RESULTS REACTION: EUROVISION 2019 1ST SEMIFINAL

After all the drama about Israel hosting this contest, the Eurovision Song Contest went underway without an apparent hitch.  And KAN delivered a terrific show so far, with this show opening with a fabulous encore performance of Netta‘s “Toy“, featuring a ballad intro accompanying a semi-fictional biopic of little Netta inspired by the victory of Dana International (more on her later) 20 years prior and inspiring her to pursue her musical dreams even with the detraction by her peers.  Then, we are treated to Netta performing the song live and fostering positive body image by wearing a leotard.

The hosts this year are veteran hosts Erez Tal, Assi Azar, and Lucie Ayoub and model Bar Refaeli, Erez and Bar are the main stage hosts, while Assi and Lucie work the Green Room.  For me the Green Room hosts are the standouts–Assi charms with his hunky handsomeness and energetic interview style, and his distinctive Hebrew accent gives me the shudders the way some housewives might swoon over Fabio; meanwhile Lucie is very cool and unflappable and was a perfect, considerate interviewer.  Erez was also cool and competent.  Bar is the weakest link of this quartet, but she didn’t commit any serious gaffes so she’s all right.

Hosts: Assi Azar, Lucie Ayoub, Bar Refaeli, and Erez Tal

This year’s postcards also have a twist–instead of simply seeing the artists enjoying the sights of various Israeli locations, they also had to dance.  I actually enjoyed the postcard sequences as the postcards look like scenes from a Bollywood movie or a modern take on a movie musical (e.g., La La Land) hence making for a heightened sensory experience.  During the interval, they actually featured a mashup of the postcards set to a remix of Izhar Cohen & Alphabeta‘s 1978 winning song “A-ba-ni-bi“.

The interval act for this round is provided by Dana International, She offered a remake of Bruno Mars‘ 2010 hit “Just the Way You Are“, turning it into a ballad-turned-into-electro-dance rave-up, adding themes of self-affirmation and a plea for LGBTQ love rights.  Dana vocally doesn’t quite measure up to Bruno, but this is a worthwhile effort.

Now, I got seven out of 10 finalists correct.  The three I didn’t get were in my “Bubbling Under” list so their inclusion is not that shocking.  But are they worthy based on their performance?  For CZECH REPUBLIC (“Friend of a Friend” by Lake Malawi) and BELARUS (“Like It” by ZENA), the answer is an unequivocal yes.  Lake Malawi’s live chops and charisma truly shone–I’m glad frontman Albert Černý combed his hair back and channeled the charisma of Shawn Mendes.  ZENA meanwhile delivers an assured confidence we rarely see on people of her age (she’s only 16), and she’s nailed her vocals.  Bonus points for the backflipping backup dancer.

Now, about the third qualifer I missed, SAN MARINO (“Say Na Na Na” by Serhat)?  There is a lot of goodwill for this entry, but I was shocked how off-key Serhat sounded this night and I had previously mentioned the staging pales in comparison to what he did back in 2016.  Still, kudos for Serhat for bringing SAN MARINO to the finals for the second time in its entire history.

Now, what about the entries I projected would make the final but failed?  For POLAND (“Pali się (Fire of Love)” by Tulia), it always was a divisive entry, with some appreciating their “white voice” sound and others disliking it, so perhaps it could not win enough supporters because of that.  Still, I have to salute their strong, dynamic presentation–wonder how they were able to have a turntable one time and then disappear after a few seconds?  And their outfits are bright and colorful and I love the video backdrop with the four singers sporting modern looks.

There are a lot of fans saddened that HUNGARY (Az én apám [My father]” by Joci Papai) missed the cut and broke his country’s eight-year qualification streak, but for me, I partly expected it as even if the staging is actually very appropriate (meaning, it’s very simple), it doesn’t have much impact and most viewers don’t speak Hungarian so as much as Joci gave his all, it’s not enough to connect the public.

But the shut-out I’m most upset about is PORTUGAL (“Telemoveis” by Conan Osiris).  Sure, we can pinpoint the wardrobe color choice to be a misstep as it didn’t make the dance movements pop, or that dancer João Reis Moreira delivered more fly dance moves during the national final than here, but even this performance is still an indelible and unforgettable that this is more finals-worthy than, say, SAN MARINO.

Now, who is likely to take the rear in this round?  For me, that would be MONTENEGRO (“Heaven” by D Mol) though I have a feeling there would be points from SERBIA and SLOVENIA tossed in its way.  The song is simply that weak and the staging is sloppy.

We need to provide commendation to GEORGIA (“Keep on Going” by Oto Nemsadze) as the fiery staging elevates the song that there are people who believe it could be an upset finalist.  Most especially the backup singer Mikheil Javakhishvili, who previously experienced heartbreak last year as part of Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao that also missed the final cut–the camera panned a closeup of him carrying his country’s flag nervously waiting for the results.  For that alone, I felt very sad for him that they missed the cut.

Mikheil Javakhishvili (R) nervously awaiting it Georgia would be called into the final.

Now, who are the top performers this evening?  Though CYPRUS (“Replay” by Tamta) delivered on its favorite status and did perform strongly, I have to note that her vocal delivery was far from pitch-perfect.  No way will this beat or equal “Fuego”.

As expected, ICELAND (Hatrið mun sigra” by Hatari) delivered on its dystopian BDSM fireworks-laden fantasy.  I’m not as confident that this will sustain the 10-year cycle delivered by Selma and Yohanna, but I’m so pleased they broke out of the five-year doldrums (and deservingly so).

GREECE (“Better Love” by Katerine Duska) delivered on both visual spectacle and vocal fireworks–Katerine’s high notes are a treat to behold and the opulent staging with lotus motif and that Fabergé-egg-shaped backdrop was a visual feast.  Prior to this, many expected this to top this semifinal, but one performance beat her to it…

AUSTRALIA (“Zero Gravity” by Kate Miller-Heidke) was the highlight of this round.  The cosmic backdrop and Kate’s elegant baby-blue ballgown were highlights by themselves, but what makes this presentation very special was the extra degree of difficulty with Kate suspended on a moving pole and singing operatically at the same time.  Moving around those things are already hard enough but to sing and stay on-key the way Kate did?  Stupendous!  For this level of performance, this deserves a Top Five finish in the final at the very least.

Onwards to the second semifinal, where the big heavy-hitters and oddmakers favorites are.  Would they deliver on the hype?

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2019 SONG PREVIEW: AUTOMATIC FINALISTS

It’s now time to check on the automatic finalists.  Will any of them have a chance of winning it all?

FRANCE:  “Roi [King]” – Bilal Hassani.  Despite keeping a masculine name and the song title is a “masculine” noun*1, everything about Bilal is non-gender binary, and this song is an empowerment anthem about embracing who you are.  The bilingual song (sung in both French and English) is co-written by the previous French Eurovision representative, Madame Monsieur (“Mercy“).  While “Mercy” was highly regarded and initially considered a front-runner that then faded during the final, the initial fan buzz on this entry was a tad muted, with many predicting it will finish mid-board or a tad lower.  But when the staging was revealed, with the inclusion of a plus-sized ballerina and an Asian deaf dancer, this song’s prospects rose, that many are believing it can make a play for the Top 10.  I have to say, the presentation is highly laudable and enhances the song’s message–this is arguably the best staging France has made in at least two decades.  Let’s see how high this will fare this Saturday.

*1 Romance languages like French, Italian, and Spanish require their nouns to have gender.

GERMANY:  “Sister” – S!sters. After cracking the Top Five last year with Michael Schulte‘s “You Let Me Walk Alone“, this country is hoping to sustain a strong showing with this entry.  Despite having a pocket of supporters, for most people it looks like this entry will bring Germany back to the bottom of the pack.  For starters, there are people who cast suspicion on how this act made the cut late into the national final’s selection process–with an act composed of two erstwhile soloists who seemed to be paired together by the broadcaster, and how the system seems set up to ensure their win.  Then, though the song has a laudable female empowerment message, most fans don’t feel they are offering anything fresh or compelling with this entry.  Finally, the staging is not that encouraging as it doesn’t make a standout impression.

ISRAEL:  “Home” – Kobi Marimi. Kobi can be considered the Israeli equivalent to Josh Groban, as his singing style veers towards classical/operatic.  The song has a haunting intro that for me evokes those Jewish hymns and made me recall the Holocaust.  I think that was the intention, as a defense for those detractors clamoring for a boycott to this contest for the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians–it’s like a reminder that Jews who now rule this country had a long history of being oppressed.  For that, there are people who felt an emotional connection to this song.  Me, well, I can’t get past the treacly sentimental melody on the rest of the song.  Plus, the chorus has a sticking point for me–it sounds so similar to SWEDEN’s entry this year, albeit disguised as a downbeat ballad.  Every time I hear it, I couldn’t help but sing “Too Late for Love” on top of it.  So, even if officially John Lundvik is credited as songwriter for two Eurovision entries this year, in my reckoning he’s in a tie with Laurell Barker with three as I think John is owed songwriting credit for the chorus.

ITALY:  “Soldi [Money]” – Mahmood. Mahmood is half-Egyptian, half-Sicilian, so one might worry how he might be received the by Israelis, as even if there is a peace pact between Israel and Egypt for over 40 years, the sentiment of the regular people from those two countries e reportedly adversarial.  Well, if you learn about his background, he’s not that connected to the Arab side of his heritage, and that is reflected on this song.  His Egyptian father is a distant figure to him as he and his mother divorced when Mahmood was a kid and had moved on to at least three more marriages since then.  So, there’s nothing for Israelis to worry about and he’s welcomed with open arms.  And the song?  A sophisticated hip-hop inflected groove-tastic number with the catchiest handclap hook around.  And the lyrics narrating the story I just talked about made me recall another foreign-language “missing-father” classic, “Papaoutai” by Belgian artist Stromae.  For me this song is at the same caliber as that classic.

SPAIN:  “La venda (The blindfold)” – Miki Nuñez. This upbeat brassy number grows on me on further listens, just like my regard for the singer.  At first listen, I would think this would finish close to the bottom of the pack, but as the weeks go on, I was won over by the bright jumpy energy Miki brings to this song that I think this could even make a play to the left side of the scoreboard.  The bright colorful staging with the big robot gimmick will most likely bring Spain out of the sub-20 doldrums it has been finishing for the past five years.

UNITED KINGDOM: “Bigger Than Us” – Michael Rice.  Originally, Swedish singer/songwriter John Lundvik was planning to enter this song for this year’s Melodifestivalen, but it was rejected so he decided to share the song with the UK’s BBC, which took it and made it one of their three songs that they made the public vote on, with two artists each offering their version of those songs.  Ultimately this gospel-tinged number got the right to carry the Union Jack to this contest.  Initially, I would place this in the bottom of the finals pack, but Michael’s strong vocals win you over, the way Lucie Jones eventually wore down resistance two years ago with “Never Give Up On You” and finished at a respectable 15th place.  I’m hopeful this will at least finish mid-table, but the staging might drag it down as it’s not really remarkable.  Sure, he has Eurovision alum Sahlene*4 as one of his backup singers, but she and the other backup singers are not like John Lundvik’s “Mammas”.

*4 She is a Swede who competed for Estonia in 2002 with “Runaway“.  It placed in a tie for third.

With all entries accounted for, here’s who I think will make the Top Ten in the finals.

TOP TEN:  CYPRUS, AUSTRALIA, ICELAND, GREECE, SWITZERLAND, SWEDEN, RUSSIA, NETHERLANDS, AZERBAIJAN, ITALY

BUBBLING UNDER:  SLOVENIA, CZECH REPUBLIC, ARMENIA, MALTA, ALBANIA, NORWAY, FRANCE, SPAIN

Now, what I predict will do well does not always jibe with my personal choices, so here’s my list of Top 10 favorites.

1) NETHERLANDS 2) PORTUGAL 3) ICELAND 4) ITALY 5) SWITZERLAND 6) NORWAY 7) AUSTRALIA 8) SWEDEN 9) AZERBAIJAN 10) ESTONIA

BUBBLING UNDER:   MALTA, ARMENIA, ALBANIA, RUSSIA, CYPRUS, GREECE, ROMANIA, FINLAND, SERBIA, CZECH REPUBLIC

Let’s see how everything unfolds.  How high will risk-takers like AUSTRALIA and ICELAND would fare?  And how high will RUSSIA fare?  And can the likes of ITALY, SWITZERLAND, and AZERBAIJAN (along with the previously mentioned countries) have what it takes to stop NETHERLANDS’ juggernaut to victory?  Good luck to all the entries.

JUST ME!

JOSEPH