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.

Finland’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

This past weekend, Aksel Kankaanranta became the first 2020 national final winner who was unable to secure the make-up ticket to Rotterdam. It was particularly heartbreaking after seeing how much more at ease he was on stage compared to his previous performance. Given the result, maybe he’d want to follow Blind Channel’s lead and put his middle finger up at the Finnish delegation for having a national final this year.

Blind Channel formed in 2014 and refer to their style of music as “violent pop.” They were originally a five-piece band, but they added DJ Aleksi Kaunisvesi in October 2020 after he helped them polish their demo for “Dark Side.” (He’s a song “betterer,” according to the UMK English commentators.)

“Dark Side” is unapologetically nu metal, which isn’t the most beloved metal genre around. I’ll tell you what, though: it is ridiculously catchy. It helps that Blind Channel lead with the chorus, then repeat it four times. The huhs and the ai-yis act as the fists that cram the hook into your skull. Vocalists Joel Hokka and Niko Vilhelm are so similar in tone that it’s hard to tell them apart. Yet this works to their advantage because their intertwined vocals bolster the song’s anthemic feel.

Even though I like “Dark Side,” I’m having trouble really getting into it. The band mentioned during UMK that they wanted to see the crowd shout “huh” along with them, and for some reason that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not one of those “death to false metal” types, and I don’t really demand authenticity in my rock music. But “Dark Side” is presenting itself as authentic, and I don’t really buy it.

Still, if they do get an audience of Eurovision fans to flash their middle fingers on cue, I have to admit that would be pretty awesome.

Finland’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Finland had four female solo and group artists competing at this year’s UMK and one male artist. When we saw the line-up we said, “Watch, the one guy is going to win.”

Damned patriarchy.

Aksel Kankaanranta was runner-up on The Voice of Finland in 2017, then guested on Pyhimys’ “Jättiläinen,” which was the most streamed Finnish song on Spotify in 2018. His song “Looking Back” is by the American pop band Before You Exit, Finnish songwriter Joonas Angeria, and American songwriter Whitney Phillips.

“Looking Back” is a pretty song, and particularly poignant these days. Aksel has a lovely voice, if a bit reedy, and his vocal performance is good. However, he spent a lot of time at UMK with his eyes closed and his hands wrapped around the mic stand, which didn’t help make “Looking Back” soar like it should. He mentions in his official bio that he is overcoming shyness by putting himself out there as an artist, so knowing that explains his performance. But he needed to open himself up a bit more for his song to really resonate.

That said, the visual staging at UMK did a lot to overcome his reserved stage presence. It was a touching animation that illustrated the song’s themes, and we thought it was affective. “Looking Back” may not have been the most spectacular entry on offer to Finland, but we thought it held together nicely.

Reviews of the Rest of Eurovision 2019

Eurovision rehearsals are about to begin and we weren’t able to complete full reviews of all of this year’s entries in time. So let’s take a deep breath and cover all the rest in one go!

Finland: Darude feat. Sebastian Rejman – “Look Away

Darude had a global smash hit 19 years ago with “Sandstorm.” Now he’s representing Finland at Eurovision. We mock the United Kingdom when they do stuff like that and we see no reason to spare Finland our snark. Especially when the U.K. nostalgia acts send better songs.

Belarus: Zena – “Like It

Zena offers up a slightly generic, but still quite enjoyable pop song. We… well, you know… like it. Not sure if it’s going to do well for Belarus, but with the right staging, or at least the right Belorussian staging, maybe it could surprise us.

Serbia: Nevena Božović – “Kruna

Nevena is a veteran of Moje 3, the Barbara Dex Award-winning act from 2013. She’s back with a bland ballad, but she made it soar at Beovizija 2019. We expect more vocal fireworks in Tel Aviv. And better costumes.

Belgium: Eliot Vassamillet – “Wake Up

“Wake Up” reminds us of “City Lights.” We didn’t like “City Lights,” but it seemed like everyone else did. We like “Wake Up,” but it seems like no one else does. Go figure.

Georgia: Oto Nemsadze – “Sul Tsin Iare

Oto brought a wide-eyed intensity to his performance of “Sul Tsin Iare.” It worked for the judges and the people of Georgia, but we can’t say it’s going to work for the rest of Europe.

San Marino: Serhat – “Say Na Na Na

San Marino has sent disco songs for three of its last four entries because this one time, die hard Eurovision fans convinced them that’s what we want. Maybe we should tell them that we like other genres too.

Armenia: Srbuk – “Walking Out

Srbuk looks a lot like my mom did when she was 18 and I’m struggling to get past that.

Ireland: Sarah McTernan – “22

We are not particular fans of Meghan Trainor’s oeuvre, so anything that resembles her output is not going to rank high with us. But at least it’s not another earnest ballad.

Moldova: Anna Odobescu – “Stay

Moldova is following up successive classic Eurovision contributions with a song that we will probably forget about shortly after the Song Contest is over. Sigh, it’s hard to generate memes every year.

Austria: Pænda – “Limits

“Limits” is a great song to listen to at 3 A.M. when it’s gently, but audibly raining outside and you’re feeling a little sad and need a good cry. That’s usually not the atmosphere Eurovision provides, which may hurt Austria’s chances.

Lithuania: Jurijus – “Run with the Lions

Jurijus is this dreamy guy singing an anthemic song about believing in yourself and dreaming big. It’s a pleasant three minutes made better by Jurijus’ inherent likability.

North Macedonia: Tamara Todevska – “Proud

“Proud” is an old fashioned ballad about empowering girls to believe in themselves and dream big. It’s a lovely three minutes made better by Tamara’s vocal star quality.

Israel: Kobi Marimi – “Home

Israel is happy to have won Eurovision and is also not interested in winning again this year.

Finland’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Finland has chosen Saara Aalto and “Monsters” for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Now, it would not be a stretch to call Saara Aalto a competition veteran. She finished second in the Voice of Finland 2012 and she has also finished second at the Finnish national selection show UMK twice, in 2011 and 2016.

See a pattern? One wondered if she was ever going to get a win somewhere, anywhere.

Then something interesting happened: Saara went to the United Kingdom and entered X Factor UK. She finished second (again) in a series that was widely watched by the Brits, the Irish, and the Finns. Rumor had it that she planned to enter the UK national selection competition Eurovision: You Decide. Finland took a look at its crop of songs, decided they were a measly bunch, and gave her a direct-to-Eurovision offer, thus beating the UK to the punch.

It’s a classic story:

You’re not good enough for me.

Ok, I’ll change.  How about now?

Better, but no, you’re still not good enough for me.

Is that really how you feel? It breaks my heart. But I’ll pick up the pieces, move on, and find someone else who will love me the way I deserve.

Wait, someone else likes you?  I like you so much better now. Come back!

Well, it always has been you, so…okay. But you hurt me bad. This time I have some conditions.

Sure, sure anything. But please come back! I need you!

Thus, for this year’s UMK, Saara co-wrote and performed three songs for the public and an international jury to choose from. “Monsters,” the runaway favorite, was co-written with “Heroes” songwriters Joy and Linnea Deb and Ki Fitzgerald from Busted.

“Monsters” is one of those only at Eurovision songs, from its thematic content to its ballad-to-dance track transition. It’s a Euroclub stomper, if not a Eurovision winner. Maybe it will finish second?

Saara’s vocal phrasing is excellent. She’s not flawless: She runs the risk of being shouty and she struggles with the lower end of her range. Be not fooled by her surname: Ms. Aalto is definitely a soprano. But her obvious glee about finally getting her chance at Eurovision translates into a joyful, infectious live performance.

Speaking of infectious, let’s talk about that lyrical hook: “Monster” burrows into your brain and pops out at random times.

“I ain’t scared no more!”

So it’s got that going for it.

Finland’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Norma John won UMK 2017 and will represent Finland at Eurovision with their song “Blackbird.”

Vocalist Leena Tirronen and pianist Lasse Piirainen formed Norma Jean in 2008. Tirronen finished third in the Finnish X Factor in 2010. Piirainen is slated to appear as a team captain this spring in a new version of BumtsiBum!, a Finnish TV show based on Ireland’s The Lyrics Board.

Well before UMK, Ben Morris of Europops fame tweeted that “Blackbird” was “[r]eminiscent of Anouk,” and we agree. Both have haunting melodies, lush arrangements, and suitably melancholy lyrics. But while “Birds” is borderline desperate (“no air, no pride”), “Blackbird” is more mournful:

You sang when he was in my bed
You sang when my heart sang
Now you remind me of something I’ll never have
So blackbird, don’t sing

Tirronen delivers those heartbreaking lyrics with power and grace. You feel her hurt, but you also get the sense that she is strong enough to get over the pain. The melody of the chorus is certainly memorable. We both had it in our heads well after we finished watching UMK and that was without listening to the video replay. We have high hopes that this is going to do well in May.

Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Leap Year Edition

It’s a good thing it’s Leap Year, because we need an extra day to process all of the songs chosen for Eurovision this weekend!

Finland: Sandhja – “Sing It Away”

Donald Trump is going to be the Republican Party candidate for President and Sandhja’s European jazz festival closer is going to represent Finland at Eurovision and I do not understand the world anymore.

Hungary: Freddie – “Pioneer”

We are Eurovision hipsters, so A Dal is of course our favorite national selection competition these days. There were eight songs in the A Dal final, and we felt that the four super finalists would ably represent Hungary in Stockholm. Coming out of the semis, we thought Freddie would not only finish top 5 at Eurovision, but even take the crown. His performance in the final was a bit rougher, so we’re not quite ready to proclaim him the champion yet. But his husky voice and rugged good looks may make him very popular in Sweden.

Continue reading “Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Leap Year Edition”

Finland’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät have been voted to be Finland’s representative in Vienna with “Aina mun pitää”:

PKN’s four members have learning disabilities and their story was the subject of a 2012 documentary called The Punk Syndrome. They were expected to win UMK 2015 and now join Italy’s Il Volo and Estonia’s Elina Born & Stig Rästa as early favorites to win Eurovision in May.

Bassist Sami Helle told The Guardian, “We don’t want people to vote for us to feel sorry for us, we are not that different from everybody else – just normal guys with a mental handicap.”

Aside from the inspirational back story, PKN are breaking new ground at Eurovision. Not only are PKN the first punk band to perform at the Song Contest, but, as Eric Graf pointed out on Twitter, their song “Aina mun pitää” is the shortest Eurovision entry ever at just one minute and 27 seconds.

Our household is split on “Aina mun pitää.” Jen thinks it’s plodding clatter. I think it’s a fun throwback to the early days of punk and hardcore music, more along the lines of Black Flag than the Sex Pistols. I’m not expecting the voting public to go all in on a punk song, but then again it wouldn’t be the first time an unusual Finnish band grabbed the trophy at the Grand Prix.

Finland’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

After a terrific Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu finale, Finland selected Softengine as its Eurovision representative with their song “Something Better”:

“Something Better” is a good example of a modern, radio-friendly rock anthem. It reminds me a lot of Killers or The Bravery or (to put it in Eurovision terms) A Friend In London. The chorus has an immediacy to it that should grab a lot of people’s attention, although I worry that it might get a bit grating upon repeated listenings. Then again, we both LOVE that great big, stadium-friendly “whoa-oh-oh-oh” bridge. This is the strongest song from Finland in years.

Finland’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

Is Krista Siegfrids, like, really really famous in Finland? Because I have no other explanation why “Marry Me” is the song that Finnish voters selected to send to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Jen said it reminded her of Venke Knutson’s “Jealous ‘Cause I Love You,” one of the lucky losers in Norway’s 2010 Melodi Grand Prix. Watching the two performances together, they are really similar, both musically and in energy. The difference is that Knutson’s song is supposed to be funny, whereas I’m not sure Siegfrids’ song is. Sure, the staging is jokey, with the over-the-top train and the general hamminess. But lyrically, “Marry Me” is regressive and desperate.

It’s almost as if Siegfrids’ team realized the song was bad and tried to stage it with a satirical edge. George S. Kaufman said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Whether or not this is satire, I hope it closes on Thursday night.