EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2017: SONG PREVIEW — 1ST SEMIFINAL (PART 1)

Before, I post my song preview articles for the Eurovision Song Contest about a week before the week-long contest was underway.  But my enthusiasm at monitoring the announcement of the entries made me decide that this time I’ll do it differently moving forward:  I’ll be discussing the merits of the songs and its prospects at this juncture, then as rehearsals begins in earnest in May, I’ll then post impressions based on live rehearsals and buzz on their presentations of any significant changes in my regard for these entries.

After the superb hosting by Sweden for last year’s contest, most fans and observers feel Ukraine faces a very tall order coming up to that standard.  News about issues in the preparation of the event by the national broadcaster does not bode well, and the early announcement of entries that are regarded as uninspired or unremarkable also made people fretful of a disastrous contest ahead.   Controversy over Ukrainian policy after Russia’s entry was announced made things more tense–more on that when I discuss the second semifinal.  However, Russia aside, the announcement of more uptempo entries later on stoked the Eurovision fever again, and many fans at this point felt based on song quality this year’s batch may actually be stronger than last year overall (especially in country-by-country comparisons made by several Eurovision fans over YouTube) and perhaps that would make this contest worthwhile after all.

I have these observations about how the contest is looking so far:

*Just like last year, it potentially could have equaled the record number of entries set in 2008 and 2011.  Though Bosnia & Herzegovina withdrew due to both financial concerns and frustrations over its perfect finals record being broken (it ranked 11th in the first semifinal), we saw the welcome returns of Portugal and Romania.   However the possible withdrawal of Russia due to Ukrainian government policy may again prevent the record from being tied, just like the last-minute disqualification of Romania last year.

*On top of parallelisms with last year, it also has parallels with the year 2009, when the contest was held in Russia.  That year, one country deliberately got itself disqualified due to conflicts with the host country, and interestingly one of the signers from that act is present in this year’s contest.

*Ukraine is renowned for its formidable females who competed in this contest.  However it seems they wanted to steer away from celebrating the diva-hood as they chose to have an all-male hosting team, and they selected an all-male rock band to represent them this year.  Will the reassertion of testosterone pay off?  Remember that Andrey Danilko was the only male who fared well (2nd in fact) in 2007, but he did it under his drag persona, Verka Serduchka.

*Also steering away from tradition are the entries from former Yugoslavia.  Normally we would be hearing ethnic-styled entries from this region, but this time it seems they are offering music with ethnic elements either reduced (like in the case of Serbia) or totally absent (the other four entries).  I have a feeling these countries want to prove they can offer modern, contemporary offerings.  Also, none of the entries are sung in languages native to those countries (I technically would’ve said all would be performed in English, but Croatia‘s entry is bilingual and the second language is not Croatian but Italian).

*There is no “joke” or “troll” act this year, though there are some campy entries to behold, like the modern yodeling from Romania, the endearing wedding reception motif from Moldova, and the pure campy disco stylings from Montenegro.  Some might also consider the dancing gorilla from Italy, but that entry is way elevated above camp and verging into high art.

Before I proceed to discuss the 43 entries, I would like to discuss one entry from a previous champion who could have made major impact if it was chosen to qualify:

“Statements” – Loreen.  The Eurovision champion who actually made a major impact in the European charts back in 2012 decided to enter Melodifestivalen this year with this topical song–very relevant with the populist/far-right political wave that is going on right now in this world.  It’s a sentiment that is clearly important to Loreen, as she is the daughter of Moroccan immigrants.  It’s not meant to make waves in the international hit parade, but it is a terrifically relevant and beautiful work of art.  Despite Loreen’s star power, it only made as far as the Andra Chansen (second chance) round.  Swedes were perhaps weary that this is very much like Jamala‘s winning entry “1944” last year and decided to veer away from such topical content that they favored less “political” offerings.  Anyway, the sting of Loreen’s “loss” is lessened as Sweden selected a very worthy entry.

The first half of the semifinal feature two entries that are regarded as heavy-hitters and possible winners, a campy disco number, and a heavy slew of ballads.  Without further ado let us begin with…

SWEDEN:  “I Can’t Go On” – Robin Bengtsson.  In last year’s Melodifestivalen, I so adored Robin’s entry, “Constellation Prize”.  For me, this entry and several others were far superior than the eventual winner,  Frans’ “If I Were Sorry“.  Though for most fans, this entry pales behind “Consteallation Prize”, it is still a welcome treat that Robin earned his vindication and is now the representative for powerhouse Sweden in this contest.  What made this entry win was the superb presentation, with Robin delivering Justin Timberlake swagger and near-pitch-perfect vocals while dancing on a treadmill.  His swaggerific posse of backup dancers also help enhance the appeal of this funky number.  Now the dilemma is this–how will they adjust to the more stringent six-person rule imposed by the EBU?   You see, the Melodifestivalen presentation allows for a total of eight people performing either onstage or backstage–in this case, besides Robin, he is accompanied by four backup dancers and three backup singers, and the backup singers are unseen. Obviously the song needs backup vocalists, but it’s either he needs to let go of his entire swaggerific posse and audition for fellows with the ability to dance, swagger, and sing at the same time (not an easy feat and could be a very tall order), or scale down his presentation by featuring only two of his dancing posse (to maintain the three backup singers).  I’m quite interested to see in which direction this may go.  Whatever the case I’m rooting for this to give Belgium and Italy a run for their money.

GEORGIA:  “Keep the Faith” – Tamara Gachechiladze.  Interesting note:  this singer was part of the “troll” act Stephane and 3G, who were chosen by the Georgian broadcaster to represent the country with “We Don’t Wanna Put In” back in 2009, but was disqualified as its lyrics obviously were referencing the Russian leader Vladimir Putin.  Now, with a more earnest ballad (but with those distinctively curly locks), Tamara went solo and will foresee no problems representing her country with a socially-conscious song.  She is undoubtedly a terrific singer, but I have quibbles when the message is hammered out too explicitly like in this song.  But then again, it worked for blind singer Diana Gurtskaya back in 2008.  I suppose it will now depend if she’ll get enough jury points to then advance to the finals.

AUSTRALIA:  “Don’t Come Easy” – Isaiah.  Surname Firebrace, his surname reflects his half-Aborigine heritage.  He was the winner of the last edition of his country’s X-Factor.  He has a terrific singing voice, reminiscent of Sam Smith.  The ballad is also well-produced and classy.  However, the ballad is also below the very high standard set by Guy Sebastian’s “Tonight Again and Dami Im’s “Sound of Silence” (which almost won it all last year) so I feel though this will easily advance to the finals, equaling the Top Five showing of his predecessors is an uphill battle.  His facial features also gave me uncomfortable memories of polarizing American Idol Season 6 finalist Sanjaya Malakar who couldn’t seem to deliver the promise of his strong audition–but then again based on all accounts of his X-Factor stint Isaiah’s a more consistently strong vocalist (which is why he won) so that is his saving grace.

Sanjaya Malakar circa 2007 (image sourced from Crushable.com)

ALBANIA:  “World”- Lindita.  Surname of the singer is Halimi.  Originally performed in its national final in Albanian as “Botë” (which also means the same thing as its English title), just like in previous years they have decided to convert the original lyrics into English.  Unlike last year when it was felt that the song’s impact got diminished in the process, the English conversion seems to be deemed not as damaging as in previous forays.  It is noted that it is also not necessarily faithful to the original Albanian lyrics, as the original Albanian lyrics seem to be more of a personal scale while the new English lyrics seem to talk about the world at large.  Anyway, no-one can deny the power of Lindita’s pipes, but will it be enough for Albania to advance?

BELGIUM:  “City Lights” – Blanche.  Blanche (born Elle Delveaux) possesses a distinctive smoky alto that has a quirkiness that evokes another young superstar singer, Lorde.  Her song could almost be classified as a ballad (and I speculate it was originally written as a stark, bleak one) but it was jazzed up with interesting electronica flourishes.  The way all of these created such a rich, moody, and modern piece made several fans (including myself) rave and consider it as one of the big favorites to win.  I feel that the coveted Marcel Bezençon composer’s award is a tossup between this song and Italy’s entry.  And lately this country is stepping up in its stage presentations, which helped propel Loïc Nottet to 4th place in 2015 and Laura Tesoro to 10th in 2016, so expect something memorable for Blanche, too.  I have a feeling this will become a jury darling, like Finland and Portugal.

MONTENEGRO:  “Space” – Slavko Kalezić.  This disco entry polarized Eurovision fans–there are many who expressed their active dislike of this number, but there are others who enjoy the campiness of it all–I’m in the latter camp.  It’s a fun, entertaining number, and we need something like this since Bosnian singer Deen‘s equally campy “In the Disco” 13 years ago.  The fan reactions toward this entry reminds me of the polarizing reception Todrick Hall had when he was a semifinalist in the 9th season of American Idol  Then, Todrick’s inventive arrangements turned many viewers off though many respect his skills and talents.  The tides have turned when he became a YouTube star and he started to be more prudent with his musical arrangements and he’s now regarded as more beloved than polarizing.  I see a similar scenario happening to this guy, if not in this contest, but somewhere along the line as he continues to forge forward with his career.

FINLAND:  “Blackbird” – Norma John.  Norma John is not a single singer but a male-female duo.  I’m not that into the ballads this year, but this is one of the few exceptions–yes, it’s a sad, bleak, depressing ballad, but its classical styling has integrity and beauty.  The song does stick to me, and I have a feeling juries would feel the same way too.

AZERBAIJAN:  “Skeletons” – Dihaj.  When I first listened to the song, I first thought the chorus went “I’m a skeletons” so I’m quite irritated that it seems to be glaringly grammatically wrong.  But reading the lyrics online, I learned it’s actually “Have my skeletons” so after getting over the original misheard lyrics, I’m starting to like this song.  Dihaj’s voice reminds me of Cranberries‘ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan and it looks like unlike last year’s entry, she will sing consistently well.  And since this country is a powerhouse in this contest, expect a strong showing for this song.

PORTUGAL:  “Amor pelos dois [Love for both]” – Salvador Sobral.  This orchestral ballad seems more suited to Eurovision 1957 instead of 2017.  And his scruffy, unkempt look in the national final turned me off a bit as he looks like a homeless hobo.  But his voice conveys such deeply felt heartache that there are several fans rallying to this entry’s corner, even hyping it as a possible front-runner and possibly delivering this country’s best ever finish in this contest.  I’m not necessarily buying into the hype at this point, but I’m slowly starting to appreciate this number more and more and connecting with the song.  It looks like it’s going to be a big jury darling like Finland, though we wonder if there will be enough points from the televoted for this to advance.  I also have to note automatic finals qualifiers Spain and Italy are present to vote in this group, so its cause may be bolstered by their votes.

COMING UP:  2ND HALF of 1ST SEMIFINAL

 

 

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