Sunday, May 30, 2010

Post-Script to the Post-Mortem...

Just when you think the competition's over and done with...when all of the lights have gone down, the last bit of confetti has been swept off the floor, and the last fan has vacated the Telenor of the quiet highlights of the Eurovision Song Contest takes place, unnoticed by many casual fans.

Every year since the 2002 ESC in Tallinn, Estonia, the three Marcel Bezençon Awards are presented to singers or songwriters who have made themselves and their nations proud.  Named for the man who originated the Eurovision Song Contest, these awards are often awarded to songs were overlooked by televoters or juries.  Although they might not have the flash or publicity that the Grand Prix gets, the fact that these awards come directly from the press, the composers, and past Eurovision royalty means just as much, if not more, to those who are lucky enough to receive them.

As I've mentioned, there are three awards given.  The first is the Press Award, voted on by all of the accredited members of the media who gather to cover the ESC.  In recent years, it's been given to Serbia and Montenegro for "Lane Moje", Finland for "Hard Rock Hallelujah", Portugal for "Senhora do Mar", and last year's winner, Norway, for "Fairytale".

The second award, the Artistic Award, was previously decided by a poll of previous Eurovision Winners.  However, as time has passed, many past participants either were unavailable or unwilling to vote.  Starting from now on, this prize will be decided by a vote from the individual networks' commentators, many of whom are rabid fans of the ESC, and have listened to the songs many times.  Previous winners have included Ukraine's "Wild Dances" and "Shady Lady", Greece's "My Number One", Serbia's "Molitva", and France's "Et S'il Fallait Le Faire".

The final award, the Composer Award, is voted on by the individual composers competing in that year's competition.  It's gone to Bosnia and Herzegovina for "Lejla" and "Bistra Voda", and Hungary for "Unsubstantial Blues", among others.

Until now, no single song has ever won more than one of these prestigious awards.  This year, one song has taken all three of the Marcel Bezençon Awards, and it didn't even place in the Top Ten of this year's Eurovision Final.

Congratulations are in order for Harel Skaat from Israel and his song "Milim (Words)", a song that nearly made me cry when I watched it being performed live yesterday.  Here's the live performance from the ESC Stage:

Post-Mortem: 2010's ESC

So, after two Semifinals and a Grand Final (in both senses of the word), we have a winner!

Huge congratulations to Lena, who brought the Eurovision gold back to Germany for the first time since 1982 (nine years before Lena was even born).  Not only that, but this will be the first time that they will host the competition as a unified nation, as their previous hosting gigs took place in West Germany alone.  "Satellite" won a resounding victory over second-placed Turkey, with 76 points separating the two.  Romania's "Playing with Fire" took a surprise bronze, and there was a complete logjam for 4th through 9th, with only thirteen points separating Denmark, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Armenia, Greece, and Georgia (basically, if a juror had gone to the bathroom at the wrong time, it could have made a difference in the scoring).  And, rounding out the Final, the United Kingdom took last place (their second in three years) after Georgia gave a shocking maximum score to Belarus.

Other highlights from this year's show?  Well, Spain, who was performing second with "Algo Pequeñito", was given a rare opportunity to perform their song for a second time (after the 25th song had been sung) due to a stage invasion by Jimmy Jump.  Known previously for running onto the field during European soccer and rugby matches, Jimmy (real name: Jaume Marquet Cot) once tried invade the court during last year's French Open final and put a traditional Catalan hat on Roger Federer's head.  He was arrested (Jimmy Jump, not Roger Federer), and faces possible jail time.

The results of the Semifinals were also shocking.  Despite strong performances, highly favored entries from Slovakia, Sweden, and Croatia didn't even make it into the Final, while unexpected songs from Russia and Belarus sailed through.  Because of this, a total of seven former Soviet-bloc nations made it to the Finals, possibly dissipating votes enough amongst themselves to such an extent that former front-runner Azerbaijan had to settle for 5th place.  Considering that Azerbaijan is rumored to have spent over a million Euros in publicity for the song (including advertising on some other Eurovision blogs, which I just find distasteful), I don't think their result has made Baku very happy.

I had a few friends over yesterday to watch the show (it's not shown here in the U.S., sadly, but I was able to hook up my computer to the TV and watch the international feed from "thank you" to the EBU for providing it!), and here were our favorites:

1) Georgia (Sofia Nizharadze, "Shine"), 30 points
2) Israel (Harel Ska'at, "Milim"), 25 points
3) Spain (Daniel Diges, "Algo Pequeñito"), 24 points
4) Turkey (maNga, "We Could Be the Same"), 22 points
5) France (Jessy Matador, "Allez! Ola! Olé!"), 18 points

So, while we had fun keeping our own score, the American Televoters (or at least the ones in my living room) weren't really in line with the European audience.  (Maybe an unbiased non-EBU-member jury should be added to next year's scoring system?  That would mix things up a bit!)

So, how were my predictions, in terms of the eventual results?  Let me go back into my archive and see what I've said...
1) Germany: "Satellite" is a fun, catchy, upbeat, simply adorable number that has obviously made a massive impact on the European market already.  Considering that Germany (like France, the UK, Spain, and Norway) already has a pass to the Finals, and that Lena will be performing close to the end of the roster, this might be the one to beat in Oslo." - Sounds about right!
2) Turkey: "Because of this [international] support, and the high quality of "We Could Be The Same", I'm almost positive that they'll sail through to the finals, and will possibly make it to the Top 5" 
3) Romania: "Although "Playing with Fire" is in the tough second semifinal, I'd be surprised if they didn't make it through, assuming that Paula's high note doesn't cause her throat to explode or the jury's ears to bleed."  -Paula hit her notes, and they came in 4th in their semifinal after an explosive performance.  I don't think anyone believed that they would do as well as they did, but I think it was well-deserved.
4) Denmark: "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!"
5) Azerbaijan (keep in mind that I wrote this entry a while ago, before their official preview video came out...): "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." - "Drip Drop" fell just short of the third-place finish that AySel and Arash held last year.
6) Belgium: "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." - I loved this song, and didn't want to get my hopes up that it would do as well as it did.  But it thankfully exceeded my expectations, and not only won the First Semifinal handily, but it ended up as the highest-placed Flemish song since 1959, when there were only eleven nations competing, not 39.

Not all of my predictions came out well, though:
1) Croatia: "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."  - The lovely ladies from Feminnem came in 13th place in their semifinal, and didn't qualify.
2) Sweden: "Anna Bergendahl is only eighteen years old and will be performing "This Is My Life" in her trademark red Chuck Taylors on the Eurovision Stage.  It's the first ballad to represent Sweden in over a decade, and it's favored to reach the Top 10, if not the Top 5.  Anna's voice is very unique, almost reminiscent of a Shakira-type throatiness at points.  As Sweden can truly do no wrong in Eurovision's eyes (and it's in the heart of the Scandinavian voting bloc), the song is a lock to sail through to the final."- Anna's song came in a heartbreaking 11th place in her semi, only five points behind Ireland and Cyprus.  This was the first time since 1976 that we didn't hear a Swede in the finals.
3) Slovakia: "It's being performed in the first semifinal, and I would be shocked to not see this qualify.  I predict that Slovakia will not only beat its own personal best placement of 18th, but it might crack the Top 5 or 10, if she performs as well on the ESC stage as she did in her National Final a few months ago."  -Kristina came in second-to-last in the First semi after a performance fraught with nerves.
4) Israel: "I can almost guarantee that this will not only qualify for the final, but it may be in the running for the win."  It qualified for the Finals, but "Milim" only made it to 14th place in the end.
5) Russia: "This song's awkwardness is all intentional.  Be that as it may, many ESC viewers are hearing these songs for the first time when they vote...will the joke go over their heads, or will bloc voting carry them through to the Final?"  It looks like votes for Mother Russia saved this one, which came in 11th place in the end.
6) Belarus: "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."  They might not have had mullets, but they made it through to the finals by the skin of their teeth, and came in an eventual second-to-last place.  So maybe I got this one half-right?

Anyway, just because the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest is over doesn't mean that I'm calling it quits.  There's still a lot of ground to cover!  To keep me busy until the first announcements are made starting in December, I'll be writing little essays here and there about the ESC's history, politics, language...whatever strikes my fancy!  I may also mention other great songs that I think deserve our attention, even if they never made it to Eurovision.  If you have any suggestions, feel free to send them my way in a comment!

I just took a look at my hit counter, and I see that I'm over 300 readers.  I just wanted to thank you all for taking the time to read what I have to say.  I only set this blog up as a way to get my geek out on Eurovision, and to know that we've got a little community really warms my heart.  I know that some of you know me personally, and others live halfway around the world from my little flat in Minnesota, but I truly appreciate you all.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Cheers until the next time,

Friday, May 28, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: United Kingdom


After 38 other countries, we're finally up to #39, the final entry (alphabetically, anyway) from this year's Eurovision.  The United Kingdom has been participating since 1957, and they hold the half-impressive, half-dubious record of having the most second-place finishes.  In fact, in their first 20 years of competition, they came up just short ten times!  Some of those runners-up ended up becoming just as famous as the songs that defeated them; I've mentioned Cliff Richard's "Congratulations" (1968) in earlier entries, for example.  But nine years earlier, the UK overdosed on saccharine for their entry "Sing Little Birdie" by Teddy Johnson and Pearl Carr.  The song's got a bit of personal history for me: the first time I ever heard the words "Eurovision Song Contest" was while listening to the audio recording of this Monty Python sketch:

Now, despite the US's close cultural relationship with the UK, the vast majority of the songs and singers that represent Britain in Eurovison don't really encounter any measure of success across the pond.  Of course, there are a few exceptions to the rule, however.  In 1974, the year that ABBA trounced the competition and took the crown for Sweden, Olivia Newton-John carried the Union Jack with "Long Live Love", an incredibly cheesy ballad that Olivia now admits she couldn't stand.  The UK's first winning song, 1967's "Puppet on a String", was sung by Sandie Shaw, better known in the US for her cover of "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me".  In 1969, Lulu tied for the victory with "Boom-Bang-A-Bang", but she's better known here for "To Sir, With Love". Skipping a few decades, 1996's representative Gina G did actually score a bona-fide hit here in the US with "Ooh, Aah...Just a Little Bit", a fun and frothy pop number that made it to #12 on the Billboard Top 100.  Finally, the UK's most recent win was 1997's "Love Shine a Light", sung by Katrina and the Waves, best known here for "Walking on Sunshine".

Sadly, over the past few years, the UK's reputation in Eurovision has fallen into a steep decline.  It might be due to the change in language rules, where a country can now sing in any language they choose (when the song from Turkey can now be sung in English, it's more easily understood and acceptable to a wider voting audience).  It might be the influx of more Eastern European nations to the contest, so their odds are naturally longer.  Or it might just be that the UK isn't taking the thing as seriously as they used to, and are more likely to laugh at the ESC than to send their biggest stars (check out the 2007 example, Scooch's "Flying the Flag For You").  Last year, though, the BBC decided that enough was enough.  They drafted Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren to pen "It's My Time", and held a reality show to find the perfect singer for the song.  Twenty-one year old Jade Ewen stepped up to the challenge and delivered a beautiful performance that brought the UK a 5th place finish, including a full 12 points from Greece.  It was their highest placement since 2002, and it received the highest number of points since Katrina and the Waves' victory twelve years earlier.

This year, the UK decided to continue the nearly-winning selection formula from 2009.  They picked pop songwriters Pete Waterman and Mike Stock (best known for their work with Kylie Minogue, among others) to write "That Sounds Good To Me", and held yet another reality show to find the perfect voice for the tune.  That voice belonged to teenager Josh Dubovie, and here's the result:

Sad to say, it doesn't quite look like lightning has struck twice in a row for the UK.  It might have worked fifteen years ago, but the entry sounds dated and out-of-touch with what ESC voters go for today.  It's sort of like my feelings on the Dutch entry this year: the singer's not bad, but if you take a young performer and put them in a song that feels dated, it will just feel even more awkward.  But, what do you expect from a pair of songwriters whose biggest worldwide hit was this?

ESC 2010 Reviews: Spain

From Norway we move on to Spain, another one of the countries pre-qualified to the Finals at Eurovision (along with the UK, Germany, and France), due to their network's large contribution to the EBU.  Like France and Germany, it's been a surprisingly long time since Spain's last major hit on the ESC scoreboard, despite the nation's rich musical heritage.  They've been competing in Eurovision since 1961, but the most recent of their two victories was in 1969.  They haven't made the Top Ten since 2004, and they haven't cracked the Top Five since 1995.  But over the past half-century, Spain has given us some of the most memorable singers and songs that Eurovision has seen.

The year 1968 was pretty momentous in the ESC archives.  The competition was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and it was the first competition broadcast in color.  By the end of the evening's presentation, it came down to two fiercely competitive songs: Cliff Richard's "Congratulations" and Massiel's "La La La".  Cliff was the hometown hero with an Austin-Powers-esque blue suit and charming smile, and was highly favored to win.  "La La La" was presented to Massiel (full name: María de los Ángeles Felisa Santamaría Espinosa) after the original singer, Joan Manuel Serrat, insisted on singing the song in his native Catalan, as opposed to the Casillian Spanish mandated by the Franco regime, which had a notorious intolerance for Spain's other native languages.  When Serrat refused to budge on the issue, he was replaced with Massiel about a week before the ESC.  When the votes were tallied, "La La La" ended up beating "Congratulations" by a single point.  Even now, allegations of vote-rigging float around  1968's edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, and even as recently as 2008 the old wounds were re-opened as a result of a documentary featuring the account of a network employee alleging that Franco had dispatched his colleagues to other parts of Europe to buy votes from members of neighboring countries' juries.  No retroactive measures have been taken, however, and there's not enough proof still standing to do much about the issue, so Massiel's victory stands (although "Congratulations" became a bigger hit throughout the continent).

Spain's next (and most recent) win was the very next year, when Salomé took home the crown with "Vivo Cantando (I Live Singing)" while wearing one of the most outrageous outfits that the ESC has ever seen.  Looking like a cross between a bluebird and a Koosh Ball, Salomé's outfit kept on dancing even while she was standing still.  Awkwardly, this was the year that Eurovision learned that it had no rules in effect for tiebreakers, so "Vivo Cantando" shared the title with three other nations (France, the UK, and The Netherlands).

The next year, 1970, Spain brought an almost completely unknown young singer to Eurovision, a man who had only learned to play guitar a few years earlier while recovering from a car accident that had cut short his soccer career.  His song "Gwendolyne", made it to 4th place, a strong start for a man who would eventually sell over 300 million albums worldwide in fourteen different languages.  Sadly, Julio Iglesias rarely speaks about the participation in Eurovision that kicked off his career, but I think he should just embrace it. 

Spain has had a few major successes in the ESC since then, but they haven't been able to break back into the victor's spot.  Their silver medal finish in 1973, however, was epic enough that it might as well have won.  "Eres Tú (You Are)" by the Basque act Mocedades has been covered into at least sixteen different languages, including Vietnamese, Korean, and Afrikaans.  It's one of the few Eurovision songs to crack into the US Billboard Top Ten (peaking at #9), and (according to Wikipedia, anyway, so take this for what you will), they are the only act from Spain to chart in the US with a song sung with no English lyrics whatsoever (the others, Los Bravos, Julio Iglesias, Enrique Iglesias, and Los Del Río, either sung in English or bilingually).  And, just as importantly, it was included in a classic scene in the movie "Tommy Boy".

Spain might not have won over the past few decades, but that doesn't mean that they haven't been sending some fantastic (or, at least, memorable) entries.  In 1982, during the height of the Falkland Islands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom, Spain ended up sending a tango to the UK-hosted event, raising eyebrows with Lucia's "Él (He)".  Their song in 1990, Azúcar Moreno's "Bandido (Bandit)" was nearly derailed by a rebellious backing track in Zagreb, but they ended up battling back to claim 5th place with their Flamenco-inspired sister act.  Five years later, Anabel Conde made it all the way to the silver-medal spot with "Vuelve Conmigo (Come Back to Me)", her sweet and innocent look hiding one helluva voice...her glory-note at the climax of the song still impresses me, especially when I remember that she was only nineteen when she sang in Ireland.

I would be amiss if I failed to mention one of Spain's most epic songs...after so many years of perceived failure on the scoreboard, Spanish fans decided to send something truly spectacular to Belgrade in 2008.  Many genres have been represented in Eurovision: rock, pop, ballads, tango, flamenco, folk, new-age...but comedic reggaeton?  That's where Rodolfo Chikilicuatre came in.  Like Ukraine's Verka Serduchka, Chikilicuatre was the alter ego of David Fernández Ortiz.  An Argentinean who held the patent for the world's first dual-action guitar and vibrator, Chikilicuatre swept through the Spanish Preselection with his song "Baila el Chiki-Chiki".  The song was a success on its own; it topped the charts in Spain and Greece, and charted in France and Sweden.  Despite a modest 16th place finish, Rodolfo Chikilicuatre's performance was one of the most offbeat and fun of the evening.

This year, Spain has decided to go theatrical with stage performer Daniel Diges's "Algo Pequeñito (Something Tiny)".

There are a few things about this song that are definitely NOT tiny.  Diges's hair, of course...his talent (he's played the leads in the Spanish productions of "High School Musical", "We Will Rock You", and "Mamma Mia", a musical based on the songs of ESC veterans ABBA), and the spectacle of the song itself.  Waltzes aren't incredibly common in Eurovision, especially circus-themed ones (it's probably a good thing that the Netherlands didn't make it through to the finals, or else we'd have some overlap...).  Spain's not quite considered one of the frontrunners this year, but I don't think that's from any lack of talent or effort on Daniel's part.  It's going to be performed second on the night, which is generally not a prime spot.  I can imagine him beating Spain's recent track record (they haven't made the Top 15 since 2004), but this one's really going to be unpredictable, I think.  At the very least, it will be immensely entertaining to watch!  ¡Saludos, España!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Norway

After all of the entries I've written so far, we finally get to the reigning champions and current Host Nation, Norway.  They've hit the highest of heights, true, but they've also bottomed out more than any other nation in Eurovision history.  They've scored in last place a record ten times, with four "nul points".  Let's check out some of their greatest hits and most epic face-plants, shall we?

One of their earliest "huh?" moments was their 1968 entry, "Stress" by Odd Børre.  Yep, that's right, the man's name was Odd Børre.  His stuttering delivery and strange lyrics (translated example: Have a nice day, don't forget to take sleeping pills/Small doses are good, must relax a little/Turn on your radio, you have earplugs...") have made "Stress" a bit of a legendary performance in the ESC archives.

The first "nul points" recipient since the current scoring system was enacted was another Norwegian entry, 1978's "Mil Etter Mil (Mile After Mile)" by Jahn Tiegen.  This may have been one of those cases when a song was just way ahead of its time.  Tiegen's wailing about a minute and a half into the song may have freaked out a few jurors who were expecting ABBA or Cliff Richard, but I feel that if this song had been performed sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s, it might have had a bit more of a fighting chance.  Sad, really...

After twenty-five years, the Norwegians finally won their first ESC in 1985 with Bobbysocks's 1950's revival number, "La Det Swinge (Let It Swing)".  Their hair was epic, their outfits were epic, and their victory was epic: the seemingly impossible had been achieved, and Norway had gone from lovable loser to conquering hero.

Ten years later, they won their second gold with a song that was nearly wordless, Secret Garden's "Nocturne".  Written by Rolf Løvland, who had also composed "La Det Swinge", "Nocturne" was a new-age folk song with melancholy violins, a single sweet soprano voice, and traditional instruments (such as the Nyckelharpa, or keyed fiddle).  Despite the fact that it had the shortest lyrics in the history of the ESC, the song's mystic nature left an impact, and it won a resounding victory.

However, even more resounding than "Nocturne"'s win fifteen years ago was the phenomenon that was "Fairytale", last year's record-breaking winning song performed by the Belarus-born singer/songwriter/violinist/all-around cutie Alexander Rybak.

Rybak won the Norwegian Preselection with the highest vote-tally ever in that nation's history (over 715,000, beating the runner-up by over 616,000).  Even more impressive, he won Eurovision with the highest score ever (387 points, beating the record held by Lordi, 292).  Other records held by "Fairytale":
- Largest margin between a winner and runner-up: 169 points separated Rybak from Iceland's Yohanna.
- Most 12-point scores: 16 (Beating Greece's Elena Paparizou's 10)
- Points from the most nations: 41 (all nations competing that year, with the exception of Norway itself).
- Also, it is the first winner ever to have been in first place all the way through the scorekeeping (as the first nation to reveal their points gave Rybak the coveted Twelve, and no other song ever caught up to him).

Rybak had everything going for him with "Fairytale".  He wrote an instantly recognizable song with a great hook, a dynamic presentation, and "aw, shucks" good looks.  His dancers, from the local troupe "Frikar", are trained in traditional Norwegian folk dance "halling", so it included a regional touch.  Plus, Rybak was representing both the Scandinavian voting bloc as well as the Former Soviet bloc, as he was born in Belarus and speaks fluent Russian.  As the contest last year was held in Moscow, he was able to publicize himself well to the press and public.  It was universally adored, and Rybak skyrocketed to fame.  The single hit the charts all over Europe (including a rare Top Ten placement in the UK...the first for a non-British winner since Johnny Logan in 1987) and made it to #1 in Flanders, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the Ukraine.  Since last year, he's released his first full-length album, and has had hits in both English and Russian.  He even has a great cover of The Proclaimer's "500 Miles"! 

Ok, enough about Alexander.  But who's going to fill his shoes and compete on home soil?

This year, we've got Didrik Solli-Tangen singing "My Heart is Yours".  Interestingly, one of the composers of this song, Hanne Sørvaag, is also one of the co-writers of the Georgian entry, "Shine".  Even more interestingly, "My Heart is Yours" sounds oddly familiar...does anyone else hear this when listening to Didrik?

The song's good, but it doesn't have the same "oomph" that "Fairytale" had last year.  (Then again, few songs do have it...)  I can't imagine this placing in the Top Five, but appreciation for a host nation often boosts a score a bit, and if Didrik's voice is as strong in the Final (which he's automatically qualified for) as it was in the Preview video, he might shock us all a bit.

(Oh, and just as a point of fact...the composer of "You Raise Me Up" was Rolf Løvland, who wrote Norway's previous ESC winners "La Det Swinge" and "Nocturne".  Just sayin'!)

ESC 2010 Reviews: Ukraine

Like many of the newer entrants into Eurovision, Ukraine tends to take the competition very seriously, bringing their biggest stars to the stage year after year.  However, more than any other nation, they tend to go for the full-on spectacle, complete with leather bikinis, insane choreography, controversy, shirtless Trojan warriors and the occasional drag queen.  They've never missed a Final since the system began, and despite the fact that they've only performed in seven ESCs before 2010, they've come away with a victory and two silvers. 

Their debut entry, 2003's "Hasta La Vista", was somewhat forgettable, and only made it to 14th place, but it didn't take Kyiv long to get back on its feet.  With only their second entry, Ruslana's "Wild Dances", Ukraine stomped and spun its way into Eurovision history, claiming the nation's first victory.  (Sharp-eared readers might recognize the song from the soundtrack to "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City", from the "Radio Vladivostok" setting!)  Since her win, Ruslana's continued her success, having recorded a total of seven albums in both English and Ukrainian, and has even collaborated with Missy Elliott.  In Ukraine, she's an icon, spokeswoman, and UNICEF Ambassador, campaigning against human trafficking and for the environment.  Just as her Eurovision performance shows, Ruslana's a force of nature.

Kyiv hosted the ESC the next year, 2004, just as the Orange Revolution was in full swing.  Despite Eurovision's general ban on political songs, the home team sent rap artists GreenJolly with "Razom Nas Bahato, Nas Ne Podolaty (Together We Are Many; We Cannot Be Defeated)".  The main theme of the song was a send-off of the old Chilean saying "El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido", and the original lyrics name-checked President Viktor Yuschenko.  However, not even their favorable position as host nation could keep them exempt from the rules, and despite a passionate performance (and slightly modified lyrics), they scored a disappointing 19th place.

2007 brought on possibly the most insane performance in Eurovision history, blending comedy, dance...and tinfoil.  Ladies and Gentlemen...may I present to you the incomparable, the unforgettable, the...inexplicable...Verka Serduchka:

The lovely Verka is a mix of Dame Edna, Mrs. Doubtfire, and that crazy modern dance teacher you had in college.  She's also actually a he.  Verka's the alter ego of Ukrainian comedian Andriy Danilko, and is a celebrity in her own right, having recorded ten hit albums.  Her second-place finish was marked by a bit of controversy (but what good ESC is without it?), as the song's title, "Dancing Lasha Tumbai", was misheard by some viewers as "Dancing Russia Goodbye" (although Verka insisted that she was singing the Mongolian words for "whipped cream", in reality they were just nonsensical syllables). 

In 2008, Ukraine scored its second consecutive silver medal with Ani Lorak's "Shady Lady", which to me is the epitome of Eurovision Pop: take a gorgeous girl with a huge voice, put her in a tiny dress, plop her in front of four strapping backup dancers, and have her belt out a disco number that you can hear echoing all the way to Minneapolis.  At the time, my alt-rock sensibilities prevented me from admitting it, but now, two full years after Ani Lorak stormed the stage in Serbia, I can say it: I LOVE this song!  I still listen to it pretty often, and it's my go-to song for dancing around my apartment like a maniac when I'm sure nobody's watching.  If you liked "Shady Lady", I recommend that you check out her album "Solntse", especially the tracks "Ptitsa" and "A Dalshe..."

Lucky for me, Ukraine's 2009 song, Svetlana Loboda's "Be My Valentine (Anti-Crisis Girl)" was a perfect continuation of the high-energy path that Ani Lorak set upon in 2008.  Svetlana's another well-known entity in her homeland, and after her insane performance on the stage in Moscow, she was the talk of Europe, as well.  Eventual winner Alexander Rybak claimed that he only feared losing to Loboda, and with her bevy of Trojan soldiers backing her up while she pole danced and spun on her self-described "Hell Machine" (which she supposedly had to mortgage her home to pay for), I can understand how he could be intimidated.  The song was hypersexualized, manic, over-the-top...and a total blast.  Sadly, it ended up in 12th place, Ukraine's lowest score since 2005. 

Despite the recent model for slick and spectacular Eurovision songs from Ukraine over the past few years, 2010's national selection was a complete and utter mess.  Back in December, it was announced that Vasyl Lazarovych was the singer chosen by the Ukranian broadcaster, NTU.  However, it was soon discovered that Lazarovych and the head of the network were close personal friends, and accusations of back-room deals started flying.  Soon after Vasyl's song, the sleepy "I Love You" had been chosen, a new national government took over, and the head of the network was replaced.  It was announced the previous result had been scrapped, and that an entirely new National Preselection would take place (including Vasyl, to be fair).  After all of that, 24-year-old Alyosha was selected to represent Ukraine with her rock ballad "To Be Free".

You'd think it would be over by that point, right?  Wrong.  It turns out that "To Be Free" had been briefly released to the public over MySpace and Amazon since 2008, rendering the song invalid for Eurovision competition.  Sadly, this was figured out after the EBU's deadline for song submission had passed, so NTU had two choices: cobble together another entry, and be held to a significant fine for each day that passed without a song, or withdraw from the competition.  Lucky for us, Alyosha had another song stuck in her back pocket, so this year we'll hear "Sweet People" in Oslo.

Alyosha is coming to Eurovision with a message, probably more so than any other song this year.  In interviews, she notes how she was born less than two weeks before the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in her home country, and that she has grown up with a keen interest in environmental issues.  The promotional video for "Sweet People" was filmed in Prypiat, a ghost town destroyed by the meltdown, and Alyosha has started what she calls the Ecovision 2010 initiative, lobbying world leaders to take stronger stances on environmental topics such as conservation and nuclear safety.

It took me a long time to appreciate "Sweet People", especially because I'm still coming down from the high of "Shady Lady" and "Be My Valentine".  But Alyosha has a strong voice made for a hard ballad like this, and her heart's definitely in it to win it.  But the Second Semifinal is incredibly challenging, and there are an inordinately high number of ballads.  But, as the results from the First Semifinal show, anything can happen.  I wish her well in all of her endeavors, and I wish her well in Eurovision.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Turkey

Playing last in the second semifinal will be Turkey, a country that's geographically located in both Europe and Asia.  By population and area, it is the second-largest country participating in Eurovision (after Germany and Russia, respectively), and they're currently trying to get into the European Union.  All of this, plus the recent influx of Turkish migration to other countries in Western Europe, makes for an interesting dynamic in the context of Eurovision.

As to be expected of a country with a population of over seventy million (approximately the populations of California, Texas, and New York combined), the musical scene in Turkey is pretty varied and diverse.  Their Eurovision entries have seen influences of traditional Middle Eastern sounds, pop, ska, and (this year) hip-hop-infused rock. 

Turkey entered Eurovision in 1975, but came in last place with "Seninle Bir Dakika (One Minute with You)", a somewhat vanilla and maudlin ballad.  Five years later, they sent local superstar Ajda Pekkan to sing "Pet'r Oil", a vaguely hidden metaphor about oil production.  And in 1987, my favorite "Nul Points" entry ever burned its way into our collective eye sockets: Seyyal Taner and Grup Lokomotif with "Şarkım Sevgi Üstüne (My Song is About Love)" much fringe, so little time...

Up until 1997, Turkish entries never cracked the Top Five, and only made it to the Top Ten once.  However, Şebnem Paker & Group Etnik broke down that door in Dublin with "Dinle (Listen)", a beautiful, traditionally-inspired number that took them all the way to third place behind the UK and Ireland in one of the last years that countries were mandated to sing in their own official languages.  (Because of this rule, songs in English often had a bit of an advantage, as they were more universally understood, unlike a song in Turkish, which had less of a linguistic reach).

Six years later, Turkey took home its first (and, so far, only) Eurovision victory, with Sertab Erener's "Everyway That I Can", another ethnopop song, complete with belly dancing and a rap break.  Since then, Turkey's been almost unstoppable, with four Top Ten finishes, three of which were Top 5.  On home soil for the first time in 2004, they sent ska-rockers Athena to carry the flag with "For Real", a complete departure from the hip-shaking goodness they had won with. 

It was the first time that Turkey reached for Rock, but it definitely wasn't the last.  My all-time favorite entry from Turkey was their 2008 offering, alt-rockers Mor ve Ötesi's "Deli (Crazy)".  Scoring a respectable 7th place (strong, considering it was sung entirely in Turkish), the song made enough of an impression on me that not only have I collected Mor ve Ötesi's entire catalogue of work, but I've actually started to learn Turkish (slowly!). 

Turkey, like many countries in the eastern portion of the Eurovision world, tends to take the contest pretty seriously.  Since 2003, contestants have been hand-selected by broadcaster TRT to participate, and the network generally picks well-known and well-respected artists.  Speculation from local fans generates wildly in the weeks leading up to the official announcement from the Powers that Be, and this year was no different.  Some fans claimed that the offer would go to Tarkan, best known for his international smash "Şımarık".  Others said that it would go to Şebnem Ferah, one of the reigning queens of Turkish Rock.  Finally, TRT announced that their representatives would be maNga, with their song "We Could Be The Same".
maNga is actually pretty well-known on the European stage.  They recently took home the MTV Europe Music Award for "Best European Act", an award decided by a public vote (they actually beat Dima Bilan, Eurovision winner for Russia in 2008).  They tour heavily, and work hard; lead singer Ferman Akgül recently collapsed on stage during their promotional tour (he's fine, kids!).

No major Eurovision power is without its controversy, however.  Up until recently, Turkey was under the disadvantage of having no allies in the ESC, in terms of Bloc Voting.  However, with Azerbaijan in the contest, top scores have flown back and forth between the two countries regularly.  Furthermore, Turkish residents in countries like Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France have also been voting for their homelands, so while these nations are geographically far from Ankara and Istanbul, their support is generally pretty strong.  Because of this support, and the high quality of "We Could Be The Same", I'm almost positive that they'll sail through to the finals, and will possibly make it to the Top 5.  

But, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to listen to my new Mor ve Ötesi album, just released last week.  Yay! :-D

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Switzerland

Switzerland, like Belgium, Germany, France, and Spain, is another one of those Eurovision veterans who haven't been able to catch a decent break over the last few years.  In one of my first entries on ESC Insider, I spoke a bit about the first Eurovision winner, "Refrain" by Lys Assia.  Since then, the Swiss have only won once (although it was one of Eurovision's most legendary performances...more on that in a moment), and they haven't scored in the Top Five since 1993.  Furthermore, the Swiss have the tendency to recruit singers from outside their country, and they haven't placed in the Top Ten with a Swiss-born singer since 1991.

One of the classic performances out of Switzerland was 1963's "T'en Va Pas (Don't Go)", sung by Israeli singer Esther Ofarim.  Barely beaten by the Danish entry that year (and some conspiracy theorists insist that there was some sort of foul play with that year's voting, but nothing has even been proven), Esther's pristine voice and emotional delivery really carried this beautiful chanson, and it's one of my favorites from that decade.

It was in 1988, however, that Switzerland finally made it back to the top of the Eurovision podium.  They had drafted a little-known young singer from Quebec to do their heavy lifting, and what followed was one of the earliest international performances for a future legend:

Celine Dion not only defeated 20 other contestants that night, but she also vanquished the horrors of "Bad Eighties Hair and Wardrobe" to win in Dublin with "Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi (Don't Leave Without Me)".  She has gone on to sell over 200 million albums worldwide, win five Grammies, 21 Junos, and have a wildly successful standing gig at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.  Nothing to sneeze at, by any stretch of the imagination!

Over the past few years, Switzerland has been sorely lacking when it comes to translating interesting and original songs to success on the scoreboard.  Before the last three contests, bookmakers and fans had favored Swiss songs, but they failed to reach the finals.  In 2007, there was the off-the-wall DJ BoBo with "Vampires are Alive", which scored in 20th place out of 28 in that semifinal (note the creative use of mannequins, as only six people are allowed on stage).  The next year, Italian-Swiss singer Paolo Meneguzzi didn't live up to the potential of "Era Stupendo (It was Amazing)", and his slightly off-key performance kept him out of the finals.  Sadly, the same thing happened with last year's song, "The Highest Heights" by Lovebugs, one of my favorites before the competition.

This year, veteran performer Michael von der Haide is trying to undo the pattern that Switzerland's been falling into recently with "Il Pleut de l'Or (It's Raining Gold)".  Michael's no Celine, but the song is a lot of fun, and I can easily imagine it playing on the video screens at the gay bar near my home that my friends occasionally drag me to.  (What?  The drinks are good and they play "Project Runway" on big projector screens...what could be bad?)  The second semifinal's going to be extremely competitive, but von der Haide's a veteran performer, so I doubt that falling out of tune like Meneguzzi or Adrian Sieber of Lovebugs both did, but it might be a tough sell to get into the finals.

ESC 2010 Reviews: Sweden

Out of the nearly fifty different nations that have taken part in Eurovision over the years, it's hard to imagine a country taking the contest as seriously as Sweden has.  They've entered 49 songs, and have won a total of four times (not to mention one silver and four bronzes).  Over one third of their entries have taken a Top Five placing.  Their preselection, Melodifestivalen, is viewed by nearly four million Swedes yearly, one of the most popular programs of the year.  They do NOT mess around with the ESC.

And why would they?  They've got a great record in the contest, and an even better reputation.  They entered Eurovision in 1958, and despite a few shaky early entries, they quickly found their place.  Their 1966 song (complete with one mouthful of a title), "Nygammal vals (Hip man svinaherde)/New-Old Waltz (The Hip Swineherd)" performed by Lill Lindfors and Svante Thuresson, blended jazz into an old Swedish folktale about a princess who switched places with a pig breeder.  They took a well-deserved second place to Austria that year.

It was in 1974, however, that Sweden claimed its rightful spot as King of Eurovision.  After a few years of attempting to win Melodifestivalen, a little-known quartet from Stockholm finally hit it big with a song referencing Napoleon.

ABBA's "Waterloo" hit #1 in the singles charts all throughout Europe (even in the United Kingdom, which gave no points to the song on ESC night!), and it charted in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  During Eurovision's 50th Anniversary Special a few years back, it was rated the Best Eurovision song of all time, beating classics like "Volare", "Diva", and "Eres Tú".

Sweden's other victories followed the same sort of formula as "Waterloo"; upbeat pop numbers that drill themselves into your cerebral cortex like a Dremel.  Their 1984 victory, "Diggi-Loo, Diggi-Ley (I'm not going to even bother translating this one...)" took three strapping blond brothers, put them in golden shoes, gave them choreography and a nonsensical chorus, and they walked out with a victory.

Carola's "Fångad av en Stormvind (Captured by a Stormwind)" was a perfect piece of early-nineties sugary pop, complete with vocal acrobatics, a key change, and a wind machine.  Carola was no stranger to the ESC stage; she came in third back in 1983 with "Främling (Stranger)", and she returned in 2006 with "Invincible", scoring a fifth place finish.  She's the Queen of Schlager, and the world of Eurovision tends to bow to her supremacy and hyperactive vibrato.

Another repeat player in Melodifestivalen and Eurovision is Charlotte Perelli (née Nilsson), who won Sweden's most recent title, with 1999's "Take Me To Your Heaven".  She came back two years ago with "Hero", my friend Slaviša's favorite song from that year.  I didn't love this song, honestly, until recently, when I heard an great mix between "Hero" and Lady GaGa's "Poker Face".  (This is one of many reasons why I love YouTube so very much...)

Last year, Sweden decided to go for Popera.  Melodifestivalen selected Uppsala mezzo-soprano Malena Ernmann to sing "La Voix", a complete departure from Sweden's normal schlager-pop (but Malena's facial expressions are priceless in the performance video!).  Sadly, like entries from the past few years, it failed to crack the Top Ten!

Albania is typically the first nation to select their song, with late December's Festivali i Këngës.  Sweden, however, is traditionally the last country to announce their song.  This gives them enough time for the audience to familiarize themselves with the songs (many of which become local smash hits), but I think that a side affect of this is that Swedish voters are able to see what's en vogue with other countries.  Like Belgium's Tom Dice, and Cyprus's Jon Lilygreen, Sweden will be sending a young singer-songwriter with a guitar.  Like Malta's Thea Garrett, Portugal's Filipa Azevedo, Georgia's Sophia Nizharadze, and Latvia's Aisha, the singer will be a single female, singing an introspective ballad.  Blend all of the songs together, and what do we have?

Anna Bergendahl is only eighteen years old and will be performing "This Is My Life" in her trademark red Chuck Taylors on the Eurovision Stage.  It's the first ballad to represent Sweden in over a decade, and it's favored to reach the Top 10, if not the Top 5.  Anna's voice is very unique, almost reminiscent of a Shakira-type throatiness at points.  As Sweden can truly do no wrong in Eurovision's eyes (and it's in the heart of the Scandinavian voting bloc), the song is a lock to sail through to the final.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Slovenia

Slovenia is one of those ESC participants who, despite a decently long history in the contest, have only had a small handful of great entries.  Their highest rankings were a pair of 7th place finishes in 1995 and 2001, but out of their fifteen entries, they've only cracked the Top Ten three times.  (Although, if you look at entries from Yugoslavia that were performed in Slovene, there were two additional high placements, but those were back in the 1960s.)

I'll show you all my three favorite Slovenian performances:
1) 1966: Berta Ambrož, "Brez Besed (Without Words)", 7th place.  Technically performed under the flag of Yugoslavia, Berta brought the Slovene language to Eurovision for the first time with this classic number, who many people feel was later ripped off by the classic Spanish entry from 1973, "Eres Tú".  But more on that later when we get to Spain.  In the meantime, Berta's performance was another great snapshot of the mid-1960s.

2) 2002: Sestre (Sisters), "Samo Ljubezen (Only Love)", 13th place.  This entry actually sparked a pretty big controversy among Slovenians, as Sestre were the first act to perform at Eurovision in drag.  If all of the flight attendants in the skies were like Miss Marlena, Daphne, and Emperatrizz, I think that flying would be a much less stressful experience, don't you?  Best in-flight entertainment ever...

3) 2007: Alenka Gotar, "Cvet z Juga (Flower of the South)", 15th place.  Since the semifinal system was put in place, this has been the only Slovenian entry to make it through to the Finals.  Opera rarely finds a home on the Eurovision stage, especially with a pop-rock influence, so Alenka's relative success was very cool to see, and it fit in well on the stage in Helsinki, where bands like Apocalyptica and Nightwish often reign supreme.

This year, however...we get this:
Ansambel Zindra & Kalamari with "Narodnozabavni Rock (Popular Folk Rock)"...doesn't really roll off the tongue very well, does it?  Some nations have mastered the balance between local musical traditions and pop/rock sensibilities.  It feels like Slovenia is still searching for that happy middle ground.  You can't just take a rock song and add an oompah-band, and you can't just take a folk song and add a dude in a leather jacket.  I didn't follow this year's Slovenian Preselection as closely as I did for Estonia, but if this was the best they could come up with, I worry.  As much as I hate to sound negative, I think we may have found the last-place finisher in the Second Semifinal.

ESC 2010 Reviews: Slovakia

Ok, after the long, in-depth entries on Russia and Serbia, I hate to say this, but my piece on Slovakia will be disturbingly short.  They send three entries to the ESC back in the mid-to-late nineties, but never scored higher than 18th place.  None of these songs really even stick out in my mind.  After a disappointing result in the 1998 contest, they withdrew and didn't come back until last year, when they sent Kamil Mikulčík and Nela Pocisková to sing "Let' Tmou (Fly Through the Darkness)", a dramatic ballad that failed to leave any impression on voters.

This year, Slovakia has gone from perpetual underdog to one of the most talked-about entries of the year.  Kristína Peláková will be representing her homeland with "Horehronie", a song about the eponymous region in Slovakia.

I know that many people liked "Let' Tmou", but to me, this feels like more of a homecoming song than Kamil and Nela gave us last year.  It's danceable, has regional flair, Kristína's adorable, and the song as a whole paints Slovakia in a fantastic light.  It's being performed in the first semifinal, and I would be shocked to not see this qualify.  I predict that Slovakia will not only beat its own personal best placement of 18th, but it might crack the Top 5 or 10, if she performs as well on the ESC stage as she did in her National Final a few months ago.

And, if all else fails, the Slovak Tourism Board now has its new ad campaign in the bag!

ESC 2010 Reviews: Serbia

Next up on our list is Serbia.  One could argue when Serbia's actual debut in Eurovision was.  Some might say it was 1961, when the entry from Yugoslavia was from the ethnically-Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the song was sung in Serbian.  It could have been 1962, when the Yugoslavian singer was from Belgrade.  It might have been 1992, when the newly redrawn borders of Yugoslavia coincided with what is Serbia today.  It could have been 2004, when the first entry from a then-unified Serbia and Montenegro took to the Eurovision stage.  Or it might have been 2007, when an independent Serbia debuted and ended up taking the whole contest home.  Confused yet?  I know I was...Anyway, for the sake of argument, I'm going to be focusing mostly on more recent entries here (frankly, because they're generally better and more memorable than their early pieces). 

Serbia (and Montenegro) had their first official entry in 2004 with Željko Joksimović and the Ad Hoc Orchestra's "Lane Moje (My Dear)".  This stunning Balkan ballad combined a stirring melody, a great vocal performance, and a touch of ethnic flavor.  It won its semifinal, but ended up taking a close second place to the Ukraine.  This, however, would not be the last we would hear from Željko, who would compose 2008's entry, as well as 2006's song from Bosnia and Herzegovina, "Lejla".

As the union between Serbia and Montenegro dissolved in 2006, both nations started to enter Eurovision independently starting in 2007.  Montenegro (who has decided to skip the 2010 Eurovision contest) has never been able to get out of the semifinals, but Serbia was a different story.  In their debut as an independent nation, Serbia's song "Molitva (Prayer)" by Marija Šerifović took home the victory, scoring over thirty points more than the runner up, Ukraine.  Not only was "Molitva" a beautiful song, but it was a bit of a record-breaker, as well.  With the exception of the first running of the contest, no debuting nation had ever won the grand prize.  Furthermore, it was the first winner since 1998 to not be sung in English (before 1998, nations had to sing in their native language; afterwards, any language could be used).  The song used no pyrotechnics, no flashy choreography, no costume stood on its own merits, and garnered a well-deserved win.  The next year's entry, Jelena Tomašević's "Oro", was a return to Željko Joksimović's wheelhouse of ethnically-inspired ballads.  In a competitive year, it scored in 6th place.

Last year, Serbia decided to get a bit wacky, sending Marko Kon and accordion player Milaan with "Cipela (Shoe)".  Although it placed 10th in its semifinal, the 13th-placed entry from Croatia that year was given the ticket to the finals, as it was the jury's choice.  Despite the disappointment, "Cipela" was a fun little diversion, with manic choreography and even more manic hair on Marko.

Keeping things upbeat for the second year in a row, this year brings us Milan Stanković with "Ovo Je Balkan ("This is Balkan)", composed by local musical hero Goran Bregović.

The song definitely brings in some of the the ethnic qualities that "Lane Moje" and "Oro" displayed, but injected with taurine and speed.  The focus on the number three in the song is also significant among Serbians; a three-fingered salute (check out about :52 seconds into the song for Milan's) is seen as a national marker of cultural identity.  Will it make it into the finals?  Well, if bloc voting has anything to say about it, Serbia already has a leg up on the competition.  Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia are also in the first semifinal, so that might help a bit.  I wouldn't be shocked if this made it through to the next level, but if it scored higher than tenth place in the finals, I'd be taken a bit aback.  Regardless, it's a fun song with a surprising amount below the surface, and I'm looking forward to how it's presented on the stage in Oslo.

ESC 2010 Reviews: Russia

Ah, Russia.  They've been one of the most successful entrants into the Eurovision Song Contest, but they're also often one of the most controversial.  They are the fulcrum of the Former Soviet voting bloc, siphoning votes from all over Eastern Europe.  While they tend to distribute their votes pretty widely, they tend to get high marks from countries like Belarus, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Armenia, all of which were former parts of the Soviet Union.  I believe this is a result of two things:

1) After so many years of being underneath the same national umbrella, many of these countries, while retaining their own senses of self, have grown to create a shared cultural experience.  Between the language similarities and a shared media, these nations share a common bond that's impossible to ignore.
2) Russia's Eurovision songs are often fantastic!  They take the competition very seriously, put quite a bit of funding down for production, and they choose artists who are known throughout the region, as opposed to taking unknowns from a "Pop Idol"-type show.  Huge names such as Philipp Kirkorov, Alla Pugacheva, Mumiy Troll, Dima Bilan, and t.A.T.u have all represented their homeland in the ESC, and these faces are often recognized beyond Russia's extensive borders.

Russia debuted in 1994, along with a number of other "Eastern Bloc" nations.  Their first entry, "Vyechniy stranik (Eternal Wanderer)" by Maria Katz (also known as Youddiph), was memorable not only for its beautiful execution and soaring chorus, but for the multitasking crimson gown that Masha wore that evening.  I'm not a fashionista by any stretch, but the first time I saw the video of this performance I had the urge to play "dress-up" for the first time since I was a little girl.  Eurovision performances often focus on clothing being ripped off, but this might have been the first time that covering oneself up was just as eye-catching.

Their 2001 entry, "Lady Alpine Blue" by Vladivostok pop-rockers Mumiy Troll, is one of those love-it-or-hate it numbers.  Lead singer Ilya Lagutenko is smarmy, vaguely androgynous, and oddly appealing.  Some might see the song as creepy, but I actually liked it, in a kind of feline lounge singer sort of way.

2003 brought Russia's most controversial participation to date, including one of their biggest musical exports.  It was decided that faux-teen-lesbians t.A.T.u would represent Moscow in the ESC in Riga, and the ended up coming in an incredibly close 3rd place with "Ne Ver', Ne Boysia (Don't Trust, Don't Fear)", despite being booed from half of the audience just as much as the other half cheered (not only were the pair controversial, but they had supposedly been acting like divas during the rehearsals and press conferences).  Although they had been the odds-on favorites to win (they had just released their international smashes "All the Things She Said" and "Not Gonna Get Us"), their live performance was marred by off-key and lackluster notes.  If singer Yulia Volkova (the black-haired one) hadn't been fighting off laryngitis that week, it's possible that Turkey wouldn't have taken the crown that year.  We'll never know for sure.

2006 saw the Eurovision debut of mulleted heartthrob Dima Bilan.  His song "Never Let You Go" was insanely popular, and was only beaten in the scoreboard by Finland's unstoppable Lordi.  Bilan had been a known entity throughout the former Soviet bloc since 2003, so the impression he made on the scoreboard was not a surprise.  Beyond that, "Never Let You Go" was a really well-constructed pop song with universal appeal. 

Russia's song for 2007 tried to duplicate the success of previous years: high-energy pop + beautiful faces.  Serebro's imaginatively-titled "Song #1", despite it's slightly fractured English, was a fun, sexy performance that came in 3rd in a hotly-contested ESC that year (beaten by a gorgeous Serbian ballad and an unexplainable entry from the Ukraine...more on these later.)

2008 heralded the return of Dima Bilan to Eurovision, and he was taking no prisoners.  His song, the Timbaland-produced "Believe", wasn't quite the nugget of pop confection that "Never Let You Go" or "Song #1" had been, but Russia was determined to put on one hell of a show to make up for any shortcomings in the songwriting.  For the show in Serbia, the Russian team arranged for a small patch of ice to be installed on stage (keep in mind, there's generally less than a minute between songs), and had Olympic Gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko skate in circles around him, all while violinist Edvin Marton played his Stradivarius with them.  The song itself might have been a bit syrupy, but you have to admit it: the Russians had balls.  They won the competition handily over (in my opinion) superior songs from the Ukraine, Portugal, Turkey, and Switzerland, but more than ever, the results were marred by accusations of bloc-voting, and beloved BBC commentator Terry Wogan actually stepped down from his Eurovision duties because of it.  From 2009 and onwards, national votes would be 50% televote, and 50% jury-based, as to avoid the issue in the future.

So, after all of these high-energy, high-production cost, high-profile, high-performing entries, who will Moscow be sending to Oslo?

I'm sorry...what?  I half expected the cast of "A Mighty Wind" to stop by and crash the stage.  When  first heard Peter Nalitch's "Lost and Forgotten", I had no idea what to think.  Especially when you think about the spectacles that Russia has given Eurovision over the past decade or so, this song sounds completely out of place.  The first words that came to mind?  "You've got to be kidding me..."

And then I realized that the joke was on me.  Nalitch and his group have been making music with a heavy touch of irony for a few years now (check out his YouTube hit "Gitar"), so this song's awkwardness is all intentional.  Be that as it may, many ESC viewers are hearing these songs for the first time when they vote...will the joke go over their heads, or will bloc voting carry them through to the Final?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Romania

Romania, like many other nations from the Central-to-Eastern European region, entered the ESC in the mid-1990s.  The first entry from Bucharest came in 1994, the same year as Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, Russia, Hungary, and Poland.  Since then, Romania's found some half-decent success, including a set of third and fourth-place finishes in the middle of this past decade.  They're one of only a handful of countries to have qualified for every final since the semifinal system began back in 2004, but they haven't broken into the Top Ten since 2006.

My personal favorite entry from Romania was actually their debut.  Dan Bittman, lead singer of the long-running local rock group Holograf, took the stage with "Dincolo de Nori (Beyond the Clouds)", a great rock ballad that sadly scored only 21st place out of 25 contestants that year.  (Ironically, the first and so far only contestants from San Marino, MiOdio, recently covered "Dincolo de Nori" into a modernized Italian version, "Oltre le Nuvole").

2005 brought "Let Me Try" by Luminiţa Anghel and Sistem, a high-energy Europop number complete with flying sparks and backup dancers drumming on oil cans.  It was the nation's highest placement, and Romania followed it up  in 2006 with the equally dynamic "Tornerò", sung in English and Italian by Mihai Trăistariu.  Scoring an incredibly respectable 4th place (next to heavy hitters from Finland, Russia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina), "Tornerò" brought Romania's highest point-total to date, and it reached the top of the charts in Greece, Cyprus, Malta, and Sweden.

This year, Romania brings us "Playing With Fire" by Paula Seling and Ovi (Ovidiu Cernăuţeanu, who currently lives and works in Norway).

Paula Seling & Ovi - Playing with Fire (Official Music Video) from Eduard Schneider on Vimeo.
This music video is probably the most fun out of 2010's crop.  Anything with flaming pianos, transparent iPads, pleather catsuits and dancing robots automatically is made of win, right?  Granted, the lyrics might be a bit trite (the whole fire/desire/higher rhyme isn't quite original, but it works), but the song is fun, danceable, and catchy as hell.  It won its National Selection with top marks from the local jury, as well as nearly twice the televoting numbers as the runner-up.  Although "Playing with Fire" is in the tough second semifinal, I'd be surprised if they didn't make it through, assuming that Paula's high note doesn't cause her throat to explode or the jury's ears to bleed. 

...Now if only they can get some dancing robots on stage with them, they'd be a lock.

ESC 2010 Reviews: Portugal

Finland used to hold the dubious distinction of having participated in the Eurovision Song Contest for the longest time without a win.  After the victory of "Hard Rock Hallelujah" back in 2006, the "honor" went from Finland to Portugal.  Lisbon has been sending entries to the contest since 1964, when the country made its debut in last place (like Lithuania, they scored no points, but due to differences in scoring systems from then to now, it wasn't considered as much of a slap in the face as it is now...three other nations left that year's competition with no points). They've never even made it to the Top 5, and their most recent Top 10 placing was back in 1996, when Lúcia Moniz took Portugal to their highest placing (6th) with "O meu coração não tem cor (My Heart Has No Color)", a sunny, folkloric ode to the Lusophone world.  Eagle-eyed movie buffs might recognize the lovely Lúcia from the British ensemble comedy "Love Actually", where she played Aurélia, the quiet Portuguese maid who falls for an adorably bumbling Colin Firth.  Her heart may have no color, but mine's green with envy...

I often talk about the political side of Eurovision, especially between countries (like Georgia's dig at Russia in 2009, Turkey's frustration at Armenia for "Apricot Stone" this year, or when Spain sent an Argentine Tango to a UK-hosted ESC during the height of the Falklands/Malvinas War).  Portugal, however, has an amazing story to tell in regards to its own national history in the context of Eurovision.  In 1974 (the year that ABBA won for Sweden) Portugal's song, "E Depois do Adeus (And After Goodbye)" came in dead last.  Despite that disappointing finish, the song's story doesn't end there.  Only a few weeks later, there was a massive populist coup against the Fascist regime of the Estado Novo, led by then-Prime Minister Marcelo Caetano.  To kick off the uprising of the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon, the coups organizers used the National Radio to signal when to start their national takeover.  The song that was used as the secret signal to start the revolution?  "E Depois do Adeus", the little song that failed on the international stage, yet heralded the return of democracy in Portugal.

Over the past few decades, Lisbon has sent a few fantastic, yet completely underrated entries to Eurovision, many of them inspired by fado, or "fate" songs.  Fado is an often-melancholy style inspired by love and loss, especially in the context of the seafaring ways of traditional Portuguese life.  In 2008, Portugal sent a fado-inspired entry, "Senhora do Mar (Lady of the Sea)", sung by Madeira native Vânia Fernandes.  I watched the 2008 Finals with my friend Kate over the internet (as it's not broadcast live on television here in the United States), and as Vânia sang, her emotions palpable, Kate and I had no choice but to stare nearly unblinking at my tiny laptop screen, so that we didn't miss a frame of her performance.  Kate was brought to tears by the end of it.  The fact that "Senhora do Mar" came in 13th place is nearly tragic, as fans and critics alike lauded the song with praise.  The next year's entry, Flor-de-Lis's "Todas as Ruas de Amor (All the Roads of Love)" brought out the lighter side of traditional Portuguese music, and came out sounding like a warm and fuzzy hug from the sunny Algarve.  Again, it was underrated, and only came up with a 15th-place position.

Portugal's lack of success in Eurovision really has nothing to do with a lack of great performances, singers, or songs.  They're in the unenviable position of only having one geographical neighbor, Spain, and no other countries in Eurovision speak Portuguese.  National Broadcaster RTP almost always sends entries sung exclusively in Portuguese (although they went through a phase for a few years where verses were sung in Portuguese, with choruses in English), so while it's always fantastic to see countries stay true to their language, it doesn't help garner many bloc votes.  Over the years, Portugal has sent pop, ballads, folk, and fado, but no permutation has worked for them so far.  It pains me to say this, but I think Lisbon's only hope is to take their nation's most popular descendant, Portuguese-Canadian Nelly Furtado, and draft her into the fray.  

But until Nelly crosses the Atlantic, we've got 18-year-old Filipa Azevedo representing Portugal this year with "Há Dias Assim (There are Days like This)".

This is a pretty standard Eurovision-style ballad, complete with a key change.  Filipa's voice is strong, but you can still hear just how young she is.  At times, it sounds like she's taken too many lessons from the Christina Aguilera School of Vocal Gymnastics, but out of the many, many ballads in this year's Contest, this is definitely one of the better ones, and possibly the best in the First Semifinal.  If Filipa keeps her vocal runs in check, she should be able to make it into the finals for Portugal's third straight year, and may score in the Top 15 once again.  But if the performances of 2008 and 2009 couldn't crack the Top Ten, Filipa might be out of luck.  I do like this song, though, and hope that juries treat it kindly, as bloc voting never seems to favor the Portuguese.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: Poland

(Just as an FYI, as I'm running out of time to post my reviews, I'm going to hold off on my entries on Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as they have already qualified for the Finals on May 29th.  Thanks for understanding!)

Poland has been taking part in the ESC since 1994, which is also the year they had their biggest success in the competition, with Edyta Gorniak's "To Nie Ja (That's Not Me)".  Considered one of the best debuts in Eurovision history (both in score and in quality), Poland's been trying to duplicate that success for the past sixteen years, to little or no avail.  They've only had one other Top Ten placing since then, with Ich Troje's "Keine Grenzen-Żadnych granic (No Borders)", sung in German and Polish with a smattering of Russian.  The song, a call for peace, came in 7th place.

Poland has often rested on the laurels of "pretty girl + big song", and despite middling success, they've sent some pretty nice tunes.  For example, 1997's entry, Ana Maria Jopek's "Ale Jestem (But I Am)", was a beautiful folk-inspired number, but it only made it to eleventh place.  They've sent ballads the last two years that, while beautiful, have either scored in last place in the final nor not qualified at all.  They've also sent a few true clunkers.  I still wince when I think about 2007's "Time To Party" by The Jet Set.  I don't care how much money you spend on your stage show, you aren't allowed to rhyme "party" with "party".  It defies the laws of nature and music. 

After a few years of middling success, Warsaw's sending Marcin Mrozinski to Oslo with "Legenda".

Like the Moldovan entry, I feel like this song is trying to combine too many things into three minutes.  There's the traditional piece, sung in Polish in fits and spurts throughout the song, about a knight who kidnaps a princess.  There's the violin break, which might be trying to make listeners recall Alexander Rybak from last year.  Then there's the body of the song, sung in a Google-Translated version of English, that can't make up its mind if it's a ballad, rock, or somewhere in between.  Individually, I generally like those elements appearing in Eurovision.  But all in one song?  It's a bit chaotic, and even when the song draws to a dramatic climax, I'm left kind of cold.  He'll be in the first semifinal, so who knows if he'll pass through, but if he makes it to the finals, I'm not sure if he'll do any better than 15th or 20th place.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ESC 2010 Reviews: The Netherlands

Ah, the Netherlands.  I've been to Amsterdam a few times, and it's truly one of my favorite places on the planet.  I love how welcoming the city is, how unbelievably comfortable it can's just like slipping on your favorite pair of jeans.  The people are friendly, the food is wonderful, the architecture like nowhere else on the planet.  It's really a shame that their Eurovision entry this year is so abysmal.

It's not like the Dutch haven't had their success in the past.  They've won the contest four times, and some of my favorite ESC classics come from Holland.  In 1959, Teddy Scholten (who sadly passed away this past month) took home the crown with "Een Beetje (A Little Bit)", one of the most adorable songs to come out of the contest.  It was a perfect little snapshot of the times: the dress, the hair, the innocent little flirtation in the song...they all added up to a sweet victory for Teddy, who would eventually leave showbiz and work with the Dutch Red Cross.

In 1966, the Netherlands took a bit of a risk and brought a new level of performance into the ESC.  Instead of the traditional chansons and ballads that had dominated the contest for the previous ten years, the Dutch brought in Milly Scott, a Surinamese-Dutch jazz singer to sing "Fernando en Filippo", a song about a love triangle in Latin America.  Milly bounced around on stage with reckless abandon, something that really hadn't been seen before on the Eurovision stage.  When I look at the high-energy performances that are often seen in today's competition, I often think back on "Fernando en Filippo", and marvel at how things have evolved over the past few decades.

In 1975, the Netherlands inadvertently provided one of the most unintentionally comical songs the ESC has ever seen.  Ironically, it also gave them their most recent victory.  Schoolboys all over the UK couldn't help but laugh at lyrics like "There will be no sorrow/when you sing tomorrow/and you walk along with your ding-dang-dong!/Ding-a-dong every hour, when you pick a flower/Even when your lover is gone, gone, gone!"  You can't quite top Teach-In's "Ding-a-Dong", can you?  (Readers, I'm giving you an assignment: If Teach-In can Ding a Dong every hour, even when their lover is gone, how long will it take for them to develop carpal tunnel syndrome?  Whoever gives me the best answer undying love and respect!)

Between then and now, the Dutch have come up with a few great songs, all with varying levels of success.  My personal favorites include 1972's clap-along number "Als Het Om De Leifde Gaat (When It's All About Love)" by Sandra and Andres, 1992's "Vrede (Peace)" by Ruth Jacott, and 1998's "Hemel en Aarde (Heaven and Earth)" by Edsilia Rombley.

Despite all of the Netherland's previous success in the ESC, they have sadly fallen off the mark over the last few years.  They haven't qualified for a Final since 2004, and haven't finished in the Top 10 since 1999.  This year, it looks like they're taking another step backwards.  Unlike many countries, where singers will submit their own songs and they'll duke it out in a preselection, or where a country will select a singer and song, or a single singer will have a selection of songs that the public can vote on, the Dutch decided to go backwards.  Broadcaster TROS selected their song's composer internally, and held a national final to decide who would sing "Ik Ben Verliefd, Sha-La-Lie (I'm In Love, Sha-La-Lie)".  Now, the UK did something similar last year and came out with a 5th place score.  The British had selected Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren.  The Dutch, however, selected songwriter Pierre Kartner (aka Father Abraham), who was best known for this:

Oy.  After a low budget national selection that was basically decided by a coin flip from Kartner himself when two contestants were tied, we end up with this:

Don't get me wrong...Sieneke's cute, but this song is so just doesn't do the poor girl any justice.  She's only eighteen, yet the way she's styled makes her look twice that age.  It's just a bit sad to see the country that brought us Teddy Scholten and Milly Scott come to this.  Sieneke will be in the second semifinal, which means that her chances of passing through to the Final are slim to nil, unless half of the contestants aren't able to make it to the contest because of flight delays from a certain Icelandic Volcano.  I wish Sieneke well, but I hope this is the last time she takes advice from a man who talks to Smurfs.

ESC 2010 Reviews: Moldova

Moldova is another one of those nations that I frankly knew little about until I started paying attention to Eurovision.  A former Soviet republic scrunched up between Romania and the Ukraine, it's considered to be the poorest nation in Europe.  Despite this, however, Moldova is the land of great wine, mămăligă, and unexpectedly great Eurovision entries.

Moldova's first foray into the ESC was back in 2005, when ska-funk band Zdob şi Zdub made a splash with "Boonika Bate Doba (Grandmama Beats the Drum)", featuring a drum solo by Lidia Bejenaru, the Boonika herself.  Supposedly, the band decided to cut a member from their Eurovision line-up in order to make sure that Lidia had a place on stage, as there can only be six people on stage at once.  Making it all the way to a 6th place finish (and coming in 2nd during the semifinal), "Boonika Bate Doba" still stands as Moldova's highest placement in Eurovision, and possibly their most memorable entry.  A friend and colleague of mine was living in a small town in Moldova at that time, and she tells me about how excited her host community was to see their hometown boys doing so well on the stage in Kiev.  For them to not only hear their language and see their traditional costumes on stage, but also to make such a huge impression on the was a big deal!

Two years later, right on the heels of Finland's victory with "Hard Rock Hallelujah", Moldova sent a rock song of their own, Natalia Barbu's "Fight", making it back into the top 10.  However, when they went the smooth-jazz route the next year with Geta Burlacu's "A Century of Love", they failed to make the finals for the first time.

Last year, they decided to step the energy back up with the wonderfully manic pop-folk number "Hora Din Moldova (Dance of Moldova)" by local star Nelly Ciobanu.  Although they only made it to 14th place, they received a full set of 12 points from Romania and Portugal.

This year, Moldova's keeping the energy high with "Run Away" by The SunStroke Project featuring Olia Tira.

This one's a bit weird for me.  Between the violins in the beginning, the disco-pop beat and vocals, and the random saxophone throughout, "Run Away" sounds like it's coming to us from three decades at once.  It's undoubtedly fun and upbeat, and it will be the first song performed in the first semifinal, but that's often a disadvantage as voters might not remember the first song out of the gate.  This one may be a tough sell, and if it makes it through to the finals, I doubt it will reach Zdob şi Zdub or Natalia Barbu territory.

Oh, and just as a side note, Moldova is also the nation that brought us this:

(No, not Gary Brolsma...he's from New Jersey.  But the band that sang "Dragostea Din Tea", O-Zone, hails from Moldova.  And now you won't be able to get it out of your head.  Sorry!)
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