During the Semi Finals of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018, we saw a series of shocking but not entirely surprising non-qualifications, including the loss of 100 percent qualification records for Russia, Azerbaijan, Poland and Romania. The ups and downs of individual delegations in the Song Contest make up quite an interesting multi-year musical soap opera, so let’s take a look at how some broadcasters are bouncing back from last year’s disappointments, starting with those whose approach has changed the least.
Over in Romania, the very protracted 2018 National Final process produced the ‘wrong’ result and The Humans incurred the country’s first ever non-qualification. The 2019 selection was no less operationally complex, and started off controversially with the addition of two wildcards in the shape of Bella Santiago with one of 2019’s most enjoyable Fuegalikes in ‘Army Of Love‘ and Linda Teodosiu with ‘Renegades’. The last minute addition of these wildcards caused Mihai to protest at favouritism and threaten to take his ball over to Belarus. Also present in the selection lineup was America’s Got Talent alumnus Laura Bretan with a very traditional paean to her father.
In the end, Bella’s live version of ‘Army of Love’ didn’t quite live up to the studio version and Laura Bretan was mired in controversy over some comments she’d made against the idea equal marriage in Romania. The unusual weighting of jury scores with the Romanian televote resulted in Ester Peony’s very cool modern electro-country ballad ‘On A Sunday’ emerging from the chasing pack to win out. I think that however Ester performs in Tel Aviv, many people would suggest that the Romanian delegation at least take a look at how their competition is structured and presented to ensure that future results are beyond reproach.
All Change, But Not Quite Yet
Belarus has been plugging away at Eurovision with varying degrees of success since 2004. The usual mode of selection is focused on the local Belarussian music scene, and has rewarded them with reasonable results. However, the 2018 selection was turned upside down by the sudden appearance of Alekseev, who ditched the Ukrainian selection at an early stage to come and take the always statistically curious Belarussian televote by storm. The beautiful boy with the biggest smile in Ukraine took his melodramatic goth stageshow to Lisbon, where it didn’t make a comfortable transition to the screen, resulting in giggles and non-qualification.
You would think that this approach would have burned the Belarussian delegation, and caused the focus to switch back to its local music scene, especially given the logistical complexities of having the same team running the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in the first half of the selection period. Instead, this year they went the long way round to come up with a result that should probably just have been an internal selection.
The notorious Belarussian live audition round had a widely international flavour this year with entries from Spain, the US, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Sweden, Portugal and the UK amongst their 35 candidates. Romania’s Mihai threatened to compete (but in the end, he didn’t), Daz Sampson made his return to the Eurovision family alongside Nona Pink with the song ‘Kinky Boots’ and we missed out on the infectious nonsense of ‘Potato Potato Acapulco’ by frequent audition round prankster Vitalij Voronko.
In the end, the 100 percent jury final was made up of eight dull but serviceable songs, one worryingly militaristic song, and sparky Junior Eurovision host Zena singing a nice pop song. It didn’t massively surprise anyone when the young singer with the existing relationship with BRTC won out. Whatever the result for Zena, we already know that Belarus will be changing their approach for the 2020 ESC season – no more live auditions (so no more Voronko?), but instead a shortlist of songs that will be worked on to ensure the highest quality national selection possible.
Shake It Up & Add Spikes
For Iceland, the quality of songs entering their selection had been steadily diminishing, even though the community of Icelandic artists generally love the Eurovision Song Contest. This ended up with super-enthusiastic Ari Olafsson taking a musical theatre ballad to Lisbon in 2018 and getting absolutely nowhere. But the good news for 2019 is that RUV have finally remembered that safe is the enemy of good, as far as competitive Eurovision songs go.
This year’s Songvakeppnin was also an informal referendum on how Iceland were going to deal with a Eurovision that a large sector of its creative industry would have preferred to boycott. The Icelanders were offered a choice between beloved but safe returning artists Hera Bjork and Friðrik Ómar, new faces Tara Mobee and Kristina Skoubo Bærendsen, and the novel joys of Hatari. The critically acclaimed anti-capitalist electronic noise act represented a way for Icelanders to gesture towards protest whilst also sending something creative and possibly even competitive. The combination of the dangerous aesthetic, overwhelming beats and deadpan interview antics that teeter on the brink between hilarious and irritating made them the overwhelming choice of the Icelandic people.
By the day of the Songvakeppnin final, the returning artists weren’t under any strong illusions that they were going to the Song Contest, but they certainly added a bit of maturity and gravitas to the procedure. The prestige of a National selection needs returning names, even if they don’t go to Eurovision. Booking Eleni to bring ‘Fuego’ to the final also shows a level of ambition present within the producers of the show. RÚV are aware that improving your performance at the Contest in May is a process. Who knows what’ll happen in Songvakeppnin next year, when (hopefully) the location of Eurovision will not be a matter of contention. I’d certainly like to hear a Daði Freyr ft. Ari combination at some point.
Poland probably feel extremely hard done by. Their 2018 selection delivered them an upbeat dance song that aped a successful formula started by JOWST the year before. However, as I write this I note that the only thing I can remember about the song is that the creepily-behatted Gromee did a snake gesture at the camera. I cannot even remember the title. The lesson surely is, if you’re going to put acts in your National Final that follow successful formulas, you have to actually make sure that they are memorable and have some measurable level of stage charisma. Otherwise you end up with nothing but a lukewarm grombus.
For 2019, Poland have the curious advantage that the delegation has just won and agreed to host Junior Eurovision. This gave them a fantastic excuse to ditch the national selection show and make an internal selection. They also experienced some personnel change at the musical level that might make continuing as before more tricky – songwriting camp wrangler Greig Watts, who was involved in gathering together the songs – has gone to do a similar job for the BBC and the United Kingdom.
By selecting somewhat viral alt-trad indie band Tulia, Poland have made a statement that they’re stepping away from something that the public might choose in favour of something a bit aurally challenging that also reflects a sense of Polish identity. Whether the sense of Polish identity that Tulia represent is something that chimes with the wider Polish community is unclear.
After toying with a National Final in 2018 that sent ‘Qami‘ to Lisbon, where they finished 15th in their semi-final, Armenia have returned to an internal selection that is a bit more in line with their traditional Eurovision identity.
Srbuk was the first artist officially announced for the Song Contest, way back in November 2018, but the last song to be released. The anticipatory pressure caused by the long delay led to a hope that Armenia would be serving us some hyper modern pop with traditional echoes – the very essence of Future Sound that I occasionally bang on about. So when it was released, ‘Walking Out‘ was a bit confusing. A downbeat song about how you should just leave when in an abusive relationship? Written by a man? Presented in a really odd way? Not what we had hoped for and not actually what we really want. (By the way, if you want a good Eurovision performance about surviving an abusive relationship, go straight to Shelter from Serbia in 2016)
The really unusual thing about Azerbaijan in the 2019 season was how quiet they were. We heard barely a peep from a delegation that normally announces an artist very early until March. The failure of Aisel to qualify with ‘X My Heart’ should have told the Azeri delegation that they can’t just push the button marked ‘competent pop’ any more and be rewarded with a grand final spot. It has to have something else. This year they’ve beefed up their approach with the thirst-friendly looks of Chingiz Mustafayez and the songwriting talents of Borislav and Trey from Symphonix. So it’s still competent pop, but with a bit of extra pizzazz, which is a fairly considered response to losing a 100% qualification record.
How will last year’s non-qualifiers are in Tel Aviv? Have the delegations missed a trick? Were you expecting more? And will these choices lead to success?