Welcome to Running Order, a new Eurovision Lemur series in which I, an ignorant American whose Song Contest knowledge only dates back to 2006, tries to get caught up on the whole of Eurovision history from the beginning.
I’ve always felt bad that I’ve never systematically gone back and watched all of the older shows. Not that I’m totally ignorant of the past: I’ve probably seen most of the shows from 1970 through 2005 at least once (although often only once). But I’ve almost totally ignored the 1950s and 1960s. That’s a lot of music I have been missing out on.
Until now. During Eurovision off-seasons, I will be (re)watching all of the pre-2006 Song Contests in order expand my Eurovision horizons. And also to bolster my Pantheon pages.
OK, so this may be a bit self-serving.
Of course, there is one drawback with starting with the beginning: the 1956 show only exists in audio form. This means means I won’t find any additions to the Misfires and Campiest Performances pages. (Lys Assia is already on the Divas page, of course.) So really, I’m just looking for some awesome songs to bestow a Seal of Approval upon.
Jen and I started the Eurovision Songwriters to explore relationships between countries and songwriters and see if she could come up with a sociological social networking analysis. Because that is the type of Eurovision geekery we engage in. We didn’t get too far down that rabbit hole, though, because we were writing so much about other aspects of the Song Contest while still raising a child and holding down full time jobs.
However, the meager fruits of our labor have been remarkably juicy. The Eurovision Songwriters page is by far the most visited part of the site outside of the home page. In particular, hits on the page have gone through the roof in 2021. Although I’m pretty sure that’s just ego searches by a certain eccentric Russia-based pop star.
Obviously, because I was raised Catholic and am a perfectionist, I have been watching those stats rise while often fretting over how incomplete the page is. Where are Sharon Vaughn and Laurell Barker? Where are Linnea and Joy Deb and Sandra Bjurman, who all have won the damned Song Contest? It’s time to fix that.
I also want to go even deeper into Eurovision history to see if I can find other songwriters who have had multiple entries appear over the years. For example, I had Ralph Siegel on there, but not his primary lyricist Bernd Meinunger. Surely there are others that are prolific enough to include.
Eurovision began for me in 2006. Sure, I’m aware of the history of the Song Contest: it was ABBA, Dana International, the Olsen Brothers, and Stefan Raab that led me into it in the first place. But I’ve dived so deep into each Eurovision season since I’ve started writing this blog that, while my knowledge of the past fifteen years of the Song Contest is vast, my awareness of what came before exists only in bits and pieces.
I think I have seen all of the contests between 1970 and 2005 at least once, as evidenced by some of the stray pre-2006 entries in my Pantheon pages. But I was more looking for kitsch, stuff that could populate the Campiest Performances and Biggest Misfires pages.
As I’ve started to write up songs for the Seal of Approval page, I’ve realized how much of a recency bias I have. Up until 2019, my favorite Eurovision song was from 2008, and now my two all-time faves are two of the last three Italian entries.
And yet I realize that once I get out of a Eurovision season, when I stop listening to all of that year’s entries over and over again and get back to “normal” music listening, there are a number of songs that I keep coming back to, and it’s past time for me to acknowledge my affections here.
This brings me to “Ale Jestem,” which represented Poland at the 1997 Song Contest. I always seem to be drawn to Anna Maria Jopek’s song in the summertime. It sort of feels like the closing credits to the Eurovision season: the winner has been crowned, we’re all about to head into the post-Song Contest doldrums, and “Ale Jestem” plays as we head off to play in a field with our Eurodogs.
Even though I haven’t frequently revisited 1990s editions of Eurovision, “Ale Jestem” does sound a lot like what I associate with that era. It also reminds me a lot of an IQ album that I am a bit obsessed with called Are You Sitting Comfortably? It’s those synthesizers: they bulk up the orchestration, even though they definitely feel a bit dated now.
And yet, I still find “Ale Jestem” invigorating. Reading the translated lyrics, I get the sense that it is about enjoying the simpler, natural joys of being alive “nim wielka cisza pochłonie mnie,” or “before a great silence engulfs me.” That I could get the feeling of seasonal rebirth from the song without realizing what the lyrics meant speaks to the quality of the arrangement. Even if it is a song for a summer long ago, it still feels like an eternally optimistic melody.
It’s also a song that encourages me to bone up on my history more. If I can obsessively listen to a song from Eesti Laul 2009, then there’s no reason I can’t unearth other gems from Eurovision’s main history. But more on that later this summer…
Every year, there seems to be one Eurovision entry that pleasantly surprises me when it finishes well. It’s usually a song that speaks to me on some deep level, so I have a hard time thinking that anyone else is going to dig it as much as I do.
The perfect example of what I mean? JOWST’s “Grab the Moment.”
It stood out in the 2017 Melodi Grand Prix: When I first heard it, I knew it was going to win the Norwegian national final. Even so, I didn’t necessarily rate it highly as a Eurovision entry at first, as reflected in the review Jen wrote on the site.
During the period between national final season and the Song Contest, however, our opinions on “Grab the Moment” changed. The more we listened to it, the more we liked it. We found ourselves rooting for it to do well, even though we thought that the juries and televoters were not going to rate it. We were genuinely happy it qualified for the Grand Final, and we were over the moon that it finished 10th place overall.
Why were we so convinced that no one else was going to get “Grab the Moment?” Because it had to grow on us before we could appreciate it. We usually think songs need to land an immediate impact in order to do well. In our minds, growers always suffer.
It’s such a cool, unassuming song. Sure there are some flashy parts as presented: JOWST’s Lite Brite helmet, the song’s vocal effects, the staging’s visual effects. But overall, “Grab the Moment” lives up to its lyrics about keeping yourself calm and getting that good vibe buzzing. Aleksander Walmann’s vocal is so smooth and mellow that he easily captures the mood of the song. Yet he still projects the confidence over the adversity “Grab the Moment” is addressing.
And on a personal note, “Grab the Moment” is a close-to-perfect song about managing anxiety. It’s not flawless: I don’t want to kill that voice in my head so much as I want to learn how to calm it down. Otherwise, the lyrics sum up what goes through my head on a day to day basis so wonderfully that I wish I had written them myself.
I’m quiet in a corner seeking action
I wanna be bold, but I’m only getting old
I need to stop drowning in distractions
“Grab the Moment” is an anthem for me, even if it’s not anthemic. That enough people appreciated it to get it a top 10 finish in the 2017 Grand Final makes me feel like I’m not alone. And that’s as good a reason to love as song as I can think of.
What does it say about me that two of my favorite Eurovision songs are two of the bleakest ones to ever appear in the Song Contest?
“Birds” and “Blackbird” are similar in that they both capture the heartbreak at the end of a relationship and they both are lushly orchestrated. But while “Birds” is more extroverted and melodramatic, “Blackbird” is more introverted and sullen. It is all painful longing.
Even though “Blackbird” makes “Gloomy Sunday” sound like a Vengaboys romp, I was still shocked when it didn’t qualify for the Grand Final 2017. I am usually good at whipping up possible explanations for why a certain song did not qualify out of a Semifinal. The singer wasn’t strong enough, the song wasn’t strong enough, the staging disaster was a disaster, and so forth. To this day, the only guess I have as to why Norma Jean’s “Blackbird” didn’t qualify is that it was just way too sad.
Despite that, I find a lot to adore about it. The arrangement is sumptuous and ambient. The synthesizer melodies lend an ethereal quality, yet also provide a solid ground to build upon. Lasse Pirrainen’s arpeggiated piano solo feels like icy rain on the face, and the swelling strings at the end of his solo feel like the chill you get when you walk inside soaking wet.
Leena Tirronen’s vocal gives me goosebumps every time I hear “Blackbird.” Her vocal tone is as smooth as the orchestrations. She imbues her song with a lingering ache, yet she is also able to make it soar. It’s emotional while still feeling restrained, which just adds to the feeling of sorrow.
One of the things that draws me to particular songs is the feeling of catharsis that I get when I listen to them. Even though “Blackbird” is lyrically downbeat, it envelopes me like a hug at the end of a rough day. Sometimes I can relate to the emotions being expressed, and when the song is over, I feel a sense of relief that I worked through those emotions. And sometimes I just want to hear an exquisite, lilting song and feel it tug on my heartstrings. Norma John’s song gives me that experience time and again.
There are a lot of reasons why a song can resonate with someone. Sometimes it captures a mood. Sometimes it expresses something you feel in ways you never thought of saying. And sometimes it evokes a sense memory that takes you back to a place you want to be reminded of.
And so it is with me and “Nobody But You,” Cesár Sampson’s 2018 Eurovision Song Contest entry for Austria. It is a really good song, but more importantly for me, it takes me back to Vienna in April 2018.
In the years before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to travel for work. My office has a satellite office in Vienna, so I often found myself in Austria’s capital. I had grown found of the country because my father-in-law is from Innsbruck, so regular trips there only fueled my fascination.
April 2018 was the last time I travelled for work for a variety of reasons, including but not exclusively COVID-19. When I was in Vienna that week, I heard “Nobody But You” a lot. It was in heavy rotation on the radio, so I was guaranteed to hear it whenever I went out to eat or sat down for a beer.
I have no doubt that the steady airplay in Vienna had imprinted on me when, the night before the 2018 Grand Final, I had a dream that “Nobody But You” had won Eurovision. I woke up, laughed, then dismissed it as a farfetched dream. So you can imagine my surprise when “Nobody But You” racked up jury points. Wait… is this really going to happen?
It didn’t, but I’m glad the juries gave “Nobody But You” their top marks. I think it’s a joyous, buoyant song. It has a bright, uplifting orchestration, with lots of soaring vocals and crisp harmonies. It’s a really well constructed pop song, grand in scope but intimate in execution.
If I’m being honest, I don’t really care for the lyrics. They are of a “you can’t leave me” ilk that make me feel a little bit squirmy. I don’t think they really fit the mood set by the song’s arrangement.
Cesár’s talent lies in how he uses his vocal as an instrument to make his song soar. Even I think if the lyrics are a bit off, he sells them in a way that makes them powerful. Between that and his magnetic charisma, he was able to make an indelible impression at Eurovision.
“Nobody But You” finished third behind “Toy” and “Fuego.” I figure diehard Eurovision fans would have rioted if Cesár had pipped Netta or Elena for the title, so third was probably the perfect spot for him to finish. While the other two songs were perfect packages, “Nobody But You” is the song from 2018 I listen to the most. Especially because it takes me back to my favorite city whenever I hear it.
Now that I’ve finished my analysis of the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, I can turn my attention to other projects that I’ve been dying to do for the Eurovision Lemur blog.
In previous years, I’ve awarded the Eurovision Lemur Seal of Approval to my favorite Eurovision songs of all time. I bestow a seal because that sounds a lot fancier than me just saying, “OMIGARSH I love this song so much!”
I’ve already added Måneskin’s Eurovision-winning song “Zitti e buoni” to the pantheon page, and over the next few weeks I’ll be taking a look at other songs that are still in heavy rotation at my house.
It seems appropriate to start with something from the most recent host of the Song Contest, The Netherlands. Going into Eurovision 2013, the country had failed to make it out of the Semifinals eight years in a row. So Dutch broadcaster TROS asked multi-platinum selling artist Anouk to help change their fortunes.
Anouk’s offering, “Birds,” was a track on her album Sad Singalong Songs, the title of which tells you a lot about the lyrical content of the single. The song captures with melodramatic flair all the heartache and depression that comes from the end of a relationship. “Birds falling down the rooftops/Out of the sky like raindrops” are quite possibly the most bleak lyrics I have ever heard at Eurovision.
Yet “Birds” is hauntingly beautiful. The lush orchestrations carry an eerie power to them, perfectly accentuating Anouk’s smoky vocal tone and morose lyrics. If gothic horror pop is a musical genre, then “Birds” is a prime example.
The song could be relentlessly dour, but glimmers of hope flicker throughout. “Birds” ends on a major note, and its bridge is sung by a children’s choir. Rather than being creepy, the choir’s vocals instead sound like the clouds are beginning to lift. Of course, the bridge leads right back into the chorus, so let’s not get our hopes up too much.
The live version at the 2013 Song Contest replaces the children with adult singers, but rather than diminishing “Birds,” the switch infuses it with an uncanny quality that makes it even stronger. This is one of those rare moments where I prefer the live version to the recorded one, because the vocal arrangement is so much more opulent and powerful.
Anouk led The Netherlands to the Finals and finished ninth overall. She also kicked off a new era for the Dutch at Eurovision. TROS merged with AVRO the following year to form AVROTROS and celebrated by finishing second with The Common Linnets’ “Calm After the Storm.” It would take them just five more years to get that long-awaited fifth win with Duncan Laurence’s “Arcade.” They’ve put out some quality entries since 2013, but Anouk’s song still resonates with me the most all these years later.
It’s time once again to give out Eurovision Lemur’s Superlatives, the awards that capture all the magic of the Eurovision Song Contest! As Hot Chocolate once sang, everyone’s a winner. Although one act won a weeeeeeeee bit more than everyone else…
Best Fusion Cuisine: Cyprus
Elena Tsagrinou – “El Diablo”
The Second Annual Award That Shafts Albania By Placing Them Second In the Running Order: Albania
Anxhela Peristeri – “Karma”
Most Unlikely Weather Report for Spicy Season: Israel
Eden Alene – “Set Me Free”
The Frans Award for Not Caring But Really Caring: Belgium
Hooverphonic – “The Wrong Place”
Best Entry by Someone Who Doesn’t Wanna Put In: Russia
Manizha – “Russian Woman”
As part of my efforts to stave off post-Eurovision depression, I’m taking a look back at the three Eurovision shows last week and casting a critical eye on everything I saw. That said, just having a Song Contest was a welcome return to normalcy, so that is the biggest highlight of all.
Honestly, narrowing this list down to just five songs was difficult. “Technicolour,” “10 Years,” “Adrenalina,” “Je Me Casse,” “Maps,” “Voilà,” and “Russian Woman” all could have made the cut. But I have a definite favorite entry this year.
“Zitti e buoni” is a raucous rock classic. It wears its ‘70s glam influences on its sleeves, but re-contextualizes those influences in a way that makes them sound fresh. Måneskin builds the song up well. “Zitti e buoni” starts with Thomas Raggi’s crunchy guitar riff and some subtle percussion from Ethan Torchio. The band gradually adds Victoria De Angelis’s bass line and more percussion before they unleash the song’s potential energy with the chorus. Damiano David spits out rapid fire lyrics in the second verse, propelling the song like a car driving too fast down a highway. There are breaks in the action with Victoria’s bass solo and with Ethan’s brief drum solo, both of which serve to get the crowd screaming and to rebuild the song’s electricity. After that last break, “Zitti e buoni” hurtles to a cathartic conclusion. It’s a well-constructed song that breaks all of the rules of what is a successful Eurovision entry while still being a tight, three minute pop song.
I’ve had “Zitti e buoni” for breakfast pretty much every day since Sanremo ended and I’m going to continue to have it for breakfast knowing that it won Eurovision.
It seems particularly mean to name the biggest misfire this year because I don’t think any of these songs are pantheon-worthy. You can’t fault Lesley Roy for her staging ambition and you can’t fault Samanta Tīna and Montaigne for their musical ambitions. You can’t fault Roxen for trying to do a representational staging to illuminate her song’s message. And you can’t fault Benny Cristo for trying to bring a party atmosphere to his joyous post-COVID banger.
I only picked Latvia as my choice because “The Moon Is Rising” finished with the least points out of both Semifinals. It’s a cruel fate for someone who has wanted to perform in Eurovision for so long, and I can’t help but wonder if the staging played some part in that result. Instead of being surrounded by dancers the way she was in her official video, she had backing singers off to the side à la her staging last year’s “Still Breathing.” That changed the energy of the song, leaving poor Samanta flailing when she should have been empowered.
Naw, everyone at the Song Contest this year was pretty self-aware. Plus, everyone, even Hooverphonic, seemed determined to enjoy their experience in Rotterdam. This year’s Eurovision lived up to the idea that it’s Europe’s biggest party, and all the participants seemed to add to that atmosphere.
Jendrik strummed a bedazzled ukulele while accompanied by a dancer named Sophia who wore a giant hand costume. It may have been deliberately kitschy, but I can’t help but applaud the effort. Plus Sophia stayed in character the entire time. Considering she signed up to be a middle finger but ended up having to be a peace sign for her two weeks in Rotterdam, I admire her commitment to her job.
The first line of “Voilà” is “écoutez moi,” and how can you not pay attention when Barbara Pravi sings? Her song is both unapologetically old fashioned and strikingly modern. The staging was beautiful and intense. And through it all Barbara sells it with just the right amount of aggression and pathos. She expresses the emotion of “Voilà” with such abandon that it’s easy to get swept up in her performance. She rightfully captured France’s best result in 30 years.
It’s been 31 years, and Italy has come tantalizingly close in the decade since it returned to the Song Contest. And now it has finally happened.
I genuinely did not expect this. I adore “Zitti e buoni,” but I really thought a straightforward rock song like this couldn’t win. Barbara Pravi had the dramatic, emotional chanson ballad. Gjon’s Tears had the pure vocals. They both were rewarded, of course: Barbara snagged France’s first 2nd place in 30 years and won the Artistic Award and the Press Award. Gjon’s Tears won the jury vote and the Composers Award to land Switzerland’s first 3rd place in 28 years.
But Måneskin got just enough love from the juries to be in a prime position to win when they got 318 points from the televote. They may have only edged Barbara by 25 points in the combined scores, but the win still somehow feels comprehensive and overwhelming.
To add to my delight, Iceland’s Daði and Gagnamagnið finished fourth. To see a group of close knit friends who march to the beat of their own circular keytars getting rewarded for being uncompromisingly geeky warms the cockles of this aging nerd’s heart.
Go_A rounded out the top five with a song that made no attempts to be a broadly accessible pop song. They were punished by the juries, but they finished second in the televote because I imagine folks at home saw the Ukrainian band’s performance and said, “I want to dance to this at a sweaty night club the first chance I get.”
As giddy as I am about the top 5, I know that there is going to be a huge amount of disappointment for the rest of the artists as it’s really hard to fault anyone who performed in the Grand Final. No one deserved to finish in last place, let alone get nul points. James Newman handled his result with grace and aplomb and while I am sure it stings a lot, I also bet the warmth he got from the artists and the fans in the arena will ease that pain a bit.
I’m seeing questions being rightfully asked about the fact that four of the five countries who sent Black artists finished on the bottom half of the table and that Jeangu Macrooy’s song, which directly confronts the history of racism in Europe, got nul points from the public and just 11 points from the juries. I’m also seeing a lot of questions about some curious jury decisions. Those questions all need to be asked, even if the answers are not going to be easy to discern. Though I trust the Eurovision diehards I follow on Twitter and work with on ESC in Context are going to get to the bottom of it.
To be honest, the week leading into the Grand Final had not been the easiest for me, and having Eurovision all week was a needed distraction. Yesterday was the first time my Song Contest buddies and I have seen each other in two years. It felt so cathartic to finally have that Dutch and Surinamese-themed Eurovision party. So cathartic that I quite literally cried in front of everyone when “Zitti e buoni” won. My favorite song, coming from my grandfather’s country of birth, winning the whole shebang was just the release I needed. Amazing.