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!

Croatia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Before I talk about Albina, who won Dora this year, I want to reflect on last year’s winner, Damir Kedžo. National broadcaster HRT decided to keep the national final format and invited him to participate, but he declined the offer. Given the way things went in Lithuania, I wonder if the result would have been different had he made another go.

On the other hand, if he had denied us the opportunity to hear “Tick-Tock” in May, I would have been pretty disappointed.

Albina Grčić finished 3rd in the third season of The Voice Hrvatska. Before that, she competed on X Factor Adria, but dropped out the show when the producers wanted her to be a part of a girl group. She had a Top 20 hit on the Croatian charts last year with “Imuna na strah.”

“Tick-Tock” was written by Branimir Mihaljević, Max Cinnamon, and Tihana Buklijaš Bakić. Tihana is a songwriter and a voice over artist. Branimir competed in 1998’s edition of Dora with “Daj da.” He also cowrote Franka Batelić’s “Crazy” for Eurovision 2018 and Feminem’s “Lako je sve” for Eurovision 2010. And Max competed at Destination Eurovision in 2018 with “Ailleurs.”

I liked “Tick-Tock” almost immediately. It starts off with a gentle, almost meandering intro, which gave me certain expectations as to what was to come. Then that lush, disco-flecked orchestration dropped down to just bass and drum for the chorus. Ooo! It was a twist I wasn’t expecting, and I was hooked.

Upon repeated listens, I started to pick up an interesting structure to the song. What sounds like an initial verse turns out to be merely the intro and what sounds like a pre-chorus or a bridge turns out to be the verse. There is also a swank bridge section that gets reprised at the end.

“Tick-Tock” may be structurally intricate, but it’s not melodically complex, which makes it accessible. It also gives Albina room to move and space to belt as needed. It is a well-constructed performance piece, and I think it is a lot of fun.

Croatia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Every year, there are a couple of songs that don’t stay in our brains. We obsessively watch old Song Contests and even then, we’ll come across entries that we completely forgot about. One year, Slovakia sent a song that only registers with us now as the song we always forget was a Eurovision entry. Can’t remember which year it was, though.

You can see where we’re going with this.

Now, Damir Kedžo is one of Croatia’s biggest stars. He’s a chart-topping, award-winning, stream-dominating pop singer. So the negative opinions of two minor Eurovision bloggers probably won’t hurt his feelings one bit. Though maybe he’ll be flattered when we say he’s like a hot version of Lee Ving.

But “Divlji Vjetre” does not resonate with us at all. At first listen, it struck us as a bland, midtempo pop song with a strange key change.

Upon repeated listens, though, we were struck by its interesting structure. Written by Ante Pecotić, “Divlji Vjetre” starts off fairly conventionally, with a lilting verse and a big chorus. But the second verse has a different vocal arrangement than the first. It brings the backing singers to the fore and gives Damir a place to vamp. After that, we get two run-throughs of the chorus. The key change between the two is sort of hidden under a big long note that Damir uses to pull us into the final part of the song. It’s fascinating.

“Divlji Vjetre” may be fun to deconstruct, but we’re still not sold on the song itself. It’s nice, but we’re not sure it’s one we’re going to think about much once we’ve moved onto the next Eurovision season.

Croatia’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

Croatia have picked the ne plus ultra of Eurovision entries this year. Here is Roko’s “The Dream.”

Roko Blažević is an 18-year-old singer who won the Serbian talent show Pinkove Zvezdice in 2017. He also finished second on the Croatian show Zvijezde last year. His song written by Eurovision royalty: Jacques Houdec represented Croatia at the 2017 Song Contest with the epic “My Friend” and Charlie Mason is the lyricist behind “Rise Like a Phoenix” and “Beauty Never Lies.”

So let’s get down to brass tacks. Roko is standing on stage dressed in white and wearing huge angels wings. He is singing a song about peace and love and understanding. He crushes big note after big note. He spots the camera and unleashes a little bit of smolder. There is a language change. There is a key change. Of course there is.

“The Dream” is soaring and grandiose and it is as archetypal a Eurovision song as you could possibly get. It shows the Song Contest ideal in all its earnest glory. It has a fabulous “only at Eurovision” quality to it, but in an almost sensible sort of way.

Yes, Roko is wearing angel’s wings while he sings. When you consider other times you’ve seen someone wear angel’s wings at Eurovision, you have to appreciate his subtlety.

Croatia’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Let’s go crazy. We suppose.

Franka Batelić rose to fame in Croatia when she won the talent show Showtime in 2007. She recently had a number three hit on the Croatian singles chart with “S tobom” and she has also won her country’s version of Strictly Come Dancing. She co-wrote “Crazy” with Branimir Mihaljević, a Croatian songwriter who also co-wrote Feminem’s 2010 Song Contest entry “Lako je sve.”

We are not fans of this song. It sounds like the type of single a label makes a new artist record to capitalize off of another artist’s  massive hit. If it were 2001 and “Fallin’” was still dominating the charts, then we would get it. Seventeen years later and we’re bored.

Croatia’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

What fresh hell is this?

“My Friend” kicks off with Jacques Houdek reading a quote from Einstein, because if you’re gonna quote, quote from the best. Where do people get this stuff, off of t-shirts? Enjoy that quote, by the way, because it is the most coherent part of the song.

“My Friend” very quickly descends into madness because as far as we can tell this is a duet sung by one guy. English lyrics in a generic pop voice alternate with Italian lyrics in an operatic tenor voice. Is Jacques in a sing-off with an anonymous Italian tenor or is he the only singer? Is the tenor his friend? Is Jacques having a conversation with his evil Italian tenor alter ego, like Smeagol and Gollum? Is his friend his precious? Is he trying to convince Frodo that he is his friend, not poor Samwise? Is Frodo played by that guy from Il Volo with the glasses? You know the one. Are they going Mt. Doom together to cast this song into the fiery chasm from whence it came? Is Jacques going to bite off the Il Volo guy’s finger during the staging? Because that would certainly be something we haven’t seen at Eurovision before. Unless Nana Mouskouri did it.

Six people wrote this song. Six!

May 11 cannot come soon enough.

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.)

Croatia’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

Klapa s mora has unveiled its song “Mižerja,” which will represent Croatia in Malmö. It is very Bonaparti.lv.

Actually, I find it kind of soothing, particularly when those rich baritone voices kick in. The melody is lovely, and the arrangement is quite posh. The big issue I have is that  “Mižerja” really doesn’t go anywhere. As pretty as the melody is, I do kind of get tired of it after awhile. By the 2:00 mark, I was desperate for a key change that never came.

So it’s a good entry, not a great entry. I’m hoping that the six singers that make up Klapa s mora can bring it live. The live performance on the presentation show indicates they can, and they’re going to need to fire on all cylinders to make it to the Final.

Croatia’s Eurovision 2012 Entry

“Nebo” has been selected for Nina Badric to represent Croatia at Eurovision this year.

After disastrously toying with an upbeat number last year, Croatia decided to go back to the type of schmaltzy ballads it did the two years previous. Frankly, I find it dull and plodding, and judging from her performance during the selection announcement show, she’s not exactly going to bring the time of dynamic performance that this type of song will need to go over with voters. Still, could be worse. (See again: last year.)

UPDATED: “Nebo” isn’t growing on me per se, but I have to say that listening to FYR Macedonia’s “Crno i belo,” I am appreciate it a lot more. Forget what I said about dull and plodding here and apply it to “Crno i belo” instead. Looking at how the second Semi is shaping up, I’m pretty sure we’re going to see Croatia back in the final this year.

Croatia’s Eurovision 2011 Entry

This year, Croatia adopted the Unser Star format for its Dora 2011 selection show. It was an epically long process to get to the final: I’m pretty sure the show started right after last year’s show ended and 10,000 singers were pared down to two. I may be exaggerating.

Anyway, Daria Kinzer and Jacques Houdek each performed the same three songs, and the jury (including the suddenly ever-present Severina) and the public voted on which of the six performances they liked best. In the end, Kinzer and Houdek went head-to-head in a super final with the same song, “Lahor.”

This was strange to me, because both Jen and I thought another song, “Stotinama godina,” was stronger. But no matter. The two faced off and in the end Kinzer was selected to go to the big show. This was not strange to me, because while both were good singers, Kinzer definitely had more charisma than Houdek (who looked like a cuddlier Kevin Smith).

After she was announced as the winner, Kinzer debuted the English-language version of “Lahor,” now called “Break a Leg”:

It’s a more Swedish pop-sounding number than we’re used to from Croatia. The staging was odd, with back-up singers popping out from beneath a turntable stand that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the song. I suspect the Croatian organizers will re-imagine that for the big stage. It’s decent enough effort, if a tad generic, so I wonder if it’s not going to get lost in the shuffle of what’s turning out to be a surprisingly competitive first Semi-Final.

UPDATED: Croatia has revamped “Break a Leg,” giving it the better-yet-more-generic title “Celebrate”:

It’s a much better lyric, but I stand by what I said earlier.