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!

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.

 

 

ESC 2015 Countdown, My Places 20 through 11…

Eurovision fans can be a little dramatic. Every year as the national selection season runs its course, the fans are quick to declare it “the worst year ever” and this year was no exception. But looking at the 40 entries, I had a tough time squeezing the songs I really like onto one CD of 26 entries, let alone this top 20.

I can’t say there are any of the entries in this group of my 20th to 11th place songs that I don’t like.  And the only thing that separates them from my top ten, in most cases, is that my top ten are the ones that I think are more immediately lovable or more apt to impress on the big stage and on tv screens across the world. I do have to admit that some of these might be my own GUILTY pleasures that other fans absolutely HATE!

20th place – Moldova – I Want Your Love

Specifically, regarding my last comment, THIS entry is at the absolute bottom of many fans’ lists of this year’s entries.  Eduard Romanyuta is a rich, good-looking Ukrainian guy who seems to spend a lot of his time in New York and LA.  In other words, his winning the selection to represent Moldova seems a little weird and almost unfair.  But with all that said, it’s a catchy 90s boyband-ish tune that I won’t apologize for liking, even if I won’t be surprised if it fails to make the finals.

19th place – Malta – Warrior

One of the two female vocalists singing songs called “Warrior” in this year’s contest, I think Amber and Malta have the one that is more memorable.  I hope she qualifies to the final!

18th place – United Kingdom – Still in Love with You

The problem with this one is not that it isn’t catchy.  It is memorable, and sounds almost like a commercial jingle (specifically, a jingle for an English potato waffle that many fans immediately posted on youtube for comparisons).  It’s just very dated and cheesy.  It could strike a chord and do well, but I don’t think that with the Eurovision rule about no more than 6 on stage during the number, this can’t have the singers, band and dancers it would need to make a great stage show.

17th place – Serbia – Beauty Never Lies

Bojana has a great voice, and the song is undeniably immediate.  But it lost something in the translation from Serbian to English. I think it will qualify to the finals, but dont’ see it rising any higher than the middle of the board on Saturday night.

16th place – Lithuania – This Time

Out of the many duets this year, Lithuania have one of the most fun.  Monika and Vaidas are either GREAT singing actors, or they have a lot of real sexual chemistry adding to the impact of this entry.  I think the TV audience will respond to this and keep it in contention for the top half of the board.

15th place – Denmark – The Way You Are

Yes it’s a teenpop boyband number, and sounds like an updated version of “Hey, Hey We’re the Monkees”, but I think Anti-Social Media are cute and telegenic enough that young viewers will vote them into the finals.  I will be interested to see what kind of stage performance Denmark has up their sleeve…

14th place – Austria – I am Yours

Slightly higher-class than Denmark’s boyband, Austria’s The Makemakes are goodlooking and also have a slightly indie lovesong to bring to the table.  In recent years the host nations haven’t performed all that well in the finals, but I think viewers will respond well to this.

13th place – Greece – One Last Breath

Greece ALWAYS does well with the voters, and this year they have a very high-quality entry to back that record up with.  Maria is a powerful singer, and if Greece comes up with a staging to match the song, this could easily reach top ten.

12th place – Cyprus – One Thing I Should Have Done

Cyprus often has a tough time getting our of the semis, and this song is a sweet little indie ballad that might fall through the cracks, but I have to admit I am charmed by it. I hope it qualifies.

11th place – Iceland – Unbroken

This is a radio-friendly song that could chart in almost any country, and is sung by a pretty, charming 16-year-old.  I think it will easily qualify and could surprise a few people in the finals.

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Quality Songs Win on Super Saturday 2!

Iceland finished their song selection today with an EXCELLENT choice for Vienna, while Italy’s San Remo concluded its week of competition with a 4-hour marathon final that saw young opera-lite guys Il Volo triumph with what might be a winner candidate this May.

In Italy, Il Volo made a convincing case for Eurovision top contender (though opera-style songs are MOSTLY overrated as a votegetter in ESC).  Their record company is blocking their YouTube performance video from US viewers, so here is the official music video of “Grande Amore”.  Do you think Rome 2016 is in the cards?

Meanwhile, Iceland continues to impress Eurofans with the VERY high quality of the songs in its national finals.  The top two contenders in the “superfinal” came down to Maria Olafsdottir and Fridrik Dor, with young telegenic vocal powerhouse Maria taking the trophy and ticket to represent Iceland in Vienna with her “Unbroken”.  Many fans now rank Iceland and Italy as the top two entries so far this season.

Meanwhile, across the Baltic, Lithuania chose home-grown entry “This Time” over two internationally-produced songs.  Next week we will find out who will sing this very good entry for Lithuania in Vienna for ESC, but Vaidas seems to have the inside track with this happy, country folk-tinged entry.

Songs That Give Us Hope for ESC2015

So far the list of confirmed entries range from “meh” to “not bad”.  But from several of the highly-tipped songs in the national finals we are getting that winner-vibe that this year’s Eurovision needs. Some of the best songs seem to be clustered into the same qualifying finals to compete with each other, which simultaneously raises the chance that a good entry will win those contests and totally knocks some of these worthy entries out of contention.

First up, an unlikely powerhouse, Lithuania.  The Baltic state has had a decent qualifying record in recent years, but never with a top-notch song.  This year their final is down to three song possibilities and all are FINE. They have an interesting system where they choose a song from the top three possibilities, then choose which of their top three singers will perform it.  Male vocalist Vaidas has a lot of support, and all three of these songs could suit him.

Ireland has had some of their best results with songs by Swedish songwriters (Jedward, anyone?) and this year Nikki has an international team of songwriters, and Swedish Idol alumnus Erika Selin has a Swedish-style pop song with some Celtic sounds (and one of the best pop songs ANYWHERE this year). They seem to be the standouts in Ireland’s selection.

Estonia has a habit of offering up some really great options in their Eesti Laul competition and then failing to choose the best.  Let’s hope this year they go for Stig and Elina (whose “Goodbye to Yesterday” already has Eurovision bettors chomping at the bit).

Finally, Romania have just released their list of finalists. Former Eurovision artist Luminita Anghel is back again this year with the decent but not-totally-convincing “A Million Stars”.  But newcomer Lara Lee is really impressive with this radio-friendly Sia-soundalike.  I hope “Superman” leaps tall buildings at a single bound and wins this final…

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The Top Official Entries… So far

There have been 11 songs announced so far for ESC 2015, of which 9 are available in a more-or-less finished form for us to listen.  Of those 9 there are about 6 that are contenders for a decent placing in the finals.  Here they are, with the most recently chosen first:

Saturday Cyprus chose their entry, Giannis Karagiannis with the subtle indie love song “One Thing I Should Have Done”.  If Hungary placed well with Bye Alex‘s “Kedvesem” in 2013, this could fit into a similar niche and also get votes.

Also Switzerland chose their entry this weekend, and though “Time to Shine” is a hackneyed Eurovision cliche of a title, Mélanie René and her song both show promise.  It may need a makeover to “punch it up” between now and May.

Last week France announced its entry as “N’Oubliez Pas”, the song that Lisa Angell will perform in the Eurovision Finals (as a guaranteed Big Six finalist).  In a traditional French Chanson style, it should perform well if there is a decent staging:

Malta has emerged as a Eurovision finalist in the last few years, and though Amber‘s “Warrior” needs a bit of work still, by contest time it could comfortably fit into the finals.

Macedonia has had a rocky history in Eurovision, not always squeaking in to qualification.  This year they have a strong singer, and again, if their staging can make a decent impression, Daniel Kajmakoski and “Esenski Lisja” could make it to the Saturday night Grand Finals.

Albania has a habit of sending very talented singers that unfortunately don’t always find their audience when it comes down to the voting.  That could be the case again this year, depending upon the form that Elhaida Dani‘s powerful “Diell” comes to ESC in.  In a good translation this could be a qualifier.

One of the first announced singers this year was Trintje Oosterhuis, an experienced soul singer from the Netherlands.  Her song was presented shortly after, and here Trintje is in a live performance on the Dutch version of The Voice with her ESC entry “Walk Along”:

Next up, we should be hearing the Thomas G:Son-composed entry for Spain, “Amanecer” by Spanish pop superstar Edurne, and “Hope Never Dies”, the (possibly) strong duet from Czech Republic’s Marta Jandová & Václav Noid Bárta.  Since Czech Republic is back in ESC this year after a break (and three years of an abysmal record of no qualifications), let’s hope they have returned with something great…