Armenia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

There is this delicate balance we strike whenever we review a song for Europe. On the one hand, we want to review an entry based on its own merits. And yet, it’s hard for us to not think about it in all of its other contexts. For example, is it a good fit for the Song Contest? Or, more pertinently to “Chains On You,” what was its competition like at the national Final?

Because here’s the thing: “Chains on You” was our favorite song at Depi Evratesil. But we also kinda don’t like it.

Athena Manoukian is a Greek-Armenian singer who been active in the music scenes in both Greece and Armenia. She co-wrote “Chains on You” with DJ Paco. Well before her participation in Depi Evratesil, she finished seventh in the 2008 Greek national final for Junior Eurovision with “To fili tis Afroditis.” As a mature artist, she won the 2015 Armenian Pulse Award for Best English Song with “XO,” and auditioned for The X Factor in 2018.

And it is The X Factor that is kind of the keystone to understanding what Athena is doing here. She auditioned with Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” because she is trying to be the Greek Beyoncé. Or the Armenian Beyoncé. Whichever.

There is a American hip hop influence on “Chains On You.” The sparse backing track with the deep rhythms and the jangly samples push the song forward. It’s our favorite part of the song. But Athena’s vocal in the verse is barely there. She’s rapping (?) unintelligibly, and it is kind of wack.

When she gets to the bridge, she is able to sing in her range, and that’s where “Chains On You” comes to life. You can see Athena’s star quality and the possibility that she could have the next “Fuego” in her hands.

Then the chorus comes. And it gets, to refer back to Louis Tomlinson’s critique of Athena’s X Factor audition, cheesy. And it’s even cheesy on the recorded track. It’s all posturing with no real teeth.

Side note: until we read the lyrics, we thought she was saying “creamy boy” in the pre-chorus. Which honestly works just as well in “Chains On You” as the actual lyric.

And yet, despite all of this, we can see potential. Given Athena’s clear ambition, we suspect that she is going to pull out all of the stops in Rotterdam. If she carries it off, then we could get ourselves a classic Eurovision high-concept staging. And if she doesn’t, we’ll probably still enjoy it with some cheese popcorn and glasses of Cristal like we’re rewatching Glitter. It’s a win-win, really.

But yeah. It’s pretty wack.

Norway’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Sometimes it’s not the journey, it’s the destination.

Ulrikke Brandstorp competed on the 2013 edition of Norwegian Idol and was runner up on the 2018 edition of Stjernekamp. She finished fourth in the 2017 Melodi Grand Prix with “Places.” She also played Liesl in a production of The Sound of Music. She co-wrote her song “Attention” with Christian Ingebrigtsen from A1 and Mørland, who represented Norway in 2015 alongside Debrah Scarlett with “A Monster Like Me.”

The moment I heard “Attention” during MPG’s fourth heat, I knew that it was going to win (and I’m still kicking myself for not proclaiming that on our Twitter account). It’s a gorgeous ballad, beautifully orchestrated and terrifically performed by Ulrikke. Her control throughout the song is remarkable, restraining her emotions when she needs to and unleashing them for maximum effect.

What impressed us the most is how well “Attention” is constructed. The orchestration is gentle and sparse at the start, and it barely swells for the first chorus. When it gets to the second chorus, “Attention” goes big, with subtle choral backing vocals emphasizing the big notes that Ulrikke belts out. We thought, “Well, they kind of went too big too early. Where do they go from here?”

Well, they go a quiet space for the bridge, a brief piano interlude which reloads the emotional rocket launcher. For the third chorus, the pyrotechnics are unleashed, both literally and vocally. It gives us chills, even though we are normally fire curtain cynics at this point.

If we want to nitpick, we’ll point that it’s a downbeat song that makes Hooverphonic’s “Release Me” sound like “Walking On Sunshine.” (It is a Mørland song, after all.) But damn, does Ulrikke make desperation sound great!

Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix was a hot mess this year for a variety of reasons. We’re not going to cover that here because that will be long forgotten come May. (Then we’ll remember it in June so we can write our 2020 WTF post.) For right now we’re just happy that in the end, the right song won.

Lithuania’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

An admission: When we first saw The Roop’s “On Fire” in heat three of Pabandom iš naujo!, our son Kieran and I looked at each other confused. What is this, and why is Stanley Tucci doing performance art in Lithuania?

But Jen understood that The Roop had created a moment, and declared that they were going to win.

Because Jen gets this Eurovision thing.

There is so much that we could criticize here. Vocalist Vaidotas Valiukevičius over-enunciates his vocals: “But there’s fire in my SOOOuuuuullll.” He and the back-up dancers emote something fierce. And The Roop rhymed “fire” with “desire,” one of the venial sins of Eurovision.

But here’s the thing: it just works. Do you think rhyming “fire” with “desire” is cliché? The Roop are going to show you that no other lyric will do. “On Fire” is about having confidence to move forward and overcoming self-doubt. So when the world is your desire, you’re going to feel like you’re on fire. It’s a fact.

Do you think the choreography is wacky? Well, The Roop are going to commit to it so hard you are going to dance along by the end. It’s the perfect choreography for the sparkling synth melody they are dancing too. Plus it takes full advantage of Vaidotas’ limbiness: if you’ve got long fingers and arms like that, you gotta flaunt them.

As we said at the top, The Roop created a moment at Pabandom iš naujo! They overwhelmingly won both the televote and the jury vote because Lithuania sensed they had captured lightning in a bottle. Regardless of whether or not you buy into “On Fire,” you’re going to remember it. The next time Sweden hosts Eurovision, Petra Mede and Måns Zelmerlöw are going to be doing that dance in the updated version of “Love, Love, Peace, Peace.”

We’re already exited to see our Eurovision party’s reaction to this one. And we’re also looking forward to blasting it when we’re feeling low. The Roop accomplished what they set out to do, and we’re on board.

Belgium’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Belgium would like to remind you that they are still the European Capital of Cool.

Hooverphonic is an influential trip-hop pop band who have had three number one albums in Belgium and international success with their songs “2wicky” and “Mad About You.” Bassist Alex Callier and guitarist Raymond Geerts formed the band in 1995. Lead vocalist Luka Cruysberghs joined in 2018 after she won The Voice of Flanders with Alex has her coach.

Alex co-wrote Senneck’s “A Matter of Time,” which represented Belgium at the 2018 Song Contest. For “Release Me,” he teamed up with Luca Chiaravalli, who produced and arranged “Occidentali’s Karma.”

We have mixed feelings about “Release Me” as a Eurovision entry. On the one hand, we love that Hooverphonic did not compromise themselves to write a Eurovision song. It’s as if they were putting the finishing touches on “Release Me” when the call to represent Belgium in Rotterdam came in, and they said, “Well timed, Belgium!” Their song has a swank neo-retro vibe that fits right into their Cruysberghs-era catalog perfectly.

On the other hand, it is a such a downer. Luka pours so much raw sadness into her vocal that we can hear the exact moment her heart breaks. Not exactly the kind of song that lifts the mood at the Eurovision.

Moreover, “Release Me” doesn’t really offer any musical release to its dour mood. The final part of the chorus gets repeated without any swells in the orchestration, which robs Luka of a chance to build it to a big ending. We’re waiting for a moment to get goosebumps, and it never arrives.

We’re looking forward to see how Belgium stages this. They have an opportunity to use the staging to give us a catharsis that the recorded track doesn’t quite have. How they create that Eurovision moment may be the key to their success this year.

France’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

We’ve been overvaluing France in our Eurovision predictions the past couple of years. No chance of that happening this year.

Here is a song co-written by two former Eurovision contestants. Amir took “J’ai cherché” to France’s best result in the 2010s. John Lundvik closed out Sweden’s decade of dominance on a high note by finishing 5th last year with “Too Late for Love.” They both wrote the songs that they rode to the upper echelons of the leaderboard. On paper, it was smart of Tom Leeb to bring them into the fold when he was preparing for this year’s Song Contest.

In practice? Well, they came up with a wedding song.

Now, John Lundvik has experience with that sort of thing. His songwriting career took off when “When You Tell the World You’re Mine” was performed at the wedding of Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria. It’s a mawkishly awkward love song, but hey, you want that kind of thing at a wedding, right?

So if you are in Paris and dreamy McDreamboat Tom Leeb proposes to you while you are visiting the Eiffel Tour, then we can see how you would want to crank “The Best In Me” during your first dance. However, while “The Best In Me” may be a foundation for a strong marriage, that doesn’t make it a strong Eurovision entry.

Look, the United Kingdom finished last at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest with “Bigger Than Us,” which was also co-written by John Lundvik. It’s a good song that deserved a better fate than finishing behind “Sister.” But it was done in by an unimaginative staging and a likable singer who lacked the necessary star power to make his song memorable. France has the singer with the it factor, but their song is much, much worse. In a just world, Michael Rice would have a better result than Tom Leeb. But we’ve seen Pretty In Pink, so we kinda know how this is going to work out.

Italy’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

For some reason, we have it in our heads that we don’t like Italy’s Eurovision entries. Yet more often than not we find ourselves making exceptions to that rule we’ve invented. That’s not to say we love everything Italy does. But broadly speaking, we are wrong about what we think we think about Italian pop.

Case in point: Diodato’s “Fai Rumore.”

Antonio Diodato released his first album E forse sono pazzo in 2013 and went on to win the MTV Italian Music Award for Best New Generation. In 2014, he first participated in Sanremo with “Babilonia.” He broke onto the Italian album charts in 2017 with Cosa siamo diventati. He now has his first number one single with “Fai Rumore,” which he co-wrote with Edwyn Roberts.

He also looks like the son of Arne Darvin, the secret Klingon agent in the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode of Star Trek.

We envision a stage in Rotterdam filled with tribbles!
Diodato photo from Eurovision Song Contest Wiki. Arne Darvin photo from Memory Alpha.

We like “Fai Rumore” a lot. Its soaring melodies fill us with a beautiful sense of longing. Diodato has a delicate vocal tone, yet he brings Lamborghini levels of power to the chorus. And if the camera catches him just right, we bet he will be able to peer right into our souls.

While we try to review each song without consideration of other entries, we can’t help but compare “Fai Rumore” to Spain’s entry “Universo.” They operate in similar places in both style and mood. But Blas Cantó knew he was going to Eurovision and selected and orchestrated a song that could have uni-universal appeal. Diodato catered to Italy first, and now his goal is to amp his song up for a wider audience.

We’re not saying there are problems in either approach, and it will be interesting to see which song finishes higher in May. But we know which song we’d put money on if we were betting Lemurs.

Latvia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Well, it’s about time!

Samanta Tīna has been trying to go to the Eurovision Song Contest since 2012. She has competed in six Latvian national finals and also threw her hat into the ring for Lithuania a couple of times, too. She composed the music to “Still Breathing,” while Latvian Eurovision legend Aminata wrote the lyrics.

“Still Breathing” is intense and off-kilter. It has staccato beats and strident synthesized melodies that give us a sense of unease. Samanta’s vocal is defiant, demanding listeners to embrace her while making it clear that she doesn’t care if you do. She has found her peace and in that peace, she can be bold.

It is a diva turn cut from a different cloth than, say, last year’s jury winner “Proud.” The songwriting team for “Proud” gave Tamara Todevska a simple, spacious ballad that she could use to build her vocal. Her interpretation of the song made it powerful.

“Still Breathing,” on the other hand, is a song that requires a diva to sing it. It is a song composed for the singer and structured to be performed as written. Samanta embodies the song so much that it’s kind of amazing that Aminata was the one wrote the lyrics. It is very much Samanta’s story.

Our one worry is that there is a fine line between a bravura performance and a hammy one. Samanta danced along that line in Supernova, especially during her rap. So long as she focuses her energy and her performance, then we can make an early prediction for our Biggest Diva Performance award in May.

Australia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

One of the nice things about Australia’s continued participation in the Eurovision Song Contest is that we get to learn more about the music scene Down Under. There was a time in the 1980s where Australian pop and rock was making it over to the United States on a regular basis, but the wave gradually petered out. Now, thanks to Eurovision and the YouTube rabbit holes it knocks us into, we are beginning to caught up with what we’ve been missing.

With that off of our chests, let’s get into this year’s Australian entry, Montaigne’s “Don’t Break Me.”

Jessica Cerro had her first break performing under the name Montaigne in 2013 when her first single “I Am Not an End” was featured on Australia’s Triple J radio station. Her debut album Glorious Heights came out in 2016 and reached number four on Australia’s album charts. Later that year, Montaigne won the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Award for Breakthrough Artist.

Now, some countries that participate in Eurovision develop a certain sound across their entries. Usually that stems from the roots of those nations’ respective cultures and music industries. Sometimes those sounds come out of an almost organic idea of what a Eurovision song should sound like. (See, for example, the past few entries from the United Kingdom.)

But the most obvious way for a country to proffer a distinctive national sound at Eurovision is to partner up frequently with certain songwriters. Bulgaria’s recent relationship with Symphonix International is one example, and Australia offers up another example with DNA Songs. This songwriting team of David Musumeci and Anthony Egizii co-wrote Jessica Mauboy’s “We Got Love,” Isaiah Firebrace’s “Don’t Come Easy,” and Dami Im’s “Sound of Silence.” That’s 71% of Australia’s output.

“Sound of Silence” is the most obvious forebear to “Don’t Break Me.” They are structurally similar, with quiet verses leading into big choruses. The melodies of the verses and the overall orchestration are similar as well.

The differences lie with the singers: Dami Im is a big belter, whereas Montaigne is a more introverted vocal performer. She is telling a personal story with “Don’t Break Me” and that intimacy makes it distinct.

We are concerned that Montaigne doesn’t quite grab the viewer during the verses. Her vocal at Australia Decides was mumbly during the opening verse (although the sound mix may have played a part in that), so the song didn’t really catch fire until the chorus. Without a bolder staging and a stronger opening, “Don’t Break Me” may not be immediate enough to capture one’s attention.

Czech Republic’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

We’re only three songs into the Eurovision season as of this writing, and this year’s Song Contest is already getting a lot more interesting. Here’s Benny Cristo with the Czech Republic entry, “Kemama.”

Ben Cristovao is an Angolan-Czech singer who competed on the first edition of the talent show Superstar. He has gone on to have five charting singles on the Czech Top 100, and reached third in 2019 with “Aleiaio.” He also competes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and won a gold medal at the 2016 Madrid Open.

We love “Kemama.” It is bright and joyful, buoyed the sparkling synth lines that propel the song and the minimalist beats that pepper it. It’s a party song, but one with lyrics that hint at the adversity Benny faced while growing up. It’s rich, vibrant, and primed to light up summer radio.

This is only Czech Republic’s ninth entry, but no two Czech songs have been alike. They’ve sent grandiose ballads, goth show tunes, sludgy metal, sophistipop, and Roma rap. They found their best result with a sexy contemporary R&B number. Now they’re dipping into Angolan hip hop pop. Czech Republic usually isn’t looking for a good Eurovision song, they’re just looking for a song that stands out from the crowd. It’s a damned good strategy.

Spain’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Spain has had a terrible run of form at the Eurovision Song Contest in recent years. They’ve only had two top 10 finishes in the past decade (literally finishing 10th both times), and have been lingering in the bottom ranks of the table for the past five years.

So every year, we follow along with the Spanish selection, hoping that this year, this year they will finally have something that’s going to break through. Is 2020 their year?

Blas Cantó has been trying to go to Eurovision his whole life. He participated in Eurojunior in 2004, but finished runner-up to eventual Junior Eurovision winner María Isabel. Later, as a member of the band Auryn, he participated in the 2011 edition of Destino Eurovisión, but lost to Lucía Pérez. Since going solo, Blas has topped the Spanish charts with his 2018 album Complicados.

Universo” is a slick pop song with a lush arrangement and memorable hooks in the bridge and the chorus. Of course, the bridge of “Perdóname, perdóname, uni-universo” and the “Ohh, uni-universo” chorus are memorable mostly because they are repeated over and over again. It’s a calculatedly constructed ear worm.

Blas is handsome and telegenic, so we are confident he’ll be able to Spzak the cameras during his performance. But he is singing high in his tenor range for most of the song, and without support, his vocal could get a bit thin. That said, we love the element of danger contained in that high note he lands in the climax of “Universo.” So long as they don’t drop a fire curtain behind him when he belts it.

We’re probably being a bit too critical of a song that we like. We really want Spain to do well, and we see a lot of potential here. So maybe we don’t want to get too excited because it’s so early in the season. But fingers crossed.