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ESC Insight’s Musical Moments Of 2019: Part One Written by on January 4, 2020 | 1 Comment

As we look forward to another year of Eurovision Song Contest, there’s a little bit to time to look back over 2019. The team at ESC Insight, along with some friends of the parish, to look back through the musical tapestry of the lat twelve months to bring you our favourite musical moments. This is Part One, and we’ll have part two tomorrow.

Ellie Chalkley

‘Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi’ by Celine Dion

I knew intellectually that Celine was the queen of everything, but this was the year that I learned it in my heart.

2019 was the year that I turned my hand to event planning and together with Danny Lynch (who you also have to thank for your OGAE UK ticketing arrangements) put together a quarterly Eurovision club night in Glasgow, Scotland’s party capital. Once the phrase ‘Ne Party Pas Sans Moi‘ turned up in our shared Google Doc, there was no way we could call it anything else. An image of Celine wearing a traffic cone as a hat has become our uniquely Glaswegian logo, and we finish each edition of the event with a group singalong to Celine’s Eurovision winning song.

I love that people actually turn up and I love that they have such a good time with our quizzes, video votes, cosplay competitions and all-banger Eurodisco. Going into 2020, we’re working hard to cram more fun into each edition and I look forward to seeing you on the dancefloor on January 24th.

‘Klefi/Samed’ by Hatari

They were always going to do something, but in the end it didn’t go entirely according to plan.

Dropping their incendiary collaboration with Bashar Murad between the qualification from the first Semi Final 1 and the Grand Final appearance would have been a creative way to hijack the news cycle for their own consciousness-raising purposes, and might even have got them enough attention to upgrade that top 10 finish.

It seems like a certain level of pressure was applied to the Icelandic delegation, the message was conveyed that Hatari had exhausted the patience of the EBU and the single release was delayed until after they’d left Tel Aviv. The song is a message of steadfast resistance in the face of oppression and an explicit call for justice and freedom for the people of Palestine.

It is also an absolute banger. Music first, always?

Ewan Spence

Freaks’ by Jordan Clarke

Does a ‘Musical Moment’ count if it does not happen? I think so, because my moment was the split second of realisation that the BBC was going to take on a concept that has been mostly ignored at the Eurovision Song Contest… namely ‘The Greatest Showman‘.

Jordan Clarke’s ‘Freaks’ had all the required elements of a cracking Eurovision song; a melody with changes of pace and temp to keep viewers engaged, a bass line to fill the dance floor and bring forth the remixes, a storyline running through the three minutes, and the sentiment behind the song was clear albeit a touch heavy handed.

It was far too easy for me to picture a set of bleachers on a darkened Eurovision stage, a low angle tracking shot focused just on Clarke’s boots (James Cameron style) as he nervously paces under the bleachers, before stepping out in a burst of colour as the chorus kicks in with the full Hugh Jackman ringmaster’s outfit on. It was far too easy for everyone else to see it once I pitched the staging once the National Final songs were released.

With the opening shot of ‘Eurovision: You Decide’ I got a chill. Clarke was in the Jackman jacket. I thought to myself “blimey, this is game on!” Alas I don’t live in that universe. The identical styling of the dancers damaged the effect, the smaller studio space at Media City denied any stroytelling camera shots, and the Expert Panel made it clear who their favourite was. And it wasn’t in the Big Top.

So that’s my moment. The briefest of moments, when I saw the United Kingdom opening the Grand Final in Israel with a grainy black and white reverse angle looking out to the audience, Clarke starting the vocals, tapping the bass line with his cane, followed by a confident stride into the arena to begin the greatest show.

I Do’ by Arvingarna

‘Welcome to route number one, next destination Funsville!’

Really, that’s it. I Do‘ is one of the few Eurovision songs this year that delivered exactly what it said on the tin, with no compromises, with no dilution, it was concentrated joy in a can.

While the Melodifestivalen winner is becoming ever more predictable, the other 27 songs contribute to one of the key light entertainment shows in Sweden. Even though Arvingarna (who had already been to Eurovision in 1993) fought through Andra Chansen, it was right and proper that the energy and the enthusiasm of the dansband closed off the show in the headliner slot.

Put simply, this song was fun. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Samantha Ross

Sebi’ by Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl

There are only a handful of moments when my musical hopes for the Eurovision Song Contest line up with my desires for the Song Contest itself on a structural level. My personal favourites rarely win, and I came to terms with that long ago. But to see an understated song that wormed its way into my heart not only beat the odds on the scoreboard, but also potentially have an effect on the Contest in later years? That’s just icing on the cake.

I adored Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl’s ‘Sebi’ from the moment I heard it. I was drawn in by the song’s simple, ethereal production without any pretense, and a presentation so deeply intimate that I almost felt like I was violating someone’s personal space as I watched it. Digging into the message of finding beauty in weakness, and staying steadfastly by the side of someone dealing with the throes of self-doubt…I was hooked. There was something so refreshingly “no bull” about ‘Sebi’. Just two people in their own universe…everything else outside of their bubble was just background noise.

That carried over into one of my favourite moments from behind the scenes in Tel Aviv. After a blisteringly long day, capped off by a hard-fought semifinal, the post-show Qualifiers’ Press Conference was beginning to drag. The artists up on the dais were as polished as could be, smiles pasted on despite the taxing 12 hour day they had just completed. Following a question from the assembled press about potential running order spots, Gašper simply called the question “boring”, the exhaustion and annoyance written all over his face and voice. In a single moment, he had cut through the noise, and a number of other artists followed suit, applauding and rising from their chairs bemusedly, taking charge of the situation en masse and effectively ending the conference in its tracks.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that at November’s Junior Eurovision (an event which often serves as a testing ground for policies and practices for the senior event in May), there was a much smaller emphasis placed on Press Conferences for the participants. Maybe Gašper’s brutal honesty will remind those of us in the press center to step up and come with as much of our A-Game as the artists do. But if Gašper’s throwaway remark helps make the Contest (and the processes behind the scenes that most viewers don’t catch) that much better for everyone involved, then all the better.

2000 And Whatever’ by Electric Fields

Sometimes I choose a song for this yearly article based on some deep personal meaning, or how it reflects greater trends in the contest as a whole.

This is not one of those times.

I had to put Electric Fields’ ‘2000 and Whatever’, the runner-up in this year’s Australian National Final, on the list for one simple reason… I just love it.

Zaachariaha Fielding and Michael Ross (no relation, for the record) served up a song filled with defiant, uplifting exuberance, all while stuffing language, culture, genre, and even gender expression into a blender and setting it to puree. While ‘Zero Gravity’ was polished and pretty, ‘2000 and Whatever’ felt organic and natural, like we were watching the duo at a gig, rather than at ‘Australia Decides‘ (which, granted, may have been why they were pipped to the post in the end by Kate Miller-Heidke).

Since the National Final, they’ve been racking up accolades, including a trio of National Live Music Awards, two National Indigenous Music Award nominations, and their first ARIA nod. They’re working on a full album next, but have had the time to collaborate with Norwegian fan darlings Keiino on an upcoming track. Just goes to show that you don’t need to win Eurovision to win from Eurovision.

Ben Robertson

Armanyńnan Qalma’ by Yerzhan Maksim

In November Ewan Spence and I were on location in Poland for Junior Eurovision’s seventeenth edition. This year’s show had plenty of environmental themes and a smash hit winner, but the one that I recall most is from that well-known Eurovision powerhouse, Kazakhstan.

Well, if this entry is anything to go by, they will become a powerhouse sooner rather than later.

Yerzhan Maksim is an old fashioned belter of a singer. He comes on stage all nonchalant and let’s rip with a vocal that leaves you in awe that a child could take such a big breath in the first place.

He is the perfect marriage to this song, which Junior Eurovision fans put into the ever-popular ‘Frozen’ genre. That doesn’t do it justice. This is the most ridiculous and most tasteless piece of music ever written, building up with the most overblown key changes and triplets ever known. But it’s brilliant, effective, emotive – written to induce the crowd into a spontaneous standing ovation.

It’s just so…Eurovision.

Kazakhstan threw the kitchen sink at this, with a holographic stage show and plenty of TV news coverage back home for those loyal vote-for-yourself votes. After all winning Junior Eurovision would be a whole part of Kazakhstan’s global strategy. And they nearly did it. Kazakhstan steamrolled the jury points but just fell short after Poland landslided the online vote.

Keep an eye on Kazakhstan in years to come. This is serious business.

Proud’ by Tamara Todevska

Yes, both of my choices are the winners of the Eurovision jury votes this year. And what good choices they were.

Proud’ is very much a 2019 song. The lyrics tell a story to Tamara’s daughter about the perils and pitfalls of growing up in today’s world. At a simple level we can take this as the year’s feminist anthem, and the differences between growing up as a boy or as a girl. But it’s deeper than that. The song is a call for all people to stand up against ‘them’ that dictate the way the world works today. This is a message of hope to our next generation. They can take the moral high ground, ‘stand up proudly’ and eventually create a world free to the stigma and separation that divides us.

That is certainly a message I feel stronger about today.

There’s plenty of critique around the fan community about this song winning the jury vote, that the message won rather than the song. Firstly, that’s unfair to the music here, which while isn’t going to make Radio 1 airplay has a brilliant crescendo to the final moment – this would fit well in any West End musical.

Secondly, that’s a misunderstanding in thinking the Eurovision Song Contest is just about pure music anyway. Eurovision is art, and art divides opinion. Art reflects opinion. Art fits into a modern purpose. Art tells a story in the then and now. ‘Proud‘ would likely not have won the jury vote in 2018, and would likely not win against whoever competes in 2020. ‘Proud‘ was the right song at the right time for 2019.

John Egan

‘Light On’ by Monika Marija

The Lithuanian national selection is something of a gauntlet. In any given year there are more than 20 entries, representing all sorts of musical genres, mostly produced in an extremely resource constrained environment. In fact, few of the artists who have represented Lithuania on the Eurovision stage make their living solely as performers.

In recent years LRT’s qualification record has improved: from 60 percent this decade versus 40 percent previously. This includes both of Donny Montell’s Eurovision entries. Part of Mr Montell’s graft is being a mentor on Lietuvos balsas, the Lithuanian franchise of The Voice. Montell’s done very well on the show: exactly half the winners have been from his team, including. some of his protégées who have gone on to compete in the Lithuanian national obstacle course selection. Like Monika Linkytė who performed ‘This Time’ with Vaidas Baumila in the 2015 Contest, finishing 18th in Grand Final).

But Montell’s most successful balsas protégée is Monika Marija, who won in 2017. Shortly thereafter she appeared in the 2018 Lithuanian Eurovision selection with ‘The Truth‘, which finished a respectable fourth in that year’s Lithuanian final.

In the following year she entered the song ‘Criminal’, but her track ‘Light On‘ had become the biggest radio hit in Lithuania in 2019. LRT was happy to let her compete with ‘Light On’ …if she left ‘Criminal’ in the mix as wellDespite her social media pleas asking fans to support only ‘Light On’, both songs qualified for the final.

Monika’s request to withdraw ‘Criminal‘ from the Lithuanian final was granted: most following the Lithuanian selection thought ‘Light On‘ would romp the jury and televotes (as it had in the heats and semi-finals), and quite possibly give Lithuania its first ever top five result at the Eurovision itself.

Except…the juries and public both put ‘Light On‘ second. Jurijus Veklenko’s ‘Run With The Lions’ went to Tel Aviv, missing a grand final qualification by a single point.

What happened? Perhaps the juries legitimately preferred Veklenko’s entry: it too had topped its heat and semi-final. As for the public, LRT’s YouTube channel has ‘Light On‘ on 377 thousand YouTube streams versus 279k for ‘Run With The Lions‘. In an interview with local press Audrius Giržadas, the Lithuanian Head of Delegation said ““We can’t force a singer to sing, but there are rules and sanctions in place” a few days before the national final.

It turns out that tall poppy syndrome might not be merely an anglosphere phenomenon.

‘You Make Me So Crazy’ by Markus Riva

I do not love ‘You Make Me So Crazy‘. Rather I offer it as a cautionary tale.

Markus Riva is persistent, at least. A frequent entrant in the Latvian national selection, he’s finished in the runner-up slot twice, including with ‘You Make Me So Crazy’. Would this entry have done better than Carousel’s “That Night’? Perhaps, perhaps not.

And that’s the problem.

In 2015 Riva’s ‘Take Me Down’ was clearly outclassed by Aminata’s “Love Injected’. But his was also a strong entry and had a good shot at making the Grand Final in Vienna. I would argue that ‘I Can was deserving of making the following year’s Latvian final – but again, selecting Justs’ ‘Heartbeat’ was the right call.

Generally artists aren’t encouraged to return to the Eurovision Song Contest proper if their subsequent entry isn’t better than their previous one. That principle applies to national selections as well: don’t just toss in one entry after another….because you might accidentally end up on the Eurovision stage with something rather underwhelming. We sometimes call this ‘doing a Claudia Faniello’.

Markus, mate, you’re talented. Wait until you’ve got a really strong entry. Come back with a great track, stage it well and you’ll get your moment on the Song Contest stage with something awesome.

This is ‘doing an Aminata’. Who had a good entry on 2014, but came back in 2015 with something epic, which Europe loved.

John Lucas

Arcade’ by Duncan Laurence

Well, somebody had to choose it…

The revival of Dutch fortunes has been one of the most fascinating arcs of the past decade at Eurovision. Like many Western European nations, the Netherlands had a rough ride during the mid 00s, to put it mildly. Eight consecutive non-qualifiers between 2005 and 2012 gave them the worst losing streak of the Semi Final era, until local hero Anouk stepped in to turn things around in 2013.

Duncan’s victory in Tel Aviv was the culmination of an ongoing learning process that followed. Taking risks, trusting the artist, valuing songcraft and authenticity over headline hunting. Sure, there were missteps, but the Dutch team consistently picked themselves up, held their nerve and kept their eyes on the prize. Duncan’t victory in 2019 wasn’t inevitable, but it felt all the sweeter for being so well deserved.

Victorious’ by Lina Hedlund

The health of modern Melodifestivalen remains a source of furious debate among Eurofans. Sweden’s national selection remains a ratings behemoth that consistently places them in the upper echelons of the Eurovision scoreboard, but the flattening impact of app voting, the struggle to connect with Europe’s televoters and a five-year run of male winners are all causes for concern.

One element that thankfully remains in rude health is the Swedish public’s penchant for surprises. None were more delightful to me this year than the advancement of Alcazar’s Lina Hedlund to the Grand Final, fending off youthful competition from Rebecka Karlsson, Dolly Style and Omar Rudberg in the process.

Throughout its history, Melfest has been as much about celebrating Sweden’s pop cultural identity as it has been choosing a potential Eurovision winner, so while evolution is both vital and inevitable, it’s always nice to be reminded that despite reports of the genre’s demise, the classic Schlager-pop that helped build the Contest continues to have a toehold in the affections of local viewers. Can Linda Bengtzing or Nanne Grönvall repeat the trick in 2020? Only a fool would count them out…

Ross Middleton

Mi sento bene’ by Arisa

There is an incredibly specific reason why I have chosen this song as one of my musical moments of 2019. However, before I explain the specifics, I should also point out the joys of this entry in its own right.

Mi sento bene’ was one of the few entries from Sanremo 2019 that I could get on board with straight away. With the exception of Loredana Bertѐ’s ‘Cosa ti aspetti da’ me this was the only song that instantly caught my attention upon first listen. You don’t need to speak a word of Italian to understand the joyous, upbeat nature of this song. It has a certain timeless quality, ‘Mi sento bene’ could be dropped into any of the last five decades and it would fit right in. It’s one I’ll be consistently revisiting for years to come.

There was, however, an additional factor that made it all the more enjoyable.

Try to cast your mind back to the world of Eurovision Twitter on March 9th 2017. A couple of tweets sparked my favourite total non-starter Eurovision rumour of all time… Tony Hadley was to form one half of the duo representing San Marino in Kyiv.

This rumour sent the Twitter-verse into overdrive for all of an afternoon. It very quickly became obvious it was just a fabrication and the former Spandau Ballet frontman would not be taking to the Eurovision stage. It was much to my delight, therefore, when he partnered Arisa on the Friday evening of this year’s Sanremo. Going in with high expectations it was somehow everything I was hoping for and more! The libreal flips throughout from English to Italian; the affected crooning accent on almost every vowel sound and the fantastic dancers from Kataklò all came together to form my favourite single performance of the 2019 National Final season.

We should all be so thankful to Arisa for bringing this performance into existence. It may not be the main stage in May, but it was as close as that Twitter rumour came to being true. Actually, someone get me Aly Ryan’s email… I have an idea for a San Marinese duet.

Watch a clip of the performance on Instagram.

Zero Gravity’ by Kate Miller-Heidke

After three years of fantastic internal selections (and whatever 2017 was supposed to be) Australia brought us one of the finest National Finals of last season. Australia Decides served an eclectic, quality mixture of entries staged and performed to a high standard. Whilst Electric Fields caught the attention of man (including Samantha Ross), there were fabulous entries throughout.

Whilst Sheppard’s live performance may have lacked energy (that mimed guitar playing anyone?) the studio version of On My Way is still a fun listen. Courtney Act was as entertaining as one would expect from such a charismatic performer. Leaa Nanos proved she’ll be one to watch in years to come and how Ella Hooper ended up last with an anthem like ‘Data Dust‘ is beyond me! However, there was one act that stood head, shoulders and at least two whole humans above the rest.

I was beguiled by Kate Miller-Heidke’s voice from the very first listen of ‘Zero Gravity’. There hasn’t been a popera entry from the recent Contests I haven’t fully embraced, but this one now takes the top spot. After listening time and time again in the build up to the National Final, the hot mess of the original stage concept did leave me a little worried. Whilst it was the most lavish staging on the Gold Coast something didn’t quite click. It was the start of an idea that wouldn’t be fully realised until Tel Aviv.

It wasn’t until the massive dress was ditched, three bendy poles were added and Emily Ryan & Emma Waite of Strange Fruit were brought on board that the vision finally came to life. At last, the staging actually matched the repeated refrains of “zero gravity” and “nothing holding me down”. The final ‘pull back and reveal’ and those celebratory spins over the final 40 seconds still stir the emotions even now. An acrobatic technique combined with a simple visual overlay created something truly magical on our screens. These changes took an act pilloried by many, to a Semi Final winner. Australia came good!

Whilst I adored everything above, there was something an awful lot more serious at its heart that hit home. Miller-Heidke’s lyrics detailed her experiences of, and recovery from post-natal depression. “Nothing holding me down” represented her feeling of weightlessness following her recovery as she regained her strength and motivation. At the time I was struggling with my own mental health and the lyrics really struck a chord, like no other Eurovision song I can remember. I will be forever grateful to Kate Miller-Heidke for giving me a three minute beacon of hope that also happens to be an absolute banger.

We’re Not Finished!

The call for Musical Moments went out to many of the ‘friends of the parish’ who contribute throughout the year, from Juke 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 2019… tomorrow!

And if you want to support ESC Insight as we cover the 2020 Song Contest, please visit our Patreon page, patreon.com/escinsight.

About The Author: Ewan Spence

British Academy (BAFTA) nominated broadcaster and writer Ewan Spence is the voice behind The Unofficial Eurovision Song Contest Podcast and one of the driving forces behind ESC Insight. Having had an online presence since 1994, he is a noted commentator around the intersection of the media, internet, technology, mobility and how it affects us all. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, his work has appeared on the BBC, The Stage, STV, and The Times. You can follow Ewan on Twitter (@ewan) and Facebook (facebook.com/ewanspence).

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