It is a scary time in the world, as a mysterious new virus fills our lives up with fear and dread and hand sanitizer. Fortunately, Russia is here to cheer us all up.
Little Big is a satirical pop band known for their crazy, surreal videos. They won the Most Trashy video award at the 2016 Berlin Music Video Awards for “Big Dick” (do we even need to mention it’s not safe for work?) and achieved viral success in 2018 with the infectiously danceable “Skibidi.”
If you’ve ever wondered what Aqua would sound like if they took themselves a little less seriously, then you’ll get a sense of what Little Big is like. They’ve dialed back their usual style, opting to send a ridiculously cheesy synth-laden dance song set to a generic Latin music beat. The chorus is just an elaborate vocal arrangement of the band and their new backing singers singing, “Uno, dos, cuatro, uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, ses.” It puts the inane in insane.
Is it profound art? Yes, in the way John Waters films are in all their trashy glory. If “Dead Unicorn” is Little Big’s Multiple Maniacs and “Big Dick” is their Polyester, then “Uno” is their Hairspray. Even if it’s a bit more mainstream than their usual work, it still has the subversive quality they’re known for.
After all, as they say themselves in “Go Bananas:” pop is new punk.
Russia crapped out in the Semifinals last year. Time to call in the bookie bait!
Sergey Lazarev is a Russian pop star who came close to winning Eurovision in 2016, if it weren’t for those meddling juries. For “Scream,” he has once again teamed up with songwriters Philipp Kirkorov and Dimitris Kontopoulos. They are joined by Sharon Vaugh, an American lyricist who started off working in country music before branching out into European pop. She has worked with Boyzone, The Wanted, Måns Zelmerlöw, Alcazar, and Helena Paparizou, and co-wrote “Waterline” for Jedward.
The unnamed songwriter in the Russian camp this year, however, is Sergei Prokofiev. If you’re in the mood for some good old-fashioned Soviet pomp, Prokofiev is your boy. Thus “Scream” is the most Russian-sounding entry Russia has sent since “Lost and Forgotten.”
We like “Scream,” although our fondness has more to do with the cool music video than the song itself. We figure Sergey and his team are going to pull out all of the stops in the staging, and it’s all going to be spectacular.
And we also figure Russia is going to achieve the same result they did in 2016. Again: those meddling juries. Maybe our knowledge of previous Eurovision results is having too much of an influence on our instincts, but we have a feeling history is going to repeat itself.
Let’s try this again. Russia will participate at the Eurovision Song Contest in Portugal, and they will be represented by Julia Samoylova and “I Won’t Break.”
Julia is a 29-year-old singer who was runner-up on the third season of Faktor A, the Russian version of The X Factor. She lost use of her legs when she was a child, so she will be the second Eurovision participant to perform in a wheelchair. “I Won’t Break” is by Leonid Gutkin, who co-wrote “What If” for Dina Garipova and “A Million Voices” for Polina Gagarina. He co-wrote the song with Netta Nimrodi and Arye Burstein, with whom he teamed up to write Russia’s Eurovision 2017 entry “Flame Is Burning.”
You probably remember what happened next, but if not: Ukraine barred Julia from participating because she had performed in Crimea after Russia annexed it. Russia pulled out of the Song Contest and Ukraine faced a fine for their actions. In the aftermath, Russia promised to send her again in 2018.
From strictly a musical point of view, the songwriters have benefited from having a whole year to come up with a song for Julia. “Flame Is Burning” was one of those songs about peace and love and understanding that we always assume are banged out last minute because Russia forgot they had to enter a song in Eurovision. “I Won’t Break” more directly relates to its singer and stands out as a more cohesive song. It’s pretty good for what it is.
Because “I Won’t Break” feels more biographical, we hope that Russia can stage it so that it tells Julia’s story. One of our big issues with “In the Name of Love,” the song Monika Kuszyńska sang for Poland in 2015, was that the attempt to give her story a more universal message watered her story down for public consumption. The video for “In the Name of Love” did the storytelling that the song and the eventual Eurovision staging lacked.
So we were a bit concerned about official video for “I Won’t Break,” which hides Julia by staying on a close-up of her face for most of the video before revealing her as the peak of a mountain. We get the metaphor that she is a rock, but the video assumes you know her story already.
Fortunately, official videos usually don’t reveal too much about how a song is going to be staged (Sergey Lazarev excepted), so we’re hopeful Julia and her team will figure out a way to make this work in Lisbon.
As Americans, we’ve been thinking a lot about Russia lately. But at last, the true story has come out and we have clarity: Russia will participate at the Eurovision Song Contest in Ukraine, and they will be represented by Yulia Samoylova and “Flame Is Burning.”
Samoylova is a 28-year-old singer who was runner-up on the third season of Faktor A, the Russian version of The X Factor. She lost use of her legs when she was a child, so she will be the second Eurovision participant to perform in a wheelchair. “Flame Is Burning” is by Leonid Gutkin, who co-wrote “What If” for Dina Garipova and “A Million Voices” for Polina Gagarina. He co-wrote the song with Netta Nimrodi and Arye Burstein.
If you follow either Eurovision or world politics closely, you probably don’t need us to recap the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. (If you do, just go back and read our recap of last year’s Song Contest. And also a newspaper.) Suffice to say, Russia faced a difficult decision this year: whoever they picked would be entering particularly hostile territory, both because the Song Contest is in Ukraine and because, Sergey Lazarev notwithstanding, Eurovision fans in the hall have been more than enthusiastic to boo the Russian entry in recent years.
Despite calls by hardliners in Russia (and apparently Philipp Kirkorov) to boycott the Song Contest this year, Russia’s Channel One decided to stand strong like a tree in the wind. Nothing’s going to move this mountain or change their direction.
Is Samoylova a good singer? Yes. Is the song any good? Sure, if you like Russia’s brand of generically inspiring Eurovision ballads. Does any of this matter? Probably not. Russia has fulfilled its obligation to the EBU to participate and is also daring the Eurovision fans to boo a woman in a wheelchair.
Have we mentioned that Russia has the chrome-plated balls?
We do feel bad for thinking about this in such cold and cynical terms, of course, but you know, we can’t help it: we are Americans.
Updated3/28/2017: We would be remiss if we didn’t update this post to note the controversy over Ukraine’s security agency banning Samoylova over her concert appearance in Crimea. ESC Insight has a good article discussing the situation and the politics behind it.
The EBU was widely derided for its proposal of having Samoylova perform via satellite if she was unable to go to Kyiv. Not to say it’s not a dumb idea, but we thought it was weirdly brilliant: we figure Russia told the EBU, “If our performer is barred entry, why should we pay fines for pulling out after the deadline?” and the EBU was calling their bluff. Maybe that’s a little farfetched, but then again, how much farfetched stuff has come to pass in the past year?
Updated4/18/2017: As expected, Russia has withdrawn from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest after Ukraine’s government refused to budge on Yulia Samoylova’s travel ban. We’re kind of bummed the EBU hadn’t suggested Samoylova perform as a hologram as a possible solution.
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.
Polina Gagarina has been chosen to sing Russia’s third annual Eurovision entry about how we all should just get along and live in peace. Here’s “A Million Voices”:
Polina is a past winner of Star Factory, a long-running Russian talent reality show. She had a number three hit in Russia and a number one hit in Ukraine with her 2012 single “Нет” (“Nyet”). Hopefully, she also has thick skin if the Vienna audience reacts to points given to Russia the way the Copenhagen audience did last year.
Three of the songwriters that penned “A Million Voices” were responsible for Dina Garipova’s mawkish 2013 entry “What if,” a thematically-similar ballad. “A Million Voices” is a definite improvement on their previous work. It is a soaring Eurovision anthem, and Russia will probably stage it beautifully and nab itself another top 10 finish.
I will say we are a bit tired of all these relentlessly sincere “Imagine” wannabes, but it feels like that’s just us. So long as songs like this continue to get votes, they’ll continue to be pepper Song Contests in the years to come.
Complaints about neighborly voting have been a constant since the first time Denmark and Iceland gave each other points, but how political does Eurovision voting really get? Sometimes the real world rears its ugly head and current events could have a negative impact on the Song Contest.
In 2003, shortly after the Iraq war began, the United Kingdom sent the pop duo Jemini to Eurovision with their song “Cry Baby.” To say Jemini flopped is an understatement: for the first time in its long Eurovision history, the U.K. not only finished last, it finished with the dreaded nul points.
Sir Terry Wogan, during his commentary for the BBC, said, “I think the UK is suffering from post-Iraq backlash.” Martin Isherwood, the composer of “Cry Baby,” echoed the sentiment: “I think politically we are out on a limb at the moment. As a country I think we paid the price last night.” Even Jemini singer Chris Cromby thought the theory had credence: “With the countries across Europe something has rocked the boat in a way. We don’t think it was fair we came last because we gave the performance of our lifetime.”
Of course, the theory falls apart when you watch Jemini’s miserable performance. Cromby later said, “The monitors weren’t working, Gemma couldn’t hear herself, so she was out of tune.” So perhaps European opposition to the Iraq War did have an effect on voting in 2003, but there was no year where Jemini were going to place anywhere but bottom of the table with that performance.
Which brings us to Russia’s participation in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The European Union and NATO are trying to isolate Russia over its actions against Ukraine in Crimea and former Soviet states are increasingly nervous over the ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Could the fallout of the Ukrainian crisis trickle down to Eurovision voting?
Take a look at the countries in the first Semi-final: Russia faces off against Ukraine, as well as Estonia, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Moldova. Will these countries give Russia points? They all have large ethnic Russian minorities who could influence the televote. They also have non-Russian majorities that could also influence the televote in the other direction. And then there are their respective juries, who could spike the televote results (as anyone who remembers the fallout of Azerbaijan neglecting to give Russia any points during last year’s Song Contest will attest).
If ever there was a year to test just how political Eurovision voting can be, you would think this would be it. But there is one additional factor to consider in all this: Russia’s song isn’t good. Here are the Tolmachevy Sisters with “Shine”:
This year’s Russian selection process was chaotic: broadcaster Rossija 1 had originally announced there would be a national final in December. They then postponed the final to a later date, before finally opting for an internal selection. The rumor was that Sergei Lazarev was that selection. However, at the last minute, the Tolmachevy Sisters were announced as Russia’s representatives.
The Tolmachevy Sisters won Junior Eurovision in 2006 with their song “Vesenniy Jazz.” They also made an appearance when Russia hosted Eurovision in 2009, flying to the giant stage on the back of a firebird during the opening number of the first Semi. (You had to be there.)
The music for “Shine” is by Philipp Kirkorov and Dimitris Kontopoulos and the lyrics are by John Ballard, Ralph Charlie, and Gerard James Borg. There are a lot of familiar names there: Kontopoulos and Borg make regular appearances at Eurovision, and Ballard and Charlie teamed up with Kontopoulos to write “Hold Me” for Azerbaijan last year. Meanwhile, Kirkorov will be familiar to Eurovision fans not only as Russia’s representative in 1995, but also as one of the songwriters of Belarus’ 2007 entry “Work Your Magic” and Ukraine’s 2008 entry “Shady Lady” (with Kontopoulos).
Kirkorov told the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets (per a translation by ESCKAZ) that he signed on to write the song on March 6 (just 11 days before entries were due to the European Broadcasting Union). Kirkorov and Kontopoulos wrote “Shine” the next day. Having heard “Shine,” I can believe that. I don’t know when Ballard, Charlie, and Borg banged out the lyrics, but all told the whole thing feels like a rush job.
“Shine” goes for a late 1960s flower-power harpsichord-driven pop sound. The effect is muted a bit by being over-orchestrated. In particular, the chorus of the song is drowned out by strings and ding-dongs. It’s not the worst song, but given the past work by these songwriters (particularly “Shady Lady”), they had the capability to do much better.
The lyrics, meanwhile, seem to have been pulled out of a hat full of cliches. The line “Living on the edge/Closer to the crime/Cross the line a step at a time” is particularly cringeworthy.
In any other year, we’d be lamenting this as a missed opportunity, particularly because the Tolmachevy Sisters are trying to make the jump from Junior Eurovision success to Eurovision glory. But they now have the unenviable task of putting on a pleasant face to supplant the ugly image of Russia that many European countries now have. Russia has made it to the Final with worse songs, but if the extenuating circumstances are in play, then I wouldn’t expect “Shine” to play more than one night in Copenhagen. That is, if those voting know or care about the extenuating circumstances.
Dina Garipova is representing Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest this year with “What If.” It is a perfectly dreadful “can’t we all get along” song. The most obvious comparison is to Chiara’s “What If We,” but the first song I thought of was “If We All Give a Little,” the Six4One song for Switzerland from 2006. (Lyrically, it also reminds me of “Shine” which I mention only so I can link to that video, which is still ridiculously awesome.)
As I said during our review of Cyprus’ entry, Pastora Soler took Spain to a top 10 finish based on jury support for her performance. If Garipova can bring “What If” home the same way Soler did, I would expect a similar result for Russia. But like Soler, she is going to be hindered by the fact that while juries eat this sort of old-fashioned song up, the public tends to avoid it like the watery gruel it is.
I think Estonian comedians Ott Sepp and Märt Avandi summed this entry up best:
I am still desperate for that “Don’t Die” t-shirt Sepp is wearing. Ära sure Euroopa!
To our delight, Russia has chosen the Buranovskiye Babushki for Eurovision.
The Babushki are grandmothers from a small village in the Udmurt Republic. The group started as amateurs by singing folk songs and Beatles covers in their local area. During the 2010 Russian national selection these adorable, spirited ladies in traditional dress won our hearts and finished in an unexpected 3rd place. See our write up from 2010 here. Since then the Babushki have become something of a phenomenon. They tour, regularly travel to Moscow for TV appearances, and for two years have been part of every imaginable discussion about who should represent Russia at Eurovision.
This year’s entry, “Party for Everybody,” is basically a drinking song. The Babushki expand it into a joyful, clap-along folk experience. Here’s “Party for Everybody”:
The Babushki are not about high quality vocals. Rather, their charm comes from their authenticity. These women remain humble and unaffected by their fame, and the Russians love them for it. Rightly so. What’s not to love here?
The Russian national final is usually a lot of fun to watch (when they decide to hold it, that is). You get true talent, Western music wannabes, and train wrecks. Most of the time the music sounds like it is from this decade, which is also a plus. In winning the Russian selection, the Babushki bested an entirely plausible return attempt from 2008 ESC winner Dima Bilan duetting with Yulia Volkova (of t.A.T.u. fame) and an odd Timbaland-masterminded collaboration between hiphop artist Timati and opera singer Aida.
In addition to selecting this year’s representative, Russian finals often serve as a proving ground for artists we see in Eurovisions to come. Artists who do well build up good will with organizers, gaining entrée to a short list for internal selection or inclusion on future national selection rosters. For example, Alexey Vorobyov impressed in 2008, and as mentioned earlier the Babushki made a big splash in 2010. Who, based on the 2012 contest, do we expect to hear more from in the future? We thought that Lena Maksimova proved herself a talented singer with a knack for over-the-top staging. Chinkong & Karina laid down a radio-friendly dance pop song. But for us, the unexpected delight of the evening was angry-t.A.T.u.-with-accordion duo Syostry Syo. Their entry, “Une Marionette,” had over-the-top posing and drama school theatrics, and was ridiculously entertaining. It finished 4th.
Thinking ahead to Baku, there is no one in the contest quite like the Babushki, but there is precedent that suggests they could do very well indeed. In 2005, the wonderfully eccentric Zdob şi Zdub gave Moldova a 2nd place finish with “Boonika Bate Toba,” which featured the lead singer’s grandmother in a rocking chair with a drum. Bottom line: the appeal of little old ladies should not be underestimated.
Russia has announced who will be representing them at Eurovision after a closed process that was rumored to include a greatest-hits short list from previous Russian selection shows, including the heart-stealing Babushkas.
Not to worry–after last year’s silliness, Russia will not be sending another comedian. Well, actually they are sending an actor. Alexsei Vorobiev (now spelled Alexey Vorobyov) will be representing Russia with “Get You.” We are thrilled. Alexsei performed in the 2008 Russian national finals (which Dima Bilan ultimately won, and then went on to win the whole enchilada). In our live blog, we just took the performances on their own merits (i.e., no prior research) and Alexsei was our favorite of that competition.
“Get You” is written by RedOne, who is best known as the mastermind behind most of Lady Gaga’s hits. RedOne has also had other Eurovision buzz this year, having produced Love Generation, a high-profile candidate in Sweden’s Melodifestivalen. However, Love Generation turned out to be a bust.
If the Love Generation arc has taught us anything, it is don’t make projections before hearing the song. Russia is debuting “Get You” next week. We’ll check back then, or when something leaks.
UPDATED 12 MARCH 2011: Russia had their official song presentation today. Here’s Alexey Vorobyov’s (AKA Alex Sparrow) live performance of “Get You”:
Upon listening, the first thing that strikes you is how chart friendly this song is. RedOne’s fingerprints really are all over it–Lady Gaga could have released it and we wouldn’t have blinked. “Get You” is a great pop song, and in that way it brought back memories of one of our all time favorites from Russia, Serebro’s “Song Number 1” (Russia 2007). But the song works great to showcase Vorobyov. He’s got a great voice and is a winning performer, and let’s not overlook the fact that he’s pretty hot.
Close observers will note that Vorobyov’s performance here isn’t that different from the bootleg version that leaked from one of his concerts. Vorobyov is on point, but he needs to use the next two months to get some better choreo and better backup dancers. I’m pretty confident that’ll happen, so I think this is another entry to take seriously. Russia gets tons of votes when they don’t have a good song–they sent a dirge last year and it finished 11th. This year they do have a good song, so it has to be considered a front runner.