Having covered the duets and the ladies, it’s now time for me to channel Louis Walsh and cast a greedy eye over the Boys. Memorability hasn’t been a strong point here either: as I start this article, I can’t remember how the songs from Moldova, Belgium, Montenegro, Azerbaijan and Australia go after 1-2 listens each. I couldn’t recall Daniel Kajmakoski’s Lisja esenski after 2-3 listens since its selection way back in November, and only after having heard the superior English version can I now recall the chorus. So out of the 9 songs I’m covering in this article, that’s 6 that went in one side of my head and straight out the other like a sniper’s bullet. (My experience won’t be universal – so tell me about yours, assuming you haven’t been listening to all the songs up and down for weeks, you masochists…)
Which male entries (oo-er) did pass my memory test? I absolutely can remember Israel’s Golden Boy after two listens – though unfortunately for Nadav, it’s not the fantastic Timberlake-esque first minute that sticks in my head, but the bottom-drawer pop-folk chorus that disappointingly follows it and that I think sinks the song. I can remember Cyprus, with its touching quietude. And I can’t forget Måns Zelmerlöw’s package, despite myself; both song and performance are precision-designed to be memorable, unlike much of the field.
Right. Cup of tea, hour on Youtube reacquainting myself with the songs, here’s what I think.
Relevant to any assessment of Moldova’s Eurovision chances is the fact that Ukrainian singer Eduard Romanyuta is widely suspected to have bought victory in the national final: if he didn’t win over Moldovan viewers and juries on merit, what chance Europe? I Want Your Love is so fresh out of 1998 that you almost want to pop down Woolworth’s and get the CD single – it’s passably competent for its genre, but it’s a genre that peaked around the millennium and this is a dated rather than a retro effort. Moldova’s staging record is good, but that was with Moldovan acts (the country opened its Eurovision preselection to artists from other countries for the first time this year), and for the past 3 years with Pasha Parfeny at the helm. Opening the first semifinal, this seems very likely to go under; it strikes me as jury anathema, will struggle to get enough televoters on board, and Moldova’s decent qualification record is in large part due to its long run of engaging, original, well-staged songs that often conveyed an appealing flavour of national identity. This isn’t even Moldovan, and millionaire Romanyuta’s team are paying for the whole thing. (This sort of arrangement isn’t new; in 2007 Natalie Barbu’s team funded her participation on the understanding that TRM would only reimburse her if she made the top 10, which fortunately she did. But this year, there’s a sense that the broadcaster isn’t even calling the shots.)
There’s a lot of enthusiasm for Belgium’s Rhythm Inside in certain quarters, but for me it’s too cool for school and I think viewers will react the same way. With its esoteric feel, off-kilter verse and power chorus, it’s very much the male twin of Aminata’s Love Injected and shares its strengths and weaknesses, including a failure to engage the listener in the first minute and a lack of immediacy overall. Juries should respect it, but it’s no sure-fire qualifier – performing 3rd out of 16 countries in the first semifinal is hardly a helpful draw with a song this avant-garde (and arguably less emotive than Love Injected), though the weakness of the first half of the semi helps it stand out. But it’s no Love Kills.
Lisja esenski’s rebirth as Autumn Leaves is the most I’ve heard a Eurovision song improved since Euroband’s This Is My Life (the original Icelandic version overcame hilariously tacky production to win its NF before being transformed into the dark eurodance banger we know and love). I thought Lisja esenski was totally mediocre when it triumphed over Tamara Todevska’s exquisite ballad and caged bear Dimitar Andonovski at Skopje Fest, on the back of Kajmakoski’s X Factor victory. I think Autumn Leaves is majestic and soaring but in a way that perhaps remains a little too generic, a lot like Children Of The Universe last year. If it looks and sounds good on stage it should sail through to Saturday, but if and when it gets there my concern is that it won’t quite stand out enough – the improved production and arrangement have lifted it hugely, but I think they really need to sell it on stage for it do to well in the final. Gimmick idea: cover the stage with the titular autumn leaves, which Daniel writes the word “love” into using a crotch-mounted leaf blower.
I want to like Knez’s Adio more than I actually do, the problem being it feels very much like Željko by numbers; Joksimović is rehashing his tried-and-tested musical formula again here with diminishing returns. It’s a well-written song that performs Balkanness for a European audience with plenty of melody and rhythm but without as much heart as the Željko-penned entries of 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2012, or indeed Sergej Ćetković’s entry last year. (In fact, Montenegro’s Balkan boyband ballad ten years ago had more drama.) But while Daniel and I are fatigued of this kind of entry, will viewers be, or is this kind of song still a novum for audiences, especially given its uniqueness in a bland Westernised field? If Sergej Ćetković can qualify in a semi with no other ex-Yugoslav countries voting, and Samo Shampioni can come 6th out of 17 in the televote in a semi with only one other Slavic country, this absolutely has the potential to speak to televoters (and is also helpfully positioned after two bland entries in the semifinal running order) – but it’s juries’ response to it that will decide its chances. I’d provisionally expect it to follow Moj svijet’s trajectory, possibly better given the right staging. Here’s Knez shirtless.
To my ears, the first 60 seconds of Nadav Guedj’s Golden Boy are the most thrilling, invigorating, contemporary, soulful and downright hip minute of music in this year’s contest… then after the incredibly promising buildup, the song takes a running jump off the top of the Golan Heights and lands in the patio of Ralph Siegel’s holiday villa, impaling itself on a parasol. Early-2000s Justin Timberlake sounds as great today as it did then, but the same can’t be said of early-2000s bad Eurovision ethno-pop… the mix of the two makes Israeli’s entry a splice job as bad as Pred da se razdeni or Sámiid Ædnan. Israel hasn’t qualified since Harel Skaat in 2010, and the chances for this don’t look good – Golden Boy is light years from Milim, and not as cohesive, competent and credible as recent non-qualifiers Rak bishvilo and Same Heart. As for “Before I leave, let me show you Tel Aviv?” – more like “This song is w***, please don’t mention the West Bank…”
Elnur Hüseynov’s Hour Of The Wolf is strong, really classy and will be well-performed, but how meaningful is that from a betting perspective when Dilara’s similarly strong, classy and well-performed entry came 22nd last year? While Start A Fire came a deserved 8th in the jury vote, it was the collapse in Azerbaijan’s televote that sealed its fate. There’s very strong circumstantial evidence that Azerbaijan bought televotes from 2008–2013 but didn’t bother last year, hence this drastic change in fortune. But why, and what does this augur for this year?
A look over at Türkvizyon shows a similar pattern. While Azerbaijan won the contest in 2013 (a regional journalist who attended the event told me “everyone knows” they bribed jury members), they didn’t even qualify to the final in 2014. Can we infer from this that the Azeri state has got Eurovision and Türkvizyon out of its system, having won both and hosted the former (and in light of its vote-buying shenanigans being newly clamped down on by the EBU)? The same regional journalist has suggested to me that Azerbaijan has indeed ‘moved on’ and that its overwhelming PR focus is now on the inaugural 2015 European Games to be held in Baku this June. The fact that the country didn’t even bother with a national selection this year, for the first time since 2009, also speaks volumes given the marathon selection processes of recent years. All the signs suggest they don’t care anymore – but nevertheless, this is a decent entry, as much as it sounds like a typical Irish entry of yore (Father Dick Byrne’s “The Miracle Is Mine” springs to mind) or something from a musical. Qualifying, of course, and a decent jury appraisal in the final is deserved, but where it ends up on the scoreboard will very likely be down to how many televotes it receives on merit alone.
Sweden’s entry is 100% ‘song as meme’. At the same time though, it’s a bit like the Easter egg I demolished last weekend: great at the time, but you’re hungry again immediately afterwards. To me, Heroes and its performer just feel too calculated, too cynical – and while I said similar about Undo and Gravity, I think it was their relative simplicity and minimalism both musically and visually, combined with outstanding vocals and ‘goddess’ staging, that helped them do so well. By contrast, the feeling I’m left with after consuming Heroes is akin to the post-orgasmic sense of emptiness and meaninglessness that sets in instantly after bad sex or a disappointing wank. It’s a great light show, it keeps you what Slavoj Žižek would call “narcissistically amused” for 3 minutes, but is there enough there on an emotional level for viewers to hang onto? Less than any recent winner, that’s for sure. All triumphant entries of late have that little injection of darkness or melancholy, however nominal – Rybak’s unrequited love, Ell and Nikki running scared, Loreen lost in the storm, Emmelie’s teardrops, and Conchita rising from the ashes to seek retribution. (Going back further, Šerifović and Bilan overcame darkness through prayer and belief, while Lordi took the frightening idea of monsters and demons and made it fun and safe.) While Lena is the obvious exception here, she rode to victory by carrying her song on sheer vibrant personality – the one thing totally in absentia in Måns’s entry. Eric Saade’s genuine boyish charm had room to roam in Popular, and there was a sense of ad-hoc fun and energy to the whole thing; by contrast, Heroes doesn’t give its performer the space to emerge as much more than a tightly-choreographed pretty face. And if Eric’s heady, sexually-charged quest for popularity is easy to see as a relatable “overcoming darkness” narrative, what does “We are the heroes of our time” actually mean? Who’s ‘we’ – me? Everyone watching? Brian Sewell? Malala? If it is us, why are we heroes – and why do we apparently have demons in our mind? The lyrics are so inscrutable as to be meaningless, especially in the verse, where in direct contrast to the chorus, Mans describes himself as the “only hero” and appears to impel listeners to shoot him. (“What if I’m the only hero left? You better fire off your gun once and forever.”) Are we the heroes or aren’t we?
Compared to other recent entries with standout staging gimmicks like Farid’s Hold Me and Mika Newton’s Angel, Heroes lacks the same artfulness, possibilities of meaning, and live performance element – a smirking singer executing precision-rehearsed dance moves in front of a pre-recorded video backdrop doesn’t provide us with the same affect as Farid’s tormented soul or Kseniya Simonova’s narrative of loss, or indeed 2013 Britain’s Got Talent winners Attraction (from Hungary), who won the hearts of a nation with their genuinely affecting live shadow-theatre performances based around generational narratives of love and loss. Another live synthesis of musical performance and high-tech video animation that I think beats Heroes hands down on similar territory is The Killers’ rendition of Human at the 2008 MTV European Music Awards, which I find captivating and deeply affecting rather than just titillating. For me, Farid’s box, Mika’s sand, Attraction’s shadow theatre and the above Killers performance are human; Måns is dancer. The elegance and artful, non-technological nature of Farid’s staging in Malmö stood out in a way that I don’t think ‘dancing in leather trousers in front of a cartoon’ will – plus Farid’s visible nerves and youthful inexperience made him relatable and got you on side; by contrast, Måndroid the pop-bot is just too Teflon, there’s no relatability or crack of vulnerability. Every Eurovision song is a product, but I think Heroes is too visibly and cynically a product to notch up another Swedish victory – and the song not strong enough (if it were, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be writing this.) Country-EDM as a genre seems to have peaked in 2013, the year that Avicii’s Hey Brother and Wake Me Up and Pitbull & Kesha’s Timber all date from – and if Heroes were as good as any of those catchier, more rounded, more emotive and less generic songs, I’d probably be cheerleading for it. In the hook desert of Eurovision 2015, Heroes is broad, accessible, likeable and memorable enough to be a shoo-in for top 5, even top 3, but can it win? I don’t think it has the human touch.
From spectacle to intimacy now as we dabble our toes in warm Cypriot waters. Mike Connaris’s stripped-back ballad is unlike anything else this year – it’s gentle, magical and really draws you in. That the young singer is likeable but looks more like an IT worker than a stage school graduate works further in its favour. It’s so obvious to me that this is this year’s Calm After The Storm in spirit that I wonder why its odds are so high. There’s a real narrative here, and a powerful sense of regret that’s very effectively brought out when the accompaniment halts and John sings “I should have been there for you” four times with understated yet palpable sorrow, the anguished repetition and absence of music creating a raw theatrical and confessional moment that lays bare the regret gnawing away at his kind but broken heart. Sailing through to the final and doing well, possibly very well, when it gets there. Songwriter Connaris also penned Lisa Andreas’s Stronger Every Minute which came 5th in 2004, as well as a couple of fabulous reggae songs that came 2nd in the UK national final in 1998 and 1999. Like Daniel, I feel One Thing I Should Have Done also has a peer in Jostein Hasselgård’s I’m Not Afraid To Move On, which came 4th for Norway in 2003 in an unusually homogenous field of generic pop.
Warmer waters still now as we finish down under. Guy Sebastian’s Tonight Again is the cat among the pigeons in every sense this year. A top 10 or top 5 placing is expected and deserved, but I can’t see this winning, not because it’s Australia but because of the song and package. It’s competent and engaging, smartly goes against the downtempo grain, and for its genre I much prefer it to either Cliché Love Song last year or Bruno Mars’s output. Juries should like this, Guy is an excellent performer, and the Australian delegation – though staging a Eurovision performance for only the second time – will want to make the most of their 3 minutes having lobbied for years to participate. So we can reasonably expect this to do well, though for me there’s not enough emotional content or a strong enough hook or narrative in the song for it to go all the way.
The extent to which Europeans from Vilnius to Valetta will be motivated to vote for Australia is an open question. Over and above the UK-Australia love affair, people right across Europe have connections with the country via their national diasporas. While many viewers will no doubt react with bafflement as to why Australia is participating, many others in western and eastern Europe know the country as a place that allowed their loved ones to prosper, even if they haven’t been there themselves. With trips to visit family and friends in Australia being out of the financial reach of many Europeans, could voting for the country in Eurovision be a transactional way for people to reach out to loved ones who’ve emigrated there and show them their support? We’ll find out next month.
Do continue the debate in the comments section below.