EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2016: SONG PREVIEW — 1ST SEMIFINAL (PART 1)

The first semifinal may have three of the dreckiest entries in this year’s contest, but it also has 14 very strong, highly regarded entries battling for the ten finalist spots.  There’ll be wailing and gnashing of teeth for the four unfortunate ones who would miss the cut, as if they theoretically switch places with the second group, they might advance.  There is also this possibility that one or two regular final shoo-ins may have their finals streak broken and one country that has thus far failed to advance would finally earn its breakthrough.  Let’s take a look at them starting with…

FINLAND:  “Sing It Away” – Sandhja.  This lady’s haircut reminds me of Robyn, but musically she is very different from Robyn’s style as she peddles in dated 1990s dance pop with this entry*1.  I know of a significant group of people who adore this throwback to Stardust’s 1998 pan-European smash “Music Sounds Better with You”, but I fear buzz is fading for this entry and indications point that it’s the first of the 14 quality entries to fall by the wayside and miss the cut.

*1 Sure Robyn began her career in the 1990s, but hits like “Do You Know What It Takes” and most especially “Show Me Love” have a timeless quality to them and will never sound dated.

GREECE:  “Utopian Land” – Argo.  This group is normally known as Europond, but due to EBU’s regulations, they had to change their name.  Also, to make way for a dancer, this seven-member group would have to have two of its members sit out of the performance.  This perennial finalist had previously gotten away with advancing to the finals with drecky entries as they either had lager-lout appeal (2010’s “Opa” and 2013’s “Alcohol Is Free“) butressed by flashy presentation, or the main singer is a good-looking hunk (2011’s Loukas Giorkas’s “Watch My Dance”) or the singer sings like Celine Dion (2015’s “One Last Breath“).  This song is weak and drecky with none of the aforementioned “redeeming” factors, even if they are jazzing up the presentation with a visually appealing Pontic ethno-pop presentation–the English lyrics on the chorus are awkward and banal (“With the rise of the rising sun,” oh please!) and the melody of the chorus sounds like a trainwreck mash-up of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” (made more popular as it was interpolated into Coolio’s 1995 mega-smash “Gangsta’s Paradise“) and the ending portion of the chorus of Georgia’s 2008 entry, Diana Gurtskaya’s “Peace Will Come”.  Sure the video featured a running swarthy hunk, and the message seems relevant in light of the current refugee crisis, but the video also forgot to show the singers of the song, so the viewer doesn’t feel a connection with the group–they recently released a new edit with the bandmembers’ faces, but I think it’s too late.  If justice is to prevail, Greece will suffer its first finals shut-out since the semifinal system was implemented.  Otherwise, many fans upset with the shut-out of perceived worthier entries in this group would hurl invectives towards this entry.

MOLDOVA:  “Falling Stars” – Lidia Isac.  It’s a pleasant dance-pop entry, but it pales compared to the 14 heavier hitters in this semifinal as it comes off as rather generic.  Having an astronaut gimmick to spice things up would not help matters.

HUNGARY:  “Pioneer” – Freddie.  Imagine someone blessed with the looks that is a cross between ex-One Direction member Zayn Malik*2 and actor Colin Farrell, then possessing a singing voice that is a cross between the late Joe Cocker and American Idol Season 7 champion David Cook, and you get this guy.  Then give him a song that channels Imagine Dragons’ 2012 megahit “Radioactive”, and you get this contender.  In my opinion it is Hungary’s best entry since Andras Kallay-Saunders’s “Running“*3 two years ago, but prospects fo this entry equaling or exceeding that successful 5th place finish seems to be dimming a bit.  A casual listener might quibble based on the “A million hearts for a million people” line in the chorus that it seems a groan-worthy world-peace-type follow-up to last year’s entry from Boggie, “Wars for Nothing”, but if you read the lyrics, the song is actually addressed to an individual and it is more of an empowerment anthem as it is a pep talk to someone to be true to him- or herself, and “become a pioneer”.  It’s a message that  should resonate with everyone (and the LGBT community is free to appropriate it as well).  My quibble is that besides the aforementioned “A million hearts for a million people” and “A million lies in a million temples”, the catchy chorus sounds rather muddled and incomprehensible–Freddie’s enunciation is not that clear, which diminishes the impact of the beautiful message it is actually conveying.  Otherwise, from the thumping beats to the relatable melody to Freddie’s distinctive vocal and off-the-charts sex appeal, it’s a front-running contender in my book, and I would be especially upset if this would become a shock boot.

*2 I know most One Direction fangirls would gravitate towards Harry Styles as he was the one getting the most press, but I never found him appealing at all and am baffled by all the hype about him.  For me the best looking member of that boyband was Zayn.

*3 Interestingly, Andras Kallay-Saunders competed in the Hungarian national final A Dal this year under a band entity, the Kallay-Saunders Band, with a new Lenny Kravitz-inspired sound.  Unfortunately, they ranked 3rd behind Freddie and their song was not that compelling–and it was marred with glitches that they had to redo their performance during the finals.

zayn-colin
L: Zayn Malik (image courtesy of People.com); R: Colin Farrell (image courtesy of HelloMagazine.com)

CROATIA:  “Lighthouse” – Nina Kraljić.  She channels Robyn with her bleached blonde hairdo too, and her vocal range seems similar to Robyn, though Nina has this beautiful lilt in her voice that makes this equally lilting song such a lovely listen.  But the avant-garde fashions for the stage presentation in the contest?  Unfortunately it seems to be a misfire and she could be a primary candidate for the dreaded Barbara Dex award–it might be a showdown between her and Germany’s Jamie-Lee Kriewitz for that dubious honor, and let’s see if the dress would affect this entry’s prospects.

NETHERLANDS:  “Slow Down” – Douwe Bob.  This is channeling the most successful entry fielded by this country in over a decade, the Common Linnets’ “Calm After the Storm”.  It’s a well-crafted and well-performed entry with a highly appealing singer*4 and is well regarded among the fans and pundits, but it’s a brutal battle to garner a slot.  If it does, wonder it will be under whose expense?  Anyway, I find this a nice song, but the reason I’m not totally behind this number is that the chorus reminds me so much of Jimmy Fallon’s “Tight Pants” skits at the Tonight Show–check one of those below with Jennifer Lopez.

*4 He exudes a James-Dean-meets-country-folk appeal.  He may seem clean-cut in a fully-covered suit, but he has some rather rad tattoos all over his body–watch if you see his shirt slightly open to see what I mean.

ARMENIA:  “Love Wave” – Iveta Mukuchyan.  To my eyes, it’s a tossup between this lady and Malta’s Ira Losco in Wiwibloggs’ competition for Eurovision’s Next Top Model.  Based on the music video, I was expecting a stage presentation similar to Latvia’s Aminata’s “Love Injected” last year, perhaps with swirling technicolor.  Instead, we got her in a leotard serving Beyonce-style fierceness with multiple holographic images of her and fireworks in the end.  It’s garnered raves and major buzz in rehearsals that she seems to be a contender to make the Top Ten in the finals.  Another thing that I dig is when I listen to the gritty register she uses in the chorus, it reminds me of the gritty voice Michael Jackson uses in many of his songs from Bad onwards (I tried to look for a compilation, but I have to settle with his 1988 smash “The Way You Make Me Feel” instead)

SAN MARINO:  “I Didn’t Know” – Serhat.  Imagine one-hit-wonder “Mambo No. 5” singer Lou Bega 30 years older with his voice ravaged but with an inflated ego and you get this guy.  His monotone baritone is obviously an acquired taste and most Eurovision fans pooh-poohed him when he compared himself to Leonard Cohen.  But then again he actually does have a musical career that has been ongoing for 20 years, so you can’t accuse him of being delusional about his claims and checking his previous output he is indeed following in the traditions of Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg, and latter-day Marianne Faithfull.  The song was originally released in a ballad format that was negatively received by Eurovision fans.  However when he later released a disco remix, the fans buzzed that it improved on the song and and Serhat listened to the buzz and obtained EBU approval to change his performance to use the disco remix instead.  Buzz on his jazzed up presentation from rehearsals was pretty positive, so he may just avoid the cellar.  It may get some points from France, at least.

I have to make a note for the fact he’s actually from Turkey–as long as Valentina Monetta and songwriter/producer Ralph Siegel are on hiatus, perhaps it could be an opportunity for other Turkish artists to enter Eurovision by this route as long as the Turkish broadcaster maintains its protest stance against participating in this contest.  Can you imagine those splashy ethno-pop entries coming from San Marino?

RUSSIA:  “You Are the Only One” – Sergey Lazarev.  Ever since I have been following this contest in 2005, I have never liked a song from Russia until now.  Okay, songs from Dima Bilan, Dina Garipova, and Polina Gagarina I respect and I would predict they would make Top Five but I would never regard them as my favorites.  But Sergey’s entry is different–sure it has a schlager feel with the traditional Eurovision martial beats, but it also has a sleek, modern pop sheen, terrific singing and catchy hooks.  Heck, even his Russian accent on lines like “thunder and lightning is very exciting” won me over and are embedded like earworms in my head.  As the days go by I can’t help sing along to the refrain of this song and enjoying it.  His hunky appeal is a delicious cherry on this very delectable sundae.  Then, there is the fact that the presentation from rehearsals look impressive, and vocally he’s always on-point.  And i’m glad he’s very gay-friendly, unlike the stance being held by his country’s president.  Its status as the favorite to win it all and be Russia’s second Eurovision win is well deserved.

Piquant note:  listening to the soaring high notes he hits at the song’s climax makes me recall another passionate singer:  Salsa King Marc Anthony.  I can easily imagine Sergey covering Marc Anthony’s 1999 English-language crossover hit “I Need to Know”, and he can easily slay it, Russian accent and all.  Just picture Sergey’s voice when you play the video below…

COMING UP:  THE SECOND HALF OF THE FIRST SEMIFINAL

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