What is the Eurovision Song Contest?
Started way back in 1956 as a way of drawing 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 three-minute 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 one of 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 contest – 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 1988 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 hundreds of millions.
This year’s contest will be held in Tel Aviv, Israel.
ALBANIA: “Ktheju tokës” by Jonida Maliqi
Life is short, death is long and if you’re going to go for Eurovision glory, then best make sure you’re prepared to make the most of it.
Jonida Maliqi has taken that axiom well and truly to heart, spending her 36 highly-productive years on this earth establishing herself as a singer, media personality, TV host, style icon and philanthropist.
All of which means that she could perform in, host, and plot and plan every last detail of her Eurovision performance, and still have the ability and time to give away cars, Oprah-like, to the entire audience.
That likely won’t happen – sorry, Tel Aviv! – but the graduate of the University of Arts in Tirana and student of the guitar and violin, and winner of six awards at Kënga Magjike, Albania’s premier televised music festival, looks well and truly well ready to bestride the stage at Eurovision, and introduce herself with polished patter into the bargain.
But what of the song you ask? Is it ready to ready to make its mark, like the singer that will wield it?
It’s not grand final-winning material, nor possibly the kind of track that will even elevate Albania into the grand final in the first place, but by god, it’s a wholly-interesting piece of music.
Redolent with emotion, muscularly-ethereal with an alluring melody and Maliqi’s vocals which match its mood and tone perfectly, it’s the kind of sing that will, if nothing else, and with some damn good staging (c’mon Jonida, your 435,000 Instagram followers are expecting big things!), provide one of the standout moments of the event.
This is the kind of song for which Eurovision was meant, and it’s an immersive experience that will definitely make its mark, even if it won’t mean Maliqi can add Eurovision winner to her ridiculously-impressive list of life achievements.
ARMENIA: “Walking Out” by Srbuk
Christened by her no doubt doting parents as Srbuhi Sargsyan, Srbuk is another singer/songwriter/recording artist who owes her career to making a big splash on a TV talent show.
In her case, X-Factor Armenia in 2011 where she took the runner-up spot, unleashing her pop-soul singing upon the country which embraced her and her penchant for American songbook standards, jazz, soul, R&B and contemporary pop with enthusiasm.
Subscribing to the adage that if it worked once, it can work again, Srbuk took part in The Voice Ukraine in 2018, placing fourth, cementing her position as one of Armenia’s most popular performers, festival and TV program, an artist who, according to her Eurovision bio, lists her influences as ranging “from legendary and classic vocalists such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Ella Fitzgerald, to the soul and R&B influences of artists and performers like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Michael Jackson.”
That’s a pretty head mix that has likely prepared her well for the musical melting pot of Eurovision where, let’s be honest, pretty much anything is possible.
And thank god for that because Srbuk delivers one of the noteworthy songs of this year’s competition.
Anchored by an emotive, fiery, strong voice that nails every lyrical touchpoint, “Walking Out” has power, passion and a presence that should ensure it doesn’t go unnoticed.
Throw in the right presentation, which seems to involve a beguiling mix of shirtless, suited clones, wedding dresses and BDSM outfits – so Eurovision BAU then – and the song could really soar.
Look for it to definitely send Armenia into the grand final and who knows, take out the big prize itself; at this stage, it’s not favoured to but it has the potential and doesn’t Srbuk deserved a win after all those near-misses?
AUSTRIA: “No Limits” by PÆNDA
It has oft been said, mostly in these Eurovision reviews (OK pretty much entirely), that you have to start young if you want to make it big at the contest.
Gabriela Horn, who goes by the very hip stage name of PÆNDA, kicked off her musical career nice and early, singing in her hometown choir of Deutschlandsberg, Styria from the age of six, graduating to writing for and performing in pop rock bands from 14, and putting her guitar and piano lessons to good use at the Vienna Music Institute at age 20.
Not only has it meant she is good and ready for her moment in the Eurovision sun, but that she has what it takes to sustain a highly-successful electronic, hip-hop, pop and techno career, but also how to practise much-need self-care, the thematic basis for her latest album Evolution II, and, rather handily, her song “Limits”, which, like all her songs she wrote herself and which carries a great deal of personal meaning:
“Being aware of the moments where I needed a break was a process for me. It was a long and at times difficult road to learning my own limits.” (Eurovision.tv)
Explaining her creative process to Eurovision, she had this to say about the way she decide if the song she has written has what it takes:
“My sister is a good indicator: If she doesn’t sing or hum the hook line right after I played her a new song, I know that the melody isn’t powerful enough.” (Eurovision.tv)
You can only assume her sister had nipped out to the toilet for “Limits” which is a perfectly-lovely ballad with a bridge that lifts the song a little before letting it slide down into its ultimately-forgettable mid-tempo groove.
Unfortunately for all its loveliness, it never really gets up a head of steam, melodically or lyrically, and leaves no real trace once its run its uneventful, perfectly-serviceable course.
Sitting smack bang in the middle of the road, and gorgeously-average, this is one song that will likely pass unremarked, leaving Austria, I suspect, out of the grand final, unless PÆNDA nails a truly superlative live performance.
AZERBAIJAN: “Truth” by Chingiz
You may not think that moving to Qazax, a small town of 20,000 people in the heart of Azerbaijan from Moscow at the age of six – presumably with his family, but if not, go Chingiz, you super-game kindergartner you! – would be the start of a stellar musical career, but so it has proved for Azaerbaijan’s representation at Eurovision this year.
Starting, as some many Eurovision performers do, writing songs on his guitar when he was still a kid, Chingiz moved again at 13 to Baku whith his mother and brother where he ended up, as child prodigies seem wont do, on a TV music talent show.
Pop Idol, which he won handsomely in more ways than one, the darling of viewers and juries alike, catapulted the man who loves outdoor meditation, hiking and the company of his dog, to the music firmament of Azerbaijan from which he is yet, if ever, to fall.
This is no doubt why Chingiz, who doesn’t always mind a spot of yoga though I’m guessing, not mid-performance, has been chosen as the country’s representative in this year’s contest.
One listen to “Truth” and you can see why he got the gig.
Not only is the song a tasty piece of sparkling, upbeat pop that is going to have the audience up on their feet and dancing up a storm, but Chingiz has the voice and performance chops to make the most of it.
Objectively, the song is a piece of cookie-cutter, almost boy band pop, but Chingiz elevates and lifts it, helped along by some interesting production flourishes, musically and vocally, and lyrics that brook no interference or opposition, injecting the song with some pleasingly-ballsy attitude.
“Truth” will send Azerbaijan into the grand final yet again, where it no doubt place very highly indeed … now just shut about it already will you?
CROATIA: “The Dream” by Roko
Roko, who was born and graduated from school in Split, Croatia, is yet another semi final 2 artist who decided at a very young age that you artistically snooze and you lose.
He began singing and playing the piano at the tender age of 7, eschewing sandpits and crayon colouring in for the kinds of activities that would see him become the darling of national and international music festivals, and yes, for so it has been ordained for musical prodigies and thus shall it always be, music TV talent shows such as Croatia’s Got Talent, for which he was the runner-up in 2011.
As luck or fate would have it, his mentor on the show was one Jacques Houdek who represented Croatia at Eurovision in 2017 with “The Dream” and who has no doubt prepared his pupil well for the glittery road ahead, which Roko, naturally, sees as a dream come true.
Alas, given his penchant for extreme rhyming, the dream may not come to much for a white leather-clad Roko who seems to have decided to have decided to write the quintessential Eurovision song.
Talking of angels and love, and quite a lot in fact with the chorus pretty much infested with it to the extent that you feel the need to lay down some love roach traps, “The Entry” channels angst, some Croatian interludes and the kind of passion that has been witnessed on many a Eurovision stage down through the years.
The one saving grace, if you survive the saturation-rhyming of the chorus and The Neverending Story-era synth work, is Roko’s voice which has emotion to spare.
It’s a mighty powerful instrument that rises to the challenge beautifully; unfortunately the song for which it is giving so much just doesn’t have what it takes to really fly, although it should, at least, get Croatia (possibly but don’t count on it) into the grand final.
DENMARK: “Love is Forever” by Leonora
No one actually says this, more’s the pity really, but there should be adage that says “Never put all your talents in one basket”.
Why is that, you ask? Why, because if it existed, and again it should, Leonora would be it living, breathing embodiment.
A successful figure skater who has represented Denmark at Junior World Championship and Nordic Championships, and who has won the Danish Championships three times, Leonora also plays guitar, sings and write songs.
But that’s not all! In her song, “Love is Forever”, she sings in Danish, French, English and German, emphasising the fact that love crosses national boundaries and is, naturally enough, for everyone.
Message aside though, and who’s going to quibble with such a noble sentiment, is the song any good otherwise?
I’m not entirely sure it does.
It’s lovely, sweet and charming, a light-as-air confection that puts a smile on your face and makes you wish you were in one of those Disney musical montages where everyone is falling in love and everything is right with the world.
So, in that respect, it’s real delight that ticks all the right Eurovision boxes; however, for all its quirky wonderfulness, and I genuinely like the song and Leonora’s playful delivery and expect it to do well enough to possibly get Denmark into the grand final, I’m not sure it has the grunt needed to make much of a major splash.
In in other words, it may get Denmark into the grand final but don’t expect it to place too highly; then again, if Europe’s in a whimsical frame of mind, who knows?
EUROVISION EXTRA EXTRA!
One fun part of the lead-up to Eurovision are the pre-parties which take a select group of artists to cities in abig promotional effort to spread the contest love. The latest one was held in London on 14 April where 18 participating countries and five special guests performed at Café de Paris, with all of documented for those of who couldn’t be there …