Road to Eurovision 2023: Week 1 – Azerbaijan, Croatia, Czechia, Finland + Ireland (Semi-final 1, part 1)

(courtesy Emma Egan / Shutterstock)

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 three-minute 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 their selected entrant performs 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 event
Sporting the theme “United by Music”, the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 is being co-hosted by 2022’s winner Ukraine (“Stefania” by Kalush Orchestra) and runner-up the UK. Traditionally the winner would host but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which is ongoing, has meant that’s not possible so the contest will be held in Liverpool, with the event hosted by Ukrainian and UK presenters and a clear emphasis on the unity in music that Eurovision has always celebrated.

AZERBAIJAN: “Tell Me More” by TuralTuranX

(image via Shuttertsock)

Azerbaijan is keeping it all in the family with their representative for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Twin brothers Tural and Turan Bağmanov, who are barely into their third decade here on planet earth, hail from the northwestern part of the country and are now professionally as TuralTuranX.

Like many music artists, they kicked things off really young, falling in love with piano playing and then synthesiser (bought by their dad) playing and then the guitar, all of it in aid of practising songs which apparently they did in secret. (Yep, while other kids are surfing the net or reading books by torchlight under the covers, Tural and Turan were smuggling a band’s worth of instruments into their bedroom; at least that’s the mental picture it encourages.)

Now, you might have thought taking their burgeoning musical career, now taking the form of band Red Jungle from behind to the scenes to gigging in the middle of the COVID pandemic might not have been the best timing, but with no access to arenas or concert halls, the boys made do, notes their Eurovision bio, with “performing on the streets and drawing in their own audiences.”

With a definite nod to ’60s and ’70s musical influences from decades well before they were born, TuralTuranX will be taking on their biggest gig yet in front of all of Europe and the world … so the big question, do they have a song to rise to the occasion?

( courtesy (c) Khalid Zeynalov)

If you’re looking for a chilled Saturday afternoon on the porch waiting for the world to pass by, then “Tell Me More” is a perfect soundtrack.

Sure, there’s some rap in the bridges but by and large, this gorgeous slice of lo-fi, guitar-rich pop sits on the chilled end of the spectrum, folding in some country too to envelop you in a song full of emotion and heart and some pretty beautiful harmonies.

It almost recalls the country vibes of many Netherlands entries, and while you may not think that’s the sort of sound that would capture Eurovision voters hearts, think again because country-tinged introspection has actually done rather nicely in the past.

Not winning the contest nice, true, but this could hot the spot with the audience; however, given the strength of semi-final 1, it might be tough for Azerbaijan to make it to the grand final round.

Still, don’t count this stress-zhoushing piece of emotive pop out just yet ..

CROATIA: “Mama ŠČ!” by Let 3

(image via Shutterstock)

God bless the resolutely, extravagantly, ridiculously out there people of the world!

Bands like Croatia’s Let 3 in fact who, in music, costume and general who-gives-a-f**k attitude, make everything around them, and by extension, us, a whole lot less drab and who, in doing so, live out the bonkers vibe that makes us love Eurovision at its most idiosyncratic so very much.

Inspired by punk sensibilities – they emerged after all from Rijeka where the genre found its first home in Croatia – Let 3 are known for “merging energetic performances with live art, social commentary, over-the-top theatrics, and outlandish costumes”. (For the record their costumery is a happiness-stoking mix of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Disney’s 1961 film oddity Babes in Toyland.)

10 albums in and with the original line-up of two having grown to three (hence, the name) and beyond – the current group is composed of co-founders Damir Martinović and Zoran Prodanović with Ivan Bojčić, Dražen Baljak and Matej Zec – Let 3, who have actually released a chart-topping BLANK album (yup, not a song to be heard),also have a penchant for performing in the nude.

Which could make the job of host broadcaster, the BBC (who’s technically co-hosting officially with the Ukrainian broadcaster) more than a little challenging should they decide to ditch the clothes … let’s hope their pixellation technician is ready to spring into action!

(courtesy (c) Franko Kelam)

So, they have the provocative persona down pat.

But they do they have the song to back all the fantastic costumes (assuming they’re worn), make-up and gloriously balmy posturing?

My but they do!

“Mama ŠČ!”, which has a huge amount of fun in the verse/bridge part of proceedings sticking it all in a musical blender and seeing where it lands, roars into compulsively listenable life in the chorus which zooms forward with punk-laced rock and a general sense of presence and occasion.

While it ends kookily fast – we expect nothing else from these happy renegades and salute them for pushing envelopes all over the place – the song is a fabulous slice of off-kilter rock-pop that will hold audiences in their thrall and may propel Croatia to the grand final if there’s any justice in the world.

CZECHIA: “My Sister’s Crown” by Vesna

(image via Shutterstock)

Like Croatia, Czechia has reached deep into the dress-up and cosmetics box and out has emerged Vesna, an all-female band fronted by legendary singer and songwriter Patricia Kaňok.

The intent when the band was founded in 2016 was to celebrate felinity and Slavic sisterhood using folk music seamlessly combined with modern, highly-listenable pop which found verdant expression on their debut album, 2018’s Pátá bohyně (The Fifth Goddess).

Rather wonderfully, and this only makes you love a band which brings together social commentary, quirky representation and beautiful music to arresting effect, their debut album was launched in what their Eurovision bio describes as “a fairytale-inspired concert with the Prague Symphony Orchestra” which makes you imagine the most magical of public launchpads.

Like many music artists, the COVID pandemic presented a host of challenges but they rose to them by recording second album Anima which “band member Bára Šůstková reported that the album was represented by animal motifs, the relationship between men and women, and the female body”.

Having joined a host of other Czechan artists to hold a charity concert in Wenceslas Square in support of Ukraine back in February 2022, Vesna now stand ready to bring their message and music to Eurovision – are they ready to make a splash on this biggest of all European stages?

(courtesy (c) Milan Vopálenský

Absolutely yes and then some more of that!

“My Sister’s Crown” is goosebump-inducingly good, a captivating song that hits hard with lyrics that defiantly declares “My sister won’t stand in the corner / Nor will she listen to you” before going on to say “We’re not your dolls!” and “You can’t steal our souls”.

These energising words are set to music that brings together Czech folk influences with highly anthems pop and which makes you want to hit the streets and live out the song’s calls for self-determination, respect and autonomy.

It’s a heady package of thoughtfully impactful pop that has you hitting repeat over and over again, buoyed by gorgeously powerful harmonies and a sense that this will knock it completely out of the park on semi-final 1 night.

Look for Czechia to romp into the grand final on the back of a song that is thematically and musically as good as it gets …

FINLAND: “Cha Cha Cha” by Käärijä

(via Shutterstock)

It’s impossible to know what Finland adds to the water to keep producing music artists who are brilliantly good at their craft while sporting personas that owe nothing to convention, but whatever it is, for the love of all that is genre-pushing, please let them keep doing it.

Rapper, singer, and songwriter Käärijä is the latest Finnish artist to trust forth from the creatively out-there pac that is their musical scene, and he likes to having fun, describing his shirtless parties (yes, we are paying attention even more now, thank you) as “It’s crazy, it’s party!”

Which means the rapper, who has yet to find a genre he doesn’t love and wants to incorporate into his sound, is going to fit sublimely and perfectly into the Eurovision Song Contest which, last we checked, LOVES a god crazy party!

Kicking off his musical journey with drums, he’s been producing music since 2014 with a slew of singles and EP leading the way to his debut album Fantastista in 2020, and it’s impossible to imagine his highly-appealing mix of “rap, electronic music, metal, schlager … ballroom dancing, a neon green bolero jacket, and lots and lots of wooden pallets” not going down a treat with everyone in attendance.

(courtesy (c) Nelli Kenttä / Yle)

Infused with the heavy electronic and rock that you immediately associate with Finland, a country which musically seems to go hard and go often, Käärijä’s song “Cha Cha Cha” is all POWER.

It’s damn near impossible not to pump your fist with urgency and forceful intent whole listening to a song that is a beat heavy to an intoxicatingly intense degree.

All techno swagger and lyrical odes to dance floor nights out where hedonistic losing of yourself is the order of the escapist day, “Cha Cha Cha”, which actually dives into a skippily pop bridge which is truly delightful, is a song with so much presence it’s going to be hard to miss.

It’s also ridiculously busy and frenetically danceable and you can only be envious of everyone in the Liverpool Arena on the river Mersey who will be in close live proximity to this delicious slice of soul-reviving high-intensity electro-rock which should see Finland comfortably kickboxing their musically determined way into the grand final.

IRELAND: “We Are One” by Wild Youth

(via Shutterstock)

Springing forth into the Dublin music back in the heady pre-COVID days of 2016, Wild Youth, consisting of David Whelan, Conor O’Donohoe, Ed Porter and Callum McAdam, are set to make their presence felt in Liverpool at this year’s contest.

Proudly responsible for all their own music, they released their debut single, “All or Nothing” in 2017 which as statements of musical career goal-setting go, is pretty definitive, a success-driven mantra that has led them to more than a few number one hits.

Let’s hear for vision boarding in song your future success!

But it hasn’t stopped with chart domination with Wild Youth touring with the likes of Niall Horan, Lewis Capaldi, and Zara Larson, and making it onto TV more often than they haven’t, including on the Late Late Show where they fought off what their Eurovision bio calls “fierce competition” to win the right to make Ireland hopefully produced come May …

But do they have the song to go with that pre-Eurovision pop achievement?

If you take the song in isolation, you might be tempted to say “Yes”; “We Are One” has a catchy lyrical and musical invocation to unite in the service of giving life your all, which let’s face it, is needed more than ever at the moment.

But while the song has a heady air of encouragement and invocation to go for it all in the supportive company of others, it does feel like it’s been written by a committee with their eyes firmly on the dictionary of key Eurovision words, themes and sounds.

It will no doubt make an impression, and get peoples’ attention in the short term – think the three minutes during which the songs is performed (for the uninitiated no Eurovision song can exceed that run time) in silver sequinned hoods – but it’s highly likely it will then vanish into the ether, weighed down by cliche and ordinariness, especially in a semi-final brimming with some pretty dazzling one-of-a-kind expressions of creativity.

The only thing that may save it, the band and Ireland is its performance in a live setting which could generate enough heat and buzz to transcend its predictably tropic shackles and give it enough life to make a dent into audience’s voting patterns.

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