Eurovision 2015: Semi-Final One preview

We’re now a bit more than a month out from this year’s Eurovision week, which I’ll be attending for only the second time ever (Istanbul ’04 was my first). Himself is coming along as well—it’ll be interesting how he fares being up to his nostrils in Eurovision for 8 days. Flights and hotel have been booked since yonks ago; doubtless it’ll be a marvelous week.

This year we have 40 entries across two semi-finals and one grand final. There are seven entries already allocated to the grand final. In addition to the big five (Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain), whose contributions pay for most of the Contest, last year’s winner Austria also has a guaranteed spot. Thanks to Australia’s one-off wild card entry for 2015 brings us to seven. Rather than reduce the number of qualifiers from the two semi-finals, Australia’s participation means a 27 song grand final on Saturday night. Which pretty much everyone agrees is too long; in fact 26 songs is too long and hopefully for 2016 we’ll move to a 24 song final: the big five, the host and 18 qualifiers (9 from each semi-final). Which should make it much easier to produce a coherent, well-paced 3 hour broadcast.

But for 2015, as in recent years, a total of 20 spots available for semi-final qualifiers (10 per semi-final). The first semi-final has 16 entries competing for 10 slots. Those are pretty good odds compared to the says when there would be 20 or more entries for the same 10 slots. Another way to look at it: it’s a particular form of chagrin if yours is one of a minority of songs to not qualify…

 

Here are my thoughts on semi-final one, which will be held on Tuesday 19 May 21h CET. The number represents their order in the allocation, followed by the host broadcaster’s country, the name of the act/artist and song title as performed. Nearly all of which are entirely in English.

It’s worth noting that sequence for each show (semi-final and grand final) is not a draw, exactly. The producers have constructed this sequence based on entries being drawn into either the first half (1-8) or second half (9-16). Within each half it’s been the producers’ call. I think it was better when it was a random allocation, since that meant no one could argue bias or favouritism towards certain countries (*coughRomaniacough*).

01       Moldova                     Eduard Romanyuta              I Want Your Love

Eduard is Ukrainian and rumoured to have “bought” his win in the Moldovan national final. Which makes sense based on the performance of what is otherwise an OK song. Eduard’s singing and dancing are amateurish, cringe-worthily so. Rather sad, given that in the last several years Moldova’s consistently picked interesting entries that have rightfully earn a spot in the Saturday night show. This should sink like a stone; exactly what it deserves.

 

02       Armenia                     Genealogy                              Face The Shadow

Armenian TV gets the hype award this year. They began touting their mysterious “super group” months ago. The original song’s title (“Don’t Deny”) was an interesting coincidence with the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman Christian (largely, but not solely, Armenian) genocide. Given that overtly political messages aren’t allowed at the Eurovision, many fans expected an intriguingly well disguised commemoration anthem. Instead “Face the Shadow” is merely a decent power pop ballad performed by six singers from across the Armenian diaspora. However the vocalists have very different styles, so it comes across very forced—at least in the preview video. Some sort of clever staging could save this; otherwise even the exceedingly reliable diasporic and ex-Soviet bloc might not. I’m thinking…not.

 

03       Belgium                      Loïc Nottet                              Rhythm Inside

Belgium looks set for its third qualify in the semi-final era. If the stars align properly (good draw allocation for the grand final) “Rhythm Inside” could end up on the left hand side of the Saturday night scoreboard. Yes this arguably borrows a bit too much from Sainte Lorde de Takapuna, and the preview video is a bit strange (wonderfully so). But 2015 will be remembered by many as the year that plodded: entirely too many ballads, which makes this up-tempo and trippy song, particularly thanks to Loïc’s unique, genderless vocals, stand out by 1000kms. Easily qualifying if he sings in-tune, which doesn’t appear to be a problem for our man. Me like. Outside chance for a surprise victory as well!

 

04       The Netherlands       Trijntje Oosterhuis                Walk Along

Meanwhile, a bit farther up the coast from Antwerp, we find this year’s Dutch entry. Apparently TROS has been begging Trintje for years to enter the Eurovision—something few artists of any stature would be willing to risk. But the success over the last two years by the Common Linnets and Anouk convinced Trijntje it’s worth the risk. In fact, Anouk co-wrote “Walk Along”, so all is aligning in the stars for Trintje, eh?

 

Perhaps…not: this is a good, adult contemporary, Kelly Clarksonesque pop song. And Trintje can deliver the vocal in her sleep—and therein lies the challenge. The Dutch have a history of sending vocalists who are technically proficient to the point of being note perfect. Perfect can be too perfect, especially if there no grittiness to their performance (Sweden sometimes has this issue as well). In a competition that only offers 3 minutes to make an impact the song-artist-audience triangulation is critical: not many people will vote for you if you don’t connect.

 

“Walk Along” is very catchy and instant. It should still either qualify at the top of the list (staging and styling and performance sorted like the last two Dutch entries) or perhaps in 10th (if it’s just a competent, rather than compelling, package). Nowadays 50% of the score is jury-based and professional musicians like seeing other professionals in the Contest—and will score them accordingly.

 

05       Finland                       Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät    Aina Mun Pitää

And then there’s Finland, in all it’s punk glory. Yeah, that’s right: a straight up two minute thrashing three chord punk rock tour de force. If that doesn’t stand out, these guys include members with Down Syndrome and autism. By far PKN’s story is the story of 2015. There’s rumblings of sympathy or pity votes. Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, these guys romped to victory in Finland’s national selection, leaving all their competitors in the dust.

 

I hope they do similarly well in Vienna. Even if they don’t look at the cameras. Even if they grunt in Finnish and I don’t understand a word. Even without a key change. I LOVE this, and I love Finland for (yet again) sending something unique to a Contest that often features the same four genres of music (pop, schlager, dance and ethno). Everyone thought Lordi was a gimmick in 2006…until the votes started piling up. Watch. This. Space.

 

06       Greece                                    Maria Elena Kyriakou           One Last Breath

Greece is one of a handful of countries with a 100 per cent qualification record in the last decade (along with Russia and Romania). However, “One Last Breath” is a very different sort of entry for the Greeks. They’ve not sent a straight up ballad since they hosted in 2006. Maria Elena is another reality TV winner and, strangely enough, yet another Cypriot representing Greece. It’s a very nice song sung very nicely. However, if it wasn’t Greece’s (or Russia’s or Romania’s) entry I would expect it to be forgotten. However, if any Greek song weren’t to qualify, it would be this one. But it’s Greece, so expect it to qualify. Unless it doesn’t. Though it will. Probably. I think.

 

07       Estonia                       Elina Born & Stig Rästa         Goodbye To Yesterday

Not too long ago Estonia had one of the worst qualification records. Then they turned their national selection on its head, making sure a broad range of contemporary music styles were included. Since then they’ve made the semi-final four out of the last six years. The Estonia selection is often a close one, but “Goodbye to Yesterday” roared to victory and has been near the top of the bookies’ odds ever since.

 

I don’t exactly understand why: this leaves me cold and I usually love Estonia’s entries. Zero charisma, no hook, blurgh. It’s worth mentioning that it wouldn’t be the first time I was the only person watching Eurovision to feel this way (can you say “Fairytale”?). But every year there’s a fan favourite that shockingly doesn’t make it to Saturday night. This is my pick for that dubious honour in 2015.

08       Macedonia     Daniel Kajmakoski                Autumn Leaves

Macedonia’s too small to have its own X-Factor so they’re part of the “X-Factor Adria” franchise (read: ex-Yugoslavia minus Slovenia and Kosovo, neither of which seem remotely interested). Daniel won that competition under the mentorship of Zeljko Joksomovic, the ostensive king of Serbian Eurovision. Daniel has spent much of life in Austria—Vienna, in fact—so there’s a nice circularity to his being the Macedonian representative this year.

 

This is solid pop song and Daniel’s a good singer. We’ve not seen the staging for this—and that might be the determining factor as to whether it qualifies or not. I think it deserves a spot on Saturday night.

 

09       Serbia                         Bojana Stamenova                Beauty Never Lies

Speaking of Serbia, they’re back back back, with a song written by the guy who wrote their only winning entry “Molitiva-a-a-a-hunhhh-ooo-oooo-oooo-oooo-ooooh”. Who can forget a short butch diva surrounded by her faux military Charlies Angels backup singers? No one, of course.

 

Bojana was runner up on Serbia’s got talent. She’s she’s a great blues/rock singer, a sort of Chiara or Hera Bjørk for the Balkans. This is also the first Serbian entry not performed in Serbian—a smart decision I think, because Bojana’s English is really strong and the song’s message is about looking beyond the obvious to see the beauty in people. The last woman from Serbia who sang an English language version of a song at the Eurovision finished in the top ten. Mind you Magdi Rùzsa was representing Hungary (“Unsubstantial Blues”)…

10       Hungary                     Boggie                                     Wars For Nothing

Speaking of Hungary. I’m guessing her English teacher wasn’t Irish, based on her nickname.

OK that was a cheap shot. But then again, this is a cheap entry: a pedestrian, unremarkable, let’s-take-Europe-hostage peace-n-love song. Except it’s not at all memorable or moving. If you can’t do this sort of entry right, don’t do it at all. Hungary’s successful run of qualifications is probably over. For which they have no one to blame but themselves.

11       Belarus                       Uzari & Maimuna                  Time

No country has produced as many cringe-worthy entries as Belarus. After 12 years participating, with only perhaps four decent ones, it’s no longer camp or funny. It’s just tiresome. Even with the ex-Soviet bloc this might be last place in the semi-final. If, yet again, they sneak into the grand final because of the ex-Soviet bloc, expect a lot of booing in the Wiener Stadthalle. And that really loud woman you hear? That’ll be me.

 

12       Russia                         Polina Gagarina                     A Million Voices

And from the trough to the peak. Unlike “Time”, “A Million Voices” will probably win the semi-final, if not the whole Contest. This is the third “peace anthem” in as many years from Russia, but What If” and “Shine” pale in comparison. Compared to Dina Garipova and the Tolmachevy sisters Polina Gagarina is a much better a singer—and the other two acts weren’t exactly crap.

 

This is the strongest, best produced Russian entry sent since Serebro in 2007. Great song, great production, great singer, and head of a large voting bloc. In the absence of vote splitting (*coughAzerbaijancough*), an equally strong song from the Scandi bloc, or another “Rise Like a Phoenix” or “Calm After the Storm”, we might well be going back to Russia. Do I like the idea of Putin being handed the Eurovision as a propaganda platform? Not really. But at least it’s a quality entry, which is more than I can say for the 2011 winner. Be very afraid.

 

13       Denmark                    Anti Social Media                   The Way You Are

Denmark’s done consistently well lately, having appeared in eight consecutive grand finals (including winning a couple of years ago). In many respects Denmark has proven, again and again, that having a national final can work really well as long as there’s at least one really good entry on offer.

 

Sadly “year after the year after” curse seems to have struck again. After winning in 2013 and doing well in 2014, the Danes have picked something kind of good and kind of charming, but not very good or very charming. There’s something lacking here and it’s too repetitive. Could well still qualify, but probably doesn’t deserve to. But Anti Social Media are cheeky lads and there’s almost always a voting constituency at the Eurovision for cheeky lads. Though perhaps not amongst the juries. There are probably 6 other worse entries in this semi-final though. Which may be their get out of jail free card.

14       Albania                       Elhaida Dani                          I’m Alive

Albania, bless them, have a formula that works for them as much as a cultural event as a Eurovision selection. In fact the Festivali I Këngës is in its 53rd year—almost as long as the Eurovision. The Festivali selects a winner under different rules than the Eurovision, which means a song usually a lot longer than 3 minutes that is performed with a live orchestra, always in Albanian. Then they adapt it to the Eurovision rules. Most of the time—7 out of 11 times, in fact—they’ve produced something that appears on Saturday night. Four have stayed entirely in Albanian (2 qualifiers, 1 top 10), two were a mix of English and Albanian (no qualifers) and the rest switched to English (4 qualifiers, 1 top 10). In other words, they have found success about as much using either English or Albanian, but not both. “I’m Alive”, however, is not the song that won the most recent Festivali: the composer of that song withdrew their consent, so “I’m Alive” was selected internally just before the deadline in mid-March.

 

Elhaida Dani is not the first reality show winner to represent Albania. Unlike Anjeza Shahini, Olta Boka and Kejsi Toja, her victory was in the Voice of Italy rather than one of the local reality competitions. It shows: she’s got a beautiful voice and understands how to engaged with a “mainstream light entertainment” television audience. This is good song with a great singer. Combined with an excellent allocation and more than a wee bit of diaspora support (Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece, all have sizeable, reliable Albanian televote populations) should make for an easily qualification. Could do well in the final too.

 

15       Romania                     Voltaj                                      De La Capat/ All Over Again

When I heard the songs from the Romanian selection “De la capat” was one of a couple standouts, even though I don’t understand Romanian. I also didn’t understand the national final performance (which starts with a woman tucking a child into bed, then walking offstage with a suitcase, at which point Voltaj starts the song. Then the preview video came out—the only Eurovision preview video to ever make me cry.

 

As many parts of Europe are dealing with populist anti-migrant rhetoric, this is a song for the 3 million Romanian children whose parents are working abroad. 3 million Romanian children being raised by grandparents relying on the wages sent home from abroad. That’s nearly the population of Ireland folks.

 

You are only allowed 6 persons on stage, all of whom have to be 16 years or older at the Eurovision, so they’ll need a wholly different way to get across the message of this powerful song. I hope they find a way to capture this song’s very imporant message. And I’d love to buy three copies of the physical CD and stuff one up Nigel Farrage’s, Jimmie Akesson’s and Martine Le Pen’s…

 

16       Georgia                       Nina Sublatti                          Warrior

And so comes the Warrior song. No…sorry…the first of the Warrior songs: Malta’s got one too. This is kind of dark and kind of interesting, but also does not exactly wedge itself into your psyche. But when you’re performing last in short semi-final, that’s not perhaps a problem. Georgia’s qualified every time except one. Very reliable ex-Soviet bloc support helps a lot. But rather meh.

 

Prediction

I see five entries that, barring some sort of mishap will easily qualify from this semi-final: Russia, Romania, Belgium, Greece, and Serbia. I see only two that, barring some sort of miracle (or worse) are out of contention: Moldova and Belarus. That leaves nine competing for five slots.

 

Looking at bloc support I expect Armenia (over Georgia) to be carried through from the ex-Soviets. From the Scandi bloc I would pick Finland over Denmark. Diaspora support should get Albania over the line. From Estonia, Denmark, Georgia, Macedonia, Hungary, and the Netherlands I expect jury support will advantage the Netherlands. The last slot could go to any of them, but I will tag Macedonia, since Austria and Australia are both voting in this semi (Daniel’s from Austria and there’s a large Macedonian community in Australia).

 

Qualifiers: Russia, Romania, Belgium, Greece, Serbia, Finland, Albania, Armenia, the Netherlands, Macedonia.

 

Out of luck: Georgia, Denmark, Hungary, Moldova, Belarus and Estonia