The Eurovision Seal of Approval: Grab the Moment

Every year, there seems to be one Eurovision entry that pleasantly surprises me when it finishes well. It’s usually a song that speaks to me on some deep  level, so I have a hard time thinking that anyone else is going to dig it as much as I do.

The perfect example of what I mean? JOWST’s “Grab the Moment.”

It stood out in the 2017 Melodi Grand Prix: When I first heard it, I knew it was going to win the Norwegian national final. Even so, I didn’t necessarily rate it highly as a Eurovision entry at first, as reflected in the review Jen wrote on the site.

During the period between national final season and the Song Contest, however, our opinions on “Grab the Moment” changed. The more we listened to it, the more we liked it. We found ourselves rooting for it to do well, even though we thought that the juries and televoters were not going to rate it. We were genuinely happy it qualified for the Grand Final, and we were over the moon that it finished 10th place overall.

Why were we so convinced that no one else was going to get “Grab the Moment?” Because it had to grow on us before we could appreciate it. We usually think songs need to land an immediate impact in order to do well. In our minds, growers always suffer.

It’s such a cool, unassuming song. Sure there are some flashy parts as presented: JOWST’s Lite Brite helmet, the song’s vocal effects, the staging’s visual effects. But overall, “Grab the Moment” lives up to its lyrics about keeping yourself calm and getting that good vibe buzzing. Aleksander Walmann’s vocal is so smooth and mellow that he easily captures the mood of the song. Yet he still projects the confidence over the adversity “Grab the Moment” is addressing.

And on a personal note, “Grab the Moment” is a close-to-perfect song about managing anxiety. It’s not flawless: I don’t want to kill that voice in my head so much as I want to learn how to calm it down. Otherwise, the lyrics sum up what goes through my head on a day to day basis so wonderfully that I wish I had written them myself.

I’m quiet in a corner seeking action
I wanna be bold, but I’m only getting old
I need to stop drowning in distractions

“Grab the Moment” is an anthem for me, even if it’s not anthemic. That enough people appreciated it to get it a top 10 finish in the 2017 Grand Final makes me feel like I’m not alone. And that’s as good a reason to love as song as I can think of.

The Eurovision Lemur Seal of Approval: Blackbird

What does it say about me that two of my favorite Eurovision songs are two of the bleakest ones to ever appear in the Song Contest?

“Birds” and “Blackbird” are similar in that they both capture the heartbreak at the end of a relationship and they both are lushly orchestrated. But while “Birds” is more extroverted and melodramatic, “Blackbird” is more introverted and sullen. It is all painful longing.

Even though “Blackbird” makes “Gloomy Sunday” sound like a Vengaboys romp, I was still shocked when it didn’t qualify for the Grand Final 2017. I am usually good at whipping up possible explanations for why a certain song did not qualify out of a Semifinal. The singer wasn’t strong enough, the song wasn’t strong enough, the staging disaster was a disaster, and so forth. To this day, the only guess I have as to why Norma Jean’s “Blackbird” didn’t qualify is that it was just way too sad.

Despite that, I find a lot to adore about it. The arrangement is sumptuous and ambient. The synthesizer melodies lend an ethereal quality, yet also provide a solid ground to build upon. Lasse Pirrainen’s arpeggiated piano solo feels like icy rain on the face, and the swelling strings at the end of his solo feel like the chill you get when you walk inside soaking wet.

Leena Tirronen’s vocal gives me goosebumps every time I hear “Blackbird.” Her vocal tone is as smooth as the orchestrations. She imbues her song with a lingering ache, yet she is also able to make it soar. It’s emotional while still feeling restrained, which just adds to the feeling of sorrow.

One of the things that draws me to particular songs is the feeling of catharsis that I get when I listen to them. Even though “Blackbird” is lyrically downbeat, it envelopes me like a hug at the end of a rough day. Sometimes I can relate to the emotions being expressed, and when the song is over, I feel a sense of relief that I worked through those emotions. And sometimes I just want to hear an exquisite, lilting song and feel it tug on my heartstrings. Norma John’s song gives me that experience time and again.

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!

Norway’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

I heaped a lot of scorn onto Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix format last year, so  I was a bit skeptical when they kept the same format for this year. But I have to admit that the 2021 edition of MGP was an absolute blast. I even liked the second chance show, probably because I was the only Eurovision fan who seemed to like Jorn’s “Faith Bloody Faith” and also still uses Skype.

And MGP’s overall result isn’t too shabby either.

Andreas “TIX” Haukeland is a pop star who, before “Fallen Angel,” already had 11 top five hits in the Norwegian singles charts, including the number one hits “Jeg vil ikke leve,””Kaller på deg,” and “Karantene.” He also co-wrote Ava Max’s “Sweet but Psycho” and Flo Rida’s “Game Time.” TIX’s stage name references his Tourette syndrome and he has been open about addressing mental health stigmas.

I’ll start with the demerits. “Fallen Angel” is overproduced to a fault. There are so many overdubs and so many random noises punctuating the song. The arrangement is thick and ornate and over the top. TIX’s stage picture at MGP only underlines that.

But you know what? It bloody works. Underneath all that rococo bling is an charmingly achy love song full of melancholy melodies that flow together beautifully. The lyrics to “Fallen Angel” remind me of ’80s hair metal ballads, yet TIX seems to be able to infuse them with a forlorn sincerity.

I haven’t been talking about staging in my reviews thus far, but knowing that TIX has already filmed his live-on-tape version for Scenario C/D allows me to unzip my lips a bit. As ridiculous as the angel wings are, this is Eurovision and TIX knows it. Go big or go home. The demonic backing dancers provide effective movement and striking imagery that make up for the fact that TIX stands in place the entire time.

Were there better songs at MGP? Sure, although my pick for better songs is probably not the same as yours. But no other entry offered the total package that TIX did, and his tearful reaction to winning showed how much he wanted this. I’m happy he’s a part of the Eurovision family now.

Norway’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Sometimes it’s not the journey, it’s the destination.

Ulrikke Brandstorp competed on the 2013 edition of Norwegian Idol and was runner up on the 2018 edition of Stjernekamp. She finished fourth in the 2017 Melodi Grand Prix with “Places.” She also played Liesl in a production of The Sound of Music. She co-wrote her song “Attention” with Christian Ingebrigtsen from A1 and Mørland, who represented Norway in 2015 alongside Debrah Scarlett with “A Monster Like Me.”

The moment I heard “Attention” during MPG’s fourth heat, I knew that it was going to win (and I’m still kicking myself for not proclaiming that on our Twitter account). It’s a gorgeous ballad, beautifully orchestrated and terrifically performed by Ulrikke. Her control throughout the song is remarkable, restraining her emotions when she needs to and unleashing them for maximum effect.

What impressed us the most is how well “Attention” is constructed. The orchestration is gentle and sparse at the start, and it barely swells for the first chorus. When it gets to the second chorus, “Attention” goes big, with subtle choral backing vocals emphasizing the big notes that Ulrikke belts out. We thought, “Well, they kind of went too big too early. Where do they go from here?”

Well, they go a quiet space for the bridge, a brief piano interlude which reloads the emotional rocket launcher. For the third chorus, the pyrotechnics are unleashed, both literally and vocally. It gives us chills, even though we are normally fire curtain cynics at this point.

If we want to nitpick, we’ll point that it’s a downbeat song that makes Hooverphonic’s “Release Me” sound like “Walking On Sunshine.” (It is a Mørland song, after all.) But damn, does Ulrikke make desperation sound great!

Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix was a hot mess this year for a variety of reasons. We’re not going to cover that here because that will be long forgotten come May. (Then we’ll remember it in June so we can write our 2020 WTF post.) For right now we’re just happy that in the end, the right song won.

Norway’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

This isn’t a dream! This is really happening!

KEiiNO is a pop group who formed to perform “Spirit In the Sky” at Melodi Grand Prix. Tom Hugo is a singer-songwriter who had a top 20 single on the Norwegian singles chart in 2012 with “Open Up Your Eyes.” He wrote “Spirit In the Sky” with his husband Alex Olsson, then recruited Alexandra Rotan and Fred Buljo to form the band. Alexandra teamed up with Stella Mwangi for MGP in 2018 to perform “You Got Me,” while Fred is a member of the Sami rap group Duolva Duottar that competed on the 2008 edition of Norske Talenter. The band took its name from Fred’s hometown of Kautokeino.

This is not good. It’s not. It is generic schlager gussied up with some joik singing to give it gravitas. The lyrics are bland aphorisms tricked out with folk tropes. It gives into every mawkish instinct with a straight face. Then there’s the official video, which is irrepressibly cheesy.

Needless to say, we love it. “Spirit In the Sky” is ridiculously catchy and KEiiNO’s earnestness makes it both more compelling and more kitschy in a way that bring us joy.

We will always defend the Eurovision Song Contest to any casual viewer who pokes fun at its hokey excesses and only tune in for the next Nicole and Hugo. On the other hand, Eurovision’s campiness is what sent us down this rabbit hole in the first place. We may not be in an era with a high cheese factor anymore, but that doesn’t mean the cheese platters have gone away either. It’s that combination of the ridiculous and the sublime that makes Eurovision so entertaining to us.

Also, we still hold out hope that KEiiNO will wear the fox ears in Tel Aviv.

Norway’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Listen up kids, I’ll tell you a story
Dreams can come true, two-time Eurovision glory
Can’t write a melody? Can’t come up with a rhyme?
No need to waste your time
Own the stage, show them you belong
That’s how you perform a song

Step one: camera tricks
They surprise and delight
Step two: smize like a boss
That’s how you perform a song

Come on!

Shoo-bee-doo-bee dab dab (Shoo-bee-doo-bee dab dab)
Sha-ba-da-da hey (Sha-ba-da-da hey)
Sing it all day long (All day long)
And that’s how you perform a song
Scoo-bee-doo-bee bap bap (Scoo-bee-doo-bee bap bap)
Boogie boogie woogie hey (Boogie boogie woogie hey)
Sing it all day long (All day long)
See, that’s how you perform a song

Step one: camera tricks
They surprise and delight
Step two: smize like a boss
That’s how you perform a song
Step three: engage the crowd
Make them sing out loud
Step four: play violin
That’s how you perform a song

Norway’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

This year’s winner of Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix is JOWST with “Grab the Moment.”

JOWST’s real name is Joakim With Steen. At Melodi Grand Prix 2017, he was the dude with the light-up mask. Up until now, Steen has been a sound engineer and producer. “Grab the Moment” is his first foray into making his own music. For this effort, JOWST teamed up with Aleksander Walmann, who is best known for his runner-up finish in 2012’s The Voice Norge. Walmann is also early in his career, but this is not his first collaboration with a house music DJ. Last year, Walmann was featured on Simon Field and Jamie’s rather fabulous cover of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings.”

In the bio on his website, JOWST says he is seeking to mix genres and to make something that sounds new. Well, with “Grab the Moment,” he has created a cool beat, a patter-heavy verse and a harmonic chorus with voice modulation. Walmann is a good singer, and he handles the crowded lyric with ease. The combination is successful, and it is an enjoyable way to pass three minutes.

But, as much as we like “Grab the Moment,” it’s a song that doesn’t necessarily pack a visceral wallop. It’s sort like the movie Dodgeball. Both are well-done and likable. You enjoy them both in the moment, but you don’t remember much about them when they are over. Also, they both feature Alan Tudyk.

Hopefully Aleksander Walmann will voice the chicken in the Norwegian dub of Moana.

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”

Norway’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

When I was 15 I loved The Phantom of the Opera. I listened to the soundtrack A LOT. My passion for that score spilled over to other Victorian monster musicals–Jekyll & Hyde, Ken Hill’s the Phantom of the Opera. I also listened to the Smiths a lot.

If I had heard Norway’s “A Monster Like Me” when I was 15, I would have totally obsessed over it.

“A Monster Like Me” was written by singer-songwriter Mørland. Mørland was the front man of Absent Elk, a British indie rock band that sounded like Hard-Fi and released a couple singles in 2009 that didn’t go anywhere on the UK charts. He is now pursuing a solo career in Norway. He is joined by Debrah Scarlett, a Norwegian-Swiss singer who competed on The Voice Norway 2013 under her real name Joanna Bussinger. The song has a stripped down arrangement and uses negative space to depict alienation and regret. There’s a triumphant point at the 2:15 mark, where the two hit their big notes in harmony and the camera does this dizzying spinning trick around them.

Unfortunately, I am not 15 anymore. Now, all I hear is a melodramatic ballad full of angst and self-pity. It’s utterly sincere in its intention. With “A Monster Like Me,” I feel this visceral need to inject satire, slap it in the face, something, anything to snap it out of its pathetic, self-serving funk. Ironically, Forgetting Sarah Marshall already did it back in 2008 with the Dracula song:

Timing is everything I guess.