Everyone’s favourite annual cultural nadir is right around the corner – and this year’s uninspiring songs are putting the homo in homogenous, even by the standards of the 2010s contest (or my old benchmark for blandness, 1994). The samier the lineup, the more important the staging and performance; this being the case, it wouldn’t be incisive for me to pen an in-depth analysis of every entry (like I did last year) so close to the event, especially now we know the semifinal running orders.
Trying to pick at least 2 qualifiers out of What’s The Pressure, Fairytale, Icebreaker and Soldiers Of Love is like trying to pick my favourite genocide: my brain rolls over and refuses to compute the moment I try. Moreover, over the course of the selection season, most of us in the comments section seems to have come to a pretty good consensus on the state of affairs this year, and this is partly why I’ve held off putting finger to keyboard: because I basically agree with everything Daniel has written on Eurovision 2016 as well as the bulk of reader comments. Plus I wasn’t drunk enough (this article is brought to you by Perła).
In a field of offensively inoffensive mid-tempo radiogedudel, only a few songs stand out – and not all for the right reasons. I’m going to look at the four leading male contenders today. Russia remains market favourite, which is understandable given their voting strength and large diaspora (which counts again this year) and the fact they’ve sent one of their biggest and most reliable stars with one of the contest’s only dance songs. The extremely slick yet artful and intricate video, employing complex projection technology, seemed to indicate the country’s staging plans (would they really go to all that trouble then not bring it to Stockholm?), but a denial that this would be the case swiftly followed, with Sergey saying the staging at Eurovision would be “totally different”. This surprised me, as I thought the video’s projection-based choreography really looked like the finished package – a lot of thought and planning had gone into it. But indeed, as Sergey and crew have promo-toured Europe, an entirely different and much weaker routine has been on display. While the lyrics to You Are The Only One invoke “thunder and lightning”, the new choreography is very very frightening – it’s like a Britney Spears effort from 15 years ago.
Could this be a classic Russian double-bluff – will we see them turn up with the projection tech at the start of rehearsals week after all? It’s not impossible. Regardless of whether they do or don’t, can I see Russia repeating last year’s second-place finish? Absolutely. Can I see You Are The Only One winning? I really don’t think so – because it sounds like a sonic leftover from 2000s Eurovision, not even as contemporary as Eric Saade’s Popular. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen describe it as schlager, including non-Eurovision fans familiar with the term. It’s one of my favourite entries this year, but it’s about as musically relevant as an Eiffel 65 minidisc.
The overall package is reminiscent of Sakis Rouvas’s 2009 failed attempt at victory, albeit musically stronger and with a more powerful voting base and better performer. With the contest becoming more visual and digital every year, Team Lazarev also have technological possibilities at their disposal that weren’t available back when Sakis mounted his giant stapler. I don’t think You Are The Only One would have won in 2009 and I don’t think it will win in 2016, but if – and only if – they bring that projection and routine to Stockholm (which, yes, they’ve denied, but I’m still saying this just in case), Russia’s entry is more dangerous and professional than almost anything else in the contest. And unlike most countries this year, they actually want to win.
What the number lacks though is that organic, relatable, intimate feel I think you need to triumph these days, that even Mans had (especially in the extreme close-ups towards the end, as he flirts with the viewer before launching into the final chorus repeat). Right down to its key change, You Are The Only One is every inch the super-slick europop banger, created by gay men for gay men, of a kind that’s gone out of fashion (and outside the contest was never in fashion). It’s too calculated and guns-blazing, not emotive, anodyne or radio-pop enough to win. There’s no message, inspirational theme, vulnerability, or sense of overcoming darkness – things which I’d argue Polina’s entry had considerably more of. Most of all, to win, Sergey needs to be relatable as a personality – and as fabulous as his Eurovision package is, I don’t think it’s safe, twee or Instagram enough for Western and younger audiences.
Which brings me to Frans, who is. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather listen to You Are The Only One ten times than If I Were Sorry twice, but I’m not the target audience – and Sweden’s entry succeeds in creating intimacy and conveying a personality and sense of vulnerability where Russia’s hasn’t even thought to try. Since its Melodifestivalen crowning, while not truly a hit yet, Frans’s song has successfully entered the mainstream pop infrastructure across Europe in a way we only rarely see entries do pre-contest. The vocal is so undersung that it’s almost veering into The Streets territory (or perhaps a pubescent William Shatner), which raises real questions about how juries will respond. As has been discussed in the comments, Lena triumphed in a weak year with a contemporary entry despite not having the strongest voice, though the jangly, upbeat Satellite allowed her to actively exude a lot of charisma, plus she had a much later draw than Frans’s 9th. These concerns noted, young Frans and his tender, appealing entry have an understated radiance all of their own and absolutely stand out from the field. This is pop with anti-pop stylings – credible and pseudo-raw, yet still enough of a “product” for a mass audience to go for it. If Harry Styles released it as a solo single it’d probably go to #1, but while televoters may lap the Swedish entry up, at this stage I don’t think juries will support it enough for it to win the contest. If I Were Sorry is Instagram filter as song: a deliberately low-key, pseudo-amateurish vehicle for conveying Frans’s nascent personality and non-threatening boy status, but despite everything in its favour, I struggle to see it in the jury top 3 when the vocal is as barely-there as Serhat’s.
Someone just a few years older than Frans and equally Instagram-friendly but with a far more impressive vocal is Latvia’s Justs. I’ve made no secret of the fact I think Heartbeat, especially as performed, is on a plane of its own compared to everything else this year, something I’ve thought since I first saw it in the Latvian selection. I find the song far more accessible and less staging-dependent than 2015’s Rhythm Inside and Love Injected, high-scoring entries which were original, credible and strongly performed but more leftfield and downtempo. Heartbeat has the emotional landscape and presentation of a ballad, yet infused with rhythm, energy and vigour – this is how to do uptempo without going kitsch, and I’d hope Justs’s staging is simple yet smart, as Aminata’s was last year. Like Love Injected but more so, Heartbeat is a number that through its disarming sparseness, powerful vocal and one-to-one feel creates true intimacy; I don’t know how Savadogo does it, but her songs always feel emotionally sincere and deeply felt, and Justs’s rendition of Heartbeat doesn’t come over at all as a singer performing a product penned for them by someone else. This is of course exactly what he is, but whereas much of this year’s field comprises interchangeable performers earnestly warbling an underwhelming 3-minute stab at glory mass-produced months earlier in an anonymous song factory, Justs feels like a person telling you something, something personal. This is why both he and Frans (and possibly Hovi, an excellent vocalist whose song remains strong and emotive despite the change in arrangement) stand out from the field. Even with his red leather jacket and gravelly power-vocal, 20-year-old Justs still passes as a non-threatening boy for my money: slightly craggy in a very Instagram way, while sufficiently heterosexual to get female pulses racing (unlike, say, Loic Nottet).
I totally allow for Heartbeat being one of those “you either get it or you don’t” songs – like Love Injected, I Feed You My Love, Calm After The Storm, Running or Taken By A Stranger. Yet juries and televoters responded strongly to Love Injected, and given the song’s standout quality and the remarkable vocal, I find it hard not to imagine juries reacting to Heartbeat the way they rewarded its predecessor, but more so. I also think it’s more televote-friendly than Love Injected, with a stronger musical narrative from start to finish. This is a uniquely emotive, powerful and contemporary entry with a strikingly distinct identity and flavour, performed by an attractive, stylishly dressed and very daughter-and-mum-friendly young man with a killer vocal far beyond his years, penned by the author of a song that finished 2nd in the jury vote last year. Unlike Russia and Sweden, I think the package is blokey enough to appeal to straight men too. Perhaps it’s too good for Eurovision, but I’d really hope it can cut through the crap. As Ben says, “As cool as the combination of downbeat throaty electronica combined with an awesome rock vocal is, it isn’t simple and unchallenging enough in style for the masses’ palette.” Mr Wolf agrees, suggesting Heartbeat is “too cool and exquisite for [the] masses. It’s like Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson against George Lucas or Steven Spielberg in terms of mass audience appeal.” I’d love to be right on this but I’ll be sadly unsurprised if I’m wrong and, despite all its strengths, it fails to lift the trophy.
Over the past few weeks, many including myself have been left a little bemused by France’s contraction in the odds, to the point J’ai cherché is now almost joint-favourite with Russia. The song is pleasant enough, but Amir’s vocal remains unreliable – some performances he’s great, some he’s remarkably bad. The last time I can remember an entry remaining overlooked throughout selection season only to shorten all the way to second over the course of April was Ukraine’s Gravity in 2013, and some betting experts at the time suggested that was due to manipulation (which is unlikely to be the case with Amir). Of course, Zlata also had beauty and outstanding vocals in her favour (and possibly paid SIM cards, as certain televoting stats from 2013 would seem to indicate). I find it hard to find anything to say about France’s perfectly adequate yet entirely unremarkable entry – to me it just doesn’t stand out, not even in the way Mans did last year as a more solid performer with a more contemporary entry and a novel, ultra-memorable staging gimmick, all of which still only saw him come third in the televote. I don’t think Amir and his song are jury-friendly, certainly less so than Sweden despite its vocal minimalism, and France rarely has impressive staging; it’s one of the countries that puts the least effort into its annual Eurovision entry, and the contest has a very low domestic profile. To me, J’ai cherché is a less well-written/structured, less well-sung and less accessible version of Robin Stjernberg’s You. Whether the language handicaps it is an open question: Il Volo smashed the televote last year singing in Italian, but everything about their entry was typically Italian and very recognizable – it was a great piece of nation branding and people responded to it as such, plus the group had youth on their side. 31-year-old Amir is actually two years younger than Sergey Lazarev but doesn’t look it. But perhaps J’ai cherché’s affable blandness works in its favour for the same reason more people watch The One Show than Channel 4 News and I’m just blind to its charms.
I can’t find much bad to say about the song or much good either, but I will say it has even less to it than the most underwhelming post-millennial winners like Estonia 2001 and Latvia 2002. Is the predominantly gay male fan bubble overvaluing its chances because of his looks and charisma? Ditto Russia? Are Sweden and Latvia lower than those two in the odds because their performers are more the kind that appeal to straight women? Did I really write this article drunk? Is the Queen a lizard? Have your say in the comments below. (I’d especially love to hear from you if France is your favourite this year.)