This is normally how I begin these review posts …
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.
But of course, with the Eurovision Song Contest 2020 cancelled, like so many other things this year, by the viral threat of COVID-19, no one will be singing their songs all together in front of a huge crowd in host city Rotterdam, and we will have to make to do with weekly Eurovision Home Concerts and a recently announced replacement for the grand final show Eurovision: Europe Shine a Light which will “honour the 41 selected songs for Eurovision 2020 in a non-competitive format.”
The decision to cancel the show is sad but makes perfect sense in the current situation; still, it begs the question, is there any point reviewing the already released songs for this year’s contest?
I decided “YES”, partly as a way of giving the songs and their artists their due and their moment in the Eurovision – many of the singers will be back next year but not the songs with rules prohibiting the same song being submitted again by a country – but also to keep alive that sense of Eurovision fun and artistry which for many of us makes this time of the year so very special.
So grab your glitter, fire ip the wind machine, gather together your appreciative hosting superlatives and enjoy these song reviews, the first of seven such posts, which are written as if the contest was still happening.
ROMANIA: “Alcohol You” by ROXEN
You know that Romania’s representative to Eurovision 2020 means business because her entire stage name is capitalised. ALL OF IT.
ROXEN, whose driver’s license bears the far more prosaic and mostly lower case name Larisa Roxana Giurgiu, has been singing since she was seven years old, taking vocal and dancing lessons to make sure she could deliver on her dreams of musical fame.
But as her Eurovision bio makes clear, her desire to be creative might have led to the stage but it encompassed a whole lot of other pursuits along the way.
“In her childhood, Roxen was fascinated by the artistic fields: writing and publishing books, singing at school festivals, acting and filming theatre plays. She has always felt like she belonged on stage.”
All that dreaming and planning and skill-sharpening paid off big-time when ROXEN (still with the caps!) was featured on Romanian producer Sickotoy’s 2019 song “You Don’t Love Me”, an attention-grabbing moment that led to a chart-topping debut single “Ce-ți cântă dragostea”.
And now, of course, the honour of being Romania’s anointed for Europe’s leading song competition.
The song chosen to give this honour the appropriate musical grunt is “Alcohol You”, a song by Ionuţ Armaş, Breyan Isaac and Viky Red, which turns everyone’s favourite range of escapist beverages into a verb.
Nothing wrong with that – English language purists please keep your social isolationist distance, please and hush now – especially with a song that is overflowing with emotional angst of the highest order.
The song is a ballad with verve, addressing the pain and complications of love which is never quite the fairytale we, or ROXEN, envisages.
It’s a captivating, resonant song that feels full of sadness and loss and yet achingly, movingly beautiful to the point where listing to it feels therapeutic.
“Alcohol You” is likely not the song to propel Romania to a winning position but it will definitely place in the grand final, a likelihood that will be bolstered by a killer live performance.
RUSSIA: “Uno” by Little Big
Quirk, thy name is Little Big, a punk-pop-rave band (they appear to want all the related genres in one heady, hyphenated grouping) from St. Petersburg.
Some may say that makes them perfect for Eurovision but the band, comprising Ilya “Ilich” Prusikin, Sergey Gokk Makarov, Sonya Tayurskaya, and Anton Boo Lissov, backs their fun stage presence with songs that have heft and an infectious catchiness, making them the totally performance package.
Clearly people throughout Russia and the world agree with the band accruing a mass of accolades from 1 billion views of their 20-plus videos on YouTube, a viral hit with their song “Skibidi” which unleashed the #SkibidiChallenge, undertaken by many famous TV stars, popular artists and influencers and awards aplenty at international shows like the Berlin Music Awards and Global Film Festival Awards.
Having toured Europe, Russia and North America, the band are well-loved and well-known but will that be enough to get them across the grand final finish line?
It depends on how quirky you like your quirky.
“Uno” is a vivaciously jaunty piece of fun, tinny-beat heavy electronica that, quite apart from the merging of all kinds of weird cultural appropriation and ’70s throwback fashions, is all kinds of dancey horniness.
Yes, you heard right – Little Big want you to get ready for “some action now” and spend the chorus counting down to it (“Uno / Dos / Cuatro /Uno uno”) so, rather helpfully, you’re not surprised when it arrives.
As sheer energetic silliness go, the song is as Aqua as you want them to be and while it will likely go down a treat with the camp-loving in-stadium audiences, it’s hard to say how well this will play with more mainstream Eurovision voters at home.
Still, Little Big has won hearts before, so whose to say they won’t do it all over again?
SLOVENIA: “Voda” by Ana Soklič
We are assured that Ana Soklič started her singing career “early”.
Quite how early isn’t clear but given Eurovision’s embrace of performers who appeared to start singing and dancing lessons mere hours after exiting the womb, and likely before so dedicated are they to their craft, we can assume she was a young girl when the whirligig of creative pursuits kicked off in earnest.
How earnest you might ask? This excerpt from the bio for Slovenia’s entry should make it clear the artist was leaving nothing to chance.
“… she studied with Alenka Dernač Bunta, a solo opera teacher, the acclaimed Slovenian musician Darja Švajger (two-time Slovenian representative at the Eurovision Song Contest) and singing coach Nataša Nahtigal. In 2018, Ana undertook further vocal training with Dileesa Archer (a professional in soul, gospel, R&B) in the United States.”
Throw in songwriting, performances around the world at events like the Veneto Jazz Festival in Venice (2014) and collaborations with RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra and other smaller ensembles and it’s clear that Soklič has some serious cred when it comes to jazz, soul and blues.
It shows with “Voda”, a ballad that Soklič delivers with some seriously evocative intent.
Written by the artist herself, it’s the sort of song that is deceptively inert at first, its verses soft and laidback to the point where you wonder if things are going to ever heat up in any appreciable fashion.
They do in the pleasingly bombastic chorus where Soklič’s voice soars with magnificent beauty, a striking uptick in proceedings that could, if delivered with real chutzpah live, give us another Conchita Wurst moment, at least in part.
But lovely though the song is, and undeniable as Soklič’s talent may be, this is not the song to deliver Eurovision to Slovenia, possessing neither the vivacity nor the emotional impact to really make its presence felt.
SWEDEN: “Move” by The Mamas
What does Eurovision, which has everything to be fair, need more of in this sad and virus-addled world?
Why soul and gospel of course and Swedish-American soul and gospel group, The Mamas (Ash Haynes, Loulou Lamotte & Dinah Yonas Manna), winners of this year’s national Eurovision selection context in Sweden, Melodifestivalen, are clearly the people to deliver it.
They are without some experience in the contest having backed last year’s entrant for Sweden John Lundvik, helping to take him and the country to a top 5 finish in the grand final.
Now they’re back on their own terms, with their Eurovision bio enthusiastically declaring that the now-threesome (founding member Paris Renata left in 2019) “are set to take Sweden and the Nordic countries by storm.
There’s every reason to believe they have it in them to do just that.
“Move” is all fabulously catchy rhythm and emotional resonance, a song that runs and soars on the strength of a building melody, bravura vocal performances and a sheer heady sense of exuberant fun.
While it doesn’t build up quite the head of steam to make it really stand out, it is a class act, and it’s near impossible not to be swept up in the gorgeous harmonies and buoyancy of spirit that infuses the song, lyrically and melodically.
“Move” is the ultimate feel-good Eurovision experience, a song that will have the audience on their feet right about the time the bridge kicks into gloriously happy high gear and stays the course, channelling all the bonhomie you can want and then some.
UKRAINE: “Solovey” by Go_A
If there’s one thing that Eurovision excels at in the best possible way, it is delivering up truly distinctive artistic voices that dazzle and impress simply because they have an unmissable spark of originality that is evident in everything from the song they sing to they imaginative way they perform it.
Ukraine’s Go_A (Kateryna Pavlenko, Ihor Didenchuk, Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Hryhoriak) fits that mold to a tee, packaging up Ukrainian folklore in hypnotically mesmerising electronica that sounds like nothing you have ever heard before mixed in with some very contemporary and highly repeat-listenable pop.
Founded in 2011 by Shevchenko, the band began making music in earnest in 2012, choosing their name, not from the city in India, which admittedly would have been the perfect quirky, left-of-centre choice, but from a combination of the English word “Go” with the Greek letter “Alpha”.
The band shot to prominence three years in 2015 with “Vesnianka” (Веснянка) not only holding the #1 position on radio station’s Kiss FM’s dance charts for six weeks but being given the heady prize of The Best Track in Ukraine 2015.
That’s impressive stuff but can they go one better in Rotterdam this year? (Ukraine has confirmed the band will represent them in 2021.)
On sheer haunting melodic brilliance alone, hells yeah.
“Solovey” is a goosebump-inducing hauntingly atmospheric banger of a song that kicks off ethereally before throwing in some compulsive beats, all of it riding on powerful, arrestingly distinct vocals that bring the song of female empowerment to life as the band’s Eurovision bio explains.
“The song is based on Kateryna’s personal story about a strong girl who falls in love and realizes that she is no longer taken seriously. Her power helps her turn the tables and handle the situation with dignity.”
“Solovey” is also the first song entered by Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest sung entirely in Ukrainian which is reason enough to celebrate a wholly brilliant one-of-a-kind entry.
You can only hope Europe will reward deftly, evocatively delivered distinctive uniqueness because if a song deserves some enthusiastic loving, it’s this piece of exuberantly different pop.
And with that last song, semi final 1 is done and dusted, reviewing-wise at least. Here’s my top ten picks …