Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Bosnia & Herzegovina

Bosnia's history in Eurovision has truly been one of redemption.  Rising from the horrors of the Balkan Conflict of the early-to-mid 1990s, they have now become one of the more successful entrants into the ESC in recent years.  Despite never having won the contest in its fifteen appearances, they took the bronze position in 2006 and have qualified for the finals each year since the establishment of the semifinal system.

Bosnia's inaugural entry, in 1993's contest in Millstreet, was Fazla's "Sva Bol Svijeta" ("All The Pain in the World"), which directly referenced the then-ongoing conflict back home in Sarajevo.  With heart-wrenching lyrics such as:

Sva bol svijeta je noćas u Bosni All the pain in the world tonight is in Bosnia
Ostajem da bolu prkosim I'm staying to defy the fear
I nije me strah stati pred zid I'm not afraid to stand in front of the wall
Ja znam da zapjevam, ja znam da pobijedim I can sing, I can win

Europe had to not only take notice of the song, but of the plight of the conflict itself.  Considering that Eurovision had basically been founded as a cultural response to war, putting the theme of wartime strife front and center struck a poignant note with the audience.  When it was time for the votes to be cast in Millstreet that evening, and hostess Fionnuala Sweeney received the call from Sarajevo, the spectators were brought to their feet, their cheers at times nearly drowning out the weak, static-filled connection, rife with feedback.  The first two minutes of this video chronicle that moment.

Since that night in 1993, Bosnia and Herzegovina have fared generally well in the ESC.  In 2005, they were represented by the girl-band Femminem, who will actually be bearing the Croatian flag in this year's competition (but more about them later!).  In 2006, the emotional, Balkan-influenced ballad "Lejla", sung by Hari Mata Hari, was hotly predicted to win in Athens, yet was beaten into a surprise third place by the Finnish and Russian entries. 

For the 2008 contest in Belgrade, it was decided that Bosnia and Herzegovina would go in a slightly different direction for their national entry.  That result was "Pokusaj" ("Try"), one of the strangest, yet sweetest songs ever to come out of the competition.  Performed by eccentric rocker Laka and his younger sister Mirela, the song is a wide-eyed, childlike blend of rock, playground rhyme, and performance art, incorporating laundry, brides, inexplicable knitting, and an ensemble on Mirela that's a strange blend of Helena Bonham Carter, Raggedy Ann, and Roseanne Rosannadanna.  

Just watch it, and you'll understand. 

(For the record, I'll have that song stuck in my head for the next week and a half...)

Last year's entry for Moscow was another 180° shift from the wacky and wild wonder of "Pokusaj".  National broadcaster BHRT selected rock group Regina, who had been performing together since 1990.  Their entry, "Bistra Voda" ("Clear Water"), was a powerful song almost reminiscent of military marches.  Presented simply, yet passionately, it resulted in a 9th place finish, and the song was selected internally by the songwriters competing in Moscow as having the best overall composition.

This year, the challenge goes to 26-year-old Vukašin "Wookee" Brajić, a participant in "Operacija Trijumf"'s 2009 edition.  His pop/rock style brought him to the runner-up position in the "Pop Idol"-type show; will it do the same for him in Oslo?  His song, chosen internally by BHRT, is entitled "Thunder and Lightning", and, like the aforementioned Albanian entry, was adapted into English from its original Bosnian.  Unfortunately, unlike the Albanian's switch from "Nuk Mundem Pa Ty" to "It's All About You", "Thunder and Lightning" is almost a direct, word-for-word translation from the original song, "Munja i Grom".  While it's great that the integrity of the words are still intact, the rhyme scheme now feels messy, and the lyrics sound almost amateurish.  If Vukašin sings in the original Bosnian (or even switches between the two languages), it will likely sound smoother and less jarring.  My friend (and fellow ESC geek) Slaviša, who's a native of Banja Luka, tells me that the Bosnian reaction to the release of this song has been less than positive, especially compared to the acclaim that Hari Mata Hari, Laka, and Regina all received.  However, I personally like Vukašin's voice (he sounds almost like an accented Jon Bon Jovi, at least to my New Jersey-bred ears), and I'm always happy to see more rock on the ESC stage.  That being said, the version of Bosnia's 2010 entry on my iPod is "Munja i Grom", not "Thunder and Lightning".  I predict that it will pass through to the final, but likely won't score much higher than 10 or 15th place.

Here's the official English version, followed by "Munja i Grom".  Which do you like more?

Friday, March 26, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Belgium

Unlike the other entries I've written about so far, Belgium is one of Eurovision's original participants. They took part in the ESC's inaugural contest in 1956, and have only been absent three times since then (1994, 1997, and 2001, due to low cumulative scores from earlier years). Despite such a long history in the contest, Belgium has only won the thing once, back in 1986, with 13-year old Sandra Kim's "J'aime la vie" (if you want a bit of a laugh at how far the world has come in terms of fashion since 1986, check out her performance here...and I though Belarus had a lock on the mullet?!).

One of the cool things about how Belgium manages their participation in the contest is that because of the division between the French-speaking (Walloon) and Flemish-speaking populations of the country, they have two broadcasters picking the nation's songs, alternating year by year. The entries from French-speaking broadcaster RTBF tend to fare better in the competition than their Flemish counterpart, VRT. Belgium's lone victory and two second-place finishes were all from RTBF, but VRT's entries have never done any better than 6th, and that was back in 1959! (Granted, the Walloons haven't been doing too fantastically in recent years, either. They sent an Elvis impersonator last year. Seriously.)

Trying to change VRT's luck this year is Tom Dice (real name: Tom Eeckholut), the runner up in the Flemish version of "X Factor". He was selected internally by the network with the hopes of bringing Belgium back into the finals for the first time since 2005. His song, "Me and My Guitar", is a simple, yet enjoyable track that I could imagine someone singing while sitting in the lounge at my old college dorm.

Tom's voice isn't perfect, and he isn't as drop-dead gorgeous as some of the other participants in this year's competition, but Tom has the sort of sweet, earnest, and genuine "everyman" quality that appeals to me. We've all known a Tom Dice or two. He's the acquaintance you sat next to in High School Trigonometry, or the dude you sometimes see at the coffee shop you always go to, or the quiet guy four cubicles down from your desk at work. You might not know much about him, and you might have walked by him a thousand times without even realizing it, but you still want him to succeed at whatever he's going for. That's why I'm pulling for Tom to at least break into the finals.

And let's face it...any nation that can give us this deserves a break, don't you think?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Belarus

Belarus is another recent entry into the world of Eurovision. Since entering in 2004 (the same year as Albania, in fact), the nation has only qualified for the finals once, in 2007, with Dimitry Koldun's "Work Your Magic", which resulted in a 6th place finish. Some people think that Koldun's success that year came from his vocal prowess, or his popularity throughout the former Soviet Bloc from his time on "Star Factory", an "Idol"/"Operación Triunfo"-type show, or his song, which could have been ripped straight from a James Bond opening sequence.

But I think it was his mullet, personally.

You simply can't argue with hair like that, can you?

Despite Minsk's best efforts, they haven't been able to break out of the semifinals again. Even last year's valiant effort, "Eyes That Never Lie" by Petr Elfimov, couldn't make it to the finals, even though Elfimov's performance included one of the coolest pieces of live camerawork I think I've ever seen. Check this out:

That's right...a camera operator riding a Segway at full speed down the center aisle of Moscow's Olympic Indoor Arena, dismounts halfway up a ramp to the stage, circles Elfimov, and then zooms in on the guitarist (again, with amazing hair...must be a requirement in Belarus), all without falling all over himself (as I surely would have done)! Now, I'm not an expert in cinematography, but that's pretty sweet!

So, what does 2010 bring us?

Belarus's national selection process this year was (to put it mildly) a bit of a mess. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Eurovision Song Contest is sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which has associate members in all participating countries. Only participating members may sponsor a national song. In Belarus's case, the Belarusian Television and Radio Company (BTRC) had been sponsoring the national entries over the past few years. However, for the 2010 Contest, another station, Obshchenatsional'noe Televidenie (ONT), decided that they would apply for EBU membership and choose the Belarussian Eurovision entry. This decision was partially influenced by President Lukashenko himself, after years of middling results at the contest. ONT even had an in-depth selection process set up, called the "Musical Court", when the EBU suddenly denied ONT's membership. Belarus scrambled to a decision and ended up returning to BTRC, who held an internal selection and chose "Far Away" by 3+2, an ensemble who had actually come in second in the "Musical Court" selection.

Seems easy enough, right? Wrong!

On March 19th, with only three days left before the EBU's deadline for countries to solidify their selection, BTRC switched "Far Away" for "Butterflies", a pretty, yet somewhat vanilla ballad. I was just beginning to like "Far Away", so for it to be replaced with this is a bit of a 180-degree shift.

I make no guarantees, but I don't see Belarus breaking back into the Finals with this one. It doesn't matter much to me if Belarus submits pop, a ballad, rock, or folk...I think I'm most upset by the absence of mullets.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is the most recently-debuting nation competing in this year's ESC. The Land of Fire made a splashy entrance in 2008 along with San Marino, who sadly haven't returned since. Their first entry, "Day After Day" by Elnur Hüseynov and Samir Cavadzadə (And no, that's not a typo...the Azeri alphabet includes the letter "ə". Jealous?) blended rock, opera, and traditional Azeri mugham, resulting in a cacophony of sound, dancers dressed as angels and demons, rapid costume changes, and enough high notes to melt off Adam Lambert's face. They ended up in an incredibly respectable 8th place, beating bookmaker's favorites from Israel, Iceland, and Portugal, and winning maximum points from Turkey and Hungary.

After such a massive debut, both in score and in spectacle, Baku either had to go big or go home in 2009, and they more than delivered. Sponsoring broadcaster İTV invited the acclaimed Iranian-Swedish DJ Arash Labaf and up-and-coming singer Aysel Teymurzadə to sing "Always", an upbeat ethnopop number that landed the duo in 3rd place.

This year, Azerbaijan selected 17-year old singer Safura Əlizadə (Alizadeh) to take the nation even higher. Their song, "Drip Drop", is a R&B-influenced ballad that if in placed in the proper hands of production, wouldn't sound too out of place on a lot of American Top 40 radio stations. However, in the videos I've seen of Safura's live performance, her youth and inexperience with the English language sadly seem to get to her. She appears to suffer from pitch problems at times, and sometimes her accent muddles her lyrics to the point of intelligibility (Just to contrast, last year's Azeri eye-candy, Aysel, had spent a year as an exchange student in Texas as the recipient of a FLEX scholarship, so her English ability was basically top-notch.) Don't get me wrong, though; Safura looks beautiful, and Azerbaijan's currently riding a wave of popularity in Eurovision, so she will likely pass through to the finals. Furthermore, Azerbaijan's sharing their semifinal with ally Turkey, so votes from one will likely go to the other, and vice versa. However, I don't see this gaining the universal appeal of "Always", so I think that Baku 2011 might be out of the question.

What do you think of "Drip Drop"? Am I being too harsh on Safura? I love reading your comments and opinions, so feel free to bounce your ideas off of me!

Until next time! (Coming attractions: Belarus, Belgium, and Bosnia-Herzegovina!)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Armenia

General Stats:
Competing in ESC since: 2006
Best Result: 4th Place, 2008 ("Qele Qele", by Sirusho)
General Trends: Since Armenia's debut, the country has consistently ranked in the Top 10 in each of the contests that they have entered. Since the introduction of the semifinal in 2004, only Armenia, Greece, and Azerbaijan can claim this accomplishment! Granted, Armenia and Azerbaijan have only competed since 2006 and 2008, respectively, but this is still pretty impressive.

Last year's song, "Nor Par (Jan Jan) (New Dance [My Dear])", performed by sisters Inga and Anush Arshakyan, melded pop, jazz, and traditional Armenian music into a fun, danceable earworm complete with velour, lasers, and approximately twelve feet of braids per performer.  Their tenth-place finish might have been their nation's lowest placement to date, but it was an incredibly memorable performance.  I honestly hated it when it first crossed my path...it sort of reminded me of the Sweeney Sisters on Saturday Night Live (Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn).  The Arshakyan Sisters' manic scatting was grating at first, but the final arrangement and presentation turned it into something fantastic.

This year, Armenia chose its representative via a traditional National Final, where nine songs competed on Valentine's Day for the right to represent their nation in Oslo to try to bring the competition to Yerevan in 2011. Throughout much of the lead-up to the National Final, it was rumored that duo Mihran and Emmy had been internally selected for the ESC with their song "Hey (Let Me Hear You Say)", with stars such as Ricky Martin, of all people, lending support. However, when it came to the National Final, Mihran and Emmy were pipped at the post by 22-year-old Eva Rivas with her song "Apricot Stone".

Despite the fact that this is the first Armenian entry since their debut to be sung entirely in English, that doesn't mean it's completely devoid of local culture. Apricots are seen as a symbol of Armenia, supposedly originating in what is now their territory. Even the scientific name of the apricot, Prunus armeniaca, alludes to its origin. In the song, the lyrics speak of the harshness of the world, how the apricots given to Eva by her mother would comfort her in times of fear and loneliness, and how they remind her to "get back to her roots". Eva grew up in Russia to Armenian parents, so even though she herself may not have written the lyrics to "Apricot Stone", the back story behind this sometimes happy, sometimes melancholy ethno-pop tune rings generally authentic.

Of course, it wouldn't be Eurovision without a little extra controversy, would it? As details of the Armenian entry emerged, many fans from Turkey expressed their dismay at a song that carries such a surreptitious political message. Especially in recent times, where international scrutiny of the 1915 Armenian Genocide is seemingly at an all-time high, many Turkish fans saw the acceptance of "Apricot Stone" as a bit of a slap in the face. One of the many rules of the Eurovision Song Contest is that no entry should be overtly political. However, in recent years many entries have either flexed or broken this rule. Last year, Georgia's entry "We Don't Wanna Put In" was disqualified for its dig at Vladimir Putin (and considering that the 2009 Contest was held in Moscow, this was a pretty big deal). However, in 2005, a modified political chant from Ukrainian band Greenjolly was allowed to compete, as long as the ongoing Orange Revolution wasn't directly mentioned in the song.

So, what do you think? Is Armenia making an outright dig at Turkey, or is Turkey being too sensitive about a song about a mother making sure her daughter is getting enough fiber in her diet? Or should we all just have listened to Ricky Martin and have had Mihran and Emmy go to Oslo, instead? Listen to the song, and let me know what you think!

Despite the fact that the Turkish Diaspora in Europe is often seen as a major voting bloc in Eurovision, I predict that "Apricot Stone" will qualify for the final, and might eke out a position in the Top Ten. However, considering that their semi-final includes both Turkey and rivals Azerbaijan, this might be a tough squeeze. We'll see what happens on May 27th!

ESC 2010 Reviews: Albania

Now that all of the Eurovision entries for 2010 have been announced, and preview videos are starting to come out for the individual songs, it's time that I put pen to paper (or, at the very least, fingers to keyboard) and give you all my reviews for this year's entrants (with a little peek at their previous ESC history)! Let's go alphabetically, shall we?


Coincidentally, going in alphabetical order means that we check out Eurovision 2010's first announced entrant. Back on December 27, Albania's RTSH network held the final for the Festivali i Këngës (also known as the FiK, which always makes me giggle a bit). After holding semifinals for established Albanian artists, including two singers who bore Albania's flag at Eurovision in previous years (Anjeza Shahini in 2004 with "The Image of You", and Kejsi Tola last year with "Carry Me In Your Dreams"), as well as a semifinal for unknown talent, FiK's grand final produced a runaway winner, Juliana Pasha with "Nuk Mundem Pa Ty", or "I Can't Without You". Here's her performance at the FiK Final:

One of the lucky things about deciding your entrant so early on in the game (nearly five months before the "big show") is that a country has the power to tweak or change a song to their liking. Albania has a particular talent for this, and often will edit an entry's timing (remember, all Eurovision songs must be under three minutes!), instrumentation, and language. Here's Juliana's updated version, released just in the past few days:

My prediction:
It seems that Eurovision 2010 will become "the year of the ballad", with nearly half of the announced songs in a slower tempo. Simply for that reason, "It's All About You" should stand out. It's definitely well-sung and danceable, and in a competition that's all about first impressions and packing as much of an earworm as possible into only three minutes, that's a major plus. I wasn't a fan of this song at first, but that was mostly because I was a fan of the songs that came in second and third place in the FiK, Anjeza Shahini's "Në pasqyrë" and Kamela Islami's "Gjëra të thjeshta". But having accepted that I can't always get what I want, especially when it comes to Albanian song competitions, I find "It's All About You" a pretty solid lock to make it out of the First Semifinal, and I predict that Juliana will end up ranking somewhere between 6th and 15th place in Oslo.

General Stats:
Competing in Eurovision Since: 2004
Best Result: 7th Place, 2004
General Trends: Albania has tended to score in the middle of the pack in recent years, qualifying for the Finals in 2008 and 2009, with results of 16th and 17th place, respectively. Interestingly, Albania has tended to fare much better when represented by female singers than by men, who have never taken Albania out of the semifinals.

And, just as a bonus, here are the songs that came in 2nd and 3rd in the 2010 Festivali i Këngës: "Në pasqyrë" ("In the Mirror") by 2004 winner Anjeza Shahini and "Ghëra të thjeshta" ("Simple Things") by Kamela Islami. Enjoy!

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