The Eurovision Seal of Approval: Ale Jestem

Eurovision began for me in 2006. Sure, I’m aware of the history of the Song Contest: it was ABBA, Dana International, the Olsen Brothers, and Stefan Raab that led me into it in the first place. But I’ve dived so deep into each Eurovision season since I’ve started writing this blog that, while my knowledge of the past fifteen years of the Song Contest is vast, my awareness of what came before exists only in bits and pieces.

I think I have seen all of the contests between 1970 and 2005 at least once, as evidenced by some of the stray pre-2006 entries in my Pantheon pages. But I was more looking for kitsch, stuff that could populate the Campiest Performances and Biggest Misfires pages.

As I’ve started to write up songs for the Seal of Approval page, I’ve realized how much of a recency bias I have. Up until 2019, my favorite Eurovision song was from 2008, and now my two all-time faves are two of the last three Italian entries.

And yet I realize that once I get out of a Eurovision season, when I stop listening to all of that year’s entries over and over again and get back to “normal” music listening, there are a number of songs that I keep coming back to, and it’s past time for me to acknowledge my affections here.

This brings me to “Ale Jestem,” which represented Poland at the 1997 Song Contest. I always seem to be drawn to Anna Maria Jopek’s song in the summertime. It sort of feels like the closing credits to the Eurovision season: the winner has been crowned, we’re all about to head into the post-Song Contest doldrums, and “Ale Jestem” plays as we head off to play in a field with our Eurodogs.

Even though I haven’t frequently revisited 1990s editions of Eurovision, “Ale Jestem” does sound a lot like what I associate with that era. It also reminds me a lot of an IQ album that I am a bit obsessed with called Are You Sitting Comfortably? It’s those synthesizers: they bulk up the orchestration, even though they definitely feel a bit dated now.

And yet, I still find “Ale Jestem” invigorating. Reading the translated lyrics, I get the sense that it is about enjoying the simpler, natural joys of being alive “nim wielka cisza pochłonie mnie,” or “before a great silence engulfs me.” That I could get the feeling of seasonal rebirth from the song without realizing what the lyrics meant speaks to the quality of the arrangement. Even if it is a song for a summer long ago, it still feels like an eternally optimistic melody.

It’s also a song that encourages me to bone up on my history more. If I can obsessively listen to a song from Eesti Laul 2009, then there’s no reason I can’t unearth other gems from Eurovision’s main history. But more on that later this summer…

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.

The Eurovision Lemur Seal of Approval: Nobody But You

There are a lot of reasons why a song can resonate with someone. Sometimes it captures a mood. Sometimes it expresses something you feel in ways you never thought of saying. And sometimes it evokes a sense memory that takes you back to a place you want to be reminded of.

And so it is with me and “Nobody But You,” Cesár Sampson’s 2018 Eurovision Song Contest entry for Austria. It is a really good song, but more importantly for me, it takes me back to Vienna in April 2018.

In the years before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to travel for work. My office has a satellite office in Vienna, so I often found myself in Austria’s capital. I had grown found of the country because my father-in-law is from Innsbruck, so regular trips there only fueled my fascination.

April 2018 was the last time I travelled for work for a variety of reasons, including but not exclusively COVID-19. When I was in Vienna that week, I heard “Nobody But You” a lot. It was in heavy rotation on the radio, so I was guaranteed to hear it whenever I went out to eat or sat down for a beer.

I have no doubt that the steady airplay in Vienna had imprinted on me when, the night before the 2018 Grand Final, I had a dream that “Nobody But You” had won Eurovision. I woke up, laughed, then dismissed it as a farfetched dream. So you can imagine my surprise when “Nobody But You” racked up jury points. Wait… is this really going to happen?

It didn’t, but I’m glad the juries gave “Nobody But You” their top marks. I think it’s a joyous, buoyant song. It has a bright, uplifting orchestration, with lots of soaring vocals and crisp harmonies. It’s a really well constructed pop song, grand in scope but intimate in execution.

If I’m being honest, I don’t really care for the lyrics. They are of a “you can’t leave me” ilk that make me feel a little bit squirmy. I don’t think they really  fit the mood set by the song’s arrangement.

Cesár’s talent lies in how he uses his vocal as an instrument to make his song soar. Even I think if the lyrics are a bit off, he sells them in a way that makes them powerful. Between that and his magnetic charisma, he was able to make an indelible impression at Eurovision.

“Nobody But You” finished third behind “Toy” and “Fuego.” I figure diehard Eurovision fans would have rioted if Cesár had pipped Netta or Elena for the title, so third was probably the perfect spot for him to finish. While the other two songs were perfect packages, “Nobody But You” is the song from 2018 I listen to the most. Especially because it takes me back to my favorite city whenever I hear it.

The Eurovision Lemur Seal of Approval: Birds

Now that I’ve finished my analysis of the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, I can turn my attention to other projects that I’ve been dying to do for the Eurovision Lemur blog.

In previous years, I’ve awarded the Eurovision Lemur Seal of Approval to my favorite Eurovision songs of all time. I bestow a seal because that sounds a lot fancier than me just saying, “OMIGARSH I love this song so much!”

I’ve already added Måneskin’s Eurovision-winning song “Zitti e buoni” to the pantheon page, and over the next few weeks I’ll be taking a look at other songs that are still in heavy rotation at my house.

It seems appropriate to start with something from the most recent host of the Song Contest, The Netherlands. Going into Eurovision 2013, the country had failed to make it out of the Semifinals eight years in a row. So Dutch broadcaster TROS asked multi-platinum selling artist Anouk to help change their fortunes.

Anouk’s offering, “Birds,” was a track on her album Sad Singalong Songs, the title of which tells you a lot about the lyrical content of the single. The song captures with melodramatic flair all the heartache and depression that comes from the end of a relationship. “Birds falling down the rooftops/Out of the sky like raindrops” are quite possibly the most bleak lyrics I have ever heard at Eurovision.

Yet “Birds” is hauntingly beautiful. The lush orchestrations carry an eerie power to them, perfectly accentuating Anouk’s smoky vocal tone and morose lyrics. If gothic horror pop is a musical genre, then “Birds” is a prime example.

The song could be relentlessly dour, but glimmers of hope flicker throughout. “Birds” ends on a major note, and its bridge is sung by a children’s choir. Rather than being creepy, the choir’s vocals instead sound like the clouds are beginning to lift. Of course, the bridge leads right back into the chorus, so let’s not get our hopes up too much.

The live version at the 2013 Song Contest replaces the children with adult singers, but rather than diminishing “Birds,” the switch infuses it with an uncanny quality that makes it even stronger. This is one of those rare moments where I prefer the live version to the recorded one, because the vocal arrangement is so much more opulent and powerful.

Anouk led The Netherlands to the Finals and finished ninth overall. She also kicked off a new era for the Dutch at Eurovision. TROS merged with AVRO the following year to form AVROTROS and celebrated by finishing second with The Common Linnets’ “Calm After the Storm.” It would take them just five more years to get that long-awaited fifth win with Duncan Laurence’s “Arcade.” They’ve put out some quality entries since 2013, but Anouk’s song still resonates with me the most all these years later.

The Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval: Visionary Dream

Eurovision Lemurs Seal of ApprovalGeorgia has always been one of our favorite Eurovision participants, and our fascination with them started from day one.

They made an audacious debut at the Eurovision Song Contest with Sopho Khalvashi’s “Visionary Dream.” Their entry acted as a three-minute introduction, but in hindsight, it can also be seen as a kind of mission statement. Georgia always seems to do things a bit differently at Eurovision and they laid the marker down from the very start.

“Visionary Dream” kicks off with the sounds of acoustic instruments for some neo-traditional folk flair. When Sopho starts to sing, an undercurrent of strings adds a touch of the classical era. At the bridge, the soaring vocal and the cascading strings build up tension.

But the release of that tension comes from an unexpected place: rubbery synthesized notes that abruptly drag the song away from its folk styling and into modern electronic pop music.  The music bed under the chorus is crunchy and a bit dissonant, yet it accentuates the song’s central conceit: “Sailing through my story/Sharing my history.”

The rest of the song bounces around the traditional and the modern, a wild stew of musical notes that somehow still sound cohesive. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Well, at least on the recorded track. Much to our dismay, but not our surprise, the live presentation ended up being a bit of an audible mess. While Sopho has the pipes to carry “Visionary Dream,” she ended up shouting more than singing. Maybe the adrenaline generated by both the song and the occasion took its toll on her performance.

Still, “Visionary Dream” did generate one of our favorite staging moments ever at Eurovision. When Sopho sings, “Clouds containing lakes/And in the haze of morning light/I feel embraced,” the camera pans back to reveal LED animation of faces blending together. It still gives us the chills over a decade later.

Visionary Dream at 2007 Final

This was Georgia introducing itself to Europe, and we think they did a great job doing so. As for Sopho, she went on to become deputy mayor of her hometown of Batumi. Keep sharing that history!

The Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval: Shady Lady

Eurovision Lemurs Seal of ApprovalFor some reason, Ukraine has been on our minds a lot lately. Not really sure why.

But that’s okay, because Ukraine has always been one of our favorite Eurovision forces. Their songs are usually good fun or at least interesting. Their performances tend to be overstaged in an entertaining way. And failing all that, they can be counted on to bring way too much drama to their national selection process. And sometimes to other countries’ national selection processes.

All of which brings us to Ani Lorak. She was widely expected to win Ukraine’s national final in 2005 with “A Little Shot of Love.” But after weeks of semifinals, broadcaster NTU threw four wild card songs into the final at the last minute. Among the new entries was GreenJolly’s “Razom nas bahato, nas ne podolaty,” which had served as the unofficial anthem of the Orange Revolution. GreenJolly won, leaving Ani second in the table.

It may have hurt at the time, but let’s be honest, we don’t want to live in an alternate history where “A Little Shot of Love” went to Eurovision and “Shady Lady” didn’t.

What is it about “Shady Lady” that still delights us over a decade later? Let’s start with the orchestration. “Shady Lady” is propelled by synthesized strings that build and release tension throughout the song. It evokes lush disco-era orchestrations without sounding dated or pastiche.

To be sure, the verse foregoes the orchestral filigree for a bass-heavy grinding rhythm punctuated by beeps that Lorak and her back-up dancers used to full effect at the Song Contest.

But it’s really all about the strings for us. Our favorite moment in “Shady Lady” comes when the beat drops after the bridge and Lorak sings “Shady. Lady. Are you. Ready.” Those strings zoom back in to kick the song back into full gear. That still makes us tingly.

Lorak fully embodies and inhabits the lyrics.  Even though she didn’t write them (Eurovision stalwart Karen Kavaleryan did), she makes them her own. “Baby, don’t call me baby” is one of our favorite Eurovision lyrics.

“Shady Lady” finished second at the 2008 Song Contest, behind Dima Bilan’s “Believe.” We have frequently said on this blog that it’s the best song that never won Eurovision. Even though we’ll posit from time to time that another song has replaced it, we always seem to come back to our original position.

(Though we are ready to say “Soldi” has claimed that title at last. Don’t tell Ani.)

The Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval: Soldi

Eurovision Lemurs Seal of ApprovalSo far in this series, we have celebrated an Italian song and a song with a great bassline. Today we celebrate an Italian song with a great bassline. What can we say: we have a type.

Actually, we’re generally not gushing fans of Italy’s Eurovision output. It just so happens that two of our absolute favorites are Italian. But enough with random defensiveness. Let’s blast this banger!

“Soldi” grabbed a hold on our ears pretty much from the first time we heard it at Sanremo and it wouldn’t let go. It stood out to us because it just sounded different than a lot of the other songs vying for the crown.

To be sure, Mahmood’s vocal melody isn’t that unique compared to the other male vocals on offer at Sanremo. “Soldi” was one of many songs that featured variations the sing-songy, densely packed verses that we associate with Italian pop.

What set it apart was its immediacy. “Soldi” is driven by a recurring mandolin riff and by vocal punctuation that accents the main melody. It also derives its punch from Mahmood’s performance. He sings his autobiographical lyrics with both an air of defiance and a sigh of resignation that draws us in.

He then builds and builds the bridge both lyrically and orchestrally and we brace ourselves for some sort of big release of tension. But instead of resolving, “Soldi” just DROPS into the chorus. There is unresolved emotion in the lyrics and the chorus’ orchestration captures it. The simple, but rich bassline further emphasizes that feeling. This is how Mahmood tells his story to a general audience without speaking their respective languages.

Mahmood brought a smoldering intensity to his performance at Eurovision. Yet one of our favorite moments of the entire Song Contest in 2019 is the beaming smile he breaks into when he’s done. We felt the same way then and feel the same way now.

The Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval: If Love Was a Crime

Eurovision Lemurs Seal of ApprovalWhile it took us until 2017 to devise the Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval, we really came up with the spirit of idea in 2016. That was the year Bulgaria returned to the Eurovision Song Contest after a couple of years off with a new game plan: send awesome songs.

That may sound like an obvious plan, but it’s a unique formula that some former Song Contest forces struggle to adhere to these days.

“If Love Was a Crime” was a song that was immediately awesome. It hooked us right from the start with its brief introductory interlude that used a haunting electronically-generated voice to grab our attention. It then kicks off properly with a finger snap-laden beat that propels Poli’s vocal over the piano’s melody.

Then that bassline kicks in. Oh, yes, very nice! It’s rich and pulsating, and it is the roaring engine that drives “If Love Was a Crime” along. When we’ve got this cranked, the bassline still has the power to give us chills.

Although the bridge is not much to write home about, it is at least orchestrated in a way to build anticipation for the chorus. You can hear rising synthetic strings right before Poli sings, “They will never break us down,” and you are primed for that chorus to explode.

The switch to Bulgarian is seamless and the lyrics (translated as “oh, give me love”) serves to emphasize the message of the English lyrics. The ornate vocal tracks of the chorus give “If Love Was a Crime” its anthemic quality.

If we were to quibble, it would be in regards to how it was staged at the 2016 Song Contest. Poli’s costume was ridiculous and while the choreography was cute, the Bulgarian delegation could have her backing singers come out earlier to do it along with her. We felt like saving the singers for the last 30 seconds blunted the song’s impact.

Of course, we are talking about a song that finished fourth at the Grand Prix final, so are we to quibble?

The Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval: Occidentali’s Karma

Eurovision Lemurs Seal of ApprovalNot enough people celebrate the 13th anniversary of anything. It’s the lace anniversary, you know.

Tempted though we are to dress our site up in frilly lingerie, we are going to mark our website’s 13th anniversary with a series introducing you to the songs that we have awarded the Eurovision Lemurs Seal of Approval. It’s our chance to finally revamp our old Legitimately Good Songs page and to figure out what it is about our favorite Eurovision songs that tickle our aortas the way they do.

Our main criteria for stamping a song with our Seal of Approval is that it has to be one that the entire Lemurs household agrees is awesome. We realize that we’re giving veto power to an 11-year-old, but these are the hazards when you raise a kid on Eurovision.

First up, let’s talk about the song that sparked this whole idea in the first place: Francesco Gabbani’s “Occidentali’s Karma.”

We were three of the many Eurovision fans who latched onto “Occidentali’s Karma” after its first performance at Sanremo 2017. Initial attention was of course paid to the dancer in the gorilla suit. But underlying the silly stage picture and the accompanying goofy dance was a song satirizing both the need for humans to feel like we have a higher purpose and our tendency to appropriate other cultures to feel like we have achieved that purpose.

Despite the seemingly cynical subject matter, “Occidentali’s Karma” radiates joy. It may be poking fun at an annoying side of human nature, but it does so with a playful elbow to the ribs and a pat on the back. The staccato plunking at the start sets the tone for the subject matter, but the effervescent chorus gives “Occidentali’s Karma” a grand scope and a ridiculously catchy hook.

Although it was the odds leader almost as soon as Francesco won Sanremo, it ultimately finished six at Eurovision. Why did it falter? Well, there is no better case for bringing back the live orchestra than “Occidentali’s Karma.” Compare the Eurovision performance with the Sanremo performance. They aren’t that different from each other. But having the Sanremo orchestra interact with the song brought an additional level of energy and playfulness for Francesco to feast upon. Even though the hot crowd in Kyiv gave him a big “alé” on cue, Francesco spent most of his time at the Song Contest trying to generate his own energy. This led to a more frenetic, less confident performance.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on the Grand Prix performance (or even the awkward edited version on the official Eurovision album) to achieve maximum enjoyment. We bought the single the second it became available, and we still listen to it on a regular basis.