It’s baaaack! The 67th edition of the world’s largest, longest, and perhaps most anticipated/beloved music competition, pulling in a worldwide television audience of some 160 million and inspiring tens of thousands of fans to travel
On a personal note, although I haven't yet attended the Eurovision song contest in person, ever since I started traveling more extensively to Europe in 1977 – well before American Idol, The Voice, or The X Factor – it's always been a big deal for more than a few of my Old-World friends and acquaintances (not to mention the local media). I got to watch it several times surrounded by Europeans (most recently last night), and I must say, the enthusiasm generated by this reliably cheesy collection of crazy outfits, over-the-top antics, and sometimes downright goofy tunes (here's a 2020 piece I found on its most outrageous performances) can be kind of endearing;
It's this sense of kitsch and camp that has also earned it a huge following among much of Europe's LGBT+ community (then of course there was those times that queer artists nabbed the top prize, such as in 2014, when a bearded drag queen from Austria, Conchita Wurst, won for her operatic pop “Rise Like a Phoenix”), and in 1998, when it went to “Diva,” sung in Hebrew by Israel’s transgender Dana International – who these days would no doubt be stoned by the loony Orthodox back home. (On the other hand, for a more cynical - and no doubt realistic - take on Eurovision and “the gays,” check out this recent video).
At the same time, since the competition started in 1956, some memorable songs (and sometimes careers) have come out of Eurovision – perhaps my older favorites being the Spanish Basque group Mocedades with its luminous "Eres Tú" (1973); ABBA’s insanely catchy, career-launching "Waterloo" (1974); "La La La" by Spain’s Massiel (1968); "Un Banc, un Abre, une Rue" from Monaco’s Séverine (1971); and an Israeli pair, "Hallelujah" (1979) and "A-Ba-Ni-Bi" (1978). (Yes, Israel isn't Europe, but they’re here by virtue of being a member of the European Broadasting Union, and the Aussies were invited as of 2015 because they’re such Eurovision superfans – although sadly, their contract runs out after this year, so as of 2024 till further notice it’s catch you later, mates.)
And since the arrival of the 21st century - apart from fthe trend since 1999 of too many songs in English even from non-English-speaking countries - of course other countries from the east have been included (even a couple which are marginally, if at all, "European"), including Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan (hmmm), Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia/Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, and Ukraine. Plus there’s Australia (yet not New Zealand) and Israel. A few of these have won, as well, including Azerbaijan, Estonia, Latvia, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine (three times), although Russia got itself kicked out in 2021 because of its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Belarus also got the boot because of its support of Russia and because its own dictatorship was using the contest as a propaganda tool; and Turkey pulled out in 2013 and hasn’t yet returned (supposedly due to disagreement over a couple of rules) – though Turkish opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has said he’d like to change that if he winds. Then there are the "Big Five," which are always included because they foot much of the Eurovision bill every year: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom (sort of like the United Nations Security Council, I guess, but without the veto?). This year there were 37 contestants, with Bulgaria, Montenegro, and North Macedonia dropping out because they couldn’t afford participating due to the global energy crisis.
OK, background over, and on to last night’s “United by Music” extravaganza in Liverpool, which hosted because although Ukraine won with an unprecedently massive sympathy vote in 2022, the insecurity wrought by the war made it impossible to stage in Kyiv, and the UK came in second (on the other hand, ironic because Britain stupidly Brexited three years ago after a nasty, mendacious campaign essentially vilifying the rest of Europe). The city was festooned in yellow and blue and the broadcast itself was replete with Ukrainian images, themes, and music (including an opening montage, then epic arena rendition of last year’s winner "Stefania" by Kalush Orchestra, as well as 2016 champ Jamala and zanily over-the top drag contestant Verka Serduchka, who placed second in 2007. For all that, though, the EBU slapped down Volodomyr Zelensky’s request to tape a message of thanks, deeming it too “political” and hence against the no-overt-politics rules. Now, given all the hoopla over Ukraine – and indeed, the very fact that the event couldn’t even be held there this year to begin with for criminally political reasons – I and many others think this was a mistake, but hey. Slava Ukraïni anyway!
Other highlights included lightning cameos from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles, Camilla, and Kate Middleton; a bunch of Eurovisioners past including 2022 runner-up Sam Ryder’s latest single “Mountain” and a segment covering songs of famous Liverpuddlian acts such as Atomic Kitten, Dead or Alive, and John Lennon. And most movingly of all, there was a mass-wrap-up rendition, again in homage to Ukraine, of a moving 1945 show tune, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” All that, and various other usual over-the-top shenanigans too numerous to enumerate.
In the end it added up to a massive, truly staggering feat of musical and theatrical production. And now on to the lineup, starting with the winner:
Sweden: “Tattoo” - Loreen
Already heavily favored as the winner going in, singer, actress, and political activist Lorine Zineb Nora Talhaoui was born 40 years ago in Stockholm to Moroccan Berber immigrants (the kind of unfortunate folks who these days are being increasingly demonized even in liberal Scandinavia, including Sweden itself). She was already one of Sverige’s up-till-now six contest winners, for “Euphoria” in 2012, which went on to become a worldwide hit. And with “Tattoo” she’s outdone herself. Performed on a fairly simple set – mostly sandwiched claustrophobically between a pair of square wedges emitting swirling imagery and mysterious symbols – and sporting swirling dreads and freaky-long, curvy, killer nails (dayum!) – she puts in a raw, plaintive, undeniably powerful pop performance (like “Euphoria,” in English), belting out the likes of “Violins playin’ and the angels cryin’, when the stars align I’ll be there” and “No, I don't care about the pain./I'll walk through fire and through rain/Just to get closer to you./You're stuck on me like a tattoo .” I really feel the emotion and pain in her delivery. You know, the Buddhists say that attachment is the main source of suffering. But that doesn’t make for dramatic art now, does it? In any case, “Tattoo” ended up inked into Eurovision history, tying Ireland for most contest wins; becoming the first female act to triumph twice; and of course outdoing Sweden’s number-four “Hold Me Closer” from Cornelia Jakobs last year.
And beyond that, here's a rundown of the two dozen finalists winnowed from the total field, which for the most part got here by winning votes in national finals in their respective countries (with some exceptions, such as the UK entry, chosen jointly by the BBC and the artist’s record label):
Albania: “Duje” - Albina & Familja Kelmendi
Exotically beautiful Albina Kelmendi was born in Kosovo (then part of Serbia) 25 years ago, and in this outing, dressed in an equally exotic, traditionally inspired costume, her powerful vocals are backed by five members of her familja (two sisters, a brother, even mom and dad!) in the dramatic “Love It.” Sung in Albanian (there are more than a few impenetrable languages across Europe, but this one’s right up there), it’s a hypnotizing, wonderfully Balkan-flavored ode to the importance of family in the face of a break-up: “Love it like you used to love it./That love, save it./Just like the life, you love it./Don’t throw stones at it, but just like you used to, love it. That love, keep it/Like the life you love, love it.” Shqipëri has definitely had its ups and (mostly) downs in the 19 years since it started competing, with the best result coming in 2012 with Rona Nishliu’s power ballad “Suus”). But maybe “Duje” came across as a bit too exotic for the juries and call-ins to love, sadly placing 22nd out of 26 – its poorest ranking ever. I just don’’t know what else to say, except that they definitely deserved better.
Armenia: “Future Lover” - Brunette
All by her lonesome against against a stark black and white-lit backdrop interspersed with swirling psychedelic purples, at age 22 Elen Yeremyan from Yerevan also sports a wonderfully sultry, exotic look. And her haunting, wistful meditation is a ballad with a beat plus a rap interlude – in both English and a bit of Armenian (something we haven’t seen in all too long). For example: “I just wanna make art/Read books and just find someone/Who likes me enough to kiss my face./I wanna explore with him and visit old bookstores/And cute little things, like drink smoothies at near cafés.” Then the emotion swells, and “I’m a volcano that is going to explode in a sec./I’m so hypnotized by someone that I’ve never ever met.” Sweet, right? Armenia has made 15 appearances here and reached the finals a dozen times, reaching its high-water mark, fourth place, in both 2008 (”Quélé Quélé” from Sirusha) and 2014 (Aram MP3’s “Not Alone”). So coming in 14th last night is of course a disappointment – but also at least an improvement on 20th for folk-popster Rosa Linn’s “Snap” last year (and despite that, Rosa has become something of a worldwide sensation since, as this broadcast noted). Hopefully Brunette will achieve similar success, and that the future love for Armenia’s hopeful in Stockholm will be grow by leaps and bounds.
Australia: “Promise” - Voyager
Whimsically, the Eurovision swan song for Oz for at least a while opens with gap-toothed lead singer Danny Estrin and his asymmetrically flowing locks at the wheel of an iconic vintage sports car, a 1988 Toyota MR2 AW11. Then this Perth-based, five-member, 24-year-old “progressive metal” band (but with a wider musical range than that implies) proceeds to deliver an energetic, kinda 80s-vibish, definitely un-metal-feeling rocker that starts out with the question “Have you ever done anything like this before?” and winds up with “Promise mе you'll hold me 'til I die./I'm by your side./Promisе me it's gonna, promise me it's gonna be all right.” And check out that wicked keytar (guitar-keyboard hybrid) solo, would you? Anyhoo…Australia’s high mark was sixth in 2016, with South Korean immigrant Dami Im’s performance of “Sound of Silence” (with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel) and this time it ended up in ninth (but at least a big jump up from 15th for last year’s moving yet morose “Not the Same” from gay Asperger’s dude Sheldon Riley). It’s a damn shame the Aussies ended their run without a win, but we can always hope for a comeback, right?
Austria: “Who the Hell Is Edgar?” - Teya & Salena
Österreich has taken the torte twice, in 1966 with the smooth, languid German-language classic “Merci Chérie” by Üdo Jürgens and most memorably with drag darling Conchita Wurst’s 2016 “Rise Like a Phoenix,” and its latest effort – squarely in the Eurovision tradition of quirky – was first up last night, and kicked off with some classic Eurovision wackiness - albeit with definite musical chops. Black-clad Serbian-Austrian Teodora Špirić, 23, and white-wearing Selina-Maria Edbauer, 25, brought a driving beat to the likes of “There's a ghost in my body and he is a lyricist./It is Edgar Allan Poe, and I think he can't resist./Yeah, his brain is in my hand, and it's moving really fast.” Then later they sneak in a slam at the exploitation of songwriters by streaming platforms like Spotify, which pay them as little as US3 cents per stream: “Zero dot zero zero three./Give me two years, and your dinner will be free./Gas station champagne is on me.” (Oh, and fun fact: the “cheeky” chorus, “Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe," happens to also be German for “butt, butt, butt, butt, butt, butt.”) But this was probably too sardonic, sarcastic, and “meta” to go all the way, and one might be tempted to snark that the critical response to the song was “who the hell cares?” But to be fair, it did place in the upper half of the leaderboard, at 15th. And hey – we did get a pretty fun ride in the process – Poe, Poe, Poe!
Belgium: “Because of You” - Gustaph
I remember Jérémie Makiese’s “Miss You” last year (19th place) – smooth and soulful, but also kinda mournful. This time out they went in the opposite direction – positive and upbeat – with this also soulful dance number in English from Antwerp’s Flemish, very much gay Stef Caers (at age 43 a tad long in the tooth compared to the kids around him). In a white blazer, a big white hat, a pink button-down shirt, and puffy pink knickers, here he’s backed up by video images of drag queens, voguing, and a diversity of ages and genders (the two fierce black women back-up singers are a great funky touch, too). Snippets of that positivity: “I love myself much more than I did yesterday” (yay!) and “when the world got me going crazy, I carry on/'Cause I know I'm strong./When the world got me going crazy/I carry on./And it's all because of you, because of you.” You go, girl! Anyway, België/Belgique has nabbed the top prize just once, way back in 1986, thanks to Sandra Kim’s peppy, melodic "J'aime la Vie," and while coming in a strong seventh, Gustaph didn’t break the long dry spell, it was a welcome tonic - bedankt!
Croatia: “Mama ŠČ!” - Let 3
Call me a fuddy duddy, but witnessing these half dozen characters clear the first semifinal made me go, “WTF were the voters thinking?” In most cases I’m all for “alternative,” quirky, and even transgressive, but the strange, jarring performance of these aging punkers (speaking of long in the tooth, the two dudes fronting the group are 62 and 59) from Rijeka on the Dalmatian Coast just plain made my eyes and head hurt. Marching and gyrating, they’re decked out in military drag-meet-psychedelia along with ludicrous pasted-on mustaches, then strip down to their undies – all the while backed by a ginormous video screen blasting out a dizzyingly swirl of bizarre images. The song itself is anti-war and monotonously simple yet hard to describe – and the BBC did it better than I ever could: “imagine someone cut up segments of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ Los Del Rio’s ‘Macarena,’ Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, and the sound of a tractor engine, then reassembled them at random.” Representative lyrics, translated from the Croatian: “Mama bought a tractor,” “Mama kissed the moron,” and “That little psychopath/A little vile psychopath/Crocodile psychopath/Mama, I'm going to war”- this last line, they say, a slam at Vladimir Putin, and the tractor thang a dig at Belarus dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who once gave Vlad a tractor for his birthday. Whatever – it’s sure one helluva screeching 180-degree tractor-turn from last year’s sweet, intimate, English-language “Guilty Pleasure” from Mia Dimšić (which washed out in the semifinal), as well at its more conventional, melodic fourth-place finishers in ’96 (Maja Blagdam, “Sveta Ljubav”) and ’99 (Doris Dragović, “Maria Magdalena”). And I can’t say I was surprised it continued Croatia’s unbroken losing streak in 27 tries, ending up at number 13.
Cyprus: “Break a Broken Heart” - Andrew Lambrou
Back to ballads, smolderingly hunky 25-year-old Andrew (a few of my gay friends were swooning over him; Andy himself has remained discreet as to his own sexuality) is actually Australian though from a Greek Cypriot family; competed in the local X Factor; and last year even took part in the Oz competition to decide its Eurovision entry. He was approached by Greek Cypress to represent the country, and so here he was, in a simple black outfit with sleeveless shirt to show off his sleek guns, surrounded by a few special effects – dry-ice smoke across the stage floor and behind him, sheets of cascading water, followed by some fire. As for the song itself, it’s a good, solid ballad driven by his smooth, soulful vocals (check out those soaring high notes in the chorus!) and a dynamic beat, with lyrics like “The lights went out./I hit the ground./You didn't mind that I was bleeding out./You filled my life with minor songs./I loved you, but you loved to do me wrong./I miss your kiss, gasoline and a matchstick./Red lights, flashes, rising out of the ashes.” In recent years Cyprus has often made the final but finished fairly far down – with the notable second-place exception of Greek-Albanian Eleni Foureira channeling Beyoncé with “Fuego” in 2018. This fine, polished effort, by contrast, broke into the leaderboard in spot number 12.
Czechia/Czech Republic: “My Sister’s Crown” - Vesna
Now I do have a soft spot for the Czechs, having lived in Prague for more than a year a good while back. That aside, this country’s Eurovision track record has been pretty spotty – after debuting in 2007, it took itself out from 2009 till 2015 due to poor showings (including zero points in 2008) and a “meh” from the national public. Last night it was the turn of seven-year-old folk-pop sextet of pink-clad, long-braided young women (whip those braids, sistahs!) – two Czechs, a Bulgarian, a Ukrainian, a Slovak, and a Russian. They came at us with a catchy, driving number in English, Czech, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian about sisterhood and protesting gender inequality, with lines like “We are not your dolls” and “My sister’s crown/Don’t take it down/Nobody has right to do it/She’s beautiful and capable/She is her own queen/And she will prove it.” Energetic choreography; a definite updated East-European vibe; a touch of hip hop, and plenty of gurl-power attitude – and in the end Vesna came in a respectable tenth, much improving on last year’s techno “Lights Off” from We Are Domi (22nd), but still several notches below sixth for Mikoláš Josef’s jazzy “Lie to Me” in 2018.
This a country with a rich singing tradition – not too many years ago I had the great pleasure of attending its biannual, UNESCO World Heritage Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn – one of the world’s largest choral events – and it was a memorable experience indeed, beautifully showcasing national culture. Nonetheless, its record has been less than stellar since debuting at Eurovision in 1994 – though it has won once, in 2001 for the fun but I must say pretty un-Estonian disco number "Everybody" by Tanel Padar and Dave Benton. Last night it was the turn of attractive young Alika Milova, born 20 years ago in the Russian-majority city of Narva, clad in blue on a simple set, with just a self-playing piano alongside her. She brings quietly powerful vocals to a nice ballad with lyrics like “Now I’m heading home o solid ground./Realized that all the lies I’ve told myself have died” and a chorus that goes “There is always time to get back on track,/Tearing down the walls slowly every step./Now I see myself building up a world of bridges.” My take: pleasant but fairly forgettable – yet I was surprised to see it wasn’t a bridge too far after all, taking a darn respectable eighth place (compared to last year, when inexplicably American-Western-themed “Hope” by handsome young Stefan came in 13th). Also, just my two cents, but since 1999 this country has barely fielded any entries except in English, and I wish they would give it a try again next year – or at the very least something evoking its rich culture a bit more. What do you say, Eesti?
Finland: “Cha Cha Cha” - Käärijä
This intense blast of metal- techno fusion fits in nicely with Suomi’s hard rock/metal tradition in recent years, and in the semifinal was an audience favorite and pegged as a top contender to take it all. Käärijä (aka Jere Pöyhönen) is a 29-year-old hip hop/metal/electronica dude who cites the German metal/hard rock band Rammstein as a major influence and here he breaks out of a wooden crate and prances about the stage in a borderline-dorky bowl cut and a green, puffy, open-front bolero jacket (a slightly brave choice, since he’s got a wee bit of a tummy); the original video, by the way has him flinging himself around a boxing ring. It's basically about losing inhibitions during a night out drinking: “Wanna mess my head up and free my mind of fear like a cha cha cha cha cha cha cha” (even though the drink he uses to do it is a piña colada – which, dude, doesn’t seem very metal to me). Several other points: the second half turns more melodic and radio friendly; I really like that it’s sung in Finnish (unlike last year’s “Jezebel” from The Rasmus as well as others in previous years); and throughout It's an adrenaline rush for sure. And though Käärijä didn’t join Finland’s only Eurovision winner, the seriously hardcore, even more out-there Lordi with “Hard Rock Hallelujah” (2006), he did make it all the way to first runner-up – and for a hot minute even occupied the top slot. So for sure we haven’t heard the last from crazy ol’ Jere!
France: “Évidemment” - La Zarra
A Montreal-born, Paris-based chanteuse/songwriter of Moroccan descent, 35-year-old Fatima Zahra Hafdi, according the contest’s French team “combines the class and style of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe with the sense of tragedy of Edith Piaf, the post-modern intoxication of Lady Gaga, the naked frankness of Barbara [a 1950s French cabaret star], and the fragility of Dalida [an Egyptian-born French star of the 1950s-80s].” Alrighty, then – well, I can sort of see all of that. Perched on a glowing pedestal against a simple black set with sweeping white lights, poured into a slinky, shimmery red-tinged black number with an insouciant little cocked châpeau that might not be too out of place at a slightly more chic version of the Ascot races, in this ballad-meets-disco torch song “Evidently,” La Zarra laments that how her body parts are no longer hers – not even her kidneys, parbleu! – and “In my hell garden, the plants are watered with dreams and tears.” Catchy and as you would expect très elegant, but despite being tipped as one of the top three favorites, évidemment it wasn’t enough to snare France its first win since 1977, with "L'Oiseau et l'Enfant," performed by Marie Myriam. And in fact I was almost shocked that she finished so far down, at 16 – worse even than last year, when the witchy Breton-language “Fulenn” from Alvan & Ahez racked up 24.
Germany: “Blood and Glitter” - Lord of the Lost
Wow, another 180-degree turn from last year, in Germany’s case melodic, low-key “Rockstars” from Malik Harris. In the finals thanks to Germany’s “Big Five” status, this guttural, occasionally screechy entry from a 16-year-old metal/glam quintet out of Hamburg led by 43-year-old Chris “Lord” Harms is also reminiscent of Rammstein, and it’s apparently bidding to give Finland’s Käärijä a run for his hard-rockin’ money with a solid (if a bit generic number) and a theatrically flashy stage performance. But I’m not gonna lie – this kind of “sweet and bitter,” hard-driving stuff has never been my cup of tea, nor it seems has it for the most part been Eurovision’s (notwithstanding the 2021 win of Italy’s Måneskin with “Zitti e Buoni”). Deutschland has triumphed twice, in 1982 and 2010, and though despite its borderline inane lyrics “Blood and Glitter” still manages to be somewhat memorable. Even so, this year our metal Freunden continued the country’s long losing streak since Lena’s “Satellite” in 2010, ending up a lord of the lost at dead last. Mehr Glück im nächsten Jahr (better luck next year) – and bitte, try going back to the drawing board. 🙏
Israel: “Unicorn” - Noa Kirel
After failing to qualify for the final last year with Michael Ben David’s fairly gay “I.M.,” four-time winner Israel sends us a hot 22-year-old (one of the country’s biggest pop stars, and an army vet to boot), with major cheekbones, pouty lips, and another energetic piece of gurl-power pop. In front of a relatively simple square tunnel of lights, clad in shiny black pants and a white bustier and backed by the usual handful of dancers, Noa belts out lyrics like “I’m gonna stand here like a unicorn, out here on my own/I got the power of a unicorn./ Don’t you ever learn?/That I won’t look back/I won’t look down/I’m going up/You better turn around”; a touch of Hebrew is thrown in (“I’m not like anyone else against the world”) for good measure. Including a zippy little dance break and winding up amid a blast of fireworks at the end (the official music video on the other hand has her slinking across a red ceiling and in various other poses, but is relatively subdued by comparison), it was indeed a “phenom-phenom-phenom phenomenal” performance but was pitted against a lot of other strong females here tonight. Nonetheless, Noa shot past most of them, placing a strong third.
Italy: “Due Vite” - Marco Mengoni
Speaking of phenom-phenomenons, handsome, bearded, 34-year-old Marco became one in Italy after winning the national X Factor in 2009, and with this intense yet soulful, melodic pop ballad “Two Lives” he’s making his second Eurovision appearance a decade after his first, in Malmö, Sweden. – and this time surprised everyone by emerging during the flag of nations introduction with a gay pride flag along with the Italian – bravo! With passionate, virtuoso delivery, his poetic lyrics emote about the painful side of relationships with lines like “If this is the last song before the moon will explode/I will be there to tell you you're wrong, you're wrong, and you know it.” By the way, the above video – bleak and nearly monochromatic – was shot in the sand dunes of southern Sardinia (undoubtedly inspired by the line “And I still don't know your desert that well”.” three-time winner Italia has consistently finished fairly high in the past decade – including last year’s gorgeous, sixth-placing “Brividi” from hunky duet Mahmood and Blanco (and a big favorite of mine on both musical and aesthetic grounds) – and this time around was no exception, coming in an even stronger fourth. Ma bello!
Lithuania: "Stay" - Monika Linkytė
Monika, 31, is Lithuanian-music-scene veteran of at least 15 years, including a platinum studio album, the local version of The Voice, various of its Eurovision tryouts, and Eurovision itself, bouncily belting out “This Time” with Vaidas Baumila. Here, pretty and Baltically blonde (balanced out by her female backup vocalists, three out of four of whom are black), she donned an relatively simple orange frock and deployed her impressive set of pipes to deliver a beautiful, melodic torch song which begs – not, as you might assume, a lover to stay – but rather a plea for help and support from someone with long-term depression: “Just stay with me./My heart is bleeding./I need your healing./Wait for me./Well, it ain't easy/To love someone like me.” Meanwhile, above and behind them flashed pagan folkloric symbols, and most memorably the song is punctuated throughout with the catchy hook čiūto tūto, an incantation from old Lithuanians rituals. In the end, “Stay” had surprisingly staying power, taking 11th place, outdoing last year’s ”Sentimental” from slinky, seductive Monica Liu at 14th. That one, incidentally, was one of this country’s very few not sung in English, and I’d love to hear more of the national language in the future. Pirmyn, Lietuva!
Moldova: "Soarele și Luna" - Pasha Parfeni
Flanked by a pair of kettle drummers and dancers in antlers, in front of a vid screen featuring a huge pulsing sun, then moon – barechested, sporting an open, golden robe and a boy bun – this 36-year-old longtime veteran of the music biz (and also of Eurovision, in 2012) brings a primal intensity and energy to “The Sun and the Moon.” Sung in the national language Romanian, this classic case of traditional folk music and literary motifs meeting fast-paced electronica was composed jointly with his wife and expresses themes of love, devotion, and as Pasha said in an interview, how “the sun and the moon and the universe can align when you make the right decision.” For example: “I promised my bride a wedding under a starry sky./I gave to her on the seventh night, a ring with a gemstone. Sun and moon, they will hold us a weddin/Sun and moon, They will hold us, they will hold us a wedding.” They threw me a bit with the sudden appearance of a flute-playing dwarf in a bizarre headdress, but I later learned this supposedly represents a benign mythological character of some sort - alrighty then! In the end, the cosmic bodies aligned to yield a ranking of 18, lower than to Moldova’s 2022 “folk-punk” entry “Trenulețul (A Little Train)”, which despite (or perhaps because of?) its kookiness also made the final, and pulled into the station at seventh.
Norway: “Queen of Kings,” - Alessandra
Born in Italy 23 years ago to an Italian dad and Norwegian mom, Alessandra Watle Mele rose to prominence in Norway’s edition of The Voice, and here, clad in a vaguely sci-fi-evocative, caped black bustier trimmed with gold and a spiky gold tiara she told an interviewer was actually inspired by England’s Queen Elizabeth I (the original video also has a vaguely fantasy/sci-fi vibe). The staging is relatively simple and not overproduced compared to other competitors – mesmerizing, strobing blue lights, for the most part – but no matter: the song is compelling, driving, and feels like an heroic, epic anthem of sorts, with shades of Nordic mythology, its lyrics alluding to her challenging yet empowering experiences as a bisexual woman with inspirational, eminently catchy lines such as “She, queen of the kings, runnin' so fast, beatin' the wind./Nothin' in this world could stop the spread of her wings./She, queen of the kings, broken her cage, threw out the keys./She will be the warrior of the north and southern seas.” I’m prone to earworms, and this is totally a candidate for me. Anyway, over the decades, Norge has been all over the map in Eurovision – finishing last various times but also thrice with the top prize, and last year’s goofy/creepy “Give That Wolf a Banana” came in tenth. This time around the queen did them five better, being crowned in fifth place.
Poland: “Solo” - Blanka
Polska hasn’t been too successful since it began competing in 1994 – when Edyta Górniak’s “To Nie Ja!" achieved the country’s high-water mark, coming in second. Last night against a video screen packed with tropical imagery – palm trees, beaches, and colorful birdies – comely 24-year-old Blanka Stajkow from West Pomerania treated us to a breezy, catchy, fun yet fairly generic and lightweight dance tune in English celebrating liberation from a bad relationship: “Now I’m better solo solo./I never let me down down down/and now I’m gonna show ya show ya/show you what it is you’re missing out.” In other words, better solo than settling for less. Cute but a bit perfunctory and underwhelming – I honestly can’t understand how it made the finals when several other deserving competitors lost out. I can’t say I’m surprised it came in at 19 on the leaderboard, (as compared to 2022’s 12th-place finalist, Ochman’s pretty but somnolent ballad “River”).
Portugal: “Ai Coração” - Mimicat
With something of a zippy, even downright fiery cabaret/vaudeville feel, pop/soul chanteuse (and former realto) Marisa Isabel Lopes Mena, 39, came at us with a fluff of curly blond hair, a feathery, thigh-length, ruffled red frock, four also red-clad, handclapping back-up dancers, and a backdrop of flashing lights to lustily belt out “Oh Heart.” It’s basically about being in love and in a whirl, even slightly unhinged: “I feel dizzy, every day worse./I don't know things that I used to./Pulsations went up a thousand./I feel crazy, totally senile. Oh heart, tell me if you are mine!” Totally sui generis in this year’s lineup, “Ai Coração” is quite a fun, breezy, playful change of pace from the ballads – also always in Portuguese – we’ve become used to seeing from Portugal, such as last year’s gentle, wistful “Saudade, Saudade” from Maro (came in ninth) and Salvador Sobral’s "Amar Pelos Dois," (the country’s sole win so far, in 2017). However, this still wasn’t destined to totally capture the hearts of the public, with a a pretty near-the-bottom finish, Maybe they should go back to ballads? (And fun fact: at some point somebody figured out that there’s a “curse of the second song”: the second song performed at the final – which tonight was this one – has never grabbed the top prize. #Justsayin’.)
Serbia: “Samo mi se Spava" - Luke Black
Clean-cut and amazingly boyish-looking for 31, Luka Ivanović has made avant-garde “experimental pop” his lane, and “I’m Just Sleepy” cruises along it admirably, a musical performance piece with smooth, sometimes whispery vocals, in a mix of Serbian and English, and a darkly hypnotic, pulsing, electronica vibe and a sci-fi-videogame feel. There’s of course lots of talk of snoozing: “I just wanna sleep forever (I'm s-sleeping)./I like it better when I dream./I just wanna close my eyes (I'm s-sleeping)/And just get it over with./I wanna sleep forever (I'm s-sleeping)/While the world burns (This ends now).” The dreamlike choreography, meanwhile, starts out with Luke stretched out in a futuristic, translucent, cocoon-like bed and proceeding to yank out hoses attached to gas masked dancers, presumably pulling them out of their Matrix-like existence. A commentary on apocalyptic times, perhaps. Not unlike last year’s fifth-place Serbia entry, “In Corpore Sana” from Konstrakta (Luke’s aunt, imagine that), this one’s very quirky; has a social message; and is just quite different from the rest of the lineup. Nonetheless, it failed to join geeky-cool Marija Šerifović’s “Molitva,” which won in 2007 at Serbia’s very first appearance, and slept in at number 24. Maybe too experimental?
Slovenia: “Carpe Diem” by Joker Out
Slovenija’s first time back in the finals in four years comes courtesy of a seven-year-old quintet of sweet-looking, photogenic twentysomethings specializing in what they call “shagadelic” or “softboi” rock. And here the bois – decked out in retro-groovy threads – serve up a polished bit of melodic pop-rock in Slovenian (though its name is Latin for “seize the day”) exuberantly expressing the joy of music: “We'll be dancing all night long./We'll love each other and play/As if there was no tomorrow (There was no tomorrow)./We won't count the hours until dawn comes./We'll jump across the mountains/To be embraced by the sky.” Very much a fun, feel-good experience! In its 28 years competing, this country’s highest placement in the finals was seventh, both in 1995 and 2002, and Carpe Diem ended up seizing 21st place.
Spain: “Eaea” - Paloma Blanca
This powerful “electro flamenco” number – from a 33-year-old born in Valencian Community of twice Eurovision winner Spain -–in addition to being poetic, passionate, and powerful is without a doubt one of this country’s most “Spanish” entries in its 61 years of participation, evoking the traditional, Roma-influenced culture of Andalusia with its plaintive tonalities, clapping, and more. This is a kind of lullaby, with eaea is a word used to soothe children and help them go to sleep; the lyrics start “Hey, come, my child, come sleep by my side. May my bosom provide you with refuge, refuge from your sorrows.” And later, the haunting image of “My child, when I die, may they bury me in the moon, and I hope to watch over you every night.” The intimate yet dramatic – and exquisitely choreographed – the staging starts with Blanca in red-leather top and white pants, first outlined in silhouette against ghostly, moonlike lighted background and then surrounded (along with her five backup dancers) with hanging strands of red fabric reminiscent of the shawls sometimes worn over traditional Andalusian dresses. In the run-up to the competition, some observers wondered if this song is a little too “particular” and “regional” to appeal to a Europe-wide jury and audience (even though I found no similar doubts expressed about competitors influenced by Slavic folk traditions). Still, it obviously hit a chord, coming in at number 17 (a comedown from last year’s third runner up, “SloMo” by sexy, Cuban-born Chanel. No doubt one of the more "commercial" runners-up at Benidorm Fest - such as "Nochenetera" - would've done better.
Switzerland: “Watergun” - Remo Forrer
This cute, fresh faced 21-year-old sporting-goods salesman from German-speaking St. Gallen canton triumphed at the Swiss edition of The Voice three years ago, and here it seems like he’s got a bit of an Ed Sheeran thing going on. Simply clad in black, against an equally simple backdrop of lights and flanked with the inevitable dances, in his deep, resonant voice Remo smoothly and earnestly croons a haunting, melancholy, moving piano ballad (in English) that’s a plea for peace, centering on two young men who as boys would play at war but then are confronted with the grim reality of real war: “No, no, I don't wanna be a soldier, soldier./I don't wanna have to play with real blood./'Cause we ain't playin' now, can't turn and run, no water guns – just body bags that we've become.” A quiet but dramatic standout amid a field of big and bombastic, it was written before the Ukraine war but is certainly especially resonant given everything that’s transpired there in the past year and a quarter – plus of course all the other tragic and troubling conflict in the world today in places like Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Yemen. We can all identify, I think. But at the end of the battle, “Watergun” ended up not adding a third Eurovision win for Switzerland, squirting into number 20 (compared to 17 in last year’s final for “Boys Do Cry,” another ballad from another cute Swiss boy, Marius Bear).
Ukraine: “Heart of Steel” - TVORCHI
An automatic finalist due to its win last year, the three-time winner this time around Ukraina sent a very different act from 2022’s folk-meets-hio-hop winner Kalush Orchestra: an electronic duo composed of 27-year-old keyboard/producer Andrii Hutsuliak and 25-year-old, Nigeria-born vocalist Jimoh Augustus Kehinde. The title of their R&B-meets-techno number – mostly in English, with a smattering of Ukrainian thrown in – was inspired by Russia’s brutal 2022 siege of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, in which outnumbered defenders held out against greatly superior numbers, the song is about (according to Tvorchi) about not giving up in the face of adversity, as well as the threat of nuclear warfare (honestly, I don’t really see it, except for the bit in Ukrainian which goes “Despite the pain/I keep on fighting/The world is burning, and you act”). Backed by video screens flashing nuclear symbols as well as a pair of masked dancers, these guys turned in a performance that was solid (even though there was nothing particularly “Ukrainian” about it and ended up in sixth place, due I’m sure in large part to continuing sympathy over the war.
United Kingdom: “I Wrote a Song” - Mae Muller
Rounding up the alphabet as well as last night’s lineup, a 26-year-old north Londoner with sass and attitude brought a brisk, bopping Dua Lipa/Gwen Stefani-flavored bit of synth-pop business, With caricatures of her face splitting apart on the screen behind her. It’s about channeling anger at a cheating ex, exploring themes of self worth, admirable restraint, and gurl power. Très Taylor Swift, no? Here’s a key sample: “I got so mad, was gonna cuss you out outside your house for everyone to see. Wanted to trash your Benz, tell all your friends how cruel you were to me. Instead, I wrote a song…” The spoken-word interlude I could’ve done without – seemed a bit dated – but hey, overall I think most of us can amply relate to Mae’s sentiments here. Of course, this one doesn’t quite bring the uplift of last year’s second-place “Spaceman” from Sam Ryder, but on the other hand it does “take the high road,” as Mae put it on Tik Tok, and make lemonade from lemons after betrayal and heartache. It’s certainly catchy and club-ready, but while I liked, I also didn’t think it would stand out all that much among similar competitors. And maybe a little bit too negative and angry? Whatever, I that’s the way things played out – in the end “I Wrote a Song” got written off, and even lower than I expected: third to last.
And if you care to read my review of Eurovision 2022 click here. Other previous reviews: 2012 and 2013.
Cool write-up. While I was pulling for Marco Mengoni - apart from being Italian, I found his song beautiful and powerful - I also loved the Finnish act, very cheeky, fresh, and fun.
What a great show!! And I am in awe of the sheer amount of planning, scheduling, and other logistics involved in putting together this massive extravaganze.