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.
SPAIN: “Dancing in the Rain” by Ruth Lorenzo
Whether it’s been opera (which she began singing at the prodigiously talented age of 6, inspired by the work of Montserrat Caballé) rock, dance or even musical theatre, Ruth Lorenzo has shown an aptitude for them all, excelling at every one.
Not surprisingly it’s also led to a career as a singer/songwriter, which was given a significant boost when the one time US resident artist decided to try out for The X Factor in UK in 2008, where she was mentored by Dannii Minogue( for whom she has written songs).
She also didn’t go on the program, she told Eurovision.tv, initially intimated by the huge numbers of people with stars in their eyes seeking to try their luck the auditions for the program:
“I had to come to England to try and achieve my dreams [but] there were 22.000 people there and I was thinking ‘How the hell am I going to do this?’”
But she persisted, coming in fifth overall, and giving her a profile that allowed her to release singles in both Spain (“Burn”, June 2011) and UK (“The Night”, June 2013), as well as write the opening and closing music for Spanish TV drama Valiente.
Despite some storm-in-a-teacup controversy over her selection to sing at Eurovision, she looks to have the talent, persistence and presence (she is a fashion icon of sorts) to make a real impact at this year’s contest.
While “Dancing in the Rain”, a pretty, emotive mid tempo ballad, isn’t the most remarkable of songs, Ruth Lorenzo’s voice more than makes up for it in spades.
It is rich, pitch perfect, soaring high and dipping down with pin point precision, an impressively adaptable instrument that she uses to powerful effect.
But what is truly amazing about Ms Lorenzo’s voice is that it isn’t just a technical marvel.
She infuses every last note of the song with raw, visceral passion, the kind you may not necessarily expect from someone who has clearly devoted as much as time as she has to honing her voice to absolute perfection.
So while I don’t think this song will take Spain to Eurovision glory, Ruth Lorenzo will nevertheless put on one hell of a performance, and will, I am fully confident, be one of the standout singers of the final (which Spain has automatic entry to).
SWEDEN: “Undo” by Sanna Nielsen
You have to hand it to Sanna Nielsen – she is one remarkably persistent young singer.
After six unsuccessful attempts to represent Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest via their national selection process Melodifestivalen – she came very close in 2008 missing out by only a few frustrating points – she finally got the nod this year with the song “Undo” (which was written by Fredrik Kempe – whose songs have won the event four times in total – and David Kreuger, Hamed “K-One” Pirouzpanah).
A major artist in Sweden, with nine albums, an almost endless number of chart-topping singles, including “Empty Room” which spent 24 weeks at #1 despite it failing to get the 2008 Eurovision gig (which went to Charlotte Perelli, who placed 18th with “Hero”) and a number of TV appearances to her credit, her choice has been a popular one.
Not least because she is a dynamic performer, a talent honed via series of TV appearance in the early 1990s and one which finds its home on stages in arenas cacophonously large and intimately small.
It will stand her in good stead on water-surrounded, LED-screen lit giant stage in Copenhagen where you are going to need the sort of performing nous Nielsen has by the truckload to make an impression.
Of course, what is an effervescent, powerful delivery if you don’t have the song to back you up?
Thankfully Sanna Nielsen has that covered too with “Undo” giving her the perfect platform upon which to demonstrate some serious vocal prowess.
Admittedly you could be forgiven for wondering whether it has what it takes to go the distance when it first starts, with the song failing to make it much out of idle, puttering along in very forgettable ballad territory through the long lead up verse and bridge.
But then the chorus, the undeniably goose bump-inducing chorus, kicks in and Neilsen’s voice comes into its uniquely impressive own, a thousand shades of gorgeously modulated, emotionally rich pain and regret, and you’re irretrievably sold.
Not sold enough to automatically mean a win for Sweden but frankly while the song has its drawbacks, Neilsen’s voice and stage presence does not and if she gets it right on the night (and I have every confidence she will nail it with ease), it could just hand the country an outside chance of picking up the crystal microphone Eurovision trophy, which would be fitting given the 40th anniversary of ABBA’s legendary victory at the event.
SWITZERLAND: “Hunter of Stars” by Sebalter
The first thing you notice about Sebalter (real name: Sebastiano Paù-Lessi) is his impish, infectious smile.
It lends the engaging singer from Switzerland a mischievous, crowd-pleasing charisma, one that he exuberantly expressed when he won the Swiss selection process for Eurovision, and proclaimed that the chance “to be on the Eurovision Song Contest Stage is a dream come true”.
His victory is the culmination of a long and successful career, spent largely as the fiddle player for well known Swiss folk rock band The Vad Vuc, with whom he performed for 10 years from 2002-2012 before leaving to begin a solo career.
He has poured a considerable amount of effort into this move, spending a year or so honing his songwriting and recording craft and an even longer period of time coming with the sound which will be featured on his forthcoming solo album, of which the bouncy, whistle-heavy song “Hunter of Stars” is the lead single.
And if you’re looking to make a great first impression, not just in Switzerland but now of course Europe-wide, “Hunter of Stars” is just the song to do it with.
A fetching mix of folk, pop and rock, it is a bright, energetic song that rivals Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” for sheer joie de vivre.
Leaving aside the fact that the nonsensical lyrics, which lend the song another layer of playfulness that works for it, rush by so fast you can barely comprehend them, the whistle-heavy song plays to SEBalter’s strength for delivery effervescent, fun performances (which will no doubt have the semi final two crowd eating out of his fiddle-playing hands).
It is a level beyond the gleeful absurdity of Latvia’s entry, daring you not to get up and dance when you hear it.
It’s unlikely to garner Switzerland a win in the final, but it will be enough to get them there at least, where I expect SEBalter to make that very well thought out and bound to be unboundingly-positive vital first impression with audiences.
THE NETHERLANDS: “Calm After the Storm” by The Common Linnets
The music is everything for The Common Linnets, the coming together of musical soulmates Ilse DeLange and Waylon, two artists with a shared of country music, particularly folk, bluegrass and Americana.
Their love of a peculiarly North American music genre has naturally taken them to Nashville where the aim has been to create stripped-back songs redolent with emotion and a knack for storytelling, along the lines of their musical heroes such as Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Both of them bring a considerable amount of past industry experience to this heartfelt joint endeavour.
Isle DeLange, who hails from the eastern part of The Netherlands as does Waylon, is a popular artist of some 15 years standing, with her debut album World of Hurt clocking up five times platinum, while Waylon, who got his big break in 2008 on Holland’s Got Talent, was the first Dutchman ever signed to the prestigious, legendary Motown label.
It would seem to be a marriage made in musical heaven, a joining together of both impressive talent and even more importantly shared musical sensibilities and one that will likely see The Netherlands do quite nicely at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
That is largely because “Calm After the Storm” is such a lushly beautiful track.
All simmering low slung folk and restrained but nuanced vocals, it is everything that DeLange and Waylong said they wanted their music to be, an emotive excursion into the heartland of a relationship that may or may not be failing.
It will, not of course, be to everyone’s taste but in a year where rather anodyne ballads seem to be proliferating, “Calm After the Storm” is brimming with delicately-expressed personality, a heartfelt paean to love that may soon be lost or possibly regained.
And whether this folk gem gets The Netherlands a place in the final or not – it does have some significant competition in the first semi final to be fair – it is a timely reminder that for the right artist with an authentic message and real talent, Eurovision can be the perfect launching pad for a viable, long term career.
I have no doubt that The Common Linnets will make that kind of impression, bathing not just themselves but The Netherlands in Eurovision glory, something that has been absent in the large few years of rather lacklustre entries by the country.
UKRAINE: “Tick-Tock” by Mariya Yaremchuk
When your father is Ukrainian legend, actor Nazariy Yaremchuk (who sadly passed away when Mariya was two), and you’ve been surrounded by music all your life, a career as a singer/songwriter is all but inevitable.
Not that you’re likely to find immensely-talented Mariya Yaremchuk complaining.
Taking her first steps onto the stage at the tender age of six, Mariya has shown again and again that performing is in her blood, most notably gaining fourth place in the 2012 edition of TV talent show Voice of the Country as well as placing third in an international contest targeted at young singers New Wave 2012, winning the Audience Choice Award in the process.
Unsuccessful at her first attempt in 2013 to represent Ukraine at Eurovision via the national selection process Evrobachennya 2013 – Natsionalyni vidbir, Mariya, who cites Monica Belluci, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Madonna as influences, won through this year with the song “Tick-Tock” which the university graduate co-wrote Sandra Bjurman.
And you can why it did so well.
It is supremely catchy, a modern, full ahead dance number that sizzles and pouts in the the most provocative yet tasteful way.
This version of the song has been substantially re-worked from its previous incarnation, which was performed in the interval at the Malta Eurovision Song Contest this year, and is all the better for it.
Gone is the somewhat desultory melody and cobbled-together lyrics of old, replaced by a song that, while not perfect, nevertheless makes sense and looks and sounds like it would be quite at home on the charts of any country you could care to name.
That musically generic quality could also of course be its great achilles heel but that should largely be negated thanks to Mariya’s energetic vocal delivery which sinuously wraps itself around each and every word like it means business, and her gift for commanding the stage, all facets which will likely propel the song to a finals berth, where I expect its bright, fun vibe to be a welcome relief to the many ballads keeping it company this year.
UNITED KINGDOM: “Children of the Universe” by Molly Smitten-Downes
An accomplished pianist, Molly Smitten-Downes, who goes by the stage name of Molly, has studied hard for her rising musical career.
A graduate of both Leicester College, where she undertook the Access to Music course, and the Academy of Music in Guildford, she has shaped her raw talent to the point where she attracted the attention of one of the most famous DJs on the planet, Sash! – she sang on top 10 hit “Raindrops (Encore un Fois)” in 2008 – and the BBC which discovered her this year via their BBC Introducing program which gives unsigned artists a chance to get themselves heard on the radio.
All this recognition, and earlier chart success with Swedish producer Anders Hansson with she wrote her winning Eurovision entry “Children of the Universe”, has seen her support a slew of famous big name artists like Bombay Bicycle Club and Jake Bugg, as well bringing her to the attention of the Eurovision powers that be at the BBC, which selects the UK’s song and artist each year for the contest.
And it’s clear that being bestowed the sometimes poisoned-chalice of Britain’s Eurovision representative has the emerging artist enormously excited as she told Eurovision.tv:
“… to represent the United Kingdom in such a huge competition, not only as a singer and performer, but as a songwriter is an unbelievable honour.”
But should we be as excited as Molly is about “Children of the Universe”, a song she admitted has been specifically crafted for maximum Eurovision effectiveness:
“It’s about the live performance. It’s got to have some drama, you’ve got to get that arena to feel what you’re singing about and hopefully get them on their feet or inspired somehow.” (source: Eurovision.tv)
I’m not so sure.
While it’s mission accomplished in the sense that the song is undoubtedly “a little bit anthemic”, it all feels a bit too calculated, a little to Eurovision paint-by-numbers, a deliberate throwing of otherworldly, inspirational phrases such as the title and the rather nebulous and ultimately meaningless, “standing on the edge of time”, with music deliberately designed to evoke a particular emotional response.
Nothing wrong with that in one sense since songwriters for the contest have been doing the same thing for years.
But it results in a song that likely wouldn’t exist outside the rarefied musical vacuum of Eurovision, and certainly not one that will do much business on the modern pop charts.
It lacks personality, sparkle and frankly any sense of a robust melody or vocal presence with Molly only really coming alive in the chorus, her voice struggling to make much impact otherwise.
It is a vast improvement on Britain’s recent efforts but I don’t expect it to cover the UK in much Eurovision glory come May 10.
EUROVISION EXTRA EXTRA!
With everyone jetting in to Copenhagen to either begin final rehearsals or report on them, SBS, Australia’s telecaster of the Eurovision Song Contest – which is a surprising national obsession of sorts with a multitude of parties and club gatherings held in its honour – has announced that Jessica Mauboy, will be performing two songs during the second semi final interval.
The first performer from outside Europe to be given the honour of singing at Eurovision, Jessica, currently the subject of a characteristically cheeky and gleefully irreverent promo campaign by SBS, will sing her single “Never Be the Same”, which she describes as “one of the best songs I’ve ever written and another unnamed song she has written with Iian Kidron (The Potbelleez) specifically for the event.
The news was announced via tweets from radio station 2Day FM and Jessica herself, giving some detail to her much ballyhooed performance which will mark official acknowledgement of the strong links that now exist between multicultural Australia and the Eurovision Song Contest.
While the Eurovision Song Contest is a wonderful thing in and of itself, having an Aussie, especially someone as talented as Jessica Mauboy there representing Australia, is going that extra special bit of zing and sparkle!
You can catch the full rundown of the announcement at Wiwi Bloggs.
And if you’re desperate for more brilliant articles on Eurovision, make sure you head to SBS’ official Eurovision site where you can read about The Big 5: Blessing or Curse?, Wiwi Bloggs who have a host of great reviews, features and the latest news, and of course the official site at Eurovision.tv
* Yes it’s SEBalter in the shower singing the Muppets classic song “Manamana” with just the right amount of silliness and gusto …