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Eurovision Review: sex, hugs, but no rock ‘n’ roll

Is this a dream?

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Before the first stone of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus skyline had been laid, most of its fellow contestants had gained and lost an empire. Some more than once. But Eurovision has decided to Take Back Control of continental drift. It's only logical that a competition which gets off on controlled subversion would seek to subvert physical geography itself. Europe has always been more of an idea than a place.

Whilst Cambridge’s idea of subversion is drinking room-temperature sauvignon blanc or jumping Turf queues, it remains the most continental British city. No better place to spectate the 2019 edition of this festival of leather and plastic than Europa-on-the-Cam.

Far from the Fens, Tel Aviv's position should make it popular – not having fought any other contestants in the last millennia. But Israel is Israel: a country which reflects Europe’s best values or worst traits depending on your angle. Yet the only clues to conflict in the Holy Land tonight are the Palestinian flags Iceland briefly flash in what could otherwise be the TV Adaptation of Thomas More’s Utopia.

Passing clichés back and forth like a cigarette, the presenters and their Americanised-English twang are as fascinating as the music. Fashionista friends wince at the oxford collar and tie on one. Gliding around ‘the Green Room’ (imagine E. L. James' Red Room, with all the pain and none of the sex), they talk entirely in phrases without actually managing to have a conversation – 'believe in yourself Sweden!'. Are they sarcastic or serious? It's a language game that would confound Wittgenstein.

Malta and Albania get us off to a slow start. Only with San Marino does the ascent to absurdity begin, as the Peterhouse of nations fields a middle-aged dentist who clearly hasn’t taken his divorce well. The audience are muted. Novelty is not enough.

Russia kills it (comes with practice, I suppose). Their lead, Sergey Lazarev, is vocally and visually stunning, a Beckham-esque carpet of perfect stubble mapping his magnetic face.

I laugh as Belarus’ hip-hop Zara Larsson lookalike signs out with a gaudy spasiba, and hope it does well. Such a lack of rap or rock is jarring, but these genres of struggle and rebellion have never been welcome at Eurovision. Most countries clock the path to victory is paved with power ballads. Save Iceland, the zany, weird shit that usually flavours this 3-hour marathon is increasingly absent. Sonic enthusiasts: stay away.

Australia proves how music plays second-fiddle to aesthetics. Few could decipher a single lyric as the artists hopped across a CGI galaxy on pogo sticks. It's interstellar pornography, but with no climax.

Having 35 seconds between songs and the world watching, all these technical acrobatics would drive Top-in-Tripos engineers to intermission. Yet there were no glitches. ‘I am responsible for fun things,’ said Master of logistics, Ola Melzig. Quite.

Halftime yields Madonna and Child. The latter, in this case, being the worse third of the Migos. Madonna, who we are told everyone is dying to see – except, it seems, the audience itself – spars with the presenters in a cringey exchange. Disappointment infects the room as her performance finally kicks off. It is clashy. It is American. It is too much.

A real immaculate conception, Conchita shows us how it’s done. She nails Mans Zelmerlow's winning anthem from 2015, a man who has that Swedish habit of being both good looking, intelligent, but still leaving you feeling good about yourself. I am pleased to later learn he’s 5"9.

Pretenders to Conchita’s crown, the Czech Republic impress. Their bold block colours refresh what has so far been a dull palette, and their catchy Lake Malawi sounds like a Balkan version of Stereophonics.

The infectious energy and caffeinated hips of Sweden's back-up singers follow. Whoops fire around the arena as they crescendo and bring smiles to all faces.

Spain dance around an IKEA showroom to close the show. A smarmy Graham Norton is dismissive. The audience, bruised by the past two hours, give up. Not that Spain cares. Secure in the knowledge that their country is a cultural superpower, Madrid has little use for Eurovision.

Our own Michal Rice hits all the right notes. But his uncertain beauty, I fear, will harm his chances amongst the gays and cougars of Mitteleuropa, a vital constituency.

Voting confirms these doubts. Though to measure Britain’s success in points is to misunderstand. Almost everyone sang in English, and those that don’t (bonjour mon ami…) do so to make a point. In today's European Court, the lingua franca is the lingua anglica.

Smaller nations hold the key to winning overall. As federation blurs national lines, Eurovision allows the little guys to say look at us, we are still here, we matter too.

The Will of the People is the Norway Option, taking the public ballot with 291 points. Their electro anthem featuring indigenous lyrics was also my personal favourite.

And the winner? A Dutch power ballad from the low countries. ‘Thank you, Europe,’ the Netherlands belt as the credits roll. Is there anything really to thanks us for? My Turkish friend smirked at the show. A Polish mate dipped halfway.

Yet Eurovision's success is in its variety. Some watch for recognition. Others see it as performance art. The rest of us want an excuse to drink.

Above all, it celebrates the freeing of different identities and desires from a continent that fought to regulate them. Papal supremacy has given way to religion of the market.

Those calling it the soundtrack to a fading continent misunderstand. Most Europe's young would rather roost in Berlin or Madrid than an Austrian farming village or Home Counties suburb. Europe has been brought together – by Ryanair, at least. For one night the show makes the dream of a more perfect Union appear an attainable reality.

Dark clouds greet me as I head home. The party’s over. A storm is coming.

Cover image: Lauren Outerson, EuroVisionary (Licence).