Iceland’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

A funny thing happened to Iceland in 2019. They got tired of their songs getting lost in the Eurovision Semifinals, so they mixed things up by sending an agitprop anti-capitalist industrial dance collective. It worked out pretty well: Hatari finished 10th in the Grand Final and they only got fined the €5,000 after they waved Palestinian flags in the Tel Aviv green room.

Then it dawned on everyone: hey, maybe the secret to this Eurovision thing is to find acts that stand out. Pretty men singing bland ballads are a dime a dozen. Who else is sending a geeky synth pop band who are obsessed with 8-bit animation, homemade musical instruments, and exquisite choreography?

Daði og Gagnamagnið first competed in Söngvakeppnin in 2017 with “Is This Love,” which finished as the runner up to Svala’s “Paper.” At first glance, the only real difference between “Is This Love” and “Think About Things” is that instead of singing a song to keyboardist Árnýja Fjóla Ásmundsdóttir (who is his wife), Daði Freyr Pétursson is singing a song to his infant daughter (who is not in the band yet). Otherwise, the band is pretty much doing the same thing here as they did during their first go.

But everything is now a bit more polished, a little more slick, and a lot more catchy. They have a keen sense of their own brand, right down to the costuming and the nerdy, yet chic staging. The whole package is evocative of both Napoleon Dynamite’s dance to “Canned Heat” and Pollapönk’s “No Prejudice,” with a little bit of Real Genius thrown in for good measure. It is goofy fun, made more delightful by their attention to detail.

The hidden power of “Think About Things” lies in the collective talent of backing vocalists Hulda Kristín Kolbrúnardóttir and Daði’s sister Sigrún Birna Pétursdóttir. Their vocals have been consistently tight throughout this year’s Söngvakeppnin and they add a professional sheen to the song that elevates the band’s high school talent show aesthetic.

We can imagine that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. A little too twee, a little too precious, or something like that. But we adore it because, to paraphrase a tweet from Elaine O’Neill, Daði og Gagnamagnið just look like us. We could be those kids. We frequently are those kids to this very day. And it’s nice to see someone like us make good.

Germany’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Germany has finished no better than 25th in four of the last five Eurovision Song Contests. Sensing that their national selection process was no longer doing them any favors (Michael Schulte’s 4th place finish in 2018 notwithstanding), they opted for an internal selection this year and decided to get hip with the kids by serving up a nightclub banger.

We’re in our late 40s, so we’re not sure we got the terminology right. This is the type of song they’d play in a nightclub, right? When the kids want to dance? And stalk a hot girl they’ve never met before?

Ben Dolic is a singer from Slovenia who was the runner-up on the eighth season of The Voice of Germany. He was in the band D Base, which participated in EMA 2016 with  “Spet živ.” His song “Violent Thing” was penned by a slew of songwriters, including Symphonix International’s Borislav Milanov.

So let’s start with the title. If we’re reading this right, “Violent Thing” is meant to be a compliment about the object of affection’s dancing. Unfortunately, all that does is make us imagine Nomi Malone in Showgirls.

While we appreciate Germany’s change in direction at Eurovision, we’re kind of struggling to get into this one. The disco trappings of the production strip out any levels to “Violent Thing,” leaving Ben no way to build the song. It gets monotonous.

The acoustic version Ben performed during Unser Lied für Rotterdam gives us a bit of hope. He showed how he can sell “Violent Thing” and bring it home. Unfortunately, this may mean he needs to scream over an overproduced orchestration to get his point across. Here’s hoping he can pull it off.

United Kingdom’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

The United Kingdom’s run of form at the Eurovision Song Contest in the last decade was not great. Their best result was 11th place with Blue’s “I Can” back in 2011, and they started and ended the 2010s with last place finishes.

When the BBC announced they were partnering up with BMG to internally select this year’s entry, we were intrigued. Our impression has been that the British music industry hasn’t been interested in bolstering the United Kingdom’s chances. We could be wrong about that, of course, but the fact that BMG’s participation was seen as a big deal confirmed that impression in our mind. So is this the moment where the UK turns a corner?

James Newman is a singer and songwriter who has penned songs for Kaiser Chiefs, Kesha, Guy Sebastian, and Toni Braxton. Oh, and his brother John Newman. He won a Brit Award as one of the authors of Rudimental’s 2013 single “Waiting All Night.” He has been a featured vocalist on a number of songs, most notably Armin van Buuren’s “Therapy,” which made it up to 26 on the Dutch Top 100 singles chart in 2018.

We have posited a couple of times before that the United Kingdom has settled on a certain sound for their Eurovision entries. It hasn’t been particularly successful, so at first listen, we were a bit surprised that “My Last Breath” fits snugly into that style.

Still, it’s a really good example of that sunny, inspirational pop sound. It does the strangest thing in the chorus: the word “breath” is isolated on the track and accentuated by James and the backing vocalists. It’s jarring at first, but it makes perfect sense in the context of the lyrics: it’s that last breath he’s giving you when you have nothing left. More to the point, we heard “BREATH – Whoa-oh-Oh-oh-ooh” just once and the chorus nestled comfortably into our heads.

Whenever we discuss Eurovision entries, we often ask ourselves “How would this do at Melodifestivalen?” And we think “My Last Breath” would go direct to the final. Maybe that’s a silly assumption, but Victor Crone went direct to this year’s Melodifestivalen final with a similar song in both style and lyrical content, and we think “My Last Breath” is a much better song than that. Well done.

Apropos of nothing else, unless it hints at the United Kingdom’s staging plans, the official video for “My Last Breath” is pretty brilliant. It’s just James wandering around a snowy forest while Wim “The Iceman” Hof does Wim “The Iceman” Hof things. Yet it does a good job of illustrating the story of the song. The footage of Wim jumping into the river right as the drums kick back in and James sings “If we were deep sea divers” gives us the tingling spines.

Plus Wim is Dutch, so we’d like to believe it’s a sly reference to where the Song Contest is being held this year.

Ukraine’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

We don’t want to jinx this because it’s only February, but it looks like Ukraine has picked their song for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Go_A formed in the early 2010s with the idea of combining traditional folk music with electronic music. They had their first hit when their song “Веснянка” was named Best Track in Ukraine and entered heavy rotation on KISS-FM. (Does every country have a radio station called KISS-FM?) Singer Kateryna Pavlenko studied folklore when she attended university and she and bandmate Taras Shevchenko used a traditional song she found in her research as the foundation for “Solovey.”

The first thing we thought we when we saw Go_A’s initial performance in the Vidbir semifinals was, “This is what Tulia was going for at last year’s Eurovision, except less metal and more Afro Celt Sound System.” Needless to say, we’re fans. Kateryna’s vocal is nasal and shrill in the best way possible. Her tone and her performance give “Solovey” a sense of being both traditional and otherworldly. It’s sort of like the whole of Ukraine’s musical history appeared like a ghost on stage before us.

Go_A are uncompromising in their presentation, with the only nod towards Eurovision convention being their guitar that shoots sparks. Their roots are firmly planted; you can take their vision or leave it, but they won’t let you ignore them. Hey, it’s worked for Ukraine before.

Poland’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Jeez, listening to this year’s Eurovision entries from Belgium and Norway have got us down. Maybe we can listen to Poland’s new song to cheer ourselves up.

Oh. Never mind then.

Alicja Szemplińska won the 2019 season of The Voice of Poland. Her song “Empire” is by pop singer Patryk Kumór and songwriters Dominic Buczkowski-Wojtaszek, Frazer Mac, and Laurell Barker. Laurell collaborated with Frazer on the 2019 Swiss entry “She Got Me” and co-wrote the German entry “Sisters” and the United Kingdom entry “Bigger Than Us.” She also has two songs at this year’s Melodifestivalen. We need to add her to our Songwriters page.

There is nothing in particular wrong with the song or with the singer. However, we feel like they are not a good fit for each other. Alicja is only 17 years old, so it’s kind of hard for us to believe the story she’s telling in the song. Teenagers in love are always dramatic, to be sure, but the lyrics track older than that. Although maybe that’s because the line “Like a bird to a pane of glass” reminds us of Anouk’s “Birds.”

Anyway, although Alicja has a beautiful, mature voice, her performance did not elevate “Empires.” There was no depth, just some big notes that show off her potential.

And yet, it’s hard for us to be completely dismissive. That’s partly because we feel churlish criticizing a teenager who has won two televised singing competitions within the span of four months. But there is also the fact that Szansa na sukces was held in a small studio space, which dampened any potential for “Empire” to show off its full grandiosity. Give Alicja a big room and some time to live with “Empire” and it may work out just fine. She’s got the raw goods, and there is time to refine it.

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Ever get the feeling you’re floating on a river, only to be interrupted by an elaborate pratfall?

Ana Soklič competed on the first season of X Faktor Slovenia, and was knocked out of the show in the fifth week. She participated in two previous editions of EMA, singing “Oče” in 2007 and “If You” as a member of Diona Dimm in 2004. She co-wrote “Voda” with Bojan Simončič, her Diona Dimm bandmate and the guitarist for the 1980s Slovenian New Wave band Ultimat. She recorded her song with the Budapest Art Orchestra, which also recorded “Rise Like a Phoenix.”

“Voda” translates as “Water,” which makes sense. The melodies of the song meander around like a leaf on a gentle stream, going here and there gently and occasionally getting stuck on a rock. It’s pleasant, and it will probably be lovely to listen to when we’re in the mood to relax. But it doesn’t really wow us.

That said, Ana has a rich, smoky voice and she gives a measured, professional performance. She sings it beautifully, and gives “Voda” a burst of life when she lands her big notes. There is room for her to open this up, which she will need to do if “Voda” is going to stand out in Rotterdam.

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.