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.

Latvia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Let’s say you are part of the Latvian Eurovision delegation, and you are discussing your plans for the 2021 Song Contest. Last year’s Supernova winner and Eurovision scholar Samanta Tīna had finally earned her ticket on her ninth try. Do you even consider the possibility of having a national final instead of giving her a direct pass to Rotterdam? Especially when she busts into the room like this?

THE QUEEN

No, you sure as hell don’t.

Working again with Aminata, as well as with Oskars “SKVR” Uhaņs, Samanta has found a way to top the musical audacity of “Still Breathing” by a country mile. Given a second bite of the apple, she is willing to take huge risks and proudly display her confidence in her abilities as a performer and an artist.

“The Moon Is Rising” is entirely rhythmic. The beat is carried by a hiccuping vocal sample, some claps, sparse 808 drum beats, and a few percussive piano notes. There are a few musical flourishes adorning the arrangement: a guitar here, a blast of synthesized brass there. But they exist only to accentuate the vocal melody. I described “Still Breathing” last year as a song that requires a diva to sing it. “The Moon Is Rising” specifically requires Samanta Tīna to sing it.

It’s very bold, and she runs the real danger of going off the rails. I’m not worried about her ability to deliver vocally as much as I fret that she could come off as hammy instead of powerful. Then again, she has wanted this moment for so long, so maybe I shouldn’t doubt that she will make every second of that moment count.

Latvia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Well, it’s about time!

Samanta Tīna has been trying to go to the Eurovision Song Contest since 2012. She has competed in six Latvian national finals and also threw her hat into the ring for Lithuania a couple of times, too. She composed the music to “Still Breathing,” while Latvian Eurovision legend Aminata wrote the lyrics.

“Still Breathing” is intense and off-kilter. It has staccato beats and strident synthesized melodies that give us a sense of unease. Samanta’s vocal is defiant, demanding listeners to embrace her while making it clear that she doesn’t care if you do. She has found her peace and in that peace, she can be bold.

It is a diva turn cut from a different cloth than, say, last year’s jury winner “Proud.” The songwriting team for “Proud” gave Tamara Todevska a simple, spacious ballad that she could use to build her vocal. Her interpretation of the song made it powerful.

“Still Breathing,” on the other hand, is a song that requires a diva to sing it. It is a song composed for the singer and structured to be performed as written. Samanta embodies the song so much that it’s kind of amazing that Aminata was the one wrote the lyrics. It is very much Samanta’s story.

Our one worry is that there is a fine line between a bravura performance and a hammy one. Samanta danced along that line in Supernova, especially during her rap. So long as she focuses her energy and her performance, then we can make an early prediction for our Biggest Diva Performance award in May.

Latvia’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

Watching Supernova this year was like going to an ultra-hip Riga night spot. The show was packed with dance club bangers and was kept moving with an in-studio deejay. Of course, most night clubs don’t have detailed discussions about each anthem’s viability with general audiences throughout Europe, but no matter: it was our happening and it freaked us out.

Then Carousel hit the stage and we knew they were totally going to win.

Sabine Žuga and Maris Vasilievsky formed Carousel in 2015 and first gained wide exposure in Latvia this December at the annual Pasaka ziemā concert, which had a promo video that featured “That Night.” The pair participated in last year’s Supernova as well: Maris co-wrote Ritvar’s entry “Who’s Counting,” which featured Sabine on backing vocals.

“That Night” is a moody, country-tinged ballad with aching lyrics and melodies full of longing. The staging featured a black and white filter with splashes with color that we’ve seen a few times this Eurovision season (Alekss Silvers even did it in the first Supernova semifinal), but Carousel’s use was subtle and effective. Sabine is a striking and telegenic performer who can draw viewers in.

Going last at Supernova felt like a distinct advantage for the duo. Save for a moment featuring a charming madman in a kilt, there had been a particular sameness to the choices on offer to Latvia. Carousel’s song and performance stood out, as did their stillness. It felt like they were in control of the evening

We’re saying a lot of nice things here, because on paper and in context of Supernova, this is a solid entry. But it doesn’t really wow us. If we were in Nashville attending a show at the Bluebird, we’d dig it. Sitting in the first half of the draw in the second Semi and at the mercy of the producer’s running order selection? We’re less confident it will grab people’s attention.

But we hesitate to count them out. Who knows what they will be up against on the night? We wouldn’t be surprised if they snag a Saturday night performance.

Latvia’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Generally, we try to be level-headed and even-handed when we review songs. But sometimes we have to throw all that out the window, because a song comes along that infuses us with seething, irrational rage. Let’s talk about Laura Rizzotto and “Funny Girl.”

What is this? It’s vaguely bluesy, sung by someone who wants to be Alicia Keys, except that she’s not. She brings nothing to “Funny Girl,” no soul, no heartache, nothing. To that point, we don’t have any interest in her back story because she’s given us so little to react to. What results is jazzy in a cabaret sort of way, which means it completely lacks depth. It’s all artifice. That she wrote this for herself boggles the mind because it sounds like a dated song picked out of the back of a record label’s dusty old file cabinet so she could audition for a Broadway show.

And the arrangement is horrible. It’s plodding and dull and it mistakes empty space for deepness. It’s boring and repetitive. It’s awful. Awful.

Latvia’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Triana Park won Supernova 2017 and head to the Eurovision Song Contest with their song “Line.”

Triana Park is a rock quartet presently made up of vocalist Agnese Rakovska, guitarist Artūrs Strautiņš, drummer Edgars Viļums, and bassist Kristaps Ērglis. They made five previous attempts to represent Latvia at Eurovision between 2009-2012, although they had to pull out of the 2011 Latvian national final after Rakovska got sick. “Line” was written by Rakvska and Ērglis with Kristians Rakovskis.

Going through Triana Park’s previous entries in Eirodziesma (the Latvian national final format that preceded Supernova), it’s clear that Triana Park has always had a knack for visuals. Their costuming and staging were usually flamboyant and striking. Given what Latvia ultimately voted through during that time period, you have to wonder where Triana Park was lacking. What for, Latvia? What for?

Perhaps the Supernova format that came into place in 2015 was better set up to bring an act like Triana Park through. Moreover, “Line” is a little more accessible as a pop song than their previous entries. We call them a rock band, but their song is an electronic pop entry. We like “Line,” to be sure, but Triana Park definitely smoothed out the rough edges that they had on display before. They will stand out to audiences watching the first Semi, although we contend those audiences tend to vote more conservatively. So whether their uniqueness is an asset or a detriment remains to be seen. But maybe for Triana Park, just getting to the big dance will be enough.

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”

Latvia’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Aminata has been selected to represent Latvia at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with her song “Love Injected”:

Aminata is no stranger to Latvian television, having participated in three different shows in her teens. She also was back-up singer for Jānis Stībelis when he entered “Let It Be Me” into Eirodziesma 2011. She finished fifth in last year’s Dziesma with her song “I Can Breathe.”

“Love Injected” is not just a big step forward for Aminata as a songwriter, but for Latvia, which sent the charmlessly amateurish “Cake to Bake” last year. It is sparse and sultry, with a great big burst of a chorus. It wouldn’t be out of place on SomaFM’s Lush station.

We liked Aminata immediately, but we were not into “Love Injected” at first. But the more we listen to it, the more we like it. And that brings us to our one concern. One hard and fast rule of Eurovision is that an entry needs to land an immediate impact to qualify for the Finals. Our fear is that “Love Injected” is a grower, a song that needs to creep slowly into your soul. (Think “Siren” by Malcom Lincoln.)

We hope that we’re wrong and Aminata carries Latvia to the Final. At the very least, “Love Injected” joins the ranks of songs that are too cool for Eurovision.

Latvia’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

Latvia has done what Latvia does, and voted to send Aarzemnieki’s “Cake To Bake” to Eurovision:

Aarzemnieki’s attempt at comedic whimsy comes off as forced and insincere, and their aggressively amateurish performance wears thin within seconds. Of course, the last time Latvia sent something this lame, it qualified for the Final, so who am I to judge?

“Cake to Bake,” I watched “Cheesecake.” I enjoyed “Cheesecake.” “Cheesecake” is a quiet favorite of mine. “Cake to Bake,” you’re no “Cheesecake.”

Latvia’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

Latvia will be sending pop/hip hop group PeR (that’s short for Please Explain the Rhythm) to Malmö with “Here we go.”

Leave it Latvia to not take themselves too seriously. When Latvia’s choices veer toward the amateur we’ve not been fans. But when Latvia finds a professional act that is still quirky and lighthearted, then color us very pleased indeed. Such as when we consume a lovely goat cheese with finely diced red peppers on a cracker with seeds.  It’s cheese, but elevated.

“Here we go” is fun. It makes us laugh. It has what is possibly the Best. Eurovision. Pop. Culture. Reference. Evar: “I’m like the man on the moon. Call me Andy Kaufman.” And how can anyone hate on (competent) beatboxing?

Here is a song that could benefit from this year’s new rule change that allows the Malmö producers to set the song order. This is a fantastic song to open a show.  And it could happen, because Latvia has been drawn in the 1st half of the 2nd Semi.  But wherever it lands and whatever its fate, expect us to be jumping around the room on that Thursday night having a fine old time.

Other lingering thoughts:

  • Samanta Tina, poor dear, got edged out again.  If we had it our way, we would have sent her to Baku last year instead of Anmary. This year she went in with the solo ballad, “I need a hero.”  When the public voting closed in the superfinal, she was behind by only 100 votes. But the truth is the ballad simply wasn’t strong, especially when directly compared against “Kuula,” which Ott Lepland performed while the votes were being tallied.
  • We were digging the snaps during Marta Ritova’s “I am who I am.”
  • PeR was in the uncomfortable position of having two songs in the final, thus running the possibility of splitting their own votes. “Sad Trumpet” is not a bad song but too atmospheric and sincere to be a good fit at Eurovision.  It finished last.  Such a sad sad trumpet.
  • Anmary performed a new song while organizers were tallying votes.  She sounded good, but hot damn, if she had shown that much cleavage at Eurovision last year Latvia might have fared better.
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