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!

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.

San Marino’s and Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2020 Entries

Every year, we write a couple of posts called The Eurovision That Almost Was. It’s our chance to revisit songs that finished second at national finals, singers who were runners-up on talent shows, and entries that for one reason or another never graced the stage at the Grand Prix.

Usually, we wait until after the Final to write up those posts to give us something to do over the summer. But this year, we have an opportunity to talk about what might have been in conjunction with what actually happened.

No, we’re not talking about a potential cancellation of the entire Contest due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re just talking about this year’s San Marino entry, “Freaky!”

Senhit returns to the Song Contest nine years after she first represented San Marino without that letter H in her name. Since then, San Marino has made disco its national brand. Thus, when Senhit had her flash national final to decide which song she would bring to Rotterdam, it seemed inevitable that “Freaky!” was going edge “Obssessed.”

We thought “Freaky!” was the better song anyway. Senhit delivers a lot of sass and sexiness to the recorded track, which makes fun. The trouble is, as is often the case with San Marino, the song is more dated than retro. Their hopes rely heavily on Senhit’s personality shining through.

However, many hardcore national final followers felt that they were deprived of a third choice. Senhit had recorded another track called “Cleopatra” and the general feeling was that it was so much better than “Freaky!” or “Obsessed.”

Cut to Azerbaijan, who were searching for a song for their internal selection Efendi. “Cleopatra” suited her to a T. Thus, Senhit’s pass was Efendi’s gain.

Efendi embodies “Cleopatra” so much that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t written just for her. The way she rolls her Rs when she sings “Like Cleopatrrrrra” is instantly iconic and even makes you forget the silly “Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō” bit that leads into the chorus. (We didn’t know Cleopatra was Buddhist.) Sure, this is just a revamped version of Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” but it bloody works.

So what was Senhit thinking by passing on it? Take a listen to her version of “Cleopatra” and you will understand. She interprets the lyrics fairly literally and her vocal lacks the playfulness she brings to “Freaky!” Efendi’s take has way more attitude. She brings a lot of cheek to “Cleopatra,” which plays into its goofier moments while still making it compelling.

Also, Senhit’s arrangement for the song has a random Latin-influenced breakdown in the middle. It’s probably inspired by the lyric “Egyptian and Latin, the voices run through me,” but it sounds out of place. Efendi’s arrangement has a more sparse and faintly Middle Eastern breakdown that’s more in step with the overall inspiration for the song.

It’s all about what works for each performer. Efendi nails the tone of “Cleopatra.” Senhit nails the tone of “Freaky!” Ultimately, we think both San Marino and Azerbaijan made the right choices for this year’s Song Contest.

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

The “Truth” is out there, and it’s a bit of a banger.

Chingiz Mustafayev won the Azerbaijani version of Pop Idol in 2007 and competed on the The Voice of Ukraine in 2016. He co-wrote “Truth” with Borislav Milanov, Joacim Persson, and Trey Campbell, the team behind last year’s Bulgarian entry “Bones.” They are joined by rap artist Pablo Dinero and someone called Hostess (or maybe they ate a lot of Hostess products while composing the song and gave credit where credit was due).

We were skeptical about “Truth” when it began because it sounds a lot like “Bones.” Also, the video looks like Aquaman fan fiction. Sorry, Chingiz, but Duncan Laurence does underwater videos better.

When the chorus kicked in, though, we were hooked. We loved the pulsating synth that propels the melody. He does say “shut up” a lot (22 times), which may be what we’ll be muttering to ourselves if “Truth” gets stuck in our head a little too long. Hasn’t happened yet.

Borislav Milanov and Joacim Persson are part of the Symphonix International collective who have contributed several songs to Eurovision in the past few years. (We really need to add them to our Songwriters list.) They co-wrote this year’s Maltese entry, “Chameleon,” and to be honest with you, we like that one more. “Chameleon” sounds like it was customized to fit Michela’s style. “Truth” is more of a generic Symphonix song, even though Chingiz is a co-writer.

That’s a minor criticism, because frankly we like their songwriting and production style. We just feel that if Borislav, Joacim and the other Symphonix team members are going to win Eurovision, they are more likely to do it with a song like “Chameleon” than a song like “Truth.”

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Cross our hearts and hope to not die in the Semifinals. Here comes Aisel for Azerbaijan.

Aisel is a singer from Baku. She’s been on the jazz circuit in Europe and performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2009 with the late Azerbaijani jazz pianist Emil Ibrahim.

Her foray into Eurovision, however, is pure pop from a couple of the Song Contest’s mainstays. “X My Heart” is by Dimitris Kontopoulos, who we profile on our Songwriters page, and Sandra Bjurman, who we really need to profile on our Songwriters page. The Swedish singer and songwriter has written the lyrics to five other Azeri Eurovision entries including “Running Scared” and “Drip Drop.” No matter what else happens at Eurovision, Sandra wins with the chorus, “I cross my heart/I tear down the firewalls/I cross my heart/I’m stronger than cannonballs.” That’s just glorious.

“X My Heart” is a solid, catchy, fun song. That’s what Dimitris always brings to the table, and we love him for it. And Aisel’s smoky alto adds a lot to the party. But we can’t shake the feeling that we’ve heard this all before. Even though it’s pretty good, it’s also pretty safe.

Of course, there is always the X factor, which is Azerbaijan’s knack for staging. We have two adages at Eurovision: “Never judge a song from Albania based on its Festivali i Këngës performance” and “Never judge a song from Azerbaijan until you see whether or not they put a dancer in a horse’s head in a big glass box on stage surrounded by dancing wolves.” So the jury is really still out.

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

DiHaj will be representing Azerbaijan in Kyiv with the song “Skeletons.”

Diana Hajiyeva made her first attempt to represent Azerbaijan during 2011’s artist selection show, but did not make it out of her heat (which included eventual representative Eldar Gasimov). She since launched DiHaj as an electronic music group dabbling in “experimental doom pop,” which is a natural fit for Eurovision. (When you think about it, “1944” is kind of a dark song.) “Skeletons” was written by Isa Melikov and Sandra Bjurman, who co-wrote Azerbaijan’s winning entry “Running Scared.”

As you might expect from a singer from an experimental doom pop electronic music group, “Skeleton” is a moody, atmospheric song. There are a lot of sweet ’80s-influenced synth lines and a big booming chorus to add an air of drama. But underneath the veneer of this “4AD sells out” number is a pretty solid pop song with surprisingly chipper lyrics. It’s not so much a pensive dirge as an ode to falling in lust at first site.

We gave up on predicting Azerbaijan would miss out on the Final (because if they could qualify with last year’s entry, they could probably qualify with a beatboxing mime performing in front of dogs playing poker), so let’s assume that they are through, stealing Finland’s and Iceland’s thunder on the way.

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, 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.)

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Elnur Hüseynov returns to the Eurovision Song Contest to perform “Hour of the Wolf” for Azerbaijan.

This is not Elnur’s first time at the rodeo. In 2008, Elnur teamed up with Samir Javadzadeh for Azerbaijan’s Eurovision debut, the utterly insane “Day After Day.” Since then, he won O Ses Türkiye (The Voice of Turkey). Elnur comes back to the Song Contest a much more refined and confident performer.

What strikes us most about his vocal on “Hour of the Wolf” is how restrained it is. Part of what made “Day After Day” so nutty was how out of control he was. He and Samir seemed to be in a caterwauling competition (which, to be fair, Samir won with his gargled bleating). Elnur still has the potential to indulge himself: take a listen to his version of “Goldeneye” on O Ses Türkiye. With “Hour of the Wolf,” he fully explores the emotional landscape of the song, but he doesn’t cross the line to over-emoting.

I try not to harp on quality of English anymore, but I have to say how impressed we are with how well Elnur sings the English lyrics here. Compare this track to the recorded version of “Day After Day” and it is clear how much he has improved his diction. In the clips we saw from O Ses Türkiye, he was singing his English phonetically, which sounded a bit stilted, but showed he has been working on his pronunciation.

We both really like “Hour of the Wolf”. It’s beautifully orchestrated and has a haunting melody and powerful lyrics. Hopefully, Azerbaijan will show the same kind of maturity that Elnur has on the recorded track when they stage it. It is a strong enough song that he could sell it without needing acrobats trapped in a box wearing angel’s wings.

Although we must confess, we secretly hope Elnur will be wearing this when he takes the stage in Vienna.


Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

Azerbaijan is pinning its continued success at Eurovision on Dilara Kazimova and “Start a Fire”:

“Start a Fire” is a piano ballad which in its raw form seems more suited to cabaret rooms than big stadiums. Think Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” without the button. Make no mistake, it’s a beautiful cabaret song, and when I book my gig at the Cafe Carlyle, this will be on my set list.

The entry was co-written by Stefan Örn, a Swedish songwriter who has become Azerbaijan’s go-to guy for Eurovision hits. He wrote 2011’s winning Eurovision Song Contest entry “Running Scared,” and also composed “Drip Drop” for Safura and “When the Music Dies” for Sabina Babayeva.

Of these, “Start a Fire” is closest in spirit to “When the Music Dies.” As was the case with that song they’re making a noble attempt to scale it up. The orchestration features strings and the traditional Azerbaijani flute (that Kazimova is kneeling before in more of the stranger moments of the official video). But its jazzy torch song soul is more mature and more intimate than its Eurovision sister.

Salma Hayek lookalike Dilara Kazimova has a bit of a rasp in her voice that gives the song some character. She is a veteran of Azerbaijan’s music scene and has had the Eurovision dream for some time now. Kazimova was the singer of the band Unformal, which finished second to Elnur and Samir in Azerbaijan’s 2008 national final. Her duo Milk & Kisses was one of the runners-up to Safura in Azerbaijan’s 2010 national final. Her third try to represent her country was the charm, and she won the Böyük Səhnə series that determined this year’s performer.

It’s all lovely, if a bit bland. But this being Azerbaijan, you figure it’s going to be boosted greatly by the staging. As usual, Azerbaijan is a lock to make the Final. I can’t see this toppling any of this year’s favorites, but I can see it doing very well on the night.

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

Farid Mammadov won Azerbaijan’s National Final with “Hold Me,” which is a really generic, completely boring Eurovision ballad. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s there. Mammadov is a good-looking guy and a good singer, and it’s Azerbaijan, so you assume they’ll spend money to make it look good at the Final. (Because they sure as heck didn’t spend money on that national final. As you can see in the video above, the audio mix was so bad that even the good singers sounded harsh.)

Some countries you don’t expect much out of, but Azerbaijan has gone for the brass ring so much since it first entered the Eurovision Song Contest in 2008 that you kind of expect more out of it. Maybe the millions of dollars it spent on hosting Eurovision (and on staging previous entries) and the scrutiny it faced over its human rights records have made it a little gun-shy about drawing attention to itself with a stand-out Eurovision entry?  Or, judging from what we saw on Friday night, no one gave them any good songs to perform.

The thing is, Mammadov is really charismatic, and he might just be the break-out male singer in the second Semi (also features Gianluca Bezzina from Malta, Eyþór Ingi Gunnlaugsson from Iceland, Lozano from FYR Macedonia, ByeAlex from Hungary, Gor Sujya from Armenia, and of course, Cezar from Romaina). If ever there was a case of a performer being better than the song, this is it, so it’s hard for us to call how well he’s going to do. But as always, you count Azerbaijan out at your peril.