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

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

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.

Lefl:  Fred-Rene Buljo; Right:  Rene Dif of Aqua

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

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

Many fans might perceive the second semifinal this year as the “semifinal of death” but you wouldn’t know that by watching the first half–though there a couple of oddsmakers favorites in this bracket the others are less heralded.

ARMENIA:  “Walking Out” – Srbuk.  This sassy empowerment entry got many fans a-tizzy as it instantly garnered very positive buzz, with a possible play for the Top 10 in the final.  The video featured Srbuk with a multitude of backup dancers whom she seems to be battling against and fans were expecting to see a few of them at least onstage.  But when the staging is revealed, it turns out it will be Srbuk all alone and many felt it’s a misfire that might jeopardize this entry’s status as a shoo-in.  I’m still optimistic about this entry’s prospects of advancing to the final but indeed, the staging could potentially cost them.

IRELAND:  “22” – Sarah McTernan.  On its own this retro 1980s synth-pop ditty is a pleasant listen but is not in serious contention to advance to the final, and that sentiment is reinforced as the producers slated this to perform second.  So far, the rehearsals seem to show that Sarah’s vocals are not quite pitch perfect but we’re hopeful that this would be remedied by the time they have to perform for the juries.  Anyway, Ireland is not giving up without a fight as the pop-art staging is actually terrific.

MOLDOVA:  “Stay” – Ana Odobescu.  If this were 2007, it would not only qualify to the final but place in the Top Ten, as it’s of the same caliber as Natalia Barbu‘s “Fight“.  But what worked in 2007 would sound dated a decade later and that is the case with this.  One thing is certain–Ana'[s vocals are unimpeachable, as it’s consistently ferocious.  Her voice reminds me of another powerhouse vocalist:  Taylor Dayne.  It’s such a shame Ana is saddled with a mediocre song.  So what to do?  They seemed to be inspired by a scenario back in 2011 as Ukraine’s Mika Newton had the same dilemma with her song “Angel“, and what they did was hire a sand artist who would provide a stage backdrop for her performance via screen projection.  The gambit worked as this placed fourth in the final.  So, the same artist was hired for this performance.  But the fandom threw shade on this, and I have a feeling this time the gambit would not work.

SWITZERLAND:  “She Got Me” – Luca Hänni.  Sure Wiwibloggs’ Deban Aderemi may dismiss this as “DespaFuego“, but it’s undeniable this entry has all the elements that will finally deliver this country out of a five-year drought, as it’s a slick production and it’s very modern, radio-friendly and catchy.  On top of that, Luca is renowned for his dance skills, which makes him poised to become the male equivalent of Eleni Foureira.  The staging indeed follows the “Fuego” template–he ditched the suit and fedora for a more casual stage get-up and he’s accompanied by four backup singers and dancers clad in red.  And like Eleni, his vocals may not be perfect but he stays on key most of the time, which is enough for a high energy, dance-oriented performance like this one.

I would be amiss to note that for many observers who were not aware of Luca, the first thing they notice is that he resembles Nick Jonas.  Little did we realize he and Luca also share the same evolution from boyis cutie to chiseled, stubbled hunk.  Observe their transformations below.

Then and now: Nick Jonas
Then and now: Luca Hanni

LATVIA:  “That Night” – Carousel.  There are some fans who appreciate this very subdued, quiet number, especially since the lead singer Sabīne Žuga is mostly pitch perfect.  That worked with Laura Rizzotto last year, but the difference is that Laura spiced up her presentation (with a subtle change in wardrobe even if her presentation was essentially similar to her national final peformance) while this act did nothing to add more interest in their presentation and what was an initimate presentation on a smaller national final stage was drowned out by the vaster Tel Aviv stage.

ROMANIA:  “On a Sunday” – Ester Peony.  Though I’m still stewing over the fact that neither Bella Santiago nor Laura Bretan was chosen to represent this country, I have to give much respect to this entry as it actually grew on me that it became one of my favorite songs in this year’s batch.  Its mix of a laid-back jazzy groove (think Hungary’s Unsubstantial Blues” by Magdi Ruzsa back in 2007) with ominous minor key instrumentation help create an unsettling vibe befitting this tale of heartache.  There is an appropriate gothic vibe in the stage presentation, especially with the male backup dancers acting like manservants subservient to Ester’s bidding.  I can see this bringing Romania back to the finals.

DENMARK:  “Love is Forever” – Leonora.  Leonora employed an old Eurovision trick that was prevalent back in the 1960s to 1990s–peppering verses sung in other languages than the main language.  In this case, the main language is English and Leonora sang verses in French, German and Danish.  Will that old-fashioned gambit work in this day and age?  I’m not sure–the song is just a tad twee to my ears, but I have to hand it that Leonora is a good singer and stays on pitch throughout at least.

SWEDEN:  “Too Late for Love” – John Lundvik.  In many ways, this could be viewed as the successor to Cesar Sampson‘s mantle, and like Cesar he’s likely going to be a huge jury darling.  In my opinion, this is a big improvement to Cesar Sampson as 1) I always felt uncomfortable when I hear Cesar sing the title line, as I always get an image of him suddenly dressed up in a ballgown-I don’t get that vibe with John and this song as this is such an upbeat bop; and 2) unlike Cesar being the only visible onstage performer, John shares the spotlight with his backing vocalists (“The Mamas” as he dubbed them) and their presence indeed enhance the presentation.  Yes, this entry is a shoo-in for the finals and could sustain a Top Ten finish for this country.

I also have to note that the pleasure I derive from John’s entry is similar to the pleasure I get watching the climactic “Holy Holy” number from Sister Act 2.  Yes, this movie is not really well-regarded, but it remains one of my biggest guilty pleasures.

AUSTRIA:  “Limits” – PÆNDA.  The musical scout Eberard Forcher noted that this entry could be considered divisive, but to my ears, there is nothing divisive about this mellow, delicate ballad.  Divisive is what you can describe Tulia, Conan Osiris, or Hatari but not this artist.  It’s a very pleasant listen–if there is anything to debate about this entry it would be its prospects of advancing to the final.  It’s not a sure thing that this would advance even if this country has a track record for being a big jury darling.  Though there are positive notices about her stage presentation, the fact that the song tend to be deemed as low impact may hamper its chances to advance, especially with a group of heavy hitters like what could be found in the second half ot he semifinal.

COMING UP: 2ND HALF of 2ND SEMIFINAL