UKRAINE – “Tick-Tock” – Maria Yaremchuk. This country has a nice formula down pat–field a fierce, sexy and/or gorgeous singer (Verka Serduchka and Green Jolly notwithstanding), and reap the rewards. But unlike the smashing 3rd place finish last year, this funky entry is not expected to fare as well (though it will advance to the final), though it will have a visual gimmick–a hunk running inside a giant hamster wheel.
BELGIUM – “Mother” – Axel Hiroux. The guy doesn’t have charisma to my eyes and the song is melodramatic mush, but he does have a terrific operatic voice. And that would probably be enough for him to be catnip for jury votes and qualify for the finals.
MOLDOVA – “Wild Soul” – Cristina Scarlat. This old-fashioned campily dramatic number made me miss Pasha Parfeny and Aliona Moon–hell, it even made me miss Zdob si Zdub, and I’m not fond of that band. It will suffer the fate of Geta Burlacu six years ago and not advance to the finals.
SAN MARINO – “Maybe (Forse)” – Valentina Monetta. Well, Valentina seems very tenacious as this is her third consecutive participation in this contest. Any song is probably an improvement to her infamous first entry, “The Social Network Song (Uh-Oh)”, but i loved last year’s “Crisalide (Vola)” better. This is a classy, dramatic ballad number with some underlying dance beats. Yes, this year’s bench is a bit shallower so it is possible she could finally advance to the finals this time, but in order for her to do that, she needs to be absolutely pitch-perfect–what hurt the otherwise terrific “Crisalide (Vola)” from advancing was a sub-par live presentation, and that was frustrating for me and several other viewers who had high hopes for that entry last year.
PORTUGAL – “Quero Ser Tua [I Want to be Yours]” – Suzy. It’s nice to see Portugal back to this contest. And it’s refreshing to listen to an upbeat, percussive ditty for a change, even if it sounds like a rewrite of France’s 2010 entry, “Allez Ola Ole” by Jessy Matador. Now, though Spain is likely to send some points its way, I’m not sure if that will be enough for this entry to advance to the finals.
NETHERLANDS – “Calm After the Storm” – The Common Linnets. There are fans who have a high regard for this entry. It’s a modern-country style song that reminds me of the bigger hits by Lady Antebellum (particularly their mega-smash “Need You Now”) filtered with the dark and moody vibe evoked by estranged country act The Civil Wars. I don’t think this would be successful as last year’s “Birds”, and there is no certainty that Europeans would dig this kind of genre, but there is still a chance this act will advance forward to the finals.
MONTENEGRO – “Moj Svjet [My World]” – Sergej Ćetković. This is actually a strong native-language folk ballad entry, with a good melody and strong passionate singing. However there are two things going against it–first the Balkan bloc is currently decimated as several Balkan countries decided to sit out this year; and second, I have a major issue that it seems the song ended abruptly (to meet the 3-minute time limit); it seems when the singer was about to launch into a grander, soaring chorus, the song just cuts off. Is this intentional? If not, why can’t they rearrange the verses around so we can get to a climax? As it is, it feels like the climax came about 2/3 into the song and then is a let-down at the end.
HUNGARY – “Running” – András Kállay-Saunders. This is arguably Hungary’s best entry to this contest ever. Let’s start with the songcraft: the melody is strong, the message deep and serious (it’s about domestic abuse), the lyrics poetic and impressionistic without being too explicit about the message, the music classy and sophisticated, and the skittering drum-and-bass beats at the chorus served to aptly underline and emphasize the tension depicted in the message and the lyrics. Then, there is the singing–there is a nice Adele-esque soulful smokiness that I hear in the delivery, and there is warmth and empathy permeating throughout, and yes, the guy hits every note fine. Then there is the stage presentation that tastefully emphasizes the message without being too cheesy. I’m confident that Hungary is due to outdo its 4th place best finish in its official debut 20 years ago (it had the potential to do so three years ago with Kati Wolf’s “What About My Dreams”, but unfortunately it was marred by an underwhelming live performance and presentation). In my opinion this entry should win the Marcel Bezençon Composer’s Award this year.
You might wonder about the urban/R&B styling (both musical and physical) of Andras (pronounced An-drash for English-speaking readers),which we don’t typically expect in a European entry. One might even notice how the guy resembles Canadian rapper Drake. There are very good reasons why: For starters, like Drake he is bi-racial as he is half-African-American and half-Hungarian, his dad being musician Fernando Saunders (most famous for his work with the late, great Lou Reed, but he has also worked with musical superstars like Pat Benatar and Heart) and was born and raised in the US. His urban/R&B cred is clearly legit, so to speak. Another interesting note is that he had attempted to represent Hungary for Eurovision last year, and actually dominated the jury votes, but the system was the winner was solely determined by public vote (after the top four jury choices advanced) and he was overshadowed by ByeAlex’s “Kevdesem” that year–imagine if that competed, wonder how that would’ve fared? But then again, “My Baby” is rather romantic lightweight (but well-done) fluff compared to the gravitas of this stunningly stellar entry.
With the 1st semifinal entries all accounted for, let me trot out who I think will advance to the finals:
Considering Denmark is a first world country, one would expect that this year’s Eurovision Song Contest would promise to be a state-of-the-art production. It will most likely be such, but unfortunately it won’t be as grand as one would want as this year experienced an attrition of participants. Due to budget issues, several regulars from the Balkan region like Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Bosnia & Herzegovina (who also sat out last year) decided to skip this year’s contest. Due to frustration over its weak performances, it is understandable why Slovakia likewise decided to sit out for the second year in a row, too (Czech Republic was also sitting out of this contest since 2010). Turkey continues to protest the current system of using a combination of juries and popular vote (they feel they have a better advantage if it is solely based on popular vote) plus the fact that the “Big Five” (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and United Kingdom) continues to automatically qualify for the finals, so it also continues to not participate for the second year in a row. At least there are two countries that decided to return with Poland and Portugal back in the fray.
Besides the attrition, the excitement over this year’s contest for me is rather muted than in, say, 2009 or 2012. It is not that the quality of this year’s entries are lousy–most are actually decent and there are fewer out-and-out trashy novelties and earworm-y guilty pleasures. But there are still some worthwhile treats to behold, so let us proceed with my preview with the first half of the semi-finals, starting with:
ARMENIA: “Not Alone” – Aram MP3. The name of the male singer is a bit too gimmicky for me, but it is undeniable that this is one of the stronger contenders in this year’s contest. It’s a dark, piano-and-strings-laden ballad that then segued into a dubstep climax, those disparate threads held together with Aram’s smoky and gritty singing voice. One of my Top Five favorites in this year’s contest.
LATVIA: “Cake to Bake” – Aarzemnieki. This is a melodic folk-pop ditty but it’s rather twee. I don’t think the former USSR bloc would help shore this entry’s fortunes.
ESTONIA: “Amazing” – Tanja. It’s actually a decent well-sung dance-pop song, and she’ll jazz up the presentation by dancing and singing simultaneously. It might be enough for this entry to advance to the finals.
SWEDEN: “Undo” – Sanna Nielsen. This entry beat the likes of 2005 champion Helena Paparizou in Melodifestivalen to represent Sweden in this contest. It’s a well-crafted pop ballad with its verses resembling Miley Cyrus’s smash hit “Wrecking Ball”. It has a catchy chorus, but some English listeners may cringe at the grammar: “Undo my sad”? Still, Eurovision fans are rallying behind this and are betting this will win the contest. I’m cool with that, though it’s clearly no “Euphoria”. I suppose another key factor that would make voters support this entry is that instead of hosting next year’s Eurovision themselves with the current economic crunch, they would rather hand it to a rich country that has a major passion for this contest, like a Nordic country like Sweden…
ICELAND: “No Prejudice” – Pollapönk. This is the closest thing we have to a novelty number, but despite the brightly colored outfits, the song is generally upbeat ska with an earnest message. One might wonder if they should be better off singing the song in the original Icelandic (as “Enga fordóma”) or in its current English incarnation. I think no one would relate it in a lesser-spoken language, so English might indeed be the way to go. But I’m not confident despite the presence of Sweden and Denmark in the voting panel that this would advance to the finals.
ALBANIA: “One Night’s Anger” – Hersi. Like Iceland, this entry won its national final performed in its original language, Albanian, as “Zemërimi i nje natë” (and the artist was identified with her full name, Herciana Matmuja). But unlike Iceland, I think it sounded a bit more haunting in it’s original language, as the English version sounded a bit watered down that it sounded less than special as a result. But it might still garner enough support to qualify to the finals.
RUSSIA: “Shine” – Tolmachevy Sisters. These blonde twin sisters previously had Eurovision experience, competing at the 2006 Junior Eurovision contest (meant for singers below 16 years old) at the age of nine and winning it. Since they are now 17-year-old teenagers, they are old enough to compete in the big leagues. This slice of 1960s-style Phil Spector wall-of-sound pop is appealing enough, but I feel with the current sentiment due to the political situation in Ukraine, these innocent comely twins might bear the brunt of the expected backlash–in any other year, this would probably fare high up in the Top Five in the finals–but in this kind of year, they will probably be lucky to advance to the finals. It’s interesting to note that they came up with two video versions–the first version submitted to the EBU is a bland pastel color video, while the new official video is more visually interesting set in black-and-white.
AZERBAIJAN: “Start a Fire” – Dilara Kazamova. This is a very dignified, stately, passionately well-sung ballad. It’s a cinch that Azerbaijan will advance to the finals, and be successful–I don’t think it will rank as high as its terrific preceding entry, but it is likely to sustain its Top 10 streak since it joined in 2008,
COMING UP: THE 1ST SEMI-FINAL, 2ND HALF, plus “Fearful” Forecast for those who will advance to the finals.
With the exception of the shocking exclusion of Pia Wurzbach, the ladies who made the final court are a worthy and deserving lot. I would’ve awarded the titles rather differently, though, but I still respect the eventual final results.
2ND RUNNER-UP: BINIBINING 27 – Hannah Ruth Sison. After missing the final cut altogether, I’m glad that she is vindicated with a high placement. I’m just glad that she finally got to outrank Ellore Punzalan (who made the cut at her expense last year). But outranking Pia Wurtzbach is another question, though I still salute her consistently strong performance all throughout. In the question-and-answer round she was asked by La Salle basketball player Jeron Teng regarding if she would fall in love and marry someone outside of her religion and her reasons why or why not. Her response: ” If I were to fall in love outside of my religion, I would. Because for me it’s not about what you are, you should not condemn any person because of their religion. Love is what you need to get into a relationship and that’s why I would marry someone or I would fall in love with someone who is not even part of my religion.” It’s generally a strong and solid stance, even if perhaps Miss Universe 2011 3rd runner-up Shamcey Supsup (who was asked the same question at Miss Universe) would disagree.
1ST RUNNER-UP: BINIBINING 11 – Laura Victoria Lehman. She may not make as big a splash on photos or onstage as the likes of a Kris Tiffany Janson or an Yvethe Santiago or even a Pia Wurtzbach, but she still made the right kind of impact that she deserved to go as far as she did. The topnotch communication skills she had showcased in the TV special The Road to the Crown was in full effect when she answered Mexican Ambassador Julio Camareña’s question about what city in the world best suits her character: ” I think the city in the world that best suits my character would be Amsterdam. I love the city. It’s very liberal. People are able to have fun and yet they follow rules at the same time. It is a city that I would like to visit one day. It is a city that definitely represents my fun personality.” In my reckoning her answer should have given her one of the titles, but I think some of the judges docked her a bit for not citing a Philippine city, but still, she gave an honest, sincere answer, and she speaks confidently in perfect English to boot. If she decides to try again, she could probably nail a title one of these days.
BB. PILIPINAS – TOURISM: BINIBINING 4 – Parul Shah. In my reckoning, I though she would’ve been first runner-up with Laura Lehman having a title. But I can understand that the judges liked her more exotic features that they gave her the edge and so she was granted a title. She was asked by TV newscaster/journalist Korina Sanchez about the current event that has affected her the most and why. She gave an appropriately relevant and current response: “: I’ll have to say it’s [the news] about the Malaysia Airlines [flight] that went down. My sincere love and compassion goes out to all the families who lost their love ones. All I can say is that we shouldn’t lose faith in God.”
In effect, she lifted the curse of candidates carrying her number being shut out of a title–albeit this is a title that most pageant fans and pundits don’t really place in high regard. For starters, the pageant she is designated for, Tourism Queen International, has witnessed a drastic decline in reputation in recent years, along with the uncertainty if it would be staged at all this year. Still, whatever the case, I’m glad Parul finally got a title, and if Tourism Queen International will be staged this year, she can definitely make major waves and politics willing, make the Top Five.
BB. PILIPINAS – SUPRANATIONAL: BINIBINING 35 – Yvethe Marie Santiago. I know she was highly favored from the get-go so it’s not surprising that she garnered two sponsor’s prizes, Bb. Avon and Miss Creamsilk. However, prior to coronation night, admittedly I was not in her bandwagon. But when I finally witnessed her perform onstage, I thought she was spectacular. In the swimsuit round, I thought she exuded the vibe of both Gabriela Isler and Miss Universe 2013 2nd runner-up Constanza Baez of Ecuador–must be the feathery hairstyle she sported that gave that fierce effect. I have no objections on the eventual winner of Best in Swimsuit, but I personally thought it was a toss-up between her and Kris Tiffany Janson for that honor. She was likewise phenomenal in the evening gown round making her presence felt even while sporting a simple, flowy powder blue gown.
For the question-and-answer round, she was asked by Miss Universe 1973 Margie Moran about the quality inherent in a Filipino that makes her stand out in a beauty pageant. Her answer: “I believe that the quality that every Filipina has that makes her stand out in a beauty pageant is confidence. We feel confident in our own skin and that makes us feel very beautiful. And with that, we shine and we are able to share the best that we have to all the people around the world.” I thought she clinched the right to compete in Miss Universe with that answer, so I was surprised when she was granted a “lesser” title. I would probably attribute this to the fact that it is actually very close between the top performers, and the judges simply favored certain other girls. Still, I know she will be able to shine brightly in that pageant, even if she is unlikely to speak onstage as long as she delivers the same stage chops as she delivered here–we could indeed garner a back-to-back after Mutya Datul’s historic victory.
BB. PILIPINAS – INTERCONTINENTAL: BINIBINING 13 – Kris Tiffany Janson. In my opinion, the top two performers onstage were her and Yvethe Santiago. Both were phenomenally ferocious in swimsuit and appropriately elegant in evening gown. I personally thought the two plum titles would go to these two, but judging from the Best in Swimsuit and Best in Evening Gown special award winners, they were not as favored by the judging panel on hand. At least like Yvethe and Pia she got two special awards, Best National Costume and Miss Photogenic.
Some pageant fans and pundits might wonder if what prevented Kris Tiffany from nailing a plummier title was the question and answer round–she was asked by Michael Cinco (in a pretaped sequence) about if she could go back in time what would she change and why. Her sincere response: “If I could go back in time, I would go to my father and tell him how much I love him because I know that it was something I took for granted but tonight I do not worry because I know that he has the best seat and he is watching from above and tonight I am one step closer in fulfilling his dream.” Normally, the “right” answer is to have no regrets, or to be witty like Brook Lee with her brilliant answer back in Miss USA 1997, but this sweet and heartfelt answer is also one of the better answers I heard to that tricky (and often the one that would break a contestant’s chances) question. Anyway, now that she’s granted this title, I’m reasonably confident she can exceed Koreen Medina’s 3rd runner-up finish last year and equal or exceed Maria Sovietskaya Bacud’s 2nd runner-up finish back in 1995. Who knows, maybe she can even lead us to our first win ever in this pageant.
BB. PILIPINAS INTERNATIONAL: BINIBINING 22 – Mary Anne Bianca Guidotti. I know I did expect her to nail a title, and she was right on track during both the swimsuit and evening gown rounds. Though I preferred Pia Wurtzbach, I have no objections with this lady being granted the Best in Evening Gown win. Her midnight blue sequined one-shoulder evening gown was distinctive and dramatic, and she did deliver it with aplomb. But after the question-and-answer round, I thought she would be the one who would be prevented from getting a title. She was asked by Department of Trade & Industry Secretary Gregory Domingo regarding how she would push for her advocacy if she won a crown. Her response: “If I win a title, I would use my crown to influence people to adopt their own advocacies. I want people to be passionate about it—something that is really close to their heart. I will someday hopefully make an NGO of my own. Someday, hopefully, I will make an NGO of my own.” I dislike her answer because I felt it was vague and circular–what is her specific advocacy, for starters? If she couldn’t even name what advocacy/ies she stands for, I don’t think she will be credible in inspiring people to adopt their own advocacies. In my opinion, only Zahara Mae Soriano gave a worse answer that night. Though prior to this moment I was advocating her to get one of the crowns (preferably the plum Miss Philippines Universe title), I thought based on her answer this crown should’ve gone to Pia Wurtzbach instead of her. Even Bianca herself revealed (in her interview with Kris Aquino and Boy Abunda in their talk show) that she would’ve changed her answer.
I think Bianca was lucky that among the panel of judges there were people passionate about her getting one of the titles, and so they forgave her answer and granted her this plum title. Also, well, there is the presence of Miss Universe 2013 Gabriela Isler, who also gave a vague, circular answer in her own stint, so she probably also rallied on her side, too. Besides, other than that blip, Bianca otherwise is a strong, spontaneous, well-educated communicator. Anyway, though I don’t think she’ll bring forth a back-to-back win in Miss International, she will most likely at least garner runner-up honors and deliver a strong cultural speech.
MISS UNIVERSE PHILIPPINES: BINIBINING 25 – Mary Jean Lastimosa. I have to hand it to her that her hard work has finally paid off with this victory. Though her performance was undeniably “title-worthy”, I personally thought Yvethe and Kris Tiffany were the ones who were neck-and-neck for the plum titles, and that MJ would get Intercontinental. But judging from her Best in Swimsuit win, the judges loved her figure and fierce yet finessed stage presence. Most of the time, a Best in Swimsuit win would be an indicator of ultimate victory to garner the Universe title, and it again rang true this time for MJ.
For the question-and-answer round, the one who asked her question was the reigning Miss Universe, Gabriela Isler. Her question: “March is the women’s month. For you, what is the greatest advantage of being a woman?” MJ’s response: “The greatest advantage of being a woman is being able to compose herself. Just like here, we’re standing in front of thousands of people, not knowing if you’re going to cheer for us or boo us. But we try to compose ourselves. We keep the emotions and show the beauty that is in us and tonight, thousands of people are standing here, celebrating the beauty of women.” She discussed a quality that most people overlook–that women in general have composure and poise in most stressful situations, plus she gave some elements of Alicia Machado’s winning answer back at Miss Universe 1996. It’s a “title-worthy” answer, even though I thought Yvethe, Kris Tiffany, and Pia gave better answers. But I can’t begrudge her status as a favorite among the judges, so I do congratulate MJ for nailing the victory she (and her numerous fans) has long coveted.
Now there are challenges ahead in her mission to garner that long-coveted third Miss Universe crown for our country. First, she may not be able to fully avail of the training package, as one part of the training package involves a person from the former camp she was affiliated with, and her parting with her former camp was not all amicable. But then again, while she was in that former camp, she may have retained some valuable training that she could still apply that she may not really need that particular person to carry on. Plus considering her own business is fitness-related, she probably also has developed her own know-how to keep herself in tip-top competitive form.
Secondly, international pageant fans and pundits have placed other contenders in higher regard thus far–right now the perceived front-runners are Venezuela’s Migbelis Castellanos and South Africa’s Rolene Strauss, with Serbia’s Andjelika Tomasevic (last year’s Miss Earth Top Eight finalist) also placed in high regard. But in the likely scenario that Miss Universe will again be held in Las Vegas, we can count on the passionate Filipino fans (including the already hyped up MJ followers from the very beginning) to hype her up to high heavens and probably help her overtake the edges held by the perceived front-runners.
The final challenge is if she actually indeed finally get our coveted third Miss Universe crown–how would she be regarded in the pantheon of all Miss Universe winners? Though we Filipino fans would rank Margie Moran (1973) and Gloria Diaz (1969) high, actually other international fans and pundits don’t have that high a regard for Gloria’s beauty, and Margie for most is regarded as middling compared to, say, Angela Visser (1989), Jennifer Hawkins (2004), or Ximena Navarrete (2010), not to mention dethroned Miss Universe 2002 Oxana Fedorova.
In general I’m confident we will be able to sustain the glorious heights we have attained in the pageant arena last year. Despite my misgiving that they should’ve included one worthy semifinalist as one of the winners, this set of winners have what it takes to make our nation shine brightly in the international pageant arena. Congratulations, and all the best to our winners!
All images courtesy of Bruce Casanova for Bb. Pilipinas unless otherwise indicated.