ESC Countdown 5 Days: Bottom of the Heap

Cheat sheet for American viewers of ESC 2017

Some Eurovision entries are just bad in a WTF-sort-of-way. Some entries are great songs with the wrong singer, or vice versa. And some are just too anonymous to find a voting audience.  Pick a few from all these  possibilities, and you have the bottom of the fan lists and betting odds for 2017.  There’s a very good chance that the home viewers won’t see any of these entries more than once, since they will either fail to qualify out of their semis, or they are automatic qualifiers you will see only in the Grand Finals before they ignominiously drop like a stone in the final voting.

Valentina-and-Jimmie

Little San Marino’s disco mess with Valentina and Jimmie

This year we have two of the Big Five automatic qualifiers that are destined to fail. Spain is recent years has been alternately VERY good or very lame.  Unfortunately  Manel and his summer beach disco reggae falls in the latter category. He is young and attractive, but the song is so repetitive and filler-ish that it is hard to see this as anything but bottom three in the Saturday night scores.

Germany, despite a recent win in 2010, has more often presented poor-quality entries that scrape the bottom of the barrel in the last decade. This year “Perfect Life” is a nice-ish little song that is okay and inoffensive, but it is hard to see who (if anyone) will pick up the phone and be moved to vote for poor Levina.

Czech Republic has struggled since it joined the ranks of Eurovision nations, only last year qualifying for the Finals (and landing with a thud in last place there). This year they tried to recreate their formula from 2016 with an attractive, competent singer and a big ballad, but this time the magic just isn’t there. Without any history of neighboring countries voting to help them, the Czechs seem destined to fail in the semi and fail to qualify.

Lithuania did well last year, even cracking the top ten with handsome and athletic Donny Montell and a Swedish-composed entry. This year their home-grown alternative rock is sinking like a stone, and there is almost no scenario that sees them getting past the semi with “Rain of Revolution”.

And tiny San Marino is the little country that could–one time only in 2014, after several failed attempts at qualification. Returning for a 4th go-round is local jazz vocal star Valentina Monnetta and her favorite composer Ralph Siegel (creator of a dozen ESC entries in the last four decades). The song this year, with duet partner Jimmie Wilson, is a disco mishmash that has camp appeal. But that alone doesn’t seem enough to save this throwback from the lowest ranks of semi non-qualification.

ESC Countdown 6 Days: Rehearsal Week Shockers!

Cheat Sheet for US Viewers of Eurovision

Ok, I guess I have been watching too much social media clickbait.  Maybe this year’s first week of rehearsals in Kyiv has only produced one or two actual shockers, but there are definitely a host of surprises, good and bad. Some entries have turned out to be remarkably better than the press and fandom have previously judged, and a couple favorites have proved to be far WORSE.ukraine-stage

Let’s start out with some happy surprises. Slovenia’s Omar Naber is returning after 12 years, with a song called “On My Way” that would have sounded dated back in 2005. The bookmakers had this in absolutely last place of this year’s crop of 43, and no one considered it as any contender for the finals.  But Omar’s well-trained voice and stage professionalism, as well as a nicely understated stage production, have turned this “Meh” song into something that absolutely might qualify for Saturday’s big show.

Another entry that was supposedly dead in the water was Nathan Trent for Austria, who is a charming and attractive singer with a slight song.  Given its “death spot” of number two in the semifinal running order, its fate was sealed.  Until the first rehearsal, that is, when the press voted Austria as having the very best rehearsal and runthrough of the nine entries that day. Now t looks like he is a fairly certain qualifier. It’s cute, fun and well-performed…

Greece is a usual powerhouse when it comes down to the voting, partly due to the large number of Greeks in various countries across Europe who contribute to a powerful diaspora contingent across the continent.  This year they chose local pop superstar Demy, but unfortunately the Greek viewers also chose the worst and slightest of the five songs she was offered to use for her official entry. But the strength of her voice, stage presence and the beauty of the stage production propels this into an undeniable contender for the top ten at Finals.

Now for some of the bad news… Australia’s Isaiah Firebrace is a young man of 18 with a big deep voice, and bettors have compared his chances with hot favorite Kristian Kostov of Bulgaria who is only 17 and also competing with a modern, radio-friendly ballad.  But rehearsals this week by the Australian have failed to impress, and his chances have slipped to “borderline qualification”.

Iceland’s Svala also has a modern pop hit on tap for her entry. “Paper” was warmly welcomed into the Contest when it was chosen in March, and she was cautiously viewed as a finalist, providing that the stage production was warmer and a bit lighter than the dark weirdness she showed in the national selection show. Well, from all reports she has become less engaging and more offputting, so her fine song looks to be headed into obscurity after Tuesday’s Semifinal 1.

And the big shocker… Belgium’s Blanche is a reality show winner with a deep, mysterious voice and a surefire chart-ready song in “City Lights”. Her prospects were unlimited, not just as a certain qualifier, but as the 4th-place favorite to take home the trophy as this year’s winner. A case of nerves at London’s Eurovision party put a scare into fans, and then Blanche took it easy and bowed out of the next few public appearances. But this week’s shambolic rehearsals have confirmed her paralyzing stage fright, dropping Belgium out of the top ten in betting odds, and ESC press now see her as an almost certain casualty in the first semifinal.

Ahh, Eurovision… you never know what you are going to get till you see all the entries up on the same stage battling it out for real!

ESC Countdown 7Days: The Wild and Wacky

Cheat Sheet for American Viewers of Eurovision

The multitudes of gay Eurovision fans around the world are of course in love with the glamour, big hair, choreography, involved sets and bizarre costumes in each year’s new edition of the Contest. But they share another appreciation with the kids, grannies, bar patrons and everyday viewers that make up the worldwide viewership, and that is for the circus spectacle of wild, over-the-top and frequently hilarious entries that spice up the annual broadcasts.
rumania

This year doesn’t disappoint. Where else but Eurovision can you revel in such antics as a rapping paean to yodeling (from Romania), a reggae tune from Moldova with a backup dance chorus of brides and an overenthusastic Epic Sax Guy, or a pop/opera hybrid featuring one plump singer doing two voices as a duet with himself? Welcome to this year’s crop of wacky and ridiculous attentiongetters vying to rake in the votes.

Montenegro has had a tough time getting noticed and voted into the finals in the past, and this year’s approach seems to be centered on appealing to a campy homoerotic sensibility. Slavko is outfitted with a huge braided ponytail that he whips around madly while projections of hunky male dancers strut and pose to make sure no one forgets their dancey “Space”:

Croatia has a highly regarded history in Eurovision, and rarely goes out on a limb to present a thick slab of Eurovision cheese.  Until this year. Jacques Houdek’s “My Friend” has the portly singer emoting as a light pop tenor and a barrel-chested operatic baritone on the Kyiv stage.  Well-performed, and Croatia have thrown in everything including fireworks showers to make this cheesefest unforgettable. Here’s the official video, but you’ll have to wait to catch the OTT stage presentation:

Moldova has a long history of adding crazy fun to the ESC mix, including a group called the Sunstroke Project and their Epic Sax Guy that took the internet by storm several years ago. Now they are back for another crack at the competition, and the press is salivating at their antics onstage (first rehearsal snippet):

Romania is another Balkan powerhouse that has never shied away from presenting such refined entertainment as flaming pianos and a preening Dracula-like countertenor swirling around stage in a gigantic cloak.  This year they’ve brought us a yodeling duet that should mop up telephone votes (and might scare off jury professionals).

Azerbaijan is one of the most successful recent additions to ESC, having consistently placed near the top of the board and winning the whole shebang in 2012.  This year they’ve gone arty and weird, with the extremely theatrical Dihaj singing about her personal “skeletons” while being glared at by a menacing man with a horse head from the top of an onstage ladder:

And to top it off, the big favorite to win this year is Italy’s Francesco Gabbani with his satire on Westerners’ search for Eastern sprituality, “Occidentali’s Karma”.  His final chorus finds him dancing a kooky duet with a man in a gorilla costume.  If it’s musical, big and wacky on your tv, it must be time for Eurovision again.

Countdown to Eurovision 2017: 8 Days

A Cheat Sheet to Get American Viewers Up to Speed

This year’s Eurovision Song Contest takes place May 9th, 11th, and 13th from the historic capital city of Ukraine, Kyiv (formerly known in the West as Kiev). This is the 62nd edition of the Contest, which was initiated in the post-World War II era to reunite the badly divided continent through the power of music, glamour, and television. From the seven countries that took part in the 1956 debut, Eurovision has grown to the most widely-watched television non-sporting event in the world, with 43 countries competing in 2017 to present Europe’s song of the year.

The world’s very first reality TV contest, Eurovision is often compared to shows like American Idol and X-Factor, but there are several big differences. First, Europe is voting to crown a newly-composed original song.  The artists performing the various countries’ entries range from 16 year old first timers to returning veteran superstars in their 50s and beyond. Solos, duets and groups are allowed, with a maximum of six onstage (including any backup singers or dancers).

Each nation’s entry is chosen by an official TV network in that country according to their own rules, via internal selection, or various televised contests to choose a song and an artist to perform it. And the song must never have been performed publicly before the national selection season which begins in the autumn before the next year’s May finals. The winning artist gets a lovely crystal microphone trophy, a great deal of publicity and continent-wide fame, and not a penny of prize money.

Since the winning nation of the last year’s contest is given the opportunity to host the next year, ESC 2017 has presented a very thorny path from conception to execution.  Last year Ukraine’s Jamala won with her historic (many say overtly political) ballad mourning the slaughter of Tatars by the Russian armies, 1944.  A bit on the nose, considering that the two countries are once more battling over the Crimea, which was part of Ukraine until Russia moved in to claim it as a rightful part of their own country. There is currently no love lost between the two nations, and Eurovision fans were left wondering how the situation would resolve itself this year.  Messily and bitterly, as it turned out.

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Russian Sergey Lazarov sees his popular 2016 entry fall short as Ukraine wins Eurovision.

Russia was already stinging over having presented the most-voted entry of last year and still reaching only a third place finish due to its unpopularity with professional juries (who award an equal number of the final scores). Australia was the big jury vote magnet, but fell to second place in the final scores when the televotes had singer Dami Im as fourth most popular. Ukraine was the consensus choice when their second place scores from both the televoters and juries vaulted them into the highest overall position. Did you get that (scoring can be a bit confusing in this contest)?

This winter, Russian media began a campaign to complain that the West was unfairly marking down their entries for political reasons, and that Russia should pull out completely. Their devious ultimate strategy, revealed at the last possible moment, was to send a pretty handicapped girl singer with a lovely song about unity and togetherness to get sympathy votes from everyone… But WAIT! Their innocent young wheelchaired songbird was also known for entertaining ethnic Russians and army troops occupying Crimea, in flagrant violation of Ukrainian law.  The host broadcaster in Ukraine complained to the contest organizers of the European Broadcast Union that no matter what the broadcasters’ desires for unity might be, they couldn’t disregard their country’s laws and allow the Russian entry to be performed in Kyiv. The EBU really bent over backward to accommodate Russia, and even offered to allow Yulia to compete from a home country studio in Russia via a live satellite hookup, but neither Russia nor Ukraine were happy with that compromise.  Russia pulled out of the contest and blamed Ukraine. See, there are Russian scandals in all kinds of venues this year.

So the major pre-Contest story this year was that major player Russia, which generally places in the top five or ten every year of Eurovision finals, would not be participating, voting in, or broadcasting the show in 2017. This creates a lot of ripples that will affect the voting and performance of many of the 43 entries that ARE performing and competing in this popular music extravaganza.

Postscript:

The European Broadcast Union and contest organizers are still trying to figure out who to punish for this mess, and hinted that both Ukraine and Russia could face penalties of being shut out of the competition for three years.

 

 

Is it Anyone’s Race This Year?

Last night my LA friend and I attended the dress rehearsal of the Grand Final, and the high quality of the entries makes it hard to pick a winner. Russia, Australia, Ukraine, France, Sweden and Armenia are crowded at the top of the betting, and a credible case can be made for any one of them to win the contest.

Meanwhile, Eurovision is making news this year for this year’s surprise interval act, Justin Timberlake debuting his new Max Martin-composed single.  Although for arcane reasons this segment is the ONE part of the show that will be blocked out from the US telecast, American JT fans can watch him on the eurovision.tv internet streaming version of the show.  I am also sure that after the show his song will be burning up YouTube.

The Running Order for the Grand Final!

Saturday night Europe will choose its song of the year, and here is the order of finalists:

  1. Belgium
  2. Czech Republic
  3. The Netherlands
  4. Azerbaijan
  5. Hungary
  6. Italy
  7. Israel
  8. Bulgaria
  9. Sweden
  10. Germany
  11. France
  12. Poland
  13. Australia
  14. Cyprus
  15. Serbia
  16. Lithuania
  17. Croatia
  18. Russia
  19. Spain
  20. Latvia
  21. Ukraine
  22. Malta
  23. Georgia
  24. Austria
  25. United Kingdom
  26. Armenia

Contest organizers took the randomly drawn slots that each artist drew which placed them in the first or second half of the show, and placed them in a running order that makes sense technically and also makes for a good experience for viewers.theme_eurovision_2016_small

Two of the top entries, Belgium and Armenia, have been placed at the beginning and end. The remaining strong contenders have generally been spaced out through the evening.  There used to be a certain superstition about which places in the running order were lucky and unlucky, but recent years has mostly disproved such speculation.

Tonight’s dress rehearsal will tell us more about the running order and its progression when we see and hear it all in action!

Semifinal One Results!

With one sad exception, all the songs I was quite certain of came through and made the finals.  I am told that the great performance of Greta for Iceland didn’t really come across on television, with her backdrop projections making the whole stage show look too dark on screen.  She didn’t proceed to the finals, with most of the fans and journalists agreeing that Iceland was far more worthy than a few of the countries that made it through.semi winners

From best to worst, here are the top ten qualifiers in the order I would rank them:

1.Armenia — looks and sounds great! Top contender on Saturday

2.Malta — excellent song, nicely performed

3. The Netherlands — cool, fun countryish pop with a comfortable, relaxed stage presence

4. Russia — the overwhelming odds-on favorite, though I find it artificial and cold.

5. Czech Republic –nice song, fantastic singer.  Glad they qualified for the first time!

6. Cyprus — best of the rock numbers this year.

7. Croatia — haunting melody and strange but cool visuals

8. Austria — sweet French pop, delivered with more confidence than I expected

9. Azerbaijan — fine radiopop teen-level song, with a less-than perfect singer

10. Hungary — ok song, good-looking but not charismatic singer

 (Click the photo below to see a full album of the semifinal’s photos on flickr.)

ESC2016 First Seminfinal