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!

North Macedonia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

The views I present as I discuss North Macedonia’s participation in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest do not necessarily represent those of my employers.

Vasil opens up the video for his song for Europe “Here I Stand” talking about the fate of Eurovision 2020, saying, “When the Contest was cancelled last year, I was devastated. Dreams, gone.”

One year later, he finding himself on the cusp of losing that dream again.

Vasil recorded the official video for “Here I Stand” in a museum, and one of the pieces of art depicted colors resembling the flag of Bulgaria. This led to much criticism in North Macedonia for representing another country’s flag in the video. MRT, North Macedonia’s national broadcaster, released a recut video to remove the offending shot.

The criticism intensified as an old interview Vasil did with wiwiblogs began to recirculate. In it, he discusses how he has both North Macedonian and Bulgarian citizenship because he grew up close to the border. The question was raised of whether Vasil was North Macedonian enough to represent North Macedonia, and you know how well things go when a question like that comes up.

On top of that, Vasil has been receiving such intense nationalistic and homophobic abuse on his social media accounts that the newspaper Nova Makedonija described it as “јавен линч и говор на омраза,” which translates as “a public lynching and hate speech.”

In this environment, MRT announced on March 16, 2021:

“Macedonian Radio Television has established an internal commission to review and analyse all aspects arising from public reactions related to the Eurovision Song Contest. The public service broadcaster will also take into account the obligations noted in the participation license, as well as the obligations arising from the membership in the European Broadcasting Union, where MRT is an integral part of the public service association in the European Union. The public will be additionally informed about the final decision of MRT.”

This statement does not indicate if MRT is thinking of pulling out of the Song Contest just a few days after the Eurovision heads of delegation meeting, in which the final versions of each country’s entries are due. And yet it is easy to assume, based on the fact that MRT even announced this, that they are thinking of bowing to the pressure.

It’s bizarre to me that MRT would get cold feet over Vasil now, after supporting him for over a year and at a time where he would need support from his delegation the most. It’s one thing for Alyaksandr Lukashenka to stick up for Galasy ZMesta when their song that supports his strong-arm tactics against protesters was rejected by the EBU. It’s another for a broadcaster to consider throwing their own artist to the wolves when the question of his national worthiness is being raised.

When they rejected Belarus’s Eurovision entry, the EBU said in their statement that “recent reactions to the proposed entry risk bringing the reputation of the ESC into disrepute.” If they think that about the response to “Ya Nauchu Tebya (I’ll Teach You),” then what is their take on this?

When I first heard “Here I Stand,” I thought to myself, “That’s a nice song. Probably not going to make waves at Eurovision, but it’s the type of song I had wanted Vasil to send all along.” Now, hearing a deeply personal song called “Here I Stand” in context of what he is going through right now, it suddenly takes on a lot more power. I really hope his dream comes true.

Updated (23 March 2021): MRT concluded its internal review of “Here I Stand” and have backed Vasil as North Macedonia’s Eurovision representative. Whew!

North Macedonia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

We have been accused in the past of being Eurovision snobs that have no appreciation of camp and of being Eurovision scows that only care about the trashier side of the Song Contest. We aren’t ashamed to be either of those things because Eurovision wouldn’t be the same if one was missing in favor of the other.

But sometimes our Song Contest duality means that we don’t give certain songs a fair shake because we wanted something else from the artist. They are just doing what they think will work in their repertoire and in the context of a music competition. And here we are judging them using a very arbitrary reason.

Which brings us to Vasil and “You.”

Vasil Garvanliev is a classically trained singer who was a soloist in the Chicago Children’s Choir when he was 12. He studied in the University of Toronto Opera School and the Royal Conservatory of Music Glenn Gould and has performed in operas around the world. But he also has a pop background, starting his performance career when he was seven. He was one of the backing singers for Tamara Todevska at last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, where she totally won the jury vote.

So we’ve got a singer here who can work in both pop and classical vocal styles. When we learned this, we had it in our heads that Vasil was going to be Jacques Houdek 2.0. We wanted that so bad.

Now, this is not a sensible expectation to have. Vasil, wisely, chose to work in his pop voice. Obviously, he was going to do that. Which makes us ask if our disappointment in “You” lies in the intrinsic quality of the song or our unrealistic idea of what it should be.

The answer probably lies in the middle. “You” is an odd song for Eurovision. It’s tango-flecked electronic dance pop that sounds intimate and sensual. Vasil’s vocal is restrained and measured, giving us glimpses of his range without going over the top. We think it would have struggled to qualify for the Grand Final because, well, it’s just not flashy enough. North Macedonia didn’t need to go the full “My Friend,” but we still wish they had been a little less subtle. Maybe that’s an unfair expectation, but there is something to be said for standing out.

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.

Macedonia’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Eye Cue are going all over the place, including Lisbon!

Singer Marija Ivanovska and singer and guitarist Bojan Trajkovski formed Eye Cue in 2007. Their single “Not This Time” was one of the top 20 videos on MTV Adria in 2010 and they have since gone on to have several top 10 singles in the Balkans. They won Skopje Fest in 2015 with their song “Ubava.”

“Lost and Found” starts off as a pop rock single then slides into a ska song then goes back to the pop rock song then jumps into a U2-via-Coldplay song before leaping into a dance single. It’s, like, how many more genres could this have? And the answer is none. None more genres.

We listen to each entry a few times as we’re reviewing them and sometimes songs get better the more we listen to them (which is usually a problem for songs that have one shot at Eurovision audiences). Other songs end up just filling us with dread. You can guess which camp “Lost and Found” falls into.

Macedonia’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Jana Burčeska will sing “Dance Alone” on stage with up to five other performers at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Burčeska finished fifth on Macedonian Idol (which featured Kaliopi as one of the judges). Since the start of her career, she has been heavily involved with charity work, serving as a UNICEF Ambassador and working with USAID and the Macedonian Red Cross. “Dance Alone” was co-written by Joacim Bo Persson and Borislav Milanov (working as Bobi-Leon Milanov) of “If Love Was a Crime” fame, along with Alex Omar and Florence A.

We really enjoy “Dance Alone.” It is what Madonna would have sounded like if she had gone in more of new wave direction at the start of her career. It is retro without sounding stale. (Insert dig on San Marino’s entry here.)

While it’s tailor-made to get folks in the Euroclub moving, we are still worried about its chances to get out of the second Semi. Singers of dance club anthems sometimes struggle to translate the energy of the recorded track to a live performance without getting shouty or going off-pitch. Burčeska may be a strong enough performer to handle the transition, but adding to her problems, she’s going third, so we’re afraid she may get lost in the shuffle at the end of the night.

We’re still going to crank “Dance Along” in the car, though.

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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Macedonia’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

While Eurofans are gearing up for this weekend’s Junior Eurovision Song Contest in Malta, people in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia selected their representative at the next Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna. Here is Daniel Kajmakoski with “Lisja esenski”:

It’s not bad, right? It has simple melodies that Kajmakoski can riff off of, and it has a big chorus for him to sell. It also has a well-constructed arrangement that gives the stage producers marks to build around. (I fear there is going to be a fire curtain to punctuate that pause between the verse and the chorus.)

Kajmakoski has an amiable voice and some brooding charisma, but his performance was punctuated by a lot of unfocused movement. I was distracted by all of the hand gestures, lip licking, looks around the stage, rock star posing, and occasional dance moves. (Although, to be fair, if you wear yellow shoes, you have to show them off.) Goodness knows he has plenty of time to reign in that ragged energy so he can deliver a smooth performance in Vienna.

We’ve been following Eurovision closely long enough now to tell that “Lisja esenski” is not going to be one of those tracks we listen to obsessively. It’s pleasant, but it doesn’t excite us.

FYR Macedonia’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

In an internal selection, Macedonia has announced that their representative will be Tijana Dapčević with “To the sky.”

Thank goodness she is going to sing live, because her lip-sync skills in this video leave something to be desired. But I wouldn’t rush to conclusions about her Eurovision prospects based on this performance alone. The song presentation showed us nothing in the way of performance, and this is the kind of number that needs packaging. Tijana is an established recording artist, and a review of her back catalog shows an experienced, polished performer. Her career has primarily been in Serbia, but she is also known more widely in the Balkans.

As for the song, “To the sky” is disposable dance club candy. You enjoy it while it’s there, but it’s not particularly memorable. It’s fine, but whatever.  The DJ is going to need dance music to delight fanboys at the Euroclub. Good Macedonia, always helps.

FYR Macedonia’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

FYR Macedonia originally presented “Imperija” as their 2013 Eurovision entry. Apparently, reaction to Esma & Lozano’s effort was so toxic that the Macedonian delegation withdrew it, and they’ve replaced it with “Pred Da Se Razdeni.”

“Pred Da Se Radzdeni” is a vast improvement over “Imperija.” It follows a Balkan pop template at first, but Esma enters and brings an ethereal quality to the song that I find very effective. Lozano is a bit bland, but he’s a good singer, and carries “Pred Da Se Radzdeni” well. I don’t think this is going to one of those songs that I seek out when looking for Eurovision tracks to listen too, but it’s certainly one that I won’t mind hearing when it comes on. I am looking forward to seeing how they stage it.