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.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Festival da Canção has become my favorite national final to watch. Like the Sanremo Music Festival, it is really more about celebrating the national music scene than it is picking a Eurovision entry. Unlike Sanremo, it gets the job done in a relatively tight package.

I realize some fans will quibble about that given the final lasted about two hours and 45 minutes and only an hour of that was spent presenting the songs. On the other hand, I watched all five hours plus of the Sanremo final; trust me, Festival da Canção was really well-paced. And let’s be honest, when a good hour and a half of the show’s total running time was spent celebrating Portuguese music history in gorgeous, electrifying ways, I think you’d have to be pretty churlish to want them to get to the point already.

Given all this, I was pleasantly surprised that the song that ultimately won the 2021 competition was a slice of Southern blues rock. I wasn’t expecting that.

The Black Mamba kicked off the first Festival semifinal, and I was immediately struck by them. Their song opens with an old Hollywood orchestral flourish before Pedro Tatanka begins to belt in his smoky alto timber. As “Love Is on My Side” progresses, it gets more lush and more epic in scope. It wouldn’t sound out of place on classic rock radio.

I have two dings against it, though. One is that, at just under three minutes, it’s way too short. A song like this needs room to build and breathe and have an epically awesome guitar solo. The Eurovision format cuts “Love Is on My Side” off at the knees.

The other is that The Makemakes got nul points at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest with a similar song. Given how strong and diverse this year’s song selection is, I’m afraid The Black Mamba may suffer a similar fate to their Austrian counterparts.

For now, all I can hope is that they bring out an extended six minute version of “Love Is on My Side” so they can really make it feel complete.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Sometimes we just want to hear a song to help us relax.

Elisa Silva is a singer from Madeira who tried out for Ídolos in 2015. She studies music at Escola Superior de Música in Lisbon. Her song “Medo de sentir” was written by Marta Carvalho, a finalist on the 2016 edition of The Voice Portugal who has since had success as a songwriting while continuing her career has a singer. She joined Elisa on stage as pianist and backing vocalist during Festival da Canção.

“Medo de sentir” finished second with the public and second with the jury at Festival da Canção. However, the song that won the jury vote was spiked by the public and vice versa, which gave Elisa the win. Keiino and Tamara Todevska can speak a little bit about what it’s like to have that happen.

We liked “Medo de sentir” well enough when we first heard it in the Festival semifinals, and liked it about the same when we heard it again the final. It’s not a remarkable, “Oh yes, crank it up” song, but it’s pleasant, like a more commercial take on “O Jardim.”

It doesn’t land a deep impact on us, though. We think that’s because there is no build to a grand finale: the bridge makes it seem like Elisa is going to go big, but instead she returns to the song’s meditative pace to bring it to a gentle close. Gentle is nice, but it isn’t necessarily memorable.

Still, if you are in the mood for a contemplative song about the difficulties of learning to love again after your heart has been broken, “Medo de sentir” is a fine way to squeeze out your tears.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

Oh hi! Long time, no see! We have been through the wringer a bit lately, so we haven’t really had a chance to post. We are back now and are increasingly comfortable with the fact that we may not be able to write reviews of every single entry in detail before all the acts arrive in Tel Aviv. (Sorry, Moldova.)

We thought we’d cherry-pick an easy entry to ease our way back in. Then we decided to review “Telemóveis” instead.

Conan Osíris is a self-taught singer and songwriter who also has a degree in graphic design. He has released two EPs and two full albums, with his 2017 release Adoro Bolos serving as his breakthrough. He was eventually invited by Portuguese broadcaster RTP to compose a song for this year’s edition of  Festival da Canção.

We have absolutely no idea what to make of “Telemóveis.” It might be the least accessible Eurovision entry we have heard in our years of following the Song Contest. We have no entry point to come at it, no knowledge of Conan’s musical genre, no reference point to decode it. It is totally out of our comfort zone.

“Telemóveis” was the overwhelming winner at Festival da Canção and was an early favorite of diehard Eurovision fans. But we wonder if most viewers in May will react the way we did, scratching their heads wondering what the heck that was.

And yet, and yet… We are happy Conan is at Eurovision because he is bringing something utterly unique to the Song Contest, a song unlike anything we’ve ever encountered. We may not get it, but we want it to be there. It is striking and special.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Portugal won Eurovision last year and we’re still pinching ourselves. Who has the unenviable task of defending their title? Here’s Cláudia Pascoal with “O Jardim.”

Cláudia Pascoal is 23, but has a wealth of experience in television talent shows. She’s been on Ídolos twice, Factor X, and The Voice Portugal. “O Jardim” was written by Isaura, who finished eighth on Operação Triunfo. She selected Cláudia to perform her song and serves as the backing singer.

“O Jardim” is a song for Isaura’s late grandmother, who passed away in 2017. But it’s not so much a mournful song as a contemplative one. It’s pretty, but also understated, atmospheric almost to a fault. Because the song focuses on creating a mood, rather than a journey, it ends where it begins without having taken us anywhere.

But it is the perfect song to listen to at two in the morning while curled up on the couch after being woken up by downpour.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Portugal returns to the Eurovision Song Contest after a year’s break with an absolute corker. Here’s Salvador Sobral with “Amar pelos dois.”

Sobral was the seventh-place contestant on the third season of Ídolos, Portugal’s version of Pop Idol. His song “Amar pelos dois” was written by his sister Luísa Sobral, who had finished third in the first season of Ídolos.

This song is cabaret. Usually we say that as criticism, but this time we mean it in the best possible way. It’s sweeping yet gentle, modern yet timeless. Indeed, “Amar pelos dois” reminds us of a newly discovered ballad from Rodgers and Hart (our favorite songwriters from the Great American Songbook era). Apologies if that seems U.S. centric: does Portugal have a similar jazz vocal history that is song is tapping into? Helping it feel contemporary is Sobral’s quirky, awkward stage presence. He draws you in. Listen to that crowd reaction in the hall at Festival da Canção 2017. They were feeling it too.

If we have a concern, it’s that “Amar pelos dois” is drawn into the first half of the first Semi. But we are not that worried. This song is jury bait, and if Sobral does in Kyiv what he did in Portugal, we think he will create a breakout Eurovision moment along the lines of Raphael Gualazzi. If we were betting lemurs, we would put money on a top 10 finish.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Leonor Andrade has won Festival da Canção 2015 and will represent Portugal in Vienna with “Há um mar que nos separa”:

Leonor was a contestant on The Voice Portugal last year, but was eliminated on the show before the final. Since then, she has been an actor on the soap opera Água de Mar.

“Há um mar que nos separa” is a decent enough pop rock song, with a bright and catchy chorus. Neither of us love the U2-influenced arrangement, which makes it sound a bit dated. We hope that the Portuguese delegation to attend to that, but we fear this is going as is. But Leonor has a cool voice that suits the song well. She got a bit ragged during the key change, but sounded fine otherwise.

It’s a solid entry, but it’s not particularly memorable. It’s just a pleasant way to spend three minutes of your time on a Thursday night, though probably not a Saturday night, in May.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

Portugal has returned from its Eurovision sabbatical and decided to send Suzy to Copenhagen with “Quero Ser Tua”:

What we’ve always liked about Portugal is that they seemed to send entries that are true to themselves. Often it was clear Portugal wasn’t going to have a good Eurovision result, but at least their songs were honest and showed us a little something about Portuguese culture. Even a song that looked like a joke entry could still capture a bit about Portuguese history.

Then there’s this. “Quero Ser Tua” sounds like what Portugal thinks Europe thinks a Portuguese Eurovision entry should sound like. It’s not terrible, but it’s not current and it’s not relevant to Portugal or to Eurovision. What’s the point?

UPDATED 17 MARCH 2014: Shi points out in the comments that “Quero Ser Tua” is from a Portuguese genre called Pimba. So Portugal is still doing its own thing, which makes me happy in a way. Of course, I still wonder if it’s going to have any impact with the rest of Europe, but otherwise I stand corrected!

Portugal’s Eurovision 2012 Entry

I think it was about 1:30a CET when Portugal confirmed that Filipa Sousa would be going to Baku on their behalf with “Vida Minha”:

If the song and the staging reminds you a little bit of Vânia Fernandes’s “Senhora do mar (Negras águas)” from Eurovision 2008, there’s a reason: Andrej Babic and Carlos Coelho wrote both songs.

“Vida Minha” is a pleasant enough entry, but for me, it lacks the dramatic oomph that “Senhora do mar” had, and the staging only makes that more apparent. Of course, I’m one of the more obsessive Eurovision fans, so I doubt a lot of people are going to watch this during the second Semi and say, “Well, this is no ‘Senhora do mar’.” It is a return to form for Portugal after two lackluster entries and Sosa is a charismatic singer, so viewers may respond to it.

Portugal’s Eurovision 2011 Entry

It took three and a half hours for Portugal to decide on a Eurovision entry. Three and a half hours. We didn’t sit through all of it like poor Alekas Supranavičius did for ESC Daily, because we sat through it last year. They run Festival da Canção like it was the Eurovision final, by going from region to region to tally up the points from the jury, except the host of the Festival is chattier with the regional representatives than the host of Eurovision, so it drags on. (I mean, it’s harder to sit through than the FYR Macedonian show.)

For some reason, there seems to be no agreement between the jurors and the public as to what constitutes a good entry. Now, juries are supposedly musical industry folk, arbiters of taste, spotters of talent, and so forth. But at the end of the jury voting, the second place act with 10 points was Inês Bernardo, who misses every single note in “Deixa o meu lugar”:

I should mention that the jury votes are tallied up, then converted into the traditional douze pointe system that Eurovision uses. Then, the public vote is added straight in. At the end of the night, when Bernardo’s point tally from the jury was added to the point tally from the public, she ended up with 10 points.  That is, 10 points from the jury, 0 from the public.

If you look at the ESC Daily recap, you’ll see that two acts, Tânia Tavares and Wanda Stuart, both ended up with 7 points after the jury vote, even though Tavares finished with 111 points and Stuart had 106. This is apparently how it was reported during the show. It doesn’t have a bearing on the winner, but I wonder if the organizers were falling asleep during the presentation. Seeing as it was one in the morning.

Anyway, in the end, thanks to 12 points from the televote (plus 6 from the jury, we think), your Portuguese Eurovision entry is Homens da Luta’s “Luta é Alegria”:

Homens da Luta’s shtick is that that they perform music inspired by the Portuguese scene of the early 1970s. In other words, the Carnation Revolution era. The era of the ultimate political Eurovision entry: “E Depois do Adeus” by Paulo de Carvalho, which was one of the cues that the revolution was about to start.

I can’t tell if “A Luta é Alegria,” which literally translated is “The Struggle Is Joy,” is actually political (which would get it disqualified by the Eurovision organizers). My impression is that it’s just a pastiche song.

There was apparently a lot of booing in the auditorium when it was announced as the winner. For Jen and me, we’re actually happy to see it go, because this year’s ESC was really lacking a kitsch factor that Homens da Luta will provide. However, like Greece, Portugal is really testing the theory that they always qualify for the final no matter what.