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!

Romania’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

I wasn’t a huge fan of Roxen’s 2020 Eurovision effort “Alcohol You,” although I have a feeling my thoughts on it were based more on her back catalog than the intrinsic quality of the song. I felt like she had a lot more potential than shown by the choices the Romanian public had to vote on.

I’m a lot happier with what she’s given us this year, although I’m not without my reservations.

While Roxen didn’t write “Amnesia” (Viky Red & Adelina Stînga did), I think that she is using her platform at Eurovision to express a strong personal message. The song is about how hard it is to love who you are when you feel pressured to conform to the narrow definitions that society has for you.

The arrangement is intense and atmospheric, perfectly capturing the mood of the lyrics. While manipulated vocals can go either way for me, I think the use of artificial modulation on Roxen’s vocals add a strong, almost unsettling layer to “Amnesia.” She sounds like she is underwater, close to drowning in anxiety.

While I think “Amnesia” is a good song, I find myself struggling to wholly get into it. The choices Roxen and her production crew made here are technically smart, but they don’t pack the wallop it should. Somehow it comes off as a bit clinical and safe. “Amnesia” is so close to being memorable, but it ends up being merely clever.

Romania’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

We were just thinking that we need another Eurovision song about a relationship that has gone bad.

Roxen (a.k.a. Larisa Roxana Giurgiu) first rose to fame when she guested on SICKOTOY’s 2019 single “You Don’t Love Me,” which peaked at number three on Romania’s Airplay 100 chart last September. “Ce-ți cântă dragostea,” her first solo single, went to number five in November.

We were pretty excited to hear what Roxen would offer up after she was announced as Romania’s representative. Here is a singer whose star is rising very fast. We also loved her second solo single, “I Don’t Care,” and had hoped that this American hip-hop influenced pop number would indicate the direction she would go in at the Song Contest.

So maybe our unreasonable expectations explain why “Alcohol You” landed with a thud for us. That and the aforementioned fact that it’s yet another song at Eurovision 2020 about a doomed love affair.

But our main complaint is that Romania has this young, vibrant singer and she’s been saddled with a dour tune that floats around without ever really building to anything. Tonally, the chorus sounds the same as the verses, with no rise or fall. It’s a very flat journey, like driving through the middle of Nevada.

And as much as we try to avoid whinging about lyrics these days, we really dislike how the chorus is built around a pun so bad Andy Zaltzman would cringe. “Alcohol you when I’m drunk?” Really? We can’t ignore that or the reference to “fake news” because those lines are so out of character with someone singing about desperate loneliness after a break-up. Between the static orchestration and the misshapen lyrics, it’s easy for us to give this one the pass.

Romania’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

We would love to be given the reigns for a country’s Eurovision selection. We’ve been doing this blog for 13 years now and are totally experts, so we obviously could come up with something earth-shattering for the Song Contest! Look at Vasil Ivanov and Deyan Yordanov, two Eurovision superfans who were given a chance to run Bulgaria’s national selection process. They turned out to be massively successful and only financial issues kept Bulgaria from competing this year.

But there’s a flip side: William Lee Adams and Deban Aderemi from Wiwibloggs served on the jury of Romania’s national final Selecţia Naţională, and have been getting a lot of stick from other Eurovision fans for how they voted. We don’t have a particular side in the battle royale, but we are reminded that we need to be careful what we wish for. We would hate to get a taste of our own medicine!

Enough about that. How’s Romania’s song? Hey it’s pretty good!

Ester Peony is a Romanian singer who grew up in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She has formal jazz training, and was signed to Romanian record label MusicExpertRecords after they saw song covers she posted on YouTube.

“On a Sunday” is a sultry and sulky number about desperate love. Imagine if “Black Velvet” was a murder ballad. It has a slithery groove and melodies that packs a lot of tension and release into three minutes.

The Selecţia Naţională staging was fun, with this one super-charismatic drummer that needs to have his own fan page. But we never lost sight of who the star of the show was: Ester seated center stage in a vibrant red dress, pulling faces, and commanding the camera. We are concerned her emoting could get a bit over the top. She chewed so much scenery she became a leading cause of deforestation in Romania.

Whether or not the Selecţia Naţională jury got it right in the eyes of the Romanian televoters and the Eurovision fan base, we think Romania has come back strong from their first non-qualification. We’re looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Romania’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Say hello to “Goodbye.”

Romania’s The Humans formed in 2017, but most of the members have had careers before the band. Singer Cristina Caramarcu competed on the second season of Vocea României, but was eliminated right before the live shows. She co-wrote “Goodbye” with bandmates Alexandru Matei and Alin Neagoe.

We’re trying to decide if The Humans are pretentious or if Google Translate is making them sound pretentious. Here is a translation of part of their Facebook bio, so you be the judge: “‘We Believe in Humanity’ – this is the motto under which the band will manifest its artistic spirit … Their music is not a mechanical act of interpretation, but a sharing of boundless feelings between the scene and the public, an act of creation.”

In our review of Serbia’s entry, we grumbled that “Nova deca” took awhile to get going. But “Nova deca” is positively speedy compared to “Goodbye.” The song floats along until the guitars finally kick in at the 1:25 mark. Only then does “Goodbye” really come alive. And then it just suddenly stops at the end. Okay, we gotta go. Three minutes, bye bye.

Once “Goodbye” finds its feet, we hear of some strains of Heart and Ann Wilson. But mostly it’s just a nondescript ’80s rock song that ticks a lot of Eurovision boxes: a good front person, a cellist, a little bit of visual pizzazz, appropriately big themes, and a stadium friendly sound. It doesn’t feel special.

Romania’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

TVR had better have all its bills squared away with the EBU this time, because we do not want to be deprived of “Yodel It!” at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Yes, the song is called “Yodel It!” and it contains a lot of yodeling. It’s, like, how much more yodeling could this be? And the answer is none. None more yodeling. It achieves yodeling singularity.

Ilinca is an 18 year old Vocea României semifinalist who presents herself as the “prima persoana din Romania care canta in stilul traditional austriac/elvetian: yodeling.” (That means exactly what you think it means.) Also, at the Romanian national final, she presented herself as Santa’s elf. Alex Florea is a 25 year old singer and fellow Vocea României semifinalist.

“Yodel It!” was written by Mihai Alexandru and Alexandra Niculae. Alexandru co-wrote the 2003 Eurovision Song Contest entry “Don’t Break My Heart” with singer Nicola and he previously teamed up with Niculae on Renee Santana and Mike Diamond’s “Letting Go” for the 2014 Romanian national final.

We are not going to pretend that this is profound stuff. It’s a “Scatman” for the 21st century. But Ilinca and Florea sell it with a nod and a wink and a whole lot of energy. “Yodel It!” is irrepressibly fun in its ridiculousness. It is over the top. And it is delightful.

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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Romania’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Voltaj will represent Romania at Eurovision after winning Selecția Națională 2015 with “De la capăt”:

Voltaj formed in 1982 and has undergone a number of line-up changes over its 30 year history. Frontman Călin Goia joined in 1998, and the current line-up has been together since 2002. They won the award for Best Romanian Act at the 2005 MTV Europe Music Awards.

De la capăt” is about the plight of Romanian children who are left behind by parents working in Western Europe. The band has started a campaign to raise awareness of the issue. Călin told Eurovision’s official website, “Last year’s contest has shown that songs with a serious social message have done extremely well – Conchita Wurst won for Austria, and the Hungarian song also reached the fourth place.”

They have released an English version called “All Over Again” and they are considering performing this version in Vienna:

I hope Voltaj performs the English version at Eurovision. The message is heartbreaking and needs to be heard. Depicting how immigration impacts on the home front as parents seek work in wealthier countries is not just an issue in Romania, it is an issue all along the Danube. (And the Rio Grande, for that matter.) Performing it in English will make lyrics understandable to a broader audience, calling better attention to the social problem.

“De la capăt” packs a punch because it’s about something specific, something the artists relate to. Contrast it with Hungary’s “Wars for Nothing,” which will be in the same half of Romania’s Semifinal draw. “Wars for Nothing” is so broad it feels like it’s about nothing. Of course, my utter loathing towards “Wars for Nothing” may be clouding my judgement. I still expect both songs to make the Final.

Romania’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

Paula Seling and Ovi of “Playing With Fire” fame are returning to the Eurovision stage this year with “Miracle”:

Eurovision has been hard on returning artists in recent years. Former winners like Charlotte (Nilsson) Perrelli, Niamh Kavanaugh, and Dana International find themselves either far out of contention or not even qualifying out of the Semis. Acts that had top 10 finishes like Chiara and Jedward get lost in shuffle in follow-up attempts. Outside of the main Song Contest, former successful representatives like Sandra Nurmsalu (of Urban Symphony fame), Yohanna, and even Eurovision winner Dima Bilan end up not even making it out of their respective national finals. (To be fair, Bilan went up against Buranovskiye Babushki.)

So why do we let them try again, even if the sequel probably isn’t going to capture lightning in a bottle? Well, there are a few reasons for the prevalence of the known quantity. First, there’s the question of viability. If we are presented with a field of wannabes without a Eurovision track record, we don’t know how they’ll go over internationally. Can they get a good result? With the known quantity, we know they have the potential – they succeeded before. There’s also the competency factor: with a returning act, we have more confidence that they’ll put on a good show.

There’s also a nostalgia factor. “Remember when Yohanna brought Iceland a 2nd place finish? We loved her.” And, you never really know, there’s always the chance they’ll pull it off this time. Winners Lena and Carola came back to score top 10 finishes. Dima Bilan followed up a 2nd place finish with a win. And over it all, the specter of Johnny Logan reigns.

Paula and Ovi finished 3rd at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest. Can “Miracle” improve their placement?

I enjoy this song a lot. Ovi and his songwriting partners (Frida Amundsen, Philip Halloun, and the Beyond51 production house) crafted an upbeat pop ballad with a crunchy electronic beat that jumps up and down during the chorus. It has Paula showing off her vocal range and it has Ovi making weird faces. It even has a cute gimmick (dancing Paula and Ovi holograms) that I am sure is heading to Denmark with the performers. It’s “Playing With Fire,” only a little more grandiose.

But does grandiose translate to more value added? As much as I like this song, I can’t help but feel like it’s pushing the buttons a little too hard. I wouldn’t count it out of a top 10 finish necessarily, but I’m not convinced it’s going to better Paula and Ovi’s previous result.

Romania’s Glorious Eurovision 2013 Entry

I was beginning to worry about Eurovision 2013. The songs selected thus far were not particularly inspiring. We have a ton of drab ballads and a lot of decent but not particularly memorable pop songs. The campier entries are either horrible or too self-aware.

Malmö was missing something. And that something was Cezar.

When “It’s My Life” begins, you’re not sure where it’s going to go. Cezar sings “Love is so bright, like a diamond in the light” and you’re all like, this is going to be lame. The back-up dancers, wearing leather jackets, jeans, and scarves wrapped around their waists, do not inspire confidence.

Then the song hits the 30 second mark (:40 in the video above). And you find out Cezar is a countertenor. That’s when you realize: This. Is. Awesome.

I mean, it’s not without its flaws. The lyrics are bland (fire/desire check). I would have liked Cezar to drop back down to his lower register to sing the second verse. And the dancing doesn’t really get better. But why nitpick?

Back in 2009, Bulgaria sent a countertenor named Krassimir Avramov to Eurovision. It did not go well, as we detail in entry six of our Least Self Aware page. Part of why Avramov went awry is that he never seemed to have much control over his voice (or his back-up singers). Cezar, on the other hand, is rock steady.

Plus, the absolute drama that Cezar brings to his performance makes it memorable. The Romanian contingent needs to think of how they can elevate their back-up dancers so that they match Cezar’s mad intensity. It’s a tough ask, I know.

The Romanian National Final has become one of our favorites (hindered mainly by the amount of talking: host segments, interviews, et cetera). How can you not enjoy a show that not only has a countertenor, but also a falsetto worthy of Jimmy Somerville? We also really enjoyed Casa Presei’s “Un Refren,” which seems about 30 years out of date and yet still fun and professional.

And pity poor Electric Fence, who finished second again. If anyone could ever out-weird Zdob şi Zdub, it could be them: