The entries in the second half of the semifinal features a major power bloc that could help ensure their prospects of advancing to the finals by virtue of shared cultural ties and hence giving generous points to each other. Let’s start with the first bloc member:
GREECE: “This is Love” – Demy. After the debacle that was “Utopian Land”, Greece is poised to recover its fortunes with this ballad-to-techno-dance raveup. It’s a strong entry, in my reckoning, and its prospects are boosted by the fact that it is likely to receive vingt-quatre points from Cyprus and vingt points from Armenia, and that other countries are also likely to toss points this way.
POLAND: “Flashlight” – Kasia Moś. This dramatically sung, classically tinged ballad has been garnering a lot of positive buzz that it’s likely this will advance to the finals. It’s a given it will garner a lot of points from the televote (especially with the Polish diaspora–expect a lot of points coming especially from the UK public) but unlike her predecessor, she can also gain significant points from the juries, too.
MOLDOVA: “Hey, Mamma!” – SunStroke Project. Back in 2010, this band became a sensation because of the gyrating dance moves of the saxophonist, who the interwebs dub “Epic Sax Guy”. Many fans felt their lowly 22nd place finish in the finals was unjust especially with the entertainment value delivered with this band. They had been attempting to return to this contest quite a few times since then, but it’s only this time they finally succeeded with this catchy party jam. Sure the lyrics are grammatically incorrect (“She’ll be back until sunrise”–should be “before sunrise”) and nursery-rhyme-cheesy but I still enjoy this entry immensely and rooting for it to succeed and vindicate its “weak” finish seven years ago. It’s a given they can deliver a flashy presentation and the wedding reception themed gimmick looks bound to generate more memes after the contest–I bet wedding receptions all across Europe will feature people imitating the choreography delivered by this band during the national finals. I would love to attend such fun wedding receptions like that.
ICELAND: “Paper” – Svala. This is a terrific modern pop song, and Svala proves she can deliver the vocal firepower live. I also observe the timber of her voice resembles other highly regarded Eurovision entries, who all happened to also be platinum blonde, and they all channel Swedish dance-pop legend Robyn (surnamed Carlsson, not to be confused with Swedish hunk Robin Bengtsson). She is part of a long line of quality soprano pop vocalists like 2013’s Margaret Berger from Norway, 2011 and 2016’s Poli Genova from Bulgaria, and to a certain extent, 2016’s Nina Kraljić from Croatia. Someone should put these four ladies together in a concert tour, where they cover each other’s songs and each cover a song from Robyn (everyone knows Robyn has such a quality repertoire). All of them will do great justice to each other’s work and to Robyn’s material. Wouldn’t that be a treat? Now my worry is she might also end up a big upset boot like her predecessor, the woefully underrated “Hear Them Calling” by Greta Salóme as so far the only support I can probably think she will receive is from Finland, Sweden and the UK, and its uncertain other countries will be onboard with her.
CZECH REPUBLIC: “My Turn” – Martina Bárta. No one’s really expecting this jazzy ballad to succeed in advancing to the finals like the breakthrough made by Gabriela Gunčíková’s “I Stand”last year. The syncopated jazzy rhythm of this ballad might be reminded of Hungary’s entry 10 years ago, Magda Ruzsa’s “Unsubstantial Blues”, which landed in the Top Ten in the finals, but I doubt the situation that allowed that entry to fare as well as it did is in play this time and well, there is very little vocal fireworks with Martina’s song. Thematically and musically, it actually reminds me of Daniel Powter‘s 2005 smash hit, “Bad Day”–this song can even serve as an answer to “Bad Day”. Hmm, considering Daniel’s career isn’t making big waves since then, perhaps he can drop by the Czech Republic and duet with Martina, him doing his hit and her answering with this song. I consider this a worthwhile underdog.
CYPRUS: “Gravity” – Hovig. Hovig is not a Greek name, but rather Armenian–his full name is Hovig Demirjian. This rhythmic pop number features ethnic elements, and the singer has a handsome charisma. This looks to be guaranteed vingt-quatre (24) points each from Greece and Armenia, and it’s likely other countries will also toss some points their way.
ARMENIA: “Fly with Me” – Artsvik. This is the last entry to be revealed to the public, and it’s also the sole explicitly ethno-pop entry in this year’s contest. Based on the video, it would promise to feature a striking stage presentation. It’s not really as catchy as those ethno-pop winners from 2003-2005, but it’s a good listen. Also bolstering its cause is its close ties to Greece and Cyprus, who are likely to send high points their way–perhaps vingt (20) points from each of them.
SLOVENIA: “On My Way” – Omar Naber. He was well regarded during his 2005 Eurovision stint for his strong voice, and that voice is still in great condition here (and he looks practically unchanged from 12 years ago). The only problem is the ballad is generic and treacly and not a standout, so it’s likely he’ll languish again in the semifinals and not advance.
LATVIA: “Line” – Triana Park. Many Eurovision fans are raving about this techno number. It is indeed a quality number, and this band promises to deliver an energetic performance. However, I worry and hope they have a cleaner stage setup from their cluttered staging at their national final, and I am also concerned about how lead singer Agnese Rakovska would deliver her vocals live, as she sounded pitchy during the national final. I think the prospects of this advancing is borderline and not assured, and I have to say, fans of this band should brace themselves for a shock boot if they did not improve from their national finals performance.
Here’s who I think would advance to the final based on my impressions at this point:
SWEDEN, AUSTRALIA, BELGIUM, PORTUGAL, AZERBAIJAN, GREECE, MOLDOVA, POLAND, CYPRUS, ARMENIA
Before, I post my song preview articles for the Eurovision Song Contest about a week before the week-long contest was underway. But my enthusiasm at monitoring the announcement of the entries made me decide that this time I’ll do it differently moving forward: I’ll be discussing the merits of the songs and its prospects at this juncture, then as rehearsals begins in earnest in May, I’ll then post impressions based on live rehearsals and buzz on their presentations of any significant changes in my regard for these entries.
After the superb hosting by Sweden for last year’s contest, most fans and observers feel Ukraine faces a very tall order coming up to that standard. News about issues in the preparation of the event by the national broadcaster does not bode well, and the early announcement of entries that are regarded as uninspired or unremarkable also made people fretful of a disastrous contest ahead. Controversy over Ukrainian policy after Russia’s entry was announced made things more tense–more on that when I discuss the second semifinal. However, Russia aside, the announcement of more uptempo entries later on stoked the Eurovision fever again, and many fans at this point felt based on song quality this year’s batch may actually be stronger than last year overall (especially in country-by-country comparisons made by several Eurovision fans over YouTube) and perhaps that would make this contest worthwhile after all.
I have these observations about how the contest is looking so far:
*Just like last year, it potentially could have equaled the record number of entries set in 2008 and 2011. Though Bosnia & Herzegovina withdrew due to both financial concerns and frustrations over its perfect finals record being broken (it ranked 11th in the first semifinal), we saw the welcome returns of Portugal and Romania. However the possible withdrawal of Russia due to Ukrainian government policy may again prevent the record from being tied, just like the last-minute disqualification of Romania last year.
*On top of parallelisms with last year, it also has parallels with the year 2009, when the contest was held in Russia. That year, one country deliberately got itself disqualified due to conflicts with the host country, and interestingly one of the signers from that act is present in this year’s contest.
*Ukraine is renowned for its formidable females who competed in this contest. However it seems they wanted to steer away from celebrating the diva-hood as they chose to have an all-male hosting team, and they selected an all-male rock band to represent them this year. Will the reassertion of testosterone pay off? Remember that Andrey Danilko was the only male who fared well (2nd in fact) in 2007, but he did it under his drag persona, Verka Serduchka.
*Also steering away from tradition are the entries from former Yugoslavia. Normally we would be hearing ethnic-styled entries from this region, but this time it seems they are offering music with ethnic elements either reduced (like in the case of Serbia) or totally absent (the other four entries). I have a feeling these countries want to prove they can offer modern, contemporary offerings. Also, none of the entries are sung in languages native to those countries (I technically would’ve said all would be performed in English, but Croatia‘s entry is bilingual and the second language is not Croatian but Italian).
*There is no “joke” or “troll” act this year, though there are some campy entries to behold, like the modern yodeling from Romania, the endearing wedding reception motif from Moldova, and the pure campy disco stylings from Montenegro. Some might also consider the dancing gorilla from Italy, but that entry is way elevated above camp and verging into high art.
Before I proceed to discuss the 43 entries, I would like to discuss one entry from a previous champion who could have made major impact if it was chosen to qualify:
“Statements” – Loreen. The Eurovision champion who actually made a major impact in the European charts back in 2012 decided to enter Melodifestivalen this year with this topical song–very relevant with the populist/far-right political wave that is going on right now in this world. It’s a sentiment that is clearly important to Loreen, as she is the daughter of Moroccan immigrants. It’s not meant to make waves in the international hit parade, but it is a terrifically relevant and beautiful work of art. Despite Loreen’s star power, it only made as far as the Andra Chansen (second chance) round. Swedes were perhaps weary that this is very much like Jamala‘s winning entry “1944” last year and decided to veer away from such topical content that they favored less “political” offerings. Anyway, the sting of Loreen’s “loss” is lessened as Sweden selected a very worthy entry.
The first half of the semifinal feature two entries that are regarded as heavy-hitters and possible winners, a campy disco number, and a heavy slew of ballads. Without further ado let us begin with…
SWEDEN: “I Can’t Go On” – Robin Bengtsson. In last year’s Melodifestivalen, I so adored Robin’s entry, “Constellation Prize”. For me, this entry and several others were far superior than the eventual winner, Frans’ “If I Were Sorry“. Though for most fans, this entry pales behind “Consteallation Prize”, it is still a welcome treat that Robin earned his vindication and is now the representative for powerhouse Sweden in this contest. What made this entry win was the superb presentation, with Robin delivering Justin Timberlake swagger and near-pitch-perfect vocals while dancing on a treadmill. His swaggerific posse of backup dancers also help enhance the appeal of this funky number. Now the dilemma is this–how will they adjust to the more stringent six-person rule imposed by the EBU? You see, the Melodifestivalen presentation allows for a total of eight people performing either onstage or backstage–in this case, besides Robin, he is accompanied by four backup dancers and three backup singers, and the backup singers are unseen. Obviously the song needs backup vocalists, but it’s either he needs to let go of his entire swaggerific posse and audition for fellows with the ability to dance, swagger, and sing at the same time (not an easy feat and could be a very tall order), or scale down his presentation by featuring only two of his dancing posse (to maintain the three backup singers). I’m quite interested to see in which direction this may go. Whatever the case I’m rooting for this to give Belgium and Italy a run for their money.
GEORGIA: “Keep the Faith” – Tamara Gachechiladze. Interesting note: this singer was part of the “troll” act Stephane and 3G, who were chosen by the Georgian broadcaster to represent the country with “We Don’t Wanna Put In” back in 2009, but was disqualified as its lyrics obviously were referencing the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Now, with a more earnest ballad (but with those distinctively curly locks), Tamara went solo and will foresee no problems representing her country with a socially-conscious song. She is undoubtedly a terrific singer, but I have quibbles when the message is hammered out too explicitly like in this song. But then again, it worked for blind singer Diana Gurtskayaback in 2008. I suppose it will now depend if she’ll get enough jury points to then advance to the finals.
AUSTRALIA: “Don’t Come Easy” – Isaiah. Surname Firebrace, his surname reflects his half-Aborigine heritage. He was the winner of the last edition of his country’s X-Factor. He has a terrific singing voice, reminiscent of Sam Smith. The ballad is also well-produced and classy. However, the ballad is also below the very high standard set by Guy Sebastian’s “Tonight Again“ and Dami Im’s “Sound of Silence” (which almost won it all last year) so I feel though this will easily advance to the finals, equaling the Top Five showing of his predecessors is an uphill battle. His facial features also gave me uncomfortable memories of polarizing American Idol Season 6 finalist Sanjaya Malakar who couldn’t seem to deliver the promise of his strong audition–but then again based on all accounts of his X-Factor stint Isaiah’s a more consistently strong vocalist (which is why he won) so that is his saving grace.
ALBANIA: “World”- Lindita. Surname of the singer is Halimi. Originally performed in its national final in Albanian as “Botë” (which also means the same thing as its English title), just like in previous years they have decided to convert the original lyrics into English. Unlike last year when it was felt that the song’s impact got diminished in the process, the English conversion seems to be deemed not as damaging as in previous forays. It is noted that it is also not necessarily faithful to the original Albanian lyrics, as the original Albanian lyrics seem to be more of a personal scale while the new English lyrics seem to talk about the world at large. Anyway, no-one can deny the power of Lindita’s pipes, but will it be enough for Albania to advance?
BELGIUM: “City Lights” – Blanche. Blanche (born Elle Delveaux) possesses a distinctive smoky alto that has a quirkiness that evokes another young superstar singer, Lorde. Her song could almost be classified as a ballad (and I speculate it was originally written as a stark, bleak one) but it was jazzed up with interesting electronica flourishes. The way all of these created such a rich, moody, and modern piece made several fans (including myself) rave and consider it as one of the big favorites to win. I feel that the coveted Marcel Bezençon composer’s award is a tossup between this song and Italy’s entry. And lately this country is stepping up in its stage presentations, which helped propel Loïc Nottet to 4th place in 2015 and Laura Tesoro to 10th in 2016, so expect something memorable for Blanche, too. I have a feeling this will become a jury darling, like Finland and Portugal.
MONTENEGRO: “Space” – Slavko Kalezić. This disco entry polarized Eurovision fans–there are many who expressed their active dislike of this number, but there are others who enjoy the campiness of it all–I’m in the latter camp. It’s a fun, entertaining number, and we need something like this since Bosnian singer Deen‘s equally campy “In the Disco” 13 years ago. The fan reactions toward this entry reminds me of the polarizing reception Todrick Hall had when he was a semifinalist in the 9th season of American Idol Then, Todrick’s inventive arrangements turned many viewers off though many respect his skills and talents. The tides have turned when he became a YouTube star and he started to be more prudent with his musical arrangements and he’s now regarded as more beloved than polarizing. I see a similar scenario happening to this guy, if not in this contest, but somewhere along the line as he continues to forge forward with his career.
FINLAND: “Blackbird” – Norma John. Norma John is not a single singer but a male-female duo. I’m not that into the ballads this year, but this is one of the few exceptions–yes, it’s a sad, bleak, depressing ballad, but its classical styling has integrity and beauty. The song does stick to me, and I have a feeling juries would feel the same way too.
AZERBAIJAN: “Skeletons” – Dihaj. When I first listened to the song, I first thought the chorus went “I’m a skeletons” so I’m quite irritated that it seems to be glaringly grammatically wrong. But reading the lyrics online, I learned it’s actually “Have my skeletons” so after getting over the original misheard lyrics, I’m starting to like this song. Dihaj’s voice reminds me of Cranberries‘ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan and it looks like unlike last year’s entry, she will sing consistently well. And since this country is a powerhouse in this contest, expect a strong showing for this song.
PORTUGAL: “Amor pelos dois [Love for both]” – Salvador Sobral. This orchestral ballad seems more suited to Eurovision 1957 instead of 2017. And his scruffy, unkempt look in the national final turned me off a bit as he looks like a homeless hobo. But his voice conveys such deeply felt heartache that there are several fans rallying to this entry’s corner, even hyping it as a possible front-runner and possibly delivering this country’s best ever finish in this contest. I’m not necessarily buying into the hype at this point, but I’m slowly starting to appreciate this number more and more and connecting with the song. It looks like it’s going to be a big jury darling like Finland, though we wonder if there will be enough points from the televoted for this to advance. I also have to note automatic finals qualifiers Spain and Italy are present to vote in this group, so its cause may be bolstered by their votes.
For the formal wear round, the non-finalists and the Top Nine walked to Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime”. Eight of them are highly worthy of belonging here–the ninth, I still maintain got his slot because of host country advantage and if I have my way, would yank him out and replace him with someone like, Czech Republic, Brazil, Venezuela, or even Sri lanka.
LATVIA – Matiss Pastars. With Poland (Jan Dratwicki) out of the way, he holds the fort for the pale-skinned, handsome Eastern European contingent. I can’t fault anything about his performance at all–he could’ve ranked higher and advanced if it weren’t for favored treatment for the Peninsular Southeast Asian contestants (as reflected on the mix of this year’s panel of judges).
INDIA – Mudit Malhotra. I’m glad he is the guy to bring India back to prominence in this pageant after six years. His face may register some harsh angles but his Bollywood charisma could never be denied. A commendable finish for this guy and hope to see more of his caliber in this pageant.
SPAIN – Daniel Torres. I’m upset that again this country is screwed over, garnering a finish that is beneath what it deserves. Last year, his namesake surnamed Barreres did not advance from the Top 15 to the Top Ten (at least), despite heavy prior buzz due to his Filipino heritage. This year, despite this guy’s undeniable charisma and enviable physique (arguably the best physique of them all this year), he didn’t advance to the Top Six. Sure, some might argue his stage presence is a tad muted, but in my eyes he’s still awesome, and my goodness why in the hell those judges can’t appreciate the perfection that is his physique. It’s such a shame he’s made a sacrificial lamb by the Thai and Vietnamese judges so that their bets would make the Top Six. Some might say it’s consolation enough that he improved upon his predecessor’s finish, but to me he should’ve been up there in the Top Six.
The Top Six question-and-answer format basically borrows from Miss Universe 2015–each of these finalists were asked a question relevant to their country. Like I said before, I’m slightly mad Spain was not in this mix.
VIETNAM – Nguyen Tien Dat. I concede he has a cute appeal that he does make a standout impression. I can concede he is worthy of belonging in the Top Nine. Still, was he better than Latvia, India, or Spain? Again he won favor because there are a significant number of Vietnamese in the judging panel alongside the Thais, which also would look upon him with favor on the basis of his nationality. He was asked “What do you think is the next big thing in your country in the next decade?” Though it was translated into Vietnames, he had to have the question repeated and simply answered that his country is opening up and that his country is ready to welcome people from other countries to visit his country. It does make sense, but I’ll dock him a bit for lack of comprehension.
THAILAND – Kittikun Tansuhat. I have to give him credit that when he combs his hair up instead of letting it fall into a bowl cut, he looks cute. And he stands out in his black velvet tuxedo. But still, was he better than Sri Lanka, Brazil, Venezuela, Czech Republic, Latvia, India, and most especially Spain? I don’t think so. He’s fortunate it is held in this country and the composition of judges are mostly of Thai and Vietnamese nationalities. His question was “What is the biggest challenge you faced hosting the Mister International contestants in Thailand?” To his credit he gave a solid answer about introducing to his fellow contestants Thai tourism and being nice to everyone.
NETHERLANDS – Chris Veltkamp. I forgot to note in my Homestretch review that he reminds me of Survivor: Outback runner-up Colby Donaldson (who later participated in a couple of All-Star editions). He earned his place as he exuded charisma onstage when it counts, admittedly edging out Spain in this respect, and his 6’3″ stature also generated impact. He was asked “How has your past experience in life shape you into becoming who you are today?”. His sincere answer: “I had a rough youth and it made me challenge many obstacles in life which made me the man I am today. I am proud to be the man I am today–it was hard to become and stand here and together with my friends, they are golden, they helped me, and all grace to them and I’m proud to stand here. Thank you.” There are many who argued he deserve to advance to the Final Three instead of Japan based on his answer, but I suppose the judges were simply just so into Japan that they can’t drop him to let this guy through.
The host Ryan declared the Final Three are subjected to one more challenge–to be blunt it’s not really much of a challenge. It’s simply the Final Look, where they simply walk onstage as the judges review their overall impression of them.
2ND RUNNER-UP: ITALY – Vinicio Modolo. He was a big hyped favorite who garnered buzz with his very handsome face and lean but sinewy physique. His question was, “Do you think being handsome would get you ahead in life?” He gave a candid answer saying yes, being handsome would help one reach far in life, especially if he is handsome on the inside. With that solid answer, he secured his place in the Final Three. Now, with him delivering a stronger answer, why was he only in third place instead of second place? Let’s discuss that further with…
1ST RUNNER-UP: JAPAN – Masaya Yamagishi. He is like the male equivalent of Miss Universe 2003 4th runner-up Miyako Miyazaki. He made an indelible impact by conveying sex appeal with his come-hither presence in the swimsuit video and that provocative skimpy mini-yukata. Apparently they weren’t able to secure a Japanese interpreter so he was forced to ramble in halting English, first after being called to receive his question, he started with greeting the host and cheering crowd with “Hello, I’m Masaya Yamagishi, nice to meet you.” His question was: “Japan has always been a world leader in technology. Why is this so?” His halting response goes: “Japanese people is so kind, and uh, how to study, and friendly, and uh, I’m sorry, uh… thank you… Japanese people help us, we love everyone, we love anything, so, uh, I hope, Japanese people hope peace and happy, and so…” He exudes a lot of charm to his credit, but the East German judge in me would penalize him for his weak answer and have Netherlands advance in his stead. But I suppose the judges and sponsors, not only do they love him to bits, but they appreciate what a struggle it is to speak a non-native language like English. Anyway, he also has undeniable stage presence (which helped him earn a Getz Emperor sponsor’s award), and made an impact sporting a green tuxedo with a black shirt. Hence it’s understandable how the judges propelled him all the way to a first runner-up finish, his country’s best finish thus far in any major international male pageant.
11TH MISTER INTERNATIONAL: LEBANON – Paul Iskandar. His imposing 6’6″ height made him unforgettable, and compounded with his beefy physique and handsome features (with those sweet doe eyes), he was the favorite to win it all from the get go. Turns out he doesn’t let go and the judges are not intimidated by his gigantic stature. His question was about the fact that his national director was one of the victims of the New Year’s Eve shooting at a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, and how was he affected by it. He delivered an answer that was kinda heartfelt: “This event affected me emotionally and mentally, because my national director was supposed to be here with me, representing my country, Lebanon. At the end he’s more than my nationla director–we spend every day together, helping and dong charity works in Lebanon after I got the title of Mister Lebanon. So I wish him to be well, and I’m doing this to [sic] Lebanon and I’m very proud. Thank you so much.” By looking like a pillar of strength while showing he doesn’t hesitate sharing a softer side of himself, he proved to be a deserving winner for this pageant.
With this victory, Paul Iskandar proved that beefcake behemoths like himself have what it takes to ultimately win it all. Before in Mister World, the likes ofFabien Hauquier from Belgium*1 back in 2003 and Pato Laguna from Chile back in 2007 had to content themselves with Top Five finishes while slightly shorter but handsome and charismatic charmers edged them out for the win. Let’s see if more beefcake behemoths will emerge in the male pageant scene after this, but with his astounding stature of almost 2 metres, at this pount I’ll dub him the Ultimate Beefcake Behemoth for now, and I’m very pleased he deservingly won the title.
*1 Yes he won a lesser international pageant called Zeus of the World a few years later, but that is a lesser pageant that was staged only one time.
Now the challenge ahead is how this pageant can garner the support to step up its production values as the international male pageant scene is starting to become increasingly competitive, with the splashy introduction of Mister Supranational and the rise of upstarts like Mister Global and Mister Universal Ambassador. Hope with a winner as well-regarded as this guy, this pageant can generate the ammunition to respond to the gauntlets thrown at it.
Images courtesy of Jory Rivera for OPMB Worldwide and Drew Francisco for Missosology unless otherwise indicated.