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!

Sweden’s Eurovision 2021 Entry

Saying that Tusse won Melodifestivalen this year is an understatement. He totally won the living daylights out of Melodifestivalen this year. He received 12 points from four of the eight international juries and received 10 points from two others. In the detailed televoting results, he received 12 points from all seven age groups in the app vote and 12 more points from the telephone vote. Eric Saade finished 10 points behind him in the jury vote, and The Mamas finished 40 points behind him in the televote. He received 2,964,269 votes from the public, which beat John Lundvik’s previous record by just over 750,000. His win was comprehensive.

Not bad for his first Melodifestivalen entry.

Tusse is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who came to Sweden at age eight. He has discussed the difficulties he had leaving his family behind as a child and settling into a new country on his own. He is now 19 and still in school; he mentioned in interviews before and after the Melodifestivalen final that he had a science paper due the week after the competition ended.

Aside from being a wonderful story about being celebrated by his new home, Tusse is also a wonderful story about an incredible performing talent. His vocal on “Voices” is flawless, and he has that rare ability to stare into the camera and express personal warmth and comfort to whoever is watching at home.

He can also elevate a song that is really a paint-by-numbers world harmony number, the type that Russia usually sends when they do internal selections. I don’t really like “Voices” on its own; I find the lyrics to be a bit trite. The fact that Tusse can take those lyrics and make them sound meaningful just highlights what a special talent he is.

I mentioned in my review of the Swiss entry “Tout l’Univers” that I sort Eurovision entries into two broad groups: songs that stand out because of strength of the song itself and ones that stand out because of the package in total. “Voices” stands out because Tusse is the total package.

Sweden’s Eurovision 2020 Entry

There ain’t no Melodifestivalen that the Mamas wouldn’t move.

The Mamas are Ashley Haynes, Loulou Lamotte, and Dinah Yonas Manna. Alongside Paris Renitsa, they were John Lundvik’s backing singers when he represented Sweden at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. Notably, Ashley quit her job in Washington, DC after her boss wouldn’t give her time off to perform “Too Late for Love.” That risk has certainly paid off as The Mamas are now signed with Universal Music Sweden.

“Move” was written by Melanie Wehbe, Patrik Jean, and Herman Gardarfve, who composed “Rain” for 2019’s Swedish Idol winner Tusse. Melanie co-wrote Leonora’s “Love Is Forever,” which delivered a 12th place finish for Denmark at last year’s Song contest. Patrik co-wrote Kenny Duerlund’s “Forget It All,” an entry in this year’s Dansk Melodi Grand Prix. Herman has never written a song for Denmark, but he did co-author Robin Bengtsson’s 2018 song “Liar.”

The Mamas were the first act to perform in the first heat of this year’s Melodifestivalen and were given the honors of closing out the whole shebang. It was a nail-biter, though: they were tied with Dotter after the jury vote and won the televote by one point. Talk about squeaking out a win.

We’ve liked “Move” from the first moment we heard it. It’s family-friendly, gospel-influenced schlager, as radiant as sunbeams and almost relentlessly chipper. It’s not unique: we recognized some familiar tropes, including a breakdown to get the audience clapping, references to mountains and vast bodies of water, and lyrics that can easily be interpreted in either religious and secular contexts. Usually all of that is an anathema to us because we’re recovering teenaged goths, but it works for us here.

Of course, we have to admit that we were a bit biased towards the American in the competition. Goodness knows there have been so much Swedish influence on the American pop charts over the past few decades, so it’s nice to get one back.

Sweden’s Eurovision 2019 Entry

Sweden had a weird result at last year’s Eurovision Song Contest. They racked up 253 points from the jury, but only received 21 points from the televote. Did the slick staging leave viewers cold?

This year, Sweden responded by overwhelmingly selecting a song that relies on the likeability of its singer rather than elaborate stage props. See, Europe, they do remember when it was just a song contest!

John Lundvik won a bronze medal in the 4×100 meters relay at the 2005 Swedish Championship before becoming a songwriter. His big break came when he co-wrote “When You Tell the World You’re Mine” for the wedding of the Crown Princess of Sweden. He finished third at last year’s Melodifestivalen with “My Turn” and co-wrote this year’s United Kingdom entry “Bigger Than Us.”

There is a lot to like here. “Too Late for Love” is effervescent and joyful, belying the desperation in the lyrics. John is a charismatic singer with a sparkling stage presence. We enjoyed seeing him interacting with his backing singers during his Melodifestivalen performance instead of relegating them to the side of the stage.

We also love the fact that backing singer Ashley Haynes quit her job and moved to Sweden when her boss in Washington, D.C. wouldn’t give her time off to participate. Which sums up a lot about Washington, D.C. actually.

By itself, “Too Late for Love” is a good song. When we start comparing it to the other entries that speak to us this year, it begins to suffer a bit. It lacks the grit of “Soldi,” the emotion of “Arcade,” the snarl of “Chameleon,” the grandeur of “Better Love,” the pop of “She Got Me,” or the pomp of “Scream.”

That’s an elaborate way of saying that we like it, but we like other songs better. That doesn’t mean we aren’t chair-dancing along when it comes on in the car.

Guest Post by Kid Lemur: Sweden’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

A new feature on Eurovision Lemurs: a guest post! Kid Lemur (who is currently in 3rd grade) wanted to weigh in on one of the most talked about entries in our household. When asked why he wanted to write this post, Kid Lemur informed us “because I can.” So be nice y’all.  🙂

Benjamin Ingrosso is pretty well-known in Sweden. This song is pretty good but it could use a few things that are different though. Like I think the background should be different. I don’t think that a bunch of lines does the trick. I think there should be something else that’s not lines. He started singing at the age of nine! That’s amazing! The evolution of him is incredible! He has some incredible talents like singing, performing (it would be better if he did not have that stupid coat) etc. “Dance You Off” is a good song but the lyrics are really weird…. Like “I just want to da-da-dance you off.” What does that even mean? It’s a good song but to be honest Sweden doesn’t have a good chance at winning this year. I mean it’s a good song, but they’re not winning. Like seriously, how does this win?!?!?!? But I feel like he is too focused on winning that he can’t make the song to be as good as he wants it to be.

Sweden’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Benjamin Ingrosso reigned supreme in what many regarded as the worst…Melodifestivalen…ever…  Here’s “Dance You Off.”

Benjamin Ingrosso comes from a multi-generation entertainment family. His parents are singer Pernilla Wahlgren and her former backing dancer and now restaurant owner Emilio Ingrosso. His grandparents are actors, his uncle is a singer, and there’s a family tie to Swedish House Mafia in there as well. When he was 9, Benjamin represented Sweden at the 2006 Melodi Grand Prix Nordic (the Scandinavian equivalent of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest). He followed that up with a foray into pop music and then musical theater. He won Let’s Dance 2014, Sweden’s version of Dancing with the Stars. Benjamin landed on our, and most other Eurovision fans’, radar last year when he entered Melodifestivalen with “Good Lovin’,” which finished 5th overall. We had extensive thoughts (for better and worse) about him at the time, which you can read about here.

In 2018 we find that our relationship with Benjamin Ingrosso is no less complicated than it was in 2017.

Benjamin Ingrosso’s lane is pop teen idol with R&B influences, similar to Justin Timberlake or Justin Bieber. “Dance You Off” is austerely produced dance-pop with an R&B flair that keeps him in his falsetto for most of the time. It’s radio-friendly and has a memorable hook. Vocal-only captures on YouTube provide evidence that he sings well live, and he knows how to work a camera. We love him.

Word from Portugal is that organizers are planning a minimalist stage with simple lighting and no LED screen for Eurovision. Rather than let another organizer’s stage undermine their performance, Sweden’s solution is to bring their own. Benjamin is showcased against a full backdrop of fluorescent lights, which fill the frame. “Dance You Off’s” concept is so slick, so tightly edited, and so elegant we are certain we will be seeing it again in May.

However, Benjamin Ingrosso has an inner saboteur. Despite his best efforts, in both Melfest 2017 and 2018 there was a thing about his presentation that made it land left of center. In Melfest 2017, it was the age-inappropriate wardrobe choice and the uncomfortable lyrics. For Melfest 2018, he fixed both those things, but there was the JACKET. Ugh, the jacket. It kept getting in his way. And the come hither look he kept giving us was not sexy, it was creepy. So our first reaction to “Dance You Off” was “We like him. The song is ok. The staging is very good. But it’s not enough.” And then nothing else showed up in Sweden, and we were rooting for him to win.

It’s telling that the Swedish delegation opted to submit his musical video to Eurovision instead of the Melodifestivalen performance (which has been Sweden’s customary practice). We surmise that team Christer Bjorkman et al will be giving Benjamin some notes between now and May. Hopefully that will help him, but that inner saboteur can be a tricky demon.

To us, Benjamin Ingrosso is an intriguing figure. We like his music and so much about him is appealing. Then he does something to undermine himself. He can’t help it. It gives him layers, to the point where he earns a place alongside Donny Montell in our pantheon of patron saints. We wish him the best.

Sweden’s Eurovision 2017 Entry

Robin Bengtsson has won Melodifestivalen and will represent Sweden at Eurovision with “I Can’t Go On.”

Bengtsson finished third in Sweden’s Idol 2008 and has gone on to have top 10 hits with “Another Lover’s Gone” and “Constellation Prize,” with which he placed fifth in last year’s Melodifestivalen. “I Can’t Go On” was written by David Kreuger, Hamed “K-One” Pirouzpanah and Robin Stjernberg. Stjernberg represented Sweden with “You” at the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest. Kreuger and Pirouzpanah co-wrote “Undo” for Sanna Nielsen, as well as Alcazar’s “Blame It On the Disco.”

We have complex feelings about “I Can’t Go On.” It’s smooth and catchy, and it’s elevated by the staging, which starts off all Justin Timberlake backstage at Saturday Night Live and then gets all OK GO’s “Here It Goes Again.”

However, “I Can’t Go On” is not without its flaws. It is a triumph of style over substance. As such, Bengtsson needs to perform it as stylishly as possible or else it comes off as a bit smarmy and exposes the inherent mediocrity of the song.

In particular, the original lyric contained the line “when you look this fucking beautiful,” which was repeated 10 times during its first performance. (It’s so cute when Swedes swear in English.) Seemingly realizing he had a shot to win, Bengtsson changed the lyric for the Melodifestivalen final to “when you look this freaking beautiful.” It’s not an improvement by any stretch of the imagination, but the songwriters had painted themselves into a corner with a needless swear word that added nothing to the song. We’re not prudes, by the way. We just didn’t see the fucking point of the original lyric.

Bengtsson was behind in the betting odds going into the Melodifestivalen final and it always felt like he was a part of the conversation without ever being anyone’s outright favorite. In the end, he finished third in the televote and only got the full 12 points from three of the 11 international juries. However, he did get eight to 12 points from all but two of the juries. People like to focus on the douze points at Eurovision, but the key to doing well is getting those mid-to-upper range of points. The results of Melodifestivalen prove that in microcosm, which is convenient for us since Eurovision now uses the Melodifestivalen scoring system.

We’re not saying that “I Can’t Go On” is your next Eurovision winner. There are a lot of stronger songs in the Song Contest this year. But there weren’t a lot of stronger songs or better performances at Melodifestivalen this year and that was good enough for Bengtsson to book a ticket to Kyiv.

Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Ides of March Edition

Beware the Ides of March, but beware the Eurovision Song Contest entries from San Marino more.

San Marino: Serhat – “I Didn’t Know”

For those of us who first came to Eurovision for the campiness, the past decade has been relatively slim pickings. Sure, you sometimes get a countertenor on a plinth or an Albanian Gumby impersonator, but most countries are increasingly taking this seriously. Fortunately, San Marino and Serhat have teamed up to offer us a slice of old school hokum that has transported us to a magical land where that strap-on monocle is an actual thing that people actually wear. We want to vacation in Manfred T. Mugler’s artistic vision. With any luck, the staging of this least self-aware miracle will live up to the amazing video. San Marino, don’t fuck this up.

UPDATED 03/21/2016: They fucked this up. Since we posted this review, San Marino decided to use the disco remix of “I Didn’t Know” as their Eurovision entry. Sadly, the original video has been scrubbed from the Eurovision YouTube playlist. Why do you got to stick it to the Manfred, San Marino?

Continue reading “Eurovision 2016 Round-Up: Ides of March Edition”

Sweden’s Eurovision 2015 Entry

At Eurovision, there are some years where it’s an open contest. And then there are the years where Sweden nails it. Here’s your next winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, Måns Zelmerlöw with “Heroes”:

As fans, moments like this are few and far between, and we live for them. “Heroes,” how do we love thee? Let us count the ways.

We love Måns. Måns is a beloved figure among the Eurovision devout. He had two prior strong Melodifestivalen showings in 2007 and 2009, and he co-hosted Melodifestivalen in 2010 (where, notably, he sang “Eye of the Tiger” with Dolph Lundgren). Like Sanna Nielsen last year, it was starting to look like he was going to be one of the greats that would never get his shot.  We’re over the moon for him.

We love the song. Detractors have pointed out that “Heroes” bears a not-so-subtle similarity to David Guetta’s “Lovers on the Sun.” No question, it does. The Ennio Morricone spaghetti western-inspired pop sound recently popularized by Guetta and Avicii is present here: the verses have similar melodies and tempo, and there are some similar transitions between verse and chorus. But this weakness is also a strength. Musically, the song doesn’t follow the “Eurovision template.” When people are saying it sounds like David Guetta, they are tacitly acknowledging that song is modern Swedish pop, consistent with the Swedish pop that currently fills the airwaves. Further, we maintain that “Heroes” is actually the better song. The chorus is more engaging, and the lyrics of “Heroes” are in line with the Wild West theme.

We love the lyrics. “We are the heroes of our time, but we’re dancing with the demons in our minds.” It’s an inspiring idea. And while the music eschews the Eurovision template, this message is universal and easy to understand. It’s a great example of deviating from the formula just enough.

We love the fit between song and artist. Måns’s decision to return for 2015 was surely because he believed he had found the right song. He has. In this performance of “Heroes” he hits every beat. He’s vocally great, he engages with the animation in his staging, he’s likable, he’s sexy, he’s joyful.

We love the staging. The concept has Måns alone on stage, interacting with animated characters. At the bridge he transitions to a rotoscoped extreme close-up, then to a extreme close-up on camera, and finally ending up stage center with the crowd. It’s practically a music video, staged live. “Heroes” has one of the most creative stagings we have ever seen at Eurovision, a national final, or an award show. It’s simply jaw-dropping.

We love that it will translate. Swedish artists have been getting smarter about coming up with staging concepts that play well at the lavish Melodifestivalen and yet can also be adapted to the stricter requirements of the Eurovision stage. To stage this song, they need the backdrop, a bench, and some specific camera angles. Without the need for backing dancers, Sweden can use its 6-person limit to staff a team of backing vocalists who can take on the chorus parts and vocal doubling.

“Heroes” sailed to victory at Melodifestivalen this year. That’s no slight on the competition — the caliber of song in this year’s contest was unusually high — it’s an indicator of how good this song is. It’s hard to imagine that anything else will be able to put up a fight in Vienna.

Sweden’s Eurovision 2014 Entry

Melodifestivalen, the big kid on the block, wrapped up this weekend. It was an unusual year in Sweden. Aftonbladet reported decreased ratings and increased criticism; this year Swedish public seemed to tire of the production value. In one respect the Swedes had a point: the production was a little low rent. In previous years we’ve had Dolph Lundgren singing “Eye of the Tiger,” but this year, delicious pastries? However, Christer Björkman’s song choices seemed very much the usual fare: multiple options from Fredrik Kempe, multiple options from Bobby Ljunggren, sentimental favorites from previous years, Eric Saade wannabes, etc.

The comfortable routine was very nearly upstaged by Ace Wilder, a Kesha contemporary, who came out of nowhere to hit #1 in the Swedish pop charts and got within an inch of winning. But, not to worry. In the end, the Swedish voters made a sensible choice. Here’s Sanna Nielsen and “Undo”:

“Undo” is a solid ballad. Songwriter Fredrik Kempe has laced the refrain with a distinctive song hook and satisfying musical resolution, so important considering how many times we have heard songs like these before. It’s successful, and the song stands out in a crowd.

Sanna Nielsen is a sympathetic winner, a solid singer who for years has been a Eurovision hopeful. This was her seventh time competing on the Melfest stage. In her previous attempts, she always made the final (no small feat in itself), but always came up short. Sometimes, as in the case of “Empty Room” in 2008, painfully short. In that year, she convincingly won the public vote only to be spiked by juries who favored Charlotte Perrelli’s “Hero” (and we all know how THAT turned out).

Nielsen is a statuesque beauty, and she’s blessed with a pure tone that’s well suited to big ballads like these. In Melfest she was presented as a solo act. For Copenhagen, where no backing tracks are permitted, it will be a relatively straightforward task to beef up her vocal with backing singers. The Melfest-to-Eurovision transfer should go fairly smoothly. Sweden’s choice, however, was made from the head and not the heart. It’ll do fine for them in May, but I don’t think it’s our next winner.