EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2018 PREVIEW (PROLOGUE)

Hosting a huge event like the Eurovision Song Contest is a daunting endeavor, and with Portugal’s unexpected victory last year, it is handed a potentially heavy burden on its hands, especially with all the problems Ukraine encountered on the path to hosting this event last year.  But inspired by Salvador Sobral’s battlecry against “fast-food music”, the approach Portugal’s broadcaster RTP is to go back to basics–they will still mount a well-designed grand stage at the Altice Arena in Lisbon but they have advised there will be no LED screens at the venue.  The challenge here would be making a major impact without the trappings of visual effects that LED screens used to provide, which is not a bad thing at all as the focus is going to revert back to music and authenticity.

Though the directive is not a hard-and-fast directive, it is interesting to witness how the competing countries chose to interpret the “authentic music” directive, and it turns out there are several different approaches.

First approach was going back to native languages–the number on non-English language entries increased this year to 13, after hitting an all-time low of seven in 2016.  In fact, one country, Armenia, is fielding an entry sung solely in Armenian (not English entries peppered with Armenian words like “Qele Qele” and “Jan Jan” in previous years) for the very first time.

Others decided to comply with the directive by fielding songs that dealt with real-world issues, like immigration, terrorism, mental health, and others, like Madame Monsieur‘s “Mercy” from France.

Another stab at authenticity is to appeal to emotions and tug the heartstrings.  For instance, three entries this year are inspired by the death of a family member, like a father in two of the songs–for example Germany’s Michael Schulte with “You Let Me Walk Alone“.

Still others decided to disobey the directive and still serve up what is deemed to be “Fast-food music.”  For instance, the main target of Mr. Sobral’s pronouncements, Sweden, fielded the obviously slick and poppy “Dance You Off” by Benjamin Ingrosso.

For the multitude of fan girls out there, there are a plethora of dreamy boyish idols to drool and have their ovaries explode over, from Scandinavia with the ageless Alexander Rybak from Norway and Benjamin Ingrosso from Sweden, to Eastern Europe with Belarus’s Alekseev and Ukraine’s Mélovin, to Hollywood deadringers from Czech Republic (Mikolas Josef) and Hungary (Bence Brucker. lead singer from AWS) to countries hardest hit by the 2008 crisis like Iceland (Ari Olafsson), Ireland (Ryan O’Shaughnessy) and Spain (Alfred Garcia).

Scandinavian Dreamboats: Benjamin Ingross (Sweden) and Alexander Rybak (Norway)
Dreamy Eastern European Boys: Melovin (Ukraine) and Alekseev (Belarus)
Guess which Hollywood A-Listers these guys look like? Mikolas Josef (Czech Republic) and Bence Brucker from AWS (Hungary)
More dreamy boys: Alfred Garcia (Spain), Ari Olafsson (Iceland), and Ryan O’Shaugnessy (Ireland)

For those hungering for manlier hunks, like me, unfortunately this year they are in short supply.  Still, for those with alternative tastes, they can probably go for the following:

Anyone hunkering for bald lumbersexuals can get their fix with FYR Macedonia (Bojan Trajkovski of Eye Cue) and Serbia (Mladan Lukic of Balkanika)

Bald lumbersexuals: Bojan Trajkovski of Eye Cue (FYR Macedonia) and Mladan Lukic of Balkanika (Serbia)

 

Have a crush on British actor Clive Owen?  The three vocalists from Georgia’s Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao might do the trick, though for me they fall short from the original.

The three vocalists from IRIAO (Georgia)

Fantasizing about being ravished by vikings?  Well, Denmark’s Rasmussen and his backup singers might do it for you–though I have to note the new short-haired backup singer does qualify as a hunk in my eyes.

Rasmussen (centre) and his new viking crew

 

How about unkempt, casual types?  Well, there is Germany (Michael Schulte) and the duo from Italy (Ermal Meta & Fabrizio Moro) to quench your hankering.

Unkempt and casual: Michael Schulte (Germany) and Fabrizio Moro & Ermal Meta (Italy)

Two guys may not be deemed sexy or attractive at first glance but when they opened their mouths to sing, they ooze with charisma and sex appeal–such is the effect of the amazing voices of Albania (Eugent Bushpepa) and Armenia (Sevak Khanagyan).

Sexy when they sing: Eugent Bushpepa (Albania) and Sevak Khanagyan (Armenia)

Only four guys in my eyes unconditionally qualify as hunks in this year’s contest:  France’s Jean-Karl Lucas a.k.a. Stoic Guy from Madame Monsieur, Austria’s Cesar Sampson, Netherlands’ Waylon, and Hungary’s Aron Veress, drummer from AWS.  None of them generate the heat like Hungary’s Freddie or Russia’s Sergey Lazarev back in 2016 or Israel’s IMRI last year, but they can quench thirsts for brief moments.

Eurovision’s hunkiest, 2018 edition–Top: Jean-Karl Lucas of Madame Monsieur (France), Cesar Sampson (Austria); Bottom: Waylon (Netherlands) and Aron Veress of AWS (Hungary)

The current political climate like the #MeToo Movement spilled over to this year’s contest amongst the female entries, for the better.  We have a rich diversity of women this year, which is worth saluting.

Let’s start with the the androgynous ladies, with backing singer and song composer Isaura of Portugal and SuRie from the United Kingdom.

Androgynous ladies: Isaura (Portugal) and SuRie (United Kingdom)

Then we have the spunky tomboy from Switzerland, Corinne Gfeller from the brother-sister duo Zibbz.  Despite the fierce tomboy look with the hat and pants, she’s still undeniably feminine.

Tomboy chic: Corinne Gfeller of Zibbz (Switzerland)

For those who like a little sass with their spunk, we have Slovenia’s Lea Sirk and German artist Jenifer Brenning (co-representing San Marino) bringing it on.

Sassy ladies: Lea Sirk (Slovenia) (Top) and Jenifer Brening (San Marino) (Bottom)

Looking very feminine but unleashing power when she sings is Romania’s Cristina Caramarcu from The Humans.  Everything about her is on point, except for the song (more about that in my review proper).

Power rocker: Cristina Caramarcu of The Humans (Romania)

 

Malta is present in two entries this year:  the official Maltese representative is Christabelle while her country woman Jessika is representing San Marino.  Both are spunky pop singers who are grizzled veterans in the Maltese national selection who finally have their turn to perform on the big Eurovision stage.

Maltese pop veterans: Jessika (San Marino) (Top) and Christabelle (Malta) (Bottom)

The winner of Spain’s Operacion Triunfo, Amaia Romero, brings both immense talent and sweet pop teenage ingenue charm.

Also in a similar pop vein, bringing color and racial diversity for being half-Aboriginal and half-Indonesian Timorese is Australia’s representative, Jessica Mauboy.  Oh I wish we can adopt her as an honorary Filipina because it was so easy to mistake her for one of us.

Color from Down Under: Jessica Mauboy (Australia)

Then, there are the “ladies in red”, who not only wore the same dress color in their music videos, but whose songs seem to be derived by a couple of hits from Alicia Keys.  Will Croatia (Franka) and Latvia (Laura Rizzotto) wear the same outfit onstage in Lisbon?

Ladies in red: Franka (Croatia) (Top) and Laura Rizzotto (Latvia) (Bottom)

ABBA still made its presence felt in this year’s Eurovision, especially the way they are promoting the two female vocalists of Serbia’s Balkanika, Nevena Stamenković (the blonde) and Danica Krstić (the brunette).  But unlike in ABBA, where the two ladies harmonized, in the song they are performing at Eurovision, Danica does the ethnic wailing while Nevena harmonized with the male singer.

ABBA vibes: Nevena Stamenovic and Danica Kristic of Serbia.

Despite the “No Fast-food Music” directive, we are still treated to babelicious pop thrushes, this year served up by Cyprus (Eleni Foureira) and FYR Macedonia (Marija Ivanonvska of Eye Cue)

Pop thrushes: Marija Ivanovska of Eye Cue (FYR Macedonia) and Eleni Foureira (Cyprus)

Greece’s Yianna Terzi would’ve been classified as a pop thrush if you base it on her earlier work, but she seems to be evolving into a sibyl a la Ukraine’s Jamala two years ago.

From pop thrush to dignified sibyl: Yianna Terzi (Greece)

On the reverse direction is Azerbaijan’s Aisel, whose oeuvre prior to Eurovision is more jazz but has decided to dip her foot in the pop direction, albeit with a forest nymph image from her music video.

Dipping her toes in pop: Aisel (Azerbaijan)

Bringing their own quirky flavors are Belgium (Sennek) and Lithuania (Ieva Zasimauskaite).  The former brings a retro jazzy James Bond-esque style, while the latter is more of a gentle, fragile flower with a hidden strength within.

Quirky ladies: Sennek (Belgium) and Ieva Zasimauskaite (Lithuania)

Speaking of frail, of course we finally welcome Russia’s Julia Samoylova to the party after being prevented from competing by the Ukrainian government.  Like Ieva, there is inner strength in her frailty.

Frail, yet indomitable: Julia Samoylova (Russia)

Two ladies are arguably the most elegant to be competing in this year’s Eurovision.  France’s Emilie Satt of Madame Monsieur brought an understated yet soignee presence, while Estonia’s Elina Nechayeva is more traditional, classical elegance as befitting her opera number.

Elegance personiied: Top – Emelie Satt of Madame Monsier (France); Bottom – Elina Nechayeva (Estonia)

Serving up modern and quirky pop style is Equinox‘s Zhana Bergendorff from Bulgaria.  Will she sport her Sia-inspired blonde wig in Lisbon?

Quirky pop style: Zhanna Bergendorff of Equinox (Bulgaria)

We close the tribute to womanhood with the two fiercest pop divas in this competition, Finland’s Saara Aalto and Israel’s Netta.  To my eyes, the two could pass for sisters, with Saara the elder, more glamorous sister and Netta the younger upstart who is starting to overshadow her older sister in terms of innovative talent and quirky fashion flair.

Glam Pop Diva Sisters: Netta (Israel) and Saara Aalto (Finland)

On a final note, I observed that a few entries evoke pop culture touchstones from a long, bygone era, at least 50 years ago.  Below are some influences I discovered–can you guess which entry would these be the source material for?  Interesting note:  one song actually used two of the “ancient” influences below.

 

EUROVISION 2018 PREVIEW: NATIONAL FINALS FAVORITES (CONCLUSION)

FINLAND

Finland  has always staged a national contest to select their entries to Eurovision–since 2012  the Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu (UMK) [New Music Competition] is the one that conducts this search.  Normally different artists compete but this year they decided to change the format and handpick Saara Aalto as the artist.  Saara competed three times in the precursor competition to UMK, twice as backup singer in the 2000s and as a solo artist in 2011 placing second to Paradise Oskar.  She tried again at UMK in 2016, but Sandhya beat her to the punch that time.  With her rising profile since placing second in X-Factor UK 2016, the Finnish broadcaster aptly reward her with a guaranteed representation to this year’s Eurovision–the only thing to be decided on now was the song.  So they presented three songs for the international jury and public to select.  The winning song was universally well-regarded and deemed the right choice, but we have to hand it that the other two songs were strong, too.  “Domino“is a sleek modern pop ballad and “Queens” is a fun dance number which can deliver a solid finish and lift Finland from its recent semifinal doldrums, but of course the winning entry is their best bet.

POLAND

It’s an interesting mix of finalists for this national final–several are modern pop entries that can be staples of dance clubs and some 20th century throwbacks that tend to do well in these national finals (and have been selected as the entries in recent years).  Most Eurovision fans outside of this country gravitate towards the modern songs, but interestingly, they did not rank high in the final results (with the exception of the eventual winner, which was also of that ilk).  Let’s take a sampler of the eclectic mix, below:

“Delirium” – Isabell Otrebus.  I’m shocked this polished tropical-style electro-pop number finished ninth overall, as so many fans have a high regard for this entry.  So might say her live vocal may have been weaker than the studio recording, but for me it’s not as rapid a drop from the studio-to-live like…

“Nie Chcę Ciebie Mniej [I Don’t Want Less of You]” – Szazan.  Here is another electro-pop number sung in Polish that fared weaker than what fans expected, placing only 6th.   Many fans noted her live vocals are such a letdown that its fall from a possible front-runner status was expected.

“Love is Stronger” – Ifi Ude.  This placed 2nd with the jury, and I get it as it’s a quirky electro-pop number with mild folk touches.  It’s sung in a combination of English and Polish, and some might criticize her English diction, but I do appreciate this quirky number.

“Don’t Let Go” – Happy Prince.  Winning the jury was this entry.  It’s a good song and the accompanying contemporary dancing couple does jazz up the presentaion, but for me it’s dated–it sounds like a modern rock song from the late 1980s.  A 4th place televote prevented this from winning, allowing what I deemed the worthiest entry to win.

I have a note for the entry that place 2nd with the televote and 3rd overall, “Momentum” by Monika Urlik:  yes, she delivered on the live vocals, but it doesn’t detract the fact that the song seems better fit for the 20th century than the 21st.

ESTONIA

This national final has a lot of adherents swearing by the strong song quality, and this year is no exception.  Just like in previous years, after the ten finalists performed, the three top performers with the jury and the public would perform again in a super-final and the winner was decided by popular vote.

“Thousand Words” – Sibyl Vane.  This cool modern rock entry was 2nd with the jury, but a weak 7th place showing in televote made her tie with Stig Rästa in ordinal points, that the tie was broken on who has the higher popular vote–Stig got the edge here so he advanced in the superfinal and she was left out.

“Laura (Walk with Me)” – Vaje.  This song has a cool vibe, too, evoking a cross between the recently departed Avicii‘s “Wake Me Up” and David Guetta‘s “Lovers on the Sun“. My only quibble is that he couldn’ quite hold his pitch live, and with the eventual winner so pitch-perfect, he couldn’t get a win.

“Home” – Stig Rästa.  This Eurovision veteran‘s entry, a lovely acoustic waltz ballad, was actually 4th in both jury and televote, and was in a tie with Sibyl Vane, but because he had the higher televote score, he advanced to the superfinal and it seems he collected some of the votes that went for others in the previous round that he officially finished 2nd overall.

SAN MARINO

I’m glad this micronation did not quit Eurovision as it threatened.  Instead it ramped up its search by scouring willing entries over the internet, and then staging a three-week televised contest–interestingly not in San Marino but in Slovakia, a country that quit Eurovision after 2012.  It is also interesting that also played around with combinations of singer and song, so there were some artists performing the same songs, and some experimentation with artist pairings.  The process did generated entries that are above the average San Marinese entry, but were any of them strong enough to at least equal Valentina Monetta’s 2014 finals finish with “Maybe“?

“Under the Morning Light” – Jenifer Brenning.  This German singer eventually got the right to represent this country as she participated in the winning entry as a rapper.  But her forte was singing, and this grittily sung song has its virtues.  But yes, as good as this song was, it’s not really strong enough compared to the next entry and the eventual winning entry.

“Out of the Twilight” – Sara de Blue.  Yes, this gothic ballad is not modern or radio-friendly, but it was terrifically sung by this comely singer, and many fans felt with the right staging, she can deliver a “Maybe”-like inals finish.  But then again, does San Marino have the resources to stage this entry as it could have?

ICELAND

This year’s roster, for me, was kinda weak, wih some novelty entries mixed with some old-fashioned entries.  The one entry many thought would win (but didn’t) was…

“Gold Digger” – Aron Hannes.  This is a fun, funk-infused number and Aron looks good trying to bring the preppy look back (you might say the alternate title to this entry is “PreppyBack”.  It’s such a shame it fell short from advancing in the two-song superfinal, ranking 3rd with the jury and 4th with the televote which led to a 4th place finish overall.

The entry that advanced to the superfinal besides the eventual winner was “Í stormi [In a storm]” by Dagur Sigurðsson, an overly sentimental gruff rock ballad that actually ranked first in the main finals round, but was pipped by the eventual winner as the latter probably collected votes that would’ve gone to the other entries.

PORTUGAL

The national selection, Festival de Cançao, was given a bright lease in life thanks to Salvador Sobral’s win last year, and for most part this year’s entries were a quality lot, albeit too heavily ballad-laden.  But there was a major controversy as one major standout and potential winner was forced to withdraw.  Why?  Read on…

“Canção do fim [The last song]” – Diogo Piçarra.  This entry reportedly topped its semifinal heat and was poised as one of the favorites to win this national selection.  However, many fans have pointed out that the melody of this song sounds identical to a religious song–many cited the Portuguese version of this performed by Father Walter,Abre os meus olhos” but it turns out that is not even the original version as it was originally 1980 English-language religious song, “Open Our Eyes by Bob Cull.  I’m actually familiar with this song, as my mom used to conduct Catholic charismatic prayer meetings in our old house when I was growing up and up to my late 20s and that song was regularly sung at those meetings.  I guess it’s similar to the case of George Harrison‘s 1971 mega-hit “My Sweet Lord“, which turned out to be lifted from the 1960s girl group the Chiffon‘s “He’s So Fine“–Diogo may not have intentionally wanted to plagiarize the melody but he might have “unconsciously” thought of that song when he created this entry.

“Para sorra eu não preciso de nada [For your smile, I do not need anything]” – Catarina Miranda.  This ballad actually was 1st with the juries but its 2nd place finish with the televote put this in a tie with the eventual winner, and the tie was broken by the popular vote score.  Admittedly the quirkier champion was the right choice, as this conventional ballad may not make as much impact in the finals as the eventual entry.

LITHUANIA

This country is notorious for its lengthy national finals selection period, as it has two months’ wprtj of eliminations before the national final.  Eventually there were six finalists and the winner was decided via botth juries and televote.

“1 2 3” – Paula.  Going into the finals, this sleek pop number (which was co-written by two-time Eurovision star Donny Montell)  was one of the favorites to win.  But in an interesting twist, Paula and her team decided tha for the final they switch up the original tropical EDM version and turned it into an acoustic number.  I actually liked the performance, but the risk didn’t pay off as this then ended up as 6th and last place among the finalists.

“4Love” – Jurgis Brūzga.  Though the singer has a resemblance to actor Seth Green, he delivered on Justin Timberlake/Robin Bengtsson swagger with this engaging, danceable entry.  The choreography with his three male backup dancers was particularly awesome.  Its win with the jury was well deserved, but the Lithuanian public were clearly in a heart-tugging mood and this only ranked 4th with the televote and ended up 2nd overall.

NORWAY

This year’s Norwegian Melodi Grand Prix was loaded with heavy hitters, with three Eurovision veterans competing against seven relative newcomers.  Several of them fielded impactful entries but I’ll limit this to four standouts…

“Scandilove” – Ida Maria.  This is the closest thing to a “troll” entry as it’s a catchy naughty novelty song touting the sexual prowess of Scandinavians.  The recording is a likeable, entertaining romp, but as performed live, Ida Maria obviously lacks the ability to control her pitch, hence it’s obvious why besides the novelty factor it failed to advance to the second round of superfinals.

“Talk to the Hand” – Garth Brooks, er, Chris Gaines, er, Aleksander Walmann.  Though I love to poke fun at Aleksander’s resemblance to American country music legend Garth Brooks, I have much respect for his deft way with intricate lyrics and his singing ability and songs like “Grab the Moment” and this entry are great EDM songs.  JOWST is the producer of this track, though he doesn’t get artist credit this time.  If it weren’t for the tidal wave of residual love for the most recent Norwegian winner of Eurovision, this could’ve gotten a great break and be a strong representative for Norway, again.

You Got Me” – Stella & Alexandra.  Stella is Stella Mwangi, who represented Norway in 2011 with the Swahili-language “Haba Haba“, which failed to make the final that year.  This time she assumed the role of rapper in this upbeat retro-bopper, while newcomer Alexandra Rotan brought a bubbly girlishness singing the main verses and the chorus.  Again, for many Norwegians, the winning entry was simply too unstoppable, and there was a very moving entry that pipped ahead of this, namely…

“Who We Are” – Rebecca.  This earnest empowerment ballad was indeed a well-constructed pop song and was powerfully sung that it deserved to edge out heavy-hitters like Aleksander Walmann and Stella & Alexandra and duke it out with the eventual winner.  Though many fans have extreme reservations (to the point of disdain) with the winning entry, we have to salute that this entry put up an excellent fight and would’ve been a great representative for Norway if it won.  We missed the opportunity to see two competing entries with the same title (a la Malta vs Georgia in 2015 with “Warrior”) and in the battle of “Who We Are”s, this would’ve had the edge over San Marino.

SWEDEN

Though for many fans (including myself) this year’s Melodifestivalen wasn’t as exciting as the previous two years, the Top Seven entries did make a strong impact and would’ve made worthy entries if they competed for other countries.  I’ll leave honorable mentions for fan favorites like non-finalist “Cry” by Dotter and lower-ranked finalists “Everyday” by Mendez (12th), “Party Voice” by Jessica Andersson (11th), and “All the Feels” by Renaida (9th).

In My Cabana” – Margaret.  She first garnered notice with the Eurovision fandom when she competed in her home country, Poland, two years ago, with the tropical-laced electro-pop track “Cool Me Down“, which many fans felt was unjustly outranked by “Weird Al” Yankovic Michal Szpak‘s sentimental “Color of Your Life“.  She decided to try her luck with the ultra-competitive Swedish national selection with a bouncy track.  To be honest, it’s not as good as “Cool Me Down”, but it’s peppy and entertaining.  Plus, I like the fact that she tapped at least two of Robin Bengtsson‘s backup dancers here.   But yes, I really don’t think this deserves to win.

“Last Breath” – LIAMOO.  There are some fans rooting for this R&B/rap ballad to win, and it’s a solid quality entry in my book.  But I don’t really have winner vibes for this song, unlike, say, the one that eventually won the right to represent this Eurovision powerhouse to the contest.  Still, it’s a worthwhile treat.

“For You” – Mariette.  This dreadlocked singer had ranked pretty high in recent editions of Melodifestivalen, placing 3rd in 2015 with “Don’t Stop Believing” and 4th last year with “A Million Years“.  I was rooting for her to finally win, but admittedly this song is not as strong as those two previous entries so again, another frustrating finish for this lady, and she fell down a notch to 5th overall.  Wonder if she’ll give this contest another go and finally get the chance to represent Sweden in Eurovision?

“Shuffla” – Samir & Viktor.  This cute duo are noted for singing solely in Swedish and for delivering entertaining EDM pop songs that normally are not taken seriously in terms of musical merit (especially they’re not really noted for their singing abilities), but charmed the Swedish public enough that they always qualified to the finals (previously having to undergo the Andra Chansen [Second Chance] round to do so).  They placed 8th in 2015 with the Avicii-inspired “Groupie” and 12th in 2016 with “Båda Nåkna (Bathe Naked)“, the latter of which was memorable for them stripping down to boxer shorts and showcasing their chiseled beefcake physiques at the song’s end.  They kept their shirts on this time for this homage to LFMAO‘s “Party Rock Anthem” and not only that this time they automatically qualified to the finals from their semifinal heat, they delivered their best finish yet, placing 4th overall (and actually faring a respectable 6th with the international juries).  All this, despite declaring they have no intentions to win this contest this year, especially with Viktor having a conflicting gig as a celebrity contestant in Sweden’s version of Dancing with the Stars.

“My Turn” – John Lundvik.  This track athlete turned R&B singer delivered a song that is like the R&B version of Sanna Nielsen‘s highly regarding Eurovision 2014 3rd place entry, “Undo“.  Yes, some fans dismiss this entry as too conventional and sentimental, but no one can doubt he delivered a near-flawless pitch-perfect performance, hence his 3rd place finish overall.

“Every Single Day” – Felix Sandman.  Admittedly I don’t really dig this ballad, but well, even if it didn’t win it actually became the biggest hit in Sweden amongst this year’s Melodifestivalen entries as it topped the Swedish charts for a few weeks after the contest.  It’s also notable that it had to endure the Andra Chansen (Second Chance) round to make the finals–it’s a rare feat for an Andra Chansen finalist to then rank this high.*5

*5 Back in 2013, Robin Stjernberg also survived Andra Chansen  to then ultimately win Melodifestivalen and become Sweden’s host entry with “You“.

Actually this is one of those years where if you think these losing national selection entries were exciting, you better check out the actual Eurovision entries this year, as they are actually even more exciting and awesome.

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

EUROVISION 2018 PREVIEW: NATIONAL FINALS FAVORITES (PART 2)

MONTENEGRO

The last time this country used a national selection format instead of internal selection was 2008.  For the new Montevizija song contest, they had six entries, five of them performed by females and one by a male.  The winner was the sole male entry.  Not that the female entries were weak, but the Salvador Sobral effect was also felt in this contest that they decided to select a traditional Balkan ballad that did so well like in the mid-to-late 2000s heyday.

“Neželjena [The Unwanted]” – Katarina Bogićević.  It’s a well-crafted native language pop ballad.  It didn’t win mainly because it’s a modern sound (wit a few ethnic elements tossed in), when it is felt that perhaps a traditional Balkan ballad fits the Salvador Sobral aesthetic.

SERBIA

After three years of internal selection, the Serbian broadcaster revived Beovizija and 17 acts competed in the finals.  There were some sourgraping amongst rivals about the winner of this selection, claiming influence-peddling and what not, but the jury and public were unanimous in their choice.  They were also unanimous with the entry that placed second…

“Pesma za tebe [Wait for you]” – Saška Janks.  This is a well-sung bluesy jazz ballad.  To be honest, I felt more emotionally connected to this song than with the winning entry, even if I don’t understand Serbian.  Was there an injustice commited against this entry?

GERMANY

It’s nice to see this country stepping up for its national selection, as this year’s five out of six entries are arguably stronger than last year’s entry, Levina‘s “Perfect Life“.  Though third placer Ryk (“You and I“) is not likely to resolve this country’s recent cellar-dweller doldrums, this moody ballad is a worthwhile listen.  The eventual winner and these three entries are near guarantees to deliver this Big Five country out of the cellar.

“I mog Di so [Perfect like this]” – voXXclub.  Yes, it ranked low with the 100-member German panel and te international jury, but it was second with the popular vote.  This is a very entertaining number, the sole one sung in German (though they uttered the two closing lines of the chorus in English, as “Come as you are / You’re perfect like this”).  It might seem on the surface as a “troll” or “Lager Lout”*4 entry, but the song has an uplifting, positive message of inclusiveness, and if you rearrange the song’s melody to acoustic piano it would actually sound great, and yes, it’s pretty catchy.  The entertaining sight of attractive, nearly hunky blokes yodel, deliver strong masculine harmonies and dance with unbridled joy in lederhosen shorts (their upper garments are casual) is a surprisingly pleasant and entertaining sight to behold.  Yes, this will never be a jury darling, but the public across Europe could’ve eaten this up.  It’s a big guilty pleasure for me.

*4 I invented this term to refer to drunk people who tend to gravitate towards such “troll” entries.

“House on Fire” – Ivy Quainoo.  The singer is the first winner of The Voice of Germany and although many deemed this ballad inferior to the material she has previously released, it’s still a solid ballad that can do respectably in Eurovision.  She placed fourth overall, faring best with popular vote at third place, but was fourth with both the international jury and 100-member German panel.

“Jonah” – Xavier Darcy.  This entry is a fusion of Mumford & Sons with 1980s British New Wave (with the British-accented enunciation delivered by Xavier).  Xavier also has strong showmanship so he can provide something a bit more memorable than what previous entries delivered.  He placed second overall, the missing factor is that he didn’t tug heartstrings the way the winner did.

NETHERLANDS

Actually, a national final was not really staged here this time, but more of Waylon presenting five possible choices to the public, and him and the Dutch broadcaster ultimately announcing what their choice of entry was.  Still, the Eurovision fandom seemed to be buzzing more about the mellower sounds of “Back Together” and “The World Can Wait” with many people speculating the latter was the chosen song as this was the title of his world tour and his album.  But Waylon decided to take a risk and chose a rollicking country rock song instead.  Would the risk pay off?

MOLDOVA

The Top Three of this national final turned out to be a battle of the male backups–two of them offered hunks and one offered high energy dancing.  This time the latter won out though little did we know there will be a drought of manly hunks this year (sure, boyish dreamboats are a-plenty for all those fangirls to swoon, but I wish there is more beefcake in this year’s mix).

“Dance in Flames” – Doinita Gherman & One Voice.  The song has a fun tropical vibe, but my goodness the costuming was so tacky.  If she won she would’ve easily won the Barbara Dex award.  Adding to the spectacle was a gold-painted bodybuilder–oh what a guilty pleasure this would’ve been if this won.  But, yes, this is too cheesy that it only ended up in third place.

“Black Heart” – Vera Turcano.  This entry is a moody, sensual rock ballad that is jazzed up with a hunky shirtless male backup dancer emoting on a standing bed.  It’s an interesting presentation, but being a big So You Think You Can Dance fan, the dance and props made me recall a famous routine in Season 4 performed by dancers Stephen “Twitch” Boss and Kherington Payne, choreographed by the famous Mia Michaels.

UKRAINE

This country’s national selection featured an all-star three-person jury, composed of 2016 winner Jamala, 2007 runner-up Andriy Danilko (out of his drag Verka Serduchka persona) and Yehven Filatov from the EDM band Onuka.  They and the Ukrainian televoters selected the six finalists well, as five of them would’ve been strong bets to fly the Ukrainian flag in Eurovision, though indeed the best entry won in this contest.  Let’s start with…

“Forest Song” – Vilna.  Many Eurovision fans felt this entry was unjustly marked down by the jurors, as Jamala and Yehven Filatov placed this entry as dead last in the finals, but least a fourth place showing in the televote helped salvage this entry and this finished fifth.  I do love this atmospheric electronic folk number, and I would’ve ranked this third or fourth instead of its actual showing.

“Waiting” – Laud.  There are people who have fond memories of Cyprus’s entry last year (“Gravity” by Hovig) and this entry served up that kind of vibe and it’s well performed.  It was fourth overall, with the jury placing this third, but was pulled down by its 5th place showing with the Ukrainian public.

“Beat of the Universe” – Kadnay.  Hunks performing a rhythmic rock number with a tap breakdown?  Sign me up!  The jury ranked this fourth, though this is Yehven’s favorite choice–it’s just that Jamala ranked this 5th and Andriy/Verka ranked this 4th.  The general public dig this, placing this 2nd and hence this finish 3rd overall.

“Lelya” – Tayanna.  This lady was owed as many observers felt an injustice was committed last year when she didn’t win the national final with her pop ballad “I Love You” as she was in an ordinal tie with O Torvald’s “Time” but unfortunately pipped as the tie was broken by popular vote ranking–such a shame the Ukrainian public seemed to have a bias towards testosterone.  Many fans felt instead of the eventual worst 24th place finish O Torvald delivered, Tayanna would’ve delivered a more respectable showing for this country.  This year, Tayanna changed things up by offering a peppy 1960s-style pop number that was sung in Ukrainian.  The jury, again, loved it as it placed first overall (with Jamala ranking this first and Andriy and Yehven ranking this their second favorite).  Again, Tayanna ended up second overall as she was again third in the televote, and this time the winner got a 2nd place ranking with the jury and was the televote winner in this edition and in last year, and hence he squeaked a deserving win.  Hopefully third time’s the charm next year, but it’s a worthy effort for this lady.

LATVIA

This country employed a slightly more complicated system in determining its winner.  Besides the jury and televote, it also factors in Spotify streams and internet votes.

“This Time” – Markus Riva.  In my opinion, the juries committed an egregious injustice as they pegged this down to 7th place out of eight finalists.  I don’t know why it was 5th in Spotify streams but it was a strong 2nd placer behind the eventual winner in both the televote and internet vote.  I think this is a strong radio-friendly polished pop song, and Markus was very smartly dressed (almost as slick as Robin Bengtsson, but he left a couple of holes unbuttoned in his shirt).  Why did the jury dislike this?  Do they deemed it too fast-food for their liking?

“Esamiba [Presence]” – MADARA.  This singer/cellist makes a haunting presence with this Latvian-language entry, giving me Judy Collins goosebumps.  It fared strongest in Spotify streams, ranking 2nd, and was a solid 3rd place in both juries and internet votes.  It was also a solid 4th with the televote, leading it to 3rd place overall.

Now, what about the entry who placed 2nd, “Just Fine” by Sudden Lights?  I don’t know why it dominated Spotify streams, but I think it’s overrated, albeit a decent rock ballad.

SLOVENIA

This year, this country made it a requirement that all entries had to be performed first in Slovenian during the semifinal rounds, and then they can have the option to perform in English during the finals.  Eurovision internet fans have a fondness for this country as it is deemed one of the underrated countries that delivered great entries hat deserved to fare better.  This year is no exception, and I love the winner, even if it polarized some fans.  The runners-up were also strong entries, too, so let’s discuss them starting with…

“Zdaj sem tu [I’m here now]” – Lara Kadis.  Lara served up ingenue innocence with this pretty, classically tinged ballad.  There were some EDM textures added to the pre-chorus and bridge which I also dig.  The juries ranked this in 2nd place behind the eventual winner, but its fourth place finish relegated this to fourth overall, pipped by…

“Ne zapusti me zdaj [Don’t leave me]” – Nuška Drašček.  This has a similar sassy electronic vibe like the eventual winner, although its beats were about a decade behind the beats of the eventual winner, and that might be why it was pegged down by the jury, ranking it fifth.  Its standing was salvaged by a strong second place finish with the televote.  She also competed in last year’s final with “Flower in the Snow” and this entry is an improvement over her entry last year.

“Promise” – BQL  Just like Nuška, this boyband duo competed last year and were the favorites to win with “Heart of Gold” but the jury love for the eventual winner that year, Omar Naber‘s insipid ballad “On My Way” pipped this duo’s Eurovision dreams.  Now, this year’s entry, as good as it is, is not as good as “Heart as Gold”, but it deservingly put up a good fight against the eventual winner.  It’s interesting that it had the same outcome last year and this year–it ranked third with the juries and handily won the popular vote, and its point gap behind the winner was 10 points.  Hopefully the third time’s the charm next year.

HUNGARY

This year’s national selection final for this country could be described in one word:  Sausagefest.  All the eight finalists are male acts and no female in sight.  I think this country is renowned for its sausages (in more ways than one, I might add), so this term seems very apt.  The jury first decide which four acts among the eight finalists they would advance to the superfinal, and in the superfinal, the general public would then decide the winner.  Have to say this year’s finalists are loaded with hunks though the winning act was the least “hunky” of this formidable group.  Without further ado, let’s salute them starting with…

“Megyfa [Sour Cherry Tree]” – Tamás Horváth.  I have a feeling if the jury allowed this entry to advance, this would’ve been the Hungary’s official Eurovision entry.  It’s an engaging pop-folk number that I like, making me recall Moldova’s Pasha Parfeny back in 2012 with Lautar“.  Despite the jury injustice, at least afterwards it became a big hit in the Hungarian charts.

“Azt mondtad [You said]” – Gergely Dánielfy.  I’m not that into this traditional folk ballad as much as the other entries in this list, but I do respect the quiet dramatics, and this was the jury darling going into the superfinal.  I think it’s overrated and would’ve preferred Tomas Horvath to advance instead of him, but well, he does have a guy-next-door hunk appeal so I can tolerate this song.

“Budapest Girl” – Viktor Király.  Another song, another hunk.  This time it’s an English-language acoustic-laced-soul-pop number with its native cred being the reference to Hungary’s capital city and the tribute to the girls of that city.  It’s a pleasant listen and it was second with the jury.  But it looks like the Hungarian public, with the available four choices to vote on, opt for something harder…

“I Let You Run Away” – yesyes.  Many fans were buzzing this electro-rock ballad as a possible winner in a close fight with “Meggyfa” and “Budapest Girl”.  It was a close third with the jury entering into the superfinal, and I have a feeling it was second with the televote, hampered simply because the public probably wanted something in their native language and a bit harder-edged, hence the final results.

ARMENIA

This year, this country decided to hold a full-fledged national final deciding both singer and song.  Though the eventual winner was well-regarded and fans approve of the choice, the ones the international fans (including myself) dig seems to not always match what the Armenian jury and public chose.  For starters…

“Poison (Ari Ari)” – Tamar Kaprelian.  Fans were shocked when this ethno-pop entry was eliminated in the semifinal, falling short by one notch to qualify to the finals.  Many fans felt there was a missed opportunity as this number is the international fans’ second favorite behind the eventual winner.

“Puerto Rico” – Kamil Show.  This entry seems to be aiming for Verka Serduchka-style notoriety, as it’s a fun techno ditty fronted by an outrageous drag queen.  It might seem to be a troll song, but surprisingly there is skill and strong songcraft in this number.  First, the Spanish seems very much on-point and so were the female backing vocalists.  Sure, some might find offense with the backup dancers wearing exaggerated padding to perpetuate the stereotype that Puerto Rican women have big booties, but overall it’s actually fun and would be one of those refreshing “troll” acts if it was the winner.  It got 2nd place in the popular vote, but it was clearly not a jury darling as it placed 9th out of ten with them, relegating this entry to fourth overall.

This act also intrigued me so much that I wanted to check the man behind the drag queen.  The man is Arsen Grigoryan (though there is an older, more traditional artist sharing his name) and his oeuvre before assuming the Kamil persona is a flamboyant theatrical pop/rock artist.  Check out a sample of his work below:

What about the entries that ranked second and third in the national final?  “I’m a Liar” by band Nemra is upbeat but it feels dated.  The ballad “Waiting for the Sun” by Amaliya Margaryan has interesting staging and a blindfold gimmick, but it’s not really that interesting otherwise.

ROMANIA

The format of the national selection in this country is that the semifinalists are whittled down by the jury, and for the finals it’s solely determined by popular vote.  If you ask me I think the Romanian public chose the wrong champion to represent them as their finals streak looks to be in jeopardy.  I will discuss this more in my song preview for that entry, of course, but for now. let me cite the ones that were in the Top Four, as any of them would’ve guaranteed the streak to be sustained…

“Auzi cum bate [You hear how it knocks]” – Jukebox featuring Bella Santiago.  I’m shocked that there was a Filipina competing here.  And yes, she’s the clear standout in this rock ballad.  I was rooting for this to win because not only can Romania use its own diaspora, but they could’ve tapped a fresh new audience voting in its favor as there is a significant Filipino diaspora across Europe too, and they could be a popular force (and yes, could also drum up interest in this contest in our shores).  But as it is, it only managed to rank fourth with the Romanian public.

“Bună de iubit (Royalty)” – Feli.  This is a fun tropical-styled ditty.  The Romanian title translates to “Good boyfriend”, and she performed it entirely in Romanian during the semifinal, and for the final she opted for a primarily English version.  There was heavy press with the fact that the day before she had to perform in the semifinal her father passed away and there was a threat that she would withdraw as a result.  But she chose to be a trouper and performed this happy song amidst her personal turmoil, which earned the respect of everyone and made this one of the possible winners.

“Walking on Water” – Alexia & Matei.  This charming youthful pair may not be that pitch-perfect live, but the song is a rhythmic peppy pop treat.  The pair have that Amaia-and-Alfred chemisry and with that they ended up 2nd place.  Though I preferred the other two entries above, I wouldn’t have minded if this was selected as the winner.  Such a missed opportunity…