The biggest favorites to win in this year’s contest are found in this bracket. There are a bunch of heavy hitters and for most part they are not yielding any ground.
CROATIA: “The Dream” – Roko Blažević. The scenario with this entry is similar to MOLDOVA–the singer is unimpeachable as his vocal prowess is well renowned. The issue is the subpar material–yes, it was co-written by 2017 alumni Jacques Houdek, but to be blunt, Jacques is not really known for quality songs. Being all alone during the national final clad in angel wings make for a very cheesy sight, but instead of fully ditching the concept for the main Eurovision stage, they doubled down on it by adding shirtless backup dancers with those wings (this time gilded with flecks of gold). It did improve on the presentation, but I’m still not bullish on its prospects for advancing to the final.
MALTA: “Chameleon” – Michela Pace. It follows the same tropical pop style employed by “Fuego”, but with more melodic deviation from that original than from the offerings from CYPRUS and SWITZERLAND. Michela was selected via Malta’s version of X-Factor but at the time she was positioned as a balladeer. So followers of that competition are surprised when the entry was released and it turned out to be this uptempo number. Many fans are also waiting with bated breath with how this entry would be staged as Michela opted to sit out the month-long promotional circuit to rehearse this entry to perfection. And as it was unveiled in the rehearsals, many are now more secure about its final qualification prospects. The staging was a bright, multicolor feast for the eyes–the first rehearsal actually featured a projection wall but the Israeli producers vetoed that so they made do with the grander LED backdrop provided, and either way it worked.
Interestingly, for those who followed Melodifestivalen this year, they would have a bit of deja vu with te staging. Why? It is similar to the staging for Margaret’s “Tempo“. Many fans were outraged when this even failed to advance to the Andra Chansen round, as it’s a similarly sunny radio-friendly contemporary pop-dance track. Check out Margaret’s performance below.
LITHUANIA: “Run with the Lions” – Jurij Veklenko. During the national selection, this artist went by the name “Jurijus” (pronounced Yoo-ri-yoos”) but opted to stick by his real name after winning the national final. He actually previously saw action in the Eurovision stage four years ago, as backup vocalist to that bright and sunny duo Vaidas Baumila and Monika Linkytė with “This Time“–so yes, he did the same-sex kiss. The message of this song is similar to that entry, embracing love in all forms. But I’m still stewing over the fact that he beat the formidable Monika Marija as this song is not as remarkable as Monika’s two songs. When I first heard this song, the first thing that came to my head was the US band Train, most particularly their song “Shake Up Christmas“. And then when I listened to the song more intently I noticed Jurij’s vocal register has a striking similarity to Russian superstar Sergey Lazarev, albeit with more falsetto. So in essence, if you want to hear Sergey cover Train’s “Shake Up Christmas”, this is the song. Speaking of Sergey…
RUSSIA: “Scream” – Sergey Lazarev. Many fans are rooting for Sergey’s vindication after being beaten by Jamala three years ago. But when this orchestral ballad was released for many fans it was deemed a letdown. Still, many waited with bated breath about the staging, and in this aspect, it was surprising but did not disappoint. Many were expecting elements from the music video like scenes of a childhood fairytale, but instead it was more 21st century with multiple screen projections of Sergey and Sergey confined in a glass booth. It does jazz up the presentation and provide dramatic flair. Though I still don’t foresee this winning, a Top Three finish is conceivable.
ALBANIA: “Ktheju tokës [Return to your land]” – Jonida Maliqi. This was the first entry selected as it was selected in the venerable Festivali i Këngës in December last year. Its ethnic-classical vibe and Jonida’s epic wailing vocals remained as thrilling back in December as it is now, and since this is the only full non-English entry in this semifinal, it is an undeniable standout. Besides those elements I described, what struck me about this ballad is that it reminded me fondly of Madonna‘s epic 1998 hit “Frozen“, and at least this is one of the closest connections we have to the real deal, who is slated as an interval act this year.
NORWAY: “Spirit in the Sky” – KEiiNO. This trio is composed of a couple of Melodi Grand Prix alumni Tom Hugo and Alexandra Rotan, who competed separately last year, plus a Sami joik singer/rapper Fred-Rene Buljo. On the surface, this is a toe-tapping slice of catchy Euro-pop with a Sami twist, but if you plumb a bit deeper, there is an empowerment message to this song. Tom recalled his experiences trying to cover up his true sexuality from the public when he wrote this song, and was also inspired by the spirituality of the Sami folk and the healing power their spirituality provides. Alexandra connected to the song especially with her own experiences with negative remarks from record company executives about her looks, shape, even voice so she joined in this project, and well, in the case of Fred-Rene, well, the Sami people are a marginalized people throughout the Nordic region. There were concerns how they will stage this as many were critical with the national final staging. A stripped down yet sophisticated presentation featuring an appropriately mountainous backdrop is getting positive notices, so albeit not really considered a shoo-in, its prospects for advancing to the final is strong.
I just can’t help but add a piquant note: doesn’t Fred-René Buljo resemble René Dif from Aqua? Take a look at the side-to-side shots below.
NETHERLANDS: “Arcade” – Duncan Laurence. Yes, this artist is relatively unknown even in his home country (except for those who follow The Voice of Holland). But once this music video was released, a torrent of tears fell across the internet fandom. It’s a high quality song that could keep up with classic Coldplay ballads like “The Scientist” or “Fix You“, and now I have an almost Pavlovian reaction and get at least misty-eyed (if you read my Aretha Franklin piece, that’s the memory this song triggers). Almost immediately this tops the oddsmakers’ charts, and its status as favorite has not been relinquished since then. Sure, there are people disappointed so far with the staging, but then again, “Toy“‘s winner prospects were downgraded during the rehearsal and semifinal phase and look what happened. I’m still very bullish on the prospects of a fifth victory for this country.
I would also be amiss to note that the person responsible for making this whole thing happen was The Common Linnets’ Ilse de Lange, who had a very successful foray here five years ago with Waylon, placing second with “Calm After the Storm“. After that stint, she became a celebrity coach for The Voice of Holland and had this guy under her wing. He fared respectably, placing Top Eight, and the winner for that season also eventually competed in Eurovision–sister act OG3NE who saw action in 2017 with the well-regarded “Light and Shadows“, which placed 11th in the final that year. Duncan still kept in touch with Ilse after the competition, and shared some of the songs he was working on. “Arcade” perked up Ilse’s ears and asked if she can submit his song to the Dutch broadcaster for consideration as this year’s Eurovision entry. Needless to say, the rest is history. I wonder if Ilse and the TV executives were bawling their eyes out as they listened to this song and said “this is it!” Duncan has the right attitude and not count the chickens until they hatch, but I’m excited to see if this will have its date with destiny and indeed be the winner.
NORTH MACEDONIA: “Proud” – Tamara Todevska. It’s a polished ballad that is so in-the-nose about its female empowerment message. I respect this ballad a lot but I don’t like “message” songs that are too in-the-nose–I prefer those with added layers, or twists, like, say, Netta‘s “Toy“, for example. Still, there is heavy support for this, and Tamara is undoubtedly a superb vocalist–she reminds me so much of superstar Pink in terms of vocal timbre. Anyway, this is not her first go-round in this arena. She competed 11 years ago with rapper Vrčak and singer Adrian Gaxha with the song “Let Me Love You“–they came close to making the final as it placed 10th in the popular vote but the system at that time has it that the Top Nine will automatically advance and the 10th slot is allotted to a jury darling*1. She is out for vindication to finally earn that finals slot, but there are formidable contenders in this group so I wonder at whose expense–ARMENIA? ALBANIA? NORWAY? ROMANIA? MALTA?
*1 That jury darling happened to be Sweden’s Charlotte Perrelli with “Hero“, which placed 12th in the popular vote. Under her maiden name Nilsson, she won Eurovision 1999 with “Take Me to Your Heaven“.
AZERBAIJAN: “Truth” – Chingiz. Last year, this country’s perfect finals track record was broken as it was bracketed in the notorious “semifinal of death”. In fact it placed 11th in that semifinal, so it came close. Such concerns are not likely to happen this time, as this sleek electro-pop number generated better buzz and impact. My initial concern is that in the chorus, it seems Chingiz’s vocals are drowned out. But then came the staging, and it’s very impressive–two robots lasering in towards his heart as on the backdrop there is a simulated hologram of a beating heart, and Chingiz’s vocals are better asserted onstage, and he’s terrific. Many buzzing that not only is he a finals shoo-in, he can make a play for the Top Five. Looking forward on how it all unfolds…
Now that all 18 semifinalists in this group are accounted for, here’s my take on who will qualify to the final:
TOP 10: ARMENIA, SWITZERLAND, ROMANIA, SWEDEN, MALTA, RUSSIA, ALBANIA, NORWAY, NETHERLANDS, AZERBAIJAN
BUBBLING UNDER: DENMARK, AUSTRIA, NORTH MACEDONIA
COMING UP: THE AUTOMATIC FINALISTS and the “FEARFUL” FORECAST