Australia’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Australia continues sending its most bankable stars to Eurovision with radio-friendly pop hits. This year, Jessica Mauboy takes her turn.

Jessica Mauboy rose to fame from the Australian Idols franchise way back in 2006. Three platinum studio albums and literally dozens of radio singles later, she is one of Australia’s biggest, most recognizable recording artists.

“We Got Love” is uplifting homage to–you guessed it–love, even when it’s hard. And with “We Got Love,” Australia demonstrates (again) how well it understands the Eurovision space.  Although Jessica normally has a more R&B sound, her song for Europe has many time-honored Eurovision traits on display: big vocal, upbeat tempo, strong drum beat, choral breakdown. It’s shamelessly pop, shamelessly radio-friendly, and very, very accessible.

Though playing it safe is often the riskiest thing a country can do, in this case we are not worried. In her Semifinal, Jessica benefits by her draw in what can only be described as an eclectic line-up. In that context, “We Got Love” is a reassuring turn.

Finland’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Finland has chosen Saara Aalto and “Monsters” for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Now, it would not be a stretch to call Saara Aalto a competition veteran. She finished second in the Voice of Finland 2012 and she has also finished second at the Finnish national selection show UMK twice, in 2011 and 2016.

See a pattern? One wondered if she was ever going to get a win somewhere, anywhere.

Then something interesting happened: Saara went to the United Kingdom and entered X Factor UK. She finished second (again) in a series that was widely watched by the Brits, the Irish, and the Finns. Rumor had it that she planned to enter the UK national selection competition Eurovision: You Decide. Finland took a look at its crop of songs, decided they were a measly bunch, and gave her a direct-to-Eurovision offer, thus beating the UK to the punch.

It’s a classic story:

You’re not good enough for me.

Ok, I’ll change.  How about now?

Better, but no, you’re still not good enough for me.

Is that really how you feel? It breaks my heart. But I’ll pick up the pieces, move on, and find someone else who will love me the way I deserve.

Wait, someone else likes you?  I like you so much better now. Come back!

Well, it always has been you, so…okay. But you hurt me bad. This time I have some conditions.

Sure, sure anything. But please come back! I need you!

Thus, for this year’s UMK, Saara co-wrote and performed three songs for the public and an international jury to choose from. “Monsters,” the runaway favorite, was co-written with “Heroes” songwriters Joy and Linnea Deb and Ki Fitzgerald from Busted.

“Monsters” is one of those only at Eurovision songs, from its thematic content to its ballad-to-dance track transition. It’s a Euroclub stomper, if not a Eurovision winner. Maybe it will finish second?

Saara’s vocal phrasing is excellent. She’s not flawless: She runs the risk of being shouty and she struggles with the lower end of her range. Be not fooled by her surname: Ms. Aalto is definitely a soprano. But her obvious glee about finally getting her chance at Eurovision translates into a joyful, infectious live performance.

Speaking of infectious, let’s talk about that lyrical hook: “Monster” burrows into your brain and pops out at random times.

“I ain’t scared no more!”

So it’s got that going for it.

Israel’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Israel is in it to win it this year. Here’s Netta Barzilai with “Toy.”

Netta Barzilai is a 25-year old singer who, prior to appearing on Israel’s national selection show The Next Star for Eurovision 2018, was primarily in the performance arts space. Her signature style is improvisational singing and working with a looper. In 2016, she toured with Israel’s prestigious Batsheva Dance Company, which merged her improvisational vocals with dance.

There’s been speculation about whether the EBU will permit Netta to use her looper in a live performance, but our take is that if the EBU allowed Norway and JOWST to use synthesized vocals last year, then it seems unlikely this will be an issue.

“Toy” is co-written by Doron Medalie, Israel’s pop Svengali who was the creative force behind 2015’s “Golden Boy” and 2016’s “Made of Stars.” As a pop song, “Toy” is every bit as good as these successes that preceded it.  The chorus “I’m not your toy/You stupid boy” hooks us, and the arrangement has that distinctive Tel Aviv sound.

Netta’s genius is that she has taken “Toy,” with all of Doron’s style and hallmarks, and made it uniquely her own. The outcome elevates Doron’s raw material and provides Netta with a vehicle that has commercial appeal.

Netta is the rare, desperately needed breed of pop musician who acts—with agency—rather than reacts. Her point of view feels feminine, empowered, and confident. Contrast “Toy” with “Beauty Never Lies” from Serbia’s Bojana Stamenov. Bojana’s song was also empowering, but it was more about the process of learning to love yourself. Listening to “Toy,” you get the sense Netta is already there and has been for some time.

At the same time, Netta expresses herself in a way that isn’t threatening, marginalizing, or off-putting. She is fun: she clucks like a chicken and we laugh along with the joke (and riff off of it). To win her ticket to Eurovision, she did a medley of Kesha’s Tik Tok and Psy’s Gangnam Style. You can’t help but applaud her badassity.

Netta isn’t just likable, she’s important. There are too few examples of confident, intelligent women who can navigate the difficult cultural terrain that comes with female success. She defies the one-dimensional stereotypes of femininity (diva, big girl, sex kitten, princess, bitch, etc.), and she does it playfully, without politics or anger. We hope that Netta can be to Eurovision what Spanx was to underwear. Strong, for females by a female, and wholly transformative. Go get ’em, tiger.

The Netherlands’ Eurovision 2018 Entry

Waylon is back for another bite of the Eurovision apple. Here’s “Outlaw in ‘Em.”

You may remember Waylon from such Eurovision Song Contests as the one he nearly won in 2014, when he teamed up with Ilse DeLange as the Common Linnets with “Calm After the Storm.” It finished second at Eurovision and turned into a surprise summer hit after the Contest.

Listening to “Outlaw in ‘Em,” we are struck by how much it resembles what we hear on American country radio these days. It’s got a powerful guitar riff, a head-bobbing rhythm, and a spot-on arrangement with steel guitar. “Outlaw in ‘Em” also tips its hat to ’80’s hard rock. On vocal, Waylon gives us twang with a touch of Axl Rose.

Acts like Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, and Bon Jovi are surprisingly big influences on modern country. In fact, “Outlaw in ‘Em” prompted a lengthy discussion in our household about that time we saw Jason Aldean in concert and he did a “Paradise City/Sweet Child of Mine” medley. The crowd loved it. We did not. It wasn’t so much the choice of songs as his note-for-note cover brought absolutely nothing new to them. And we were in the front row, right up against the stage: He could see our displeasure.

Anyway, Waylon co-wrote “Outlaw in ‘Em” with Ilya Toshinskiy and Jim Beavers. That’s some serious Nashville weight being thrown around right there. Ilya Toshinskiy is a well-regarded session musician (primarily acoustic guitar, banjo, and mandolin), with a lengthy list of credits with country’s most marketable artists, like Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, and Trace Adkins. He has twice won the ACM Studio Recording Award for Specialty Instrument(s) Player of the Year, in 2013 and 2015.

Meanwhile, Jim Beavers is an in-demand Nashville songwriter with dozens of songs to his credit. He’s had nine number ones on the American country music charts from stars like Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, and Josh Turner, among others.  The man knows his stuff: here’s a webinar he did for the Nashville Songwriters Association International on “The Art of Co-Writing.”

You think Eurovision is a small world? Take a look at Nashville some time. Here’s a fun example:  Jim Beavers co-wrote, sang backup, and played guitar on Toby Keith’s seminal classic “Red Solo Cup” (and has a cameo in the music video). Ilya Toshinskiy was a studio musician on that album, Clancy’s Tavern.

All this to say, “Outlaw in ‘Em” is the real deal. When country music shows up at Eurovision or the national heats, it is typically pastiche or a bad facsimile. The Common Linnets brought authenticity, but it was a songwriter’s song. It’s a delight to see a country song that is both authentic and current showing up at Eurovision.

Sweden’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Estonia’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Oh god, pop-opera.

Elina Nechayeva is a soprano who was a finalist on the ETV show Klassikatähed 2014, a competition show for young classical musicians. She co-hosted Eesti Laul in 2017.

She wrote “La Forza” with fellow Klassikatähed vet Ksenia Kuchukova, as well as Mihkel Mattisen and Timo Vendt, who both wrote Estonia’s 2013 entry “Et uus saaks alguse” for Birgit Õigemeele.

When “La Forza” debuted in its Eesti Laul semifinal, betting on it went wild enough to make Estonia the odds leader. Since then it has been hovering around the top three in the odds tables.

So we understand why pop-opera rears its annoying head every couple of years: it is generally predicted to do well. Il Volo’s “Grande Amore” (Italy, 2015) comes to mind: it was in the top three in the betting odds and ultimately landed third.  And when a country outside the Big Five sends pop-opera, they usually qualify for the Final. “La Forza” is therefore an appealing choice for a country that has failed to make it out of the Semis three out of the last four years.

But “Grande Amore” aside, this subgenre more commonly finishes mid-table on Saturday night. Think “Sognu” (France, 15th in 2011), “La Voix” (Sweden, 21st in 2009), “Cvet z juga” (Slovenia, 15th in 2007), or “Questa Notte” (Latvia, 16th in 2007). Even glorious, glorious “It’s My Life” (Romania, 2013) finished 13th.

Our bias against pop-opera may be showing, but to us “La Forza” feels more like that latter strain of mediocrity, undeserving of its projected top three status. It’s pleasant, but it lacks majesty. It is quiet and noodly and new agey. It needs to be the diva’s performance from The Fifth Element and it just isn’t.

 

Cyprus’ Eurovision 2018 Entry

Cyprus made an internal selection this year because with Eleni Foureira there is no need for a competition (and because for years Greece has been unwilling to send her). Here’s “Fuego,” Cyprus’ song for Europe.

Eleni Foureria got her start as a member of the Greek girl group Mystique. She branched out as a solo artist in 2010 and since then has had seven top 10 singles in Greece, including the chart-topping duet with J Balvin “Tranquila.” Eleni’s ancestry has often been a point of media speculation – is she Brazilian? Is she Mexican? Is she Greek? In 2014, she revealed that she hid the fact that she was born in Albania because record labels wouldn’t have signed her based on her ethnicity.

As a performer, Eleni is part of a fine tradition of long-haired divas with legs for days, a tradition that includes Nicole Scherzinger, Queen Iveta, and Zuul. In a semifinal filled with aspiring divas, Eleni has the potential to reign supreme.

“Fuego” was written by a songwriting team lead by Alexander Papaconstantinou, who wrote “Yassou Maria” for Greece, “Always” for Azerbaijan, and “La La Love” for Cyprus. He’s joined by Anderz Wrethov, who co-wrote “Always,” and Viktor Svensson, who co-wrote “La La Love.” Anderz and Viktor teamed up for 2016’s Eurofan pre-selection favorite “Cool Me Down.”

For us, the tragedy of “Fuego” is that EBU restrictions on product placements will deny us choreography using Fyffes-branded pineapples. Mmm, fire-roasted pineapples…

Norway’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Listen up kids, I’ll tell you a story
Dreams can come true, two-time Eurovision glory
Can’t write a melody? Can’t come up with a rhyme?
No need to waste your time
Own the stage, show them you belong
That’s how you perform a song

Step one: camera tricks
They surprise and delight
Step two: smize like a boss
That’s how you perform a song

Come on!

Sing
Shoo-bee-doo-bee dab dab (Shoo-bee-doo-bee dab dab)
Sha-ba-da-da hey (Sha-ba-da-da hey)
Sing it all day long (All day long)
And that’s how you perform a song
Scoo-bee-doo-bee bap bap (Scoo-bee-doo-bee bap bap)
Boogie boogie woogie hey (Boogie boogie woogie hey)
Sing it all day long (All day long)
See, that’s how you perform a song

Step one: camera tricks
They surprise and delight
Step two: smize like a boss
That’s how you perform a song
Step three: engage the crowd
Make them sing out loud
Step four: play violin
That’s how you perform a song

Italy’s Eurovision 2018 Entry

Alright, let’s get this over with. Here’s Italy’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ermal Meta was born in Albania but moved with his family to Italy when he was 13. He started his music career in the bands Ameba4 and La Fame di Camilla before becoming a successful solo artist. Two of his albums have topped the Italian charts since 2017. Meta’s single “Vietato morire” finished 3rd at Sanremo last year and reached number seven in the Italian singles charts.

Fabrizio Moro won the Sanremo Newcomers competition in 2007 with the anti-Mafia song “Pensa,” which hit number one on the Italian singles chart. He’s had three top 10 albums and also presented the TV show Sbarre.

Meta and Moro wrote “Non mi avete fatto niente” with Andrea Febo in response to the attack on Manchester Arena in 2017. The song has certain structural similarities to Febo’s “Silenzio,” which Ambra Calvani and Gabriele De Pascali performed at the 2016 Sanremo Music Festival.

Hey, if you find a chorus that works for you, then run with it.

As with this year’s French entry, this year’s Italian entry could be seen as a political song. “Non mi avete fatto niente,” which Google-translates as “You did not do anything to me,” is about remaining defiant in the face of terror. It’s a catalog of recent terror attacks punctuated with a defiant “fuck you.” This message resonates with us. It’s an alternative to putting empty platitudes and calls for policy change up on Facebook that we know will result in nothing because there is insufficient political will.

Unfortunately,”Non mi avete fatto niente” is a poor vehicle for the message. The lyric is crowded and the melody rambles on. We’re sure the song has more impact to those who understand Italian, but how widely is Italian understood by Eurovision’s international audience?  Regardless, translation (unlikely to happen) or staging are unlikely to solve the fundamental problem: the song lacks elegance.

Charlie Hebdo put it more succinctly. “They have guns. Fuck them, we have champagne.”

Eurovision 2017: A Primer for Saturday Night Viewing

The Eurovision Song Contest is being held this Saturday in Kyiv, Ukraine. Their theme is “Celebrate Diversity,” which is somewhat ironic considering the geoblocking in the U.S., Canada, and Brazil, and the three white male hosts.

No matter. Here’s our guide of the big Eurovision story lines this year, and who to watch for in the contest.

Russia’s Withdrawal
The lead up to the contest has had plenty of political controversy. Ukrainian officials alleged that Russia’s selected entrant, Yulia Samoylova, had illegally traveled to Crimea in 2015 after Russia’s annexation. In response, Ukraine issued a 3-year travel ban against Samoylova. It was widely speculated that Russia was fully aware of the conflict that would result from her selection, and Russia’s choice of Samoylova (who uses a wheelchair due to a childhood medical condition that robbed her of her ability to walk) was a cynical, deliberate attempt to provoke Ukraine. The EBU ultimately weighed in, saying that while it encouraged the participation of all countries, it respected the local laws of the host country. Russia subsequently announced it was withdrawing from the contest this year. Yulia Samoylova, incidentally, performed again in Crimea on May 9, the day of the first Eurovision Semifinal.

Russia’s absence from the contest this year has opened up a potential power vacuum. Russia can generally be relied upon to get votes from many former Soviet bloc countries because of the large number of ethnic Russians there and shared pop culture. One thing we will be watching for on Saturday is how those points are distributed. Do other Eastern European counties (e.g., Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus) benefit? Or, will the those votes simply be distributed to the songs each country likes the best?

Who’s in the Mix to Win?
All eyes are on Italy. Almost immediately after winning Italy’s prestigious Sanremo festival, Francesco Gabbani’s “Occidentalis Karma” became the odds leader, and he has stayed there ever since. As of the time of writing, the official video has amassed over 110 million views on Youtube (10 times more than anyone else in the competition). The question wasn’t whether Italy would win, but by how much.

And then, Tuesday’s Semifinal included a preview clip of Italy, part of a standard effort to showcase 3 of the Big 6 who have automatic entries into the Final. The full live Eurovision performance is available to watch on YouTube. Gabbani’s performance was unfocused and sloppy, leaving some to wonder if the frontrunner is going to choke. Though the horserace has gotten more interesting this week, he remains the favorite.

If not Italy, then who?
Portugal, that’s who. Yeah, that’s right, Portugal. The country with the longest Eurovision drought in history, who in 48 previous appearances has never won, is in with a shot this year. “Amar pelos dois” is a gentle cabaret ballad that sounds like a recent discovery from the Great American Songbook. But Salvatore Sobral’s unique stage presence completely draws you in. Look for a lot of jury love here, as well as a potential groundswell of public support for the underdog.

Bulgaria is also in the conversation. “Beautiful Mess” is a modern pop ballad with an attractive staging that features on-screen animation. Though only 17 years old, singer Kristian Kostov is a mature, poised performer, and he delivered a very strong performance in Semifinal 2. Unlike the other two contenders, which are going 9th and 11th, respectively, Bulgaria drew the second half of the final and is slated to go 25th out of 26 songs.

Other countries in the mix to place very well on the night are Sweden, which has a prime second half draw and a clever staging involving treadmills; Armenia, with a fab song, a fab staging, and a fab diva; Hungary, with a Roma-inspired pop song; and Belgium, who struggled in rehearsals but has a song with undeniable commercial appeal.

What about the cheese?
Oh, there’s cheese. 2017 is a vintage year for cheese. Sunstroke Project from Moldova is back this year. They initially rose to fame at Eurovision 2010, when Epic Sax Guy became a global meme. The members of Sunstroke Project are eager to recapture their moment in the sun, and yet, they’re also relaxed and clearly enjoying their experience this time around. “Hey Mamma” is wildly fun and, yes, gives us more epic sax.

Romania’s song is called “Yodel It!” As you might expect, there is yodeling. As you might not expect, there are glitter cannons.

The Master of Rennet, however, is Jacques Houdek from Croatia. “My Friend” is 2017’s answer to Cezar’s “It’s My Life.” Only more so. Prepare yourself.

And in case you think it is all going to be camera tricks, fire curtains, and giant images of the artist on video projection, rest assured we still get some stage props. Keep an eye out for Austria’s moon, Ukraine’s big head, and U.K.’s mirrored fan. As if you could miss them.

How to Watch in the United States
For those of us with access to extensive cable packages, Logo will be broadcasting the Contest with commentary from Michele Visage and Ross Matthews. Though the announcement came late, Logo has been publicizing it over the last two weeks. Let’s see if more than 52,000 Americans tune in this year!

Those of us in North America without access to Logo have been stymied by geoblocking thanks to the deal the EBU signed with Viacom. At least the good people of Sweden and Germany are there to help us out. If you run into problems at Eurovision.tv, try catching the broadcast at svt.se or eurovision.de.

Updated 5/12/2017: Since we posted this primer, Portugal has overtaken Italy as the odds leader. Looks like a lot of people are putting money down on Salvador. It looks like game on!