Friday, April 30, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Estonia

Due to the ongoing global economic crisis, belts all over the world have had to be tightened.  Of course, this idea extends to Eurovision.  For many nations, budgets have been slashed in the arts and media, and sending an entry to the ESC doesn't come cheap by any means.  And don't even get me started on how much it costs to host the contest to begin with!  (According to ESCtoday, Norwegian broadcaster NRK estimates this year's event cost at over €24 million, or $31.7 million.)  Because of this, many previously participating nations have had to either drop out of the ESC for the year (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, and Andorra) hold off on re-entering (San Marino, Luxembourg, and Monaco), or wait until 2011 to enter for the first time (we're still waiting, Liechtenstein!).  Estonia and fellow Baltic nation Lithuania nearly fell victim to this pitfall, but because of the generosity of local foundations and media organizations (in the case of Estonia) and the investment of private companies (as in Lithuania), we'll see smiling faces from Tallinn and Vilnius on stage in Oslo this May.  We'll come back to Lithuania in a little while, but for now, we're here to talk about Estonia.

To be completely honest with you all, up until last year Estonia could have almost completely fallen off the Eurovision map and few people would have noticed.  They made their debut back in 1994, but finished a disappointing second-to-last (Lithuania, also debuting, actually finished in last place that year, scoring the dreaded "nul points").  They actually won the contest back in 2001, the first nation from the former Soviet Bloc to do so, but out of the almost sixty winners that Eurovision has had since 1956, Tanel Padar and Dave Benton's "Everybody" has to be my least favorite.  (Pardon me while I channel Simon Cowell for a moment, but "Everybody" was the ultimate in cruise-ship-meets-awkward-bar-mitzvah-disco-kitsch, and either Greece, Denmark, or Russia should have won it that year.  Their 2002 entry, "Runaway", was much better, but the singer was from Sweden!  There, I got the rant out of my system.  Now let's never speak of this again.)

After their success in the early part of the last decade, they really fell off the mark.  As the semifinal system was set up in 2003, no Estonian entry could break through and make it to the finals.  They tried girl-pop, neo-folk, Brit-style rock, and whatever the hell this was.  Finally, though, they struck gold in 2009 with the haunting, ethereal "Rändajad (Nomads)", performed by Urban Symphony.  I'd normally put a link in here to have you go to YouTube to see this clip, but this one, in my humble opinion, deserves a full embed.  It was possibly my favorite entry from last year, along with Bosnia & Herzegovina, and it deserved to be placed higher than its eventual 6th-place finish (although, as a consolation, it was the highest-ranked non-English song in the competition that year).

I've heard that song a thousand times since last year's contest, and I still haven't grown tired of it.  After such a great showing in 2009, and knowing how dangerously close they came to dropping out of the ESC this year, I had a feeling that the Estonian Preselection, "Eestilaul", was going to be either a hard-fought battle among great tunes, or a low-budget affair that would make my eyes cross in a mix of horror and hilarity (do I need to show you "Leto Svet" again?).  I decided that I was going to challenge myself and watch this year's Eestilaul.

Oh, and just so everyone is clear on this point, I speak no Estonian whatsoever.  But, I'm a glutton for linguistic punishment, so I don't let an arbitrary speed bump like "not understanding what people are saying" stop me!

The main Eurovision website often streams individual national finals (and they currently have the whole thing archived here, if you want to check it out), so I watched the whole thing, from top to tail.  First, I was surprised how much I actually understood, not because Estonian bears any resemblance to English (it doesn't at all), but because the competition was colored with so much humor, poking fun at the music industry, Eurovision clichés, and even at the artists themselves.  Despite being almost completely in a language that I have no comprehension of, the program was universal enough for me to really get into, and I sometimes queue up the show and watch it over again, just for the fun of it.  And out of the ten songs in this year's Eestilaul, there were actually quite a few gems, and I've currently got about half of the selections hanging out on my iPod.  Here are some of the greatest hits from 2010:

6th place) Groundhog Day, "Teiste seest kõigile (Inside all of us)": A mid-tempo rock song with a soaring chorus.  It's a shame that ESC songs are limited to 3 minutes, maximum, because this was great, albeit too short.
4th place) Iiris Vesik, "Astronaut": A more avant-garde offering reminiscent of Björk or a more offbeat Kate Bush.  Surrealist and of a kind
3rd place) Violina featuring Rolf Junior, "Maagiline Paëv (Magical Day)": Possibly trying to take the violin-torch from Urban Symphony and last year's ESC winner Alexander Rybak, Violina and Rolf Junior present an upbeat, danceable track that would even make Mr. Burns from the Simpsons smile.  At the very least, Mr. Smithers would appreciate it...
2nd place) Lenna Kurrmaa, "Rapunzel": Bringing to mind some of the girl-groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s, with just a touch of rock to make it current, Lenna's offering was sweet and sassy, and it nearly took the Eestilaul title this year.

So, after all of that, who's going to Oslo?

This year's Eestilaul victor is "Siren" by Malcolm Lincoln!  (The lead singer, Robin Juhkental, took the name from an incorrect answer on the Estonian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", where a contestant was convinced that Abraham Lincoln's first name was actually Malcolm.)  This is definitely one of those songs that people will either love or hate.  I personally LOVE it, and have it in my top 5, nestled up with Israel, Croatia, Turkey, and Germany.  It's like no other song being presented this year, with a chorus that at times makes me think of British New Wave from the mid-'80s, and from different angles I hear touches of Motown and the current indie/hipster scene.  I can almost guarantee that traditional fans of Eurovision will hate this song (Slaviša?), and I'll be shocked and ecstatic to see it pass through to the finals (even though it's in the first semifinal, which is somewhat weaker than the second, and neighbors Finland, Latvia, and Russia can possibly send some regionally-influenced votes their way), but as a stand-alone song, in terms of how uniquely crafted and creative this is, I think that "Siren" is absolutely genius. 

My hat's off to you, Estonia, and I look forward to next year's Eestilaul!

Monday, April 26, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Denmark

Denmark, having entered the ESC back in 1957, was the first Scandinavian entry to enter the contest, and they were also the first Nordic nation to chalk up a win, with 1963's timeless and elegant "Dansevise", performed by husband-and-wife team Grethe (vocals) and Jørgen Ingmann (guitars).  (And, just as a point of trivia, Jørgen's 1961 version of "Apache" hit #1 on the US Singles list, making him one of the few Eurovision stars to find success on the American charts.  The song was later covered and/or sampled by The Shadows, The Sugarhill Gang, Fatboy Slim, Amy Winehouse, M.I.A., and The Roots.) 

Despite Denmark's long history in Eurovision, they've only won once more, with 2000's "Fly on the Wings Of Love" sung by the Olsen Brothers (coincidentally, one of whom was also named Jørgen).  The following year, they scored a respectable 2nd place with "Never Ever Let You Go", co-written by Søren Poppe.  Last year, they sent a fantastic pop-rock song, "Believe Again", co-written by Irish superstar Ronan Keating (and later recorded in Dutch and Afrikaans, hitting the charts in the Netherlands and South Africa), but it only made it to 13th place.  So, as far as I can tell, Denmark's key to success is the letter Ø!

Sø, if my theøry stacks up at all, Denmark may have already shøt themselves in the føøt by submitting a sadly "ø-free" søng, "In a Moment Like This", sung nøt by American Idøl-winner Kelly Clarksøn, but by Chanée and N'Evergreen.

Eurovision 2010 Denmark - Chanée & N'Evergreen - In A Moment
Uploaded by Esctube. - See the latest featured music videos.

It seems almost tailor-made for Eurovision, with familiar pop hooks that bring to mind The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and Tina Turner's "Simply the Best".  Just add an appropriate key change, two good-looking singers, and a good stage presentation, and you may end up with a frontrunner for this year's title.  It's not my personal favorite this year (although I'd definitely put it in my top dozen or so, and it's growing on me quickly), but the bookies seem to favor it, and ESC fan clubs all over the continent are definitely supporting it, with or without the Scandinavian Voting Bloc advantage.  I'd be surprised if it didn't hit the Top 5 in this year's Finals!

Gøø∂ Lüçk, ∂éñmå®k!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Cyprus

Cyprus, more than possibly any other nation participating in the Eurovision Song Contest, has felt the sweet sting of Bloc Voting.  As the language and culture of Cyprus is so inextricably linked to that of their Mediterranean colleague Greece, votes between the two are almost always high.  Since the start of audience televoting (as opposed to a vote dictated by national jury) back in 1998, the two nations have exchanged maximum points with each other whenever possible.  (However, Cyprus hasn't actually qualified for the finals since the 2005 Contest, where Greece ended up winning, so over the last few years, this point has been somewhat moot.)  Thanks to the magic of YouTube, here's a video showing just a few of the recent 12-point scores given from Cyprus to Greece (be sure to listen up for the boos and groans from the audience and commentators!)

Cyprus has felt the negative side of bloc voting, however.  The island nation entered the ESC in 1981, about seven years after a Turkish invasion of the northern portion of the country.  The nation is still somewhat divided, with a Greek southern half and a semi-independent Turkish northern half (although the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only officially recognized by Turkey itself, and the "Cyprus" that participates in Eurovision is exclusively the Greek-speaking portion).  Because of this sore spot between the two nations, no points had ever been exchanged between Ankara and Nicosia until 2003, when Cyprus gave Turkey a then-astonishing 8 points, securing them a win over the Belgian entry that year.  The next year, Cyprus sent Turkey 4 points, Turkey returned the favor with one point, and, having apparently gotten the goodwill out of their systems, they've never voted for each other again.

Cyprus's results have been middling, at best.  They've only come in last place once (in 1986), and their highest placings were a trio of 5th-place finishes in 1982, 1997, and 2003.  My two favorite Cypriot entries, although radically different and from two different decades, were actually sung by the same artist, Limassol native Evridiki.  Her 1994 entry, "Ime Anthropos Ki Ego" ("I'm a Person, Too") was a powerful, melancholy ballad featuring a traditionally Greco-Cypriot instrumental break.  In 2007, Evridiki was back with an upbeat techno-pop song sung entirely in French, "Comme Ci, Comme Ça"("So-So").  It's amazing to think that such divergent songs came from the same singer (she also sang the 1992 entry, "Teriazoume", which was more of a standard love-ballad).  Unfortunately, both "Ime Anthropos Ki Ego" and "Teriazoume" only made it up to 11th place, and "Comme Ci, Comme Ça" didn't even qualify for the finals, but I have them in my iTunes playlist anyway, and listen to them both more often than I care to publicly admit.

This year, Cyprus has decided to go a bit out of left field.  Instead of taking a home-grown singer (or going back to Evridiki for a fourth time), their national selection yielded a victory for an unknown Welsh singer named Jon Lilygreen and his backing group The Islanders, singing "Life Looks Better in Springtime", written by two natives of Cyprus educated in the UK.

Jon's song shares some vague similarities with Belgium's Tom Dice.  Both are decently attractive guys in their early twenties, strumming on their guitars.  However, Jon's production feels a lot more fleshed out and lush, as if it were the winner's song on American Idol, while Tom's feels more organic and "coffeehouse".  All in all, it comes down to a matter of personal taste.  I tend to prefer Tom's, but as "Life Looks Better in Spring" is being performed in the second semifinal, while "Me and My Guitar" will be in the first round, they might not even go head-to-head against each other.  We'll just have to wait and see, but it might just take a Welshman to take the Cypriots out of the semifinals for the first time in four years.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Note on "Bloc Voting"

I mentioned in my previous note that Croatia is in an advantageous position in the ESC, due to its location in a so-called "Balkan Voting Bloc".  That sounds like a half-decent segue to get more into this topic!

As the Eurovision Song Contest has grown and expanded over the years, going from seven nations participating in 1956 to 42 in the 2009 contest, unofficial "alliances" have been established between nations, often due to shared linguistic, cultural, or geographical histories.  For example, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland will often swap votes with each other, as do the nations of the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia.  More recently, current patterns of immigration have begun to influence expected voting patterns, with Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France often sending votes to Turkey or Armenia, or Spain and Portugal voting for Romania or Moldova.

For some nations, this is a massive boost.  For example, last year's winner, Norway's "Fairytale", sung by Alexander Rybak, benefited from not just a strong presentation, but the fact that Norway is located in the heart of the "Scandinavian Bloc".  Furthermore, Rybak was actually born in Belarus and speaks fluent Russian, so the "Former Soviet Bloc" also stood up and took notice.  Granted, this doesn't take away from the fact that "Fairytale" was a great and charming song, but it makes you wonder what would have happened if it had been presented by a representative from, say, San Marino (who came dead last in their first and only participation, back in 2008, despite a well-produced song).

There are a few interesting anomalies to the voting bloc phenomenon, however.  Since their first participation in 1973, Israel has managed three victories and 18 top-ten finishes total.  So, although they share no borders with any other nation participating in the contest, have no linguistically similar voting partner to fall back on (all of their wins were sung in Hebrew), and many countries have even refrained from joining or continuing in Eurovision in the first place due to Israel's presence in the competition, over half of their 32 entries have merited Top Ten placements.

Malta has had similar success, despite being literally and figuratively insular.  They've participated a total of 22 times since 1971, and have had 12 Top Ten finishes (no wins, but two silvers and two bronzes).  Granted, Valletta tends to send songs in English, but they really have no official voting bloc to depend on.

Why do I bring this topic up now?  Well, if I proceed alphabetically through our little tour of Eurovision Entries for 2010, the next stamp in our passports will be Cyprus, which has directly been affected by the benefits and drawbacks of bloc voting.  But more on that in a bit...

(Graphic taken from )

Sunday, April 11, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Croatia

Croatia, like Bosnia & Herzegovina, entered the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time as an independent nation back in 1993.  Just like "Sva Bol Svieta", Croatia's entry "Don't Ever Cry" quietly alluded to the then-ongoing conflict in the Balkans.  Out of the three debuting countries in Millstreet that night, Croatia scored the highest, beating out Bosnia & Herzegovina and neighbor Slovenia.  Since that night, Croatia has generally scored fairly well, although their only victory came back in 1989, when the Croatian broadcaster bore the flag for a then-unified Yugoslavia and Riva's "Rock Me" took the crown to Zagreb.

Two of my favorite Croatian entries were from back-to-back years.  In 1998, Danijela Martinović opened the show with the wistful, almost lullabye-esque "Neka Mi Ne Svane" ("May Dawn Never Rise"), and finished in fifth place in the first ESC to feature audience voting alongside a jury ballot.  The next year, Doris Dragović came in 4th place in Jerusalem with the more uptempo "Marija Magdalena".  (Incidentally, these two songs are my personal nominees for "Best Mid-Song Costume Change", next to the United Kingdom in 1981, Latvia in 2002, and Georgia in 2008.  Just saying!)

However, it looks like this year's entry might be joining Danijela and Doris as my favorite entry from Zagreb ever!  As per usual, Croatian broadcaster HRT held their traditional national selection "Dora", and the winner, chosen via a public and jury vote, was Feminnem with "Lako Je Sve" ("Everything is Easy").  Now, as I mentioned in the Bosnia & Herzegovina article, Feminnem are no strangers to the ESC.  Their song "Call Me" won 14th place in 2005, and they're ready to better their score with this powerful and beautiful ballad, which dips back and forth between sweet and heartbreaking.

Feminnem: Lako je sve - The official video from Eurofest Croatia on Vimeo.

My prediction for the ladies from Feminnem?  Well, they'll be performing in the difficult Second Semifinal, but if they pass, then they'll have the benefit of a beautiful song, performers who are no strangers to the Eurovision Stage, and the fact that they're a member of the often-advantageous Balkan voting bloc.  If they make the finals, and they put together a good staged performance, you can expect a Top Ten, if not a Top Five position.  It's definitely one of my favorites this year.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Bulgaria

Who would have guessed that the hardest entry to write so far (and, therefore, my delay in putting this post out) would be Bulgaria, of all places?  It's not because I've got a massive wealth of information to choose from, like with my entries on Belgium or Bosnia & Herzegovina, that's for sure.  Bulgaria made its Eurovision debut in 2005, making this only the sixth entry for the country.  It's not that they've had a massive impact on the contest, for better or for worse.  They've only had one real positive "standout" entry, their 2007 percussion-heavy and techno-inspired song "Voda/Water", which took Bulgaria to their highest placing ever, a very impressive 5th place.  This was also the first time that the Bulgarian language was used on the ESC stage (which, as an unabashed language geek, makes me happy to see).

With the exception of "Voda", Bulgaria's entries over the past few years have left me somewhat cold, frankly.  Even this year's song, "Ангел си ти" ("Angel Si Ti"/"You're An Angel", performed by Bulgarian heartthrob Miro), which is a pleasant, yet generally standard uptempo Europop song, hangs around the middle of the pack.  It's not bad, by any stretch, but it's not earth-shattering, either.  I'll let you be the judge, of course!

Miro Angel si ti from Bulgoc on Vimeo.

It will be sung near the end of the particularly strong Second Semifinal, where it will have to fight with heavy hitters like Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Sweden, and Denmark for the right to make it to the finals.  It is slated to be performed immediately after Ireland and right before Cyprus, who will both be offering slower, more emotionally charged songs.  Will this help Miro stand out, or will he be like the little cup of sorbet served between two heavy courses in a banquet, doomed to be an afterthought compared to the rest the meal?  In this case, I really think that it will come down to the staging and presentation.  Miro's an established performer and well-known name in parts of Eastern Europe (not to mention easy on the eyes), so if he can make Oslo love him as much as Sofia does, he might be able to take Bulgaria into the finals for the first time since "Voda".  Or he might just be like audio cotton candy, with the sugary floss dissolving into nothingness.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Quick Holiday Message from InCulto...

Lithuania's 2010 Entrant has a special message for all of us:

Happy Easter, Passover, Springtime, or whatever other holiday you might be celebrating today!

(And check out InCulto's official entry, "Eastern European Funk" here!  Their full article will be up just as soon as I get to the "L"s...)

All the best,
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