What is the Eurovision Song Contest?
Started way back in 1956 as a way of drawing a fractured Europe back together with the healing power of music, the Eurovision Song Contest, or Concours Eurovision de la Chanson – the contest is telecast in both English and French – is open to all active members of the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the competition.
Each country is permitted to submit one song to the contest – a song which is selected by a variety of means, usually a winner-takes-all competition such as Sweden’s renowned Melodifestivalen – which they perform in one of two semi-finals in the hopes of making it to the glittering grand final.
Only six countries have direct entry into the grand final:
* The Big Four who fund most of the contest – UK, Germany, France and Spain
* The host country (which is the winner of the previous year’s contest)
* Italy, who didn’t take part for many years and was re-admitted in 2011 after a 14 year absence (it was one of seven countries that competed in the first event), making the Big Four the Big Five.
The winner is chosen by a 50/50 mix of viewer votes (you cannot vote for your own country) and a jury of music industry professionals in each country, a method which was chosen to counter the alleged skewing of votes based on political and/or cultural lines when voting was purely the preserve of viewers at home.
Past winners include, of course, ABBA in 1974 with “Waterloo” and Celine Dion who won for Switzerland in 1988 with “Ne partez pas sans moi”.
Above all though, the Eurovision Song Contest is bright, over the top and deliciously camp, a celebration of music, inclusiveness and togetherness that draws annual viewing figures in the hundreds of millions.
This year’s contest will be held in Kyiv, Ukraine.
ALBANIA: “World” by Lindita
A clear proponent of the one-name pop moniker – and why not since it’s worked for Madonna, Rihanna and Cher? – Lindita (full name: Lindita Hallimi) is a woman with many ticks on her bucket list.
Grabbing fame by the proverbial short and curlies with a win in Top Fest with the song “Ëndërroja” (I dreamed), the 27 year old from Vitina, Kosovo, has also competed in American Idol (she made the top 25) and been a finalist in Albanian Idol, proving (possibly) that you can never be in too many reality TV shows.
Possessed of the ability to sing in 10 languages, which would make asking for directions in a foreign country, if you were travelling with her, akin to being in an MGM musical, she’s won a slew of awards, locally, nationally and internationally, and after a number of attempts, and most importantly for our purposes here, emerged triumphant at Festivali i Këngës, the Albanian selection process for Eurovision.
Musical fame? TICK! Wait, not so fast; she’s done well to date, no doubt but can she rise to the top at Eurovision, competing with Europe’s presumed best?
While her lucky pre-stage routine of eating eggs and drinking hot tea with honey may play a part, it’s the song by Klodian Qafoku, who competed in Eurovision in 2006, that will really be the determining factor.
As songs go, this one opens with a portentous flourish, building as it goes on with an ever-escalating goosebump-inducing climb up the Deeply Emotional Ballad-o-Meter, hitting its stride in the chorus with an epic Bond theme-like pounding sensibility.
This is music meant for maximum impact, and coupled with Lindita’s impressive set of pipes, which more than rise to the occasion, it’s bound to make an impact.
Granted, it’s not an out-of-the-park winner, but it’s not your average connect-the dots-, snooze through the bridge kind of ballad either and if Lindita’s success on stage at myriad contest attests, she’s got the ability to make a lasting impression.
Expect to see this lady in the Grand Final, hopefully all dried out after her underwater musical romp.
ARMENIA: “Fly With Me” by Artsvik
Clearly enamoured of keeping things simple when it comes to professional nom de guerres, and remember Eurovision is a contest, not an amateur hour, every contestant gets a prize undertaking, Artsvik Harutyunyan, born in Kapan, in what was then the Armenian SSR, prefers to be known by her first name only.
Given her success so far in life, where music has ruled with a lilting and well-modulated fist save for a brief detour to study as a speech therapist psychologist – she should therefore be busy lending her services, should she so desire, backstage at Eurovision – sticking to a singular moniker makes perfect sense.
It’s a neat way to cap off a lifetime of “singing [and] creating melodies” (inspired by her idol Whitney Houston), which led her to move to Moscow, compete in The Voice of Russia and winning the hearts and minds of Russians with a mix of covers and originals such as “Why, No Fear”, “I Say Yes” and “Сестры по духу”.
But while you can take the aspiring female singer out of Armenia – technically she took herself but let’s not argue semantics here – you can’t take Armenia out of the woman and so in 2016, she moved home, wowed the musical powers that be in the national Eurovision selection contest, Depi Evratesil, and now stands on the cusp of pan-European greatness (which sounds suitably dramatic for a woman of her presence and persistence).
Clearly deeply impacted by all that travelling, Artsvik has opted for a song called “Fly With Me” by Lilith Navasardyan and Levon Navasardyan, which whips itself down the runway with tribal determination, a mix of gently beating drums and a winsome melody, but fails to really make it into the air.
It’s pretty assuredly and possessed of the requisite earnestness and mentions of “love lifting us high” but it never really goes anywhere of consequence.
Rather than soaring to the heights, with Cupid’s more idealistic sibling as its travelling companion, it circles the airport, rather attractively it must be said, a few times, has a go at revving to life itself into the air – those opening bars coupled with Artsvik’s artfully-evocative whispers promise so much – it never really moves beyond idling.
It’s a pity really because Artsvik clearly has a great voice and a stage presence, not to mention a naturally ability for moving in military-like precision with her backing dancers, but in this case the song is likely to only get her as fast as the semi-final, stymieing her obviously high-flung professional travel plans.
AUSTRALIA: “Don’t Come Easy” by Isaiah
The first indigenous male to represent Australia at Eurovision – this is the country’s third year competing in the contest – Isaiah Firebrace, who has also embraced the solo name moniker for professional purposes, has “big dreams”.
So motivated is he in fact that he left his hometown of Moama (pop. 5000) in southern New South Wales, and flew to Sydney, his first flight anywhere to compete in the eighth season of X-Factor, where he did very nicely thank you, winning with performances of songs by Beyoncé and Avicii.
Not content with conquering the stages of Sydney (and the charts of the world with his debut single “It’s Gotta Be You” making a splash worldwide), the talented 17 year old is now off to the bright stages of the Eurovision Song Contest, something which understandably excites this small town boy:
“Because it’s the biggest stage in the world! It’s an extra special honour as an indigenous teenager to represent my country of Australia and inspire young kids around Australia (and the world) that no matter how young you are or where your from you can dare to dream.”
But will his song “Don’t Come Easy” realise the starry-eyed Eurovision dreams of Australia?
Yes and no … possibly.
If that all sounds equivocal, and shame on me as an Aussie for not being unabashedly, shamelessly parochial, it’s because while Isaiah’s got a killer, deeply emotionally-evocative voice that stands to repeat the successes of Guy Sebastian (2015) and Dami Im (2016), the song itself is little inert.
It’s not that “Don’t Come Easy” by doesn’t have a beating pulse, redolent with some lovely stirring moments by DNA (David Musumeci & Anthony Egizii) and Michael Angelo, and some sage words about love being something easily acquired,it never gains attraction.
In fact, it comes perilously close to sounding like something you’d hear at a higher-end cabaret club where the music is reasonably formulaic; well done sure but hardly out of the box extraordinary.
The one wildcard here could be the live performance where Isaiah has shown he’s got the presence and the voice to really make an impression.
You can only hope it all comes brilliantly together on the night, or he maybe adding to his nascent frequent flier career a little earlier than he bargained.
AZERBAIJAN: “Skeletons” by DiHaj
The member of an electronic music collective named Dihaj, Diana Hajiyeva, who has won awards and performed at music festivals such as Women in Paradise in Amsterdam, has some serious musical training under her belt.
Not only did she graduate from the Baku Music Academy in 2010, but she also spent time in London studying at The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, where when she the time she wasn’t hitting the books (playing the charts? The music college equivalent eludes me), she performed in a progressive trance trio Looper & Mancus.
That inclination to sit on the bleeding cutting edge is in evidence in pretty much everything she does, with the tried and true often discarded in favour of pushing the boundaries as far as they will stretch.
It’s very much in evidence on “Skeletons” which draws most assuredly from what music critics have apparently labelled “experimental doom pop” which according to her official Eurovision bio seamlessly blends “post-rock guitar riffs, semi-acoustic drum set and atmospheric vocals”.
It is certainly one of the standout tracks of the contest, delivering a darkly, melodically ethereal musical experience that should make for quite the presentation on the stage of the Kyiv International Exhibition Centre.
From its haunting opening bars, which drip with anticipation to its swelling chorus and choir-like vocals, this is a song that breaks the mould and confirms that Dihaj is not going to be your run of the mill Eurovision performer, something the singer herself acknowledges:
“I do understand that I’m not a typical Eurovision singer. So it’s crucial for me to stay true to myself in everything I do in the next few months.”
You can only hope that the good people of Europe will embrace this delightfully stark difference and vote for her idiosyncratic song choice and performance, a more than welcome break from the usual paint-by-earnest-numbers ballads.
BELGIUM: “”Citylights” by Blanche
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be someone’s muse, you may want to start up a conversation with Ellie Delvaux, who like all of the artists in this initial group of reviews, goes by a single musical sobriquet, Blanche.
The singer/songwriter’s voice so impressed fellow music artist Pierre Dumoulin that he began writing songs before the two had even got past “Well, hello”; fortunately for Pierre, he and Blanche got on famously from the word go and joined up with Tim Bran who has worked with the likes of London Grammar, Aurora and Birdy.
All of which means that Blanche who can, by her own account, “move one of [her] toes telepathetically”, and did rather well for herself on The Voice Belgique in 2016 where she was on Team Cats on Trees (best name ever), is in the box seat when it comes to creative collaboration.
What you need to remember of course is that Blanche, while possessed of brilliant professional company, has impressive talents of her own.
Chief among them is her utterly distinctive husky voice which her Eurovision profile refers to as “fragile and melancholic”, and which is so memorably unique that it invests “City Lights” already atmospherically rich with a whole new ethereal lustre.
Throw in some stunning stage choreography a la Loreen and Blanche could be a real showstopper, proving that you can be utterly different and still go a long way.
Expect this to push Belgium into the bright spotlight of the Grand Final, but even if it fails to do that, and I can see that happening, this is one of the best songs from an Eurovision entrant in years.
CYPRUS: “Gravity” by Hovig
There is, quite clearly, a syllable shortage in Europe since Cyprus’s entry, Hovig, has also dispensed with a full stage name in keeping with his Eurovision contemporaries.
But that’s about the only thing that this artist of Armenian heritage, known to the government as Hovig Demirjian, is short on, having ambition and a musically prodigious inclination in spades.
He kicked off his performing career in clubs at the tender age of 16 – which let’s be fair is practically middle-aged in this Justin Bieber-led day and age – a choice which so informed his life that he ditched his marketing studies opting instead for a jazz music course.
So he has the power of self-belief, positivity and ambition to his credit, and now after failing to get the nod from state broadcaster CyBC in 2010 and 2015, he is also the officially internally chosen entrant for Cyprus in this year’s contest.
But does his song “Gravity” reward CyBC decision to forget a musical dog-eat-dog selection process in favour of parachuting Hovig into the coveted entrant slot?
Yes and no.
It’s catchy in its own way, and yes it’s reasonably of the moment and “modern” as Hovig himself notes when asked about the song.
But that’s it’s Achilles Heel too – it sounds like too much else out there and a tad too redolent of some past Eurovision entries as if composter Thomas G:son wrote to spec, assembling the song from constituent pieces.
It’s not by any stretch a bad song and will likely do very well, helped by Hovig’s strong, emotionally-voice and impressive stage presence, but it’s not the be all and end of all of songs and may not go the distance.