Category Archives: Pop Culture

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2017: SONG PREVIEW — AUTOMATIC FINALISTS

As per the rules implemented since 2008, the five biggest contributors to the EBU and the previous year’s winning country are granted automatic slots in the finals.  This year, there is a mix of entries that are rated as likely to figure in the bottom of the finals, one that is gaining in regard as the weeks wore on and likely to rise a bit from the doldrums it has been experiencing as of late, one entry likely to sustain or build on last year’s renaissance, and one that is touted as the favorite to win it all.  Without further ado let us begin with…

FRANCE:  “Requiem” – Alma.  It’s a well-crafted song that fused the traditional chanson style with modern pop sensibilities.  Though many fans felt the decision to change the original lyrics in most of the chorus into English diminished the song (and the recorded result was such an obvious patch job), it still seemed to remain in relatively high regard amongst fans.  Though most fans still have a higher regard for Amir’s “J’ai Cherche”, there are factors that could make this entry possibly exceed last year’s 6th place showing.  First, Alma has been proven to be a consistently strong singer live.  Second, the relative strengths of the rest of the pack still makes it possible that this entry could manage to squeak by with a higher rank.  And third, Alma possesses a down-to-earth gorgeousness that is irresistible. If there is a “Miss Eurovision”, she’s my winner for this year (1st runner-up is FYR Macedonia’s Jana Burčeska)–interestingly coincidental that the reigning Miss Universe is also from her country, Iris Mittenaere.

GERMANY:  “Perfect Life” – Levina.  I have a feeling the producers felt that to boost the appeal of her interpretation of the song*4, they had to tack in the intro from David Guetta’s 2011 smash hit “Titanium” onto this song.  The problem with that, unfortunately, that groove was too recognizable that it’s obviously a rip-off instead of a homage.  It made the public lower their regard for this otherwise pleasant-enough song.  So it is likely Germany will again end up in the cellar for the finals, though there is a hope that the backlash over the selection of another Big Five entry could help it avoid a last place finish.

*4 The way this year’s search for the Eurovision representative for Germany was done is that they had five finalist artists who would interpret two songs, “Perfect Life” and “Wildfire” and through a four-round elimination process, the public selects the winning artist, and then selects the winning song from that artist.  The two songs were given a variety of arrangements apparently to suit the artists’ disparate styles.

ITALY:  “Occidentali’s Karma” – Francesco Gabbani.  When I first learned of this entry’s victory at the Sanremo Song Festival, admittedly I didn’t latch on to it immediately though I appreciate the unique presentation, the strong performance, and of course the dancing gorilla.  The first thing that came to my mind when I looked at the singer was the surrealist artist Salvador Dali (but without the famous quirky mustache).  The dancing gorilla does qualify as a surrealistic sight, but more on that later. But after listening to the song again and again and read the translation of the Italian lyrics (along with the interpretation as published by Wiwibloggs), the more I fell in love with it and realize this is a rare work of genius.  Let me explain why:

First, how many songs could you think of that references literature, science and philosophy?  This song opens with clever wordplay combining William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet and Erich Fromm‘s 1976 book To Have or To Be , as the opening line translates to “To be or to have to be”.  Then there is that motto from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Panta Rhei” (“everything flows”), those shout outs to Buddha and the concepts of Nirvana and Karma (prominent in the title and chorus, of course), and references to Desmond Morris‘ famous 1967 book The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal with the line “The naked ape is dancing”.  And then combine that with modern pop culture references like the internet, selfies, hanging out in coffee shops, and yoga lessons, and have them all make sense?  Desmond Morris was interviewed about what he thought about the song, and he gave it his ringing endorsement, comparing this work to John Lennon and Bob Dylan–and so many people know that is high praise if a work could be compared to such legends.  With dancing apes actually an essential part of this song’s lyrics, featuring a dancing gorilla in the song’s presentation can be considered integral and hence we can add the art of surrealism (of which Salvador Dali is one of its main proponents) as another of this entry’s highbrow references.

Desmond Morris meeting with Francesco Gabbani in Oxford, England

Second, the song can be appreciated in several levels.  One level is the intellectual concepts that I have mentioned in the above paragraph.  Another level is that it can be read as a screed against the materialistic values of modern society and how Westerners appropriate Oriental rituals without understanding their true essence. But for those who don’t understand Italian and wouldn’t bother to go deep into the song’s meaning, well there’s always the catchy groove and melody to bop your head and dance along to.  And for more visually inclined folks, yes the dancing gorillas already have proven to hook viewers in, if one can recall Bruno Mars‘ video for “The Lazy Song, and Coldplay‘s video for “Adventure of a Lifetime–and neither of those songs made dancing apes an essential part of the lyrics like this song.  Again, it’s hard to think of a song that deftly covers all such layers at the same time.

I do have to note that to meet the three-minute-maximum rule, in order to shave off 37 seconds from the song they had to shorten the first verse and eliminate the entire second verse–well, there is good reason for the latter as it references the brand Chanel, which is also against EBU rules.  This did result in diluting the song’s power, as the most biting lyrics are found in the second verse, what with an interpolation of Karl Marx‘s famous line “Religion is the opiate of the masses” (in this verse, he tweaked it to point that the new opiate is social media).  Still, the melody and hooks remain intact, so for most people (like myself) it’s still the song most people adore.

The music from this song also made me reflect and recall the popular 1980s and early 1990s pop-dance hits that are distinctively Italian–listening to “Occidentali’s Karma”‘s swirling synths at the bridge made me recall Gazebo’s “I Like Chopin” (1983), and the chugging, tinkling keyboard-based groove from that song also echoes throughout this entry, and in other classic hits like Laura Branigan’s “Self Control”*5 (1984), Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy”*6 (1985), and the European mixes of Black Box‘s legendary 1989-1991 oeuvre like “Ride on Time“, “Everybody Everybody“, and “Strike It Up“.  The name that Black Box producers used to name their production outfit, “Groove Groove Melody”, perfectly fits that characteristic of this music.

*5 Laura Branigan’s biggest hits “Gloria” and “Self Control” are actually cover versions of songs from Italian artists, Umberto Tozzi and Raff respectively.

*6 Most people think Baltimora is the late Jimmy McShane from Northern Ireland, but the act is a group.  It is also argued that the real lead singer of “Tarzan Boy” was composer/producer Maurizio Bassi judging from the accented delivery and that Jimmy was hired as frontman primarily for his looks and dancing skills.

Oddsmakers and fans alike are declaring this the one to beat in this year’s contest and I so agree with them.  Yes, there might be possible upsets in the offing, but I’m still bullish that this entry could bring forth Italy’s third victory in this contest.

Salvador Dali

SPAIN:  “Do It for Your Lover” – Manel Navarro.  The entry garnered notoriety for winning a tiebreak from the jury instead of popular votes as is the typical rule in most selections, plus insinuations of conflict of interest with a reported close personal connection between one of the celebrity jurors and the artist.  With that baggage, many fans speculate Germany’s last place finish in the finals over the past two years would now be broken and this will be the one to occupy that slot.  But in the musical sense, does it deserve the derision?  To my ears, this breezy acoustic song is actually a pleasant listen, though yes the English chorus is a bit too repetitive for comfort and lacking substance.  It’s not that bad, but definitely way behind the quality delivered by Pastora SolerRuth Lorenzo, Edurneand Barei–all underrated (the latter two woefully so) gems.

UKRAINE:  “Time” – O. Torvald.  It seems Ukraine takes the opportunity to veer from a proven formula when it becomes the host country–that is, choose an all-male act instead of a female singer (or in one rare exception, a comedic drag act).  This time, it chose a hard rock act.  Musically, this entry reminds me of Linkin Park’s “In the End” sans the hip-hop elements.  If we follow precedent, it is likely that this entry would end up with a low ranking in the finals, but then again, it might have a bit of traction as the sole bastion of rock in this year’s contest.

UNITED KINGDOM:  “Never Give Up on You” – Lucie Jones.  The song was co-written by a previous Eurovision champion, Denmark’s Emelie de Forest.  As performed in the national final, it was a sweet, classically tinged ballad with a chorus that made me fantasize a mash-up remix with the 1998 pan-European hit “Mysterious Times” by Sash featuring Tina Cousins.  The recent production revamp improved this entry significantly as it finally sounded like a lush, contemporary ballad.  It will likely end up in the middle of the pack, perhaps even equaling or exceeding the 17th place showing of well-regarded but underrated “Children of the Universe” by Molly back in 2014.

If my predictions on the semfinals hold, here’s who I think will finish in the Top Ten:

SWEDEN, BELGIUM, AZERBAIJAN, POLAND, RUSSiA, F Y R MACEDONIA, BULGARIA, ESTONIA, FRANCE, ITALY

BUBBLING UNDER:  AUSTRALIA, PORTUGAL, GREECE, CYPRUS, MOLDOVA, SERBIA, ROMANIA, HUNGARY, DENMARK, ISRAEL

What I predict would finish high doesn’t necessarily mean they are my favorites.  So let me share my list of favorites in order of preference:

ITALY, BELGIUM, SWEDEN, ISRAEL, F Y R MACEDONIA, MOLDOVA, ROMANIA, GREECE, FINLAND, ICELAND

BUBBLING UNDER:  NORWAY, AZERBAIJAN, FRANCE, UNITED KINGDOM, ESTONIA

Interesting the three of my big Top Ten favorites this year are catchy jams that you set your brain aside to relax and have some fun, but my biggest favorite was the one that is the most cerebral song that have been fielded in this contest in ages.  I’m rooting for genius to win here, though I’m rooting for the three “brainless” jams to succeed, too.

I’ll check as rehearsals are underway next month and I’ll send an updated article with notes if there are significant changes in how I think this contest will turn out.;

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2017: SONG PREVIEW — 2ND SEMIFINAL (PART 2)

The second half of the second semifinal is a pretty eclectic mix.  There are still ballads in this group, but there are a host of more uptempo numbers featured.

SAN MARINO:  “Spirit of the Night” – Valentina Monetta & Jimmie Wilson.  This is Valentina’s fourth go-round in this contest, and this time she is partnered with an American singer based in Germany.  It’s a boppy retro-disco number, as if  German songwriter/producer  Ralph Siegel dusted off a song idea he had come up with back in the late 1970s or early 1980s and with the help of a couple of other collaborators polished this off for this contest.  In the hierarchy of songs Valentina had performed, this is below the standards of “Crisalide (Vola)” and “Maybe” and, well, almost anything is better than “The Social Network Song (Oh Oh – Uh – Oh Oh)“.  I don’t really expect it to make the cut, but it’s nice to see Valentina back.  It’s one of my favorite underdogs.

CROATIA:  “My Friend” – Jacques Houdek.  The song makes me envision a 1980s/1990s sentimental duet between a boy band and Andrea Bocelli (I don’t think that actually happened but that’s what the sound of this song evokes) covering the Julio Iglesias / Stevie Wonder 1988 duet “My Love”.   What about the spoken word intro?  I found it cringeworthy, reminding me of Christian music artist Don Moen‘s songs (that tend to be blared by some religiously-inclined jeepney and taxi drivers in our shores to this day).  I think juries dislike songs dripping with sentimentality like this one, but then again, the fact that the youthful boy-band parts and the Italian opera parts are performed by the same guy may be impressive enough to make some of them toss points his way.  On top of that, expect the Slavic bloc to rally behind this to make it advance, even if there are better songs out there.  Now I wonder–there is an overlapping section in the song’s climax where Jacques roared into a high boyband falsetto and simultaneously there is an operatic counterpoint–I doubt Jacques could do both so wonder which part he’ll do live and which part will be relegated to one of the backup singers?

NORWAY:  “Grab the Moment” – JOWST.  This is a hip, modern, electronic song with terrific vocals from Alexander Walmann, who deftly handled the intricate verses and kept perfect pitch.  I have to note that I doubt the EBU now allows pre-recorded vocals so I wonder which option will JOWST do with the vocal samples prominent in this song–muffle them into wordless effects (like what was done with Poli Genova‘s performance of “If Love Was A Crime during the contest), or have backup singers simulate the vocal samples, a la Pentatonix‘s cover of Kiiara’s “Gold”?  Another thing I also observe is that as awesome a vocalist Alexander Walmann is, there is a disconnect between the way he looks and his singing.  Close your eyes as he sings and you tend to envision a cute, slender, clean-shaven, youthful guy, but this guy is burly, scruffy, and a tad mature–the cowboy hat he sported in the national final did not help matters as he ended up looking like American country legend Garth Brooks (perhaps Garth could reinvent his much derided Chris Gaines persona*2 and cover this song).  Someone should hire a stylist for Alexander, stat!  Otherwise I’m rooting for this song to succeed, but I have a feeling it doesn’t really have much support except for Denmark (which would likely give it vingt-quatre points).  I hope the juries can help buttress this entry’s chances and reward its quality.

*2 In 1999, Garth attempted to perform rock-oriented non-country songs under the Chris Gaines persona, with the intentions of this persona being featured in a film.  Needless to say, it fared disappointingly.

Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind album cover (1991)

SWITZERLAND:  “Apollo” – Timebelle.  This country have tough luck in Eurovision for the past two years, faring last in the semifinal on both occasions–unfairly so in the first instance in my opinion*3.  Can this band break that streak?  The problem is that this country is not aligned to any bloc, and support from the likes of neighbors Austria, Germany, and France (the latter two being automatic finalists entitled to vote in this round) is not consistent over the years.  Still, this entry has its virtues with solid songcraft and consistently strong vocal chops from its lead singer, Miruna Mănescu.  Besides hoping for some jury love and support from its neighbors, another possible aid to bolster this entry’s chances is the fact that 2/3 of the band members are of Romanian origin, so expect vingt-quatre points from Romania (since Moldova is in the first semifinal, not in this bracket) and perhaps some televotes from the Romanian diaspora.

*3 I’m still extremely upset at the shocking last place finish of Melanie Rene‘s “Time to Shine” back in 2015–the song and the performance doesn’t deserve that showing.

BELARUS:  “Story of My Life” – Naviband.  For this contest, this band opts to use the English language version of its original title “Historyja majho žyccia” , even if the song remains to be performed in Belarusian.  There are fans who dig the earnest sunniness of this acoustic folk number, and considering that Hungary’s Boggie succeeded with a similar style (albeit a tad more somber) two years ago, prospects are bullish for this entry to advance.  This entry has its undeniable charms, so it is definitely highly conceivable.

BULGARIA:  “Beautiful Mess” – Bulgarian Bieber Kristian Kostov.  He’s the youngest entry in this year’s contest at a mere 17 years old, and he has the appeal and the vocal timbre that is similar to Canadian superstar Justin Bieber.  He evokes Justin’s middle stage from his Believe era from 2012-2014 (prior to his acclaimed output with his 2015 Purpose album), a stage that can also be described as Justin’s “douchebag” years, what with his various misdeeds in that period.  Fortunately, Kristian seems to be well-behaved so I hope he avoids going into the same trajectory as Bieber.  It is noted that this guy is actually also half-Russian, so if the Russian withdrawal materializes, it is possible that the votes that could’ve gone to Russia would be channeled to this entry instead, bolstering its chances for a possible win and outranking Poli Genova‘s breakthrough last year.  There was hype that they will be presenting a story onstage in Kiev, so I wonder how that will go.

LITHUANIA:  “Rain of Revolution” – Fusedmarc.  The lead singer reminds me of Valentina Monetta if she went punk and edgy.  Many people panned the song and poked fun at the excessive use of “Yeah yeah”s throughout this entry.  They are reportedly going to substitute some of the “Yeah yeah”s to “Your rain”.   I don’t see how that substitution would help improve this entry’s chances.

ESTONIA:  “Verona” – Koit Toome & Laura.  Koit competed in this contest 19 years ago, placing 12th, while Laura saw action under the girl group Suntribe 12 years ago.  Now they band together to performed this “star-crossed” duet influenced from the famous Shakespearean play Romeo & Juliet.   The song has a glossy, polished sheen that makes me recall the UK quintet Steps.

ISRAEL:  “I Feel Alive” – IMRI.  This qualifies as a guilty pleasure in my book as this dance jam have glaringly illogical lyrics like “Breaking me to pieces… / Every piece comes from you”, and his occasionally wonky diction (like the way he pronounces the word “hourglass” as “hour-gluhss”).  But the groove is too irresistible that it’s totally embedded in my head.  Its catchiness reminds me of a similarly mindless dance smash, Enrique Iglesia’s “I Like It”, which was used as the theme song for the MTV reality series Jersey Shore.  Hopefully, a presentation a la Nadav Guedj’s “Golden Boy” in 2015 would help ensure its advancement.

This heat is a bit tough to call as you wonder if quality will prevail or if the advancers would be based on voting blocs.  I have a feeling the latter will prevail so to advance are:

SERBIA, RUSSIA, FYR MACEDONIA, ROMANIA, HUNGARY, DENMARK, BELARUS BULGARIA, ESTONIA, ISRAEL

BUBBLING UNDER:  AUSTRIA, NETHERLANDS, CROATIA, NORWAY, SWITZERLAND

COMING UP:  AUTOMATIC FINALISTS

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST 2017: SONG PREVIEW — 2ND SEMIFINAL (PART 1)

The first half of the second semifinal is loaded with fare that could be classified as “Adult Contemporary”, with the exception of dance-pop offerings from two entries from the former Yugoslavia, and one attempt to bring yodeling to the 21st century.

SERBIA:  “In Too Deep” – Tijana Bogićević.  This is a lushly produced elegant pop song with drum-and-bass elements.  It garnered a lot of positive buzz so it is one of those likely to advance in the finals.  This is also the only entry from the former Yugoslavia to feature some ethnic instruments, albeit toned down in the mix to emphasize the song’s modernity.  I also noticed that timber of Tijana’s voice resembles Katy Perry in her more earnest moments in songs like “Firework

AUSTRIA:  “Running on Air” – Nathan Trent. This is a well-sung mellow, acoustic-based breezy pop ditty, one that might recall John Mayer or Jason Mraz.  It is likable and the cutesy charm of Nathan could help make this a finalist.

RUSSIA:  “Flame is Burning” – Julia Samoylova.  In recent years, Russia has been saddled with a “villain” image, that even if they field innocent lambs like the Tolmachevy Sisters and sing about world peace like Polina Gagarina, they are still vulnerably subject to derision by many Eurovision fans.  This issue has spilled to jury sentiment, as exhibited by the low amount of points Sergey Lazarev received from the jury votes last year, even as it dominated the popular vote.  I’m sure the Russian broadcaster spent significant amount of effort thinking about how they can win back the Eurovision fans’ sympathy.  Their solution:  field a disabled lady in a wheelchair to represent them–it’s horrible taste to boo at a disabled person, right?

I also have a more cynical observation about the strategy employed.  This particular lady-in-a-whhelchair also happens to have performed in the disputed territory of Crimea, which is currently verboten by the laws of the host country, Ukraine.  I think this was a deliberate decision to make the host country look bad and they can point out that Ukraine is not abiding by its slogan, “Celebrate Diversity”.  As expected, the Ukrainian government issued a ban for this singer, so her participation in this contest is in jeopardy, and despite the efforts of the EBU to offer a compromise, it is likely Russia will withdraw this year.  I think it’s also a win-win situation for Russia as if this lady couldn’t perform this year, they will field her for next year and that will further bolster more “sympathy” points in their corner.  Based on latest developments, a chief EBU officer has condemned the Ukrainian government’s action and threatened to impose penalties toward’s Ukraine’s future Eurovision participation.  I’m not that surprised what a big mess this has stirred up.

Now, what about the merits of this entry?  Okay, it’s well sung, and the song is sweet and inoffensive, though not my cup of tea.  Julia’s human interest story would resonate with the public, no doubt.  However, there is something about her perma-smile that makes me feel a tad uncomfortable–it reminded me of public sentiment towards the Carpenters when Karen Carpenter was still alive*1.  The difference is that in this song, Julia doesn’;t quite have Karen’s depth.  Julia also answers the unneceasary question of what do you get when you fuse Karen Carpenter and Carly Simon into one person.

*1 At the time, music critics tend to dismiss the brother-and-sister duo for being so relentlessly perky and it took Karen’s tragic death for most of them to reconsider their regard and appreciate the music better.  And they discovered there is gravitas in Karen’s singing that seemed to be hidden in plain sight and reveealed only when listening to them after her death.

I have a feeling the choice of song is actually a bit half-hearted as it definitely doesn’t showcase what Julia can do, especially if you saw her audition in Russia’s version of X-Factor covering Marija Šerifović’s Eurovision 2007-winning song “Molitva [Prayer]“.  It makes for a convincing argument that Russia has really no plans to participate this year and will come up with a stronger song for this lady when she would be fielded in next year’s Eurovision.  Whatever side you take in the Russia-vs-Ukraine argument, one would need to concede, “Well played, Russia.”

Karen Carpenter (L) and Carly Simon (R)

F Y R MACEDONIA:  “Dance Alone” – Jana Burčeska.  When this song was unveiled, I felt I was transported to a dance club in Miami circa 1980s-early 1990s.  It had that echoey synth-laden sound that is termed Hi-NRG.  This sound is characteristic of girl group acts of this era like Exposé, Sweet Sensation, Company B, and the Cover Girls.  It makes me wonder something–were these acts huge in the former Yugoslavia in those days?

Many fans are digging this (including myself) and there is hype it could bring forth this country’s best finish in this contest thus far.  Though I’m bullish, I am reserving my judgment until I hear this song performed live–from her Macedonian Idol videos it seemed she is capable of singing on-key in a variety of genres, but the echoey, glossy production of this tune made me concerned how well it would translate live.  I’m rooting for this to succeed, though.

MALTA:  “Endlessly” – Claudia Faniello.  The singer had proven she can sing this song well live.  The issue is the song is just too ordinary to make an impact.

ROMANIA:  “Yodel It!” – Ilinca & Alex Florea.  It looks like a welcome return for this country after its disqualification last year.  It clearly stands out with its attempt to make yodeling modern.  It so far polarized fans as some are extremely turned off while others loved it to bits–I’m in the latter camp.  But like the duo of Paula Seling and Ovi (who were both jurors in this year’s national selection and chose this act to win) the female singer’s vocal abilities are impressive.  With the wide Romanian diaspora around Europe (rivaling behind Poland), it will most likely garener high points with the popular vote.  Now the question is if juries would be impressed enough with Ilinca’s abilities to also toss points to this act’s favor.

NETHERLANDS:  “Lights and Shadows” – O’G3NE.  This trio is composed of three sisters, the tall blode eldest sister and the brunette twins.  Their main edge is their harmonies, and it is showcased in full with this song, composed by the girls’ father and boyfriend of one of the twin sisters (the jet-black-haired one).  The way these three sisters sing and the way they look is obviously reminiscent of the trio Wilson Phillips–even the title of this entry evokes the title of their less-successful sophomore album back in 1992.  It’s a song of decent quality, but will that be enough for this entry to advance to the finals?

Album cover for Wilson Phillips sophomore album Shadows & Light (1992)

HUNGARY:  “Origo [Origin]” – Joci Pápai.  This is an interesting fusion of folk music fused with modern production (with a rap at that), sung in a combination of Hungarian and Romany (a.k.a. Gypsy) languages.  It’s not for everyone’s tastes, but an expectedly strong presentation featuring a female Romany dancer could boost this entry’s prospects for advancing to the final.  Could it pull off a “Kevdesem“?  It’s possible.

DENMARK:  “Where I Am” – Anja Nissen.  Anja is undeniably a strong singer, and this song is stronger than this country’s previous two offerings to this contest.  Many fans are betting she can reverse the doldrums experienced by this country recently for failing to advance to the finals for the past two years.  But even with its strong merits, advancing to the finals is not guaranteed.  Sure it will get vingt-quatre points from its long-time best friend, Norway, but support from other countries is far from assured.

IRELAND:  “Dying to Try” – Brendan Murray.  He’s older than Isaiah, Blanche, Ilinca, and Bulgarian Bieber (Kristian Kostov), yet his voice and the treacly old-fashioned sentimentality of this song makes one think this is more suited for Junior Eurovision than in the big leagues.  It is touted that this has the imprimatur of music impresario Louis Walsh, but I don’t think this will break the four-year doldrums this country is experiencing.

COMING UP:  2ND HALF of 2ND SEMIFINAL