The 2020 Eurovision That Almost Was That Almost Was: Semifinal One

Imagine, if you will, an alternate reality where the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest took place. Now imagine an alternate reality to that alternate reality. You see, once you have one alternative Eurovision universe, you have infinite ones. That’s Tegmark’s Mathematical Eurovision Hypothesis.

In other words, welcome to the Eurovision That Almost Was That Almost Was. Let’s look at Semifinal One and the automatic finalists who got to vote in it.

Sweden: Dotter – “Bulletproof”

Both “Bulletproof” and Melodifestivalen’s winner “Move” are examples of how performance and staging can elevate so-so songs. Dotter has a cool vocal tone and a risky upper register, and her charisma is a big part of why “Bulletproof” works live. Add to that a very cool staging that requires nothing more than some lighting and a mirrored shirt, and you have a successful Melodifestivalen entry. We were Team Mamas, but we would have been more than happy if Dotter had won.

Belarus: Yan Yarosh – “Fire”

“Fire” is a pleasant little number in the Jamie Cullum vein. There are some lovely musical moments hindered slightly by an overly enthusiastic drummer. The only real issue here is that Yan Yarosh went for a concert staging and VAL went for a performance staging, and a performance staging just stands out more.

Australia: Casey Donovan – “Proud”

As a song, this “Proud” is not that much different than the “Proud” that won the jury vote at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. But like Tamara Todevska before her, Casey Donovan turns this run of the mill number into an absolute anthem. We get why Australia ultimately went for Montaigne, but damn if Casey didn’t bring the house down in the Gold Coast.

North Macedonia: Internal selection. Not applicable.

Slovenia: Lina Kuduzović – “Man Like U”

So here’s a job: stand and look serious into a camera so the producers can cut to you at key moments of a song. Love it. Unfortunately, Lina’s performance at EMA was a bit stiff, and her vocal was nasal and milky. It’s such a missed opportunity, because she wrote herself a pretty good song. But the more poised performer won the day in Slovenia.

Lithuania: Moniqué – “Make Me Human”

Moniqué told a fully fleshed out story in her staging of “Make Me Human,” taking the song’s metaphorical message and turning it into a cyborg’s cry for love. It didn’t work 100% of the time, but the overall package was quite engrossing.

Ireland: Internal selection. Not applicable.

Russia: Internal selection. Not applicable.

Belgium: Internal selection. Not applicable.

Malta: Justine Shorfid – 2nd place singer

As outside observers (meaning we didn’t actually watch the show), we assumed Destiny’s win at X Factor Malta was a forgone conclusion. But she had some stiff competition with Justine Shorfid. Justine has a rich, smoky vocal tone that stands out. We thought she overemoted a bit in her performances, but that’s a minor complaint. She’s a compelling singer.

Croatia: Mia Negovetić – “When It Comes to You”

We like to evoke Radio Disney as a kind of insult towards teen-oriented sunny pop tunes, and we totally could sling that at Mia’s “When It Comes to You.” And yet, Mia is such a likeable performer that it was easy to root for her. It’s cute, and we don’t mind that’s too twee for our tastes.

Azerbaijan: Internal selection. Not applicable.

Cyprus: Internal selection. Not applicable.

Norway: Kristin Husøy – “Pray for Me”

As much of a hot mess as Melodi Grand Prix was this year (as we’ll discuss in our WTF post), at least the Gold Duel came down to two strong entries. “Pray for Me” reminded us a bit of Amandine Bourgeois’ “L’enfer et moi,” and Kristin Husøy has a smoky, raspy voice that fits her song like a glove.

Israel: Ella-Lee Lahav – 2nd place singer; “Roots” – 2nd place song

Ella-Lee Lahav is just pure pop. Look for any of her HaKokhav HaBa L’Eurovizion performances and enjoy. (“Toxic” was a particular standout to us). We have no doubt Ella-Lee would have represented Israel admirably at Eurovision. Maybe she will someday.

After winning HaKokhav HaBa L’Eurovizion, Eden Alene was given a song selection show. “Roots” was the admirable runner up, taking a fairly nondescript song about being proud of who you are and spicing it up with a spectacularly strident chorus that grabbed our attention. It’s not the most accessible song, though, so despite our reservations about “Feker Libi,” we can’t say Israel made the wrong choice.

Romania: “Storm” – 2nd place song

We are not the biggest fans of “Alcohol You,” but when we look at Roxen’s other options for Eurovision, we totally understand how that one was chosen as her song for Europe. “Storm” sounds like someone accidentally copied and pasted the chorus to Zibbz’ “Stones” in between some bland, noodly verses. The staging served “Storm” perfectly, in that it accentuated how awful the song was.

Ukraine: Khayat – “Call for Love”

We love Go_A’s “Solovey,” but we also love Khayat’s “Call for Love.” Khayat treads this line between being a proper pop star and a singer trying too hard to be suave, but he won us over with his ethereal vocal. “Call for Love” was an absolute blast from start to finish. Ultimately, Go_A is just a bit more unique than Khayat, which is really saying something.

Germany: Internal selection. Not applicable.

Italy: Francesco Gabbani – “Viceversa”

We love when past Eurovision stars come back, and we also love to complain when their new songs aren’t quite as special as their first entries. And so it goes with Francesco Gabbani. If “Occidentali’s Karma” is the lead single of an album, “Viceversa” is the fifth single released as the world tour is wrapping up. It’s still good, and Francesco still has boatloads of charm to go with his beautiful, raspy vocal tone. But the right song won Sanremo this year, and we bet even Francesco himself would agree.

The Netherlands: Internal selection. Not applicable.

Recap of Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light

Every now and then, we wonder if we’re a bit too cynical. Then we watch something as mawkishly sincere as Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light and we remember how we got so sardonic in the first place.

Don’t get us wrong: we understand the need to acknowledge what everyone around the world has gone through for the past few months and to salute the health care workers who are saving lives. We’d be churlish to dismiss that. But we had to laugh when ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus said, “[Eurovision] so allows you to escape and be happy and even forget about the coronavirus for a little while.” Europe Shine A Light did nothing but remind us about the coronavirus.

We recognize that our complaints probably reflect more on us as diehard Eurovision fans than on the show itself. Maybe Europe Shine A Line was more of a fillip for a casual audience than we’re giving it credit for. But we thought the show was going to celebrate the artists who lost their chance to represent their countries at this year’s Song Contest and maybe give us a little bit of that escape that Björn alluded to. What we got instead was a cross between a wake and a telethon.

There just needed to be a lot more levity to balance out the somber earnestness. We probably laughed harder than we normally would at Daði Freyr’s goofy message to Europe, Conchita Wurst’s joke about being free from underwear, and Ulrikke’s giddiness over getting a personal message from smoking hot Tom Leeb because they were moments of lightness in an evening that desperately needed them.

Not that we didn’t appreciate the moments of beauty. We’re not that cynical! Netta’s song “Cuckoo” was an utter delight, making us once again thankful that she won. Michael Schulte and Ilsa DeLange’s version of “Eine Bisschen Frieden” was gorgeous. And that brief glimpse of Diodato singing “Fai Rumore” at the empty Arena di Verona gave us chills. Thankfully, the official Eurovision channel posted the whole performance so we could properly bawl our eyes out.

And look, “Love Shine a Light” is nowhere near our favorite Song Contest winner. But you would have to be a cold-hearted, self-centered bass player from a popular Belgian trip hop band not to get a little choked up watching almost all of this year’s Eurovision artists singing along to Katrina and the Waves’ iconic entry.

It would have been impossible to get proper closure on the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest, so maybe it was inevitable that Europe Shine a Light ended the season with a thud. Fortunately, we still have all the songs and the delightful national final performances and the glorious music videos. We can watch them in the producers’ running order, decide which ones make it to our personal final, and pretend that Iceland won. And you can do the same and pretend that your favorite won, too. The music doesn’t go away just because the Song Contest did.

 

Things We Learned By Reading the Bios of the 2020 Eurovision Participants

Given the cancellation of this year’s Song Contest, we thought we might skip our annual review of Eurovision’s official artist bios. But then we saw that Benjamin Rosenbom of Ben & Tan (Denmark) is the son of a Malagasy father. If ever there was an artist who could qualify as an official Eurovision Lemur, it has to be the son of someone from Madagascar, right? This was the clearest sign we could get that we needed to press on!

As is often the case, there were a few bios that had us chuckling and wondering if the artists really are that conceited. Otherwise, their publicists aren’t doing them any favors. To wit, Ben Dolic (Germany):

“Singing affects our bodies and our souls. A voice that we find appealing may stop the time or drive us forward; it may give us goosebumps and flood us with endorphins. Ben Dolic has such a voice. It is at once crystal clear, warm, euphoric and semi-androgynous. It is a voice unlike any other in today’s pop music.”

Maybe “Violent Things” refers to the intensity of our retching after reading that.

Montaigne (Australia) twice mentions that she is a generational talent: “The voice of a new generation in Australia” who “represents the next generation of artists who march to the beat of their own drum.” And yet she saw fit to work with the same songwriting team who wrote most of Australia’s other Eurovision songs.

Roxen (Romania) says her “musical aura is like a spell that creates a whole new world.” That world requires tan pasties, though.

Meanwhile, Hooverphonic’s (Belgium) bio is so full of itself, it almost makes us reevaluate our fandom. “[‘Release Me’] is a sweeping, majestic ballad that only Hooverphonic seems to be able to craft time and time again.” Although John Barry was good that, too.

If you’ve ever wondered who the brain behind the band is, look no further: “Never one to place all of his eggs in one basket, frontman Alex Callier has always strived to deliver quality songs, sung by the best singers in the business.” The bio casually mentions that “guitarist Raymond Geerts has been the steady foundation of the band,” but really it’s all about Alex.

Hooverphonic ends their bio with, “They’re looking for stars and – rest assured – they will find them.” What does that even mean? Maybe it’s a reference to how they discovered lead singer Luka Cruysberghs, who won The Voice of Flanders while on Alex’s team.

But Luka is not the only winner of TV talent shows on the 2020 Eurovision roster. Alicja Szemplińska (Poland) won The Voice of Poland only a few months before she was chosen to represent her home country. Arilena Ara (Albania), Eden Alene (Israel), Destiny (Malta), and Tornike Kipiani (Georgia) all won their countries’ editions of The X Factor. Vincent Bueno (Austria) won Musical! The Show, and indeed was starring in a musical at the time the COVID-19 quarantine went into effect in Austria.

Want award winners? Blas Cantó (Spain) won an MTV European Music Award for Best Spanish Artist. James Newman (United Kingdom) won a Brit as a songwriter on Rudimental and Ella Eyre’s “Waiting All Night.” Little Big (Russia) “are prizewinners of lots of international award shows, like the Berlin Music Awards, Global Film Festival Awards, Het Gala van de Gouden K’s and others.” And Uku Suviste (Estonia) was named by Kroonika magazine as “Estonia’s Sexiest Man.”

Purrrrrrr

Natalia Gordienko (Moldova) reveals that she won “the gold medal in the Voice Category” at the World Championships of Performing Arts, which sounds like part of the plot to a direct-to-video Pitch Perfect movie.

Of course, no awards banquet would be complete without this from Athena Manoukian (Armenia): “Her first experience in the music industry was in 2007 when she won first prize at an international talent contest.” Yeah, there’s no need to be more specific!

Of course winning stuff is one thing, but getting a good education is important too. Uku attended the Berklee College of Music, where he “[made] the Dean’s List every semester.” Elisa (Portugal) is currently a student at the Music Academy of Lisbon. And Samanta Tīna (Latvia) “wrote her graduating paper based on an analysis of the national selections for the Eurovision Song Contest in Latvia and Lithuania.”

We love the artists who talk about their struggles getting to Eurovision, which makes this year’s cancellation particularly cruel. Samanta makes sure to mention she tried to represent Latvia six times and Lithuania twice. Blas notes that he competed in Spain’s national selections for the 2004 Junior Eurovision Song Contest and for the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest. Efendi (Azerbaijan) writes, “After 4 attempts to become Azerbaijan’s representative at the Eurovision Song Contest, the 5th attempt was victorious.” Of course, she was an internal selection, but she won the hell out of that internal selection!

At least Blas and Efendi have already confirmed they’re coming back next year. We beg of Latvia: skip Supernova next year and just send Samanta!

Ultimately, though, what we really look for when poring over these bios are distillations of each artists’ musical philosophy. Sandro’s (Cyprus) credo is “that music must be authentic, truthful and reach peoples’ hearts.” Vasil’s (North Macedonia) “motto in life is simple – wherever words fail – Vasil sings.” It’s the same way we manage our visits to Costco.

The Roop’s (Lithuania) lead singer Vaidotas Valiukevičius says of “On Fire,” “With this song, I wish to send my listeners confidence and good vibes. We are all capable of being who we want when we want, and age is not important.” As Eurovision bloggers in their late 40s, we can’t agree more!

Daði Freyr (Iceland) writes, “Music and family are the most important things in the world to Daði Freyr. It’s what drives him forward, what inspires him, and what keeps him rooted in Iceland and the close-knit communities he has always adored.” He adds:

“The song is designed to be seen by the world, all part of his complex masterplan, coupled with the stunning live performances and the viral video … Humble focused on the music, Daði Freyr ends the song as he begins – surrounded by his family, reaching out to Europe.”

Of all of the bios, this is the one we are most convinced was written by the artist himself.

On that note, let’s end with Lesley Roy (Ireland). We quote directly:

“Lesley said that working with theatre-makers and club creators ThisIsPopBaby on this year’s Irish entry ‘changes the game as far as Ireland and the European song competition goes – ThisIsPopBaby are injecting a fresh, fun vision that encapsulates a modern Ireland.’”

There is no way you can convince us that she actually said that, unless you also offer evidence that her day job is as a publicist.

Switzerland’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

And so we finish our review of the national final season with Switzerland. Now, we had a lot of favorite entries this year. Daði og Gagnamagnið is still our favorite and The Roop is still our second favorite. But we have to say that the worst part about the cancellation of this year’s Song Contest is that we all were robbed of the opportunity to hear Gjon’s Tears perform “Répondez-moi” on the big stage. Because dammit, this would have been wonderful.

A Swiss singer whose family comes from Albania and Kosovo, Gjon Muharremaj named himself Gjon’s Tears after a moment when his grandfather cried while hearing him sing “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” At 12, Gjon finished third in Albania’s Got Talent and later competed on Switzerland’s Got Talent and The Voice France. He co-wrote “Répondez-moi” with Xavier Michel, Alizé Oswald, and Jeroen Swinnen.

”Répondez-moi” is an intense song. It packs Albert Camus levels of existentialism into a tight three minutes, and you don’t even need to understand French to get the message. The haunting chorus generates more chills than skinny-dipping in an Alpine lake in January.

Gjon’s Tears is charismatic as all get out, with that special knack for peering into your soul. His range is stunning, and his upper register is particularly piercing. Those high notes may dangerous roads to travel on, but when we listened to the sparse and powerful acoustic version, we felt assured that he can deliver the goods each and every time.

Thankfully, Gjon’s Tears will be coming back next year. We really hope that he finds away to top “Répondez-moi,” because if he does, it is going to be brilliant.

Bulgaria’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

One of the big Eurovision storylines in the past five years has been the sudden emergence of Bulgaria as a Song Contest superpower. Sure, they skipped a year to save costs, but their last three entries have showed their intent to be a fixture at the top of the leaderboard. And 2020 probably would have been no different.

Victoria Georgieva competed on season four of X Factor Bulgaria, then had a Top 20 hit in Bulgaria with “Nezavarshen Roman.” She co-wrote “Tears Getting Sober” with Borislav Milanov of Symphonix International, The Voice Kids Germany winner Lukas Oskar Janisch, and Cornelia Wiebols from the Swedish band KNASH.

So this is another song about a bad breakup. We’ve gotten that from BelgiumNorway, Poland, Moldova, Georgia, Romania, and did we miss anyone? But there is something weirdly joyous about the lyrics to “Tears Getting Sober.” Look at the lines “My pain will soon be over/Oh, how the tables turn/Tears are getting sober/I’ve got some space to grow.” The lyrics are not wallowing in the sorrow or not grasping at codependence. They are just embracing the feeling that what’s done is done and it’s time to move on.
Musically, the song is very gentle and understated. It’s entirely orchestral, with very little pop vocabulary present. It even finishes with a quirky little Disney happy ending. There is a quiet audacity to “Tears Getting Sober” that we admire. This may not have been a Eurovision winner, but it shows that Bulgaria is daring to stand out. That always bodes well for a country’s chances to do well.
We’ll have Victoria again next year, and we’ll probably have Borislav working with her again. We’re already excited to hear what they give us next. Maybe next year, they’ll come up with a winner.

Croatia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Every year, there are a couple of songs that don’t stay in our brains. We obsessively watch old Song Contests and even then, we’ll come across entries that we completely forgot about. One year, Slovakia sent a song that only registers with us now as the song we always forget was a Eurovision entry. Can’t remember which year it was, though.

You can see where we’re going with this.

Now, Damir Kedžo is one of Croatia’s biggest stars. He’s a chart-topping, award-winning, stream-dominating pop singer. So the negative opinions of two minor Eurovision bloggers probably won’t hurt his feelings one bit. Though maybe he’ll be flattered when we say he’s like a hot version of Lee Ving.

But “Divlji Vjetre” does not resonate with us at all. At first listen, it struck us as a bland, midtempo pop song with a strange key change.

Upon repeated listens, though, we were struck by its interesting structure. Written by Ante Pecotić, “Divlji Vjetre” starts off fairly conventionally, with a lilting verse and a big chorus. But the second verse has a different vocal arrangement than the first. It brings the backing singers to the fore and gives Damir a place to vamp. After that, we get two run-throughs of the chorus. The key change between the two is sort of hidden under a big long note that Damir uses to pull us into the final part of the song. It’s fascinating.

“Divlji Vjetre” may be fun to deconstruct, but we’re still not sold on the song itself. It’s nice, but we’re not sure it’s one we’re going to think about much once we’ve moved onto the next Eurovision season.

North Macedonia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

We have been accused in the past of being Eurovision snobs that have no appreciation of camp and of being Eurovision scows that only care about the trashier side of the Song Contest. We aren’t ashamed to be either of those things because Eurovision wouldn’t be the same if one was missing in favor of the other.

But sometimes our Song Contest duality means that we don’t give certain songs a fair shake because we wanted something else from the artist. They are just doing what they think will work in their repertoire and in the context of a music competition. And here we are judging them using a very arbitrary reason.

Which brings us to Vasil and “You.”

Vasil Garvanliev is a classically trained singer who was a soloist in the Chicago Children’s Choir when he was 12. He studied in the University of Toronto Opera School and the Royal Conservatory of Music Glenn Gould and has performed in operas around the world. But he also has a pop background, starting his performance career when he was seven. He was one of the backing singers for Tamara Todevska at last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, where she totally won the jury vote.

So we’ve got a singer here who can work in both pop and classical vocal styles. When we learned this, we had it in our heads that Vasil was going to be Jacques Houdek 2.0. We wanted that so bad.

Now, this is not a sensible expectation to have. Vasil, wisely, chose to work in his pop voice. Obviously, he was going to do that. Which makes us ask if our disappointment in “You” lies in the intrinsic quality of the song or our unrealistic idea of what it should be.

The answer probably lies in the middle. “You” is an odd song for Eurovision. It’s tango-flecked electronic dance pop that sounds intimate and sensual. Vasil’s vocal is restrained and measured, giving us glimpses of his range without going over the top. We think it would have struggled to qualify for the Grand Final because, well, it’s just not flashy enough. North Macedonia didn’t need to go the full “My Friend,” but we still wish they had been a little less subtle. Maybe that’s an unfair expectation, but there is something to be said for standing out.

Israel’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

We have been following news of which artists have agreed to come back to Eurovision next year after this year’s cancellation. We figure all of the internal selections will be asked to go again, but we feel for artists who qualified through national finals. Countries like Sweden, Estonia, and Denmark have their big selection shows, and the best this year’s winners can hope for is a chance to do it all over again next year.

So when Israel announced Eden Alene was coming back in 2021, we were relieved. HaKokhav HaBa is fun and all, but we really wanted Eden to have her chance.

Eden Alene is the Jerusalem-born daughter of Ethiopian immigrants. She won X Factor Israel in 2018. Her song “Feker Libi” was written by Doron Medalie and Idan Raichel. Doran wrote “Golden Boy,” “Made of Stars,” and the 2018 Eurovision winner “Toy.” Idan is a musician known for infusing electronica with Arabic, Ethiopian, Hebrew, and Amharic influences and lyrics.

“Feker Libi” is fun and energetic, but we didn’t get too excited about it. It comes down to the orchestration, which we found a bit hokey. We wanted something a bit edgier musically, and the music felt a bit too sunny.

Vocally, Eden has a lot to sink her teeth into and as good as she sounded, her artistic voice got lost in the staging. She seemed like she was still getting comfortable with the choreography during her HaKokhav HaBa performance, which muted her charisma a bit.

Looking ahead to next year, we hope Israel teams Eden up with the same songwriting team. Doran and Idan have a lot of potential together that we don’t think they fully tapped here. We want them to get a second chance to give us something special.

Finland’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Finland had four female solo and group artists competing at this year’s UMK and one male artist. When we saw the line-up we said, “Watch, the one guy is going to win.”

Damned patriarchy.

Aksel Kankaanranta was runner-up on The Voice of Finland in 2017, then guested on Pyhimys’ “Jättiläinen,” which was the most streamed Finnish song on Spotify in 2018. His song “Looking Back” is by the American pop band Before You Exit, Finnish songwriter Joonas Angeria, and American songwriter Whitney Phillips.

“Looking Back” is a pretty song, and particularly poignant these days. Aksel has a lovely voice, if a bit reedy, and his vocal performance is good. However, he spent a lot of time at UMK with his eyes closed and his hands wrapped around the mic stand, which didn’t help make “Looking Back” soar like it should. He mentions in his official bio that he is overcoming shyness by putting himself out there as an artist, so knowing that explains his performance. But he needed to open himself up a bit more for his song to really resonate.

That said, the visual staging at UMK did a lot to overcome his reserved stage presence. It was a touching animation that illustrated the song’s themes, and we thought it was affective. “Looking Back” may not have been the most spectacular entry on offer to Finland, but we thought it held together nicely.

Malta’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Destiny, she gets all my love.

Symphonix International, they get all my love.

Ira Losco and X Factor Malta, they get all my love.

(Is House of Pain’s “All My Love” too obscure a reference for a Eurovision blog?)

Destiny Chukunyere won the 2015 Junior Eurovision Song Contest for Malta and earned her spot at this year’s Grand Prix by winning X Factor Malta. She was also a backup singer for Michela Pace at last year’s Song Contest. Her song “All of My Love” is by the Symphonix International team, including 2018’s actual winner of the actual jury vote Cesár Sampson.

Destiny’s seemed destined to fulfill her destiny to be Malta’s Eurovision representative, even though she had to jump through the hoops of X Factor Malta to get there. So the cancelation of this year’s Song Contest seems particularly cruel to her.

On the other hand, we’re not big fans of “All of My Love.” There are certain melodies and rhythms that Symphonix hit on regularly, and we wish we knew more more about music theory and structure to properly put our fingers on what those tropes are. All we can say is that “All of My Love” feels like a run of the mill Symphonix song.

Mind you, we’d normally take a run of the mill Symphonix song over a run of the mill G:Son or Siegel song. But we really wanted to hear something special for Destiny and this wasn’t it. So maybe the silver lining is that she can come back with a stronger entry. A lot of countries have already announced that their representative this year will be their representative next year, even some countries that held a national final to pick their artist. Let’s hope Malta gets on that bandwagon.