Last time we looked at this year’s duets – this week we’re looking at the gals. Time to enter the snoozedrome…
As I commence writing this article, having only listened to most of this year’s songs once or twice, I have absolutely no idea how the entries from Greece, Netherlands, Albania, Georgia, Hungary, Russia, Ireland, Portugal, Iceland, Poland and France go, despite the fact I watched them all with my undivided attention (more than many viewers will do on the night) when they were selected or unveiled. Switzerland, Germany and Latvia also went in one ear and out the other upon first listen, and I can only remember them now due to having seen them a couple more times than the others.
The only female solo entries this year I was able to partly remember after the first listen were Malta (the chorus with its “warrior” hook), Spain (the chorus with its “ee-ay-ee-ay” hook), and Serbia (the chorus, plus the final 80 seconds that rocket-propel it out of ballad territory). That’s 3 songs out of 17. I doubt this euroamnesia is just me – the bulk of these songs simply aren’t designed to be memorable or stand out, and are thus failing the one-listen test (not to mention the one-minute test) en masse. Ladies, this does not augur well.
Here’s where I have to bestow some reluctant praise on Gravity and Undo, the third-placed female ballads from the past two contests. They’re both immediately memorable on account of their extremely facile, ditty-like nature – little more than simple musical memes. After hearing both for the first time, it was precisely because I could and did remember them that I didn’t want to listen to them again. Undo hammers its chorus home in true Fredrik Kempe style without even a proper bridge between the second and third chorus-repeat, while Gravity similarly repeats its primary motif ad nauseum with even less in the way of conventional pop-song structure. If their simultaneous strength and weakness is a narrow focus on a central musical motif – ensuring they attain memorability at the expense of being well-rounded songs – this year’s ballads are largely the opposite, lacking strong motifs while obeying conventional structure. It’s like the God of Eurovision took some shelved Hilary Duff album from 2004 and distributed the tracks equally among a dozen countries.
As such, to stand remotely a chance, what they lack musically they’re going to have to make up in presentation and message. A couple of songs already have a built-in motif or potential motif here – if I say “the wheelchair one”, “the fat one”, perhaps “the piano one” or maybe even “the anti-war one”, just as viewers at home will on the night (political correctness does not apply in living rooms), you instantly know which song I’m referring to and should be able to recall it visually if not necessarily musically. The meme is the message: you remember Miley Cyrus’s tongue as a branding tool even if you don’t remember the song escaping her piehole at the same time. In a contest like Eurovision, all the more so in an unusually homogenous year, this kind of positioning and storytelling goes a long way – so the countries whose entries fail the one-listen test need to think about this if they hope to grace the left-hand side of the scoreboard come May 23.
Right. Now I’ve sat down with a cup of tea and listened to all of this year’s female solo entries again, this is what I think:
Greece’s One Last Breath (shoulda brought yer inhaler, lass) is competent but incredibly generic, like much of the lineup; there’s little emotional affect, but the song and its presentation feel marginally more relevant than can be said of some of its stablemates. Add jury and diaspora to that and Greece should do alright, though the first-half draw in its semi between highly memorable entries from Finland and Estonia doesn’t serve it well. Assuming it does make the final as Greece is wont to do (though rules are there to be broken), this absolutely doesn’t feel like top 10 fare – not least given that I’ve already forgotten how it goes again in the hour or so between listening to it and starting to write this.
Forgettable as it may be, it’s still considerably better than the Netherlands’ slice of dated radio-pop. While Walk Along’s remarkably poor chorus does employ a repetitive motif (“ay-ay-ay-ay”), normally a boon in terms of memorability, it’s one that shoots the song in the foot by virtue of being both unemotional and actively irritating. There’s no sense of relevance here, and nothing for viewers to empathise or engage with – combined with a first-half draw, this seems like a recipe for non-qualification.
Albania’s offering is contemporary, but still feels too generic and too much like a filler track on a 2003 Kelly Rowland album – and although its late draw should help it, in the short time between watching it and penning this, I’ve forgotten it again. A late semi draw helps it, yet I’d argue 4 of the final 6 in its semi are stronger than it, though I’d still guess it’s more likely to qualify than not. I much prefer Nina Sublatti’s entry for Georgia, which closes out the first semifinal and which I haven’t forgotten: Warrior has much more edge and character than many of its anodyne competitors, and I absolutely wouldn’t rule out a top 10 finish for this in the final. While the song doesn’t quite hit it out of the park, there’s simply more to get your teeth stuck into here than in many a case this year. The striking and artful video shows there’s real creative vision on board, and teases the potential for great staging – something Georgia has a strong track record in at Eurovision and in its national finals. Sailing through from its semi.
From Nina Warrior Princess now to Boggie, our soporific pixie peace girl. If Hungary is able to reproduce the convincing pseudosincerity of the song’s official video – an acoustic performance on a Budapest square, which passers-by “spontaneously” join in with – could this be the Ein bißchen Frieden of our Putin-addled times? I don’t think so, because the tune isn’t strong enough: it’s totally unmemorable and so laid back it’s asleep, plus in a field of similar female ballads I’m not convinced people will even register the thematic content that supposedly distinguishes it from its rivals. Kedvesem and Calm After The Storm were very laid-back too, but both genuinely rousing and spirit-lifting with a strong, warm melody (ditto Ein bißchen Frieden); by contrast, Wars For Nothing is a hookless and directionless musical murmur. Qualification from its weak semi (I anticipate) then bottom half of the right-hand side in the final (I hope).
Equally cynical yet with opposite underlying motives is Russia’s slick piece of fascist art, a banal “together we are one” squirt of musical whitening-toothpaste that’s exactly what Nazi Germany would send to Eurovision if it still existed, that we can probably expect to do as well as Russia did the past two years, but that I think is too generic, dated and transparently cynical to truly excel or trouble the top 3. Of course it’s qualifying.
I love eurodance, so for me the most invigorating 80 seconds of music in Eurovision 2015 come courtesy of Serbia’s ballad-to-banger delight, though it’s a piece that certainly won’t be to all tastes – I’m aware that my connection with it is very specific and rooted in my love of the melange of tropes it knowingly employs and its wonderfully shameless musical coming-out moment halfway in, when Bojana’s veil of shame is torn off by her bevy of bare-chested boyz. While the English lyrics to Beauty Never Lies are slightly awkward and unclear, not always scanning as well as they should, I think ditching Serbian to turn the entry into a message song – Eurovision’s first-ever body image self-empowerment anthem – was the smart choice. There’s a strong USP here that I think many people will connect to and many others be repelled by; I expect the song to qualify from its position in the middle of the second semifinal, and I definitely don’t class it in the “dour ballads by fat people” category alongside recent non-qualifiers Axel and Moran Mazor as some have done. A Je ne sais quoi-level result in the final is realistic, possibly higher if the entry is well-received.
But I suspect the key to audiences identifying with the perfomers of message songs is an element of credibility and dignity – Conchita won with Rise Like A Phoenix where more frivolous drag queens with sillier songs had failed before her (and Wurst likely wouldn’t have won with That’s What I Am either). Imagine Bojana singing a serious, uplifting, Conchita- or Chiara-style power ballad about body image, then compare it to Beauty Never Lies: the former would almost certainly do better. For me, Bojana’s eurodance extravaganza extraordinaire is precisely the attraction, but I think for many viewers it may represent too much excess and be perceived as a negative in the way that the final minute of Crisalide was by many fans including myself. Staging idea: project a smaller Bojana onto the sheet of shame for added Russian-doll effect.
Over to the second semifinal now: Ireland’s entry is respectable, but saying it hardly grabs you is an understatement given my inability to remember it just an hour after watching it for the second time. In its favour, we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years that onstage piano-playing is catnip to juries, as long as said piano isn’t circular and worn around the head like a toilet seat. In terms of the song, I struggle to see any relevance or point of emotional connection here for viewers, and its draw – 2nd out of 17 entries – is dire. Also in the first half and even more likely to be perceived as irrelevant then immediately mentally deleted by viewers is Portugal’s anaemic euroballad, which is additionally hampered by a language barrier.
Aminata’s song for Latvia is audacious and has good musical ideas at its core, but comes over as shouty and disjointed rather than artful and emotive upon first listen. The country’s recent qualification record is poor, and while this entry may tick more of the right boxes than anything they’ve sent in the past few years, I wouldn’t risk backing it given its draw in the middle of the show. I admire Love Injected more than I like it; it’s a sort of difficult post-dubstep lovechild of Suus and Bleeding Love but without the power, pull and immediacy of either, and I suspect it won’t travel.
As good as its darker Georgian namesake in its own way, Malta’s Warrior is engaging and well-constructed, with a memorable and effective chorus, and genuinely grows and develops from start to finish more than most of its rivals. It’s reasonably emotive and I like it a lot, but I’m concerned it won’t quite stand out enough in this year’s crowded field despite its quality, or be staged impressively enough. It should make the final despite a not-great draw of 5th in its semi, but I don’t realistically see it troubling the left-hand side of the scoreboard if and when it gets there.
For this year’s Eurovision, Iceland – land of Sigur Ros, Haffi Haff and John Grant – has seen fit to half-heartedly shart a bright-eyed-yet-brainless piece of sub-Vanessa Hudgens gubbins in the continent’s general direction. (Can you tell I don’t like this?) Unbroken has a superficially helpful draw in the final 6 of the second semifinal, but shares this space uncomfortably with 5 superior songs, which doesn’t augur well for it. It’s incredibly lightweight and insubstantial without being fun either, and each of the 5 entries that follow it offers a much stronger package.
“Look! She’s totally in a wheelchair!” screams the reveal-moment of Poland’s music video, creating an empathy-engendering narrative out of Monika’s disability while staying just on the right side of tasteful. Whether and how this will translate to the stage is another question – could they get away with only showing Monika’s face and upper body for most of the song, then pulling back to reveal the wheelchair in the final minute? It’d be audacious, and create more of a narrative and emotional touchpoint for viewers than either showing the singer in her wheelchair from the start or disguising her disability completely. As for the song, this is a more nuanced, graceful and accomplished ballad than most of this year’s, yet after three listens in total now, I still can’t remember how it goes despite my admiration for it. I think Betfair should open a market for whether Il Volo will bribe her to run over Måns Zelmerlöw’s feet the night before the final. Qualifying.
Switzerland’s Time To Shine has character and mood, an atmospheric arrangement, and an alluring darkness that’s successfully established in the verse before being overcome in the effective chorus and further over the course of the song. As proven by her cover of Chandelier in the Swiss national final, Melanie Rene is an extraordinary vocalist, and to elevate this good-but-not-quite-great song in Vienna, she needs to improvise more and bring out the big go-for-broke vocals in the final minute, as can be heard in the revamped studio version of the song but even more so. The favourable draw and a strong performance appealing to juries and viewers alike should hopefully see it through to the final, where I wouldn’t rule out a left-hand-side appearance.
Moving on to the autoqualifiers, I like Lisa Angell’s number for France, but I’m an old-schooler who generally likes Francophone ballads in Eurovision, and they just don’t translate to votes in the 21st-century contest. Aside from occasional upbeat exceptions like Profil, Les Fatals Picards, Jessy Matador and Twin Twin, France has been sending iterations of the same ballad to the contest for decades now, because it’s what the country does well – but if Europe didn’t bite for Louisa Baïleche, Virginie Pouchain, Amandine Bourgeois or Patricia Kaas (who came 17th with televoters and thus wouldn’t have made the top 10 under today’s combined ranking system), it won’t bite for this. I think N’oubliez pas is great, but it faces a language barrier, is wrong for the modern contest, and offers nothing new and no point of connection for viewers.
Spain is the strongest of this year’s female ballads for my money, but like France, there’s the considerable factor of the language barrier. Amanecer is better than Dancing In The Rain, more contemporary and nuanced than Quedate Conmigo, and gloriously arranged and orchestrated – not to mention emotive and memorable, exactly the qualities missing in most of the songs discussed above. The music communicates relevance and dynamism to me, but not speaking Spanish, I’ve no idea what the song’s about, so whether it can travel in May is questionable. It’s fair to expect reasonable jury support, but I absolutely wouldn’t bank on a top 10 finish given Spain’s poor televote showing in 2012 and 2014.
There’s a likeability, maturity and competence to Germany’s singer Ann Sophie, and this song is fine, but is it anything more than fine? I’d hope that Black Smoke finishes anywhere between Roman Lob’s result in 2012 and Elaiza’s last year; I can’t see it doing much better than that, and unless it flies totally under the radar it shouldn’t do much worse either. It’s accessible and respectable, easy on the ear, but I think it’s too much of a musical latte macchiato to truly stand out. And of course, it didn’t win its own national final, despite Ann Sophie benefiting from the newcomer narrative that swept Elaiza to domestic victory last year.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below.