit and a ‘heavenly’ version of his character. The voters were impressed.
US raised Kalomira was Greece’s selection for the 2008 contest. Having done admirably until 2007, they had evidently decided to stick with the three-part pop, one-part Greek rhythm fusion that had served them so well in the past. Picking a female soloist similar in appearance to their only winner seemed to be part of the plan also, and fortunately, it was a good combination. The song was called ‘Secret Combination’ which was a sign in itself. Kalomira altered her costume (which was a design of the one and only Jennifer Lopez) during the performance, which added to the spectacle of props and dancers. Greece tends to put a lot of thought into the ‘show’ aspect of Eurovision and usually it pays off. This year was no exception. Whilst they received the obligatory 12 points from Cyprus,more than a few other countries also felt that Kalomira was worthy of taking out the top prize.
Another participant who was well supported in his Eurovision campaign was Russia’s Dima Bilan, who had missed out to Finland in the 2006 contest. Not wanting to lose again, he had produced a song with Jim Beanz, a top American producer and songwriter, which would appeal to the masses. It had a message, and he had the goods. Barefoot and dressed all in white, he began the song sitting on the edge of the stage, before making his way to the centre, at which point a renowned Hungarian violinist and Olympic medallist ice-skater Evgeni Pluschenko joined him. This was a clever and high-quality gimmick which only served to increase his chances of winning.
Dima did better his 2006 position – not too shabby when you think about it. Ukraine also continued their run of successful entries, coming second for the second consecutive year. A big surprise came from Norway, who as one of the worst performing Eurovision nations, were not accustomed to being anywhere near the higher end of the scoreboard. For the 54th edition of the contest, another new country was to be visited, in what was continuing to be the strongest era of Eurovision ever seen.