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!

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

ESC 2016 Entries – The Modern Songs

This spring, as usual, the fans started out complaining that the entries for 2016 would make this year’s contest in Stockholm the worst edition EVER.  Now that the 44 entries have had some reworkings and been performed around Europe in such events at Eurovision in Concert last month in Amsterdam and the annual London Eurovision Party, everyone is starting to realize that the range of offerings is actually pretty strong.  Personally I am looking forward to seeing and hearing all these entries on the big stage at Globen (with a few exceptions for bathroom breaks etc.). I’m breaking down this year’s notable entries into a few genres for purposes of comparison.theme_eurovision_2016_small

First up, the modern songs.  Last year, diehard fans were surprised to discover how many of the most popular entries with the voting public were the songs that would fit in perfectly to any current radio station’s playlist. So we can expect the best of these to fight for position at the top of the scoreboard May 14.

First up Austria.  Last year as host, Austria offered up a pleasant pop-rock entry that vanished without a trace, the Makemakes and “I’m Yours” which tied for last plaace in the finals with Germany, both not receiving a single point on the scoreboard.  This year, Austria is back with a light breezy pop song in French.  It is not anywhere near a winner, but is very pleasant and could qualify for the finals.

Azerbaijan had a big showpiece last year that was predicted to do very well but then barely qualified from the semis.  This year they have gone to their usual Swedish songwriters and come up with a catchy radio-friendly bit of almost teen-pop with “Miracle”.

Australia was the one-time invited guest last year that did so well (finishing fifth) that they were invited back again this year for an encore.  Dami Im is an Australian X-Factor winner with an appealing big voice and a current sounding midtempo ballad.

The Baltic states did well in 2015, all qualifying to the finals where Latvia and Estonia both achieved top ten status.  This year Estonia has a gravelly voiced male singer with a modern song that deserves to make the finals, Juri Pootsman and “Play”.

France has had a string of poorly received entries this decade, but that should change with their strong, country-flavored hit for this year, French/Israeli Amir with his “J’ai Cherche”.

Latvia also did extremely well in 2015, and their  artist Aminata came back this year as a songwriter.  The singer, Justs, has a rough,warm voice that suits their strong, radio-friendly entry, “Heartbeat”. If there is any justice this should sail into the top five this May.

Malta brought back former second-place Eurovision star Ira Losco, and then switched out her song to a stronger Swedish-composed entry that has them top five in the betting for 2016.  “Walk On Water” has Melodifestivalen veteran Molly Petterson Hammar listed as a co-writer, and you can hear her influence in the song’s bluesy soul flavor.

Norway did well three years ago with a cool, Bond-theme-esque entry with a sleek blond female singer. They are repeating that formula in 2016 with Agnete and “Icebreaker”, which probably won’t reach the top of the scoreboard but should qualify.

Host country Sweden decided to buck their own trend of dazzing, tech-heavy stage productions and instead go with a scaled-down indie singer/songwriter style number with 17-year old Frans and “If I Were Sorry”, which has buring up the Spotify charts since March.

Will we see a winner from this list of modern, current pop hits? Not necessarily, though I think we are sure to see several of them near the top of the board May 14th at the Finals.

Eurovision Semifinals 2013, Semi 1 First Half

Over the next four weeks I plan to introduce and give my humble opinion on all the entries for 2013. Since we don’t know the running order, I will base it on what we DO know, which is which semi and which half of that semi each entry will compete in. Up first we have semi one, the first half. Talk about starting off the competition with a bang–four of the entries in this group are in the betting odds to be in the top six of the FINALS! It’s a strong group, and the danger here is that some of these entries might cancel each other out by performing in such close succession.

First up, precontest favorite Denmark. If Emmelie and “Only Teardrops” doesn’t send a winner vibe tingle up your spine, you do have to acknowledge that musically, visually, and stage performance-wise, this ticks off all the boxes. It is vaguely, non-specifically ethnic in a sort of Scandi-Celtic mood. The staging features an attractive young singer, barefoot and somewhat performance-artist-ish, and live drummers and a pennywhistle. The lyrics of the song are about war and world peace, but not as obvious as, say, Russia’s. If Emmelie turns in a strong performance this is a good bet to win this semi and sail to the finals, where it should land in the top three.

Next, Former Yugo republic Croatia, which hasn’t done consistently well in recent years. This year’s entry is an example of the traditional Balkan form of music known as “klapa”. To me it sounds like a bit of Italian street song with a Slavic edge to it. It’s nice, pleasant, but a bit anonymous. “Mižerja”‘s big advantage this year is the fact that it is the only number in this half performed by male vocalists. If nothing else it will stand out for that reason. Also, Yugo neighbors Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia are competing in this semi, so that should also provide a bit of a boost. Borderline, but I think it will qualify.

Ukraine is another of this year’s heavyweight entries. Zlata is a fantastic vocalist, and though “Gravity” is a bit of a strange song, without a real chorus, this is another surefire qualifier. Its most direct competition in this half of the semi are Austria, which it beats handily, and Russia, which is more of an equal draw.

One of this year’s biggest surprises is the rapid ascent of the Netherlands. When local star Anouk agreed to be the representative, the Dutch hoped to finally break out of semifinal jail where they have been stuck for a decade. When “Birds” was released for the public to listen, this entries odds rocketed up from the lower middle of the pack to a strong third place to win the whole contest. I think it might be a bit slow and downbeat to win, but should certainly match Patricia Kaas’ top ten finish from 2009 (comparing a similar, serious ballad). Moody and haunting, “Birds” stays with you. I am just not sure how it will sit with viewers who are seeing the entries for the first time.

Austria has been hit and miss since it re-entered Eurovision after a three year absence. Connecticut girl Natalia Kelly is a good singer, and “Shine” is a typical Eurovision song, but I think this might get lost in the shuffle of strong female performers of semi 1. Could advance to the finals, but I don’t have confidence in it.

Slovenia is also a hit and miss country. In theory they are part of the ex-Yugo bloc, but their culture seems more aligned to Central Europe than the Balkan peninsula, and their ex-Yugo neighbors rarely reward them with high points. Hannah Mancini is also an American expat, with a strong dance club stomper. “Straight Into Love” is a good song and fine singer, though I think it will need a good stage presentation to assure its path to the finals.

Poor Estonia has a simple song, nicely performed by Birgit Oigemeel. There is nothing wrong with it at all, yet I am afraid it will lack the impact it needs to make an impression among all these other female vocalist ballads.

Russia is another very strong entry. Dina sings beautifully, and the song is certainly immediate. If you have to listen to the well-meaning lyrics about putting down our guns and helping those who need us the most too often, it gets a little cloying. But Eurovision voters, especially in the semi, should respond to this and give Russia their usual oodles of points.

From this half, I think Denmark, Ukraine, the Netherlands and Russia have a lock on qualifying, with Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, and Estonia all on shakier ground. Eurovision week when we get to see the onstage rehearsals this should come into clearer focus!

Is ESC2013 Turning Into ‘Ladies Nights’?

All the most recent countries to select their entries for ESC 2013 have made the same choice, a female singer.  Especially if you look at the top of the betting boards right now, where the top three are female singers from Norway, Denmark and Germany.  Germany chose their entry Thursday, and it is nominally a band, Cascada, though no one much sees anyone but Natalie onstage.

Cascada’s “Glorious” featured here on the blog a few weeks ago when I remarked on its similarity to last year’s triumphant “Euphoria”.  That being said, the song is a powerhouse that will be at the top of the charts across Europe by the time that Eurovision rolls around in May.

Slovenia announced another dancefloor stomper as the song for its previously chosen artist, American-born Hannah Mancini.  “Straight Into Love” is catchy and powerfullyy voiced by Mancini, and should get Slovenia back into the finals this year.

Meanwhile, a third Central European nation chose its entry Friday, when Austria decided its strongest choice is Natalia Kelly (yet another American-born singer).  Earlier I had dismissed “Shine” as a bit too Idol-winner’s coronation song to go far in Eurovision, but Kelly’s contest performance far outpaced her competition.

And little Cyprus also unveiled its entry, as Despina Olympiou’s song for ESC was revealed to be anthemic mid-tempo ballad “An Me Thimase”.  Well-sung and powerful, it remains to be seen if a ballad in Greek still has the appeal to voters Cyprus needs to reach the finals.

Latvia will be choosing its entry tonight, and has some strong entries from bands and solo singers male and female.  I think their national final is the strongest they have offered in years, so I am hopeful for their final choice.

And finally, Italy revealed which of the contestants at San Remo would be the choice for Eurovision, and the winner is a talented and very photogenic 24-year old MALE singer, Marco Mengoni.  His Eurovision song has not yet been decided, but here is his San Remo prize-winning competition song “L’Essenziale”.

Austria Reveals the 5 Songs in their Selection

“Austria Rocks the Song Contest”? Despite the title of their selection show, the entries they have narrowed the choice to seem a little middle-of-the-road.  Two male solo singers, two female solos, and a group fronted by a female singer.

The 5 choices for Austria

The 5 choices for Austria: the Bandaloop, Falco Luneau, Yela, Natalia Kelly, and Elija

Of the five choices (you can listen to them here),  the two males seem promising.  Falco Luneau’s “Rise Above the Night” is a midtempo rock song, competent and with a rather catchy chorus:

21 year old Elija’s “Give Me a Sign” is a decent male pop song (again catchy and easily remembered) that would fit into a teenpop musical like CAMP ROCK:

Of the other three, Natalia Kelly’s “Shine” is quite a good song that sounds like an Idol-winner’s coronation song, reminiscent of Austria’s successful ESC entry from 2011, “The Secret is Love”, but without Nadine Beiler’s powerful vocals to push it over the top. Yela’s  “Feels Like Home” is a very simple scaled-down cocktail pop refrain that would fade into the background at Eurovision. And the group, the Bandaloop, also has a rather juvenile HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL dancepop ditty in “Back to Fantasy”.

So it seems like a stretch to imagine Austria “Rocks the Song Contest” this year. But if voters choose one of the better entries and it gets a decent production and stage presentation, they could qualify in 2013.

Second day of rehearsals shakes up the odds

Another day finished in Baku, and the top ten in semifinal one became a lot tougher to figure out. The second batch of semifinal one contestants performed their entries, and were good enough that they forced me to modify the predictions I made yesterday.

First up was ISRAEL, and Izabo performing their 70s retro number “Time”. In many years this would be an easy qualifier, but so far on stage it is a bit messy and unpolished. And unfortunately (for modern ESC voters, anyway) the band members aren’t hot and sexy enough to carry the day on looks. Unless it improves, Israel is a borderline qualifier at best.

SAN MARINO‘s entry, Valentina Monetta’s “The Social Network Song” was surprisingly well-sung, but the song and its presentation are both so dreadful that there is little expectation that the tiny nation will finally proceed past the semifinals this year.

CYPRUS is a fan favorite that may surprise everyone by NOT crashing and burning onstage. Ivi Adamou and her catchy dance-pop “La La Love” were so good today that she overshadowed yesterday’s similar Greek entry. Ivi began with a vocal runthrough, and then surprised onlookers by sounding every bit as together and confident when the choreography and production elements were added in. Cyprus now seems certain to qualify.

DENMARK, Soluna Samay’s “Should Have Known Better” is a modern radio-friendly pop song, and had been expected to do well (possibly winning the first semifinal outright). Soluna didn’t disappoint, and now seems to be perched at the top of semi one contenders along with Iceland, Cyprus (and Ireland). A very strong performance with an easy confidence that should charm tv viewers.

Next up, RUSSIA‘s grannies, the Burianovskiye Babushki with “Party for Everybody”. This number doesn’t really appeal to everyone. The grannies are adorable, shambling around onstage, but their number is sloppy and the vocals are not exactly perfect. But the cuteness factor counts for a lot, and if they don’t make it through to the finals it will be a BIG surprise.

HUNGARY‘s rock-inflected entry, “Sound of Our Hearts” by Compact Disco, is up after Russia. Unfortunately for admirers of the radio-ready midtempo ballad, this rehearsal doesn’t point to any great success. A rather dark stage, often flat vocals and such thickly accented English that some bloggers assumed that the band was singing partly in Hungarian don’t add up to an entry that will pull in the votes. But it’s early in the game, and some of these problems can be worked out before the big night.

From rock to hiphop and rap, AUSTRIA‘s “Woki mit dem Popo” (Shake your backside) comes as a pleasant surprise. Catchy and apparently the raunchiest thing on the Eurovision stage in years, the boys from Trackshittaz put together an immediate bit of party fluff (complete with pole dancers) that viewers will certainly remember when it comes time to vote.

MOLDOVA is an even bigger surprise, and since I have already confessed that Pasha Parfeny’s “Lăutar” is my favorite “guilty pleasure” of this year’s offerings, I couldn’t be more pleased. Previously this was considered a barely possible qualifier, but Pasha’s rehearsal was vocally strong and pure fun. Combine this with the excellent position in the running order and now Moldova is an almost certain top ten entry in its semifinal.

Rounding out their semifinal in the “pimp slot” the boys of Jedward are back for a second year performing last. And IRELAND‘s entry is even more outrageous and eye-catching than they were last year. Taking their “Waterline” theme very literally with a spectacle of fountains, waterfalls and waves in the staging and projected backdrop. Jedward have gained fans over the last year, and with their prime position in the semifinals they are virtually guaranteed a place in the finals.

So today’s second half of the first semifinal brings with it a good FIVE entries that are almost certain qualifiers, Cyprus, Denmark, Russia, Moldova, and Ireland. Add in Iceland, Greece, and Romania from yesterday, and there are only two spots in the top ten left to fill. Albania, Switzerland, Austria and Israel will probably be fighting for those last two places, and Finland, Montenegro, Latvia, Belgium, San Marino and Hungary will have to improve a LOT for any chance to be in the running.

Tomorrow, the first glimpse of the second semifinal!