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.

 

 

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 BIG Songs

What would Eurovision be without big anthems, massive stage shows, and over the top performances? And 2016 promises to be no different, with some heavy hitters making their plays for the crystal microphone trophy.

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This year, some of the highly tipped winner candidates are big and supersized, starting with Iveta’s “Love Wave” from Armenia. A beautiful singer with a giant voice that wails with the best of them, Iveta could easily match or top Aram mp3’s top five placing from 2014.

Czech Republic, or now known as Czechia, has not had a single entry qualify since their debut in 2007. This year they have a fantastic singer and excellent song (aside from an unfortunate ungrammatical choice in English lyrics). Gabriela seems certain to qualify and a good bet for top five.

Iceland chose to send back Greta Salome as their artist this year, after she made the finals four years ago in a duet with Jonsi. She wrote and performs her big country folk-tinged “I Hear Them Calling” with a big shadowy stage performance.

The bettors’ choice so far (and most Eurofans aren’t too happy about it) to win this year is Russian superstar Sergey Lazarev with his big, dramatic, and somewhat outdated schlager ballad “You’re the Only One”. It ticks off a lot of boxes, and Russia really wants another victory. If ESC is off to Russia next year, count me out.

Another big, over-the-top song and singer comes from Serbia. Sanja has the pipes and the song sounds great in the studio version. Watching her over emote in the live performance takes a bit away from the entry’s winner potential. Let’s see if she tones it down a notch by May.

We could very well see a winner come from this group–we’ll know more once rehearsals start in two weeks.

(Addendum: How could I have forgotten these two, some of the biggest and most overwrought entries of all?!)

Macedonia is another country that chose to send a returning artist this year, this case Kaliopi. “Dona” is a big, excellent song, but is there enough support outside the Balkans for an original-language entry in 2016? Outside of the ex-Yugos and expats, I don’t think this will have the votes to get very high in the final scoreboard (though it will qualify).

Ukraine has had a great record when they send big overproduced pop numbers, but this year they chose instead big-voiced Jamala and her heartfelt plea to stop violence that harkens back to Russian mistreatment of Tatars in “1944”.

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!

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!

Wacky Eurovision Covers, Topless Hunk Edition

From South African topless hunk Tiaan Grundling comes the first wacky cover from the 2012 crop.

Tiaan Grundling

South African hunk Tiaan Grundling

Grundling, who has recently done a cover of Swedish 2011 ESC entry “Popular”, follows it up with this slightly less kitsch and a bit sexier (unless you have a thing for Russian grannies) version of the Buriyanovski Babuschki party anthem, Russia 2012’s “Party for Everybody”.

Icons of Euro-stars

There are performers, there are stars, there are superstars, and then there are ICONS.

Romanian minis for the masses

Romanian minis for the masses

Artist and eurofan Ben Morris has made it an annual project to recreate the likeness of every performer from the year’s contest as a minipop icon. This cartoonish redrawing is coming to define Eurovision stardom in the same way that past generations of Broadway stars were defined by their Hirschfeld caricatures.
Loreen as minipop icon

Sweden 2012's Loreen as minipop icon

Morris has portrayed every one of the ESC 2012 entries in minipop icon form, to charming results. The full gallery of all 42 2012 entries, plus past entries and show presenters from 2011 are on display at the Minipop Icons Facebook page. Browse through and check to see how your favorite artists are icon-ified, and which of the uber-cute icons are your new favorites.

Belarus minipop icons

Belarus' Litesound gets the Minipop treatment

While you are at the Facebook page, be sure to “like” Minipop Icons and you will get a special reward. The page’s fans get to download a full-sized desktop wallpaper of all 42 2012 Eurovision Minipop Icons! There is a template to build your own 3d cube-head Icon of either Sweden’s Loreen or Germany’s Roman Lob. You can even add a Twibbon to your Twitter avatar (of the country name and Minipop Icon) that will show your support for your favorite ESC entry this year. Pure fun, and isn’t that what Eurovision is about?

The Russian grannies get Icon-ified

The Russian grannies get Icon-ified