I listen to all forty-one Eurovision entries so you don’t have to
It’s that time of year again, when baffled Americans watch their European friends flood social media with corny jokes about terrible pop songs and incomprehensible Albanian singers, before gnashing their teeth about countries being robbed of points.
Yes, it’s Europa League football! No, no it’s not. Don’t be silly.
It’s the 🌟🎉🎤💃 EUROVISION SONG CONTEST! 💃🎤🎉🌟
Read last year’s ESC newsletter here:
Social media: on the night, Twitter is the best place for real-time snark, jokes, and outright bewilderment. I’m @AntonyJohnston of course, and I also recommend following my old mucker Al Kennedy @housetoastonish who regularly has me in stitches every year.
WHAT’S THE STORY FOR 2019?
In an event overflowing with clichés, one of the most enduring is that the first batch of Eurovision songs announced are awful, sending contest-lovers into a pit of despair that this year will be the pits. 2019 was no exception, with Albania, Spain, Armenia, the UK, San Marino (oh Christ they’ve dug up Serhat again) and Australia all displaying either a serious lack of taste or a wilful determination not to win.
Mind you, a look at past winners kind of puts the lie to that theory. Anyway.
It took Romania (!) to give us our first entry that felt like it had some teeth to it, with a song that remains my overall favourite for this year. Sub-Bonnie Tyler video aside, it has a whole bunch of things I like, not least that octave drop in the pre-chorus; I don’t think it’s technically also a major-to-minor shift, but it gives the same effect, and — along with its ominous drama, superb arrangement and great sound design — does it for me.
(Song preview images open in YouTube)
Romania: ON A SUNDAY by Ester Peony
Another thing I like about this song is actually something it lacks; a superfluous key change at the final chorus, the musical equivalent of ending a joke with an irrelevant fart gag for a cheap laugh. Almost 20% of the songs in this Year of Unnecessary Key Changes feature, well, an unnecessary key change — including another disappointing entry from Sweden. Are the Eurovision kings losing it? Tune in to find out! etc.
Of course, the other musical cliché you’ll find all over Eurovision...
Estonia: STORM by Victor Crone
...is chord progressions your deaf hamster could predict, best exemplified this year by Estonia’s paint-by-numbers entry.
One thing you won’t find this year is a copycat of last year’s winner. At first glance this is unusual; normally at least half a dozen countries blatantly attempt to cash in on the previous winner’s popularity. This year, not a peep. Was Netta’s song so unique that nobody feels they can imitate it? I mean, that didn’t stop them trying to copy Lordi. I suspect instead that songwriters are finally starting to realise Eurovision taste is a pendulum, and this year’s winner will probably be something conventional, perhaps even quiet, by 2018’s standards.
LITTLE BIT OF POLITICS
Eurovision is never absent politics: this year Ukraine withdrew after they demanded their representative not perform any concerts in Russia. Which was a rather pyrrhic ultimatum, seeing as their national winner — Maruv, with SIREN SONG (BANG!) — is signed to a Russian record label. She said “screw that, I withdraw”… and then so did the second and third place acts. Whoops.
Rather more mundane was Bulgaria’s withdrawal, on the grounds they couldn’t afford it — and not for the first time. A shame, as they’ve had some good entries in recent years, including one of my favourites last year with BONES. Then again, considering Transparency International ranked Bulgaria the #1 Most Corrupt EU Country in 2018 (no, really) perhaps it’s no surprise they sometimes have trouble rustling up the cash.
SO IS IT ALL RUBBISH?
Au contraire. As time went on, decent songs began to flow. Before long Romania was joined by another dozen that won’t make you want to rip your own ears off. Behold:
Malta: CHAMELEON by Michela Pace
The second of my top three for this year. Quirky, catchy, and sonically interesting. Sounds like it was written in the 2010s, which is always a bonus. It also resists the key change, despite ample opportunity. The only knock is that its pre-chorus is almost a note-for-note imitation of last year’s Cypriot entry (I liked FUEGO too, songwriters, but come on).
Switzerland: SHE GOT ME by Luca Hänni
Rounding out my top three, despite the songwriters’ cowardice in not just calling it DIRTY DANCING and hang the consequences. Unspeakably cheesy, but also unspeakably catchy, with some delightful syncopation. If this doesn’t make the final it’s a travesty.
Azerbaijan: TRUTH by Chingiz
I was going to say Azerbaijan isn’t exactly known for hipster groove-pop, but then I remembered their underrated 2017 entry SKELETONS and now I don’t know what to think. Answers on the back of an email, please. It’s the catchy exuberance that puts this one over the top, and the post-chorus tom-roll-into-“oh-oh-oh”-refrain is a real earworm.
(A quick check of the songwriters reveals the team behind this have written at least half a dozen of my favourites entries from the past few years for various countries, so that goes some way toward explaining it...)
Belgium: WAKE UP by Eliot
What is it about Belgium? Almost every song of theirs for the past five years has been one of my top picks. Starting to wonder if I have previously-unknown Flemish roots. Anyway, this is a lovely slice of dramatic electro-emo, with a big chorus and a nice middle eight that drops into the home stretch, but I worry it’ll fall flat live.
Iceland: HATRIÐ MUN SIGRA by Hatari
Hatari is an “industrial art collective”, presumably hastily formed when Iceland drew this year’s Eurovision Rock Band Short Straw. You can’t fault their conviction, though, and I think we can confidently say this is the first Eurovision act who look like they might turn up for a set at Slimelight. Pity about that key change.
Slovenia: SEBI by Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl
Continuing Slovenia’s determined course of at least doing something different. Minimalist mumblecore emo, one of those songs that sounds like it was thrown together in a bedroom with Garageband but probably took three weeks in a fully-kitted studio.
Netherlands: ARCADE by Duncan Laurence
If you ever wondered what it might sound like should the UK send James Blake over for Eurovision, well, you’re my kind of ESC fan. But also, here’s your answer. “Wistful power angst” is absolutely not what I expected from the Netherlands, but here we are, and it’s surprisingly good.
(Also, when exactly did “naked guy underwater in slow motion” become a Eurovision staple?)
Cyprus: REPLAY by Tamta
It’s nothing you haven’t heard before… outside of Eurovision, that is. This kind of unabashed chart-a-like dance pop, at which you wouldn’t blink if it was on the radio, is rarer than it should be at ESC. But this is from the same songwriters behind last year’s FUEGO, so it seems they’re on a (commendable) mission. Bonus points for the line “Heart beats like an 808”.
France: ROI by Bilal Hassani
For yeeeaaaaaars France doggedly sung only in French as a point of pride. It’s the official second language of Eurovision, after all. But also, well, the French. It wasn’t until 2001 (!) they entered a song containing even a smidgen of English, and it took another seven years before they tried it again.
(One of the joys of Eurovision is hearing songs in other languages. But almost every non-Anglophone musician I’ve met prefers writing English lyrics, because of the language's flexibility and ability to be understood despite even the most flagrant breaking of grammatical rules.)
Anyway, in recent years — and having not won since 1977! — they appear to have re-thought, and now almost every song has mixed French verses with English choruses. This year mixes it up even more, and is really good. It’s a potential winner, easily the best from the Big Five. But if you believe Hassani’s claims that it mixes in English purely because that’s how he talks, well, I’ve got un Bateau Mouche to sell you.
(Sudden thought: will Notre Dame sympathy votes be a thing? 🤔)
Italy: SOLDI by Mahmood
Second-best of the Big Five this year, and the only other one worth listening to. Like so many Eurovision entries, though, it only feels three-quarters done. The performance is great, the sound design is excellent… but the song itself is merely good, lacking enough lift to get it over the hump.
Czech Republic: FRIEND OF A FRIEND by Lake Malawi
Basically what Sweden wanted to be in 2018. Something tells me this might fare even better than that entry, too. Joyful, unpretentious, bouncy pop.
Belarus: LIKE IT by Zena
On the one hand, this is an entirely predictable effort for Eurovision; pretty young girl sings an upbeat pop number about how she’s gonna get a man™. There’s absolutely nothing remarkable about it. On the other hand, damn, it’s catchy.
…All of which gives us thirteen decent songs, out of *checks notes* forty-one.
Hmm, maybe this is a pisspoor year after all.
OTHER MADNESS OF NOTE:
Georgia: KEEP ON GOING by Oto Nemsadze
A not-very-good song made infinitely more interesting by the singer’s striking resemblance to fellow Georgian and sumo champion Tochinoshin.
(Coincidentally, the summer basho also began this week in Tokyo. My DVR isn’t going to know what hit it.)
Australia: ZERO GRAVITY by Kate Miller-Heidke
The name may be familiar because Miller-Heidke is a bona fide pop star. I’ve got a couple of her albums, all a sort of quirky, witty pop. This… ain’t it, chief. In previous years it felt like Australia was trying to win (and they should have in 2016). This year, your guess is as good as mine.
Greece: BETTER LOVE by Katerine Duska & Portugal: TELEMÓVEIS by Conan Osíris
These two appear to be locked in a battle for this year’s WTF Crazy Eurovision Video Award. A pity neither song is anywhere near as interesting as its visuals, really.
(Me watching Portugal: Am I having a stroke? Or is he?)
Hungary: AZ ÉN APÁM by Joci Pápai
Pápai’s second appearance at Eurovision, both times singing in Hungarian, which is nothing if not brave given the Anglo-centricity of most performers — and winners. He’s got a beautiful voice, but is once again struggling with an unremarkable song (see also: Serbia’s Nevena Božovic, who probably has the best set of pipes in this year’s contest, but wastes them on a bland power ballad).
United Kingdom: BIGGER THAN US by Michael Rice
Ah, finally, our woeful entry. The video would have you believe otherwise, but this sounds like yet another Oh God We’re So Sorry About Brexit song to me. And frankly, if we weren’t in the Big Five I doubt it would even make the final. Yikes.
FINALLY, THE PREDICTION
Russia: SCREAM by Sergey Lazarev
Lazarev is popular with Eurovision fans; he was the hot favourite for 2016, but was pipped by Australia (who killed it on the night) and, with some irony, a winning entry from Ukraine that might as well have been titled “Russia Is Evil, Ooh Yeah”.
SCREAM is fine, but not that great. What it does, though, is play heavily to Lazarev’s vocal strengths, feature some well-arranged strings, and have lyrics that allow him to project a whole I-return-as-serious-performer vibe. Combined with what I’ve seen so far of the live staging — video-wall trickery like in 2016, but more narrative-focused and effective — and a distinct lack of key changes, I reckon this could bellow its way to the top.
(NB: I have never successfully predicted a winner. Your investment may go down as well as up. Use only as directed by your physician.)
HOW CAN I WATCH EUROVISION?
The semi-finals take place on May 14 & 16. The grand final is on Saturday May 18.
If you’re in a participating country, just switch on the TV. Eurovision entrants, whether members of the European Broadcasting Union or not, must agree to broadcast the show.
If you’re in a non-participating country, check YouTube: Eurovision is livestreamed around the world (albeit without commentary, which is often one of the best bits).
However, watching online may not be possible if a broadcaster in your country has bought the rights, which tends to region-lock streaming — US viewers in particular may find this to be the case, as Logo is once again broadcasting the contest. However, they’re also apparently streaming it on their YouTube channel, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And there’s loads more, if you can stand it, at the official site, where you can also watch/listen to all the entries: