EUROVISION 2019 PROLOGUE: NATIONAL FINALS FAVORITES (PART 3)

ESTONIA

In a week filled with surprise results where the perceived favorites ended up not winning, Estonia’s Eesti Laul was the sole national final that yielded a satisfying result.  This country has a bevy of strong entries this year, and many worthy reps that could deliver this country a sustained strong showing.  Let’s look at those that garnered the most buzz (and/or fared the best but not quite clinching the win).

“Kui isegi kaotan [Even if I lose]” – Grete Paia.  This Estonian-language fan favorite missed making the final cut in an ironic fashion.  For the semifinal heats, Eesti Laul employs a two-round system–for the first round based on a combination of jury and televote the Top Four would automatically advance to the finals and the rest are subject to a second round of televotes and the Top Two of the remainder would advance.  This entry was sixth after the first round, buoyed solelly by a second-place showing in televote as it got nul points from the jury.  Then as it was subjected to a second vote, the number of people voting for it halved and it ranked fourt among the remainder, making it miss the finals as it made way to the Schlager-style I’ll Do It My Way” by Sünne Valtri to advance.

“Hold Me Close” – xtra basic & Emily J.  There are significant fans digging this club jam, most especially the studio version.  But during the semifinals, it was marked down severely by the jury that it ended up eighth overall after the first round, that it took the second round televote to advance to the final.  Admittedly Emily J’s live vocals are far from pitch-perfect, and that caused this entry to finish dead last in the finals.

“Soovide puu [Tree of wishes]” – Sandra Nurmsalu.  As part of Urban Symphony, Sandra represented Estonia 10 years ago with “Rändajad [Nomads]” and finished sixth.  Looking virtually unchanged from that previous stint, she still delivers a mystically ethereal spell with this entry that I’m shocked that it didn’t fare as highly as I felt it should have, finishing eighth in the finals.  If I had my way I would’ve wanted this to represent Estonia, but learning that this had to be subjected to a second round vote to advance to the final made me realize its prospects of winning was very slim.  Wonder why the Estonians weren’t as spellbound as I found no fault with her performance whatsoever.

“High Heels in the Neighbourhood” – The Swingers, Tanja & Birgit.  Sandra is not the only one attempting a second go-round on the main Eurovision stage.  The two female guest vocalists of this act are Eurovision veterans too.   Tanja is Tanja Mihhailova who competed in 2014 with the underrated “Amazing“.  Birgit is Birgit Õigemeel who competed the year prior with “Et uus saaks alguse [So there can be a new beginning]“*2, which placed 20th in the final  This high energy brass-laden retro-jazz-meets-contemporary number was a treat to watch and listen to, but well, this is a highly competitive national final so placing seventh isn’t bad at all.

*2 Birgit was notable in her stint for wearing the white empire-waist Gucci gown made famous by Oxana Fedorova at Miss Unvierse 2002.  The gown effectively masks her pregnancy at the time, so it’s a treat to see how Birgit lost all the “mommy weight” six years since (on top of trimming her hair to a nice shoulder-length bob).

“Milline päev [What a day]” – Lumevärv ft. Inga.  This is a pretty dance-pop number that understandably struck a chord with Estonians.  I would’ve ranked Sandra and Tanja & Birgit’s entry higher than this but well, I can respect its fifth place showing.

“Strong” – Sissi.  She actually has Eurovision pedigree as she’s Dave Benton‘s daughter.  Aruba-born Dave Benton was part of the act with Tanel Padar and 2XL, which won Eurovision 2001 with “Everybody“.  Sissi brought a similar retro-disco vibe like her father’s entry, and she came close to making the super-final, as she’s tied with the eventual winner in terms of overall points–the tie was broken with who ranked higher in televote, and well, that was why that entry advanced instead of this one.  As sad as I feel that this didn’t advance, I’m glad the other entry prevailed and eventually won the right to compete for Estonia.

“Without You” – Stefan.  This ballad has a very catchy chorus that it’s highly deserving why this became the jury darling and advanced to the superfinal.  But despite topping the first round by combined jury and televote points, the Estonian audience perhaps felt the staging is a tad static that they latched on to the other two more dynamic entries.

“Pretty Little Liar” – Uku Suviste.  This is a dramatic pop ballad with a soaring chorus that featured some challenging high notes meant to impress listeners.  He did deliver on this count, and so its second-place finish is well-earned.

A note about the sixth placer, “Coming Home” by Inger Fridolin.  Inger’s look is very non-binary gender-wise, that it briefly made me wonder if she has preferred pronouns, but it seems we can identify her by her biological gender (especially since Inger is a female name).  The song is a sweet acoustic charmer, but I have major issues with her live vocal–when she hits the low notes, it made her sound as if she was possessed by Kermit the Frog–yes, Kermit is famous for a couple of songs but that timbre only works for Kermit (or his creator, Jim Henson) and no-one else.  I think her human interest story was probably what made her rank this high, as I’m slightly upset she outranked Sandra and Tanja & Birgit and would’ve probably placed her in the bottom of the finals pack.

LATVIA

The fifth edition of Supernova featured an eclectic mix, and many fans latched onto some of the brighter pop entries.  But it seems the juries tend to favor pitch perfection like it did last year and so those highly favored pop entries ended up not winning.

“Scared of Love” – Adriana Miglāne.  Many Eurovision YouTube fan channels rank this entry as among their national final favorites so it’s a shocker that this didn’t advance to the final.  This entry ended up in sixth place in its semifinal heat, which I feel is unjust–sure her live vocals may not be that pitch-perfect, but it has nice sweet timbre to it that I (and many other people) like.

“Cutting the Wire” – Samanta Tīna.  There are fans who dig this edgy and attitude-driven number, and I’m one of them.  I may have serious issues with her diction, but I like the brash, assertive energy and attitude of this entry.  It deserved higher than its seventh place finish in the national final.

“Cherry Absinthe” – Edgars Kreilis.  Most fan channels I encountered regarded this as the favorite to win, and its unique title and interesting groove are very intriguing.  But some groused about the way this entry was staged, as Edgars doesn’t have the swagger to be surrounded by a harem of girls (his female backup vocalists), and many felt that might’ve cost him the win.  At least it got fourth place with the jury, but its weak seventh place showing with the public vote (based on a combination of televote, internet vote, and streams from Spotify and Alfa) made it finish a weak sixth place overall.

“Fire” – Double Faced Eels.  This rhythmic pop-rock number actually grows on you in subsequent listens that even if the likes of “Cherry Absinthe” may initially catch your fancy this number ultimately wins you over that it’s not surprising that this finished fourth oveall, with the juries actually ranking this third.

“Awe” – Laime Pilnīga.  Sure, this folk-rock number has some good soaring moments, but I find its second place showing with the juries highly overrated.  I would’ve favored the other entries I previously mentioned to outrank this number (but then again I’d say the same thing about the eventual winner, too).

“You Make Me So Crazy” – Markus Riva.  For the sixth year in a row, this hunky pop star tried his luck becoming Latvia’s Eurovision representative and failing to win.  It’s such a shame the juries pegged this energetic club number down, placing him fifth, while he was the overwhelming top choice in the public vote.  What would it take for this guy to finally make it on the big Eurovision stage?  Diction lessons?  Perfection of pitch?  At least he can console himself that the equaled his previous best showing in 2015 with “Take Me Down“.

SLOVENIA

This country held its 23rd edition of Evrovizijska Melodija, better known as EMA to select its entry.  Ten shortlisted finalists competed in two rounds, the first round being determined by a jury panel of experts who would rank them, and the Top Two would advance to the superfinal which was solely determined by televote.  This year’s edition also amusingly features a CGI b-boy dancing robot introducing every song–I actually like the sight of that dancing robot–it should be a major meme.

“Rhythm Back to You” – Kim.  This song was co-written by Maraaya, a married couple who represented this country previously four years ago with the highly beloved “Here for You“.  This fiercely sung Avicii-esque club banger has a very sleek polished pop sheen (as it’s co-written with a team of Swedish songwriters), and is one of the favorites to win, so it’s shocking that it only fared eighth with the jury.  I could find no fault with the performance at all, so perhaps the jury penalized this entry for the fact it’s too slick, and maybe there is also an anti-English language bias*3.

*3 Last year, EMA even imposed a rule requiring all entries to be performed in Slovenian for the final, and then they would have the option to perform in English in the main Eurovision stage if they choose to.  They relaxed that rule this year.

“Fridays” – Ula Ložar.  Maraaya also had a hand in composing this Great Gatsby-style dance-pop ditty and juries responded to this entry better by placing it fourth.  Not enough to advance to the superfinal, of course, but a worthwhile finish.   If this was in Slovenian, would the juries love this even more?  Anyway, Ula’s vocal timbre has echoes of the distaff half of Maraaya, vocalist Marjetka Vovk–similarly quirky tone to their voices so you can imagine Marjetka singing this song herself.

Ti ne poznaš konjev [You don’t know the horses]” – Fed Horses.  Here’s something different:  a Slovenian folk-country group.  This subdued entry is way under the fans’ radar but much respect for their tasteful, classy entry.  It’s interesting to note that this group has released some singles and all their songs were in English prior to this point–are they keyed in regarding the previous language rule and slight anti-English bias?

“Kaos” – Raiven.  Considering this country fielded the quirky “Hvala, ne! [Thanks, no!]” by Lea Sirk last year most fans were betting on this amelodic entry to win.  And it almost did, topping the jury vote as it entered the two-song superfinal.  However, the Slovenian public somehow found another quirky electro-pop track by an introverted couple/duo somehow spellbinding and that became the surprise winner.  Ultimately the eventual winner looked like the right choice considering the increasingly good regard it has been receiving.

CROATIA

After two years of internal selection, this country decided to stage Dora to select its representative.  It shortlisted 16 entries and all performed on one night.  It’s interesting that the jury system they employed is that they have 10 panels across different cities within the country.  Now let’s discuss the entries that perked up my ears and the fans’ alike.

“Don’t Give Up” – Beta Sudar.  This is a perky pop-rock ditty that you can bop along.  Admittedly her vocals are far from pitch-perfect, but still it was seventh with the juries and ninth with the televote.  But with the polarized reception between public and juries over several entries, this ended up 10th overall.

“Vrijeme predaje [Time of Surrender]” – Bojan Jambrošić and Danijela Pintarić.  Internet fans didn’t rank this entry high in their countdowns, but when I heard the snippet of this entry, I actually liked what I heard.  It had the right kind of dramatic bombast and passionate singing that normally would’ve been a turnoff but somehow it works with this song, in my opinion.  The juries hated it, ranking it second to last at 15th place, but the Croatian public rallied behind it as it’s fifth in the televote, resulting in a ninth place overall finish.

“In the Shadows” – Manntra.  The chorus sounded very familiar–it almost shared the same title as Florina‘s entry in France’s Destination Eurovision (the difference is this entry added an “s” to its title).  True, except for the way they sang out the title line, there is very little in common between the two songs as Florina was a pop number and this is a hard-rock piece, but the way the way the line “In the shadows” is sung is just too identical that I feel the songwriters to Florina song should sue for songwriting credit.  Anyway, it’s a consolation that this song fared way better than Florina did in France, as this finished fourth place overall.

“Brutalero”Luka Nižetić.  For many fans (including myself), this Latin-tinged ethno-pop rhythmic jam was deemed the favorite to win it all, and considering Luka is such a hot hunk, I was expecting something like a Sakis Rouvas-style presentation.  But instead, we ended up with a quirky silly pop-art presentation and Luka in a bright yellow suit.   It turned off the juries that they ranked this in eighth place.  Its official music video, with many of the same visuals, was indeed a visual treat, but for me it didn’t translate well in a live setting, despite Luka’s energetic performance.  But then again, it might be like an “Occidntali’s Karma” syndrome–the erstwhile 2017 favorite that due to frenetic staging fizzled to a sixth-place non-victory.  The general public, meanwhile, dug it enough that it was second in televote and it resulted with a respectable third place finish.

“Tower of Babylon” – Lorena Bućan.  There are also fans favoring this entry as the one to beat.  It’s this epic, orchestral, ethno-bombastic piece begs for a grand staging, but as much as it was well-sung by Lorena, it was hurt by the choice not to feature additional people (like backup singers and dancers) onstage.  Such music deserved to feature a crowd of people.  Because of that strategic error, instead of this winning, both the Croatian juries and public ended up selecting an entry that was undeniably terrifically sung, but songwise was a tacky piece of cheese that no amount of vocal fireworks could elevate its expectedly dismal Eurovision finals prospects.

A little note about the entry that endeared the regional juries, “All I Really WAnt” by Elis Lovrić:  this acoustic orchestral number is a snoozer, but it seems this was a night where there seemed to be a preference for quieter entries hence its high marks with the juries (it placed third).  Like me, the general public begged to differ and this fared 12th in the televote, making it finish seventh overall.

ROMANIA

After its first non-finalist showing ever, broadcaster TVR decided to re-jigger the selection process for its Selecția Națională.  For this year’s final, instead of being determined solely by popular vote they decided to have the jury have a huge say, with 6/7 of the weight, as the public vote is now treated as the seventh juror.  After an initial selection of 24 entries, the broadcaster decided to select two wildcard entries after one entry withdrew due to the artist’s scheduling conflicts.  Little did we expect the huge drama that ensued as the inclusion of the wildcards resulted in two further withdrawals by veteran contenders to this national selection.  Let’s talk about those withdrawing artists.

“Baya” – MIHAI.  He is most famous for representing Romania in 2006 with the Euro-club banger “Tornero“, and he placed a commendable fourth place–just behind its best showing in third place made in 2005 and 2010.  Prior to that 2006 stint, he tried out as part of the group Valahia in 2000, 2002, and 2003, then in a duet with female singer Nico*4 in 2005.  After that 2006 stint he got the bug to try again and compete in Selectia Națională from 2016 onwards, coming close in 2017 placing second behind that yodeling song.   Now, he entered with a trendy EDM-tropical ditty but when he learned that one wildcard entry was a number in a similar style, he was probably upset and felt that there was favoritism and withdrew.  He didn’t name names, but I know who the subject of his ire was.  Admittedly he would’ve been edged out indeed by that entry but I think he would’ve gotten a strong ranking in this final, but we all know he was playing to win.

*4 Nico later got her turn to represent Romania in Eurovision 2008 with the operatic ballad “Pe-o margine de lume [On the edge of the world]” in a duet with Vlad.

“Independent” – Xandra. Like MIHAI, she has competed in Selectia Națională non-stop since 2016, and similarly had her best finish in 2017 at fifth place with “Walk on By“.  Her entry this year could also be classified as an EDM-tropical track, albeit with a female empowerment message.  But unlike MIHAI, she made her withdrawal late and did not publicize the reason why she chose to withdraw, but I have a theory–it’s similar to MIHAI’s sentiments, but she waited on how the 25 semifinal entries would be bracketed.  It so happened she was bracketed with the same wildcard entry that was MIHAI’s object of ire, and she felt that she won’t be given a fair shake in that bracket and also then chose to quit, too.  My assessment on this track is the same as I have written about MIHAI’s entry.

“Song of My Heart” – The Four.  Based on the studio version, many fans felt this could be a possible front-runner.  Unfortunately, the live vocals proved so wobbly that the jury penalized them severely and made it last in the semifinal heat.  The system in place was that the five top jury choices would automatically advance to the final, and the remainder would be subject to the popular vote and the top vote-getter amongst the remainder would join the jury top five to the final.  Unfortunately it was only second in the popular vote and hence missed out of the final.

“Destin” – Trooper.  This hard rock band had a significant local following that it finished second in the televote.  But the jury only ranked this in a tie for eighth place and with the weight heavily on the jury side, this finished seventh overall.

“DAINA” – Letiția Moisescu and Sensibil Balkan. This is a danceable pop song with some ethnic elements that is a good listen and an entertaining watch.  As a result it finished fifth in the finals.

“Renegades” – Linda Teodosiu.  She was third place in the German version of the Idol franchise (known as Deutschland sucht den Superstar or DSDS) in 2008 and built a career in her home country since then.  This is her first foray in this competition and she came in as one of the two wildcard entries.  In some ways there might be merits in the argument that the wildcards seemed to be given preferential treatment, as judging by their eventual high showing.  But then again, if you listen to the entries, these wildcard entries have strong merit, and their high showings are merited, like this entry’s fourth place showing.

“Army of Love” – Bella Santiago. Since making waves with her collaboration with Jukebox last year, she competed and won X-Factor Romania and an opportunity to compete in Selectia Nationala came up and she was selected as a wildcard with a ferociously sung tropical-EDM entry with a Tagalog rap.  Her joining sparked a controversy that eventually led to MIHAI‘s and Xandra‘s withdrawal.  Though there is merit in MIHAI’s concerns, we have to face it that this was indeed a very strong entry worthy of the big Eurovision stage–and I’m not saying that out of my own pro-Filipino bias.  I was salivating for another possible win for her and to see a Filipina in Eurovision–she could’ve really boosted Romania’s prospects as although Romania is known for its strong diaspora vote, arguably my country the Philippines also has a significant diaspora scattered across Europe, and those diaspora votes combined would’ve guaranteed a strong showing in the big Eurovision stage.  But one of the members of the jury, Eurovision 2013 champion from Denmark Emelie de Forest, marked her down severely as she gave Bella the dreaded nil point while all the other judges were in total agreement and awarded her 10 points each (for a total of 50 points).  If Emelie joined in the jury’s consensus or granted her at least seven points, Bella would’ve been the winner.

How did Bella set foot in this country in the first place?  Turns out it’s because of love–she was gigging in Malaysia when she met a Romanian guy.  They fell in love, and when the Romanian guy’s contract in Malaysia was up, he asked her to join him and she did back in 2016.  To help establish her career in her new home, she made an initial splash joining Romania’s Got Talent 2016.  She placed 11th in the finals then, and little did we know that the champion in her edition would also be competing here, making this another epic showdown between these two divas…

“Dear Father” – Laura Bretan.  She’s notable for her operatic soprano voice.  She’s born and raised in the US actually, but with regular visits to their home country, she competed in the 2016 edition of Romania’s Got Talent and won it.  That win aparked her to try see how well she’ll fare in the bigger league so soon after her win there, she did America’s Got Talent and she also made a big splash, eventually finishing sixth that year.  In this competition, she again parlayed her opera chops to full aplomb, and she came close to winning.  For many fans, it was thought that it was a Bella vs Laura showdown, but the six-member jury provided a big plot twist as somehow they weren’t as impressed with her entry as the staging was a tad simple.  She was particularly marked down by the two chief proponents of the Eurovision fan website Wiwibloggs, William Lee Adams and Deban Aderemi who explained as such.  As a result she was third in the jury vote, and because of the heavy jury weighting, her first place in the popular vote was not enough for her to win it all.  If the system was equal weighting jury and televote, she would’ve been the winner.  It is a consolation as even if four of the six jurors picked the eventual winner and she could not finish above fourth with them, the two dissenting jurors (including the aforementioned Emelie de Forest) chose her as their winner.

COMING UP:  Week of 21-23 February.