Saturday, 10 May 2014

Popheaval goes Eurovision: Grand Final

Ahhh this is so exciting! Now we've got the first and the second semi-finals behind us which means it's time for the Grand Final! As you might now, the so-called Big Five (France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK) qualifies automatically as does the winner of the previous contest (Denmark), and now, thanks to the semi-finals, we've got the rest of the finalists figured out as well. Some were foreseeable, some came as big surprises but hey, that's Eurovision for ya.

We have two first-time finalists this year: Montenegro and San Marino made it to the final for the first time since their respective debuts in 2007 and 2008 - congratulations! (In other news, is it just me or have the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Romanian ESC fans been disproportionately ubiquitous and all over the place this year, filling all the freaking comment sections with their spamming? It is highly irritating. If the Eurovision site posts a video or a photo of some specific entry, you don't want 80% of the comments to be people just spamming about their own countries, do you. That's not the way that it should be. Rant over.) Without further ado, let's sink our teeth into the 26 entries that have qualified!

1. Mariya Yaremchuk - Tick Tock (Ukraine)

Ukraine is one of those countries that are almost inevitably in the final and there in the top 10. This year they've also had the sympathy vote on their side due to their political situation. At least they were placed the first in the running order so the organisers can't be blamed for favouring them (the first place is a dreaded performance slot). Politics and voting behaviour aside, "Tick Tock" is a moderately catchy ESC pop song (albeit a somewhat average one) so it's likely to do pretty well. It's always a double-edged sword to bring an attention-stealing backup dancer or a circus acrobat or a sand artist or whatever onstage since the focus won't necessarily be on the song itself but hey, how often do you get to see a man in a human-sized hamster wheel? Not that often. (Or I mean, I don't know about the kinds of parties you go to but...) Fortunately, the singer does incorporate the guy into her performance so he doesn't feel entirely detached like they often do. In brief: not bad. A very probable top 10 finalist.

2. Teo - Cheesecake (Belarus)

Teo's "Cheesecake" is about as cheesy as they come (pun very much intended) but the beat is infectious. The live performance isn't as blatantly Robin Thicke as the music video, either, so it's an improvement I suppose. I'm not the biggest fan of this particular song but it does bring some diversity to this year's pop entries so, well, live and let live. The ending is kinda ridiculous but then again, what is Eurovision without camp?

3. Dilara Kazimova - Start A Fire (Azerbaijan)

Out of the slower songs, Azerbaijan's mellow jazz number "Start A Fire" is easily one of the best ones. It sounds cinematic and soothing. When listened to in its studio version, that is. It was a bit of a disappointment in the semi-final for me as it failed to rise to the similar heights when performed live. Kazimova's voice sounded nervous and tense which is a shame. I sincerely hope she'll be more confident and natural in the Grand Final as the song is so beautiful otherwise.

4. Pollapönk - No Prejudice (Iceland)

Iceland's qualification was quite the astonishment for many, not least for me, but I for one was pleasantly surprised. It's a funny little song - hardly winning material - but should bring a lot of colour to the final line-up. And once the horns kick in, it actually sounds like a proper song rather than a joke entry. A lighthearted message of tolerance and love is a nice jab at some of the less intolerant places in Europe and the energetic stage show will sound welcome among all the ballads.

5. Carl Espen - Silent Storm (Norway)

Iceland is then followed by a fellow Nordic country, Norway. I initially wrote that I didn't get the hype around this song, but then I listened to it in the dark while lying in my bed and it finally opened up to me and I immediately learnt to appreciate it. Unfortunately, like with Azerbaijan, I didn't really 'feel' this song as much when it was performed live. However, now that I rewatched the clip from Youtube, it was actually way better than I remembered. What happened there? Perhaps the running order of the semi-final is to blame, I don't know. Anyway, Espen delivered a strong rendition of the song and I love it how there's first a feeling of intimacy because of the tenderness of his voice and then it builds up to a beautiful climax, only to finish with the emotional, almost whispered "Someday I'll be calm" line. Stunning.

6. Paula Seling & Ovi - Miracle (Romania)

No surprises here. Well, except for one - usually the 'current' and 'hip' trends make their way to the Eurovision a year or two late, being already out-of-fashion by then. Yet, this time Romania was quick to incorporate hologram technology into their show (so no, the lady does not know how to teleport) whilst it's still a novelty in the world of music. It's just a gimmick (like that stupid circle piano - seriously, if we can hear piano playing throughout the song, what point is there for him to go there for a few seconds and just press completely random keys while looking to the camera), but it's still kind of cool.

Unlike the song itself. The dated-sounding "Miracle" is an awful tune and the thumping chorus literally gives me a headache. It's so freaking overrated that I can't even begin to describe it. That said, Paula Seling's long note during the bridge is still impressive (the only redeeming feature, to be honest) and at least the performance is here better than it was in the national selection. But yeah, without an actual miracle, they're definitely not going to win. Not even with that tacky hug in the end.

7. Aram MP3 - Not Alone (Armenia)

Armenia too qualified expectedly for the final but the song still doesn't live up to the hype as far as I'm concerned. The song works better in its studio version and even then, the dubstep feels pointless. His vocals are nothing to write home about either but if anything, at least he was able to control his facial movements much better now when he's singing (seriously, in the first clips it looked like he was going to transform into a werewolf mid-song). Admittedly, the song does feature an amazing buildup but there's not much else going on, and the lyrics and the vocal parts are very repetitive and unvarying. I'm not the only one to have noticed that: while Armenia initially dominated the betting sites, it has now fallen a few places in their predictions and is no longer the winner favourite it used to be. In addition, an early performing slot in the running order might hinder it chances. All the same, Aram MP3 still remains one of the top contenders for top 5.

8. Sergej Ćetković - Moj Svijet (Montenegro)

Congratulations, Montenegro - it's your first time in the final! Most people just probably remember the pretty skater, but the gentle Disney-esque, folk-tinged number is pretty lovely, too. It's harmless and non-divisive and offends nobody. Despite coming immediately after the hyped-up Aram MP3, this uplifting tune could fare surprisingly well. As a matter of fact, it could even profit from coming straight after Armenia: the more organic and relaxing "Moj Svijet" is a pleasantly soft listen after the amped-up, dated dubstep of "Not Alone". I wouldn't consider a top 10 finish an impossibility, and top 15 is definitely within his reach with some luck!

9. Donatan & Cleo -  My Słowianie - We Are Slavic (Poland)

The handclap-driven hip hop banger of Poland is one of the funnier entries of 2014 and went to the final as I expected. "My Słowanie - We Are Slavic" is likely to garner a lot of votes from Eastern Europe, and while obviously tongue-in-cheek, the Polish ladies sure know how to take advantage of their, er, assets. I never knew that churning and using a washboard could be quite as... raunchy. The simple song is catchy enough to find universal appreciation as well so top 15 placement feels possible to me.

10. Freaky Fortune feat. RiskyKidd - Rise Up (Greece)

Wait, didn't Darin already record this song in the mid-noughties...? Jokes aside, this funeral-march-into-a-generic-club-stomper went to the final as predicted but it still doesn't make the song any more revolutionary. It's mediocre and recycles past trends, although being one of the few club-oriented entries, it's bound to do well. No matter how lacking the vocals are. No matter how much the two resemble over-zealous but terribly awkward teenage boys (the trampoline doesn't help) with absolutely no street credibility (the choreography doesn't help either) trying to act cool and tough in order to impress girls. Ugh, rap and Eurovision just don't mix. But it's Greece, it's a club song, it's likely to end up in top 10 unless they fuck it up really bad.

Feeling like spicing it up? Why won't you try the Rise Up Drinking Game As Brought To You By Popheaval: anytime you hear the words "rise up", take a drink. You'll be wasted in no time! Just remember: rise up, don't throw up.

11. Conchita Wurst - Rise Like A Phoenix (Austria)

Ah, Conchita. "Rise Like A Phoenix" is an incredible, dramatic power ballad that could pass for a James Bond theme song, and the country made it to the final (and rightfully so). And what a voice we have there! The appearance of the singer is destined to be met with controversy but the performance was undeniably one of this year's strongest ones so far. The shock value of this anthemic entry brings to mind Israel's 1998 contestant Dana International and look how that turned out. It is going to be the most polarising number in ages (pitting the conservatives against the more tolerant Eurovision viewers) but I have a hunch that Conchita is going to be the dark horse of this year's Eurovision. Top 10, for sure.

12. Elaiza - Is It Right (Germany)

Germany is represented by the band Elaiza whose frontwoman Elżbieta Steinmetz is actually of mixed Ukrainian and Polish origin. This is reflected in the very Eastern European sound of the song that mixes pop music with accordion and Slavic folk influences. The song is nice and sympathetic but not especially memorable - I wouldn't expect to see them anywhere near the top 10. On the other hand, this kind of music (and the ethnic roots of the singer) might appeal to voters in the east.

13. Sanna Nielsen - Undo (Sweden)

As anticipated, Sanna Nielsen delivered a solid performance that earned her a place in the final, although it must be said that like with many others that night, her vocals weren't quite as top-notch throughout as we've previously heard. I'm sure being on the stage with all the audience and all the cameras does make the singers quite nervous, but there's no second chances in the Grand Final - it has to nailed straight away. Nielsen's stage show is minimal but together with the well-executed lighting design, it plays out well. "Undo" is easily one of the strongest entries this year along with its explosive chorus, and Sweden has every right to expect good results from her in the final - I'm calling top 5. Strålande!

I was initially a bit skeptical about Sweden's chances of winning the contest (with them having won just two years ago) but then again, the song (while also brilliant on its own) does definitely stand out in this year's sea of mediocrity so you never know... will it be Stockholm/Gothenburg/Malmö 2015 after all? 

14. Twin Twin - Moustache (France)

France's Eurovision entry has everything: catchy beats, trilingual lyrics, and a comical technicolour music video. And look over there: is that Jedward's brown-haired long-lost big brother? No, that's Lorent Idir of the French group Twin Twin who'd love nothing more than being able to grow a moustache. Perhaps he should go ask Austria's Conchita Wurst for tips. Anyway, I get it that the song is obviously one to be taken as a joke but still, it's an extremely annoying one. Even possibly ridiculing hipsters unable to participate in Movember doesn't justify pointless and meaningless lyrics such as "Je veux ci, je veux ça" Seriously guys? "C'est comme ci, c'est comme ça". Like were they written by a fifteen-year-old boy during his first year of French studies or...?

There's some catchiness though and since there's not that many electro-pop songs around this time, it'll probably garner a fair amount of votes. Still, it's nothing special or outstanding music-wise and is even musically outclassed as a joke song by Iceland's "No Prejudice". No win win for Twin Twin.

(It's a shame that last year when the country took the competition seriously for once, the amazing Amandine Bourgeois and her sinister "L'Enfer Et Moi" failed to achieve a high position (it finished 23rd). With a better performing slot (she had the unfortunate fate of performing first) she would've done loads better. Damn.)

15. Tolmachevy Sisters - Shine (Russia)

Well. Politics shouldn't be mixed with light entertainment such as the Eurovision Song Contest but it happens unfortunately often. On the one hand, the duo was selected internally by the Russian National Broadcaster RTR, clearly in order to soften the country's image after the outbreak of the Crimean crisis. (A bit calculative, isn't it - who could be mad at these adorable young twin girls?) Yet, the crisis wasn't these girls' fault, they're not responsible for their country's hostile politics and, as far as we know, they've been invading no countries whatsoever so after Russia's qualification for the Grand Final was met with widespread booing, I couldn't help feeling sorry for the girls. It's not like they deserved it, it's not like they've done anything wrong. And as for every Eurovision participant, those happy news must've been a huge moment for the Tolmachevy Sisters as well, and now that moment will only be remembered for the negative reception they got. It does sadden me.

And the song itself? Very average. Not bad, but neither outstandingly good. Their live performance was alright (once again, nothing spectacular) and they used the lighting and the LED screens well, although their permanently etched smile crept the fuck out of me. (Also, twins looking exactly the same is definitely not cute anymore when they grow up - then it's just plain creepy.) 

As much as that would be the ideal, the Eurovision voting won't go unaffected by the country's current policies so whether the two succeed in "telling all the world to show some love" or not remains to be seen. Shame for the girls - the Crimean shadow hangs heavy above them regardless, turning them into a lightning rod for anti-Russian sentiments.

16. Emma Marrone - La Mia Città (Italy)

Italy's Emma Marrone has stealthily become one of my favourites of 2014. "La Mia Città" (which translates to "My City" if I'm not mistaken) is an uptempo electro-rock song and I love its edginess and roughness. Definitely my favourite entry from the Big Five, even though the intro borrows blatantly from The Cardigans' "My Favourite Game". With a good, energetic live rendition this could fare pretty well, although the rehearsal clip didn't exactly show the best possible vocal performance. Due to her energetic show, she even occasionally runs out of breath which isn't a good thing! Hopefully they'll tone the choreography down a notch for the final so that her vocals will be in the best possible shape. I'm afraid that Italy is going to suffer the same fate than France did last year, though: an excellent rock tune sung by an angry(ish) woman goes unappreciated by the rest of Europe. Nonetheless, "La Mia Città" is one of my personal highlights of this year and has been criminally overlooked!

17. Tinkara Covač - Round And Round (Slovenia)

Slovenia's downtempo pop number is yet another basically alright song that fails to make a memorable impact. It's nice that she's playing the flute, though, as it's not an instrument that's seen so often onstage in the Eurovision. "Round And Round" is a pretty song but just a tad too dull to actually stand out. I don't think Slovenia will find success in the Grand Final this year.

18. Softengine - Something Better (Finland)

Oh, I was so relieved to hear that Finland - my own country - made it to the final. That means all the Nordics are in this year, yay! Personal bias aside, the band did an energetic take on their song "Something Better" and considering their 'just' a bunch of 17-to-19-year-olds, they did amazingly. However, singer Topi Latukka's vocals were not his best ones and the nervousness shone through way too much. Once again, getting anxious in front of what, 100,000,000 viewers or something is understandable, but in order for "Something Better" to succeed in the final, his vocal delivery must be something better, too. Furthermore, being an easy-listening pop-rock number, it might feel slightly 'bland' for the more spectacle-hungry viewers. Nonetheless, with a more solid vocal performance the top 10 is by no means out of reach for this indie-rock anthem and the band did a very good job performing it so way to go, guys!

(On a side note, it's kind of interesting how they put Italy and Finland, the two most rock-oriented songs almost back-to-back in the running order.)

19. Ruth Lorenzo - Dancing In The Rain (Spain)

Uh-oh, this year Spain has decided to recycle as many Eurovision clichés as humanely possible. A power ballad sung by a young woman in a fancy dress? Check. A long note before the final chorus in order to show vocal prowess? Check. Bilingual lyrics? Check. Wistful lyrics describing <insert activity> in the rain in order to make it sound more emotional? Check. I'm surprised they could restrain themselves from adding a modulation as well.

"Dancing In The Rain" is by no means a bad song, but she's definitely no Pastora Soler either. Extremely mediocre, extremely typical for an Eurovision ballad, extremely 'meh'. There's a bunch of better ballads this year so unless it receives a totally mind-blowing live rendition - which I doubt - it's not going to do well.

Other than that, the song makes a most remarkable drinking game if you've made it through the Greek song and are ready for a second round: whenever Lorenzo sings the word "rain", take a drink. For the hardcore version, every "dancing" counts as well. Good luck.

20. Sebalter - Hunter Of Stars (Switzerland)

I was pleased to see that Sebalter, like Armenia's Aram MP3, was more in control of his facial muscles in the semi-final, compared to previous live clips. His English pronunciation sounds better, too. The jaunty "Hunter Of Stars" is a catchy number (I also love what they did with the intro) and having an attractive-looking singer never hurts. And then he plays not one but two different instruments and even whistles occasionally. Another fiddle-playing young man in a similar attire went on to win the whole competition back in 2009 and while I don't think "Hunter Of Stars" will be the one to claim the victory, the song has grown on me and I do believe it's universally likable enough to achieve a satisfying result. It even has a good position in the running order so who knows... top 15? Maybe even top 10?

21. András Kállay-Saunders - Running (Hungary)

Hooray for Hungary! "Running" is one of my favourite songs this year and it's the one that I'll be rooting for the most what it comes to winning the whole thing. Lyrically it's an exceptionally dark story about domestic violence but as I've written before, is it really that bad to have song with actually meaningful lyrics amidst all the "La La La" choruses and bubblegum poppers? I don't think it is. I hope the rest of Europe will agree with me since in my opinion, Hungary is one of the countries that most deserve to win this year: it's a powerful song with a proper message and sounds fresh and modern without appearing tacky or try-hard. I'm glad they simplified the choreography but as with many, many other artists, I do hope he improves his live vocals a lot for the Grand Final - nervousness is okay, but letting it show does easily ruin an otherwise excellent performance. If he succeeds in tackling this issue, the victory is certainly within his grasp.

22. Firelight - Coming Home (Malta)

Firelight opened the second semi-final with their feel-good folk-pop number "Coming Home", and the Mumford and Sons -esque tune earned them a place in the final. I don't really have a lot to say about Malta's entry - it's cutesy and makes you feel happy and all but competitively speaking, I don't have high expectations for them in the final. Perhaps they'll prove me wrong. A nice listen nonetheless.


23. Basim - Cliché Love Song

If Belarus had the poor man's Robin Thicke, then Denmark is represented by the poor man's Bruno Mars. And neither of the original artists are even that good to begin with. I actually saw him live performing this song (and a couple of others) and well, it was okay but still not enough to make me warm up to him. Sure, the song is infectious and of potent earworm quality, that can't be disputed. Considering it's the host country's entry, it'll most likely do well - a top 10 placement is plausible.

But the real question is that if you have a cliché love song and call it "another cliché love song", is the explicit self-irony enough to override the clichéness of the song? 'Cause I don't think it is. This is far too cheesy (quite like the Belarusian entry) and saccharine for my liking. Undskyld, Denmark.

24. The Common Linnets - Calm After The Storm (Netherlands)

I have mixed feelings about the Netherlands' entry, "Calm After The Storm" by The Common Linnets. On the one hand, it's a tenderhearted country song and a soothing listen that lives up to its song title. On the other hand, when the final is going to consist of 26 performances and clock at more than three hours, this particular number might end up being a snoozefest for many viewers. I do like the song and they definitely earned their place in the final, that is not the case, but does the calmness of the song make it too much of a lullaby? It's not going to win, I'm afraid, but won't disappoint the Dutch people either. Regardless of their final results, it's amazing how the band succeeds in creating such an intimate atmosphere in a huge arena with their performance, although the only contact they seem to make with the audience is via the camera so that's a minor flaw.

25. Valentina Monetta - Maybe (San Marino)

Well fuck me sideways and call me Crisalide, third time was indeed the charm for San Marino's enviably persistent Valentina Monetta. Perhaps Europe did in fact like the song, perhaps they wanted to reward her dedication, but the most important thing is that like Montenegro, San Marino is in the Grand Final for the first time since its debut. To me, the song itself sounds like something that has been done to death about twenty years ago already but hey, let's not get judgemental. It's not a bad song per se, just boring for my personal liking. Anyhow, congrats to San Marino for making their way to the final at last!

26. Molly - Children Of The Universe (United Kingdom)

Molly has succeeded in creating high hopes for the success of her song, and it is arguably one of the better UK entries in a loooong time. Sounding like a love child of Adele and Florence Welch, she sings this slightly retro-esque number with a distinctive husky voice. The song's got a good chorus and relevant lyrics when you think of the current situation in Eastern Europe ("Power to the people!") but the whole "children of the universe" theme is nothing more than your average Eurovision fluff about world peace, love and understanding. (Meaningful as the message is.) Vocally, she's trying too hard to sound like a twenty-something equivalent of Bonnie Tyler. Oh, and "we're shining like diamonds"? They still don't shine, they reflect. Rihanna got it wrong already, isn't one inaccurate diamond metaphor enough for pop music?

Other than that, the United Kingdom should fare pretty well this year, certainly much better than they've done in the recent years. The song is good overall, the backing vocals are splendid and there's a certain anthemic quality to it. There's loads of potential in it!

Phew! So, those are the 26 finalists of the Eurovision Song Contest 2014. It's going to be hard to try to rank them in some kind of an order but let's give it a go anyway.

Personal top 10:

1. Hungary
2. Italy
3. Austria
4. Sweden
5. Finland
6. Norway
7. Montenegro
8. Switzerland
9. Azerbaijan
10. United Kingdom


1. Hungary
2. Sweden
3. Armenia
4. Austria
5. Denmark
6. Ukraine
7. Romania
8. Greece
9. Finland
10. Montenegro 

(The winner country is underlined; the rest are in approximate order.)

I am aware of the 'unbiased' list being a bit unrealistic - Azerbaijan tends to be in the top 10 almost by default (they have an excellent song but the live rendition was lacking), Finland usually fails to garner a widespread vote (but I have a strong trust in our boys) and the betting sites predict the Netherlands to be in the top 5 (personally, I'm doubtful). In fact, Finland and Montenegro will probably be replaced with Norway and Azerbaijan but so be it. 

Well, those are my wildest guesses. What are yours? Do you agree/disagree? Be sure to let me know in the comments!

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