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.

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.

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.

Second Semifinal, First Half

The second night of semis is harder to predict than the first this year. It isn’t really that the quality is higher (four of the top five contenders in the betting odds are in the first semi, after all). It’s more that there isn’t such a big distinction between the top contenders and the rest in this semi. With the right set of circumstances, you could make a case for almost any of these entries qualifying. Some of the borderline entries have also been helped by the running order, evening things out even more.

Kicking things off Thursday evening is PeR from Latvia, with their upbeat party anthem “Here We Go”. This is squarely at the bottom of the betting odds, but number one in the running order is the best starting position the boys from PeR could hope for. Could it qualify? I will be interested to hear the reactions from their first rehearsal onstage tomorrow.

Next up is fan favorite San Marino, also known as Valentina Monetta and Ralph Siegel 2.0. After last year’s ridiculous “Social Network Song”, it’s actually kind of heartwarming to see Ralph and Valentina come back with something so different and… GOOD! Currently at 10th to win the whole shebang in the latest odds, it’s a fairly safe bet that San Marino will finally break out of the semis this year.

On the other hand, F.Y.R. of Macedonia started out with a good song this year, but has slowly making things worse with every change. Esma even mentioned that Macedonia would have done better to pull out of the contest this year than switch to “Pred da se Razdeni”. Lozano has an honestly good voice, though his part of the song reminds me a bit too much of Donny Montell’s “Love is Blind”. But Esma’s wailing in Romany feels so inauthentic and grafted-on that I find it hard to imagine this qualifying.

Next up, the little country that could, Azerbaijan. Will Farid keep up his country’s flawless string of top ten entries? Probably so, though I think his English pronunciation really needs some work. “Hold Me” sounds a bit like a Dima Bilan cast-off, circa 2006, but it should definitely qualify.

The big fun change of pace in this half comes when we get this year’s only bit of harmless, silly 80s-style pop. Krista Siegfrieds bubbly “Marry Me” is definitely a breath of fresh, bubblegum-scented air in the second semi. Will she put in the girl-on-girl kiss and its implicit statement in favor of same sex marriage? Can’t wait to find out!

Malta’s simple singalong “Tomorrow” is sweet and harmless. Gianluca is pleasant and charming, and this year Malta’s fortunes could go either way. The right staging would do a lot to help sell a little love song like this; let’s hope they do something catchy to get viewers to remember “Tomorrow” come voting time.

Bulgaria brought back their only succesful artists, Elitsa and Stoyan, to hopefully bring back the fine placing they achieved in 2007. “Voda” was a lot better than “Samo Shampioni”, so it’s anyone’s guess whether lightning will strike twice for the percussive Balkan ethno-folk duo.

Iceland is serving up their first entry in Icelandic since Páll Oskar’s “Min Hinsti Dans” in 1997. This year it’s Eythor Ingi with the lovely unadorned ballad “Ég á Líf”. Eythor is a solid vocalist, and his native language is one of the loveliest to sing. The bettors don’t think much of Iceland’s chances this year, but I think it could surprise.

Greece chose an entry that I initially HATED, “Alcohol Is Free”. It’s the kind of manic zaniness that we expect to hear from Moldova, and makes not a lick of sense. But Koza Mostra have been one of the most popular acts every time they perform this song at any of the Eurovision concert showcases this year, and EVERYONE expects it to sail through to the finals. I am still not in love with it, but I grudgingly see its appeal.

From this group on Thursday, I expect Greece, Azerbaijan, Finland and San Marino, plus maybe Malta or Iceland to pass through to the finals. Latvia, Bulgaria, and F.Y.R.O Macedonia will have a tougher time.

Human Rights issues play a part in future Eurovision membership

According to the DN, the Swedish “Daily News”, a group of European broadcast associations is pressing the EBU to issue new stronger ethical standards that require Eurovision member nations to adhere to a strong code of human rights and press freedoms. The associations come from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, and are joined by groups in the United Kingdom and broadcasters in Germany and Austria.

European Broadcast Union

European Broadcast Union

The initial targets of these rules seem to be Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, though Belarus’ atrocious human rights record would seem to be worthy of scrutiny as well. Recent harrassment of gay groups in Russia would also seem to be a natural subject of inquiry.

Here is the Dagens Nyheter source for the story:

“Eurovision song contest 2012
Diktaturerna ska ut ur Schlager-EM

Publicerad 2012-05-30 09:07

Diktaturer och länder med brister i demokratin kan tvingas ut från Eurovisionsschlagern. Norden och Storbritannien har pressat fram nya etiska regler för tv-gemenskapen EBU.

Detaljerna i de nya etiska reglerna finns i ett dokument som tagits fram vid ett möte under ledning av Norsk Rikskringkastings VD, Hans-Tore Bjerkaas i Oslo. Cheferna för public service-bolagen i Sverige, Danmark och Finland var med.

Förutom de nordiska länderna pressar även brittiska BBC och en rad tyska och Österrikiska radio- och tv-stationer på för att det ska bli hårdare krav på de länder som vill vara med i EBU. De kräver också att EBU får rätt att utesluta befintliga medlemmar eller att vidta andra sanktioner som till exempel att inte få delta i Eurovisionsschlagerfinalen om de bryter mot de etiska kraven.”

Here is my best English translation:

“Dictatorships and countries with lack of democracy could be forced out of Eurovision. The Nordic countries and Great Britain have pressed for new ethical standards for the EBU tv association.

Details of the new rules of ethics are in a document taken from a meeting led by the Vice Director of the Norwegian government broadcaster and joined by public service companies in Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

Beside the Nordic countries, even the British BBC and a number of German and Austrian radio and tv stations press for the adoption of tougher requirements of the countries that want to belong to the EBU. They also would require that EBU has the right to exclude offending member countries or take on other sanctions such as not allowing them to take part in Eurovision finals if they break ethical standards.”

Two more accolades

Besides the Crystal Microphone trophy and the bouquet of white roses, Loreen and Swedish songwriters Thomas G:son and Peter Boström also picked up a pair of the prestigious Marcel Bezençon awards for Eurovision excellence last night in Baku. The awards are handed out each year at the end of the competition, and are named for the originator of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Marcel Bezencon awardThe 2012 Marcel Bezençon Awards:

Press Award – Given to the best entry as voted on by the accredited media and press during the Eurovision Song Contest: Sabina Babayeva from Azerbaijan with When The Music Dies.

Artistic Award – Presented to the best artist as voted on by the commentators: Loreen representing Sweden

Composer Award – The best and most original composition as voted on by the participating composers: Thomas G:son and Peter Boström for Euphoria.

Big 6 qualifiers throw a curveball!

Now all the semifinalists have been through two rounds of rehearsals, and the picture becomes a little clearer. BUT!… Today ALSO marked the first rehearsal for the six automatic qualifiers: last year’s winner, Azerbaijan, and the Big 5, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. Most years the Big 5 (or 6) add only an asterisk or footnote to the predictions and prognostications the reporters and bloggers have so carefully amassed during the week. This year presents a big problem–all the Big 6 are good! Suddenly a blogger who has been carelessly tossing around accolades as to who will be automatically a top three or top five finisher in next week’s finals realizes that after today, there are ten or eleven in their “top five”.

First to rehearse today was GERMANY. The entries were meant to rehearse in the same order as their songs’ positions in the running order, but Engelbert Humperdinck would not be ready for the first rehearsal and so the UK switched with Germany for today. Germany’s young contest winner, Roman Lob, proved to be note-perfect, camera-ready, young and attractive. His Jamie Cullen-penned entry, “Standing Still”, is poised to move effortlessly into the world’s pop charts no matter what his placing in the contest. But there’s no reason to suspect that he won’t do well in Baku.

FRANCE has opted to internally select one of their nation’s top recording artists, Indonesian-born songstress Anggun, with a song she co-wrote “Echoes (You and I)”. Anggun’s stage presentation is a bit busy and not camera-ready yet, but there is no worry that she will not be up to the task of impressing viewers next Saturday.

ITALY is widely seen as one of the few true rivals to Sweden for the victory this year, and though Nina Zilli and “Out of Love” didn’t knock it out of the park today, there is no denying her catchy song and fresh appeal. Can she raise her game enough to take home the prize in 7 days?

This year’s host country, AZERBAIJAN has returned to their winning formula of the past three years of turning to the pop geniuses of Sweden to supply a ready-made top entry. “When the Music Dies” is written by a team headed by Swedish Idol’s top judge, Anders Bagge, and presented by the knockout beauty Sabina Babayeva. If the Azeris don’t repeat with another top five entry for the third consecutive year, they won’t be far away…

SPAIN has suffered with poor results the last several years, and responded by choosing a home-grown superstar in Pastora Soler, and a song penned by Thomas G:son, Tony Sánchez and Erik Bernholm, “Quedate Conmigo (Stay with Me)”. Today Pastora knocked the crowd dead with an amazingly strong, pitch perfect rendition of her soaring ballad that left no doubt that she will bring home Spain’s finest result in years.

This year the UK hinted that they were presenting a world-famous star of the music scene with their 2012 entry, but few were ready for 76-year old Engelbert Humperdinck and “Love Will Set you Free”. Will their gamble pay off? In the rehearsal today, the Hump started off in shaky vocal form, but built to a solid performance by the end of his allotted session. Will Engelbert join the Russian grannies as the senior contigent atop the scoreboard for 2012?

Tomorrow I will run down the second rehearsals of the semifinalists and whose ratings have risen, or taken a fall…