It burst onto the Eurovision scene in 2008 with two screaming angels and lots of oil money to burn.
And since then Azerbaijan has become a firm fixture on the Eurovision stage. It has given us a lot of memories over the years, which makes it the perfect subject for our next Eurovision Memories post from Natalie.
Eurovision 2008: Belgrade
“Azerbaijan!? I’ve never even heard of Azerbaijan! Is it even in Europe?” These were the words that Paul O’Grady screamed on his talk show after Terry Wogan mentioned the contest’s new addition. This was a time in which the contest was plagued by allegations of bloc voting and corruption by the east. Europe seemed to be split between the older Eurovision countries and the pesky newcomers “ruining the contest”. It was really sad, because these new countries actually embraced the contest in a way that some older countries hadn’t. Plus, it wasn’t as though the older countries were being good little angels either (Congratulations Silvia Night!). Nonetheless, with many people screaming it wasn’t even a “proper European country”, Azerbaijan had a lot to prove.
And jeez did they make their mark. Their song was a rock-opera-mugham concoction called “Day After Day”. And over a decade later, I still can’t make sense of it. However, it placed 8th – a great result for a new country. Plus it showed that the new kid on the block was prepared to make sure everyone knew they were here. I was excited to see what they did next.
Eurovision 2009: Moscow
After the success of their debut year, Azerbaijan decided to hold a national final, similar to Land of Fire which chose “Day After Day”. However, they simply later cancelled it just because they felt the quality of the entries wasn’t good enough. That’s how much competition Azerbaijan had. And that’s why I really grew to love them. Then I heard “Always”, and I loved Azerbaijan even more. My word, this was a hell of a banger. Sung by the immensely talented Arash with the beautiful and charismatic Aysel, I really thought it could win. And I wanted it to – it combined everything I love about the contest. It had an ethnic charm, it was catchy, it was charming and energetic.
But I also really didn’t want it to win. The EBU were desperate to shift the accusations of bloc voting, even changing the rules to appease the angry West. If another Eastern country won straight after Russia’s victory, the outrage would be explosive. The contest would be thrown under the bus, and it would kill the beauty of the amazing song that is “Always”. In the end, Norway won – thank God, a Western country, an old Eurovision competitor, would host the contest again. And Azerbaijan placed third, a very well-deserved placing. “Always” would take its rightful place as one of the best non-winning songs. It was a great year.
Eurovision 2010: Oslo
So I was really excited for Azerbaijan’s song. I knew they were a powerhouse hell bent on bringing quality. And they seemed to have come up with a magical formula – if you wanna do well, get Swedes to write your song. So it was again for 2010. Another beautiful charismatic teenager singing for Azerbaijan. Another Swedish penned song (Hello Stefan Örn). Another Natalie lovefest. They even got JaQuel Knight, a choreographer who worked with Beyonce and Britney, to do the performance. This might seem a bit pretentious and overdone, and I agree, but hey, it still meant a great dance routine. And that dress gives me goosebumps whenever I see it.
When the song reached the top of the betting odds, it seemed Azerbaijan was unstoppable. There was one fatal flaw in this perfect plan. The song was 40 seconds too long. This is a problem that has killed many brilliant songs in Eurovision history, and “Drip Drop” is no exception. The shortening didn’t carry the emotion and power of the original, and the song placed a lowly 5th. Germany winning was still a great moment for the contest, but Azerbaijan’s hunger for a win was still not satiated.
Eurovision 2011: Düsseldorf
“Azerbaijan – desperate to win”. Graham Norton pretty much summed it up. Azerbaijan’s determination to win may be obnoxious, but they certainly had a fire that we would love to see from some other countries. They went Swedish again for their song (Hello again Stefan), and held a mammoth selection to find their singers. In the end, 77 singers fought for a chance to represent their country, which could only be narrowed down to two. Ell and Nikki sang “Running Scared”, another beautiful pop song that was well-choreographed and looked great on stage. To boot, all the performers wore white – a colour usually associated with winning Eurovision. It was definitely a winning combo in a very open year for the contest.
In the end, Azerbaijan finally claimed their much-awaited victory, although the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth somehow. “Running Scared” just lacked a little bit of the magic of “Always” and “Drip Drop”. It just seemed like a song that was written to win Eurovision and then be forgotten about. For a country with such a short but fantastic history as Azerbaijan, the fact that the song that bought the contest to Baku was kinda half-baked just felt wrong. If only “Running Scared” and “Always” switched places… ah well. Azerbaijan got what they came for, Ell and Nikki are two wonderful people, and the contest is still alive and well. Happy days.
Eurovision 2012: Baku
They were determined to light your fire, and that they did. With the contest getting bigger than ever each year, Azerbaijan really needed to stand out. So rather than just stage it in a boring old venue like everyone else, they built an entirely new one! The Baku Crystal Hall was indeed amazing, and while Azerbaijan stated it wasn’t built just for the contest, we still claim it as our own. All-in-all, Azerbaijan spent €160 million on hosting the contest, which shows that even if you don’t like the country, at least they really care. It would’ve been nicer if they didn’t repeatedly bleat on about their own country in the interval acts and the postcards (yes, we know the Caspian Sea exists) but still, they embraced hosting a lot more than most other countries would, and we love that. The fact that Baku 2012 delivered possibly the most iconic winner in the contest’s history makes it that bit sweeter.
Flushed with success, they also used the exact same selection method from 2011 (yes, Stefan, now a Eurovision winner, was back). The result was Sabina Babayeva with “When the Music Dies”. Another beautiful ballad with ethnic elements this time, and a charismatic singer. Azerbaijan had a proven formula for breaking the Top 5 – and they did again, coming 4th. The song was a lot more understated than their previous efforts, and the classiness really showed through. It was nice to see Azerbaijan more relaxed and less desperate to win, but still passionate about doing well. And the dress. The dress… *faints*
Eurovision 2013: Malmö
Did winning the contest at last mean Azerbaijan would continue to be understated, more relaxed, less showy? Nope! It’s possible that someone in their delegation was like “let’s just go as frickin’ as all out as possible because wtf not!” Or maybe “we’ve covered 3rd, 5th, 1st and 4th! Where’s our 2nd place?!” Who knows. The point is, Azerbaijan weren’t done just yet. Farid Mammadov had participated in Azerbaijan’s national selections a lot before, and his hunger for the contest was not missed by anyone.
The song was “Hold Me”, another pop fest – not Swedish (no Stefan, sad reacts) and it was a feast for the ears. And my word, was it also a feast for the eyes. There was a man in a box. There was a woman with a ridiculously long train. There were rose petals. It was unlike anything we’ve ever seen at the Eurovision before. It was brilliant. Azerbaijan came 2nd behind Denmark (because Emmelie de Forest is the best), and whoever came up with this idea at Azerbaijan Eurovision HQ really deserves a bunch of red roses. Azerbaijan was on one hell of a streak.
Eurovision 2014: Copenhagen
Azerbaijan’s golden age lasted for so long and was so rich that it felt like it would go forever. But it had to end eventually, and it was very sad when it did. “Start a Fire” was a sweet, jazzy, Swedish composed (Stefan’s back) song sung by Dilara Kazimova, who had the charisma and charm of a winner. It just fell a bit flat in the end. It didn’t have the spark of “Always”, the passion of “Drip Drop”, or the heart of “Running Scared”. Even with a trapeze acrobat swinging on stage, it couldn’t reach the Top 20, let alone the Top 5. Azerbaijan had well and truly run out of steam. And an era had ended in Eurovision history. Azerbaijan remains the only country since the 1980s to have accrued five Top 5 placings in a row. And I guess Paul O’Grady is well aware of Azerbaijan now.
Even for all those who dislike Azerbaijan’s status as a powerhouse and accuse them of corruption and vote buying, the end of the country’s golden era was still a very sobering moment. The Azeri golden era bought some of the most iconic non-winning songs in the contest’s history, and completely changed how some countries approach Eurovision. Getting Swedes to write entries is now commonplace in the contest. Choreography and fashion has now evolved leaps and bounds on the Eurovision stage since Safura Alizadeh stunned Europe. The trend of projection dresses (and Estonia’s 2018 nightmare) all began with Sabina Babayeva. And Baku really set an incredible standard for how countries host the contest in the future. Azerbaijan came to the contest with a dream and a relentless determination to win; and since doing that, Europe as a whole has become much more competitive and much more passionate about the contest. The 2010s was the decade that caused the contest to be revolutionised into becoming more popular, more mainstream, and more spectacular than ever, and like it or not, this lesser-known country from the Caucasus, which some said back in 2008 shouldn’t even be competing, is a big part of why.
What are your best or worst memories of Azerbaijan during these years? How do you think Azerbaijan impacted the contest? Do you think their entries deserved their high placings? Let us know below!