Black Smoke (33/45 Remix), by Ann Sophie (Germany 2015)
In the hours before Eurovision’s Greatest Hits, I was chatting to NDR’s Thomas Schreiber, reminiscing about the German National Final a few weeks previously and I casually asked him who had taken the decision to slow down ‘Black Smoke‘ into a ballad. At which point that classic german look of confusion and skepticism crossed his face. “We never changed it.”
Like many, I had grabbed a copy of the National Final tracks ahead of the Germany selection, but for some reason, my copy of ‘Black Smoke‘ was time-compressed. The three minute dirge that ‘won’ the Contest was only 2 minutes 37 seconds in my playlist. In the grand tradition of John Peel, I’d been playing the equivalent of the long-playing album version at the speed of a seven inch single.
There is always room for improvement in music, nothing is every truly complete. Presentation can change, songs can be reworked, covered, or remixed. Singers can approach the material from a different emotional angle. Thats what makes music so exciting to me. The version that crashed to nul points in Vienna was one variation on a million artistic choices.
You know what? It’s a far better song when you give it a bit more welly… even if I’ve had to upload my version to the ESC Insight account for you all to experience.
All For Victory, by Angelo De Nile (UMK, Finland 2015)
I’m pretty vocal in what I like from my music. I like to have lots of changing tempos and a wide mix of phrasing, I like music that evolves over the three minutes and is a genuine story. I want to feel the emotion behind the performance, I want to be dragged away to another world by the singer.
One song stands above all others as the perfect embodiment of what I look for in my music… not just my Eurovision music, but across all of my listening experiences. Angelo De Nile’s ‘All For Victory‘ from UMK this year has pretty much everything I want, it’s theatrical, it’s powerful, and it’s memorable. The live performance even ends on a cliffhanger! I just love it to death.
Eurovision rarely attempts to do the Symphonic Narriative Concept Album, but De Nile captures the tone of ‘The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table‘ and ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds‘ perfectly, albeit this is more a short story to those mighty opuses. Pop always turns up at Eurovision, as do mighty ballads, Bond themes, and worthy songs about stopping war. But it can turn away from the mainstream and still deliver. It’s not always about victory.
De la capăt (All Over Again), by Voltaj (Romania 2015)
My day job requires me at times to be rather intensely focused: something that is either happening or is not. On that afternoon it was not; rather than torture myself trying to force things, I did a bit of mental palate cleansing online and the 2015 Romania national selection entries had been recently made available online. The first one I clicked into was ‘De la capăt’; after listening to them all, Voltaj’s was the only one that stuck in my mind. It was obviously a really good song, even without understanding Romanian. I wasn’t aware that it was already a hit in Romania.
I didn’t find the time the time to watch the final itself—national finals often start at breakfast time in New Zealand—but I was pleased that Voltaj had won. Curious about how it was staged, I found and played the live performance on YouTube and thought “those suitcases; major distraction.”
Mind you, a few weeks later and the preview video left me a blubbering mess. I had found my song of the year.
Let’s be honest: social message songs don’t do very well at the Eurovision: they can be difficult to communicate effectively to a multilingual, global audience, and sometimes when a vocalist is really, really intent on conveying a social message they fail to create a moment. But 2015 has been a year where a UK general election was focused significantly (thanks to populist right wing cretins) on “Romanians taking our jobs” blah blah blah. ‘De la capăt’ gives us on the other side of that discussion: the families that have chosen long-term separation between parents and children as the best, sometimes only, option. Think about that for a moment: the impact on families, and the impact on a society where hundreds of thousands of parents are absent.
While I never thought ‘De la capăt’ had a chance of winning, ‘All Over Again’ the fully English version of the song could well have—or at least it would have done much better than 15th place. The English lyrics are sophisticated and musical and moving. Voltaj had planned on singing in English in Vienna, but their fans reacted so negatively, they decided against it. A shame really, since what they had to say was something more people would have been able to understand in English than in Romanian: you do whatever you think is in the best interest of your kids, no matter how difficult. Even if your kids can’t understand it.
In Vienna, I brought my big arsed Romanian flag to both the semi-final and grand final. During their performance on Tuesday night, Himself (a reluctant Eurovision fan at best), who had earlier said that none of the songs on the official CD had caught his attention, was singing along to the chorus:
“You would be the reason, you would be the reason to start, to start all over again.”
“That’s the best song of the year, isn’t?” he said. I couldn’t reply. Blubbering, again. Since Vienna we’ve seen so many Syrians making an even more treacherous decision, in the hope of something better for their families: a lot of the footage features Wien Westbahnof station, the nearest station to the Wiener Stadthalle. ‘De la capăt‘ is the sound of 2015.
Here for You, by Maaraya (Slovenia 2015)
If I were to move to Europe, Slovenia would be near the top of my shortlist. The people, the natural beauty, the mélange of Slavic, Germanic and Latinate cultures all work for me in a big way. Some of my good friends are Slovenians. No, really.
Slovenia’s not, however, one of my Eurovision crushes, (waves to Malta and Estonia). How many really good Slovenian entries have there been? ‘Energy‘ was a cracker of a song, but the staging destroyed its chances in 2001. ‘No One’ (2011), now that ticked all the boxes: Maja Keuc totally deserved a top ten finish. I tried to watch the EMA once, really, but found it really boring: small countries (like Slovenia) are lucky to have more than one song to choose from in their national finals.
But there was a bit of a buzz after Marjetka and Raay won the EMA with ‘Here For You‘. So I clicked into the “super final” performance online and thought “whaaat?” Then clicked replay and thought “wow, that is interesting.” Clicked again “no… that’s bloody brilliant.” Maaraya was quirky (air violin and headphones and disco lights), but not distractingly so. Marjetka’s voice is distinct, but still easy to listen to. My only worry was that it took three plays to “get” it—though my first one was a half-listen: folks watching the live grand final would almost certainly be more focused.
I was certain Slovenia would qualify easily from their semi-final (they did) with such an excellent draw. And had they received a good draw for the Grand Final, they would have a good shot at Slovenia’s best result in fifteen years. Alas both the killer half from hell (so many of the strong entries in Vienna pulled the first half of the draw) and the evil “producer-led” order of performance meant that ‘Here for You’ was the ultimate party-starter as show opener. Strong up-tempo openers have a 50/50 shot at the top 10; alas ‘Here For You‘ ended up 14th, exactly the midpoint of the scoreboard). But remains a song that doesn’t get skipped when randomly queued on my iPhone. Few songs from 2015 are.
Tonight Again, by Guy Sebastian (Australia 2015)
I only have the one song to highlight for this year, but it’s a pretty special one. Guy Sebastian’s ‘Tonight Again‘.
This year, despite whatever reservations I hold towards Australia being an actual part of the Eurovision Song Contest, I saw my first actual fully fledged homegrown ‘cheer for it like your life depends on it’ entry.
And I am so proud.
Unlike what I may have imagined our broadcaster doing, they sent a proper known artist, with just a damn good party tune and a decent stage show that left me not shrinking into the corner with embarrassment but rather made my heart swell with pride. Sebastian was an outstanding start to what is obviously a now regular entry from Down Under. He set the bar very high not just for Australia but the contest and itself, and gained 5th place. I was only sad to not actually be there to witness it in person.
“Make Me (La La La)” by Dinah Nah (Melodifestivalen 2015)
One of the many reasons why Melodifestivalen is – in my opinion – the ultimate Eurovision national final, is that the depth of quality is so high that songs as infectious and chart-ready as ‘Make Me (La La La)’ are routinely kicked out in 9th or 10th place, only to enjoy lengthy afterlives on the Swedish charts – where Dinah achieved Platinum sales.
In light of his Viennese victory, it would be difficult to argue that Sweden made the wrong choice in selecting Måns this year, but I do think it’s a shame that songs as quirky and infectious as ‘Make Me (La La La)‘ tend to lose out to safer, more formulaic Eurovision hits. Had a smaller country like Romania, Slovenia or even Norway sent this song, it could have been one of the surprise hits of the season. On the other hand it may have bombed horribly. But you only have to listen to the similarly techno-influenced recent UK number one ‘Turn The Music Louder’ by KDA, Tinie Tempah & Katy B to appreciate what a bold and contemporary Eurovision entry this might have been.
“Rhythm Inside” by Loïc Nottet (Belgium 2015)
Marrying understated Lorde influenced verses with a walloping Sia-esque chorus, Belgium did the best job this year of putting a truly 2015 song on the Eurovision stage thanks to the incredibly talented Loïc Nottet. One of the most focused and driven young talents the Eurovision stage has seen in recent years, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if this was just the beginning of a long and interesting career for the 19 year old performer, whose stock has just received a major boost through his victory on France’s Dancing With The Stars.
Not everybody saw the potential in this leftfield entry, especially coming immediately after the more fancied Swedish and Australian entries in the final, but everything came together on the night. Having believed in it from day one, watching it grab high scores from all over Europe was immensely satisfying.
Guld och Gröna Skogar, by Hasse Andersson (Melodifestivalen)
When we look back months after the Eurovision Song Contest, we can start to be critical to how much of a success our winner was. In many a case Måns is a huge winner, he’s got to tour around Europe, released an album and is buzzing about his co-hosting role in Stockholm next May. However his tour struggled to sell tickets, the album sounds as rushed as it was to get out and his stock as a TV host now seems stronger than that of being a commercial artist. He won Eurovision and has had a blast after it, but the full potential a Eurovision win can provide some artists wasn’t exploited.
The best and most surprising exploitation of their success this year is from the most bizarre of National Final entrants. Hasse Andersson, a country singer in the Skånska dialect with more in common than Danish to Swedish, had not released an album since 2002. He may be a beloved character from a different era, but his entry into Melodifestivalen was never expected to set the musical world on fire. It took time, after only just sneaking through the Second Chance round of Melodifestivalen, but ‘Guld och Gröna Skogar’ became this swing-around-the-maypole sing-a-long extravaganza. Hasse may have had a captive senior fan base, but Melodifestivalen gave him a surprising new one as his entry became the pre-school classic. Tons of toddlers knew the words and we’re dancing around to the tune from their old grandad with an accent so strong they don’t understand.
Running last in the Melodifestivalen final was a big surprise from Christer Björkman, The Friends Arena jumped to life in a way I haven’t seen before in the cavernous 30,000 seater stadium. Across the entire floor of the arena fans started twirling with each other and dancing with strangers in one of the most bizarre yet lovely ways to end a National Final ever. The televoting surge Hasse got brought one of the least predictable top three placings in Melodifestivalen history, and provided a huge platform post-contest.
Hasse’s been out of retirement touring all summer and all through the Christmas period, entertaining small children who are adorably sweet in getting their albums and posters signed. And that album infact reached number one in the Swedish charts on release. It’s hard to think of an artist who has ‘won’ this year as much as Hasse did.
Let’s not mention the songwriters already released a Japanese version years ago though.
One Last Breath, by Maria Elena Kyriakou (Greece 2015)
Now bear with me on this one.
In many ways there are songs that define a Eurovision and the direction it takes in the future. Pundits in the Eurovision bubble are quick to point out how ‘Calm After The Storm’ inspired a series of duets in the 2015 Contest, or how Lordi’s 2006 victory brought a short wave of rock back onto the shores of Eurovision.
From Vienna’s hosting, we can expect many countries to be thinking about tinkering their stage performances to within an inch of perfection, or to embrace the indie and electronic sounds as demonstrated by ‘Love Injected’. However there’s one trend for me which really symbolises what came out of Eurovision 2015, and Maria provides the perfect example.
The song with nothing wrong with it.
It’s a ballad, tender in its first few notes, filled with an angst genuine but at the same time moderate. Maria holds her fair hair and shiny dress against the gale force wind machine with a professionalism that shows it’s good, but not finding a wow moment of new magic. The musical movements up to the big crescendo may not crowbar in a key change, but are ramped up in energy in a way we’ve heard one hundred times before but yet nobody is horrified to hear again.
Despite plodding through the three minutes, it did so well enough to pull a 6th place finish in the Semi Final, before crashing in the Grand Final to nineteenth. However ‘One Last Breath’ is the style icon for what 2016 might sound like, and it worries me. If there is a formula to qualify this is the one, with an act good enough to be worthy and a song that works by not offending the voters.
I really hope I’m wrong, but I can’t help but feel if we are talking about the Songs of the Season then this is the 2015 definition.
Goodbye to Yesterday, by Stig Rasta And Elina Born (Estonia 2015)
If this article is about the Musical Moments that grabbed our attention this year, it would be woefully incomplete without a mention of Estonia’s entry for Vienna, Stig Rästa and Elina Born’s ‘Goodbye to Yesterday’. First, there was the moment I heard the song in full for the first time, all sultry and moody, thoroughly modern, yet timeless.
Then, there was the moment when they clinched victory at Eesti Laul with a staggering 79 percent of the Superfinal vote, especially after so many valiant near-misses for Rasra over the years (I still mourn for ‘I Wanna Meet Bob Dylan’ and ‘Für Elise‘). There was the reveal of their dark, brooding video, arguably one of the best Eurovision preview clips in recent memory. There was the rehearsal process, where we got to witness the synergy of two talented performers who have full artistic and personal trust in each other, and the package they were presenting.
And finally, when it all mattered, there was that moment at the climax of the song during the Grand Final, when all of the hard work, all of the emotion, and all of the relief of a job well done coalesced into a single teardrop that rolled down Elina’s cheek, and into the Top Ten.
Heart of Stone, by Andreas Kümmert (German National Final, 2015)
For so many artists that take the stage, the pressure of competition spurs them on to accomplish amazing things. The rush of adrenaline that accompanies the roar of an audience, the blinding lights, the flutter of a gown against a wind machine, that glimpse of your nation’s flag waving in the crowd, the sensation that your heart is trying to bust out of your ribcage, the mental image of your Grandma watching from home, the last-minute realization that you have to pee, the feeling of the microphone almost slipping from your now-sweaty palms, the uncertainty of whether your in-ear monitor is really working correctly, the echoing memory of hearing somebody whispering “Barbara Dex” to their neighbor during your press conference, the hope that your makeup artist effectively covered up the massive zit that you woke up to this morning, the urgency of your brain saying “no, seriously, you really have to pee”, the knowledge that millions upon millions of people are watching every bead of your flop-sweat on their HD-TVs…holy crap, what have you gotten yourself into?
For some people, it’s simply too much to take.
The natural, animalistic response to dangerous situations is “fight or flight”. Unfortunately for Andreas Kümmert, his instincts (as correct as they might have been for his needs) veered towards “flight”, and that was revealed at an incredibly inconvenient (albeit memorable) moment. Whether ‘Heart of Stone‘ would have fared much better than ‘Black Smoke‘ in Vienna is a question that can never truly be answered; it was a great song, but midtempo blues-rock doesn’t have a spectacular track record at Eurovision. (Just ask The Makemakes.) Furthermore, Eurovision is so much more than three minutes (or six if you’re lucky, and nine if you’re truly fortunate) on television. The endless rigmarole of rehearsals, press conferences, promotional appearances, and interviews leave precious little time for quiet moments of solitude and self-care, which could be vital for someone facing anxiety issues.
All we can hope is that NDR learn from this experience, and take the time to truly get to know their candidates and affirm that they’re ready to handle the Eurovision madhouse.
You know, like Xavier Naidoo. He seems like a squeaky-clean, seasoned professional.
But Wait, We’re Not Finished!
ESC Insight is not just the core team of writers, we have a huge number of ‘friends of the parish’ who contribute throughout the year, fromJuke Box Juries and Daily podcasts to articles and opinions. Want to know what they thought of the year of music? Read part two of ESC Insight’s Musical Moments Of The Year to find out!