Watching the Norwegian competition to select their Eurovision entry, called Melodi Grand Prix (MGP), has been a happy hunting ground for me.
In February 2009, I watched on an internet feed as Alexander Rybak performed in the MGP semi-final. I was so confident of the performance catching fire both in his home country and across Europe, I placed a bet on Norway to win Eurovision at 16-1 at the very moment he stopped fiddling. Three months later, he indeed won with a record points score.
This year, I was despairing of a poorer quality MGP until the penultimate song in the last semi-final was performed, and I knew Norway would have to send it to Eurovision to give themselves any chance of qualifying, let alone winning.
That song was Stella Mwangi’s ‘Haba Haba’, which duly won MGP and currently vies to be favourite for the 2011 Eurovision prize at this early stage. Can the steel drums of the African-inspired song follow in the footsteps of Rybak’s folk-tinged winner?
‘Haba Haba’ has a few things in common with ‘Fairytale’. It’s an immediate, crowd-pleasing, feel-good number, very effectively staged with a nice routine involving the backing singers and dancers.
It has proved very popular in Norway, spending the last two weeks topping Lady Gaga in the national charts. Rybak was also a number 1 hit after MGP.
But the analogies end there, for a few key reasons that suggest to me we won’t be returning to Oslo in 2012.
As Sofabet reader David noted in a comment, another song to which ‘Haba Haba’ invites comparison is France’s 2010 Eurovision entry, Jessy Matador’s ‘Allez Ola Olé’ – a crowd-pleasing, feel-good number that became a summer hit in Europe following the contest.
Superficially, the similarity is that both songs sound African. And some have made a connection between that African-ness and the distinctly – though not universally – Eastern skew of countries which gave France nul points (they were Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and Ukraine).
I disagree with those who see suggestions here of racial motivations, because many of the same Eastern nations scored Britain’s Jade Ewen (who is mixed race) highly in 2009. In terms of racial attitudes in the former Soviet states, let’s also not forget that the Caribbean-born Dave Benton was part of Estonia’s winning act in 2001.
I do think it’s arguable, though, that African-sounding beats may not go down as well in Eastern Europe as they do in western and central Europe – ‘Haba Haba’ is an inferior version of Shakira’s World Cup theme ‘Waka Waka’, which was a very big hit across the western and central region last summer.
In comparison, Rybak had Belarussian origins and his folk-tinged performance was more universally appreciated across eastern as well as western and central Europe.
However, I’m not sure how far a comparison based on African-ness can take us – as musical genres go, it’s a wide one. I think a much more meaningful comparison between ‘Haba Haba’ and ‘Allez Ola Olé’ is that both are catchy and fun with a great dance routine, but without much substance. This is reflected in the remarkable disparity between the televote and jury vote for ‘Allez Ola Olé’.
TV viewers gave it 151 points, for an eighth-place finish in the televoting constituency. However, national juries gave it just 34 points, placing it 22nd.
Presumably the juries deemed its repetitive, paper-thin catchiness unworthy of high scores. I think the same will happen with ‘Haba Haba’. It will put a smile on the audience’s faces, but the juries will crucify it.
While televoters may warm to the enjoyable steel drum riff and chorus, juries will notice how the song tends to go round in circles. Nor will they be impressed by Stella’s vocals, which are noticeably weak.
I reckon ‘Haba Haba’ will have to storm the televote by a Rybak-esque amount to overcome jury disfavour, and I don’t see it happening. Despite some similarities, ‘Haba Haba’ is no ‘Fairytale’ and Stella is no Rybak.
That’s not just my opinion. It’s also reflected by the Norwegian viewing audience of MGP. Sure, Stella won comfortably, but look more closely at the figures and you get a very different story.
While Rybak and ‘Fairytale’ inspired 715,000 votes in 2009, Stella and ‘Haba Haba’ received fewer than 250,000, reflecting the weakness of the MGP field in 2011. To put it in context, fewer Norwegians picked up the phone for Stella than for the distant MGP runner-up in 2010, the Brit-Norwegian boyband A1.
So I certainly won’t be backing Stella at current stingy odds of 5-1 on Betfair. I think that’s very poor value, and indicates that some of Norway’s recent good results have the bookmakers running scared unnecessarily. Indeed, like her market rival, Germany’s Lena, I will be backing against Stella if her song contracts further in price.
What do you think – am I being too harsh on ‘Haba Haba’?