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!

Ireland’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

I sent my heart out to all of the artists after the cancelation of last year’s Eurovision, but no one got a bigger piece of it than Lesley Roy. I learned her personal story through her podcast Pop Kitchen, and the twist of fate that 2020 offered up felt particularly cruel to her. Even though I wasn’t a fan of “Story of My Life,” I really wanted Ireland to do the right thing and pick her again.

Not only am I happy to say that she got her second chance at the Song Contest, I am happy to say she’s coming back stronger.

“Maps” still has the Max Martin-influenced pop-rock style that “Story of My Life” offered up, but it sounds a lot smoother and organic this time out. The arrangement is anthemic and propulsive, accentuating the journey metaphor in the lyrics.

Sometimes the orchestration feels a little too busy, and sometimes it feels a little too cheesy. It often drowns Lesley’s vocal out. The song feels strongest when the production takes a break to let her story be heard.

But overall, “Maps” is a vibrant, joyous song that needs all of that energy to drive it. And the lyric “My soul is a map/My heart is a compass/I am the road” feel both intensely personal and strikingly universal. Making your story feel like it could be anyone else’s without watering it down is difficult, and this year, Lesley has balanced it excellently. I really enjoy this song.

Also, and this is not germane to the Song Contest itself, but the video is pretty fabulous. I want to run around Ireland like that once I get a chance. (I mean, I’m heading to Vienna the first chance I get, but Ireland is near the top of my travel wish list when travel is a thing again.)

Ireland’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Out of the Pop Kitchen, into the pop fire!

Lesley Roy broke onto the U.S. charts in 2008 when her Max Martin-produced debut album Unbeautiful peaked at number five on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart. She also had minor success on the old Billboard Pop 100 chart with her singles “I’m Gone, I’m Going” and “Unbeautiful.” After suddenly getting dropped by her record label, she worked as a songwriter, notably with Adam Lambert on his song “Pop That Lock” and with Desmond Child on Marlee Scott’s “Rhinestone in the Rough.” She now hosts the Pop Kitchen podcast with Jeff Michael Johnson, who has a GoFundMe page to help him head to Dublin and Rotterdam to support Lesley at Eurovision.

Listening the Max Martin episode of Pop Kitchen when she discusses her career gave us a lot of insight into the lyrics for “Story of My Life.” It’s a tricky balancing act to spill your guts like that while still making it feel universal, and in that regard she succeeds.

That’s why we wish we liked the song more. The orchestration is heavily influenced by Max Martin’s rock-pop style, which is not a style we respond to. We’ve seen other Eurovision fans compare Lesley’s song to early stuff by Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson. We thought of P!nk’s “So What.” Whichever song you pick, it was probably co-written by Max Martin.

Lesley’s lyrics “Rock it all you want, but make it pop enough” stands out to us because it captures how we feel: “Story of My Life” is a pop song that uses guitars as decoration, and that doesn’t make it a rock song. We wished it rocked a bit harder.

Given what she has gone through in her career, we’re happy to see that Lesley has gotten the chance to represent her home country at Eurovision. And we’re looking forward to hearing about her Eurovision journey on Pop Kitchen. However long that journey lasts, we hope that the experience will be rewarding.

And dammit, this job was a lot easier we just made flippant judgements about pop songs without getting to know the people who made them.

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.

Ireland’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Ryan O’Shaughnessy is stepping out on behalf of Ireland at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Here’s “Together.”

Ryan O’Shaughnessy started as a child actor appearing on the soap opera Fair City. He transitioned to a music career and auditioned for the first series of The Voice of Ireland in 2012. He ended up on Brian Kennedy’s team but was ultimately eliminated after the first live show. He had better luck on the sixth series of Britain’s Got Talent, where he finished fifth. His eponymous debut album hit number one on the Irish album charts and number nine on the British album charts.

There was a minor kerfuffle when Ryan claimed on Twitter that Russia was going to ban the video for “Together” because it depicted a gay relationship. Although the story was picked up in some press outlets, Wiwibloggs reported that no ban threat existed.

For us, it was just nice to see something interesting generated by Ireland this year, even if it was just wanton rumor. “Together” is fine: The lyrics are about the end of a relationship and are suitably heartbreaking. Musically, it is a lot better than the past two Irish entries. But it doesn’t exactly sound like an entry from a country ready to reclaim past fortunes.

To be fair, a gentle ballad won Eurovision last year, and Ireland had a lot of success with gentle ballads during its salad days. In a way, that makes the situation a lot sadder: RTE is asking Europe, “Remember when we won Eurovision? You liked us back then, right? If we give you something now that sounds like that stuff you used to like back then, you’ll like us again, right?” And they never seem to listen to the answer.

Ireland’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

We’re beginning to develop a hatred of Johnny Logan. It seems like no matter what Ireland does for Eurovision, he is critical of it in an non-constructive way. Whether he’s whinging about Jedward or Dustin the Turkey or denouncing RTE’s “cheap and nasty” approach to selecting Ireland’s Song for Europe this year, he just seems like a grumpy, prickly, entitled character who only has a megaphone because he was once highly successful in a previous era of the Song Contest. Regardless of what he says, even he would struggle to compete at Eurovision if he had a go at it now.

Then again, he’s not wrong, is he?

Brendan Murray is a former member of the Louis Walsh project Hometown. The band went on hiatus in December and Murray is breaking out on his own. Walsh, who has become RTE’s go-to Eurovision consultant in recent years, selected Murray to represent Ireland in Kyiv. “Dying to Try” is by Jörgen Elofsson, who was nominated for a Grammy for writing Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” More significant in this context, he wrote songs for Westlife in their heyday.

So if Ireland couldn’t qualify for the Final with a former Westlife member, then what makes them think they can qualify with this? As voiced by Murray, “Dying to Try” sounds like one of a hundred demos that Harry Styles would consider for his solo album before passing on it. There’s nothing remarkable or special about “Dying to Try” or Murray’s vocal on it. It is just not good enough to stand out at Eurovision.

It’s like Yoda said: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Ireland’s Eurovision 2016 Entry

Hey kids, the ’90s are back! Here is Nicky Byrne and “Sunlight.”

In selecting Nicky Byrne, Ireland has abandoned its recent tradition of picking its Eurovision entry on The Late Late Show. This probably spares us the sight of Linda Martin punching out Louis Walsh during an argument over whether some treacly ballad is Eurovision-worthy. Unfortunate for us, but probably better for Ireland.

Anyway, you may remember Nicky Byrne from Westlife. (Unless you’re in the United States, in which case you don’t remember Westlife.) He has since made a name for himself not only as a musician, but as a presenter and a host; he has presented Ireland’s Eurovision results for the last three years.

The last time Nicky celebrated Ireland’s glory through song was in 2002, when he performed their World Cup Anthem “Here Come the Good Times.” It featured Dustin the Turkey. It’s worse than it sounds.

But enough biographical information. What do we think of “Sunlight?” Well.

Can we talk about that damn treble rhythm line? The dn dn dn dn that goes the entire goddamn length of the song. What genius came up with that and said, “Ah yes, just the sound I’m looking for! It’s got that modern edge to it that the kids are going to love!” (Answer: Wayne Hector) Where is a Swedish producer when you need one?

The major-chorded tune –dare we say sunny?– is like something from Disney Channel. (Which explains why our 7-year-old loves it and would marry it if he could. Verbatim quote.) It’s catchy and engaging enough for a minute, but doesn’t offer enough variation to make three minutes fly by fast. And it’s way too immature for a guy pushing 40.

And the lyrics. Ugh. Are they a call for mindfulness or carpe diem? Can’t tell, don’t care. Either way I don’t want some aging boy band alumnus selling me self-help cookie cutter wisdom. Where does he get this stuff, off t-shirts? “Everything’s better standing out in the sun.” Honey, not without 30 SPF and a water bottle.

As for Nicky himself, he’s toned, the teeth are whitened, and he’s sporting that week-long stubble that he hears is all the rage these days. He has a flattop haircut that you tend to see on footballers (once a footballer, always a footballer). His brows are manscaped and he probably shaves his chest. His style is a carefully crafted package, and I suppose appeals to those of a certain age and tendency toward conventional attractiveness. Like David Beckham. It’s all so, ugh, obvious. And dull.

The producers of the video are Studz Entertainment. Guys, it’s still cool to substitute a “z” for an “s”!

Those of us who are familiar with such cultural events as Christopher Walken’s Peter Pan Live! and every Oscar telecast ever are well-acquainted with the idea of hate-watching. So, to sum things up, it’s not bad at all.

Ireland’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Molly Sterling will represent Ireland at the Eurovision with her song “Playing with Numbers”:

Molly is a 16-year-old smoky voiced singer who has been competing in talent competitions around Ireland for the past few years. She won the 2011 Tipp Teen Idol, but has hit the big time with her win in Ireland’s Eurosong 2015 show. Eurovision is at its best when it is uncovering young, hungry artists, and Molly fits that mold.

The ace panel of judges on The Late Late Show (Phil Coulter, Linda Martin, Panti Bliss, and Mairead Farrell) all stressed the need for Ireland to both take the competition seriously and focus on sending a great song to Vienna. I think Ireland has done the best with what RTE had offered up.

“Playing with Numbers” reminds me a bit of one of Ireland’s winning entries, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids.” It is a lilting, gentle ballad with wistful, thoughtful lyrics. Molly sings it with composure that belies her age. It is a solid song.

But I wonder if that is going to be enough. A song like “Playing with Numbers” hasn’t won Eurovision since, well, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids.” Moreover, Ireland has drawn the first half of the second Semi, and a similar ballad, Cyprus’ “One Thing I Should Have Done,” is drawn into the second half. I fear that “Playing with Numbers” is going to disappear at the end of the evening when the votes are tallied.

Ireland’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

There are a few reasons why it is tempting to spend a lot of time writing about the shouting match that broke out on the Late Late Show Eurosong 2014 Special between mentor Billy McGuinness and judges Louis Walsh and Linda “The Mother Goddam of Eurovision” Martin:

  1. It was easily the most entertaining Irish selection show since 2009, when the guest judge was Jerry Springer (who of course ended up trending on Twitter in Ireland during the dust-up). Instead of the host of The Jerry Springer Show, you got its spirit.
  2. Laura O’Neill, McGuinness’ mentee, sang “You Don’t Remember Me,” the title of which became raucously ironic just moments after she finished performing.
  3. THIS:


You can watch the full set-to on the Eurovision website, and Roy D. Hacksaw sums it up nicely at Eurovision Apocalypse.

Of course, none of the drama on the Eurosong 2014 Special will matter to anyone watching Ireland’s entry during the second Semi on May 8. Only Irish viewers and diehard Eurovision fans are going to know what happened.  But for now, it’s just nice to have something exciting to discuss, because the songs on display during the Late Late Show were not much to talk about.

Anyway, Ireland’s entry this year is “Heartbeat” by Can-linn featuring Kasey Smith:

Ireland finished last in 2013 with Ryan Dolan’s “Only Love Survives,” a bodhrán-propelled dance-pop track featuring two hunky dancers, two back-up singers, and a drummer. To remedy that sad state of affairs, Ireland has picked a bodhrán-propelled dance-pop track featuring two hunky dancers, two back-up singers, and a fiddle player. Thankfully, no one made hearts with their hands during their performance.

“Heartbeat” is Swedish schlager with a Celtic overlay. The tune is fine, but it doesn’t go anywhere. The verse doesn’t really distinguish itself from the chorus, and while Smith belts out the last go at the chorus, there’s no key change to boost the song when she brings it home. Smith is a good singer, but she is weak in her lower range, so there are moments where the instrumentation washes over her.

Linda Martin made the point that the dancers were a bit distracting, and I agree with her to a point. The Late Late Show performance space is small, so the Can-Linn dancers framed Smith tightly. On the big Eurovision stage, they may not be as much of a distraction.

Late Late Show host Ryan Tubridy kept asking the judging panel if they had heard a song that could win Eurovision. No one really said yes, although Louis Walsh was a bit more upbeat about Ireland’s chances than the others. All “Heartbeat” needs to do is make the final and finish 25th or higher to improve on their previous result, and I don’t think it will achieve much more than that. This is the sound of a country playing safe and aiming for the middle of the table. Better luck next year.

Ireland’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

Can we just start by saying (again) how much we love Ireland’s mentor format?

The idea in a nutshell is this: RTE invites 5 music professionals to find a Eurovision entry. They are tasked with identifying the song, finding a singer, and overseeing the staging. These mentors are interviewed at Eurosong prior to the song presentation and explain what they were going for. The 5 songs then compete, and the winner is determined by jury and televote. It’s brilliant for a couple reasons. First, RTE delegates the work to others. They’ve figured out a way to avoid sifting through hundreds of online submissions: have someone else do it! Second, mentors purport to know more than RTE about music, the ESC, or, preferably, both. One need look no further than the BBC to see what happens if broadcasters are too in the weeds with the selection process.

The mentors’ work often succeeds or fails depending on how much thought a mentor puts into the process. Last night in Ireland, two mentors were on to something. The winner, and Ireland’s Eurovision 2013 selection, was Ryan Dolan with “Only Love Survives.”

Full points to mentor Stuart O’Connor. O’Connor was part of last year’s ESC Irish delegation, and he worked with Jedward and the water feature. So he’s a guy that’s been in the game before and has been thinking about how to give ’em the ol’ razzle dazzle. In this year’s outing, it’s clear he is considering the whole package–song, singer, presentation. He picked a modern, contemporary pop song from a talented singer and presented it in a way that can be scaled up for Malmö.

“Only Love Survives” opens with vocal and strong percussion. It captures your attention instantly. (As a side note, the importance of instant appeal is frequently underestimated at Eurovision.  You’ve got 3 minutes, there’s no time to win an audience over.) Ryan Dolan–who looks like Pauly D and sounds like Bruno Mars–is solid up front.  He sounds great and works the camera well. Though there is lots of movement from other folks onstage and the backing track is overproduced (more about that later), Dolan is in complete control. We love, too, that he’s a cowriter of the song. It is never unclear who the real star of this show is. I could go on about the lighting, the tribal tattoos, lots of things. The main point is there’s a lot going on here that’s right.

Our biggest concern is the arrangement. At 0:59, the song goes electropop. This arrangement choice places the song in a similar space to Loreen, and, as it turns out, other 2013 entrants like Cascada and Hannah Mancini. It will prompt needless comparisons to Sweden and ultimately will hurt Ireland’s chances. If we were at the helm in Ireland, we would move away from that sound and look instead to what Bruno Mars and Ke$ha are doing. “Grenade,” for example, shares the heavy percussion but supports the chorus with chorded backing vocals and piano keyboard. Alternatively, Ke$ha’s work is also in the dance space, but she emphasizes beat and rhythm; she uses treble in a different way from standard Europop.

The other song that did well at Eurosong was Aimée Fitzpatrick and the ballad “Crashing Down.” It wasn’t as complete a package, but the raw goods were assuredly there, and we wondered if the authentic sentiments might do well with the Irish voters. Mentor Mark McCabe said that he was looking for a song that would stand out, and indeed he found that. “Crashing Down” was a great song. What they gave us on Friday felt a little Hayden Panettiere in Nashville, but it was far from a game ender. Eighteen-year-old Fitzpatrick was an able singer but green. With an edgier, more distinctive voice I think this would have won. And even with the team they had, with more work this one could have been something.

All this said, at the end of the day we liked Ireland’s options and their final choice. Well done Ireland. The great work begins.