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.

EUROVISION 2019 PROLOGUE: NATIONAL FINALS FAVORITES (PART 2)

UNITED KINGDOM

This Big Five country also staged a national final format with six entries, like the way it does over the last three years.  The twist this year, though, was it actually only has three songs in contention with two artists having differing versions of each song.  These three pairs of artists would then square off and the public would vote for which one has the better version, and the winner per song would then square off against each other to determine the winner.  I’m not crazy about this format–there are thousands of songs available out there so why not follow the older format?

“Bigger than Us” – Holly Tandy. Many fans have high regard with this country-pop version, and Holly is actually a great lilting singer.  But what worked against this version was that it was obviously written with a more “gospel”-ly intention, and to worsen matters was the presentation–country style doesn’t necessarily mean bringing out cowboy dancers all the time, you know?  Shows the BBC producers’ frame of reference for something “country” seems to be Madonna‘s “Tell Me” video.  With such factors stacked against it, it’s no wonder it was roundly beaten in its showdown with the eventual winner.

“Freaks” – Jordan Clarke. The song is basically a sped up remake of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major“. with lyrics empowering society’s underdogs.  It is deemed the weakest of the three songs in competition, and as much as Jordan gave a solid go with his boy-band pop take on the song, it definitely is not going to improve on this country’s weak showing in this contest as of late.

“Sweet Lies” – Kerrie-Anne. Many fans favored this entry over the eventual winner, as this is a diva-tastic club banger reminiscent of Robin S.’s 1993 hit “Show Me Love“.  Admittedly, high energy dance tracks don’t always translate well live, but Kerrie-Anne is a stronger vocalist than most.  However, the British public were in a more sentimental mode so voted for a powerfully sung but reality-talent-show-cliche style inspirational ballad instead.

AUSTRALIA

For the first time ever, this country decided to use the national finals route instead of internal selection to select its entry.  Called Australia Decides, it proved to be a rewarding exercise with an eclectic mix of high quality entries that would put all the UK entries this year to shame.

“Set Me Free” – Leea Nanos. The studio version excited a lot of fans and treated this electro-pop ditty.  Leea is indeed an exciting young talent, but she obviously needed a little seasoning as shown in her live performance.  As a result, she ended up in ninth place, second-to-last among 10 entries.

“Dust” – Aydan.  The most recent winner of The Voice Australia was tapped to sing this R&B-laced pop ballad.  He sold the song well, to his credit, but well it doesn’t distract from the fact that this is otherwise a tad too conventional to make major impact.  He’s not the only champion from that reality series competing, though…

“To Myself” – Alfie Arcuri.  He’s champion of the The Voice Australia 2016, and he joined with this self-written song.  Sure, the chorus melodically reminds me of Charlie Puth‘s “Marvin Gaye” song, but his passionate singing and moving lyrics ensures there isn’t a dry eye in the house when listening to this song.  I also have a soft spot for him as he’s a LGBTQ hunk.  He’s just one of three acts raising the Rainbow Flag in this competition…

“Fight for Love” – Courtney Act.  This drag queen is a huge veteran of the reality show circuit, having participated in Australian Idol, Celebrity Big Brother UK, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and many others.  She is renowned for her live singing voice, closely approximating that of a real female.  That quality is in full effect on this club banger.  Now, fans were polarized about this entry, saying the song is subpar and beneath Courtney’s caliber.  But for me, I thought it was a strong entry and can compete on the main Eurovision stage…until I got to listen to the bets that ended up in teh Top Three…

“On My Way” – Sheppard.  This band had achieved worldwide success with “Geronimo” four years ago.  Things have quieted down since then so to revive their international profile they fielded this upbeat, rhythmic number that is a joy to listen to.  However it had two other bigger, riskier contenders that it had to deal with and criticisms that this is a tad “safe” have prevented this from being granted the right to represent Australia.

“2000 and Whatever” – Electric Fields.  This is also a fierce club banger featuring an LGBTQ singer, but this time with an Aboriginal twist:  some of the lyrics are in the Pitjantjatjara language and lead singer Zaachariaha Fielding bringing androgynous shaman fierceness.  The song expresses pride for millennials, who are often being criticized in various media. It emerged to be a close fight between this entry and the eventual winner–I would’ve been very pleased with any of those that ended up in the Top Five representing this country.

MONTENEGRO

Basically this small country staged a small national final with five entries duking it out.  Most non-Montenegrin fans seemed to be displeased with the choice of winner, and I have to agree with them especially with one edgy entry they could’ve fielded…

“Ja sam ti san [I am your dream]” – Andrea Demirović.  She represented this country 10 years ago with the peppy (and underrated) disco romper “Get Out of My Life“.  She is acing the 10-year challenge as she still looks great (arguably even better) and it’s nice to see her shift to modern, edgy electro-pop.  To be blunt I would’ve rather chosen this as their entry, but this only ranked third and did not even advance to the two-entry super-final.  Instead, the Montenegrins chose…

“Nevinost [Innocence]” – Ivana Popović-Martinović.  Yes, it’s a decent ballad, but admittedly if this was Montenegro’s entry this would be drowned out as it’s not quite distinctive, like its entry last year.

ITALY

Like in most years, this Big Five country selects its Eurovision representative via the long-established Sanremo Music Festival (which was the main inspiration for the Eurovision Song Contest in the first place).   For this edition, they decided to eschew the “New Artists” section and had the 24 competing artists perform their entries four times across five nights, with no elimination process and the only twist is that the penultimate night they feature a collaboration with another artist on the same song.  As much as I try to feature the live national final performances, apparently RAI had not made the content available on YouTube so we have to settle wtih the studio music videos instead.

“Mi sento bene [I feel good] – Arisa.  I first heard of this artist when I happened upon the 2017 Takagi & Ketra song “L’esercito del selfie [The army of the selfie]“–I just love the cheery retro vibe of that song which is also translated to its unforgettable music video with the distinctively infectious choreography.  But upon further research, I discovered that Arisa is also a “What-if” story, as it turns out she was the 2014 champion of this festival with the lilting “Controvento [Against the Wind] but broadcaster RAI decided to give 2012 champion Emma Marrone*1 a chance to compete in Eurovision and internally selected her with the brash, abrasive rocker “La Mia Citta [My City].  Emma ended up bringing Italy its worst ranking in this contest to date at 21st place.  Would Arisa have gotten a better showing if she was the one chosen to compete instead?

*1  Emma won Sanremo 2012 with the song Non è l’inferno [This isn’t hell]”, a terrific orchestral rock piece, but somehow that year, RAI decided to emply a special jury to select the artist who would compete in Eurovision that year.  They chose Nina Zilli instead, and she competed in Sanremo 2012 with the well-regarded ballad “Per sempre” but competed in Eurovision with a different (and better) song, “L’amore è Femmina (Out of Love)“.  As much as Emma’s song is really strong, Nina Zilli proved to indeed be the better choice.

Anyway, about this entry:  I love this upbeat pop-with-orchestral number, and I feel this deserved o fare better than its ultimate eighth place showing.   I can only console myself that she got to perform with ex-Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley on a version of this song on the fourth night, which for me is a highlight.

“La ragazza con cuore di latta [The girl with a tin heart]” – Iramo.  There are a significant amount of fans who love this song, believing it deserved to rank hgiher than seventh place.  This half-spoken-word (can’t quite classify this as rap, but it seems the words rhymed so maybe it was rap) half-sung ballad does have a dramatic/epic romantic feel and can understand why it’s well regarded.

“Argentovivo [Quicksilver]” – Daniele Silvestri.  Here is a very edgy, dark number with a rocking rhythm that I find very intriguing.  The singer is already 50 years old, but the lyrics keep repeating he’s 16 and it’s an angsty song about some despairing existence, about being trapped in a “jail”.

“Cosa ti aspette da me? [What do you expect from me?]” – Loredana Berte.  Imagine Emma Marrone, but older and raspier and you get this lady and this edgy rock number.  It’s pretty badass if you realize this modern rock song is sung by a woman who is almost 70 years old.

“Musica che resta [Music that remains]” – Il Volo.  There are many fans who feel this hunky operatic trio deserved vindication after placing third to Sweden’s Måns Zelmerlöw in Eurovision 2015 as they were the big winners of the televote and many fans felt they were unfairly marked down by the juries.  This ballad is a strong bet, but well, it’s not as strong as “Grande Amore“, so being beaten by the eventual winner was justified.

“I tuoi particolari [Your particularities]” – Ultimo.  I would’ve rather have Loredana Berte take his place in the Final Three showdown, but somehow this piano-driven ballad struck a chord with the Italian voting public that this is the ultimate second placer instead.  The right-wing Italian government would’ve preferred this entry be the Eurovision representative but I’m glad that didn’t happen as I don’t think this would strike as strong a chord with the rest of Europe.

A note about the fifth place entry, “Abbi cura di mi [Take care of me]” by Simone Cristicchi:  this sentimental plain-spoken ballad is just not my cup of tea, to be blunt, so I find its fifth place finish overrated.

COMING UP:  The week of 16-17 February

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