Now let’s discuss the automatic finalists. As per current Eurovision rules, the country that wins the previous year’s Eurovision contest gets an automatic finalist slot along with the five largest contributing countries to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), dubbed the “Big Five”: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Until the return of jury voting for the finals in 2009, the “Big Five” tend to languish in the lower rungs of the rankings, but since 2009, we get to see them roaring back to prominence again, with Germany winning in 2010 and witnessing at least two of them figuring in the Top 10 in 2009 and 2011. At least three of this year’s “Big Five” entries seemed poised to figure in the Top 10 this year. Let’s evaluate their prospects, starting with…
UNITED KINGDOM: “Love Will Set You Free” – Engelbert Humperdinck. The people at the BBC responsible for fielding entries to this contest must have been brainstorming about ways for them to rise above the doldrums they experienced in recent years, especially with the onslaught of bloc voting amongst the Eastern European countries. So they realized they need an act that has a significant audience in Eastern Europe and came to the conclusion that veteran singer Engelbert Humperdinck still packs houses in those territories so they logically thought he can bring forth those much needed points for them to figure in the Top 10 like in their heydays from the 1960s-1990s. Yes, he’s 76 years old, but he still can carry a tune very well and sings his hits close to the way he sang them in his 1960s-1970s prime. But in my opinion, he would need the right kind of song to make the maximum impact.
Were the songwriters able to give Engelbert the perfect song to bring the UK back on top? To be blunt, the short answer is no. Ballads being offered by Iceland, Serbia, Slovenia, and Spain are way more compelling than this entry. And this entry has the disadvantage having to perform first in the finals. But it doesn’t mean that this entry lacks merits–this Western-style acoustic waltz ballad sounds like what if Engelbert contributed a love ballad to the soundtrack of a 1960s “Spaghetti Western”. It evokes one of his biggest international hits, “The Last Waltz”, filtered through a starker, more mature perspective a la Johnny Cash’s final recordings (think his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”). As competently and maturely as Engelbert sang it, he lacked the haunting gravitas that the late Johnny Cash evoked in his final days and I presume that’s what the songwriters intended the song to sound like. In relation to Johnny Cash, Engelbert still sounded like a spry young teenage whippersnapper. But it’s still a dignified and admirable effort, and I hope the juries all over rally around this, and it would be achievement enough in my opinion if in the final standings he prevails in his geriatric showdown against the Buranovo Grannies.
FRANCE: “Echo (You and I)” – Anggun. I was so excited when I learned this Indonesian-born singer would be representing France, as I was captivated with her spellbinding 1998 international hit “Snow on the Sahara”. But then I listened to this dance ditty and as much as I’m still a big Anggun fan, I’m just so disappointed with this entry. The jarring hip-hop-styled intro does not make any sense in context to the rest of the song, for starters, and despite the placement of some contemporary bleeps and bloops, the melody still sounded like a quaint 1980s dance tune. Some fans compared the song to the works of David Guetta, but I’ve listened to several of his recordings and they do not sound anything like this number (the closest thing to a David Guetta song in this year’s Eurovision is the entry from Ukraine).
The music video similarly doesn’t make any coherent sense, either (but then again, sometimes they are not supposed to)–what does the song have to do with hunky guys training in the military and what the hell is Anggun doing amidst these hunks, slinking about in a black vest and bikini-bottom combo and cape (designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, so she’ll likely wear that outfit for the finals)? With some homoerotic gas-mask scenes, I don’t think Anggun’s seduction seemed to work if she’s supposed to act as a tempting seductress to these men. I suppose it would only make sense if we view the video as an editorial commercial for some of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s products, perhaps (though which of them, I wonder; does he make military uniforms?). I suppose it will be consolation enough that she’ll be treating us to some male eye candy as she has three hunky athletic male backup dancers for her Eurovision performance. Amongst the “Big Five” entries this year, this looks like the weakest link, in my opinion, though (sorry, Anggun).
ITALY: “L’Amore e femmina [Love is female](Out of Love)” – Nina Zilli. After a lengthy 14-year absence, Italy returned to this contest last year in a major way, placing second with the retro-styled jazz-pop number “Madness of Love”. It is likely Italy will still secure a Top 10 finish at least with this entry. Originally at the Sanremo Song Festival (which served as the contest where they select the Eurovision representative, though it is not necessarily the case that the overall winner of this festival would be the Eurovision contestant), Nina sang a ballad entitled “Per Sempre”. Her physical and vocal resemblance to the late Amy Winehouse was already evident even in this lush orchestral ballad, and Eurovision fans felt Italy’s placement in the Top 10 is secure. But then, it was announced that instead of that ballad, the upbeat retro-styled ditty “L’Amore e femmina” would be the song instead. This song does make Nina’s inherent Amy Winehouse-ness even more apparent. There are some fans who felt RAI made a mistake with this decision, but I actually like this number–my only quibble is that they chose to make it bilingual in English and Italian, as I felt the all-Italian version is better and sassier. Still, I’m optimistic that this will still figure in the Top 10 in the finals.
A quibble in their Eurovision finals presentation, though, after viewing their rehearsal–I’ve noticed her back-up singers feature two ladies and a tall, dreadlocked, mulatto male; as much as he’s appealingly good-looking, I felt it would’ve made more sense if the back-up singers are all female.
AZERBAIJAN: “When the Music Dies” – Sabina Babayeva. Sure, the press write-ups hype up the fact that they employed traditional Azerbaijani instruments in the recording of this song. But it still does not detract the fact that this waltzing soulful ballad is derived from Alicia Keys’ major hit, “Fallin'”, which was in turn derived from James Brown’s classic “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. So far this country consistently figures in the Top 10 during the Eurovision finals since joining in 2008, winning last year for “Running Scared“. Some Eurovision fans and pundits felt that this time they will break their Top 10 streak this time, but I wouldn’t count this number out yet, as it’s still a solid, worthwhile number, even if it’s derivative.
SPAIN: “Quédate conmigo [Stay with me]” – Pastora Soler. Since 2005, Spain has either been languishing in the bottom, or squeaking out a middling showing at best (its best placement was “Algo Pequeñito” in 15th place back in 2010, which benefited a little bit by sympathy votes over the fact that it was gatecrashed by the notorious pitch invader Jimmy Jump, who famously crashed various sports events). If we were to judge based on buzz by various Eurovision fans, Spain’s fortunes would change for the better this time with this entry, a dramatic pop ballad featuring soulful, passionate singing. I do hope that this will indeed figure in the Top 10, but it is indeed extremely competitive this year with other striking ballads and fierce dance tracks. It is indeed Spain’s best entry to this contest in recent years.
GERMANY: “Standing Still” – Roman Lob. Running second after Denmark’s entry as the best-crafted pop song in my opinion is this entry, a lovely, earnest, midtempo pop number. It’s style is contemporary, its production values crisp, and the singing strong. Arguably, this is better than Lena’s entry last year, at the very least. By musical merit, it does deserve to sustain Lena’s two successful forays in this contest.
Now all entries are accounted for, let me showcase my “fearful” forecast on who’ll figure in the Top 10 in the finals:
ICELAND, GREECE, ROMANIA, DENMARK, SERBIA, SLOVENIA, SWEDEN, ITALY, SPAIN, GERMANY
BUBBLING UNDER: RUSSIA, CYPRUS, HUNGARY, UKRAINE, NORWAY, UNITED KINGDOM, AZERBAIJAN
My Top 10 personal favorites this year seem to coincide with the ones I forecast would make the Top 10. So the list below would feature some additional sentimental favorite choices of mine:
FINLAND, HUNGARY, CYPRUS, IRELAND, MALTA, BELARUS, UKRAINE, NORWAY, UNITED KINGDOM
A special dubious mention to AUSTRIA, as its catchy chorus is now currently embedded in my head like a lingering virus. It’s not really quite a guilty pleasure like ROMANIA, but qualifies as “guilty”.
It’s such a competitive group of entries this year, in my opinion. Though fans and pundits are currently betting SWEDEN to dominate, I think we should not count the chickens until they’re hatched–SERBIA and ICELAND can conceivably pull off an upset, in my opinion.