10 May, 2014

Eurovision 2014

For the uninitiated (as was i, until studying abroad in Turkiye), an introduction:

Eurovision is an international song competition among the members of the European Broadcasting Union - that includes some outliers in northern Africa and the Middle East - held annually since 1956. What the World Cup is to soccer fans, Eurovision is to Gleeks, and it offers global exposure to artists at times unheard of outside their own countries. Such was the case for a Swedish group in 1974.

They remain an outlier, of course, but part of the intrigue of Eurovision is wondering: will one of these artists be the next Abba? This year's crop of 37 entries is an embarrassment of riches, unblemished by atrocities like Trackshittaz1. Scoring is determined fifty-fifty by viewer voting and a panel of professional judges representing each nation, which gives the contest a geopolitical layer and creates voting blocs among nations with similar cultures.

A final thought about the contest itself: it's a song contest, balancing both songwriting and performance elements. Though performance matters a lot - costume, choreography, charisma, technical skill, this year even video art beneath a transparent floor - all the stagecraft in the world can't save a crappy song. With that in mind, i try to consider each entry on the merits of lyric and music as well as delivery and stagecraft elements.

At this point i've watched both semifinal rounds twice, and have a head absolutely squirming with earworms. I put a good deal of thought into why certain songs worked for me - not which songs are likely to win, just the ones i will still be listening to when next year's crop rolls around. They are:

12. Georgia - The Shin and Mariko - "Three Minutes to Earth"
Featuring vocalist Mariko Ebralidze atop the fusion jazz stylings of The Shin, "Three Minutes" reminds me a bit of Rusted Root. Despite the incoherent theme (environment? love? space jumps?!) and chronometrically self-referential Eurovision-please-love-us lyric, i love it: the harmonies, the unexpected key changes, particularly the rather long melodic quote of Bach Partita No. 3 from 1:37 to 1:55. It's one of few stagings this year to have a little of the classic WTF factor (parasailing drummer!). I'm unsurprised it didn't make the final, both because the staging was quite static - something most bands with a drummer suffer from - and because musically challenging entries rarely do. 

11. Lithuania - Vilija - "Attention"
Though the lyric is so-so and the delivery weak, Vilija makes up for that with a tightly choreographed - and for the most part, impeccably synchronized - duo dance number. It's not as athletic as the Estonian entry, which quite honestly ties for this spot on my list, but when the choreography works, it's laudable. The costumes are what really shine for me, though i can understand why voters and judges decided it didn't deserve attention in the final. 

10. Switzerland - Sebalter - "Hunter of Stars"
Mix one part Mumford & Sons with a heavy dose of Maroon 5; add banjo player with a manic, gif-worthy grin and a lead singer who whistles, sings, drums and fiddles like he's trying to channel 2009  champion Alexander Rybak. "Hunter of Stars" exemplifies an issue i often find with Eurovision lyrics: like most Eurovision songwriters, Sebalter (aka Sebastiano Pau-Lessi) is working in a second language, and that can lend a certain awkwardness and incoherence to what was otherwise a brilliant concept. Still, it's not the worst lyric of the 2014 crop (that would be Denmark). It's decent, and damn, that guy can write a hook. I've been whistling it for the last two days. 

9. Sweden - Sanna Nielsen - "Undo"
For me, "Undo" narrowly beat out Spanish entry "Dancing in the Rain," with the latter being a bit too repetitive and grandiose. After the semifinal, "Undo" reportedly become the outright odds favorite to win - but hey Sweden, don't be greedin, you won in 2012. Don't let the vulnerable, fragile first verse fool you. Nielsen nails everything from pianissimo to forte and beyond, with an unshakable delivery. 

8. Iceland - pollapönk - "No Prejudice"
With a name that literally means "puddle punk" and a member of Iceland's parliament singing backup, these guys bring otherwise absent kitsch and overt social message to the 2014 contest. Whether they're wearing track suits or three piece suits, the teletubby-esque colors are an integral part of the brand. And if the lyric sounds like a preschool teacher wrote it, that's because frontman and songwriter Heiðar Örn Kristjánsson is a preschool teacher. These self-described "middle-aged, heterosexual white" guys showed up to the red carpet in dresses, and they rock. If you watch only ten seconds of this clip, start at 1:50

7. Norway - Carl Epsen - "Silent Storm"  
Though Epson has minimal stage presence, it appears he's had some vocal coaching since the Norwegian finals, and brings perhaps the most nuanced male vocal in this year's competition. Plus, it's a friggin gorgeous ballad. 

6. Slovenia - Tinkara Kovač  - "Round and Round"
There are always one or two entries in Eurovision that straddle the line of universally-accessible English and cultural-pride-native-tongue lyricism, but it's rare that such bilingual entries succeed. (While non-English songs commonly won in the contest's early years, the last to win was Serbia's 2007 entry "Molitva"; the last bilingual winner, Ukraine's 2004 entry "Wild Dances.") It's unlikely "Round and Round" will place within the top five on Saturday, but this song deserves a listen or fifteen. It's dark and circular, with a killer undertow of a chorus; the lyric is simple and singable. Reversing the usual English-first formula, Kovač pulls off the bilingual song with flair, and her talent as a flutist adds just the right filigree.

5. Russia - Tolmachevy Sisters - "Shine"
Oh, the politics of Eurovision. Grandmother Russia is looking a bit more spry this year, but still almost sickeningly wholesome in the form of the angelic Tolmachevy twins. I want so desperately not to like this entry - particularly after politician Vitaly Milonov urged a Russian boycott of the Eurovision broadcast over Conchita Wurst's participation - but the Tolmachevy sisters are good. Really good. Belting out the longest note of any artist this year in perfect harmony, they make a safe and generically uplifting song dangerously listenable. We'll see Saturday if Europe shares my quandary, and whether Russian actions in the Ukraine affect scores at all - take note whether the Power-Pop Twins place lower than Mariya Yaremchuk and her backup hamster as many predict. (post-final: Indeed, politics killed a great song, as every time a country awarded points to Russia, the audience booed loudly. For me the only song better and more underrated this year was Azerbaijan's.)

4. France - Twin Twin - "Moustache"
Sorry Belarus, the "Cheescake" thing is tight, and aptly titled, but not even the goatee can help you match "Mustache."  This joint be jumpin'. (post-final edit: i defend the song itself, despite the performance being so lackluster it was the lowest-scoring entry this year.) 

3. Netherlands - The Common Linnets - "Calm After the Storm
Ilse DeLange and Waylon have a vocal and harmonic quality strikingly similar to Americana music greats David Carter and Tracy Grammer, and the arrangement feels very Iron & Wine - thoroughly listenable stuff. Co-written by DeLange and a quartet of Nashville songwriters (JB Meijers, Rob Crosby, Matthew Crosby and Jake Etheridge; if you listen to Lady Antebellum or Brooks & Dunn, you may have heard songs Rob Crosby has written), the lyric is a tad cliche for country listeners, but at Eurovision it's something unique - the closest possible thing to an actual American entry - and there's a poignancy and simplicity to the song that sticks.  

2. Azerbaijan - Dilara Kazimova - "Start a Fire"
An imploring, spare ballad deftly delivered by Kazimova. She imbues the song with soulful longing while positively beaming charm and confidence onstage. The arrangement has just enough ethnic flavor to make it distinctive in a field crowded with ballads, a dish spiced just right. There is little more i can say about this one, save that the lyric (co-written by Stefan Örn, Alessandra Günthardt and Johan Kronlund) is one of the best this year, hitting the Eurovision trifecta of social criticism, hope and poetry without veering into the trite or pedantic. 

1. Austria - Conchita Wurst - "Rise Like a Phoenix"
I see your moustache, France, and raise you Conchita Wurst. Much ink has been spilled on the year's most controversial performer, the stage persona of 25-year-old Tom Neuwirth. Imma stick to the performance: I'm not the only one who thought Conchita was the second semifinal's biggest revelation - no small thanks to the producers, who chose a continuous 40-second dolly in to accentuate Wurst's surprising figure and the lyric's intrigue. The song has all the melodic and dynamic climax its title suggests, creating synergy with what for Wurst seems a deeply personal lyric. Wurst's voice has its weaknesses, certainly - the final note left me wanting just a bit more - but bookended by brassy chords straight out of a Bond theme, it's the power-ballad reborn as an anthem.

Pollapönk performs in the second semifinal

Would rather face a firing squad than be forced to listen to:

Denmark - Basim - "Cliche Love Song"
...shooba duba dabda shoot me now. Yes, i'm aware i misspelled "skuba." I should clarify, it isn't my intent to hate on the artist here, only the song itself. Something called "Cliche Love Song" would do better to take a an ironic approach. This is just insipid.

England - Molly - "Children of the Universe"
....alternate title "Eurovision Suckup Song." Try singing it, it works. This is what happens when you're guaranteed a spot in the final...

Random thoughts and honorable mentions:

Ireland - thanks for being the ones to provide kilted dancers, since Greece dropped the ball on that this year. And thank you from the bottom of my heart for not sending that pestilence Jedward again. 

Nice hologram, Romania! Looking forward to the Humon comic on that one. 

Albanian artist Hersi has a very unique voice.  

San Marino's Valentina Monetta atones for "The Social Network Song."2 "Maybe" it's a bit of a throwback to the '60s, but the harmonic progression intrigues me.  

Finally, congratulations to Montenegro on reaching the Grand Final for the first time! "Moj Svijet (My World)" is a really lovely ballad.


1. It is notable that the 2012 Austrian entry, Trackshittaz' "Woki Mit Deim Popo" (literally, "wiggle your ass") featured twerking before Miley Cyrus scandalized us all. With five points from Romania, two from Switzerland and one from Iceland, it scored a total of eight points, and did not advance to the final.

2. "The Social Network Song" was, surprisingly, not the lowest scoring entry of 2012, placing 7th in a field of 42. For the lowest-scoring entry of 2012, see footnote 1.