Greece’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

I struggled to write my review of Stefania’s “Last Dance” because I kept getting distracted by the official video. Let me see if I got this straight: she’s walking in the middle of an empty street, but still stops for the red pedestrian crossing signal. Suddenly the world starts to flood around her. She runs to higher ground, but seeing no hope, she tries to leap into the rising waters. Luckily, she is saved by Pegasus, who flies her to the top of Mount Olympus. There she sees a khaki-clad Atlas, who is not holding up the world but instead clogging Earth’s drainpipe. Her gentle touch dissolves Atlas into a beam of light, causing the drainpipe to unclog. Also, her outfit changes into a disco ball.

Then the pedestrian crossing signal turns green.

Stefania is collaborating again with her “SUPERG!RL” songwriters Dimitris Kontopoulos, Sharon Vaughn, and the songwriting team ARCADE. While I appreciate that they didn’t just rework last year’s entry for this year, I don’t think they are sending a stronger song to Rotterdam.

Musically, “Last Dance” reminds me a lot of “Holding Out for a Hero.” Not to say that it is directly aping Bonnie Tyler’s classic, just that the arrangement sounds like something from that era of ’80s pop. To make matters worse, the mix is so ornate and loud that it threatens to drown Stefania out.

Still, she does find a way to stand out. I’m particularly impressed with how well she interprets the song, because the lyrics don’t really seem to have any meaning to them. The words seem constructed to fit the rhythm of the music rather than to tell any story. Yet Stefania is able to give “Last Dance” plenty of conviction.

I am being kind of nit-picky, because I actually like the song. It just didn’t grab me from the get-go, and I’m trying to figure out why. Maybe I’m unfairly comparing it to Stefania’s 2020 entry. Maybe I’m at the stage of a compressed song release schedule where anything that doesn’t hook me immediately doesn’t stand out. No matter the reason, “Last Dance” just doesn’t work for me.

By the way, if you’ve not watched the official video for “Holding Out for a Hero” lately, do yourself a favor and savor this one.

Russia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Any views that I express in this post do not necessarily reflect those of my employers. (Gosh, I’ve been saying that a lot this year.)

It is interesting to follow news from Russia right now. The country has seen a large number of protests recently after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested in January. Navalny had returned to Russia for the first time since being hospitalized in Germany after being poisoned with a nerve agent. He accused President Vladimir Putin of engineering the attack in retaliation for his work exposing corruption in the Russian government. As he and his supporters share information on social media, Russian authorities are trying to crack down on services like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram while simultaneously cracking down on the protests before September’s parliamentary election.

Meanwhile, The Sun reported in November that Putin has Parkinson’s disease and is being pressured to step down. The Kremlin denied the report, which was kind of a gimme: it was a report in The Sun, after all. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there is something to that story.

I mention all of this in a review of a Eurovision Song Contest entry is not because I’m an American and we still have a Cold War view of Russia here. (Though we do.) It’s because it is in this environment that Manizha not only competed in, but won a national final held by the state-owned television station Channel One.

At first glance, it’s easy to assume that Manizha is singing an ode to Mother Russia. But there is something a bit off about her song. In fact, sometimes it sounds like she’s being sarcastic. Then she sings in English, “Every Russian woman needs to know/You’re strong enough to bounce against the wall.” That’s when you realize Manizha is no run of the mill pop singer.

Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Manizha and her family moved to Moscow when she was a kid to escape the country’s post-Soviet  civil war. Being Tajik-Russian, she faced bullying as a child and prejudice in the music industry. She has used her music and her platform to call attention to Russia’s discrimination against Central Asians, as well as to support women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. She also serves as a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

Not surprisingly, the news of her win led to certain sectors of Russia’s population complaining about her being Tajik, while a prominent Russian musician alleged that her song is not Russian enough (making me wonder if he listened to the song before denouncing her). Fortunately, artists like Dima Bilan, Dina Garipova, and Yulia Savicheva have leapt to her defense.

Russian Woman,” which she wrote on International Women’s Day in 2020 and debuted on International Women’s Day in 2021, is about expanding the role of women in Russian society. Manizha highlighted her theme in her national final staging when she dropped her traditional garb for a factory worker’s coveralls (which I took as a sly reference to Soviet Russia’s industrial history). In her lyrics, she mocks people who put her down by telling her she’s too fat, too arrogant, or just needs to find a man and settle down.

The music is herky-jerky, sometimes diving into traditional Russian folk, sometimes dipping into hip hop. It’s raw and striking and its unusual rhythms grab my attention as much as Manizha’s commanding stage presence. She is bold, expressive, and powerful. She strikes me as someone who is funny, warm, and supportive and also someone you shouldn’t mess with.

Manizha has said she will add some English to the final version of the song, but will be keeping much of the Russian lyrics. Hopefully, she doesn’t change the music up too much, because I really don’t want “Russian Woman” to lose its immediacy. It’s a brilliant track.

Thanks to Star-Spangled Eurovision for links to Calvert Journal’s profile of Manizha. Give them a follow on Twitter!

San Marino’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Last year, San Marino’s Senhit had the option of picking the song “Cleopatra” as her Eurovision entry. When she passed, Azerbaijan’s Efendi picked it up and probably would have turned it into an epic classic were it not for, you know, 2020.

Clearly, Senhit was not going to make the same mistake twice.

Now, here’s the thing about “Adrenalina.” It’s a decent, if unremarkable pop number. Flo Rida provides a serviceable pop-rap verse in it. It’s kind of a paint-by-numbers summer banger.

But… Senhit somehow got Flo Rida to drop a verse in her Eurovision song for San Marino. Does that mean Flo Rida is going to show up in Rotterdam? Does the presence of Flo Rida make San Marino a favorite to win? Will San Marino’s chances diminish if it turns out Flo Rida can’t make it and he’s replaced by a rapper named Zamma Rino?

If you follow Senhit on Twitter, you will have enjoyed her lapping up the attention her song drop has generated. It’s really nice to see San Marino raise a fuss in the fan community in a positive way rather than in an “Oh my god, Serhat is singing a disco song again” way or an “Oh my god, another dated Ralph Siegel tune” way.

On the other hand, will the fandom turn on Senhit if Flo Rida isn’t a part of the final package in May? Or does she have more tricks up her sleeve to compensate?

As I’ve been watching her “Freaky Trip to Rotterdam” series on YouTube, I have been amazed how she turned herself from a bland but solid also-ran at the 2011 Song Contest into a glamorous pop diva who turns “Alcohol Is Free” and “Cheesecake” into edgy and erotic showpieces. If she can achieve in her Eurovision staging of “Adrenalina” anything close to what she has done with her cover videos, then she could make Eleni Foureira look like a stereotypical librarian by comparison.

So I am completely torn by San Marino this year. I feel like Senhit was probably going to be a lock to make the Final, and by bringing in the splashy guest star, she overegged her pudding a bit. I’m still pretty excited to see what she’s going to do next, though.

North Macedonia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

The views I present as I discuss North Macedonia’s participation in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest do not necessarily represent those of my employers.

Vasil opens up the video for his song for Europe “Here I Stand” talking about the fate of Eurovision 2020, saying, “When the Contest was cancelled last year, I was devastated. Dreams, gone.”

One year later, he finding himself on the cusp of losing that dream again.

Vasil recorded the official video for “Here I Stand” in a museum, and one of the pieces of art depicted colors resembling the flag of Bulgaria. This led to much criticism in North Macedonia for representing another country’s flag in the video. MRT, North Macedonia’s national broadcaster, released a recut video to remove the offending shot.

The criticism intensified as an old interview Vasil did with wiwiblogs began to recirculate. In it, he discusses how he has both North Macedonian and Bulgarian citizenship because he grew up close to the border. The question was raised of whether Vasil was North Macedonian enough to represent North Macedonia, and you know how well things go when a question like that comes up.

On top of that, Vasil has been receiving such intense nationalistic and homophobic abuse on his social media accounts that the newspaper Nova Makedonija described it as “јавен линч и говор на омраза,” which translates as “a public lynching and hate speech.”

In this environment, MRT announced on March 16, 2021:

“Macedonian Radio Television has established an internal commission to review and analyse all aspects arising from public reactions related to the Eurovision Song Contest. The public service broadcaster will also take into account the obligations noted in the participation license, as well as the obligations arising from the membership in the European Broadcasting Union, where MRT is an integral part of the public service association in the European Union. The public will be additionally informed about the final decision of MRT.”

This statement does not indicate if MRT is thinking of pulling out of the Song Contest just a few days after the Eurovision heads of delegation meeting, in which the final versions of each country’s entries are due. And yet it is easy to assume, based on the fact that MRT even announced this, that they are thinking of bowing to the pressure.

It’s bizarre to me that MRT would get cold feet over Vasil now, after supporting him for over a year and at a time where he would need support from his delegation the most. It’s one thing for Alyaksandr Lukashenka to stick up for Galasy ZMesta when their song that supports his strong-arm tactics against protesters was rejected by the EBU. It’s another for a broadcaster to consider throwing their own artist to the wolves when the question of his national worthiness is being raised.

When they rejected Belarus’s Eurovision entry, the EBU said in their statement that “recent reactions to the proposed entry risk bringing the reputation of the ESC into disrepute.” If they think that about the response to “Ya Nauchu Tebya (I’ll Teach You),” then what is their take on this?

When I first heard “Here I Stand,” I thought to myself, “That’s a nice song. Probably not going to make waves at Eurovision, but it’s the type of song I had wanted Vasil to send all along.” Now, hearing a deeply personal song called “Here I Stand” in context of what he is going through right now, it suddenly takes on a lot more power. I really hope his dream comes true.

Updated (23 March 2021): MRT concluded its internal review of “Here I Stand” and have backed Vasil as North Macedonia’s Eurovision representative. Whew!

Italy’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Last year’s Italian Eurovision entry was called “Fai Rumore,” which translates to English as “make noise.”

This year, the Italians took Diodado’s advice.

I watched all 25-plus hours of this year’s Sanremo Music Festival, and I don’t think I’ve recovered yet. Måneskin stood out early on, in part because they were performing gritty glam rock instead of tender ballads, spangly pop, or quirky pop rock. I bookmarked their YouTube channel, figuring I would do a deep dive into their back catalog after Italy picked Ermel or Annalisa.

So you can imagine my surprise when Måneskin made the superfinal. Then you can imagine my shock when Måneskin actually took home that weird trophy they give to Sanremo winners. What just happened?

Well, first of all, they weren’t exactly unknown qualities in Italy. They had already finished second on The X Factor there, and their debut album l ballo della vita was a triple platinum, chart-topping hit.

But enough history, let’s talk about that song. “Zitti e Buoni” has a raunchy riff, a smoldering bass solo that even sounded good when drenched with the Sanremo orchestra’s strings, and a big chorus that even those of us who don’t speak Italian can shout along with.

Singer Damiano David is an absolute rock star in all of glam’s preening, sneering glory. The shot in the official video of him in a suit chewing gum and swinging his microphone around captures him perfectly.

That the rest of the band can measure up to him says a lot about Måneskin’s cohesion as a group. They are tight as musicians, charismatic as performers, and no bystanders to Damiano’s stage presence.

I have listened to “Zitti e Buoni” a lot since Sanremo. I play it while I’m cooking, I crank it when I’m driving, and I accidentally clicked on it as I was finishing this review and listened to it again. I find myself humming it when I’m quietly working. It’s infinitely bad-ass.

As I write this, there does not seem to be any consensus on who is going to win Eurovision this year. I am not even going to try to make predictions. But I can say with confidence that “Zitti e Buoni” is my winner, regardless of other results in May.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Festival da Canção has become my favorite national final to watch. Like the Sanremo Music Festival, it is really more about celebrating the national music scene than it is picking a Eurovision entry. Unlike Sanremo, it gets the job done in a relatively tight package.

I realize some fans will quibble about that given the final lasted about two hours and 45 minutes and only an hour of that was spent presenting the songs. On the other hand, I watched all five hours plus of the Sanremo final; trust me, Festival da Canção was really well-paced. And let’s be honest, when a good hour and a half of the show’s total running time was spent celebrating Portuguese music history in gorgeous, electrifying ways, I think you’d have to be pretty churlish to want them to get to the point already.

Given all this, I was pleasantly surprised that the song that ultimately won the 2021 competition was a slice of Southern blues rock. I wasn’t expecting that.

The Black Mamba kicked off the first Festival semifinal, and I was immediately struck by them. Their song opens with an old Hollywood orchestral flourish before Pedro Tatanka begins to belt in his smoky alto timber. As “Love Is on My Side” progresses, it gets more lush and more epic in scope. It wouldn’t sound out of place on classic rock radio.

I have two dings against it, though. One is that, at just under three minutes, it’s way too short. A song like this needs room to build and breathe and have an epically awesome guitar solo. The Eurovision format cuts “Love Is on My Side” off at the knees.

The other is that The Makemakes got nul points at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest with a similar song. Given how strong and diverse this year’s song selection is, I’m afraid The Black Mamba may suffer a similar fate to their Austrian counterparts.

For now, all I can hope is that they bring out an extended six minute version of “Love Is on My Side” so they can really make it feel complete.

Denmark’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

For a moment there, I thought I had fallen asleep in a Delorean and woken up in 1985.

My initial reaction to Fyr & Flamme’s “Øve os på hinanden” was confusion. Are they a joke act or are they doing an intricately-constructed pastiche of the ’80s era of Eurovision? Reading the interview they did with Good Evening Europe: Eurovision Denmark, it’s clear (even with Google’s rough English translation) that they are celebrating the era rather than mocking it. How well that comes off when they perform at Eurovision will probably be the key to their success.

I am not a member of the Eurovision fan community who has a soft spot for the Song Contest of the 1980s. That is kind of strange, considering I first came to Eurovision for the campiness. That decade had kitsch in abundance, but I generally prefer the 1970s type of gaudiness.

That said, I can’t force myself into disliking “Øve os på hinanden.” Singer Jesper Groth is a big reason why. His slightly exaggerated movement and delighted looks at the camera impart such joyful enthusiasm for what he’s doing that I can’t help but smile. So even though I find the song he’s singing cheesy, I am also happy to keep watching him sing it.

Also, he has a chest tattoo, which is something I associate with 1930’s cartoon strongmen and and sailors. That he comes off as more Popeye than Bluto just makes him more likable.

Thanks to Good Evening Europe for flagging on Twitter their interview with Fyr & Flamme!

Estonia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

I am happy Uku Suviste gets a chance to represent Estonia at the Eurovision Song Contest given what all happened last year. But I really wish he hadn’t gotten rewarded at Eesti Laul for simply rewriting his 2020 song.

What makes “The Lucky One” so disappointing to me is that I have seen how other returning artists have pushed themselves this year. Granted, the edgier entries were from singers who were internal selections, and Uku still had a national final to win. However, I feel like public sentiment in Estonia was going to get him to Rotterdam anyway, so he could have at least challenged himself a bit musically.

Though I think the music to “The Lucky One” is bland, I really like its lyrics. Co-written with Sharon Vaughn, the words do a fantastic job of capturing that moment when someone wakes up to the reality of a souring relationship. They are both lucid and heartbreaking, and argh I wish they were connected to a better song.

Serbia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

When I was preparing to go to Belgrade on a business trip a number of years ago, I read a bunch of tourist guides, which all highlighted the city’s river boat night clubs. Tempted though I was to check one out, I was there for work, so I behaved myself. I only mention this because, in my mind, Hurricane is a Belgrade river boat night club personified.

At first glance, Hurricane’s 2021 entry “Loco Loco” isn’t that different from their 2020 entry “Hasta la Vista.” But everything about “Loco Loco” is just a little bit better. The beat is tighter, the vocals are bouncier, the chorus is just that much more catchy.

I mean, it is a lot cheesier. “One, two, girls, come on,” indeed. It is glittery and bit chintzy, sexy and a bit trashy, bold and a bit tacky. The hair is over-permed, the lips are over-glossed, everything is just a bit over the top.

And I’m not mad about that. Hurricane are selling overindulgence in “Loco Loco” and after a year of forced austerity, who doesn’t want to completely overdo it the first chance they get? “Loco Loco” may not be a song I play over and over again, but I will totally turn it up when it comes on.

Moldova’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Let’s talk about Philipp Kirkorov for a moment. He has decided to be to Moldova what Ralph Siegel was to San Marino for a few years, only much more so. Natalia Gordienko’s song reveal of “Sugar” was in Moscow, not Chisinau, and included a long speech by Philipp about how he is now Mr. Eurovision. Then he, Natalia, and “Sugar’ co-writer Dimitris Kontopoulos showed up to Russia’s flash national final. When host Yana Churikova interviewed him, he neglected to mention Natalia even though he was sitting uncomfortably close to her.

To top it all off, Philipp performed his Eurovision song “Kolybelnaya dlya vulkana,” which finished 17th at the 1995 Song Contest, instead of letting Natalia perform “Sugar.”

He is utterly insufferable. I wish his songs weren’t so damned good.

Natalia was supposed to represent Moldova in 2020 with another Dimitris Kontopoulos/Philipp Kirkorov/Sharon Vaughn song, “Prison.” It was absolutely dire and stood a real chance of becoming the first Kirkorov song to not qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Thankfully, a yearlong pandemic has given Team Moldova a chance to reevaluate what they are good at: generating memes.  The official video for “Sugar” features Natalia ripping the mouth off of her love interest, revealing a rainbow cake under his face. I can’t imagine they can recreate that in the staging, but I want to see them try!

Natalia successfully walks the thin tightrope of singing “Sugar” both proficiently and sensually without sounding ridiculous. Her vocal is really sexy (in fitting with the theme of the song) and really powerful (in fitting with her being an awesome singer).

Musically, “Sugar” combines the broad Prokofievian bombast of “Scream” and the bold dance-pop stylings of “Shady Lady,” with a lot of potential energy built into Sharon Vaughn’s lyrics. The whole song feels like pent-up arousal finally bursting.

Even though the video is kind of ridiculous, the song itself is really good. I would love to hate it based on a certain egotistical songwriter, but the combined charms of Natalia Gordienko and that big, bold arrangement makes it easy to adore.