Recap of 2021 Semifinal Two

We have our 26 Eurovision Song Contest finalists, and it’s hard to believe that two years of preparation have come down to this already. As with Tuesday’s results, I generally can’t fault any act that was eliminated from contention last night. No one deserved to go home early, but sometimes competing in Eurovision is a losing game.

I can’t ignore how COVID-19 reared its ugly head this week. Duncan Laurence has been denied a victory lap after contracting the coronavirus. Even more devastatingly, poor Jóhann Sigurður from Gagnamagnið tested positive on Wednesday. In solidarity with their comrade, Daði and the rest of the band decided to withdraw from performing. Footage from their second rehearsal was used instead. It’s a testament to their gumption and work effort that their performance was still amazing.

Also, leave it to Gagnamagnið to figure out how to make a circular keyboard work in ways that Ovi couldn’t.

It’s always tough for me to tell what is going to resonate with juries and televoters. For example, I can’t quite grok how a strong vocal from Albania’s Anxhela Peristeri and Pedro Tatanka from Portugal’s The Black Mamba made an impression, but a strong vocal from Austria’s Vincent Bueno didn’t. If I’m being nit-picky, Vincent’s performance was a bit too stage-theatrical, but given how effective and gut-wrenching his vocal and his staging was, it seems churlish to pick nits. I thought he deserved better.

Maybe it’s as simple as going fifth in the running order and Gjon’s Tears going second to last with an even bigger, more emotional performance. I definitely got Loreen vibes from Gjon’s Tears: a powerful vocal and some dance moves that were true to the artist while still fitting the tone of the song. I still think Switzerland is in the mix for the win.

I was expecting good things from The Black Mamba, even though I wasn’t sure if a song influenced by American Southern rock ballads was going to appeal to anyone in Europe. I was really happy to see that it did.

But I have to admit I didn’t see Anxhela’s performance coming, even though I witnessed her be a complete powerhouse during Festivali i Këngës. Albania’s staging is straightforward, with good use of lighting, fog, and graphics. It all served Anxhela’s performance quite effectively, letting her be the most compelling part of the presentation.

“Growing Up Is Getting Old” didn’t have as much of an impact on me as I thought it would. Something about a singer sitting on the stage (or the prop, in this case) always seems to mute a performance, even when it’s thematically appropriate. Fortunately, Victoria getting up and singing the final lines a cappella was enough to get me all teary-eyed.

Moving on to the bangers: Was there anything more surreal than Flo Rida appearing on stage with Senhit? He’s not the first American to compete in the Song Contest and he’s not the first world famous American to perform at Eurovision. And yet his appearance in “Adrenalina” was still a sight to behold. He only arrived this week and he fit into the production perfectly. I also loved the shots of him hanging with the Sammarinese delegation throughout the rest of the evening. I think he might be hooked on this.

I was disappointed we didn’t get reaction shots of Flo Rida after Hurricane performed, though. For some reason, I’d love to get his thoughts on “Loco Loco.” Hurricane’s energy was appropriately overwhelming. They were moving constantly, dancing from one end of the giant stage to the other. They were a blast, and it wouldn’t have been a Saturday night without them.

The only artists to match Hurricane’s intensity were Blind Channel. The Finnish band could have gone overboard trying to get the room worked up. But they were able to walk the fine line of giving a concert performance and giving a Eurovision performance without looking like they were trying too hard. Painting their middle fingers red was a nice touch.

I really enjoyed Greece’s green screen-heavy staging, although I do get the criticism I’ve heard about it. The dancers don’t completely disappear properly and the visual of Stefania walking up invisible stairs to float in the middle of the skyline is a little weird. Even though working through the staging made her a bit stiff, I was still impressed with how well Stefenia commanded attention. Her place in the Final was well deserved.

Not so with Moldova. “Sugar” is a good song, so I’m not surprised Natalia Gordienko qualified. But her performance was really breathy as she pretended to be Marilyn Monroe in front of an old Microsoft Windows screensaver. While her long note to end the song was impressive, it also came out of nowhere, was a wee bit flat, and was clearly a gimmick to get attention. It was all so calculated that it lacked any personality.

Surprisingly, the other vocal that didn’t quite work for me was from Uku Suviste. He’s been so solid every time I’ve heard him sing. For some reason, his vocal was got lost in the backing tracking. I couldn’t tell if it was a sound mix issue, nerves, or both, but the performance didn’t really come together.

I had bad feelings about both Tornike Kipiani’s and Samanta Tīna’s chances of qualifying for the Final even before they took to the stage. I love how uncompromising the two are as artists and I love how their songs are unique in their own ways. But they also seemed a bit too inaccessible unless you really bought into their visions.

Visions of pure 1980s revivalism also died on Thursday night when both Fyr & Flamme and Rafał were eliminated from the competition. I had warmed to Fyr & Flamme since Dansk Melodi Grand Prix, especially after watching singer Jesper Groth on Stormester, the Danish version of Taskmaster. (Yes, I got that geeky.) I had also warmed to Rafał just by seeing his goofy charm in interviews and stray bits about his enjoyment of being in Rotterdam. The stagings for both “Øve os på hinanden” and “The Ride” were fun, if a bit hokey. I’m kind of bummed that both Denmark and Poland are out.

But I think I’ll miss Benny Cristo most of all. I love “omaga,” but I think his performance betrayed some nerves. He wasn’t able to fully display his charm and charisma, and he was out of breath at the end. Once Moldova was announced as a qualifier, I knew that his time in Rotterdam was almost up. Fortunately, I have his whole back catalog to dive back into, because he’s really good. I wish everyone voting in Eurovision had seen it too.

Bulgaria’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

It’s interesting to me how few of this year’s returning artists have tackled last year’s cancellation of the Song Contest in their songs or their videos. Most of them have moved on quickly, with sly little references if they acknowledge it at all.

In a way, it’s good that only a few performers are facing the aftershocks of the pandemic year directly. I think we’d all have emotional fatigue if every song was tackling the same subject, and it makes the songs that do so land with more of an impact.

Vasil of North Macedonia addressed the cancellation directly in the intro to his video for “Here I Stand.” Meanwhile, Victoria uses the entirety of the  “Growing Up Is Getting Old” to tackle post-cancellation and lockdown-related depression. It’s a beautiful video, and it balances a fine line between confronting emotions without wallowing in them.

The song itself is gorgeous. Musically, it’s not a huge leap forward from her 2020 song “Tears Getting Sober.” That she worked with a different songwriting team on “Growing Up Is Getting Old” tells me that she has a solid vision of how she expresses herself as an artist.

Even though her two Eurovision songs are similar, I prefer Victoria’s 2021 entry more. The lush orchestration is more organic and more properly cinematic, instead of the Disney version of cinematic. If ever there was a song that makes the case for bringing back the live orchestra, this is it.

As I said in my review of Vincent Bueno’s “Amen,” sometimes a song resonates with me independently of the songwriters’ and performers’ intentions. “Growing Up Is Getting Old” doesn’t punch me the way “Amen” did, but its lyrics still touch me deeply as I manage my own anxiety disorder. It helps that after discussing her own feelings throughout the song, Victoria turns to the listener at the end to say:

If your world is breaking
And growing up is getting old
Know that you’re worth saving
And getting up is all you’ve got

Thank you for saying that.

Lastly, I will say that my favorite lyric is the very first one: “Playing Tetris with my feelings.” It reminds me an essay I first read years ago that I like to revisit every now and then: “Your Life Is Tetris. Stop Playing It Like Chess.” It’s a lovely little piece, and like a good song, it helps me keep tabs on myself when I need the boost.

Bulgaria’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

One of the big Eurovision storylines in the past five years has been the sudden emergence of Bulgaria as a Song Contest superpower. Sure, they skipped a year to save costs, but their last three entries have showed their intent to be a fixture at the top of the leaderboard. And 2020 probably would have been no different.

Victoria Georgieva competed on season four of X Factor Bulgaria, then had a Top 20 hit in Bulgaria with “Nezavarshen Roman.” She co-wrote “Tears Getting Sober” with Borislav Milanov of Symphonix International, The Voice Kids Germany winner Lukas Oskar Janisch, and Cornelia Wiebols from the Swedish band KNASH.

So this is another song about a bad breakup. We’ve gotten that from BelgiumNorway, Poland, Moldova, Georgia, Romania, and did we miss anyone? But there is something weirdly joyous about the lyrics to “Tears Getting Sober.” Look at the lines “My pain will soon be over/Oh, how the tables turn/Tears are getting sober/I’ve got some space to grow.” The lyrics are not wallowing in the sorrow or not grasping at codependence. They are just embracing the feeling that what’s done is done and it’s time to move on.
Musically, the song is very gentle and understated. It’s entirely orchestral, with very little pop vocabulary present. It even finishes with a quirky little Disney happy ending. There is a quiet audacity to “Tears Getting Sober” that we admire. This may not have been a Eurovision winner, but it shows that Bulgaria is daring to stand out. That always bodes well for a country’s chances to do well.
We’ll have Victoria again next year, and we’ll probably have Borislav working with her again. We’re already excited to hear what they give us next. Maybe next year, they’ll come up with a winner.

The Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval: If Love Was a Crime

Eurovision Lemurs Seal of ApprovalWhile it took us until 2017 to devise the Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval, we really came up with the spirit of idea in 2016. That was the year Bulgaria returned to the Eurovision Song Contest after a couple of years off with a new game plan: send awesome songs.

That may sound like an obvious plan, but it’s a unique formula that some former Song Contest forces struggle to adhere to these days.

“If Love Was a Crime” was a song that was immediately awesome. It hooked us right from the start with its brief introductory interlude that used a haunting electronically-generated voice to grab our attention. It then kicks off properly with a finger snap-laden beat that propels Poli’s vocal over the piano’s melody.

Then that bassline kicks in. Oh, yes, very nice! It’s rich and pulsating, and it is the roaring engine that drives “If Love Was a Crime” along. When we’ve got this cranked, the bassline still has the power to give us chills.

Although the bridge is not much to write home about, it is at least orchestrated in a way to build anticipation for the chorus. You can hear rising synthetic strings right before Poli sings, “They will never break us down,” and you are primed for that chorus to explode.

The switch to Bulgarian is seamless and the lyrics (translated as “oh, give me love”) serves to emphasize the message of the English lyrics. The ornate vocal tracks of the chorus give “If Love Was a Crime” its anthemic quality.

If we were to quibble, it would be in regards to how it was staged at the 2016 Song Contest. Poli’s costume was ridiculous and while the choreography was cute, the Bulgarian delegation could have her backing singers come out earlier to do it along with her. We felt like saving the singers for the last 30 seconds blunted the song’s impact.

Of course, we are talking about a song that finished fourth at the Grand Prix final, so are we to quibble?

Bulgaria’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Bulgaria is looking to keep its hot streak alive with “Bones.”

Equinox is pop quintet formed for Eurovision. Members include Zhana Bergendorff, who won the second series of X Factor in Bulgaria; Johnny Manuel, who made it to the semifinals on the 2017 edition of America’s Got Talent; and Vladimir Mihailov, a singer and actor who sang backing vocals for Kristian Kostov at last year’s Song Contest.

Bulgaria is coming off a second place finish at Eurovision. Given its success the past couple of years, anticipation around their entry has been high. They recruited Eurovision fans to be a part of the jury to select a song, which helped generate even more buzz.

“Bones” is by Borislav Milanov and Joacim Persson, who co-wrote previous Bulgarian entries “If Love Was a Crime” and “Beautiful Mess,” along with Dag Lundberg and Equinox member Trey Campbell. Milanov and Persson–under their nom de plume Symphonix–have become hot Eurovision songwriters in recent years: in addition to their Bulgarian songs, they wrote last year’s Serbian and Macedonian entries, this year’s Austrian entry, and a song that competed in Malta’s national final in February. We were pretty excited to hear what they came up with.

Then the song came out. It’s not bad.

The thing is, “Bones” lacks the immediacy of “Beautiful Mess” and “If Love Was a Crime” and the pop songs Symphonix have provided Eurovision the past few years. It sounds less like a single and more like a performance piece without the performance attached. It feels incomplete.

This wouldn’t be the first Eurovision entry that only soars when you see it staged. We look forward to seeing what Bulgaria does with it. But we’ve been such big fans of Bulgaria’s recent output that maybe we just wanted a little more. That might be the drawback for setting expectations so high.

BNT’s Deyan Yordanov on Bulgaria’s Social Media Strategy at Eurovision

Deyan Yordanov from BNT explains how Bulgaria handles its social media and internet presence during the Eurovision Song Contest.

For die hard Eurovision fans, a big part of Bulgaria’s success in 2016 came from national broadcaster BNT’s entertaining and adept use of social media. As Kristian Kostov prepares to represent Bulgaria at this year’s Song Contest with “Beautiful Mess,” we caught up with Deyan Yordanov, BNT’s editor in chief of communications management, strategy and planning, to find out more about the work that goes into maintaining Bulgaria’s online presence.

There are four people working on BNT’s social media team. “There are no assigned roles – everything is shared and discussed between the team members,” he said. “In BNT the communication team also coordinates the whole project and takes part actively in the decision-making process of the entire production.”

BNT’s strategy for the 2016 Song Contest was adapted from one they first used during the 2014 Junior Eurovision Song Contest. “Our objectives were, and still are, to create a strong brand of our broadcaster and country on a European level and to improve the awareness of the local audience,” said Yordanov. “Our strategy also follows the latest trends which show that people nowadays watch TV on more than one screen. They use their mobile devices; they want to comment, engage, connect to the program they are watching.”

While “If Love Was a Crime” generated a lot of good will from Eurovision fans, Yordanov said that BNT was also prepared for possible negative reactions as well, such as the criticism of Bulgaria’s staging during last year’s rehearsal period. “[We] always have a plan [for] what to do in case things go wrong and there is some backlash,” he said. “In all situations, we want to stay true to our most important principles – to be honest, confident and sometimes even bold and provocative in our communication. It’s better to be wrong but to make people react than to leave them indifferent.”

“Of course, the best thing is to be right and to know what your are doing. Not always possible, though,” he added with a smile.

BNT makes sure that everyone involved in its Eurovision delegation stays on message, even the artists themselves. “The performers should follow our guidelines in all situations – both when it comes to their social media presence and their interviews. We have very strict requirements on the matter, because we are the ones responsible for the brand image. If the performer says something that should not be said, we will be held responsible in that case.”

Yordanov quickly added, “That doesn’t mean we are ‘control freaks’ and create an artificial image of our performer. We just want to clarify some red lines that should never be crossed by our performers. I’m happy that everyone understands it and the performers even appreciate it. That’s why we have a team – the singers have to perform, we have to do our job.”

Things have been going well with Kostov so far. “Working with [him] is a true pleasure. No matter he is so young, he is really a top professional and handles everything as it should be,” said Yordanov.

With rehearsals kicking off this weekend, Bulgaria’s delegation is prepared for the most intense part of their year. “The two weeks are much longer as we work from the moment we launch our selection process,” said Yordanov. “As I said, we have a broad range of responsibilities and social media is just one of them. Eurovision is one sleepless experience, but it’s emotionally rewarding – especially when things work fine.”

Bulgaria’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Kristian Kostov will represent Bulgaria at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with “Beautiful Mess.”

Kostov is 17 years old, making him the first performer born in the 2000s to represent their country at Eurovision. When a singer who was born after we started our blog makes it to the Song Contest, we are going to feel really old.

Anyway, he was a finalist on Russia’s The Voice Kids, mentored by Dima Bilan, and runner up on the fourth season of X Factor Bulgaria. His debut single “Ne si za men” peaked at number 13 on the Bulgarian charts.

“Beautiful Mess” was written by the team of Borislav Milanov, Sebastian Arman, and Joacim Bo Persson, who were also responsible for Bulgaria’s previous entry “If Love Was a Crime.” They also wrote this year’s entry for Serbia, “In Too Deep.”

We’re struggling with “Beautiful Mess” a bit. It’s a solid contemporary pop ballad, ornately orchestrated with a cool ethnic string riff tying it together. And it is being sung by someone who is already an experienced performer despite barely being out of the larval stage. We are trying not to judge this song against “If Love Was a Crime,” although it’s hard not to given that it is by the same songwriting team for the same country. So if we’re not excited about by “Beautiful Mess,” it may just be because we are comparing it unfairly to one of our favorite Eurovision songs of all time.

As of this writing, Bulgaria is second in the betting odds behind Italy. Given the situation between the EBU, Russia, and Ukraine over Russia’s Eurovision entry, there would be something fitting about a song called “Beautiful Mess” winning Eurovision.

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.)

Bulgaria’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

My oh my what a roller-coaster ride we’ve been having in Bulgaria this year.

In the aftermath of the 2012 contest, Bulgarian organizers conducted a survey to the Eurovision-viewing public in an effort to improve  their results. An unconventional move, but it’s nice to know they care. Bulgaria’s best Eurovision result was back in 2007, when the fab “Water” from Elitsa Todorova and Stoyan Yankoulov reached #5.  Since then, Bulgaria has struggled to even make the finals.

Their solution? Go back to what worked in the past. So Bulgarian organizers recruited Elitsa and Stoyan for another go in 2013. Here’s the song they are taking to Malmö, “Samo Shampioni” (Only Champions):

Elitsa and Stoyan have a distinctive musical style that fuses flat vocals and vocal dissonance with strong percussion, bagpipes, and tribal rhythms. Their sound is essentially unchanged from 2007.

“Samo Shampioni” replaces “Kismet,” which was the winning song at the Bulgarian national selection. Bulgarian broadcaster BNT explained they had to pull “Kismet” because they could not come to a copyright agreement with the song’s co-writer and that the co-writer was requiring substantial changes that would have taken so much time to implement that BNT would miss the filing deadline with the EBU.

Well, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.  But word on the street was that Elitsa was unhappy that “Kismet” was selected over “Samo Shampioni,” to the point where she refused to give interviews after the show. It seems “Samo Shampioni” had been their preferred choice from the beginning, but BNT required a set of songs so they could hold a selection show. The vote between the two songs was close, decided only by a tiebreak that favored the public vote.  So replacing “Kismet” is, how shall we say? Convenient.

The irony is that “Samo Shampioni” is the better choice. The song stands on its own and is a better use of their three minutes. Elitsa and Stoyan have lots of drums and do some theatrics with their drumsticks that they can easily bring to Malmö.  It’s fine. “Kismet,” on the other hand, had a cool trance vibe, but it started strangely, took too long to get going, and lacked a musical payoff. Every time I heard “Kismet,” I would sing Lady’s Gaga’s “Telephone” because the line “Stop calling stop calling, I don’t wanna talk anymore” provided the musical hook that “Kismet” needed.

At the end of the day, I think Elitsa and Stoyan are unlikely to repeat or improve on their 2007 finish. “Water” had an energy that they are unable to replicate here, regardless of which song they picked.


Bulgaria’s Eurovision 2012 Entry

First, a tip of the hat to Bulgarian television network BNT, who put on a very good (but long) national selection show. They staged great group dance numbers, and between entries we were treated to pre-recorded Eurovision-style dance interludes. During the voting they had nearly non-stop musical entertainment.

Unfortunately, the broadcast amounted to little more than a Christmas present with beautiful wrapping paper and ribbon, and when you open the present, you find a rock that was picked up in the road. Bulgarian Eurovision hopefuls gave us gas masks, a Vegas-style wedding, and lots of bad singing. Such a shame. The less said about the other entries the better. With twice as many votes as the 2nd place finisher, the Bulgarian public spoke loud and clear. Here’s Sofi Marinova with “Love Unlimited”:

The song is a dance club number with the Romanian sound–some have compared it to “Mr. Saxobeat.” I guess, but for me it all just doesn’t quite add up. Listening to the audio track, I wish the vocal was more chill, letting the beats drive the energy of the song. Instead of singing it straight, Marinova goes for drama and feeling: “I love you so much.” Worse, the chorus hits the upper part of her register, which is shrill and off putting. But the biggest problem in the national final was her staging. Marinova performed “Love Unlimited” solo and in a ballgown–which is completely at odds with the mood of the piece. For the ESC, Bulgarian organizers need to think seriously about scrapping the performance and starting from scratch. How about bringing in some of those dancers that performed on the broadcast? Or I’m sure the “Angel si ti” dancers would be glad for the work…

Last year I wrote that Bulgaria’s Eurovision entries don’t suck, they just don’t stand out. Well, I am seriously missing Poli Genova right now. Based on what I saw tonight, 2012 isn’t shaping up to be a good Eurovision year for Bulgaria.