WHAT IS THE EUROVISION SONG CONTEST?
Started way back in 1956 as a way to draw a fractured Europe back together with the healing power of music, the Eurovision Song Contest, or Concours Eurovision de la Chanson – the contest is telecast in both English and French – is open to all active members of the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the competition.
Each country is permitted to submit one song to the contest – a song which is selected by a variety of means, usually a winner-takes-all competition such as Sweden’s renowned Melodifestivalen – which they perform in two semi-finals in the hopes of making it to the glittering grand final.
Only six countries have direct entry into the grand final:
* The Big Four who fund most of the proceedings – UK, Germany, France and Spain
* The host country (which is the winner of the previous year’s contest)
* Italy, who didn’t take part for many years and was re-admitted in 2011 after a 14 year absence (it was one of seven countries that competed in the first event), making the Big Four the Big Five.
The winner is chosen by a 50/50 mix of viewer votes (you cannot vote for your own country) and a jury of music industry professionals in each country, a method which was chosen to counter the alleged skewing of votes based on political and/or cultural lines when voting was purely the preserve of viewers at home.
Past winners include, of course, ABBA in 1974 with “Waterloo” and Celine Dion who won for Switzerland in 1980 with “Ne partez pas sans moi”.
Above all though, the Eurovision Song Contest is bright, over the top and deliciously camp, a celebration of music, inclusiveness and togetherness that draws annual viewing figures in the 100s of millions.
This year’s contest will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark.
In the six weeks leading up to the grand final on Saturday 10 May 2014, I will be reviewing 5-6 songs each week and giving my unvarnished, unguarded and glitter-coated take on all 37 songs competing for glory in this year’s contest.
It will be brutal, it will be camp, it may or may involve copious use of pyrotechnics, key changes and scantily-clad but limber back up dancers (and possibly a stray Ukrainian grandmother or two) but above all, it will hopefully give you some idea of who has the best chance of success at this year’s contest.
ALBANIA: “One night’s Anger” by Hersi
For a person bristling with the distracting content of entire night’s worth of anger, Hersi Matmuka, looks to be a remarkably composed young lady.
In fact so calmly focused is the talented young singer, born February 1st, 1990, that she has managed to excel in both classical and modern music, the kind of double threat that Britney et al can only dream about emulating.
And she’s been at it most of her life too, kicking off her modern music lessons at the ripe old age of eight, which were followed by first prizes in a slew of music competitions, including the Ylberi Festival in Macedonia in 2001.
But why restrict yourself to study, and yes success once again, in just one field when a second beckons?
Her classical studies at the Artistic Lyceum in Tirana led to performances with both ballet and opera companies in the Albanian capital, and final finishes, and some wins, in a variety of classical music competition.
So it’s fairly clear that Hersi has a voice to die for, stage presence and the sort of charisma that makes people sit and take notice.
But will it be enough to propel her to success as Albania’s respresentative at The Eurovision Song Contest this year?
I strongly suspect YES.
For a start, in a sea of rather bland if earnestly delivered ballads, she has been gifted with a compellingly interesting song in “One Night in Anger” (previously titled “Zemërimi i një nate”), written by Gentian Lako (music) and Jorgo Papingji.
It melody twists and turns with all sort of idiosyncratic flourishes, zigging when lesser tunes might have zagged, the innate beauty of the song augmented to a considerable degree by Hersi’s richly expressive voice than manages to invest the song with a whole world of emotions.
Granted she has bowed to the Unstoppable Ballad Trend (UBT), triggered by the addition of panels of music industry peers to the voting process, but it’s been done on her terms with a song that doesn’t induce rigour mortis within seconds of the opening bars.
And Hersi is channelling her inner P!NK, able to sing while running along the beach, biking, pony riding and walking along the tips of towering sand hills.
Frankly if she doesn’t turn up at Copenhagen juggling small Albanian rodents while zipping around on a unicycle, I will be greatly disappointed.
ARMENIA: “Not Alone” by Aram MP3
Aram is apparently a man of dual entertainment personalities.
Renowned for his live performances, which are just as apt to deliver a powerful musical performance as a humourous routine, Aram can and regularly does turn his hands to a wide range of the music that apparently cured some childhood breathing issues.
Singer, heal thyself!
So talented is the almost 30 year old dedicated family man that he’s become quite the household name in Armenia, appearing on TV, where he hosts Armenian Idol and X-factor to name but a few shows, performs comedy and sings, and in concert where he can cover anything from jazz and blues to his own hits such as “If I Tried” and covers of songs like “Only Teardrops” with which Denmark’s Emmilie de Forest won last year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
He lives and breathes (pun intended) music that much is clear, has a ubiquitously high profile and styles a white suit like no one’s business.
But does all that mean that “Not Alone”, the official entry for Armenia by lyricist Garik Papoyan, and instrumentalist Lilit Navasardyan, has what it takes to stick its head above the musical parapet and not get voted to pieces?
A prisoner of Unstoppable Ballad Trend (UBT) along with many other fine singers, it’s an intense little number about a couple finding love a little more complicated than the occasional bunch of flowers and doe-eyed glances at each other.
What saves it from a whole lot of bland, but also risks burying under a mountain of melodramatic over-emoting – move those hands Aram Mp3! Scrunch that face and pump them up and down! – is the dramatic build of the music through the song that mirrors the fall and rise of the relationship in question.
Matching the rising intensity, Aram Mp3, whose other work shows he has a fine voice and knows how to use it, almost ends up yelling, almost as if he’s self-identified with our young couple in the throes of a very public domestic and is matching them scream for scream.
Dramatic it might be but it grates just a little and you can only hope he can reign it in just a little on the night.
Unfortunately even that may not help as Eurovision voters have not shown themselves to be particularly enamoured of songs full of angst and conflict, even if they do have a happy ending.
Perhaps if he cracked a joke or two?
AUSTRIA: “Rise Like a Phoenix” by Conchita Wurst
Tom Neuwirth aka Conchita Wurst knows a thing or two about rising like a phoenix.
First performing as Wurst back in 2011 on the TV show Die große Chance, after breaking into show business via the talent search program Starmania in 2006 which got him a berth in the very short lived boy band jetzt anders!, he is now a well know figure throughout Austria.
Powered by an enthusiastically defiant personal motto “Be the best version of yourself rather than a bad copy of someone else!”, Wurst sees himself as a symbol of “tolerance and acceptance” noting in an interview with Eurovision TV:
“I’m allowed to be the voice of their beliefs during this time and this really makes me very proud. We, and not at least myself, want to stand for a society without hate and discrimination.”
This desire to be completely true to himself has informed his approach to his TV performances and music, and the lifelong Eurovision fan (“I watched the Song Contest as far back as I can remember with my mom”) is hoping to achieve quite a bit with his entry:
“I really hope that I get the chance to change some minds all around Europe. I want to show them that you can look whatever you want and that everybody must have the right to live their life however they want it, if nobody gets hurt.”
Worthy ambition is one thing however and the reality of delivering a song that will speak to the good people of Europe and get you through not just to the grand final but to the winner’s podium is quite another.
So does “Rise Like a Phoenix”, which it goes without saying is part of the UBT brigade with bells and whistles on, have what it takes to fulfil Wurst’s lofty ambitions?
Much as you might expect for a diva of Wurst’s elevated standing, the song by Charly Mason, Joey Patulka, Ali Zuckowski, and Julian Maas, is a torch song bright enough and emotive enough to set fire to Copenhagen when no one’s looking.
Replete with vivid images of graphically wrought images of being reborn and rising again, it is a song that suits Wurst’s theatrical leanings and his powerful, pitch perfect voice.
And while it is hardly an out of the box effort song wise, it’s highly likely that it will touch enough hearts and minds to get Wurst into the grand final.
Whether he gets beyond that is another matter entirely.
The song should resonate with the music industry professionals, and it has no doubt been selected for that very reason; but I suspect it may not be as popular with the public at large and Wurst may have to settle for roasting marshmallows on the fire consuming him, and leave the phoenix rising for another, less flammable, time.
AZERBAIJAN: “Start a Fire” by Dilara Kazimova
It looks like Dilara Kazomova has a touch of pyromania about her too if her song title of choice is any guide.
A professional singer since the tender age of 14 (she’s now 29) the talented young lady, who possesses a fearsomely large range and the vocal power to do it justice, and possesses an eclectic taste in music that encompasses everything from traditional Azeri folk to Motown and even the Bohemian Rhapsody stylings of one Freddie Mercury, has burned with Eurovision representing ambition ever since Azerbaijan joined the contest in 2008.
After a number of near successful attempts to don the blue, red and green for her country – she came second in 2008 in national selections as part of the band Unformal and in 2010 made it to the final with female duo Milk and Kisses – she’s finally grabbed the much longer for nomination.
And given she also has a passionate interest in acting and musical theatre, it stands to reason that she should be able to bring a fairly impressive stage presence to the B&W Hallerna arena in Copenhagen.
Indeed, she’s known for her dramatic and much talked about live performances in Baku, Azerbiajan’s capital, so performing at Eurovision should be a walk in the park.
But could “Start a Fire” fail to light the necessary spark?
Well, while the song by Stefan Örn, Johan Kronlund, Alessandra Günthardt is a pleasant enough piano-driven number with the requisite amount of emotional angst and passionate longing, saved from the blandness of unadulterated UBT by the playing of the Azerbaijani traditional woodwind instrument, the Balaban, it is not exactly the stuff of which vivid memories are made.
Beautiful and stirring in its own way yes, and held touchingly aloft by Dilara’s crystal clear, emotionally rich vocals but forgotten alas almost as soon as it finishes playing.
It’s hard when the song isn’t a stinker of epic proportions (“Start a Fire” is most assuredly not even remotely in that camp), and the singer is bright, personable and vocally talented, to consign it to the also ran pile.
But it simply doesn’t have the artistic presence or creative heft to be a truly memorable entry.
That assumes of course that the juries, who tend to love songs of its ilk, don’t give it the necessary boost to get over the line.
If that happens, then Dilara may well be able to start the fire that Conchita Wurst plans to rise up from.
A win-win all around which will no doubt keep the Copenhagen Fire Department awake at night.
BELARUS: “Cheesecake” by TEO
TEO, real name Yuriy Vaschuk, is a man of seemingly boundless energy and charm.
Just how energy becomes apparent when you take a look at his crowded CV which bursts listings for with TV hosting, composing and arranging of songs, accordion playing (he even won a competition as a child) and a solo music career.
And in common with quite a few of this year’s hopeful, smiling entrants, a previous attempt or two at representing their country in the glitter-shrouded halls of the Eurovision Song Contest.
While he wasn’t successful in 2009 when he performed a duet with Anna Blagova, a last minute decision to enter this year’s national selection process – he had already written songs for two other contestants Natalie Tamelo and Tasha Odi – saw him grab the longed for nomination.
And what of his stage name, the elegantly simple TEO?
Plucked out of a Google search it seems, according to Eurovision TV:
“I clicked ‘T’ in Google search and saw it immediately. I liked it instantly and that was it.”
So with all that energy to hand, it makes sense he’d write a song about sugary dessert right?
And the saints of lack of caloric control be praised, it’s a fun, upbeat number that boldly stares UBT in the face, sneers scornfully once or twice, and then yes, pushes a creamy baked dessert in its often featureless face.
“Cheesecake” is a whole lot of upbeat, danceable fun with a reasonably serious message according to TEO was interviewed about his entry on Eurovision TV:
“It’s a positive song, even though I’ve broken up with a girl because I’m tired of her calling me her sweet cheesecake. We all need to be treated with respect.”
Clearly the relationship detailed in the song has not gone the way of eternal wine and roses, despite the giddy musical melody and playful feel to the song.
After all, anyone who sings “I look up all the maps trying to escape” is not about to whisk anyone, man or woman, down the aisle in a hurry, if ever, and needs to get away, far away.
Much as I love the song though, and expect it to do quite well, this entry relies more on TEO’s considerable charisma and infectious stage presence than any real musical weight.
But even if the song fails to give Europe the sugar rush it craves this year, don’t expect that this is the last you’ll hear of TEO on the wider world stage.
If nothing else, he has given us a song to sing along to when we’re eating dessert and that can only be a good and memorable thing.
BELGIUM: “Mother” by Axel Hirsoux
Axel Hirsoux is a man with Eurovision stars in his eyes.
Firmly focused on the idea that the contest will push his musical career to a far more high profile level – true to an extent but ABBA and Celine Dion are the rare examples of music artists who gained an enduring boost from Eurovision – he sees his representation of Belgium as the culmination of a great deal of hard work.
And it’s true that you could hardly fault Hirsoux for not putting in enough effort in his chosen profession.
Studying music theory and playing the trumpet from childhood, he has worked hard with his vocal coach to ready himself for TV singing contests like Star Academy in France and the Walloon version of The Voice in his native Belgium, spending whatever off time he has singing with an amateur group.
This then is a man who knows he won’t succeed on just his admittedly considerable talent alone.
But could the song he has chosen, “Mother” by Rafael Artesero and Ashley Hicklin, be the thing that undoes all this assiduous preparation?
There’s no doubting that “Mother” is musical stirring, an emotionally powerful paean to maternal figures everywhere, hailing them as the ones to shelter when life has kicked us once too often.
And Hirsoux’s voice, expressive to the last, executes the song perfectly, even if he is a little high pitched as it begins.
But I expect that, the almost too intimate lyrics aside – he sounds like he is a singing a love song to his mother so fervent is his expressive of adoration; it’s a little too creepy for my tastes – that he will suffer from the France Effect, which is the idea that a song can be worthy, beautifully sung and yet sink without a trace.
Granted he will be facing a sea of mobile phones held aloft swaying in time to the touching melody, but that is about as far as it will go I think.
The song has more of a future as a theme for Mother’s Day ad campaigns everywhere although I suspect even there it may be a tad too, um, overly familiar, for even that particular sphere.
EUROVISION EXTRA EXTRA!
AUSSIE! AUSSIE AUSSIE! JA! JA! JA!
Most excellent news overnight – Australia is off to Eurovision!
Not to compete alas as you have to be a fully paid up member of the European Broadcasting Union – which explains how Israel and yes even Morocco once upon a time got to compete in the contest – but we will performing as the interval act on the night of the second semi-final on Thursday 8 May.
And when I say “we”, I do not mean all 20 million of us although goodness knows that would work well especially if we all emoted in sync en masse, I mean the outstanding talent that is Jessica Mauboy, who got her start on Australian Idol in 2006, and has been chosen by Eurovision’s anointed broadcaster in Australia, SBS, to represent the country.
Keeping with the idea that you don’t need to win these contests to go on to stellar success (she finished fourth), she’s gone on to craft a highly successful R&B pop career (as well as acting up a storm), helped along by prodigious songwriting talents, the voice of a pitch perfect angel and enough personality wattage to light an arena.
Which will be handy in the B&W Hallerne, which is apparently a vast complex with an impressively large stage to match.
Mikkel Bech, Supervising Producer for the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest is convinced that Jessica Mauboy is the right singer for this prestigious gig in front of 180 million people:
“Jessica is an example of what Australia is all about. Australian TV (SBS) have chosen her because she shows another side of Australia that you maybe have not heard so much about before – she reflects the ‘new’ Australia”
(source: Eurovision TV, article by Michael Storvik-Green)
Mauboy has written a song especially for the event with Ilan Kidron of the Potbelleez, an upbeat number that the artist, who is the first solo singer form outside the EU to perform at Eurovision, is convinced will make an impact, according to an article on news.com.au:
“The song speaks of ancient dreaming but I also wanted to convey a message that whatever country you represent, you have to bring that culture to the next generation. Every time I listen to it I get another layer of goosebumps, so introducing it to the world is going to be so powerful.”
Now for those of you with a reasonably good grasp of geography may well be wondering why Australia, which is quite a way from Europe, is being invited to strut its musical stuff on the stage at the Eurovision Song Contest?
It’s largely due to the fact that Australia, which naturally includes yours truly, is absolutely mad keen for the contest, which is viewed as a gloriously kitsch (the term is used with great affection) extravaganza that is, for many people of European background in the culturally diverse nation, a key link to the countries they left behind.
It’s also been embraced by other diverse groups in society including the LGBTQI community and Generation Y, who take the opportunity that Eurovision afford to dress up, throw a party and sing along to the amazing range of songs on offer.
SBS has been instrumental in fanning the flames of enthusiasm, particularly over the last few years (they have screened the contest for over 30 years), sending presenters Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang across each year to give a peculiarly Australian perspective on the glittering song contest.
Mauboy’s inclusion on the Eurovision program then makes a great deal of sense and to mark the significance of the event, SBS will be screening a documentary Jessica Mauboy’s Road to Eurovision on Saturday 10 May just before the delayed telecast of the second semi final.
It’s an exciting development and one that confirms beyond any shadow of doubt that Australia and the Eurovision Song Contest are forever and inextricably linked.
Time to order up a big tub of green and gold glitter I think!