EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2019 SONG PREVIEW: 1ST SEMIFINAL, 2ND HALF

The second half of the second semifinal is very eclectic this year.  It is so eclectic, it can be even described as “quirky”.  Some of the biggest risk takers of the entire contest could be found here–let’s see if the risks would pay off.

BELGIUM:  “Wake Up” – Eliot.  Based from the studio version, I was getting Tom Dice vibes, and remember back in 2010 he did very well with “Me and My Guitar“, placing sixth, so I was bullish that he will bring his country back in the finals after Sennek flopped last year.  But impressions from the live party promotion circuit and from the rehearsals dimmed his prospects significantly–not that he has vocal issues like Sennek had, but most fans just don’t feel he’s making an impact as much as it potentially could have, and the employment of drummers for his stage presentation was deemed a misfire.  There is still a window of possibility for this to advance as this is a quality pop number with world peace sentiments, but it’s far from assured.

GEORGIA:  “Keep on Going” – Oto Nemsadze. Just like last year, Georgia decided to give this entry an English title even if it is entirely sung in Georgian.  In its original Georgian it’s called “Sul tsin iare” which means almost exactly what the English title says.  It’s a patriotic ballad about breaking barriers, and if you study history, it seems to be referencing the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and perhaps this song is about the hope that besides ending all conflicts that these two breakaway states would reunite back with Georgia again.  For most listeners (including myself) it’s a harsh-sounding ballad–yes, you can admire Oto’s gruff, raspy, passionate vocals, but the melody just doesn’t stir most people’s hearts that for most fans this is last on the list.  However, the music video and the staging helped create a better impression for this entry–most people don’t believe this would qualify but it will probably have a more respectable showing than what most people would expect.  There is also a connection with the previous Eurovision entry as one of the vocalists from Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao is one of the backup singers for this number.

AUSTRALIA:  “Zero Gravity” – Kate Miller-Heidke.  I love this EDM-inflected pop-opera entry, and in fact I thought it is a more cohesive piece than a previous attempt to fuse dance music with pop and opera, Sweden’s Malena Erman‘s “La Voix” back in 2009–as much as I liked that entry too, I found the alto register of the pop verses and the soprano register in the chorus jarring and disjointed, in contrast to how Kate kept everything in the same soprano register all throughout that for me this entry sounded cohesive.  I thought it was a well-deserved winner of its national final, even as there are at least four other worthy entries that could’ve been a worthy representative, so I was shocked when I read the negative non-Australian fan response to this entry initially.  It made me fretful that this might become the first entry that would break Australia’s perfect finals qualification record.  But then as Katie showed up in Amsterdam’s Eurovision in Concert she shut the critics down as she proved she can deliver her vocals live.  She then released an acoustic version of the song that gotten rave notices–it sounded like a long-lost Kate Bush song to my ears, and that is a high compliment.  But the clincher was the rehearsals where we see the big change she made from her Australian national final.  In the Australian national final, she was standing on a pedestal as her gown enveloped it, creating the same effect as Moldova’s Aliona Moon‘s “O Mie” back in 2013 and Estonia’s Elina Nechayeva‘s “La Forza” last year.  She one-upped those performances by actually being suspended on an apparently precarious mounted pole (alongside two “dementors” instead of one at the national final) and her singing and floating about simultaneous added a level of thrill and danger to the performance that it garnered scintillating buzz–now, not only is it a shoo-in for the finals, but can make a play for the Top 10 and beyond.  I’m glad she’s gained vindication from that initial negative fan buzz–I’m so rooting for her to shine as the competition kicks in.

ICELAND: Hatrið mun sigra [Hatred will prevail]– Hatari.  Imagine if Rammstein‘s frontman Til Lindemann and Depeche Mode‘s chief songwriter Martin Gore join forces with key instrumentalists from both bands (sorry, Dave Gahan) into a supergroup and chose to sing in Icelandic and you get this band/satirical performance art entity.  The core of this act are two first cousins, Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson (the harsh vocalist) and Klemens Nikulásson Hannigan (the sweet-sounding vocalist).  Matthias was a performance artist, poet, and journalist and Klemens was a poet/musician who have family backgrounds attuned to political/social/diplomatic affairs as Matthias’ father and Klemens’ mother are lawyers (and siblings at that, hence their blood relation), and Klemens’ father happens to also head the trade division of Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  I have a feeling these two are distressed at the rise of populist politics throughout Europe along with the abuses the capitalist system has wrought that they decided to form this act as an outlet to vent out the consequences if these developments are taken to their logical extreme.  They got the support of like-minded individuals to flesh out their project, like percussionist/producer Einar Hrafn Stefánsson (whose father happens to be the Icelandic ambassador to the UK) and their act is a vision to behold with a message that everyone should take heed.  Part of their appeal is their homoerotic BDSM aesthetic, and their stage performances way outsteams makes the notorious 1997 Eurovision performance delivered by Paul Oscar*2 for his song “Minn hinsti dans [My final dance]” seem like a scene from Barney or Teletubbies.  But despite presenting a “fascist” front, everyone seems to know where these guys actually stood for politically, and I totally subscribe to their views.  This is why despite their harsh sound seemingly being divisive, there is way more love for this act and very few dislikes.  As a result, they are actually a shoo-in for the finals.

*2 Paul Oscar tried to present himself as a lothario with his scantily clad leather-swimsuited female backup dancers, but his fey persona just doesn’t convince me one bit and the whole thing looked like an all-girl slumber party in the end.

Musical inspirations: Rammstein’s Til Lindemann and Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore

Now, the question is…can they equal or exceed their best ever showings in this contest?  You see, 20 years ago, they placed second with Selma‘s “All Out of Luck” and repeated that feat with Yohanna‘s “Is It True?” 10 years later.  This entry falls within that decade cycle–can they sustain that cycle like the way Netta sustained Israel’s 20 year cycle last year by placing as a runner-up or better?

Iceland’s finest (L-R): Selma (1999) and Yohanna (2009)

A final piquant note–outside of their leather garb, the cousins resemble celebrities.  Matthias could pass for a younger version of The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, while Klemens looks like actor Jack Gleeson, who despite his cherubic appearance is best known for playing one of the most loathsome characters in Game of ThronesKing Joffrey (Baratheon) Lannister.

Jimmy Fallon and Jack Gleeson

ESTONIA:  “Storm” – Victor Crone. The song is like a rewrite of the late Avicii‘s biggest smash “Wake Me Up” (featuring Aloe Blacc) peppered with a few dashes of Loreen‘s immortal Eurovision hit Euphoria“.  In a segment laden with quirky numbers, this is one of the “conventional” ones.  It’s one of my favorite entries this year, despite criticism about its rhyming gaffes (“Storm like this / could make a man like this”?).  But buzz for this entry has been diminishing as of late that an upset might be in the offing where this might be yanked down by the likes of CZECH REPUBLIC or even SAN MARINO.  Anyway, this entry also serves as a return for 2015 alumni Stig Rästa, as he co-wrote the song.

PORTUGAL:  “Telemoveis [Mobile phones]” – Conan Osiris.  I love the exotic, multicultural sounds of this entry and João Reis Moreira (and Conan)’s over-the-top interpretative dancing.  It’s the pinnacle of cool, and one of my big personal favorites–I never tire of listening to this song and watching the national finals performance.  But I’m surprised that this is receiving highly divisive buzz, with a significant amount of detractors.  Plus, the rehearsals so far underwhelmed many fans that many aren’t sure this would advance.  But I’m still keeping the faith and when the time comes, they will cast a spell and qualify.

GREECE:  “Better Love” – Katerine Duska.  Though I loved last year’s entry, it had the misfortune to be placed in the notorious “semifinal of death” and with staging that underwhelmed it was shut out of the finals.  That outcome is not likely to happen this time as this female empowerment pop entry is simply too unstoppable.  Katerine’s smoky, Amy Winehouse-ish vocals gave this song a very distinctive flavor.  I was slightly concerned if Katerine would be wearing the voluminous pink froufrou number onstage from the music video, as for me it has the potential for it becoming a Barbara Dex awardee, but I’m glad she’s wearing a white lace dress instead (yes, the poufy lacy sleeves might not be for most tastes, but it works in a stage setting), and the staging is opulent with a Fabergé egg backdrop and fencing backup dancers.  It’s one of the shoo-ins from the group.

I know Katerine’s voice could never be mistaken for the reigning Miss Universe Catriona Gray‘s, but when I first heard this song, somehow I had a vision of Catriona covering this song.  I guess because I found Catriona’s lower register kinda approximates Katerine that is why I made the connection.  Let’s see if Catriona can fulfill my fantasy.

SAN MARINO:  “Say Na Na Na” – Serhat. When he entered the contest three years ago, Serhat wanted to present himself as a Leonard Cohen-type artist, but when fans initially heard the original version of “I Didn’t Know“, many were repulsed by it.  Everyone presumed this will be a bottom-dweller in the contest, but then he released dance remixes of the song, and was shocked by the positive fan response that he appealed to the EBU if he can use one of the remix versions as the version he’ll perform onstage, and fortunately he got approval for that.  It worked in his favor, as with a slick stage presentation, it actually finished a respectable 12th place in its semifinal heat.  Confirming that disco is the way ago is the release of another remix of the same song a year later, featuring dance vocal legend Martha Wash*3 which actually made a splash in the US club charts.  So in his second go-round, Serhat brought on the disco fun with this entertaining number, and as expected it received a warm response, and there was buzz   It’s mindless fun, but sometimes we just need to check our brains at the door and this does the trick.  There are fans who even think this could be San Marino’s second appearance in a Eurovision final, but then…

*3 Most famous as one half of the Weather Girls (“It’s Raining Men“) and the ghost singer for many of Black Box‘s hits and C+C Music Factory‘s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)

…unlike the sleek music video, the staging for this entry was deemed cheesy, with Serhat even carrying a megaphone and the words “Say Na Na Na” even popping out on the screen in the first rehearsal.  It seems they took note of the buzz and tweaked it for the second rehearsals they ditched the megaphones and albeit it felt less slick than his previous foray, there is still a chance he can pull off an upset and advance to the final.  He’s closing this round, you know.

Before I share who I think will qualify to the final on Saturday, May 18, I have to pay tribute to one entry that unfortunately had to sit out the contest due to politics…

UKRAINE:  “Siren Song” – MARUV. This sensual, modern dance jam provoked the public with its overheated sensual presentation, with those writhing backup dancers in, uh, compromising positions.  This would’ve guaranteed the heretofore uncatered heterosexual male contingent and the lager louts to take action and vote.  Considering that it wasn’t even in the initial roster of shortlisted entries (it got in because a highly favored artist Tayanna decided to withdraw) the win this song achieved in the national final could be seen as a Cinderella story.  Unfortunately, the Ukrainian broadcaster NTU had two big beefs against this entry:  first was the aforementioned provocative sensuality; second was the fact that MARUV has commitments to perform in Russia, and you know how the Ukraine currently has an adversarial relationship with that country due to Crimea’s invasion five years ago.  Even if MARUV declared her loyalty to her home country did not convince the broadcaster as it actually made an unprecedented announcement during the national final that there is no guarantee that the winner of the contest is guaranteed to compete for Ukraine, and handed MARUV an onerous contract that would force her to cancel all her impending Russian engagements or else incur a heinous fine, and to tone down her sexually charged presentation.  MARUV, logically, wouldn’t agree to those conditions and her fellow competitors were in solidarity with her and refused the broadcaster’s offers to replace her.  Hence the Ukrainian broadcaster opted to withdraw from this contest this year.  Such a shame as this would’ve been a Top Five shoo-in, and yes, even a possible winner.,

Now, with the 17 semifinalists accounted for, here’s my take on who will advance:

TOP TEN:  CYPRUS, POLAND, SLOVENIA, HUNGARY, SERBIA, AUSTRALIA, ICELAND, ESTONIA, PORTUGAL, GREECE

BUBBLING UNDER:  CZECH REPUBLIC, BELARUS, BELGIUM, SAN MARINO

COMING UP: 1ST HALF OF 2ND SEMIFINAL

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