Introducing ESC in Context

Earlier this month, Max Levites from Star Spangled Eurovision put out a call on Twitter asking if there were Eurofans looking for more long-form analysis of the Eurovision Song Contest. I responded positively and the next thing I know, I’m a part of ESC in Context!

(The team decided that my suggestion for calling it Eurogasmatron, while funny, was probably not going to accurately convey what we’re trying to accomplish. But if you want to use the name, let me know and I can transfer the domain over to you…)

ESC in Context aims to dive into Eurovision’s historical context, see how it affects and is affected by local and global events, and how it can give artists and fans the means to express themselves.

After doing a lot of research to put some of this year’s Song Contest entries (and rejects) into perspective during my song reviews, I am excited about the possibilities ESC in Context provides. I’m really looking forward to contributing and to seeing what my fellow teammates come up with. I hope you will enjoy it!


A Eurovision Lemur dreams bigThis is the 1,000th Eurovision Lemur(s) post. So much as changed since it started on a LiveJournal when I had the inspiration to live-blog the 2006 Song Contest semifinal. It went from a solo project to a team effort back to a solo project again, and it went from a live-blog to a more structured review and recap site. It was about to go away last year, but then I was compelled to keep going, because dammit, if I’m going to keep watching national finals, I need to keep track of the stuff I liked about them.

I don’t have a lot of profound things to say to mark this milestone. I’m just happy to have this little outlet to indulge my obsession and that there are people who read it and like what I’m doing. Thank you for following along!

National Final Season in Review 2021: Favorite Songs

This year’s national final season has been one of the easiest ones to cover. The normal volume of music often makes my quest to dig up gems more like finding needles in too many haystacks. Having just 12 national finals and three song selection shows is a luxury. Maybe I could complain about not having the richest vein of music to mine, but I still hit plenty of pay dirt.

Italy: Madame – “Voce”

I picked a really good year to take up Sanremo marathon running. There were so many good songs on offer. The one I’ve listened to almost as much as “Zitti e Buoni” is “Voce.” Madame is only 19, but she is already a full-fledged, fashion-forward pop icon. First off, she had the guts to perform Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol” on Sanremo’s cover night, and she was able to make it her own. Impressive.

As for “Voce” itself, it is sumptuous and forlorn. Madame embodies so much hurt and so much pining in the song that I can’t help but feel as heartbroken as she is. What a gorgeous achievement.

Portugal: Karetus & Romeu Bairos – “Saudade”

Like Sanremo, Festival da Cançāo was particularly strong in 2021, and I am sure that every Eurovision fan who watched would struggle to narrow their list of favorite songs to an arbitrary limit. But I have no doubt that most of them would include “Saudade.” As artistically uncompromising as Conan Osiris’s “Telemóveis,” it was also silky and hauntingly melodic. The visuals in both the semifinal and final performances were striking, but the song itself can be fully enjoyed without the spectacle.

Bulgaria: Victoria – “The Funeral Song”

Maybe a tune called “The Funeral Song” is not particularly appropriate for the first Eurovision Song Contest of the COVID-19 era. But I’ll be damned and doomed if Victoria’s song about existential bliss isn’t one of the most life-affirming songs I’ve heard this year. The quirky musical touches just emphasize the boldness of the song. Both “The Funeral Song” and “Growing Up Is Getting Old” are the perfect songs for me at this time of my life for various reasons, and I can’t help but smile through the tears every time I listen to them.

Sweden: Danny Saucedo – “Dandi Dansa”

Danny Saucedo is first and foremost a showman. The playful and catchy “Dandi Dansa” could have very easily gotten cheesy, but his charm and confidence makes it entertaining. The staging leans into its Jamiroquai influences a bit too heavily, yet it’s hard to complain when Danny and his dance crew pull it off almost flawlessly every time.

Estonia: Jüri Pootsmann – “Magus Melanhoolia”

When last I saw Jüri Pootsmann, he was struggling to get Eurovision audiences to understand how much smoldering stage presence he actually has. He came back to Eesti Laul this year with a wicked cool song that reestablished him as a brooding, sultry pop artist. “Magus Melanhoolia” fit his vocal tone perfectly, and it didn’t need to pander to stand out.

Norway: Blåsemafian – “Let Loose”

I have a soft spot in my heart for brass band pop, which is why I’ve been missing Washington, DC during the pandemic. If there’s a brass band busking by Dupont Circle station, I’m suddenly not in a huge rush to get where I need to go to next. These days, if I’m feeling a bit low, I will crank up La BrassBanda and dance around the house. So obviously, I was very receptive to “Let Loose” when Blåsemafian performed it at Melodi Grand Prix. It’s a stomping, romping good time, and I was thrilled to see it make the top four in the final.

Italy: Extraliscio feat. Davide Toffolo – “Bianca luce nera”

How to explain “Bianca luce nera,” especially now that Sanremo only exists in brief clips on the official RAI website? Extraliscio is an eclectic neo-traditional folk-pop band whose singer Mirco Mariani looks like a mad scientist. Another member, Mauro Ferrara, looks like the father of the bride who wandered into the wrong party. Meanwhile, special guest Davide Toffolo is a comic book artist and performer who wears a skull mask, evoking the late, great MF Doom at a Day of the Dead celebration.

Together, they created a song that works like a perpetual motion machine, constantly building and building. Their performances at Sanremo were fun chaotic parties I never wanted to end, and the studio version of “Bianca luce nera” shows the tightly-constructed method to their madness.

Lithuania: Black Spikes with Indre Launikonyte – “Don’t Tell Me”

I spent a lot of time over the past year exploring my heavy metal roots and getting caught up on where the genre has gone, and gosh am I glad I did, because I was primed to gush over “Don’t Tell Me.” Black Spikes’ song is an emo-numetal pop song with flashes of guttural vocals and a flair for over-the-top stage costumes. It is the culmination of metal history in a fab little three minute package.

Portugal: Miguel Marôco – “Girassol”

This is going to be a hard one for me to explain. I have a huge fondness for certain styles and rhythms of the 1970s. “Girassol” fires all the synapses in my brain that store that affection. I love swimming around in Miguel Marôco’s song because it takes me back to a time in my life that never really existed, but lingers inside me anyway.

National Final Season in Review 2021: WTF?

I thought that living through 2020 would numb me from any inexplicably odd moments in light entertainment programs. But 2020 didn’t prepare me for an Emmy-winning filmmaker to descend from the ceiling of a Zagreb studio to warble a song about world peace. Here are all the head-scratching, jaw-dropping, eyebrow-raising moments of this year’s national final season.

Belarus: Galasy ZMesta – “Ya Nauchu Tebya (I’ll Teach You)”

I’ve talked about what happened with Belarus’s 2021 Eurovision entry already, so I only will ask: Did BTRC deliberately submit this as a Eurovision entry, knowing it would be rejected, so that they could pretend they were victims of Western suppression? Or were they really that oblivious to the level of attention focused on Belarus as the protests broke out?

Norway: Daniel Owen – “Psycho”

“Psycho” isn’t a bad song, but those lyrics… “Psycho, never thought you would make me a psycho?” They’re so uncomfortable that I could have sworn they were written by a certain recently disgraced Hollywood actor. Eww.

Albania: Evi Reçi – “Tjerr”

If you can ignore Evi Reçi’s weird “will the nipples slip or won’t they” outfit, you can enjoy the spectacle of two inept escape artists struggling to free themselves from a rope loosely draped around them.

France: Poney X – “Amour Fou”

I hate myself for enjoying “Amour Fou” as much as I do. The DJ pony gimmick is dumb, but the “Rednex covers ‘Mambo No.5’” one-hit wonder of it all is ridiculously entertaining.

Estonia: Redel – “Tartu”

Kristjan Oden and Indrek Vaheoja from Winny Puhh have written the definitive song about Tartu’s massive amount of wood. I don’t think that’s a euphemism.

Sweden: WAHL fet Sami – “90-talet”

This ode to the 1990s was staged as if it were an ode to the 1980s and no amount of ecstasy will make me feel like I did that much coke.

Italy: Colapesce & Dimartino – “Musica leggerissima”

Colapesce & Dimartin staged their smooth 1970s yacht rock ballad with a Miami Vice look and just the right amount of sly self-awareness. Also, even when you know the roller skater is coming, you are never prepared for the roller skater to show up.

Lithuania: Thomukas 1 – “Wish”

Imagine if Harry Potter dropped out of Hogwarts, got into muscle cars, and embarked on a career as the Jimmy Somerville of Lithuania. The spoken word bit at the end just made “Wish” all the more surreal.

Croatia: Ashley Colburn i Bojan Jambrošić – “Share the Love”

As a documentary filmmaker you really want to get to know your subject, understand it, immerse yourself in it. And sometimes that means performing a cheesy call and response duet during Dora 2021. If you had told me this was a song from an off-Broadway musical based on Glitter, I totally would have believed you.

The 2021 Eurovision That Almost Was

My annual look into the parallel Eurovision universe is a lot easier this year because the alternate timeline doesn’t look that different from the actual one. Only 12 countries held national finals to determine their artist and song, and only three returning performers had a song selection show.

Moreover, Bulgaria’s Victoria didn’t so much have a competition to choose her song as she had a chill rooftop concert in Sofia before casually revealing which song was her Eurovision entry. It was fun and all, but it also meant Bulgaria made an internal selection.

So that leaves just 14 songs for me to play with as I construct 2021’s Eurovision That Almost Was Tweaked Slightly.

Lithuania: Gebrasy – “Where’d You Wanna Go”

“Where’d You Wanna Go” starts off as a really striking song, and Gebrasy sings it with a spellbinding intensity. Then a staccato drum beat kicks in during the second verse, and the spell is broken. For a minute I could lament this one getting lost in the national finals, but I really just want Gebrasy to come back with a tighter song in a year without a Lithuanian national treasure competing.

Russia: #2Mashi – “Bitter Words”

Manizha won Russia’s national final with 39.7% of the televote while #2Mashi snagged 35.7%.  The duo’s “Bitter Words” sounds like a song that would have finished mid-table in the 2006 Song Contest. I really like it, and it has a strange way of seeping into my consciousness at odd moments when I’m editing spreadsheets. But it just doesn’t pop the way “Russian Woman” does.

Sweden: Eric Saade – “Every Minute”

Eric Saade returned to Melodifestivalen with a more mature song musically, but a pretty immature song lyrically. He may not sing high school-level dis songs anymore, but he’s merely graduated to frat-boy lust songs. I didn’t understand his wardrobe choice, either, unless he knows something about the sex appeal of cricket players that isn’t common knowledge on this side of the Atlantic. Still, “Every Minute” did have a really cool staging, featuring Eric dancing with a shadow. That was sweet.

Norway: KEiiNO – “Monument”

There was a lot of excitement in the Eurovision fan community about KEiiNO returning to Melodi Grand Prix this year, and I think most people expected them to romp through to Rotterdam. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. “Monument” struck me as being a vaguely smug song about their own self-importance. I honestly wish they had held on to “Black Leather” for Eurovision season, if only for the staging possibilities.

Croatia: Nina Kraljić – “Rijeka”

Nina Kraljić represented Croatia at the 2016 Song Contest with “Lighthouse,” and she won! The Barbara Dex award, I mean. She seemed to be gunning for a repeat win with her Dora 2021 outfit. Her song “Rijeka” was a sludgy mess that sloshed together a staid ballad orchestration and melodramatic opera vocals. Nina also somehow found a way to be hammy without changing her facial expressions.

Italy: Francesca Michielin & Fedez – “Chiamami per nome”

Like Nina Kraljić, Francesca Michielin is another 2016 Eurovision Song Contest participant who vied for a return trip this year. She teamed up with rapper Fedez for “Chiamami per nome,” and while the recorded version of the song is strong, the live version never really clicked live. Fedez’ solo vocals featured modulation effects that were a bit too jarring for the tone of the song. That they finished second during a really tight Sanremo festival is impressive, but I also would have been really disappointed if they had won instead of Måneskin or third-place finisher Ermal Meta.

Israel: Eden Alene “La La Love”

“La La Love” is a lot of fun, although I think how you handle the lyric “Love is my disease/I don’t need no medication/I want it to infect my generation” depends on how you’ve maintained your sense of humor during the pandemic. Mine was always a bit morbid, so I loved it.

Estonia: Sissi – “Time”

Sissi is the daughter of Eurovision winner Dave Benton, and she is a star in the making. “Time” is okay: it was hampered by a standard issue gospel-influenced backing vocal and a suffocating audio mix, but it was enhanced by a groovy Procol Harum-esque organ riff and Sissi’s talent. She sings “Time” with skill, joy, and conviction, so I really hope she gets a chance to represent Estonia at Eurovision someday soon.

Albania: Sardi Strugaj – “Kam me t’ba me kajt”

I am trying to figure out the story behind the staging for “Kam me t’ba me kajt” because I don’t think Sardi Strugaj intended it to look like a woman was trapped in a cage being forced to listen to his song. The piercing guitar riff sounded like the voice in the back of my head saying “meh” over and over again.

Portugal: Carolina Deslandes – “Por um Triz”

As fond as I am of The Black Mamba, I was Team Carolina Deslandes all the way during Festival da Canção. “Por um Triz” is a ravishing song and Carolina had such style and grace that I was mesmerized each time I saw her perform.

Finland: Teflon Bros x Pandora – “I Love You”

Teflon Bros x Pandora brought a deliciously trashy, zanily silly masterpiece to UMK. “I Love You” reveled in its simplicity and its campy staging. It’s a dumb song written by clever people and those are always a party and a half.

Denmark: Jean Michel – “Beautiful”

Jean Michel is a likable singer, but his Dansk Melodi Grand Prix entry didn’t do him many favors. The orchestration for “Beautiful” has way too much going on, making it sound very cluttered. The lyrics are very “we can change the world with this simple song.” And the staging suits the song, in that it was as on the nose as one could package a tune with such generic lyrics. It’s all very pleasant, but not particularly interesting.

France: Juliette Moraine – “Pourvu Qu’on M’Aime”

“Pourvu Qu’on M’Aime” is a straightforward and effective chanson number that was beautifully sung by Juliette Moraine. As nice as it is, “Pourvu Qu’on M’Aime” also had a concert staging instead of a performance staging. It’s easy to see why “Voilà” left this in the dust.

Spain: Blas Cantó – Memoria

Oof, the two songs Blas had on offer this year were the equivalent of high school cafeteria lunch options. Do I want the bland Salisbury steak or the undercooked chicken nuggets? At least “Voy a quedarme” is redeemed by its heartbreaking, achingly beautiful official video. “Memoria” is like a ballad that was accidentally arranged as an upbeat pop song. It’s strident and a bit annoying. Yet I still really like Blas’ vocal. He’s so good and these songs are… so not.

Malta’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

I wasn’t a huge fan of “All of My Love,” Malta’s 2020 Eurovision entry. It was written by a Symphonix International team seemingly flying on autopilot. While I had no doubt Destiny would sell it for more than it was worth, “All of My Love” felt like a glove she had to break in instead of one that fit her from the start.

This year, however:

Well, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

What impresses me the most about Destiny is that, even though she’s just 18, the former Junior Eurovision winner has excellent control over her vocal. The way she delivers the “I’m too good to be true” part of the pre-chorus manages to be both charmingly flippant and technically flawless.

She delivers so much style and displays so much charisma that I can ignore what I see are flaws with “Je Me Casse.” I personally don’t care for the electro swing elements of the song. Now, I have not been kind to that genre in older posts (again, I apologize for being such a jerk, Electro Velvet), and “Je Me Casse” doesn’t exactly sway me. The choppy horn samples get on my nerves. That I think Destiny has delivered a strong entry for this year’s Song Contest has more to do with her being a proper pop star than the quality of the arrangement.

Still, I would have to be the worst kind of hater to not recognize that the strengths of “Je Me Casse” completely wipe out my own personal distaste for some stylistic choices. I am really looking forward to seeing Destiny finally making her appearing at Eurovision this May. Is she a potential winner? Given how she rocketed to the top of the odds when “Je Me Casse” came out, it seems a lot of people are willing to place their bets on her. Can’t fault them for that.

Georgia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

I marveled last year that Georgia’s Eurovision delegation listened to Tornike Kipiani’s “Take Me As I Am” and said, “Perfect.” The song is an achingly angsty masterpiece further elevated by Tornike’s powerful, emotively sincere vocal. It was bonkers and brilliant at the same time. I genuinely had no idea how people would respond to it and I also genuinely had no idea how he and co-songwriter Aleko Berdzenishvili would be able to top it.

Here’s how: rather than go over the top, they dialed it all back. Yet they still found a way to make an impression.

“You” is a gentle and meditative love song to nature. Even as it builds to a big climax, it remains peaceful and contemplative. And it ends on an unresolved note, which invites me to listen to the song again.

There is a real 1970’s vibe to it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Some parts of the orchestration have a kind of AM gold feel to them, yet it all still sounds bracingly modern. I guess what I’m saying is that “You” sounds like Marc Bolan teamed up with Elbow to record “I’m Going Home” from Rocky Horror in the style of Pink Floyd. If you see what i mean.

Even though it lacks the brashness of “Take Me As I Am,” “You” is still a bold choice as a competitive song. I again genuinely have no idea how people are going to respond to it. I can only hope that I’m not the only one who digs what Tornike is offering up.

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Some of the returning artists to this year’s Eurovision decided to go in a completely different direction from their previous entry (See: Australia). Others took what worked and reshaped it in ways to freshen it up for 2021 (See: Lithuania). And still others took the basic template of their 2020 song and pretty much just reused it (See: Estonia.)

Azerbaijan decided to take that last route by photocopying “Cleopatra” and slapped a new historical figure on top of it.

“Mata Hari” hits all of the same beats as “Cleopatra,” right down to the deep chanting part. Efendi even finds a way to work in her rolling Rs when she gets to namecheck Cleopatra in the pre-chorus. It’s like a sequel to a movie that tries to recreate what made the first one work, but it can’t quite recapture the surprises.

Now, how much that matters to a general audience who only tunes into Eurovision on a Saturday in May is debatable. I would assume most people  aren’t intimately familiar with all of the Song Contest entries before they watch. So maybe “Mata Hari” will sound fresh and Efendi will come off as a proper Eurovision diva.

But as someone who fully dives into national final season and listens to entries I don’t even like over and over again so I can write about them, I find “Mata Hari” so devoid of originality that I can’t take it seriously at all.

Sweden’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Saying that Tusse won Melodifestivalen this year is an understatement. He totally won the living daylights out of Melodifestivalen this year. He received 12 points from four of the eight international juries and received 10 points from two others. In the detailed televoting results, he received 12 points from all seven age groups in the app vote and 12 more points from the telephone vote. Eric Saade finished 10 points behind him in the jury vote, and The Mamas finished 40 points behind him in the televote. He received 2,964,269 votes from the public, which beat John Lundvik’s previous record by just over 750,000. His win was comprehensive.

Not bad for his first Melodifestivalen entry.

Tusse is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who came to Sweden at age eight. He has discussed the difficulties he had leaving his family behind as a child and settling into a new country on his own. He is now 19 and still in school; he mentioned in interviews before and after the Melodifestivalen final that he had a science paper due the week after the competition ended.

Aside from being a wonderful story about being celebrated by his new home, Tusse is also a wonderful story about an incredible performing talent. His vocal on “Voices” is flawless, and he has that rare ability to stare into the camera and express personal warmth and comfort to whoever is watching at home.

He can also elevate a song that is really a paint-by-numbers world harmony number, the type that Russia usually sends when they do internal selections. I don’t really like “Voices” on its own; I find the lyrics to be a bit trite. The fact that Tusse can take those lyrics and make them sound meaningful just highlights what a special talent he is.

I mentioned in my review of the Swiss entry “Tout l’Univers” that I sort Eurovision entries into two broad groups: songs that stand out because of strength of the song itself and ones that stand out because of the package in total. “Voices” stands out because Tusse is the total package.

Iceland’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

There was no Eurovision entry I was anticipating more this year than Daði og Gagnamagnið’s song. They captured the Song Contest zeitgeist last year with “Think About Things,” to the point that Strictly Come Dancing was still referencing it in promos for its fall 2020 season.

There was a bit of a bizarre backlash to the song, based on the idea that Netflix engineered it to go viral to help promote Will Farrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Ahem, that’s the Oscar nominated Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. I thought the whole conspiracy story was without teeth, but as with any conspiracy stories, it had quite a few adherents who would have had fits if Iceland actually won last year.

Have I mentioned, speaking as an American, how tired I am of conspiracy stories?

Anyway, unlike the other Nordic countries, Iceland decided to eschew a national final and just send Daði og Gagnamagnið directly to Eurovision. They knew they had captured lightning in a bottle last year, and they had to hope Daði and his band of merry music makers would be able to recreate that magic with “10 Years.”

Before I get to the song, I have to address the official video for “10 Years.” I think it’s trying a bit too hard to replicate “Thing About Things” while making it just different enough to feel fresh. It doesn’t fully work for me, although that doesn’t mean I didn’t laugh out loud at its playful sense of humor.

Of course, I may just have been disappointed they weren’t wearing the  space Elvis jumpsuits.

However, that all doesn’t mean I’m not delighted by “10 Years.” It’s a charmingly wide-eyed love song for Daði’s wife Árnýja Fjóla Ásmundsdóttir (one of the electrokvinnaböske players in Gagnamagnið). It’s simple, it’s ebullient, and it shows that not everyone got COVID-divorced last year.

I am amused that Daði decided to take the subtle disco flourishes in “Think About Things” and make them more overt in “10 Years.” It actually makes a lot of sense. If the song lyrics are about unbridled joy, then what sounds more joyous than a really good disco song?

An aside: if you ever get a chance to drive around San Francisco at midnight while listening to Van McCoy’s “The Hustle,” do it. You will not be disappointed.

Like The Roop, Daði og Gagnamagnið faced the impossible task of recreating the buzz they had created last year, and they’ve made a valiant go of it. Even if I don’t believe they’ve re-engineered it as successfully as their Lithuanian colleagues, I still think they are delightful enough to make an impression in Rotterdam.