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!

Israel’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

If there is a small silver lining to the cancellation of last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, it’s that 23 of the artists who were selected to perform in 2020 have been chosen to represent their countries this year. For a few artists, there may be a chance to show up with better songs. Case in point: Israel’s Eden Alene.

You’ll forgive me if I just steal the bio I wrote for Eden last year: Eden Alene is the Jerusalem-born daughter of Ethiopian immigrants. She won X Factor Israel in 2018. “Set Me Free” was written by Amit Mordechai, Ido Netzer, Noam Zaltin, and Ron Carmi.

As much as I liked Eden from the outset, I wasn’t a huge fan of “Feker Libi,” her 2020 entry. It wasn’t a full showcase for her talents, and I thought the arrangement was kind of stale.

“Set Me Free” is a definite improvement. Eden has room to show off her vocal range and her personality, and I don’t doubt her Eurovision staging will make ample use of her fashion sense and her charisma to complete the package. I also really enjoy the arrangement. It has a great bass line and awesome funk guitar, plus those lush, writhing synth string flourishes that Israel likes to bring to Eurovision.

If I am going to be picky, I will add that the song feels a bit slight. It’s a fizzy pop confection and a great summer radio banger. It does stick in my head for a goodly amount of time after listening to it. But then a certain Lithuanian contender gradually washes it away like a sand castle at high tide, and that makes me wonder if “Set Me Free” has staying power.

Still, it’s a really fun song, and I am looking forward to seeing what Eden and her team bring to Rotterdam (or wherever she has to give her performance; the EBU is still working that out).

Israel’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

We have been following news of which artists have agreed to come back to Eurovision next year after this year’s cancellation. We figure all of the internal selections will be asked to go again, but we feel for artists who qualified through national finals. Countries like Sweden, Estonia, and Denmark have their big selection shows, and the best this year’s winners can hope for is a chance to do it all over again next year.

So when Israel announced Eden Alene was coming back in 2021, we were relieved. HaKokhav HaBa is fun and all, but we really wanted Eden to have her chance.

Eden Alene is the Jerusalem-born daughter of Ethiopian immigrants. She won X Factor Israel in 2018. Her song “Feker Libi” was written by Doron Medalie and Idan Raichel. Doran wrote “Golden Boy,” “Made of Stars,” and the 2018 Eurovision winner “Toy.” Idan is a musician known for infusing electronica with Arabic, Ethiopian, Hebrew, and Amharic influences and lyrics.

“Feker Libi” is fun and energetic, but we didn’t get too excited about it. It comes down to the orchestration, which we found a bit hokey. We wanted something a bit edgier musically, and the music felt a bit too sunny.

Vocally, Eden has a lot to sink her teeth into and as good as she sounded, her artistic voice got lost in the staging. She seemed like she was still getting comfortable with the choreography during her HaKokhav HaBa performance, which muted her charisma a bit.

Looking ahead to next year, we hope Israel teams Eden up with the same songwriting team. Doran and Idan have a lot of potential together that we don’t think they fully tapped here. We want them to get a second chance to give us something special.

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.

Israel’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Israel is in it to win it this year. Here’s Netta Barzilai with “Toy.”

Netta Barzilai is a 25-year old singer who, prior to appearing on Israel’s national selection show The Next Star for Eurovision 2018, was primarily in the performance arts space. Her signature style is improvisational singing and working with a looper. In 2016, she toured with Israel’s prestigious Batsheva Dance Company, which merged her improvisational vocals with dance.

There’s been speculation about whether the EBU will permit Netta to use her looper in a live performance, but our take is that if the EBU allowed Norway and JOWST to use synthesized vocals last year, then it seems unlikely this will be an issue.

“Toy” is co-written by Doron Medalie, Israel’s pop Svengali who was the creative force behind 2015’s “Golden Boy” and 2016’s “Made of Stars.” As a pop song, “Toy” is every bit as good as these successes that preceded it.  The chorus “I’m not your toy/You stupid boy” hooks us, and the arrangement has that distinctive Tel Aviv sound.

Netta’s genius is that she has taken “Toy,” with all of Doron’s style and hallmarks, and made it uniquely her own. The outcome elevates Doron’s raw material and provides Netta with a vehicle that has commercial appeal.

Netta is the rare, desperately needed breed of pop musician who acts—with agency—rather than reacts. Her point of view feels feminine, empowered, and confident. Contrast “Toy” with “Beauty Never Lies” from Serbia’s Bojana Stamenov. Bojana’s song was also empowering, but it was more about the process of learning to love yourself. Listening to “Toy,” you get the sense Netta is already there and has been for some time.

At the same time, Netta expresses herself in a way that isn’t threatening, marginalizing, or off-putting. She is fun: she clucks like a chicken and we laugh along with the joke (and riff off of it). To win her ticket to Eurovision, she did a medley of Kesha’s Tik Tok and Psy’s Gangnam Style. You can’t help but applaud her badassity.

Netta isn’t just likable, she’s important. There are too few examples of confident, intelligent women who can navigate the difficult cultural terrain that comes with female success. She defies the one-dimensional stereotypes of femininity (diva, big girl, sex kitten, princess, bitch, etc.), and she does it playfully, without politics or anger. We hope that Netta can be to Eurovision what Spanx was to underwear. Strong, for females by a female, and wholly transformative. Go get ’em, tiger.

Israel’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What could have made Lidia Isac’s ‘Falling Stars’ work?” Israel has the answer: let them show it Tel Aviv! Here’s IMRI with “I Feel Alive.”

Israel is on a good run of form right now, qualifying for the Grand Prix Final two years running with Hovi Star’s “Made of Stars” last year and Nadav Guedj’s glorious, glorious “Golden Boy” in 2015. As the video for “I Feel Alive” points out, IMRI was a back-up singer for both of those entries.

His song “I Feel Alive,” written by Dolev Ram and Penn Hazut, is loads of fun. If we have any concerns, it’s that high note that he barely makes in the recorded track. That could go off the rails live. Otherwise, we have high hopes that IMRI will keep Israel’s streak going this year.

Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Ides of March Edition

Beware the Ides of March, but beware the Eurovision Song Contest entries from San Marino more.

San Marino: Serhat – “I Didn’t Know”

For those of us who first came to Eurovision for the campiness, the past decade has been relatively slim pickings. Sure, you sometimes get a countertenor on a plinth or an Albanian Gumby impersonator, but most countries are increasingly taking this seriously. Fortunately, San Marino and Serhat have teamed up to offer us a slice of old school hokum that has transported us to a magical land where that strap-on monocle is an actual thing that people actually wear. We want to vacation in Manfred T. Mugler’s artistic vision. With any luck, the staging of this least self-aware miracle will live up to the amazing video. San Marino, don’t fuck this up.

UPDATED 03/21/2016: They fucked this up. Since we posted this review, San Marino decided to use the disco remix of “I Didn’t Know” as their Eurovision entry. Sadly, the original video has been scrubbed from the Eurovision YouTube playlist. Why do you got to stick it to the Manfred, San Marino?

Continue reading “Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Ides of March Edition”

Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Dita e Mësuesit Edition

It’s Teacher’s Day in Albania, and what better way to celebrate than by doing an educational post about the latest news from the Eurovision Song Contest?

Armenia: Iveta Mukuchyan – “LoveWave”

Here is a question we like to ask: what’s worse – being memorably bad or just being unmemorable? Last year’s Eurovision entry from Armenia was terrible, but this year’s entry is mediocre at best. Unless there is a staging miracle in Stockholm, we will remember “Face the Shadow” long after our memories of “LoveWave” have faded.

The Netherlands: Douwe Bob – “Slow Down”

Who would have expected that the best tribute to the late Glenn Frey comes in the form of the Netherlands’ Eurovision entry? “Slow Down” dips into a well of country-inspired mellow gold, but we don’t think it will reach the heights Netherlands achieved the last time they went down the road to Nashville.

Russia: Sergey Lazarev – “You Are the Only One”

Listening to “You Are the Only One” feels like stepping into a time machine set to 2006. If Croatia or Slovenia sent this, you’d pay it no mind, but because it’s Russia we guess we have to take it seriously. The song sounds like a brainstorming session on a corporate retreat: everyone’s throwing ideas against the wall and none of them are sticking or holding together. On the bright side, at least it’s not another pandering plea for peace, love and unicorns.

Estonia: Jüri Pootsmann – “Play”

Stig Rästa has finally found the ticket to success at Eesti Laul: mod pastiches of ’60s pop. He followed up last year’s duet with Elina Born by penning “Play” for Estonian dreamboat Jüri Pootsmann. Jüri may look like Anthony Edwards’ hot son, but he also possesses a rich baritone that infuses “Play” with smoldering soul.

Montenegro: Highway – “The Real Thing”

Oh man, in a rock heavy year, Highway reigns supreme with a sweet Soundgarden-influenced riff. If Georgia’s rock act is a bit too impenetrable, Romania’s rock act is a bit too pretentious, and Cyprus’ rock act is a bit too slick, then Montenegro’s rock act is the total package. This is Chris’ favorite song of the competition so far.

Israel: Hovi Star – “Made of Stars”

Hovi Star won Israel’s Rising Star competition, but Israel’s delegation is apparently planning to rework the song. We’re going to hold off commenting on it until the official version is ready.

Macedonia: Kaliopi – “Dona”

Kaliopi returns to Eurovision to represent Macedonia with the big ballad “Dona.” It’s a better song than her previous effort “Crno i Belo,” although it lacks a certain something to make it memorable. Still, we’re happy she’s back, if only because she’s entertaining in the press center.

Poland: Michał Szpak – “Color of Your Life”

Everyone on the internet expected Margaret to win Poland’s Eurovision selection show with “Cool Me Down.” That was before Margaret gave an indifferent performance of her Rihanna knock-off on Krajowe Eliminacje do Eurowizji 2016. That was also before Michał Szpak stared straight into our eyes and peered deep into our soul. “Color of Your Life” is a forgettable show tune, but Michał sold it to the voting public, forcing thousands of Eurovision fans to tear up their Warsaw 2017 travel plans.

Romania: Ovidiu Anton – “Moment of Silence”

Sadly, Ovidiu’s chance to rock Stockholm was taken away from him when the EBU booted Romania from the Eurovision Song Contest because of unpaid debts.

The most epic result of the weekend had to be Ovidiu Anton’s triumph at Selecţia Naţionala. Neither Ovidiu or the presenters could stress enough how much he liked to rock, and boy does he, in the most prog-heavy way possible. “Moment of Silence” is utterly ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining.

For further reading, see Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Savatage, and Tenacious D. See also: Ovidiu’s entry from 2015, which made our annual WTF post.

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Israel’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Nadav Guedj will represent Israel in Vienna with “Golden Boy” and we could not be happier about it!

I cannot even begin to tell you how much this song delights us. It is catchy, a bit silly, and wildly entertaining. Plus, before Nadav leaves, he’s gonna show us Tel Aviv! It will be a short tour, though, because as he says, “OK we gotta go. Three minutes. Bye bye!”

“Golden Boy” starts off as a ballad, the way Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” does. Then it kicks in and becomes a pop R&B number. And then the chorus goes all Mediterreanean dance, which ties the intro and the verse together with a tidy golden bow. It is an absolute blast.

Doron Medalie is the creative force behind the song. He is a music insider who sat on last year’s Israeli jury and was previously involved with Israel’s 2008, 2010, and 2013 Eurovision efforts. (In other words, he let Moran Mazor wear that dress.) He wrote the song and lyrics to “Golden Boy” and did a lot of the press when Israel announced their choice. “Golden Boy” is Israel’s first entry to be sung entirely in English, and until we hear otherwise we’ll assume he had a hand in that decision.

Nadav is just 16 years old. I was a bit surprised to see how young he was, but watching the video, I can believe it. He performs with a youthful exuberance and without any sort of self-consciousness. He is incredibly green: he won הכוכב הבא (Rising Star), a talent show in the Idol vein, so there is a good chance the hugeness of Eurovision could overwhelm him. On the other hand, he does have some experienced support behind him thanks to Doron’s involvement. Hopefully Nadav just goes out there and shows as much joy as he does in the video for “Golden Boy.” Then he is going to earn that self-proclaimed title King of Fun.

Israel’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

Israel’s 2014 Song for Europe will be Mei Finegold and “Same Heart.” Finegold was picked by the Israeli broadcaster IBA, and the song received 55% of the public vote during Israel’s selection show.

There was some internal controversy about the song’s selection. Israel’s rules state that their Eurovision entry must have at least 50% Hebrew lyrics.  “Same Heart” is a tad shy in that respect, and the writers of one of the losing songs called for its disqualification. Regardless, IBA has given “Same Heart” the pass. The language rule, in our opinion, does the song a disservice.  The Hebrew middle section doesn’t feel internally motivated. It’s just there because it has to be.  Frankly, “Same Heart” would work better if it was all in one language.

“Same Heart” is a tough song for us to critique: a two-and-a-half star song. We can praise good songs to the skies and tear bad songs to shreds. But competent songs don’t provoke any emotions in us. They’re not bad, per se, but they don’t wow us either. As technically good as “Same Heart” is, it lacks a visceral “it” factor to make it stand out from the pack.

Part of the problem may be the clinical treatment the song was given in the studio. We have been unable to find a live performance, so we’re relying on the recorded version of “Same Heart” for our assessment. While Finegold’s earthy alto is a good fit for this gritty rock song, her vocal is too deliberate. In a song that’s as emotional as this – “Same Heart” is an angry song – Finegold’s recording leaves us cold. We could chalk this up as an artifact of seeking the perfect vocal in a sterile studio setting. If Finegold brings some dynamism and abandon to her performance in Copenhagen, then “Same Heart” could come to life.

But we have a sneaking suspicion that Finegold is a cautious performer live. She finished third in Kochav Nolad, Isarel’s Pop Idol equivalent. Looking at clips of her performances on the show, we see that same inhibited approach to performing that we hear on “Same Heart.” Since her stint on Kochav Nolad, Finegold has been in the theater world. In 2012, she won the Israel Theater Prize for best supporting actress for a revival of the musical Kazablan. We’re not sure if that background will help her or hinder her. Will she bring theatricality, or will she come off as being a bit too self-conscious trying to sell a song with a rock edge?