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!

Eurovision 2016 — Rockers and Rappers!

Every year at Eurovision Song Contest has its share of rock bands or singers and the inevitable rap act. As a rule they haven’t scored highly, but every year one or two rock acts break through into the top half of the scoreboard. This year’s crop has some top five and bottom five contenders.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has a pretty stellar record in Eurovision, but this year’s entry will challenge that. Dala and Deen start out with an ok, standard-issue Balkan ballad, then the annoying rap section comes in… Because the Ex-Yugos support each other in the voting, this can’t be counted out of qualification, but it doesn’t stand much chance in the Finals.

Cyprus, on the other hand, has had a spotty record that has improved in recent years. Their rock entry towers above the rest this year and should make top ten if their stage show has anything to offer.

Georgia has done pretty well with some strange acts in recent years. Young Georgian Lolitas are probably not going to set the voting lines on fire this year with their standard alt rock.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Greece has a great record of qualification, but if that string of successes is going to end, it will probably be this year, with their rockin/rappin anthem “Utopian Land”.

Hungary has done well recently, even with weaker songs. Freddie is an attractive and charismatic performer, so his somewhat pallid song may still propel him to the Finals in May.

Montenegro has never been a top contender since they broke off from Serbia in 2007, and though Highway and “The Real Thing” is credible alt-rock, it is not exciting enough to draw voters and qualify this year.

If there is a rock band to watch, look for Cyprus to score well in the semis and attract votes in the final.

Filling in the Blanks

As in most years, you can’t really get an idea of the quality of a Eurovision before the last weekend of national finals. And as in most years, the fans have been crying “worst Eurovision ever” since the very first entries were chosen or announced. But in the last two weeks the national entries chosen have drastically raised the quality of this year’s contest. So let’s play “catch-up” and listen to some of the recent entries.

Yesterday San Marino unveiled their song for KBH, and it’s fine (if a bit dated). Valentina’s third try in a row, with her third song by veteran ESC composer Ralph Siegel, is a great “grand lady” ballad in the style of 1970s Shirley Bassey. If this were 1994 this would immediately be in contention to win, but I think it skews a little old for today’s Eurovision voters. Here’s the Italian version, which is a bit more distinctive.

Also yesterday we found out the song for previously announced artist Aram MP3, and it is surprisingly strong. Armenia has skyrocketed up in the betting odds to the top 5, and may even win their semifinal. A gritty midtempo ballad, here is “Not Alone”:

France used a real selection show this year, after internal selections that didn’t make much impression with ESC voters in the last three years. They have a quirky indie-ish party song by Twin Twin, and most fans are glad they chose the riskier entry that could get them back up into the top half of the voting board.

Greece had a couple of ethnic ballads in their selection, and most fans figured that the Greeks would choose local heartthrob Kostas Martakis. But instead they are sending Freaky Fortune featuring Riskykidd and “Rise Up”, a poppy rap hiphop with a Balkan beat. Not the strongest entry I have seen, but no doubt Greece will get its usual top ten placing

Georgia is another country that usually does well. This year they paired up an established band with a jazzy guest vocalist, and came up with a polished entry that might be too free-form for first time viewers to warm up to.

Germany had a great group of contestants to choose from, but I don’t think Elaiza was their wisest choise. Here is the German entry for 2014.

This weekend or early next week the remaining question marks should be filled in, as Azerbaijan, Russia, Norway, Belgium and Portugal complete their selections or announce their songs. It’s starting to look like a good year for Eurovision in spite of it all!

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.

Greece Unveils Four Choices for 2013

Music media network MAD TV (not to be confused with the American sketch comedy show where I used to work) has teamed with ERT, the sponsoring Greek broadcaster, to release Youtube clips of the four songs viewers can choose from for their national entry to ESC2013.  The short breakdown = one ethno novelty act, one ethnic dance pop in Greek, one grand Eurovision ballad with modern electro touches, and one modern radio pop song in the style of 2010’s winning “Satellite”.  The latter two seem the more promising for Eurovision success so let’s see what the Greeks choose.

“Alcohol is Free” is the novelty act, with a Greek ethnic band in kilts and sneakers doing a paean to free booze that seems like the kind of thing we have heard before from Lithuania or Moldova. I don’t think it is clever enough to actually garner votes in the Eurovision semis.

Aggeliki Iliadi has the Greek dance pop stomper, and it is perfectly fine.  But it is missing the something extra that brought this style to the forefront in the mid 2000s.

“Angel” is the big ballad, and a title that Eurovision has seen many times.  At least Alex Leon and Georgina, the artists, have spiced up the old formula with a bit of electro DJ sound:

The fourth entry is Thomai Apergi – “One Last Kiss”, a jazzy band number that reminds listeners of the modern retro pop of Lena’s “Satellite” It’s a bit overdone, and definitely could be tightened up into a good entry before May.

We’ll know what ERT and MAD TV will send to ESC when their Greek final takes place on February 18th!

1st Rehearsal Day impressions and videos

It’s early Sunday morning here in Los Angeles, but halfway across the world in Baku, early evening marks the end of the first day of Eurovision rehearsals. Wish I were there, of course, but at least we have reports from the websites and bloggers who are esconced in Baku. So far, most seem to be in agreement about the stage presentation and vocal quality of the first nine entries.

Rambo Amadeus kicks off this year’s Eurovision with a modern electronic number that some see as more of a joke than a serious entry. The staging and performance are rather messy, and the vocals aren’t impressing anyone. At least people will remember Rambo’s wooden donkey that dominates the stage.

With a backdrop of chilly vistas of mountain glaciers, Greta and Jonsi take the stage and present a vocally perfect rendition of “Never Forget”. The staging is a familiar Eurovision configuration of the two lead singers downstage with the four backup singers lined up slightly behind. But their strong song and vocals should point toward a good score next week for Iceland in the semis.

Eleftheria and her backup dancers take the stage “like a maniac”. Her four backup boys have now become two boys and two girls, and the dancing is energetic and well-rehearsed. Vocals are fine enough for this undemanding number, and with the usual strong votes for Greece, no one should be surprised to see them voted through to the finals next week.

Anmary and her crew sing well, and don’t come across as silly and amateurish as their national final performance, but can a good performance of a weak song take them anywhere close to the top ten in their semifinal?

Rona Nishliu is very impressive onstage with her impeccable vocals and bare, minimal staging. The closeups and lighting don’t do her any favors visually so far, but we can hope that in final stage costume and makeup she will look as good as she sounds for the actual competition.

One of the first semi’s strongest contenders, Elena and her bandmates in Mandinga look and sound fine. The staging and presentation are not that dynamic so far, but there are no worries that “Zaleilah” will have any trouble sailing through the semis.

Sinplus are strong and seasoned stage performers and do a fine performance of “Unbreakable” in the arena. The first of 2012’s rock entries takes the stage and seem to be in with a good chance to qualify.

Young Iris does an adequate rendition of “Would You?” without creating any strong impressions. She probably needs something better than this to catch enough votes to make the finals, but there is still plenty of time to grow after this first stage rehearsal.

Pernilla gives a fine vocal rendition of “När Jag Blundar” with a simple performance at the microphone, while a solo cellist provides visual counterpoint. A solid but unspectacular entry which seems like a possible qualifier.

So far, Iceland, Greece, and Romania seem certain to qualify, Albania and Switzerland strong possibilities, and Finland a good possibility. A lot depends on the other entries of the first semifinal, who will run through their first day onstage tomorrow.

Eurovision Flavor of the Decade: the 00s ETHNOPOP

Sometimes a whole era in ESC history is defined by the type of songs that win. In the first decade of the 2000s, that winning formula included a radio-friendly pop refrain spiced up with local ethnic instruments, beats and flavors. We are still seeing a lot of Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Eastern European entries that adhere to this blueprint, though it is nowhere near as convincing and dominant as it was five to ten years ago. In the middle of the 00s there was a string of ESC victors from Turkey, Ukraine and Greece (all first time winners, btw) that hewed closely to the winning ethnopop formula.

In 2003, Seretab Erener put ethnopop squarely in the bullseye of the ESC worldview with “Any Way That I Can”, which layered swirling exotic percussion with modern pop sensibilities and even a rap section (?!)

The next year Ukraine made their first big bid for Eurovision fame by enlisting local superstar Ruslana and her Slavic warrior princess toetapper “Wild Dances”, winning the whole shebang!

2005 continued the trend when Swedish/Greek Helena Paparizou brought the ESC trophy home to Athens for the first time with the retsina-scented “My Number One”