Eurovision Semi-Final 1 – Review

I’m currently sitting in a very pleasant hotel room in Bratislava, Slovakia, having got in at 2am last night from watching the first semi-final of the Eurovision live in Vienna. I’ve also been catching up some of the highlights on YouTube, because from past experience some acts comes across differently on TV to watching them in the flesh. Time for me to post some thoughts on last night’s show.

Moldova: This was a deserved non-qualifier for the final. Given all the allegations of vote-rigging in the national selections, it’s debatable whether it was a deserved entrant in the first place. Just a sub-Vanilla Ice douchebag with more sim cards than talent or originality. He might as well have packed his flight bag as soon as he got offstage.

Armenia: The chorus line, “don’t deny” is a thinly-veiled reference to the Armenian Holocaust by Turkey at the beginning of the 20th Century. They had to change the title to Face the Shadow because certain countries (mainly Turkish ally Azerbaijan) objected to the political content. God, isn’t it depressing that “don’t deny a genocide” is considered a controversial point in some quarters? There were some fears that having 6 singers with different vocal styles would lead to an unfortunate clash in the performance. That really didn’t seem to be a problem on the night. A deserved qualifier.

Belgium: I’m not normally a fan of rap, but this was an early favourite of mine. The slightly art-house dancers really seemed to go well with the song. Belgium doesn’t often qualify, but this is one that may well end on the final scoreboard higher than expected.

Netherlands: By contrast, Belgium’s neighbours flopped last night after a very successful couple of years. The verse starts out well, before the chorus just irritates with it’s Y-I-I-I vocals. Also, is it particularly dignified for a 42 year old woman to be singing about wanting someone to be more than friends? Between the lyrics, her pantsuit and facial expressions, the overall impact was, “needy middle-aged spinster with too many cats.” No wonder he wasn’t interested.

Finland: They didn’t qualify, but they notched up three milestones in the contest. First punk band, first act with learning disabilities and shortest ever entry. I suspected it was something that would either do really well or really badly, and in the end it was the latter. Even so, I’m giving respect to those Finnish punkas.

Estonia: As with Belgium, I had this as a favourite since it was first selected. The moody, Roy Orbison-esque guitar work nicely complements the very different emotions of the duetting singers narrating a messy break-up. Interestingly, the staging changed the dynamic between them. In the video he seemed tortured by guilt at leaving, her desperately needy and clingy. By contrast the onstage lighting (depicting them entering and exiting through doors) made her the more dominant figure, sternly demanding a proper answer rather than his defensive self-justification. Currently Italy, Russia and Sweden are the favourites to win but this might – just might – be a stalking horse in the contest.

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – An undeserved non-qualifier in my opinion. Sadly there are some countries (Sweden, Russia etc) who could squat down, curl out a turd onstage and still qualify. Then there are others who could do something great and still be going home after the semis. Macedonia are in the latter category, and this was a strong song. And yes, that was Blackstreet providing the backing vocals. Sadly Europe gave them no diggity.

Serbia – A fan favourite (or “fanwank”, as such entries are charmingly known among the hardcore followers of the contest). It’s not a personal favourite, but it has a certain charm as an ode to body diversity. It was originally performed in Serbian at their national selections, and I have to say I liked it better in its original language. Some languages just seem to lend themselves well to music and Serbian is one (Icelandic is another, which makes it a shame Iceland usually perform in English). They qualified, which will please the fanbase.

Hungary – Oh dear God. An anthem giving the stunning revelation that war is, on reflection, A Bad Thing. Rather like last year’s Hungarian entry that told us child abuse is A Bad Thing. Clearly Hungary is on a mission to tell us that things we already knew are Bad Things are, yes indeed, Bad Things. I did notice a rush to the bar during her her act, but she still qualified.

Belarus – This was moderately enjoyable, but really didn’t do enough to stand out, especially in a semi-final with so many stunning visual effects. It didn’t qualify, and I wasn’t surprised at that.

Russia – my friend Eurovicious called this a, ‘slick piece of fascist art, a banal “together we are one” squirt of musical whitening-toothpaste that’s exactly what Nazi Germany would send to Eurovision if it still existed’. I think he’s nailed it just right there. Yes, I know that Polina Gagarina isn’t personally responsible for the foreign policy of Vladimir Putin, but context is everything. Russia sending a peace anthem while invading its neighbours and oppressing LGBT communities just seems deeply inappropriate. Last year Russia was booed by the audience, but clearly there’s some short memories at work, given the level of vigorous fanwanking. Rewatching it on YouTube, I was struck by how weak the vocals seemed.

Denmark – I grew up listening to and loving indie, and all I could think while watching this was, “boring indie band”. Rather like a less-challenging McFly. Denmark are usually a more-or-less automatic qualifier, but this year they didn’t, and rightly so.

Albania – Why did this qualify? It couldn’t have been more of an off-the-shelf ballad if they’d picked it up in Tesco’s. I still can’t remember a thing about it.

Romania – This to me is the most underrated song in the contest. A deeply heartfelt ode to the emotional cost to families of EU migration. Unlike Hungary’s War Is Bad song, this one actually had something to say. A deserved qualifier.

Georgia – She seemed to have some difficulty synching with whoever was (presumably) ghost-singing somewhere out of camera-shot, but it didn’t stop her qualifying – probably because Georgia absolutely knocked it out of the park with the visual staging. As with Belgium, this may score better than expected on Saturday.

Overall, my thoughts were that a lot of countries have really upped the ante when it comes to visual effects. Usually you know what to expect – a pyrotechnic rain here, some flames there, and oh look, there’s confetti coming from the ceiling. Apart from the Moldovan act, who wouldn’t know originality if it slapped him in his smug face, there was none of that. Estonia, Belgium and Georgia particularly stood out visually. That may turn into a problem for Sweden, who are a contest favourite almost exclusively due to their onstage light show.

I was also taken by how small the venue was this year. Much smaller than when I previously attended in Malmo in 2013, and that was considered a downsize at the time. I think it really worked though – it made such huge event feel a bit more personal.

I’ll be watching the jury show  for Semi-Final 2 tonight, then watching it on TV from Bratislava on Thursday. If you want to hear my thoughts as it’s broadcast then catch up with me on Twitter at @thus_spake_z. Or, if you don’t, then…well, don’t.

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