EUROVISION 2019 PROLOGUE: NATIONAL FINALS FAVORITES (PART 1)

‘Tis the season for the Eurovision Song Contest again and at this point, all official entries are known and finetuning their performances for the epic showdown in May.  But before all that goes down, each country had a process of selecting their entries.  Some countries choose to handpick their entries via internal selection.  Some, like Malta and Israel, chose a reality competition to select a singer then craft a song for him/her later.  But many decided to hold an actual contest and have contenders perform their entries in public, which is termed the “National Selection”.  As such, we are treated with a host of entries that makes you think–what if they were chosen instead of the winner, instead?  So in this epic six-part series, let’s explore these potential entries that fell short of being the “chosen ones” for their respective countries.  Let’s begin with…

ALBANIA

This country hosts the Festivali i Këngës (literally, “Festival of Song”) since 1962, 42 years prior to its first Eurovision appearance.  This is the only national selection held in the year prior to the actual Eurovision contest, as it’s staged in December last year.  This edition was held ifor three consecutive nights with two nights being the semifinal stage–each entry was performed in a version with the broacaster RTSH’s symphonic orchestra, and the second night the “final” version (or a special version with a special guest artist for some of these entries).  Then, the 22 would be whittled down to a Top 14 and the winner was soolely determined by a nine-person jury.  There are a couple of entries that got a lot of positive notice from internet fans, but fell short.

“Nënë [Mother]” – Mirud.  The song was actually written by Elhaida Dani, who represented the country in Eurovision 2015 with “I’m Alive“, my all-time favorite Albanian Eurovision entry thus far.  It’s a beautifully epic piano ballad with a soaring vocal run.  I think what caused this to miss the cut is that Mirud didn’t quite hit his notes like the way he did in the recorded version, which is such a shame as this could’ve been a bigger contender than where it ended up.

“Të dua ty [I love you]” – Aurel Thellimi.  Here is another male ballad that some fans love but also missed the Final 14.  The issue perhaps why this also missed the cut was a lack of vocal control as the softer passages were a tad to fragile when it needed a bit more power, and that affected even if he hits the power notes fine.  Still, it’s a worthwhile lovely ballad.

It’s so interesting that some of the big internet fan favorites ended up taking the rear in the finals, like…

“Dua ta Besoj [I want to believe]” – Artemisa Mithi & Febi Shkurti.  It is a challenge to field a hip-hop pop song in a traditional orchestral format like this song festival, but we have to hand it to them for giving it a go and doing the best they could.  But the jury, not only is it more traditional-leaning, the singing was not pitch-perfect and that probably affected its standing.

“Hije [Shadow]” – Orgesa Zalmi.  This avant-pop artist garnered a following based from the splashy impression she made with last year’s entry, Ngrije zërin [Raise your voice]”.  But while that song has that retro-meets-21st century vibe, this year’s entry shows her exploring a more abrasive, funkier, harder side.  It’s still terrific and deserve to rank higher than 13th place.

Now, time to discuss the Top Five of this contest, starting with…

“Më e fortë [Stronger]” – Soni Malaj. Many pop-leaning fans pegged this as their favorite to represent Albania in Eurovision.  This lady is like the Albanian Nicole Scherzinger as she evokes that ex-Pussycat Doll diva’s sultry and fierce presence in this performance.  For me this should’ve been the runner-up instead of its fifth place showing.

“Karma” – Dilan Reka. He is the highest-ranked male entry in this contest.  It’s a highly listenable entry with some funk and fine vocal highlights (albeit imperfect), but well, I think Albanian Nicole Scherzinger deserved to outrank him.

“100 pyetje [100 questions]” – Eranda Libohova. It’s a breezy jazz entry that’s worth a listen, indeed.  I can understand why this was a jury darling and hence the third placer in this contest.  I have no objections to this placement, unlike…

“Rrëfehem [Confess]” – Lidia Lufi. Okay, apparently four jury members like some dark drama hence they placed this first on their lists, but for me, it doesn’t really catch my fancy unlike the other entries I’ve previously mentioned.  I’d rather this swap places with Albanian Nicole Scherzinger.

SPAIN

This Big Five country, for the second year in a row, decided to select their entry within a reality talent competition, Operacion Triunfo and after the main contest was concluded, had nine of the finalists perform the candidate entries to represent this country.

“No Puedo Mas [I can’t take it anymore]” – Famous.  This guy was the actual champion of Operacion Triunfo. He’s undoubtedly in the R&B lane and he infused that element on this pop-rock ditty.  It’s a solid song, but yes, except for the language it lacked that “Spanish” character unlike many of the other entries that ranked higher.

“Todo bien [All good]” – Marilia. Now, no-one can deny that this has that “Spanish” character, and this OT ninth placer brought a girlish sexiness to this engaging entry.

“La Clave [The key]” – Natalia.  Here’s another tropical Spanish treat, this time performed by the OT third placer.  Natalia delivered fierceness in this number, but it’s easy to confuse this with Marilia’s entry, and even if on its own it is worthwhile, it’s not strong enough to become the Spanish Eurovision entry.

“Hoy vuelvo a reír otra vez [Today I’m laughing again]” – Noelia.  Noelia only finished 11th in OT, but got a great reception from the voting public (placing 2nd) with the one-minute snippet of her power ballad that she got to perform in Gala Eurovision.  It’s a worthy entry but I don’t think this will soar the same heights achieved by Pastora Soler‘s “Quedate conmigo [Stay with me]” or Ruth Lorenzo‘s “Dancing in the Rain“.

“Nadie se salva [No one is safe]” – Natalia & Miki.  This is a high-energy tropical duet featuring OT’s third and sixth placers, the latter eventually the one who would perform the winning entry.  After the results were declared I’m starting to dig this more than the one chosen as the official entry, even if I’m also liking the official entry, too.  It’s oodles of fun.

“Muérdeme [Bite me]” – María. Prior to Gala Eurovision, many were saying this entry is the favorite to become Spain’s official entry.  Performed by OT’s eighth placer, it has a nice tropical vibe with oodles of sass.  But it seems it was overshadowed by the relentless jumping energy of the winning entry that this missed becoming the official entry.  Perhaps it’s for good as this year’s Eurovisioon featured three other countries with a similar tropical rhythmic vibe like this song.

CZECH REPUBLIC

Like last year, this country decided to hold an internet-driven national selection–half of the points will come from an international jury composed of former Eurovision artists plus international public internet votes that serve as an “International” juror, and SMS/internet votes from the Czech public forming the other half.  Interestingly there was a four-way tie for 2nd place, partly skewed by the ties for 1st place and 4th place with the jury.  Anyway, all of them are worth checking out…

“Easy to Believe” – Pam Rabbit.  She’s third in the televote and second (technically also third) with the jury.  It’s a nice piece of electro-pop that is a fun listen.

“True Colors” – Barbora Mochowa. She reminds me of a red-haired version of Sara Bareilles, and there are a host of fans who would’ve preferred this to be the Czech entry instead of the chosen one.  It’s a lovely dignified ballad, so I understand the fan sentiment.  But then again, there is the concern that if this was the entry, it would be considered a snoozer.  It would’ve been interesting to speculate how this would’ve fared against the entries of the first semifinal, as that batch is loaded with big risk-takers like this one.  This one tied for first place in the jury vote and placed 4th with the Czech public.

“Space Sushi” – Jakub Ondra. Melodically, it’s actually an engaging syncopated electro-pop song, but yeah, the title and lyrics are weird.  The Czech public dig this as it reminds them of the word salad that was Mikolas Josef’s “Lie to Me” but the international jury placed this in a tie for fourth place (actually fifth).  Another risky choice if this was chosen instead oof the actual entry.

FRANCE

For the second year in a row this country staged a national selection Destination Eurovision and again we are treated with a treasure trove of terrific songs that excited several fans including myself.  Let’s pay tribute to them starting with…

“In the Shadow” – Florina. In the biggest headscratcher of this selection, this ranked dead last with the international jury in the first semifinal of this selection, garnering a dismal zero points and only partially redeemed by a fourth-place tie with the general public.  It ended up eighth out of nine entries in this heat  Sure, she’s static and may not have quite hit the climactic high note, but being granted such a dismal score?  Merde!  Anyway, I’ve observed one Balkan entry seemed to have borrowed the chorus for their own entry–more on that in a subsequent installment of this series.

“Passio [Passion]” – Battista Acquaviva.  Based on preview recordings, this ethereal operatic entry ranked very high amongst fans.   And the staging provided a lot of appealing hunky male eye-candy set to the white elevated stage employed by Azerbaijan’s entry, X My Heart” by Aysel last year.  Unfortunately her live vocals turned out to be glaringly wobbly and that ruined the entire effort.  The measly two points it earned from the jury was fully justified.  Still, the general public probably love the male eye candy that this was third in the televote, and as its overall first semifinal ranking was seventh.

“On cherche encore (Never Get Enough)” – Gabriella.  Here is another injustice by the juries as she was seventh with them in the second semifinal, and even a fourth place showing with the televote was not enough for her to rise above sixth place overall in her heat.  Those juries should’ve shifted the points they awarded to the overrated Doutson‘s “Sois un bon fils [Be a good son]” to this entry instead.  Bringing sassy pop attitude while playing piano and violin?  What more could you ask for?

It turns out the entries that ranked fifth in their respective semifinal heats are dreamy boy acts that would’ve gotten teenage girls (and gay guys) in a tizzy.

“J’ai pas le temps [I don’t have the time]” – Lautner.  The recorded version is a breezy pop confection that many thought would be a finals shoo-in.  Unfortunately it turns out this duo probably lacked experience performing live and it showed with their wobbly performance onstage.  It didn’t help that the skater boy backdrop was distracting.  If they were more confident and polished, they could’ve pull off a possible upset win.  Anyway, the way the look to each other for support can drive some imaginative fangirls (and fanboys) into some steamy fan fiction.

“Ce qui me blesse [What hurts me]” – Ugo.  French Bieber, anyone?  It was actually second with juries (albeit a distant second behind the leader), but what prevented it from advancing was that the French public were not into this apparently as it was second-to-last with the televote.  I actually liked this acoustic pop entry, too and felt the juries are right this time–such a shame the French public had a different opinion.

Time to discuss the actual finalists.  Though I like to give credit to Aysat‘s “Comme Un Grande [Like an adult]“, her performance is just a tad imperfect and not as impactful as the perfrmances I’ll cite below.

“La voix d’Aretha [The voice of Aretha]” – The Divaz.  Prior to their live performances, many fans would rank this as an obvious non-finalist as the song basically sounds dated (think Bonnie Tyler’s 1984 hit “Holding Out for a Hero“) with an uncomfortable exploitation of Aretha Franklin‘s recent passing.  But all objections melted away when you watch them perform live as they were actually electrifying.  The program also had the artists perform cover versions, and these ladies (with a couple of vocal percussionists) delivered a version of the Queen of Soul’s “Respect” (with an intro from Labelle‘s 1975 classic “Lady Marmalade” that was simply sensational–it’s as if the Kevin Olusola and Matt Sallee (or Avi Kaplan) of Pentatonix came over to France to accompany these “Divaz” for that song.

“Allez leur dire [Go tell them]” – Silvàn Areg. This song was originally entitled “Le petit Nicholas [Little Nicholas]” and it seems to be based from a series of children’s books popular in the French-speaking world.  So that is why part of this entry’s appeal is the abundance of childlike whimsy as reflected on the hand-drawn props and backdrop.  Well, it’s sad because of copyright, they were forced to change the title.  Even if I appreciate the “Frenchiness” of this number, I know this won’t translate well with an international audience.

“La promesse [The promise]” – Emmanuel Moire. The winner of this national selection is not the only LGBTQ entry.  This singer is also LGBTQ, albeit he moves in a masculine manner and has an obviously manly voice.  It’s a passionate art-ballad featuring two male contemporary dancers portraying some turmoil in a relationship.  I love this even if admittedly his live vocal delivery was far from pitch-perfect–the intense passion throughout makes up for it.  If this was the official French entry and China still had broadcast rights, I’m sure they would have to censor this like the way they did Ireland’s entry last year (“Togehter” by Ryan O’Shaugnessy).

“Là-haut [Up there]” – Chimene Badi.  This is a well-sung modern rhythmic pop song.  The staging featured a “person-in-a-box” gimmick that we see with Azerbaijan’s 2013 entry (“Hold Me” by Farid Mammadov) and Malta’s entry last year (“Taboo” by Christabelle).

“Tous les deux [Both of us]” – Seemone.  This lady’s voice reminds me of a cross between Adele and Dido.  It’s a sweet and quiet ballad about her father and I can appreciate this and understand why it came close to becoming the official entry, but well, I tend to gravitate to the poppier entries in this group.  Much respect for this entry, though.

COMING UP:  The week of 08-09 February