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.
The Hellenic entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest is a pan-European coming together of sorts with Greece’s home grown duo Freaky Fortune (comprised of Nikolas Raptakis and Theofilos Pouzbouris, both 23) and the UK’s RiskyKidd (19 year old Shane Schuller, born to a Jamaican mother and German father but now resident in Greece) combining forces for their club heavy entry.
A musical dream team of sorts, these three exceptionally good looking and well dressed young men, bring a considerable amount of burgeoning talent to the glitter-dusted table, with both arguably at the beginning of what could be reasonably impressive careers.
Freaky Fortune, who received a profile-raising leg up from none other than one of the world’s most famous bloggers, Perez Hilton when they won one leg of his Can You Sing? covers competition with their take on Kate Perry’s “Part of Me”, are songwriting partners, music school graduates (well almost in Raftakis’s case) and nascent chart-topping collaborators.
By comparison, RiskyKidd brings a lifetime of multiculturally diverse musical influences to”Rise Up”, contributing the rap which opens and peppers the song, drawing on the experience he has received working with the likes of Playmen and Helena Paparizou (the latter representing Greece at 2005’s Eurovision Song Contest).
But is their merged entity greater than the sum of its musically rich parts?
It is undoubtedly catchy, with the pounding anthemic chorus, bouncy melodic Balkan-beat and unexpected harmonisation between the three members giving it a fairly vital, upbeat stage presence which should play well to Eurovision voters at least (the juries tending to favour ballads of which this is most certainly not one).
But RiskyKidd particularly seems to be sleep walking through this one, his rap neither memorable nor visible in the song, dragging the opening rap-centric start of “Rise Up” down with him.
It’s not until the somewhat perkier verse kicks in and the not too far behind chorus ramps it up still further that the song really takes off, after ominously threatening to stall on the starting blocks.
That it does achieve considerable momentum is thanks largely to Freaky Fortune who throw impressive youthful enthusiasm and an ear for a hooky melody into the song, illustrating just why three top Greek artists have used this nascent musical team to craft their most recent hits.
“Rise Up” is a fun, upbeat piece of Greek-infused pop that will have you dancing in no time, but I am not entirely sure it has the musical heft or memorability to lift Greece up into the final on musical merit alone (that will likely come down to votes from an enthusiastic Greek diaspora).
HUNGARY: “Running” by András Kállay-Saunders
If you’re looking for a fearsome amount of musical pedigree, you need go no further than András Kállay-Saunders, who’s soul singer father Fernando Saunders has worked with the likes of Lou Reed, Jeff Beck and operatic maestro Luciano Pavarotti.
András was brought along from time to time to watch his father in action, both in Detroit, the home of Motown, and around the world, soaking up some fairly impressive musical input along the way.
And its borne fruit in son of Saunders and Hungarian model Katalin Kállay whose arrival in Hungary from USA in 2011 to reconnect with the maternal side of the family, coincided with advertisements for the Megasztár singing competition, where the rookie singer came a more than noteworthy fourth.
Convinced he had what it takes to follow in his father’s footsteps, he signed to Universal in Hungary, released three top ten singles, “Csak Veled” and “I Love You” and a collaboration with Swedish rapper Rebstar and American producer DJ Pain 1, “Tonight”.
Parting ways with his record label in 2012, he signed with Swedish record label Today is Vintage and began his three time tilt for the Hungarian Eurovision selected competition A Dal.
So is it third time lucky for this bright young American-Hungarian talent?
You would have to say yes based simply on the resonant emotion he brings to “Running” which covers some fairly serious subject matter as he explained to eurovision.tv:
“I wrote this song about a childhood friend of mine, and people I have met with similar stories throughout my life. Unfortunately my friend was victim to child abuse, domestic violence. I wrote this song about their experiences and everything that they went though. I would like to raise awareness to this topic.”
But as we all know, singing about as important as topic as this is won’t come to anything unless it has some solid music backing it up, and here András Kállay-Saunders and song co-writer Krisztián Szakos don’t disappoint.
“Running” is heartfelt without being too sentimentally earnest, striking an impressive balance between the intense poignancy of the lyrics and the moving melody which complements the understandable lyrical earnestness perfectly.
Whether that will translate into a final’s berth is another matter entirely but it deserves to go through as one of the stronger ballads in this year’s contest, a song given even more of a boost by Kállay-Saunders’ musical artistry and undeniable vocal presence.
ICELAND: “No Prejudice” by Pollapönk
My lord but Pollapönk are an insane amount of fun!
Finding its genesis in 2006 in the smouldering remains of Botnledja, a punk trio of which the group’s guitarists and trained pre-school teachers Haraldur Freyr Gislason and Heiðar Örn Kristjánsson were members, it will come as no surprise that Pollapönk’s first album was the result of a project to craft music that would appeal to children and parents alike.
Along with fellow members Guðni Finnsson (bass) and Arnar Þór Gíslason (drums), they crafted bright, upbeat music with a message that has won them a considerable number of fans across pretty much every demographic imaginable, and which has now taken them, somewhat improbably you might imagine to the Eurovision Song Contest in Denmark.
But don’t let the bright Wiggles-like colour scheme fool you.
Pollapönk have a great deal of musical talent behind them with Haraldur Freyr and Heidar Orn winning 1995’s Battle of the Bands as Botnledja, and subsequently taking out numerous band and album awards through the late 1990s, before trying their hand at qualifying for Eurovision in Iceland’s national selection contest Söngvakeppnin.
They also have some lyrical backbone to their music too, consistently filling their songs with anti-bullying messages preaching tolerance and inclusion, a theme reflected in their entry “No Prejudice”, which was previously rendered in their native Icelandic as “Enga fordóma”.
It’s a truism that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and Pollapönk’s have taken this to heart, placing their vitally important call to end bullying of the different and the marginalised in a candy-coloured and sounding musical wrapper that bounces along with all the punk energy and ska overtones you could ask for.
It’s a bright, effervescent song that is almost impossible to ignore and will doubtless make for a visible, audience-engaging act in semi-final 1, with the message hopefully having the intended impact.
Their performance will also have the added novelty of having the first member of the Icelandic parliament appearing in it, with Óttar Proppé of rock band Dr. Spock joining Snæbjörn Ragnarsson of metal band Skálmöld on backing vocal duties.
But appealing though the song is, and contagious though Pollapönk’s theatrical sensibilities are, the modern incarnation of Eurovision has a habit of not sending songs like this through to the final, no matter how worthy the lyrical intent, and I fear that for all their infectious enthusiasm for their music and their message, that this bouncy gem of a song may only make a semi-final appearance in Copenhagen’s B&W Hallerna arena.
It will be a pity since while this isn’t necessarily one of the stronger entries this year, it has a great deal going for it and will hopefully at least make it to the final, if only as proof that you can be lighthearted and colourful and still want to change the world for the better, a theme surely as close to Eurovision’s heart as any.
Taking a page out of Greece’s book, or perhaps it is the other way around – Eurovision influences tend toward the chicken or the egg variety, in common with many creative endeavours of uncertain pedigree – Ireland has called upon a number of its favourite musical children to represent it at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
Kasey Smith, fresh from a stint in girl band Wonderland, a creation of Westlife’s Kian Egan and the former manager of Eurovision double entrants Jedward, and time spent in Nashville honing her songwriting and performance skills, comes from a family of singers and brings undoubted passion for her musical calling to Can-Linn, which is Irish for “sing together”.
She is joined by Thomas Spratt & Tarik Shebani (dancers), Sarah May Rogers (fiddle) and Jenny Bowden & Donna Bissett (backing vocals) in the joined entity which will perform the song “Heartbeat”, written by Smith’s mentor, noted singer/songwriter Hazel Kaneswaran and a team of Irish and Swedish songwriters.
It’s a true team effort, brought together with the hope that Ireland can add an eighth win to the seven Eurovision trophies already in the national display case.
It’s a bit of the old and a bit of the new with Ireland’s entry “Heartbeat”, which combines traditional Irish instruments like the bohran and fiddle, courtesy of Can-Linn with the more urban contemporary sounds of Kasey Smith.
And while it’s an ambitious idea, following in a far modest way in the musical footsteps of many countries in the Eastern Europe who regularly combine their traditional folk sounds with rock, pop or a heady mix of both, it doesn’t really spark, settling into the sort of pleasant but not particularly memorable vein of factory-produced Top 40 hits.
It is hardly a musical embarrassment, but then it is neither especially adventurous, seemingly content to tick the Eurovision boxes of upbeat but not too upbeat tune, pseudo-inspiring lyrics with as many touchy-feely key words as possible, and rousing melody and nothing more.
It should see Can-Linn and Kasey Smith more than ably representing Ireland in their semi-final but that will likely be about it, with the chances of Ireland reviving its ye olde stellar Eurovision days of glory hardly in the offing this year.
ISRAEL: “Same heart” by Mei Finegold
If her parents are to be believed and who are we to doubt the word of Mr and Mrs Feingold, Mei is a child prodigy who was reportedly humming melodies at the tender age of eight months when crawling, let alone keeping a tune, is a challenge of almost overwhelming proportions for most babies.
But clearly there was something profound happening in that nursery room because young Mei went on to pursue a varied career in music, which has so far encompassed two highly regarded stints in musical theatre, a successful album Soda Pop, work in electronic pop rock group Limozina Express, and an enduring presence in Israel’s underground rock scene.
Known for what eurovision.tv refers to as her “avant-garde vocal abilities and extremely wild performances”, which came to the attention of the Israeli public via 2009’s seventh season of the hit talent show Kokhav Nolad (A Star is Born/Israeli Idol), Mei has taken her newly acquired high profile to campaign with great effectiveness for an end to violence, working closely with human rights organisations to do so.
She is clearly not a woman fresh from the cookie cutter mold so does “Same Heart” reflect those mostly unorthodox tendencies of hers?
To a large extent yes, although it is hardly the avant garde tour de force you might be forgiven for expecting given the nature of her artistic career to date.
A full speed ahead rock number which powers into a chorus drenched in beat heavy synth-rich electronica, which would be out of place at a nightclub anywhere in the world, it delivers atmosphere in droves, thanks largely to Mei’s phenomenal which purrs and growls through the song with just the right amount of genuine attitude.
But while the chorus shines with a standout melody and the song as a whole is a more than suitable for a rock goddess of Finegold’s pedigree, it fails to leave much of a lasting impression.
This could have something to do with the fairly mundane verses, which neither sparkle or shine lyrically or musically, despite the best efforts of noted singer/songwriter Rami Talmid, and which make the journey to the outstanding chorus a little more laborious than it should otherwise be.
Even so, if there is one thing that former child prodigy Mei Finegold has in spades, it’s stage presence, and the voice to do it justice, and I have no doubt that she will lift a reasonable ordinary song, and by extension, Israel’s entry. far above where it might otherwise expect to land.
ITALY: “La Mia Città” by Emma Marone
Emma (full name Emmanuela Marrone), who spent her childhood at her father’s gigs, is a woman who apparently needs music like the rest of us need the basics of life.
She had this to say about her hoped-for future artistic endeavours way back in high school, where she studied classical music, a short but vivid articulation of her calling, which sounds like more than just a simple desire to sing:
“Like drinking, sleeping, eating, I can’t help it.”
When you have that much passion for what you love doing, pursuing it is a foregone conclusion, and it’s seen the talented young singer involved in three bands H20, Lucky Star and M.J.U.R. (Mad Jesters Until Rave), release a #1 album Oltre, compete and placing in a number of talent shows and festivals, and release a slew of chart-topping songs which have garnered an impossibly long list of multiplatinum, platinum and gold discs.
She has used her highly successful career to promote a variety of causes, from cancer awareness – she is a survivor of the disease – to combating abuse of children and the elderly and a large number of other causes.
Clearly a woman of drive and purpose, Emma is a music artist of rare passion and genuine calling which should make for an impressive performance at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
A performance which will be helped along by a song that is a musical force of nature, a swirl of electro melodies, retro ’80s stylings and pounding beats, all anchored by Emma’s poised, powerful vocals.
There is no doubt at all, after just one listen to this accomplished pop song, that she meant every word she wrote all the way back in high school.
And if she can channel just a portion of the energy and passion she brings to the clip, this will be one of the standout performances at this year’s contest.
Way to rock the Mickey Mouse by the way Emma – you deserve to win for that gutsy style choice alone.
EUROVISION EXTRA EXTRA!
If you’re like me, and find waiting till May to see many of this year’s contestants strutting the stage in all their Eurovision glory completely unacceptable, then attending the Eurovision in Concert event, traditionally held about a month before the official show itself – and by “traditionally” we mean something that has been happening for just six years – is the place to be.
In all, 25 of the 37 contestants entered for this year’s contest turned up at the Melkweg venue in Amsterdam’s city centre:
• Albania – Hersi
• Armenia – Aram MP3
• Austria – Conchita Wurst
• Azerbaijan – Dilara Kazimova
• Belarus – Teo
• Belgium – Axel Hirsoux
• Denmark – Basim
• France – Twin Twin
• F.Y.R. Macedonia – Tijana
• Georgia – The Shin and Mariko
• Greece – Freaky Fortune feat. RiskyKidd
• Latvia – Aarzemnieki
• Lithuania – Vilija Matačiūnaitė
• Malta – Firelight
• Moldova – Cristina Scarlat
• Montenegro – Sergej Ćetković
• Netherlands – The Common Linnets
• Norway – Carl Espen
• Portugal – Suzy
• Romania – Paula Seling and Ovi
• San Marino – Valentina Monetta
• Spain – Ruth Lorenzo
• Switzerland – Sebalter
• Ukraine – Maria Yaremchuk
• United Kingdom – Molly
They were greeted with fervent enthusiasm by the 1500 tightly packed fans present who revelled in the chance to have a sneak peek at the artists ahead of Eurovision itself (and indulge in a spot of controversy Armenia’s Aram Mp3’s appearance was greeted with sustained booing as a protest against his alleged homophobic comments aimed at Austria’s Conchita Wurst), as well as some of the introductory postcards which will be played ahead of each country’s performance, and a look at the diamond stage that will grace the B & W Hallerna arena.
It looks like it was a lot of fun, a stellar way to treat the instant gratification junkies among the Eurovision faithful.
For more information on the event you check out the official report at eurovision.tv