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

Eurovision 2016 — the Little Songs

In compiling my last post of 2016 Eurovision entries, modern songs category, I finished and realized several songs that fell through the cracks.  And then I realized that every year brings a new batch of small, unobtrusive entries that tend to be forgotten.  But most years some of these songs are the ones that go on to surprise fans and sneak through into the finals, and often achieve high scores. Last year Cyprus and Hungary were not on anyone’s radar to succeed, but both made it to the Grand Final.


This year there is a batch of little songs, some of which are likely to break through anedd do well in the voting. Most of these are performed my solo female vocalists, with a few male-artist songs as well.

Poli Genova of Bulgaria entered Eurovision for her home country before and failed to make the finals, though fans remember her and her previous entry fondly.  This year’s Bulgarian entry by Poli is a strong, catchy little song that most of us hope will succeed for her this year, “If Love Was a Crime”.

Croatia has entered ESC2016 with an entry that was hotly tipped for top ten at least, though some of the enthusiasm has already cooled down. Here is Nina and “Lighthouse”, which should be popular enough to at least make it through to the finals.

Germany has a recent history of doing very well or very badly in the Grand Finals (as a member of the Big Five, they proceed directly without competing in any semis). This year, Jamie-Lynn and “Ghost” is a fine little singer-songwriter entry that is held back by a rather silly look for its artist, a 17-year old who loves performing in a kooky Japanese street-fashion getup.

Israel has not had many entries succeed past the semifinal stage in r local recent years until last year’s party hit “Golden Boy”. This year they have gone for an androgynous boy with a well-performed but rather anonymous ballad, Hovi Star and “Made of Stars”.

Italy has done well since its return to Eurovision in 2011, mustering up a second and a third-place finish. This year’s entry is lovely and small, and may not be enough to catch voters’ attention when it counts Saturday night. Here is the pretty bi-lingual “No Degree of Separation”.

Poland returned to ESC two years ago and made the finals both years since then. This year they have a fine singer and pretty ballad, but will it be enough to keep up their string of qualifications? Here’s Michal Szpak and “Color of Your Life”.

Switzerland have not had an easy time reaching the finals lately, and don’t seem likely to this year with their Canadian singer Rykka. “The Last of Our Kind” is a pleasant song, but with neither a strong singer or big impact they might get lost in the shuffle this year.

The United Kingdom has bombed out in the finals for several years after choosing their entry internally, so this year they added a selection show and public vote. Joe and Jake are not likely to get anywhere near the top five this year, but their results shouldn’t be the embarrassing bottom that the UK has reached in the last five years or so.

Are we likely to see a winner from this group? Not likely, though at least one or two dark horse surprises are likely to emerge Eurovision week in Stockholm.

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!

First rehearsals for semifinalists wrap up

Fourth day of rehearsal, and the rest of the entries from semi 2 took the stage. Ten entries, including some of the contests strongest, stepped up onto the big stage in Baku to get their first taste of performing for the ESC press and delegations.

Up first, the contest’s youngest participant, Eva Boto of SLOVENIA, performed a strong and heartfelt rendition of “Verjamem”. Her backing chorus were without their gauze headdresses so far, but Eva looked a bit like a wedding cake herself for this rehearsal at least.

Ex-Yugo neighbor CROATIA next took the stage in the form of singer Nina Badrić and her song “Nebo”. She sang well, but not distinctively, and the juxtaposition of two ex-Yugo countries together in the running order is not a good situation for both of them to proceed. This probably works against Croatia.

Next up, the most hotly anticipated number, SWEDEN‘s Loreen and her potential winner candidate “Euphoria”. Loreen was not singing full out during this rehearsal, but sounded fine, and her staging is not far from the interpretive martial arts-inflected dance that endeared her to the audience in Sweden’s Melodifestivalen. She was one of the most closely watched of all the rehearsals so far, and cleared this hurdle with grace…

GEORGIA‘s Anri Jokhadze had a hard act to follow, especially with his joke entry “I’m A Joker” that had been tipped as a possible nul point candidate. His wildly over-the-top staging and strong singing voice probably saved him from that fate, and may have earned him dark horse status to proceed through to the finals.

TURKEY brings Can Bonomo and his ethnic sea chantey “Love Me Back” to the Baku stage. Can sings strongly and brought a choreographed production to his number, which is a certain qualifier this year.

Next, ESTONIA is represented by Ott Lepland and his emotional ballad in Estonian, “Kuula”. Ott presents a stark simple production, alone on stage with a single female backing singer, and brought a powerful emotional connection to viewers. He should be a strong candidate for the finals.

SLOVAKIA‘s Max Jason Mai has this year’s only true hard rock entry, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. Many bloggers and reporters on location in Baku feel disappointed with his performance and the silly “poser” appearance of Max and his band in sunglasses and hoodies onstage. Unless he ups his game, possibility gets downgraded to an “unlikely qualifier”…

The final group this afternoon to end the first round of rehearsals was led by NORWAY‘s Tooji, whose dance pop “Stay” is compared to Eric Saade’s third place performance last year. Tooji and his crew held back a bit vocally but put on an excellent dance-based stage show that should see them straight through to the finals.

The fourth ex-Yugo in the second semi, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA, is represented by Maya Sar and her gentle ballad “Korake Ti Znam”. She had been seen as a top contender partly based on her strong position in the running order, but her somewhat pallid presentation may not make her entry memorable when voting time comes along.

The final number of the two semis comes from young Donny Montell and LITHUANIA with his jazzy ballad that turns disco after the first minute. Though undeniably cheesy, his strong voice, excellent position in the running order and youthful good looks may propel “Love is Blind” into the ranks of possible qualifiers.

From today’s group, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey, Estonia, and Norway seem to be the likely qualifiers! Add in Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine and probably Belarus, and we are already up to nine of the ten qualifiers of the second semifinal. The race for the last position or two in this semi promises to be a fierce battle.

The “Balkan Ballads” of 2012

One regional music preference that lingers through the years is the great love that the former republics of Yugoslavia maintain for strongly emotional, beautifully sung ballads with an extra helping of local ethnic instrumentation. The “Balkan Ballads” fall in and out of fashion with the Eurovision voting public at large, but their built-in voting public of Serbia, Montenegro, FYRO Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia, plus their former Soviet-era comrades in the Eastern bloc who appreciate an almost overblown three minute drama, guarantee them a high placing in the final scoreboards.

This year’s crop of BBs come to Baku from the usual suspects, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and (former Yugoslav republic of) Macedonia, plus one nearby nation that is not so well known for sending big ballads. The other countries around the Balkan peninsula, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova, usually send more upbeat ethnostompers to Eurovision, and tiny Albania has sent a truly DIFFERENT ballad this year, Rona Nishliu’s primal-scream tearjerker “Suus”. Her entry is classy and brilliantly sung, but maybe too intense for what voters still think of as a pop song contest…

Serbia’s Zeljko Joksimovic is back performing in Eurovision after a dazzling near-victory in 2004 with the beautiful “Lane Moje”. His current entry is melodic and spectacular, but has the Eurovision voting public changed in the last half-decade? Voters don’t seem nearly so inclined to support entries in any language besides English these days, and once Zeljko announced that it would be the Serbian language version he would perform in competition, his betting odds slid a bit toward fifth or sixth place.

The third major traditional Balkan ballad for 2012 comes from Slovenia, which always has a tougher time than the other ex-Yugos. The Slovenes identify themselves as much with their Italian and Austrian neighbors as the other ex-Yugoslavian republics, and even speak a language that is a bit different from the Serbo-Croatian of their neighbors. But 16 year old Eva Boto’s “Verjamem” has a familiar sound and effect, due to its impeccable pedigree. The song is written by Vladimir Graić, who won the whole Eurovision shebang in 2007 for Serbia with his similar-sounding “Molitva”. Listeners have inevitably compared this year’s entry with the former winner, not always to the advantage of “Verjamem”.

The entries from FYRO Macedonia (“Crno i Belo”, a rock/ballad hybrid) and Croatia (the traditional “Nebo”), while pleasant enough, are probably not memorable enough to trouble the final boards. Meanwhile Bosnia and Herzegovina is quite strong with a lovely little ballad, but a little soft and not forceful enough to carry it much above the middle of the scoreboard.

It should prove interesting to see the final fates of these local favorites, performed in their nation’s own languages. Will 2012 still offer enough support outside the Balkan region to carry any of these to the ranks of top contender?