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.
LATVIA: “Cake to Bake” by Aarzemnieki
German Jöran Steinhauer, one quarter of Aarzemnieki, Latvia’s entry in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (along with Guntis Veilands/piano, Katrīna Dimanta/violin and Raitis Vilumovs/drums) has taken a more circuitous route to Eurovision than most people.
First drawn to his adopted home country of Latvia via the music of Brainstorm, a group which came third in the 2000 Eurovision final, he quickly found himself an ardent fan not just of their music but of their homeland, participating in an exchange program in the city of Talsi in 2005 before later volunteering with the German church in the Latvian capital Riga.
Lately he has achieved enduring fame via a song he wrote (with Brit Nick Massey) and recorded to say goodbye to the Latvian currency the Lat, “Paldies Latiņam” (“Thank you Lat”) which went viral, an unofficial soundtrack to the country’s entry into the Eurozone.
Things have now come full circle, after a fashion, for the engaging young man who, after an unsuccessful tilt at Latvia selection for the contest in 2008 with his then-band Axlina, is now representing the Baltic state at this year’s event.
And he’s doing it with a band who has deliberately picked a tongue twister of a name, a linguistic nod to the fact that while settling into a new society is not without its challenges and difficulties, that it also comes with a large number of benefits.
Like walking onto the stage at Eurovision for a country you have come to live in permanently and love.
As the musical consummation of a love affair begun many years ago though, I am not sure that “Cake to Bake” is necessarily the most appropriate of choices.
Playful, sweet and all kinds of Amish folk whimsical to be sure, and upbeat in a toe-tapping round the campfire late at night kind of way, it is however not the sort of song, no matter how worthy the message, that will vanquish all your musical opponents in one fell swoop.
In fact, it’s more likely to sit them down, make them a nice spot of tea and enquire after their ailing grandmother’s health and happily let them steal all the silverware and good china while they’re not looking.
Which frankly could make for quite an arrestingly different Eurovision performance if they could get the background dancers to serve the tea in giant pots without scalding anyone in the first five rows.
No, lovely though the song might be, it’s hardly likely to get Latvia out of semi final 1, let alone into a top 10 placing so Jöran might have to make do with the warm inner glow of simply knowing he did his bit for Latvia and leave, guitar (and cake) in hand, at that.
LITHUANIA: “Attention” by Vilija Matačiūnaitė
It appears that the urge to sing, really deep down passionately sing, must be in the genes.
How else to explain the fact that Vilija Matačiūnaitė, like Mei Finegold from Israel, arrived in this world not with a scream or a hearty cry but a perfect high C?
Of course prodigious talent is one thing but finding the opportunity to make something of it is another thing entirely and it took Vilija ’til she was 18 (2004) and took out 2nd place in national singing competition Amber Star to finally get the chance to show that she could do more than just a very fine rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to her kindergarten class.
From that momentous first step, she went on to first and second places in a slew of reality TV singing shows and international singing comps, released an album, Mylėk (2006), got herself a gig on national radio, roles in rock operas and TV series, all the while studying jazz at Vilnius College.
Clearly she hasn’t slept a wink in her life – how to explain this impressively ambitious workload? – which makes it all the more remarkable that she found the time to not only write the song “Attention” (with Viktoras Vaupšas) but to compete in the extremely lengthy selection trials in Lithuania.
Clearly this young woman has ambition and the talent and tenacity to make something of it but does “Attention” match the lofty standards that the perennial contest winner has set herself over and over again?
In a word, a very short word, no.
While it possesses a punchy, powerful chorus and a melody that comes a-pounding at your earworm’s door, it is let down by oddly discordant, almost spoken word/lite rap verses and Vilija’s inconsistent vocals, failing to really make any kind of meaningful lasting impression as a result.
The only thing that may save it from failing to make it out of semi final 2 is that fact that only five of the acts will be cut that night out of the 15, making the odds slightly more favourable than they would otherwise be.
Having said that, as a song that is neither boldly experimental or safely within the musical lines, and with a delivery that underwhelms more than it impresses, I suspect that Vilija may need to find victory in an arena other than Eurovision if 2014 is going to be a truly memorable year for her.
MALTA: “Coming Home” by Firelight
As a band, Firelight are mere babes in the musical woods, having only formed in June last last year, and only releasing their debut album a couple of months back.
But the driving force behind the band, Richard Edwards comes from a long line of entertainers – his father is a well known musician in Malta – most of whom seem to have made it into his new band if the line up is any guide.
Accompanying Richard, who plays a dizzying array of instruments including the rather intriguingly-named Appalachian mountain dulcimer, to Copenhagen to represent Malta, will be his sister Michelle Mifsud (vocals/piano/percussion), and brothers Wayne William (backing vocals) and Daniel Micallef (acoustic guitar).
Only fellow band members Tony Polidano (vocals, upright bass, electric bass, acoustic bass, percussion) and Matthew Ellul (acoustic guitar, electric guitar) stand outside this obviously artistically fecund gene pool.
Edwards, who made it to the final 80 in British X Factor six years ago and played in a British rock band Cast Away while he lived in the UK, is no doubt hoping that all these familial links will see him more successful than in 2003, 2005 and 2011 when he unsuccessfully competed to represent Malta at Eurovision.
Not that he measures success in terms of strictly winning as he told Eve in an interview on her site:
“I would love to win but I don’t enter the competition to win. I really enjoy taking part and performing on Malta’s biggest musical televised show. It’s just a really nice experience. If I was to win it one day it would simply be amazing and I would do my best to represent my country in the best way I know how.”
But let’s be honest – he didn’t say he would hate to win so does “Coming Home” have what it takes to get him the sort of success he might possibly self-effacing want one day?
Actually, yes it does and it largely comes down to the gorgeous Mumford and Sons/Bon Iver/Of Monsters and Men vibe running through the song.
And the way in which Edwards’ voice, which is all honey and milk and sweet masculine richness, a rich but gentle voice ideally suited to the new folk genre that Firelight most clearly feels comfortable in, wraps itself languidly arounds the vocals and in a thoroughly gentlemanly way refuses to let go.
It’s a delightful way to spend three minutes and makes me want to check out the recently released debut album at some point.
Having said all that, while the song, Edwards’ honey-coated vocals and Firelight artistry as a band will likely see them make it into the final, I very much doubt it will place anything like top 10.
It’s the sort of song that might do very nicely on the charts thank you but which consistently fails to light a fire under the voting intentions of Eurovision voters and juries for some reason.
So, wonderful song, beautifully performed by a talented band with a bright future but likely to languish alas in the bottom ranks of the voting on grand final night.
MOLDOVA: “Wild Soul” by Cristina Scarlat
A penchant for wild over-Photoshopping aside, Christina Scarlat is another singer who apparently burst out of the womb singing and dancing and entertaining the hospital staff with her prodigious musical gifts.
A gifted pianist and violinist, she found herself gravitating to the vocal side of things at a young age, and it was as a vocalist that Christina graduated from the Moldovan Music Conservatory in 2006.
In common with many other performers at Eurovision this year, she then dived headlong into the competition circuit, winning a succession of prizes including the International Festival of Arts Slavianski Bazaar in Belarus.
But none of those contest wins likely compares to the prestigious role she occupies as one of the lead singers of the Presidential Orchestra of the Republic of Moldova, which is tasked with providing the musical accompaniment for all sorts of state ceremonies from military parades to national holiday events.
Important though this role is however, it hasn’t stopped Cristina from aspiring to gaining some Eurovision glory for both herself and Moldova and after two previous unsuccessful attempts she won through with “Wild Soul”, composed by Cristina’s niece Lidia and composing prodigy Ivan Akulov.
Though Cristina should be applauded for keeping it all in the family a la Malta’s entry Firelight, the song itself is a rather uninspiring affair.
Granted it has a presence, a powerful booming ballad that radiates the kind of grandeur that Cristina’s impressive voice handles like a vocal walk in the park, but it plods rather than flies along in the verses, only coming to some sort of life, grudging though it may be, in the chorus.
It fails ultimately to garner any real traction, proving that not even one of Moldova’s most talented vocalists is in with a chance of winning Eurovision if the song isn’t up to it.
The only real opportunity that Cristina has to progress to the final is if the juries judging semi final 1 deem her ballad musically worthy enough to be granted entree to the final.
I suspect though that any jury-driven advantage will be drowned out by voters who will be looking for something with a little more life to it than “Wild Soul”, which patently refuses to live up to its name in any way, shape or form.
MONTENEGRO: “Moj Svijet” by Sergej Ćetković
Sergej Ćetković is one of those rare musical talents than can balance classical teaching – he was a piano virtuoso throughout his educational years, playing classical pieces by the likes of Bach, Mozart and Schubert – and rock music tastes, with his CD collection containing albums by The Beatles, Peter Gabriel and Joe Cocker.
It’s been the latter predilection for pop rock music that has guided the trajectory of 38 year old Sergej’s career with his career kicking off as keyboardist and back up vocalist with the band Burning Heart before he graduated to lead vocal duties five years later with another band Ampitheatre.
From there it was a but a short step to a flourishing solo career which has seen Sergej release five chart topping pop albums, each of which has out sold its predecessor and seen him emerge as the natural representative for Montenegro at the Eurovision Song Contest.
With such a popular music career behind him, based on chart friendly songs that appeal to the masses, you have to wonder why anyone thought the Balkan-music influenced “Moj Svijet” would be a good fit for him.
Most likely because the song, underwhelming though it is, does suit his voice to a tee.
His emotionally resonant voice glides seamlessly around each and every word, giving this song about being willing to wait for his love whom he is desperate to see and hold, all the poignancy it needs to be as moving as its writers Sergej and his co-writer Emina Sandal clearly meant for it to be.
The problem is that touching though the lyrics are, and beautiful though Sergej’s voice is, they cannot compensate for a song that fails to profoundly go nowhere.
If it was a tour bus, and frankly after watching the gorgeous accompanying video of stunningly beautiful Montenegrin scenery you feel as if you’ve just been whisked on a quick 3 minute across country tour, it would have failed to leave the parking lot, much less hit the open road.
It is pretty, it is stirring but it runs out of gas very quickly, fading away to nothing and taking the rather lacklustre melody with it.
I really can’t see this getting Montenegro into the final unless of course he can drag a slab of Montegrin forest or waterway onto the stage in Copenhagen with him, in which case all bets are off.
NORWAY: “Silent Storm” by Carl Espen
Born into a musical family on the rural island of Osterøy near the city of Bergen on the south-western coast of Norway, Carl Espen Thorbjørnsen aka good old plain Carl Espen, got his performing career off to an early start when as a boy he convincingly won a local singing competition.
Unfortunately it didn’t lead to the musical career he hoped for, with any artistic aspirations taking a backseat to professional carpentry and a second job as a doorman at Bergen’s rock bar Garage.
But the dream to pursue his musical ambitions had never quite gone away and sensing this his cousin Josefin Winther, a successful singer-songwriter based in London wrote a song especially for him, and convinced him to try out for Melodi Grand Prix, Norway’s selection process for the Eurovision Song Contest.
The rest, as they say, is history with Carl Espen’s long dormant need to express his inner voice finally getting a chance to find an audience quite a bit larger than the one he so entranced all those years ago back on Osterøy.
But with so much riding on success in Copenhagen, does “Silent Storm” have what it takes to hand this underdog his deserved fairytale ending?
Yes, yes yes, a thousand times YES.
A delicate piano-driven ballad, it is an exquisitely beautiful song driven given even more resonance by Carl Espen’s divinely moving voice.
He is a thousand different kinds of emotions wrapped into one burly package, and he deftly handles every single poignantly wrought syllable with the sort of dreamy precision you would expect of a man who had spent a lifetime recording and performing rather than working in frames and glass.
It is a standout track on any number of levels, a song that induces goosebumps and never loses its melodic or emotional momentum for even a second.
Carl Espen and Norway deserve to go through to the final with “Silent Storm” one of the most heartfelt and affecting songs I have ever heard. Period.
If there is any justice in the world Norway will not only make it to the final and place in the top 10, but will have a very good chance of winning the contest outright.
Both the song and Carl Espen’s magnificently stirring voice are just that good.
EUROVISION EXTRA EXTRA!
Shakesspeare, who I would like to think would have been a Eurovisionary if he’d been alive now – hey if Justin Bieber can have Beliebers, then Eurovision should be able to have Eurovisionary whether it wants them or not – is justly famous for remarking in his play As You Like It:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances”
And while it was a more melancholy rumination on the brief and fleeting nature of existence, and not so much a treatise on where the 37 Eurovision entrants need to stand to look good on camera (and avoid throat-clogging amounts of tinsel in their mouthes or pyrotechnic burns), it’s still has some resonance now that the Eurovision stage is up and glowing brighter than a thousand suns.
We know this courtesy of a tweet from @Maikeeel of #TeamSanna (Sweden) who sent this image out of the magnificent stage in the B&W Hallerne that looks like it’s about to lift on a five year interplanetary mission than provide a place for the performers at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest to strut their stuff.
And now the stage is all good to go in all its technicolour glory, the first technical rehearsals are underway , according to Simon Storvik-Green at Eurovision.tv:
“For the next two days, it is all about technical rehearsals at the B&W-Hallerne, and here everything from sound and lighting, stage equipment and camera positions to power and connections to the OB trucks will be thoroughly tested so that everything is ready and functioning for when the 37 participants arrive for their first rehearsals in the hall.
“All the technology needs to be tested so that we are able to find and resolve any defects, before the ‘proper’ rehearsals start”, explains Head of Production, Kamilla Monies, to DR.”
It may not sound all the glamorous but without this kind of rigorous testing, the three hosts of this year’s event Nikolaj Koppel, Pilou Asbæk and Lise Rønne cold find themselves staring awkwardly into dead air doing their best “Did I leave the iron on?” look.
Not exactly the lasting impression you want of the Eurovision Song Contest when all of Europe is looking on.