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.
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.
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 Soler, Ruth Lorenzo, Edurne, and 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.;