Road to Eurovision 2021: Week 5 – North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia

(image courtesy Eurovision.tv)

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.

NORTH MACEDONIA: “Here I Stand” by Vasil

(via Shutterstock)

THE ARTIST
Vasil Garvanliev has been busy; I mean, really REALLY busy.

And from an early age too, kicking off his frenetic and accomplished music career at the tender age of 7, performing at myriad children’s musical festivals in his home country before the family moved to USA where he was a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir before going on to study at Academia Liricia Italiana in Milan, the University of Toronto Opera School and the Royal Conservatory of Music Glenn Gould in Toronto.

So a chronic academic under-achiever then too into the bargain?

If that wasn’t enough, and it would be for mere mortals, Vasil as is known professionally, has performed in over 50 operatic roles as well as launching a successful pop career in North Macedonia which he returned to 2018.

Adding representing his homeland to his considerable list of achievements then seems like a no-brainer (though he is yet to be confirmed for 2021).

Vasil (image courtesy eurovision.tv (c) Martin Trajanovski)

THE SONG
The cancellation of Eurovision 2020 was devastating for a lot of people but most especially for the artists who had been selected to represent their country and feared their one shot at pan-European musical glory had bene snatched from them.

One of those artists was North Macedonia’s Vasil, who explains in a highly emotive moment at the start of the video for his 2021 entry song “Here I Stand” that he channelled his crushing disappointment at missing out on Eurovision 2020 into the track which bears all the pain and loss that he admits he felt at that moment.

There’s no denying that “Here I Stand” is an intensely emotional song and you can hear every last bit of his great sadness in every beautifully sung lyric and every perfectly struck note; this is a song that is meant to make you FEEL something, much like Austria’s Conchita Wurst who had a dazzlingly emotive statement with “Rise Like a Phoenix” back in 2014.

However, while it is undeniably gorgeous and will likely make a grand final worthy statement when it’s performed live on stage, there’s something a little too contrived and Disney-esque about the song which hits all the right buttons but doesn’t quite stir you like it should.

NORWAY: “Fallen Angel” by TIX

(via Shutterstock)

THE ARTIST
We are assured by the good people at Eurovision that TIX (Andreas Andresen Haukeland), who looks for all the world like a refugee from an ’80s glam rock band who dallied with ’90s rock in his spare time, “is one of Norway’s most popular artists.”

A man who believes dinosaur eggs came before the proverbial chicken or egg and whose favourite films are 2012’s 21 Jump STreet and 2009’s Hannah Montana: The Movie, musician, record producer and songwriter TIX first made a name for himself in 2015 with “Sjeiken 2015” (a collaboration with The Pøssy Project which is a collective of songwriters of which TIX is the only non-anonymous member) which became the anthem for all the high schoolers graudating that year.

That’s quite the seizure of the zeitgeist, but more importantly than his musical succcess which includes producing songs for the likes of Flo Rida and Ava Max and a #2 position for his 2016 debut album, Dømt og berømt, is his mental health advocacy which stems from having Tourette syndrome.

Successful musically and in social spaces, can his win of the Norwegian Eurovision selection process Melodi Grand Prix 2021 with the song “Fallen Angel” see him another achievement to his growing list of accomplishments?

TIX (image courtesy eurovision.tv (c) NRK / Julia Marie Nagelstad)

THE SONG
Sporting a decidedly ’80s “Say Anything” vibe, “Fallen Angel” is a cheesily heartfelt romantic declaration to a lover he considers far too good for him.

As big declarations go, it’s BIG but perhaps a little too BIG, with allusions to reaching up to heaven and allusions to pick-up lines about God’s home missing one of his angels rendering the song some sort of cliched musical relic that’s all heart but no great musical statement.

The staging is all massive obvious statements too and while there’s no doubt TIX is loved by many and capable of making quite the impression at Eurovision, this is not the song to do it with.

One good thing at least is that TIX conjures up the Eurovision cheesiness of old, long discarded by almost all artists but still quite beloved by many contest diehards who lament the increasing mainstream readiness of modern artists – this, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that many past contestants were highly successful pop-charting artists and that any quirky sentimentality ascribed these people is the result of comparison to modern musical trends and not artistic deficiencies on their part – and his overt staging and throwback song may yet find a home with nostalgists eager for days gone by.

POLAND: “The Ride” by RAFAŁ

(via Shutterstock)


THE ARTIST
Poland, like at least a third of this year’s entrant countries, decided to move on from last year’s choice (in their case Alicja with the song “Empires”) and pick someone entirely entirely new.

That someone is RAFAŁ, a Polish singer and television presenter who brought shiny white teeth and a stellar voice to the first season of The Voice Poland in the decade-ago days of 2011.

With a slew of albums to his credit, including his debut Tak blisko, and co-hosting of the 2020 Junior Eurovision Song Contest (and Poland’s version of Wheel of Fortune) to his credit, RAFAŁ clearly a creative streak a mile wide to draw upon.

But wait, that’s not all! For RAFAŁ is also heavily into sports and aviation with his Eurovision bio noting that he “won a bronze medal for his wrestling in the Academic Championships of Poland, and is currently working on upgrading his private pilot licence to an aerobatic licence.”

So is this anything this multi-talented man cannot do?

RAFAŁ (image courtesy eurovision.tv (c) TVP)

THE SONG
Possibly winning Eurovision 2021?

Don’t get me wrong – “The Ride” is a vibrantly alive slice of ’80s pop that’s all shining neon, intensely emotive lyrics and vocals and atmospheric tour de force that somehow manages to transcend its derivative roots and emerge as a vivaciously fun piece of upbeat music.

That said it also feels very much like yesterday’s song, and while it could very well get Poland to the grand final, it’s hardly going to see the stage or Eurovision alive and will likely be forgotten not that long after its final note has sounded.

It’s a pity really because any man who can wear sunglasses like RAFAŁ does and still end up looking somewhat cool determines to find success; just not with this song, alas …


PORTUGAL: “Love is on My Side” by Black Mamba

(via Shutterstock)

THE ARTIST
If you’re a skilled music artist, dedicated to exploring all kinds of creative possibilities, then surely there can be nothing more exciting than to be described in your official Eurovision bio as encompassing “a universe of different styles, including blues, soul and funk”.

The Black Mamba, who spend their time at fun fairs at the bar and who are rather in love, by their own admission, with the music of the ’70s, have been described thus, with their first album, The Black Mamba, released in 2010, garnering them almost instant success, with gigs everywhere from the USA to Brazil (back in those halcyon days where you could just flit around the world).

The stage is the bands natural home by all accounts and it’s seen them at a raft of festivals including the Festival Marés Vivas in Porto, where they were on the same illustrious bill as Lenny Kravitz, John Legend, Jamie Cullum and The Script.

That’s some pretty cool company with more yet to come as the band, who quite rightly believe you should only wear a pair of socks for one day, represent Portugal at this year’s contest in Rotterdam.

The Black Mamba (image courtesy eurovision.tv (c) Arlindo Camacho)

THE SONG
And quite happily, they will not embarrass themselves with a song that oozes style, emotion and some biographically honest lyrics.

There’s almost a musicals high point to “Love is On My Side” which is bleakly honest about life’s travails and struggles but which remains resolutely, if guardedly honest.

With achingly poignant vocals and a whimsically melancholic feel that marries beautifully with the song’s more optimistic elements, this is one of those songs that has the power to stop the audience in their tracks and really make them pay attention.

Portugal is in with a real chance with this wholly affecting, beautifully moving song that will no doubt leave quite the impression and ensure The Black Mamba will have a few more high profile gigs in their future.

ROMANIA: “Amnesia” by ROXEN

(via Shutterstock)

THE ARTIST
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.

ROXEN (image courtesy eurovision.tv (c) Bogdan Petrice)

THE SONG
One of the returnees from the blighted class of 2020, ROXEN delivers up another emotionally rich and authentic song in “Amnesia” which gives voice to the maelstrom that struck her after the cancellation of the 2020 event (much like North Macedonia’s Vasil above).

“The last year was a bit of a rollercoaster, filled with really good moments and some low points also. In the end, what kept me going the most was that I had some really great projects. ‘Amnesia’ somehow manages to give a voice to all repressed feelings and to the people whose voices haven’t been heard, in a way that for me is incredibly pure.” (Eurovision.tv)

The song is sung with the kind of passionate intensity that suggests someone who has drawn deep on personal experience, with the perfect marriage of lyrics and music and it’s this ring of emotional truthfulness that will likely amplify the song’s impact on Eurovision’s audiences.

After all, while people do and will fall for a big flashy show, far more potent are songs borne and sung from lived experience, something that “Amnesia” has in such sufficient quantities that it will be highly surprising if this doesn’t send Romania straight into the grand final with a deeply heartfelt bullet.

RUSSIA: “Russian Woman” by Manizha

(image via Shutterstock)

THE ARTIST
Hailing from Tajikistan, Manizha is one of those artists who comes with a fully-formed and arrestingly original persona, one so memorable it’s impossible, and frankly, why would you want to, to forget her once you’ve come across her.

This year’s entrant for Russia, Manizha is a multi-talented person who, according to her Eurovision bio, can do pretty much everything.

“[She] not only writes her own music and lyrics, she also films, directs and edits her videos, creates her own visual content and commands her own collaborations.” (Eurovision.tv)

Kicking off her career in 2003 at tender age of 11-12, Manizha made the most of the family’s move to Moscow by studying piano at music school and working with private vocal coaches, before she went on to study psychology at the Russian State University for the Humanities.

So she can only charm you with some energetically cool music but cure what mentally ails you.

And with the world still in the grip a pandemic, Eurovision can likely do with someone like Manizha.

Manizha (mage courtesy eurovision.tv (c) Egor Shabanov)

THE SONG
As an artist who “”bakes in strong social messaging about self love and body positivity; women’s and children’s rights; as well as national, cultural and sexual identity; and above all else, tolerance”, Manizha has a lot more going that just a hypnotically compelling beat.

Her song, “Russian Woman” mixes some modern rap, delivered in a variety of languages including her native Tajik, and one of the most infectious and insistent of beats in this year’s contest, to serve up some captivatingly good empowerment talk to women everywhere.

“But what’s the wait?
Stand up, let’s go!
Every Russian Woman
Needs to know
You’re strong enough to bounce against the wall.”

The song is the perfect embodiment of a recurrent message from the artist who is “a UN Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and actively participates in many of the projects and activities the program runs in Russia.”

It’s a fantastically catchy song and with her obvious gift for stage artistry and making a real performative presence for herself, Manizha could propel Russia to a rather impressive final placing this year.

EUROVISION 2021 EXTRA EXTRA!

Want to find out more about Iceland’s Daði og Gagnamagnið makes music, and specifically how he created this year’s entry, “Ten Years? Of course you do and the team at the Eurovision Song Contest are here to help with a new series which takes a close look at how various Eurovision 2021 artists make their music …

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One thought on “Road to Eurovision 2021: Week 5 – North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia

  1. Great reviews. I agree that something is missing with Poland, and while I love Norway I share your critical points about it being too much. He also released a lot of background stories to create a narrative that didn’t quite catch on. Yet it’s still in my Top 5 (shows my age lol)
    Not convinced by Russia at all but love Portugal and wish them well – despite two of my favourite songs in this season stayed in the Portuguese final (Contramao and Johana do Mar)
    Love your blog 🙂

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