Monthly Archives: May 2014

CONCHITA WURST: FROM STARMANIA TO EUROVISION GLORY

With her Eurovision win Conchita Wurst has been the toast of Europe over the past week.  As I delve into her origins and her journey to glory, I discovered some interesting stories that I just can’t resist expressing my opinion on–it’s interesting how Conchita’s talent and persona evolved over the years.

Conchita first came to the spotlight under her real identity, Tom Neuwirth.  Tom was already an “out” gay teenager back in 2006, but at this point he definitely needed work on charisma as he came off like the way Clay Aiken was when he started out in American Idol Season 2.  The only difference was that Clay was still in the closet (remember in those days gay American Idol contestants don’t disclose their sexuality).  Below was his audition for Starmania (the Austrian equivalent to Idol but Austria did not get a franchise so we could not say it’s officially a counterpart), where he sang “Amazing Grace”, Pink’s “Get the Party Started”, and a German song.

Needless to say, he became a finalist in Starmania. He made a major enough impact to make it all the way to the finale where he was defeated by Nadine Beiler (who four years later represented Austria in Eurovision with the well-regarded “The Secret is Love”).  Two of his performances in this series seem to act as a precursor to his Eurovision destiny.  Below are his performances of Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and a remake of Anna Vissi’s 9th place Eurovision 2006 entry, “Everything”.  “Goldfinger” seemed like a stage to Tom’s eventual metamorphosis, where Tom was like Clay Aiken starting to channel his inner Adam Lambert–though at around this time, Adam Lambert was still working the musical theater/cabaret circuit.

As a bonus, here is the girl who defeated Tom, Nadine Beiler, performing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in the Starmania finale, then at Eurovision 2011 with her song “The Secret is Love”.

After Starmania the producers of that show felt it might be best to further Tom’s career by putting him in a boyband so he became part of the group Jetzt Anders! (German for “Now, Different!”), but after releasing an album and two singles that performed respectably in Austria, the group disbanded.  I know the late Stephen Gately from Boyzone made a precedent by being an out gay guy within a group of hunky blokes (he came out in 1999), but though Tom’s vocal talents are one of the assets of this group, unfortunately it’s obvious a boyband is not a good fit for Tom.  Still it was obvious he gave his best effort with this.  See their official music video for the song “Immer und Ewig” (“Always and Forever”).

Tom lay low from the public eye for four years after Jetzt Anders! disbanded, and when he re-emerged in 2011, it’s now under the “bearded lady” persona and he assumed a new identity–Conchita Wurst.  “Conchita” was derived from the name of a Cuban friend, while “Wurst” is a play on a German word for sausage and the German phrase “Das ist mir doch alles Wurst” (“It’s all the same to me”, or “I don’t care”).  As Conchita, she joined the talent competition Die große Chance (think something in the lines of America’s Got Talent but this actually was around in Austria way before that franchise between 1980-1990; it was revived in 2011 in a competitive format).  This time, Conchita won.  Check out one of her performances in this contest, a rendition of the daunting Celine Dion hit, “My Heart Will Go On” during the show’s audition, then at the finale where she sang her first single, “Unbreakable”.

That victory fueled her to aim bigger, so in 2012 she competed in the Austrian national selection for Eurovision.  Her number was entitled “That’s What I Am”, and it’s actually a decent song–actually, it sounds like a good empowerment anthem.  But guess who beat her in the Austrian selection that year?  The Trackshittaz silly “Woki Mit Deim Popo”, which then fared in last place in the Eurovision semifinals and failed to quality into the finals.  Wonder how Conchita would’ve fared then if she was chosen instead?  Would she have advanced to the finals?  One thing is for certain–she wouldn’t have won because Loreen’s “Euphoria” was simply unstoppable that year.

Conchita was able to parlay her Die große Chance victory into celebrity-hood in Austria, as besides her attempt at Eurovision in 2012, she also appeared in a couple of reality shows, where she worked in a fish cannery and lived with a Namibian tribe.  An opportunity came when the Austrian broadcaster ORF decided not to hold a new search for their 2014 Eurovision entry and handpicked her instead.  It was controversial then because of the fact she’s a bearded drag queen, but it turns out the rest is history.  And it all boils down to one constant if you look through her journey thus far–Conchita Wurst is a terrifically talented singer.

It’s not always a guarantee that a Eurovision win will bring forth worldwide fame like it did ABBA or Celine Dion, but if an opportunity comes for Conchita to visit the US, one thing I would be looking forward to is her visiting Los Angeles and guesting in E! News.  I observed that Conchita looks like E! News host Giuliana Rancic if a beard is painted on her.  I bet that would be a fun opportunity that should be exploited, if you ask me.

Giuliana Rancic (image courtesy of contactmusic.com)

It dawned on me after exploring Conchita Wurst’s journey to fame that she actually paid her dues, and her ticket to stardom is something simple and old-fashioned–true, bonafide talent.  I also admire her gracious, down-to-earth demeanor and character so far and hope she remains grounded even if she exploits the opportunities that opened up for her.  More power and love for Conchita!

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

(Image courtesy of ORF and Eurovision.tv)

EUROVISION 2014 FINALS: SO YOU THINK THEY’RE JOKES? THINK AGAIN! (CONCLUSION)

I admittedly only got five out of my predicted Top 10 right, though three in my “Bubbling Under” list made the cut, so in my reckoning, I did pretty okay with a total of eight out of 10.  It’s still a bit shocking about certain songs that I thought would do well but did not generate enough points.

I think the most surprising disappointment was the United Kingdom, as prior to the contest many fans and pundits expected this would figure in the top tier, but somehow ended up a mediocre 17th place–considering that with the exception of one, it fared better than the other “Big Five” entries it could be considered respectable, but still it fell far short to what was expected.  I do note that Molly and her back-up singers were not as commanding onstage as the song required, but she still delivered a solid enough performance that deserved to earn more points than it actually got.

It was also notable that streaks were broken for some recent Top 10 “permanent residents”–by faring in 21st place, Italy missed the Top 10 for the first time since returning to this contest in 2011, and at 23rd place, Azerbaijan ended its Top 10 streak that it enjoyed since joining the contest in 2008.  Severe pitch problems marred the former performance, while the latter was rather imperfect (though the trapeze prop made me think about San Marino’s entry last year as they could’ve entered the finals last year if they brought in that aerialist in the music video) and the song not as striking as past entries.

To no one’s surprise, France took up the rear in last place–its worst showing in this contest ever.  Both juries and televoters placed it dead last.  The only thing appealing about the act Twin Twin was when they bared their bodies on French TV a few days later.

Upon further review of their performance, I started to appreciate Iceland and realize they are not a trashy novelty act as they seemed.  First, though they delivered their message of “No Prejudice” with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, their sentiments actually served as a precursor to the rest of the evening, especially with who eventually turned out to be the winner, and it’s interesting that amidst the lively flash, they were earnest in their message. Second, there is strong musicianship and showmanship underneath the flashy outfits and the segues from punk-ish rock to a Franz Ferdinand groove were actually cool.  I’m no longer mad at their 15th place overall finish.

Like Romania’s Cezar last year, there has to be an entry that polarized the jury and televoters.  This year, that polarizing entry is Poland.  The common TV audience loved the in-your-face heaving display of hefty cleavage that they voted it to 5th place, while the juries disliked it to relegate it to 23rd place.  I do have to note that Cleo displayed strong talent and showmanship that belies the quality of the song.  Overall, its 14th place finish is a very respectable return for this country.

Another entry I thought deserved to fare better was Romania.  It’s 12th place overall finish was respectable and improved over the 13th place finish of its craptastic predecessor, but I suppose their thunder was stolen by another duo.  Admittedly, their hugging pose after Paula Seling delivered her climactic high notes was a tad contrived and with most people believing their previous foray with “Playing with Fire” deemed superior, it was expected they would not equal their previous showing.

Finland performed better than expected, actually garnering the same number of points as Romania but with more number of countries giving it points, it would be ahead of Romania based on current tie-break rules.  Europe do have a taste for rock-oriented music, which are typically in short supply in this contest so this might be considered refreshing for this audience.

Of the “Big Five”, only Spain survived the “Big Five” rubout, as it landed in 10th place with a well-sung power ballad, just like “Quedate Conmigo” two years ago.   Ruth delivered a great job and deserved to be in this hallowed level.

Denmark was actually tied with Spain with 74 points, but because Denmark got points from 18 countries compared to Spain’s 17, Denmark was officially ranked 9th.

I was slightly surprised that Norway made the Top 10, but Carl Epsen hits his notes better than Dilara, and he’s augmented by an all-female four-piece string section which made a striking visual.

The ex-Soviet bloc was still very much on, which is why Russia still managed to place 7th.  I bet if it weren’t for the recent political events, it would’ve gone even higher (though I have misgivings about the song’s quality).  But then again, I suppose the policy of “no prejudice” also worked to its benefit that was why it managed to do well.

In general all members of the Top Five were worthy of placing as high as they did.  Though I hoped Hungary would place higher than 5th, but this placement is the best this country had since 20 years ago when it placed 4th.  Despite Andras Kallay-Saunders fixing his minor pitch issues from his first semi-final (plus wore a jacket this time), I suppose Hungary was just simply overshadowed by the love Europe showered over a certain duo, who also beat this for the prestigious Marcel Bezençon composer’s award.

I’m surprised at the love lavished on the Netherlands, bringing forth its best finish since last winning in 1975 (with the amusingly titled “Ding-A-Dong”).  Yes, the song and performance are undeniably strong, though The Common Linnets were more impressive during the 1st semi-final than in the final.  I wouldn’t mind them, but for me they stole the thunder that could’ve been lavished for three entries that were my major favorites–UK, Romania, and to a lesser extent, Hungary.  But their sincerity and solid musicianship could not be denied, even if in my opinion they are overrated (but I know many would disagree with me here).

With all those political tensions involving Russia, and the message of “no prejudice” as explicitly sung by Iceland, it is probably so apt that the winner of this year’s contest is also a very potent symbol.  Many pundits earlier thought that the selection of Conchita Wurst to represent Austria in this contest was a novelty or a joke.  But as the days wore on, and as Conchita performed her entry, “Rise Like a Phoenix” in various events, one could not deny that Conchita’s presence and actual talent are qualities that one must reckon with seriously.  Though the song is not really my favorite in itself, the way Conchita delivered her song with passion and virtuosity was something that audiences all over Europe–even in the less-gay-friendly corners of Eastern Europe–admire, marvel, and appreciate.  With her stirring delivery, it even becomes an anthem with a deeper message than what the song is on the surface.  I’m glad she wore down resistance even in supposedly homophobic Russia, where she actually garnered 5 points.  I thought her going into the Top Five would be a major achievement, but little did I know that she would end up bringing forth Austria’s victory after previously winning 48 years ago.

I love her gracious victory message after she was announced the winner: “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are – we are unity and we are unstoppable.”  It made us believe and hope that peace and tolerance will eventually prevail despite all the prejudice and bigotry that all of us still encounter in society.  I’ll be discussing a bit more about Conchita Wurst in my next blog, but for now, all I have to say is: All hail the new Queen of Europe!

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

EUROVISION 2014 FINALS: SO YOU THINK THEY’RE JOKES? THINK AGAIN! (PART 1)

As expected, Denmark delivered a terrific and entertaining Eurovision Song Contest.  They employed three hosts this year, and in general they did a great job, though it paled with the peerlessly hilarious solo hosting delivered by Petra Mede last year.  Musician/journalist/broadcaster Nikolaj Koppel made an effective straight man to Pilou Asbæk’s wackiness (with his non-sequitur obsession with all things Chinese), while Lise Rønne had a wacky moment backstage offering food to some of the Eurovision finalists.

Unlike the formal opening ceremony (with a choral intro) last year, the opening sequence this year was decidedly less formal–after an action-packed sequence featuring stealth agents in black riding various forms of transportation as they approached the venue, the agents then unfurled flags and ran around the stage (with some leaping above them) and then culminated with the 26 finalists walking one-by-one onstage in order of appearance as a voice-over announced the country in English, French and in that country’s native language.

As is customary before each number, there would be a video postcard.  Since last year, the artists are involved in the video postcard–this year, they are tasked to form their country’s flag in creative ways.  There are various resourceful methods that were done, but below are my favorites:

Ukraine – Mariya Yaremchuk strategically placed yellow post-it notes on a train platform and wait for the blue-colored train to stop then shoot a photo depicting her country’s flag.

Belarus – TEO formed his flag in a hockey rink, with hockey pucks forming the flag’s design and colors.  Considering that the Belarussian flag had some intricate patterns on it, this is no mean feat.

Armenia – Aram MP3 crafted a brooch that he wore during his performance.

Poland – Donatan used a graphic of soundwaves generated by Cleo’s voice in their studio to craft their flag.  (Well, this is perhaps to make up for the fact that Donatan is absent on stage).

Austria – As befitting Conchita Wurst, she and a friend set up racks of red and white ballgowns to form her country’s flag.

Germany – Elaiza and her bandmates made candy with the colors of her flag.

Sweden – Sanna Nielsen used yellow inflated rafts across a blue Olympic-sized pool to form her flag.

Italy – Emma Marrone used the raw material toppings of a Pizza Margherita (basil, mozzarella cheese, and tomatoes) to form the Italian tricolor.

Slovenia – Tinkara Kovac used library books to form her flag.

Switzerland – Sebalter painstakingly placed red and white dominos, then toppled them to create the flag.

Hungary – Andras Kallay-Saunders formed his flag out of Rubik’s cubes, in tribute to the fact that the invetor of the cube came from this country.

Netherlands – In an homage to the fact that the country is famous for its trade in flowers, the Dutch tricolor is formed by The Common Linnets from colored flowers.

United Kingdom – Molly rounded up those famous double-decker buses and people clad in rain coats to form the Union Jack when viewed overhead.

After the performances (which I will discuss in the next installment of my essay as I discuss the results) came the interval acts.  After a recap of the 26 entries, they started with a folkish rendition of Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy” (officially known as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) sung by people climbing atop white ladders.

After that number, the hosts then served up a pre-taped comedy routine where they sing the virtues of the Number 12–though leave it to Pilou to hijack the song mid-way to again talk about China and revealing that he’s a bit ignorant as at the number’s end, he was carrying a photo of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who Nikolaj pointed out is actually South Korean.   It’s amusing enough, though of course it could not compare to Petra Mede’s performance last year.

Pilou then did another pre-taped comedy bit where he brought the audience to tour the “Museum of Eurovision History”.  The fun part about this sequence were guest appearances from past Eurovision winners–there’s “Mr. Eurovision” Johnny Logan sidelining as a living statue, then 2006 champions from Finland, Lordi, frightening little kids with “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, then the obviously aged Swedish act Herreys walking and singing their “Diggiloo, Diggiley” ditty, and finally Eurovision 1996 8th placer Gina G (not sure if it was really her or a stand-in) with a silly gag where she accidentally swallowed a microphone and had to be brought to an ambulance when performing “Ooh, Ahh, Just A Little bit”.

As is customary, while the results are being tallied they featured a song number from last year’s champion.  Emmelie de Forest, who performed an abridged version of “Only Teardrops” before seguing to her current single, “Rainmaker”.  For both numbers, she’s surrounded by tribal-styled dancers, and the number culminated with the 26 Eurovision finalists joining her onstage to sing the catchy chant for her latest single.

COMING UP:  Assessment of the results.