The second semifinal seems to be loaded with entries from the Balkan Bloc, with five of the former constituents of Yugoslavia in this group along with Bulgaria.  So much for placing them in “pots” to minimize the impact of bloc voting.  Anyway, let’s examine the first half of this group, starting with:

SERBIA:  “Nije ljubav stvar [Love is not an object]” – Željko Joksimović.  The English version of this song is entitled “Synonym“, but it’s a good thing it was decided Željko will perform in his native tongue instead, as the English lyrics underwhelm and not really a good fit to the dramatic music.  This guy already had a successful run at this contest, placing 2nd eight years ago behind Ukraine’s Ruslana’s “Wild Dances” (there is another Ruslana reference later in this article).  There are some melodic elements in this ballad that borrowed from Coldplay’s hit “Paradise”, but not enough that it qualifies as plagiarism.  This dramatic folk-pop ballad has the qualities that could help Željko duplicate or even exceed his previous successful showing.

FYR MACEDONIA:  “Crno i belo [Black and White]” – Kaliopi.  Kaliopi is a veteran female rocker with a raspy, Melissa Etheridge quality to her voice.  I’m not crazy about this rock song (for the Balkan entries this year, their best bets are the ballads), but I have a feeling the Balkan vote will help shore up her fortunes and this might see action in the finals.

NETHERLANDS:  “You and Me” – Joan Franka.  Joan’s voice has an Adele-like quality to it, but as sweet as the melody of this acoustic ditty, it sounded like Adele singing an old-fashioned silly nursery rhyme.  I wonder how large is Cher’s fanbase as Joan Franka’s Native American costume (because the song talks about loving a childhood friend she used to play “Cowboys and Indians” with) and dusky, almost exotic facial features makes people recall Cher’s 1973 hit “Half-Breed”.  There are fans who like this ditty, but I have a gnawing feeling this country will miss the finals yet again–unless the Cher fans throughout Europe (plus if there are any such fans in the juries) would rally around her and vote.

MALTA:  “This is the Night” – Kurt Calleja.  This fellow resembles Friends star David Schwimmer.  At first listen over two months ago, I wasn’t totally into this synth pop dance ditty and found it unremarkable.  But they beefed it up a bit with rock guitars and this number actually came to life for me and it grew on me–yes, the “eh-eh, eh-eh-yeh” chorus is as catchy as you can find in a Lady Gaga song.  I think it has more than an even chance of qualifying for the finals.

BELARUS:  “We are the Heroes” – Litesound.  The version that was originally performed during the national finals had a rock arrangement with an opening synth groove that sounded exactly like the opening to Kelly Clarkson’s smash “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.  They then hired a Greek producer and had the song rearranged, removing the original intro and replaced it with a sleek ballad intro effect before seguing into a more pop-dance groove (instead of a rock-dance groove).  Some fans have felt the new arrangement ruined the song, but I actually liked the new arrangement, too–for me it sounded more like a Swedish-produced pop song, which is actually a good thing.  Besides the quality of the song, also likely to boost this entry’s prospects of landing in the finals are the handsome appeal of the band members, especially the lead singer (well, they are described as a boy band even if they play instruments).

The raspy delivery of the lead singer made me think of another American Idol besides Kelly Clarkson–it made me imagine Season 7 champion David Cook singing this number and making a big hit out of it.  I have a feeling he can even improve on it as he is a native English speaker so there would be no diction issues, and maybe he can also do some of his inventive rearrangements like he did during his Idol stint.  Sure, the lyrics may be a bit beneath his usual standard, but then again, remember the “Magic Rainbow Song” (officially known as “The Time of My Life”)?  Someone should contact David Cook stat and I want to see David do this song, even if it’s as an impromptu personal YouTube video…

PORTUGAL: “Vida Minha [My Life]” – Filipa Sousa.  Portugal decided to return to a previously successful formula: a traditional, almost epic ballad featuring a female vocalist and a chorus of five backing her up.  It worked four years ago with “Senhora do Mar” by Vania Fernandes, and it is likely to work again now as it’s a quality piece of work.

UKRAINE: “Be My Guest” – Gaitana.  With her half-Congolese heritage (a rarity in lily-white Ukraine; by the way, we are referring to the Republic of Congo here, not the Democratic Republic of Congo that used to be known as Zaire), she singlehandedly created an R&B scene in her nation.  She reminds me of a cross between Sofia Vergara and Pussycat Dolls’ founder Robin Antin, but with a mocha complexion.  Regarding the song, imagine David Guetta’s hit song “When Love Takes Over” as if being sung by Taylor Dayne, and you get this number.  So far, fans are relatively dismissive of this number, even claiming that this might be the first time Ukraine will miss the finals.  But I have a feeling she will manage to get through, maybe with a little help from the Balkan Bloc, but also because you can be sure Gaitana’s fierce vocals would never be denied and there is the presence of a stage gimmick (or two).

Mika Newton propelled Ukraine to a surprisingly high fourth place last year with her otherwise just-0kay ballad because of a nice stage gimmick–a sand artist onstage making striking and fleeting images as they are projected on a screen.  This year’s gimmick involves a couple of large screens that judging from rehearsals will feature duplicate images of dancers to create the illusion of having more people onstage than the maximum allowable limit of six persons, along with a dancer clad in an outfit rigged with LED lights.

Another interesting note is that being an established artist back in her home country, Gaitana had already performed with two of the fiercest Eurovision divas from her nation, champion Ruslana (from 2004) and runner-up Ani Lorak (from 2008) [Is it coincidence or is it destiny that they competed in this contest four years apart?].  In December 2010, the trio performed a couple of songs together on the TV show True La-La, covering Barry White’s “Never Never Gonna Give You Up” and Annie Lennox’s “Why”.  Check out that three-diva summit below.

BULGARIA:  “Love Unlimited” – Sofi Marinova.  From one big-voiced diva to another.  Though she has a tone that reminds me of the female singer from her country’s most successful Eurovision entry thus far, Elitsa Todorova, she is more of a ferocious vocal powerhouse and she powers through this Bulgarian language techno ditty.  This song employs an old-fashioned song gimmick done by some Eurovision entries back in the earlier days, featuring lyrics rendered in other languages–in this case, the phrase “I love you” in Arabic, Azerbaijani, English, French, Greek, Italian, Romani, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Turkish.  My only beef with this entry is that with such a catchy propulsive dance ditty, she will be alone in performing this number during the semifinals and possibly finals, and she won’t be doing much dancing.

SLOVENIA: “Vermjamem [I Believe]” – Eva Boto.  There is heavy positive buzz amongst Eurovision fans over this dramatic, classically tinged ballad.  There will be a visual gimmick as her back-up singers will be wearing bridesmaid dresses and possibly elaborate hats like in the national final.  Could this help propel this entry into Slovenia’s best Eurovision finish?  It is very possible.

COMING UP: The second half of the second semifinal, plus finalist forecasts.

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