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!

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Is it too early to place bets on who is going to win the jury vote?

Ana Soklič was slated to represent Slovenia last year with “Voda,” a gentle, winding ballad that benefited from her powerful voice. This year, she gets her chance to go to Eurovision with a grand, powerful ballad.

Ana co-wrote this song with her “Voda” partner Bojan Simončič and Slovenian composer and arranger Žiga Pirnat, with English lyrics by Eurovision winner Charlie Mason. Bringing in Mason was a smart idea (and I don’t just say that because I think he reads this blog). He has shown a knack for writing lyrics that offer inspiration without flinching from reality. To wit:

  • “You’ll get beaten and bruised/You’ll be scarred into your core/But it’s gonna make you who you are.”
  • “Hey child/The fear will never go away/Might as well accept it now.”
  • “Can the heart that’s broken cry?”

Not your typical syrupy aphorisms.

The arrangement makes full use of the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra. It also takes advantage of the rule this year that allows for pre-recorded vocals to provide Ana a full choir to back her up. My favorite part of “Amen” is the orchestration in the bridge, which has some unexpected, jazzy melodies that help build the song to a cathartic, gospel-laden finish.

At the center of it all is Ana Soklič herself, who imbues her song with grace and power. She hinted at her range on “Voda,” but “Amen” puts it on full display. She is a magnificent singer.

My big concern about “Amen” is not that Vincent Bueno named his song for Austria “Amen.” (In fact, he should be worried about Ana.) It’s that the song is musically and thematically similar to Tamara Todevska’s jury winner “Proud.” I think “Amen” is a better song, but Tamara delivered such an iconic performance at the 2019 Song Contest that I worry that Ana could suffer by comparison.

On the other hand, after all that has transpired since the last competitive Eurovision, maybe “Amen” will feel like a lovely release for a lot of the people watching at home.

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

Ever get the feeling you’re floating on a river, only to be interrupted by an elaborate pratfall?

Ana Soklič competed on the first season of X Faktor Slovenia, and was knocked out of the show in the fifth week. She participated in two previous editions of EMA, singing “Oče” in 2007 and “If You” as a member of Diona Dimm in 2004. She co-wrote “Voda” with Bojan Simončič, her Diona Dimm bandmate and the guitarist for the 1980s Slovenian New Wave band Ultimat. She recorded her song with the Budapest Art Orchestra, which also recorded “Rise Like a Phoenix.”

“Voda” translates as “Water,” which makes sense. The melodies of the song meander around like a leaf on a gentle stream, going here and there gently and occasionally getting stuck on a rock. It’s pleasant, and it will probably be lovely to listen to when we’re in the mood to relax. But it doesn’t really wow us.

That said, Ana has a rich, smoky voice and she gives a measured, professional performance. She sings it beautifully, and gives “Voda” a burst of life when she lands her big notes. There is room for her to open this up, which she will need to do if “Voda” is going to stand out in Rotterdam.

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

Oh for crying out loud, Slovenia! You had a chance to send one of the most intense, awesome, and potentially divisive Eurovision entries to the Song Contest, one that could have been the talk of Tel Aviv. Instead you sent a song that answers the question, “What if last year’s Portuguese entry was a little too high energy?”

Here’s Zala Kralj and Gašper Šantl with “Sebi.”

Zala Kralj and Gašper Šantl first teamed up in 2018 after a mutual friend introduced them through Instagram. Zala appeared as a featured artist on tracks Gašper produced, and the partnership proved so fruitful that they decided to form a duo.

“Sebi” is a dreamy, atmospheric song. It has a quiet, droning vocal melody and that, paired with Zala and Gašper internalized performance, makes the song ambient and intimate. One of the challenges Slovenia will face at the Song Contest is how to open Zala and Gašper’s performance up so that they bring the audience into their world, not exclude us from it. Something as simple as the tight camera work we saw in “Calm After the Storm” would be enough to draw us in.

We only have two real issues with “Sebi.” One, it doesn’t really go anywhere over its three minutes. Two, we have sour grapes. Slovenia could have finally sent Raiven, an artist we have loved from her previous Ema performances. She has a strong perspective on her music and her image and she brought an intriguing staging to Ema 2019. And Slovenia overwhelmingly rejected her song: Zala and Gašper won with almost 73% of the vote.

Of course, our hard feelings have no bearing on the Song Contest itself and most people who will watch Eurovision in May did not watch the Slovenian national final. Heck, given how many national finals there were this past Saturday, most die-hard Eurovision fans probably didn’t watch either. (They watched a Melodifestivalen heat instead.)

But this one hurts. It’s like Slovenia has rejected us. We take it very personally and will not be visiting Ljubljana or the Žalec beer fountain this year. We are that bitter.

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Thank you, yes, Slovenia! Here’s “Hvala, ne.”

This is Lea’s third trip to Eurovision. She was a backing singer for Tinkara Kovač at Eurovision in 2014 and for ManuElla in 2016. She also made three previous attempts to represent Slovenia as a lead artist. Her song “Vampir je moj poet” (which means what you think it means) finished behind “Narodnozabavni Rock” in EMA 2010. And deservedly so.

But why focus on the negative when we can focus on the positive? “Hvala, ne,” which Lea co-wrote with Slovenian deejay Tomy DeClerque, has a bouncy hip hop rhythm with some sleek techno accents. When it comes on, we drop everything and dance.

Sometimes we hear a selection for Eurovision and say to ourselves, this is a contender. Other times, a selection lands with us, and we have absolutely no idea if it is going to land with a general audience. “Hvala, ne” falls into that latter camp. We love it, but we have no idea if anyone else will. We really hope they do.

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Omar Naber won EMA 2017 and will represent Slovenia at Eurovision with “On My Way.”

Naber won Bitka Talentov, Slovenia’s version of Pop Idol, in 2004. The next year, he represented Slovenia at the Eurovision Song Contest with “Stop,” which finished 12th in the Semifinal. According to his Facebook bio, he is a licensed busker on the London Underground. You gotta pay the bills somehow when you split your time between London and Ljubljana.

We were frustrated with EMA this year because there were more interesting entries that Slovenia could have sent. There’s no doubt that Naber is talented, but “On My Way” is a super-safe “I want” show tune. The first thing we thought of when we heard it was “For Life,” Isis Gee’s song for Poland back in 2008. And that song was stale in 2008. Like “For Life,” “On My Way” is jury-friendly: it built a lead in the EMA jury vote that couldn’t be overturned when it finished second in the televote. At Eurovision, there is a slim possibility that its jury appeal becomes an asset. Slovenia participates in the First Semi, which traditionally sees more conservative song choices go through. But for us, this one is a snoozer.

Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Leap Year Edition

It’s a good thing it’s Leap Year, because we need an extra day to process all of the songs chosen for Eurovision this weekend!

Finland: Sandhja – “Sing It Away”

Donald Trump is going to be the Republican Party candidate for President and Sandhja’s European jazz festival closer is going to represent Finland at Eurovision and I do not understand the world anymore.

Hungary: Freddie – “Pioneer”

We are Eurovision hipsters, so A Dal is of course our favorite national selection competition these days. There were eight songs in the A Dal final, and we felt that the four super finalists would ably represent Hungary in Stockholm. Coming out of the semis, we thought Freddie would not only finish top 5 at Eurovision, but even take the crown. His performance in the final was a bit rougher, so we’re not quite ready to proclaim him the champion yet. But his husky voice and rugged good looks may make him very popular in Sweden.

Continue reading “Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Leap Year Edition”

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

Maraaya won Evrovizijska Melodija (EMA) 2015 and will be representing Slovenia at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with “Here for You”:

Maraaya are a wife and husband duo made up of Marjetka and Aleš “Raay” Vovk. They were members of Turbo Angels, which vied for a spot in the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest with “Zabava.” Since then, Raay was a judge on Misija Evrovizija 2012, which selected Eva Boto to represent Slovenia. Last year, he co-wrote the Slovenian entry “Round and Round.”

Marjetka has a nasally, raspy voice that reminds me of a cross between Anastacia and Duffy. She is also a vocal coach who taught last year’s Slovenian Junior Eurovision representative, Ula Ložar. They and Raay were some of the co-writers of the Slovenian Junior Eurovision entry “Your Light.”

Maraaya co-wrote “Here For You” with in-demand American lyricist Charlie Mason, who co-wrote “Rise Like a Phoenix” and is writing English lyrics for this year’s Serbian entry “Ceo svet je moj.” Call him M:Son.

“Here for You” has a propulsive beat, some swanky strings, and a nice vocal from Marjetka. All of the elements come together to create a fun little pop number. The EMA 2015 staging left a little bit to be desired; the headphones Maraaya were wearing looked a bit silly, but not as silly as the back-up dancer miming the violin riff. I’m not sure if Marjetka’s wedding dress was repurposed for the show, but it looked out of place with the contemporary pop song Maraaya were performing.

“Here for You” has Euroclub favorite written all over it, which may not necessarily translate to votes. Even if it gets stuck in Semis, it may turn out to be one of those songs diehard fans listen to more often than the eventual winner.

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

Tinkara Kovač has been picked to represent Slovenia at Eurovision with “Spet (Round and Round)”:

“Spet” has a bit of a pedigree. Kovač has had a long career in Slovenia, and has made three previous attempts to represent her country. Her best finish before this year was in 1999, when she had won the televote but eventually finished second. The music for “Spet” is by Raay, who was a judge on Misija Evrovija 2012 and served on Slovenia’s national jury for Eurovision 2013. The song’s lyrics are by Kovač, Tina Piš and last year’s Slovenian entry, Hannah Mancini. Presumably the American Mancini provided the English translation used during the bilingual performance, although the lyrics still sound like they’ve been Google-translated:

I’m gonna show you how to breathe
I’m gonna show you how to live
I’m gonna hold your heart in hand
I’m gonna make you understand

You don’t know, you don’t know
Is it love, is it hate
What are you changing (What are we doing)
You don’t know, you don’t know
Can you feel it inside
Feel the roses, feel the pride (Do you believe it)

Round and round again we
Round and round again we
Go-oh-oh-oh, Oh-oh-oh-oh

It’s kind of hard to describe what “Spet” is other than a Eurovision song. It sounds like the writers sat down, listened to mid-90s Eurovision winners, then patched together a quilt of Eurovision tropes. That said, it’s not a bad effort, and I kind of like Kovač rocking the flute during her performance. I assume they’re going to work on the staging, at least so the back-up singers do the finger twirls in sync.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure it’s memorable enough to make out of the second Semi. Slovenia performs in the second half, and I think “Spet” is going to get overshadowed.

Slovenia’s Eurovision 2013 Entry

Slovenia, no doubt upset with its poor showing after a many months long selection process last year, has opted for an internal selection for Malmö. They selected Hannah and “Straight into love.”

We had to give up seeing Klemen Slakonja for THIS?!?

Hannah Mancini is a Colorado native making her way as a singer in Slovenia.  She made a previous bid for Eurovision in 2011 in collaboration with DJ Sylvain and Mike Vale with “Ti si tisti,” a song which, frankly, betrays many concerns for “Straight into love.”

I’m starting to think that Slovenia’s real problem is its choice of songs. As a song, this one holds little artistic merit.  Once you get past the opening verse, the song becomes repetitive.  Worse, emotionally, it holds one level and stays there. This may seem out of left field, but upon first listen, I was actually reminded of Slovakia and TWiiNS, which had a similarly simplistic melody.

Hannah doesn’t do much to strengthen the song. Vocally, she has some power but in the recorded track there are times when she sounds so harsh my ears start to bleed. Moreover, in EMA 2011, where she sang live, there were times when her pitch went off the rails. As a performer, she moves awkwardly on stage and her presence on camera is underwhelming. And if that atrocity of a dress during the song presentation is any of indication of what she’ll wear in Malmö… well… let’s just say that I hope the Slovenian organizers have more fashion sense than her.

Still, “Straight into love” is the kind of trashy outing that the Eurovision fanboys love.  It’s electropop, has a beat and you can dance to it. Indeed, it seems to have received a relatively favorable response from the fan community.  So who knows, maybe she’ll pull an Ivi Adamou and receive 12 points from Sweden. Ivi couldn’t dance either.

So is Hannah this year’s Ivi Adamou or TWiiNS? Only time will tell.