Recap of 2021 Semifinal One

It feels so good to have Eurovision back! I knew I missed it, but I didn’t really realize how much of a void last year’s cancellation had left in me until I pressed play on Peacock’s live feed. At last my Mays are complete again.

2021 is such a strong year that my quibbles feel more petty than usual. Every loss is gut-wrenching, even when I totally get why an act didn’t qualify.

No non-qualification was more heartbreaking to me than Ireland’s. Lesley Roy and her team came up with a very cool concept for “Maps” that took Silvàn Areg’s “Allez Leur Dire” staging and cranked it up to 11. There was also a charming third act reveal to show how the whole thing was done. The problem was that it required so much work to pull off that Lesley’s vocal suffered. It also didn’t help that the stagehands couldn’t get it set up fast enough, forcing host Chantal Janzen to vamp after Ireland’s postcard had already aired and delaying Lesley’s performance when she was already on stage. Even if the staging for “Maps” didn’t completely work, I found myself hoping that she would get a second chance to get it right.

(Updated 5/21/2021: The delay was caused by a camera malfunction, not a delay in setting the props up. Still: disruptive.)

I don’t think I was too shocked about the other songs that missed out on the Grand Final. I had expected Croatia to make it through, but I was only mildly stunned that it didn’t. “Tick Tock” is a really good song, but Albina and her dancers were washed out by a sea of neon pink and blue lighting.

Meanwhile, Romania drowned Roxen in so much fog that it was hard to see her for a while. And even when I did catch a glimpse of her, I paid more attention to that one really hammy back-up dancer.

Slovenia and North Macedonia seemed to suffer due to their straightforward staging of big ballads. To steal a point made by Robyn Gallagher and Elaine O’Neill on Twitter, Ana Soklič and Vasil had these big, rich pre-recorded backing vocals with no onstage proxy. They both looked mighty lonely on the big Rotterdam Ahoy stage.

While Australia was hurt a bit by Montaigne not performing in person, I also think the staging was too polarizing to make an already uncompromising song easier to warm to. The special effects pushed viewers away from Montaigne instead of drawing them in, leaving her even more isolated.

Who won the night? Lithuania. The genius of Vaidotas Valiukevičius’ hand gesture dance move is it’s easy to reference whenever the cameras focus on The Roop. The entire delegation were doing it constantly last night, and Vaidotas telling co-host Edsilia Rombley that it stood for “Euro-Vision” made it even more charming. The Roop opened the show, then ensured they were memorable all night.

Cyprus and Ukraine were my other Tuesday winners. Elena Tsagrinou and her team took the “Fuego” staging and added more, well, fuego to it. Even though “El Diablo” left me cold when I first heard it, Elena gave such a warm and playful performance that I fell for her song at last.

But no singer captivated me as much as Kateryna Pavlenko from Go_A. Her intense vocals coupled with her dry, yet soulful stare made “Shum” stand out. The dais prop and the dancers were just there to accentuate her performance, and it bloody worked.

The evening was dominated by bad-ass women. Manizha brought to Rotterdam the most Russian entry ever and used it to subvert Russian norms the entire way. She ended her song with a defiant, “Are you ready for change? Because we are!” It was easy to feel like she was right.

Eden Alene is such a charismatic and purely talented singer and performer that she made the stage her playground. Even if said playground was drenched in the same color scheme as Croatia’s ill-fated entry. “Set Me Free” came alive, and that had all to do with Eden’s skills and sense of style.

Hooverphonic did two smart things in their Eurovision performance. One, they made sure Geike Arnaert was the focal point throughout. All she had to do was look soulfully into the camera to draw audiences in. Two, they did not assume they were just playing another gig, but instead had a thoughtful presentation that made “The Wrong Place” come alive.

Contrast that with “Je Me Casse.” Destiny is still in the mix for the win, but I really wish the Malta delegation just trusted in her talent and poise. She can stand there and sing a phone book and capture people’s attention, but Malta has saddled her with a staging that constantly looks like she’s being put into a box. It reminded me of the staging for Michela Pace’s “Chameleon,” which was also overly fussy. It’s the first time I’ve doubted she could repeat her Junior Eurovision success.

Still, “Je Me Casse” felt cohesive, which is more than I can say for “Mata Hari.” I realize that part of my issue is that I can’t help but think that this was the same staging Azerbaijan had planned for “Cleopatra” last year. Why else would the cobra be in the graphics? As I said in my initial review, I bet this sounds fresh to someone who is just seeing Efendi’s shtick for the first time, but the whole package felt cheap and lazy to me.

While Tix’s performance and staging of “Fallen Angel” are solid, he also got a subtle boost when the producers got cheeky and had him follow “El Diablo.” Tix looked like a sullen fallen angel lamenting the fact that the love of his life was in love with El Diablo instead. Cyprus drew the first half of the Final and Norway drew the second, so the producers could still put them together again at the halfway point of the show. For storytelling purposes.

I did briefly wonder if Sweden was going to miss out on the final. “Voices” is so trite, and it was made even more shallow by following “Russian Women.” But I will give Tusse and the Swedish delegation a lot of credit: The staging made “Voices” look more deep than the generic lyrics would suggest. And even though his vocal wasn’t perfect, Tusse is such a powerful presence that it’s easy to see why he qualified.

In the end, Tuesday wasn’t really a night of surprises. Along with a lot of good performances, we got a solidly entertaining show with a good opener from reigning champion Duncan Laurence, a cool interval act, and mostly unobtrusive hosting from the quartet of emcees. It was all about getting us back into the swing of things, and it succeeded. Not bad for the Semifinal that I thought was the less interesting of the two. Bring on Thursday!

Australia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

The uniqueness of the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest is the fact that so many acts who were slated to perform in last year’s canceled Grand Prix have come back again this year. And so far, many of those returning performers have taken their second opportunity to fully express themselves as artists.

I’ve already discussed how special Jeangu Macrooy’s “Birth of a New Age” is, and now I get to talk about how amazing Montaigne’s “Technicolour” is. It’s been such a good Eurovision year, you all.

I wasn’t a big fan of Montaigne’s “Don’t Break Me.” It felt like a very safe song from an artist who had a unique musical perspective. Not to diss DNA Songs, who co-wrote the song with Montaigne, but I thought it fit into Australia’s Eurovision history without expanding on it.

“Technicolour,” on the other hand, kicks down the walls to any boxes Australia may find itself in and grabs listeners by their collective collars. I think I mixed my metaphors there.

My point is, there is something fresh and exciting about “Technicolour.” The music is a collage of ’80s pop and rap allusions that melt together perfectly without ever sounding retro. I don’t know if these are references that everyone will get, but it sounds like The Go! Team crossed with the Art of Noise. It’s musically striking.

Lyrically, Montaigne is asserting herself. “Technicolour” is poetic while still fitting into a pop framework. Her vocals are fierce, yet melodic, especially during the pre-chorus. Going from the vocal runs that begin with “But everything is frustrating” into the rhythmic chants that begin with “But I got power, yeah” and later “But we got grace, yeah” is not easy, yet she carries it off almost flawlessly.

“Technicolour” is a bold statement by an artist who has come into her own. Like Jeangu Macrooy, she was given room to take risks, and like Jeangu Macrooy, she took full advantage of the opportunity.

Australia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

Oh my god, we actually like a pop opera song.

Kate Miller-Heidke is a singer and actress from Brisbane who trained as a classical singer before making the leap into pop music. She’s had three top 10 albums in Australia and the number 3 hit “The Last Day on Earth” in 2009. She co-wrote “Zero Gravity” with her husband Keir Nuttall.

Now: Pop opera is something that rears its ugly head quite frequently at Eurovision, as recently as last year with Estonia’s entry “La Forza.” And we are on the record with our less than positive opinion of the genre.

We will also say, on the record, that we were wrong about “La Forza’s” chances at Eurovision. But that doesn’t make us like it any more.

What immediately grabs us about “Zero Gravity” is that it is not a pop and opera mash-up, like Malena Ehrman’s “La Voix” or Cesar’s “It’s My Life.” It is a pop song that weaves in its opera parts organically. It gives us “Kate Bush singing the Queen of the Night aria” realness.

And praise be, Australia has finally come up with a staging! Assuming that Kate and her crew will take what they devised to Tel Aviv, they have what could be the next iconic Eurovision staging we fawn over in clip shows for the next three decades.

As soon as we heard we saw this, we knew it was going to win. Our son thinks it could win the whole thing, and we think the kid has got a point.

Australia’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Australia continues sending its most bankable stars to Eurovision with radio-friendly pop hits. This year, Jessica Mauboy takes her turn.

Jessica Mauboy rose to fame from the Australian Idols franchise way back in 2006. Three platinum studio albums and literally dozens of radio singles later, she is one of Australia’s biggest, most recognizable recording artists.

“We Got Love” is uplifting homage to–you guessed it–love, even when it’s hard. And with “We Got Love,” Australia demonstrates (again) how well it understands the Eurovision space.  Although Jessica normally has a more R&B sound, her song for Europe has many time-honored Eurovision traits on display: big vocal, upbeat tempo, strong drum beat, choral breakdown. It’s shamelessly pop, shamelessly radio-friendly, and very, very accessible.

Though playing it safe is often the riskiest thing a country can do, in this case we are not worried. In her Semifinal, Jessica benefits by her draw in what can only be described as an eclectic line-up. In that context, “We Got Love” is a reassuring turn.

Australia’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Australia has tapped Isaiah to vie for Eurovision glory with “Don’t Come Easy.”

Isaiah Firebrace won the 2016 season of The X Factor Australia. His debut single “It’s Gotta Be You” peaked at 26 on the Australian charts, but interestingly, it went gold in Sweden. We’ve seen him compared him Sam Smith and to be sure, “Don’t Come Easy” was co-written by Michael Angelo, who worked with Smith on In The Lonely Hour. The other songwriters are Anthony Egizii and David Musumeci from DNA Music, who have penned songs for Guy Sebastian, Samantha Jade, and Geri Halliwell.

“Don’t Come Easy” is a pleasant power ballad with a slick production that gives it a commercial sheen. We liked it, but it didn’t land a visceral punch with us the way Australia’s previous entry did.

The fate of this song lies with Isaiah’s charisma. He’s an appealing singer with a rich tone who also looks like a cross between Raphael Nadal and Alexander Rybak, which is a bonus. Judging from his X Factor performances, we trust he can sell “Don’t Come Easy” to a wide swath of Eurovision voters. And if there are any doubters left, he should be able to seduce them with the power of his mesmerizing eyebrows.

Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Hungarian-Polish Friendship Day Edition

At long last all of the Eurovision songs have been revealed, although the final versions are still trickling out. (Seriously, San Marino? Seriously?) Still, we know enough about each entry to make pithy and catty comments about them all.

Croatia: Nina Kraljić – “Lighthouse”

Croatia returns to Eurovision with Nina Kraljić, who won The Voice of Croatia. Both good things. “Lighthouse” sounds like a deep track from a later Cranberries album. Not a good thing.

Azerbaijan: Samra – “Miracle”

Azerbaijan takes Eurovision very seriously. Every swing they take is a swing for the fences. This year, they’re planning to take Stockholm by storm with a song (penned by a Swedish team) that could have made the Melodifestivalen final. We’re not sure it would have won the Melodifestivalen final, though, but maybe Azerbaijan can throw a magician onstage to supplement Samra’s performance.

Czech Republic: Gabriela Gunčíková – “I Stand”

Look, it wasn’t going to take much for a song to be the best Czech Eurovision entry ever. But “I Stand” is not just a big leap ahead for the country that brought us Gipsy.cz, it also stands out over a lot of the other ballads we’re going to hear in Sweden this May. If you’ve looked up Gabriela Gunčíková’s performances on YouTube, you’ll have noticed she has more of a rock vibe than a pop ballad vibe (she was a performer in Trans-Siberian Orchestra). So our big question is whether or not she can make “I Stand” sound true to herself. But we still think she has a good shot at clinching the Czech Republic’s first spot in the Final.

Malta: Ira Losco – “Walk On Water”

Ira Losco won Malta’s national selection show with “Chameleon,” but she replaced it with “Walk on Water.” Yay, another Swedish pop song that would have struggled to win Melodifestivalen!

Australia: Dami Im – “Sound of Silence”

Australia were invited to participate in Eurovision last year as a special one-off to mark the 60th anniversary of the Song Contest. They were invited to participate this year to… I don’t know, help promote the Asiavision Song Contest? We don’t mind Australia getting the return invitation because they are following up their confident debut with a proper contender. “Sound of Silence” is one of the strongest entries we’ve heard this year and it may only be Europe’s bewilderment over Australia’s continued presence at Eurovision that keeps it from winning.

Serbia: ZAA Sanja Vučić – “Goodbye (Shelter)”

Earlier in this post, we were going to make a comment about how Samra from Azerbaijan was overselling her song in the video for “Miracle.” But her overemphasized facial expressions are positively dead-eyed compared to the spastically hammy performance Sanja Vučić gave in her song presentation show for Serbia. It’s too bad, because the powerful message of “Goodbye (Shelter)” does not need to bathed in histrionics.

Bulgaria: Poli Genova – “If Love Was a Crime”

We were happy when Poli Genova was announced as Bulgaria’s Eurovision artist this year. “Na Inat” was one of the better non-qualifying entries in recent memory. Bulgaria took their sweet time releasing this year’s Eurovision entry “If Love Was a Crime,” but their delightful Twitter account built up to the song reveal nicely so it was worth the wait. Poli has changed her edgy rocker chick vibe from 2011 for a softer look and poppier sound. The last few songs Bulgaria entered before they took their break were in Bulgarian, and we think switching to English for this contemporary pop song (albeit with a little Bulgarian thrown into the chorus) has a lot of crossover potential and should lead Poli to the Final.

Italy: Francesca Michielin – “No Degree of Separation”

Francesca Michielin was runner up at this year’s Sanremo Music Festival, but she got the nod when winners Stadio declined the invite to Stockholm. In principle, we don’t have a problem with “No Degree of Separation,” but it sounds way too old for her. Nevertheless, Italy is maintaining its general good run of form since their return to the Song Contest. (We say general good run because there was also Emma.)

Australia’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Australia has long been regarded as the great outsider of the Eurovision community. For 30 years, the Australian network SBS has broadcasted the Contest, and intrepid Australians have woken up in the wee hours of the morning to get their fix. In celebration of Eurovision Song Contest’s 60th anniversary and the theme of “Building Bridges,” the EBU made a very unusual announcement. For 2015 only, Australia will be included in the the Eurovision Song Contest. They will compete in the final, similar to the “Big 6” (the host country plus Italy, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom). But unlike the Big 6, Australia will cast a vote in both Semifinals. Australia’s participation is one of the big storylines of this year’s contest.

The Eurovision fanbase’s reaction to the announcement was divided. Some felt that Australia had no place in a contest for Europe (and Israel and also Morocco that one time) and the exception set a problematic precident, particularly when it comes time to tally the votes. Other folks, like us, said “the more the merrier.” Australia clearly loves Eurovision, and through their song for Europe, they have demonstrated that they understand the Contest and will make a worthwhile contribution.

Guy Sebastian is SBS’s internal pick to represent Australia. His big break came as the first winner of Australian Idol in 2003. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Australia’s most successful male recording artists. He’s had 12 Top 10 singles, and six number ones. Up until now though, he’s had limited international success, New Zealand notwithstanding. His most successful single, “Battle Scars” (with Lupe Fiasco) went to number two in Norway, but that’s pretty much it.

SBS allowed Sebastian a great deal of leeway in what song he could pick for Eurovision. At Australia’s press conference, Guy Sebastian indicated that he would probably pick a ballad off of his current album Madness. It wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad choice. The album was critically well-received, and there were some candidates that would have worked. However, Sebastian also considered the Eurovision contest landscape as it was coming together. Seemingly, he noted the high number of ballads that would be performed in Vienna, and at the last minute he decided to go back into studio and come up with something more upbeat. The song was written, recorded, and mastered in two days, just before the song deadline.

Here’s “Tonight Again”:

“Tonight Again” is very much a Guy Sebastian song. It’s got an urban pop feel, and there’s some funk influence in there, consistent with his musical influences. The horn section reminds us of Beyoncé’s and Jay Z’s “Crazy in Love.” His vocal tone is similar to Bruno Mars à la “Uptown Funk.” It’s a big, feel-good song that should play well in an arena. And the lyrics are self-aware, cheekily referencing that this is Australia’s seemingly one shot at the contest: “This is one tough act to follow/Oh baby tonight’s so good/Forget tomorrow/We can do tonight again.”

Our quibble, if anything, is that the song is lightweight. Although, since when has that been a problem at Eurovision? Also, the production in the recorded track feels unfinished. We have no doubt that if they had left themselves more time that would have been addressed. Such is the tradeoff they made.

All in all, Australia has done good here. They’ve given us a fun, modern pop song from a savvy artist who is sure to do them proud.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS: We are not looking forward to the Austria/Australia jokes that are sure to follow.

Australia and UK participated in the international jury in the Austrian national final. Australia’s votes mirrored our preferences exactly, including giving its 12 votes to the Makemakes, who eventually won. Meanwhile, UK gave its 12 points to the act that would finish last. If that’s not a microcosm for the two countries’ dispositions toward the Contest, I don’t know what is. If we had our druthers, Australia would have a permanent place at the contest. Give them the UK’s spot.