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!

Lithuania’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

I was really annoyed that Lithuania didn’t immediately invite The Roop back to Eurovision after last year’s Song Contest was cancelled. Alongside Iceland’s Daði og Gagnamagnið and Russia’s Little Big, The Roop was one of the biggest buzz acts during the 2020 national final season, and I thought that they deserved more than just an automatic place in the Pabandom iš naujo! final.

I guess everyone in Lithuania thought so too, because The Roop absolutely crushed their competition. They received 74,512 televotes, more than six times the votes for the other five acts in the final combined. Oh yes, we all want you to go to Rotterdam!

Singer Vaidotas Valiukevičius, percussionist Robertas Baranauskas, and guitarist Mantas Banišauskas formed The Roop in 2014. They had two Lithuanian top 100 albums and one previous national final appearance to their name when they competed in last year’s Pabandom iš naujo! On Fire” was an immediate hit, topping the Lithuanian singles charts and boosting Lithuania to the top of the betting odds for a spell.

It is very difficult to regenerate that level of hype, but I’ll be darned if they haven’t done their absolute best. They are back at the top of the betting odds as of this writing (albeit without a lot of set competition this early in the season), and it’s easy to see why.

“Discoteque” is ridiculously catchy: I had the chorus in my head all day after my first listen, and I had only listened to it once. I wasn’t mad.

The lyrics “Discoteque” seem to be about both having self-confidence and embracing life in the face of a pandemic that has kept us confined in our homes. What better way to relieve tension than dancing like a lunatic around the living room?

Bringing back dancers Miglė Praniauskaitė & Marijanas Staniulėnas is not only a nice thing to do (from a 2020-was-cancelled perspective), but a stroke of genius. Vaidotas has upped the ante on his dance moves, and Miglė and Marijanas help carry the live performance even further.

Is it all basically the same thing The Roop did last year? Sure, to a certain extent. It will probably be new to a lot of people who only tune into Eurovision once a year, but it may bore folks who remember last year’s entry. I think it is fresh enough that any similarities to their previous effort aren’t detrimental, though.

What I like the most about “Discoteque” is that Vaidotas is dancing along that fine line between not taking himself too seriously and taking himself way too seriously without ever falling. He is loose-limbed, personable, and entertaining, and his whole performance is like a little wink to everyone. The message is clear: fun is serious business. I’m a big fan of that.

Lithuania’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

An admission: When we first saw The Roop’s “On Fire” in heat three of Pabandom iš naujo!, our son Kieran and I looked at each other confused. What is this, and why is Stanley Tucci doing performance art in Lithuania?

But Jen understood that The Roop had created a moment, and declared that they were going to win.

Because Jen gets this Eurovision thing.

There is so much that we could criticize here. Vocalist Vaidotas Valiukevičius over-enunciates his vocals: “But there’s fire in my SOOOuuuuullll.” He and the back-up dancers emote something fierce. And The Roop rhymed “fire” with “desire,” one of the venial sins of Eurovision.

But here’s the thing: it just works. Do you think rhyming “fire” with “desire” is cliché? The Roop are going to show you that no other lyric will do. “On Fire” is about having confidence to move forward and overcoming self-doubt. So when the world is your desire, you’re going to feel like you’re on fire. It’s a fact.

Do you think the choreography is wacky? Well, The Roop are going to commit to it so hard you are going to dance along by the end. It’s the perfect choreography for the sparkling synth melody they are dancing too. Plus it takes full advantage of Vaidotas’ limbiness: if you’ve got long fingers and arms like that, you gotta flaunt them.

As we said at the top, The Roop created a moment at Pabandom iš naujo! They overwhelmingly won both the televote and the jury vote because Lithuania sensed they had captured lightning in a bottle. Regardless of whether or not you buy into “On Fire,” you’re going to remember it. The next time Sweden hosts Eurovision, Petra Mede and Måns Zelmerlöw are going to be doing that dance in the updated version of “Love, Love, Peace, Peace.”

We’re already exited to see our Eurovision party’s reaction to this one. And we’re also looking forward to blasting it when we’re feeling low. The Roop accomplished what they set out to do, and we’re on board.

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.

Lithuania’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Aw, Ieva’s in love!

Ieva Zasimauskaitė has competed on Lietuvos balsas, the Lithuanian version of The Voice, and participated in four previous Lithuanian national finals for Eurovision. She also was a member of the Kanunas Choir when it won the Lithuanian version of Clash of the Choirs. Her song “When We’re Old” is by Vytautas Bikus, who wrote Lithuania’s 2015 entry “This Time.”

“When We’re Old” is very gentle and its lyrics are very sweet, bordering on cloying. That said, Ieva gives it such weight that it’s hard to believe she didn’t write it herself for her husband, basketball player Marius Kiltinavičius, who shows up in the official video and the national final staging. If he comes to Lisbon, he and Ieva may be competing with Spain’s Alfred and Amaia for Eurovision’s most insufferably adorable straight couple.

Ieva’s voice sounds like a cross between Ellie Goulding and Dolores O’Riordan. She is quite good, although her lower register is a bit milky. Our main concern is that her song may be a bit too gentle to make an impact on audiences, especially in the first half of the first Semifinal. The emotion she brings to “When We’re Old” needs to feel genuine enough to make an impact.

Lithuania’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

After a long, elaborate selection process that began sometime back in 2014, Lithuania has selected its entry for the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest. Here is Fusedmarc with “Rain of Revolution.”

Singer Viktorija Ivanovskaja and multi-instrumentalist Denisas Zujevas formed Fusedmarc in 2004. Having spent some quality time watching their concert videos on YouTube, we see “Rain of Revolution” as a more commercial extension of their edgy trip-hop style. All of which makes “Rain of Revolution” sound like a ’90s jazz-soul version of “Crazy In Love.”

Fusedmarc’s hook that makes them interesting is how they incorporate visual art into their live performances. But here’s the problem: those visual elements are already standard issue at Eurovision. So if their staging isn’t going to set them apart from the other acts, then they’re left with a song that isn’t going to stand out either.

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”

Lithuania’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Lithuania have paired up Monika Linkytė and Vaidas Baumila with “This Time”:

Lithuania’s song selection process is unconventional by European standards, a parallel selection of 12 artists and 12 songs for Europe. Typically the process of pairing the song with artist is done behind the scenes. Taking a short list of songs and artists and putting them in front of the public to match them up… it doesn’t seem like it should work.

But this year, when two competitors unexpectedly teamed up for one of the songs, Lithuania stumbled onto something good.

Monika Linkytė and Vaidas Baumila should be familiar faces to Lithuanian viewers and close Eurovision followers. This was Monika’s 5th attempt to represent Lithuania. She made the final in 2012, finishing 3rd, and she was 4th in 2014, just shy of the superfinal cut. Here is Monika singing “Attention,” last year’s Lithuanian Eurovision entry. It’s not her best work. Vaidas also competed in Lithuania’s national selection last year, and he made the finals. Here he is singing “Attention.” It’s not his best work either.

Together, however, they are a pair that commands our…ahem…attention. “This Time” is an innocent, featherweight country tune. It evokes favorable memories of entries from Malta and the Netherlands from last year. The Lithuanian organizers will need to consider choreography and packaging for Vienna – right now it’s a little messy and the song is at risk of losing its energy in the final 30 seconds. That, of course, could be an artifact of the Lithuanian selection process and how these two came together. Even so, there’s a lot here to like. Monika and Vaidas have good chemistry together, and watching them together fills us with joy. It works.

Lithuania has competed at Eurovision 15 times since 1999. Their best result was 2006, when LT United finished 6th with “We are the Winners.” That was the one and only time Lithuania finished on the left side of the leader board. Whether Lithuania matches or improves on that result with “This Time” we can’t say, but we can say we think this is Lithuania’s strongest outing since they started competing at Eurovision.

“This time I think I’m falling in love.” We think so too, Lithuania, we think so too.

Lithuania’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

In a marathon 12-show selection process, Eurovizijos embarked on a parallel journey to simultaneously identify a winning song (winnowing the selection down from 16) and pair it with a winning artist (winnowing down from 20). In the end, Lithuania’s winning combination was a singer paired with a song she wrote. Here’s Vilija Matačiūnaitė and “Attention”:

Matačiūnaitė shows a clear affinity for R&B.  You feel shades of Lil’ Mo, Kandi, and Mya in the cadence and the hypersexualized themes. There is a strong musical hook which does what it says on the label: it gets your attention. Matačiūnaitė keeps your attention through syncopated rhythm changes, not unlike R. Kelly’s work. As you can gather, it’s a contemporary sound.

Where Matačiūnaitė falls short is in the vocals. Her voice has a shrill edge and her tendency, especially on the aggressive refrain, is to shout. Her other problem is–and this is a big problem considering her favored genre–her vocals lack soul. Here is a sexy, seductive song, and all I feel is a desire for her to stop yelling at me. For this number to succeed with the Eurovision juries, she’ll need to connect her performance with the emotions that initially prompted her to write the song. In Eurovizijos it was all show.

Lithuania’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

Goddamn it, Lithuania.

You could have sent a bad-ass, Estonian-cool slice of retro ’80s pop with Gerai Gerai and Miss Sheep’s “War in the wardrobe.” You could have sent a Eurokitschy slab of Swedish pop with DAR’s “Jump!” You could even have your traditional, slightly musty but terrifically performed big Eurovision ballad with Girmantė Vaitkutė’s “Time to shine.”

Instead, you go with Andrius Pojavis’ “Something,” a Killers-esque pop-rock number sung by a charisma black hole in a ratty tuxedo and top hat desperately grabbing for whimsy with two Jabbawockeez impersonators and Isadora Duncan’s famous Angry Birds routine, all being assaulted by Lawrence Welk’s bubble machine.

Just when we thought you were getting the hang of this Eurovision thing.

I don’t know if we’re going soft, or that the quality of music has been higher than normal, but this is the third national final in a row we enjoyed. Granted, it was padded out way too much, with long commercial breaks and interminably long conversations after each performance. But there was a lot of music to like, which is why the final decision is so puzzling to us.

Look, “Something” is not bad. It starts off slowly, but has a catchy chorus. I don’t hate it, and it may even grow on me. (May.)  But it lacks the charm that we saw from so many of the other performers tonight. Lithuania has a lot of work to do to make “Something” workable on a big stage. It’s hard to make a call this early in the season, but we think this is going to struggle to get out of the semi-finals.

Goddamn it.