Firstly a little explanation. I'm doing the reviews a little bit differently from the usual this year. I will post my comments on every song as usual, but the semi-final posts will only include comments on songs which didn't make the final; comments on the finalists will be included in my post about the final.
One very significant change this year was watching ESC on my own, without mum throwing her witty comments into the mix. It certainly wasn't the same without her. We always had a lot of fun at Eurovision time. She would start watching and quickly become very grumpy about the songs, and I would automatically go into defensive mode. But she did love the Eurovision Song Contest (despite her denials) and never missed a final even if she avoided the semi-finals at every opportunity. I wonder what she'd have thought of this year's songs?
In this year's posts I've used a mixture of my own screen shots (that's why they look so blurry!) and official pictures.
After the weeks and months of national finals, internal selections, promo parties, podcasts and endless speculation – it all comes down to this. It’s finally time for the first semi-final of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest from Stockholm.
(Picture credit Andres Putting (EBU)
This leads into a performance of “Heroes” which would have been very familiar to everyone who saw it on Melodifestivalen. Little balloon guy is transformed into a real boy, and the army of stick men are transformed into children who are inexplicably styled as Oompa-Loompas. I don’t like this version. As someone once said, you can’t win anything with kids. My other problem with this version is that it’s a slowed-down version. I really don’t like slowed-down versions of uptempo songs; it’s the “John Lewis Christmas Ad” syndrome. ESC really doesn’t need this. Måns is probably fed up performing the old version of “Heroes” but this version leaves me cold.
The opening is slick and modern. Three years ago we had the little caterpillar travelling across Europe, turning into a butterfly in Malmö; this year the dandelion seeds blew across the continent, eventually illuminating Globen with this year's logo.
(Picture credit Andres Putting (EBU)
The hosts’ faces flash across the high-tech screens as they take to the stage. After hosting alone in 2013, this year Petra Mede has teamed up with Måns Zelmerlöw (who after that Lynda Woodruff sketch in Melfest 2016 will forever be known as Måns Sell-me-love!). They both look fab – Måns in a tuxedo, Petra in an off-white glittery dress. There are early signs that the comedy quota is going to be high. "Welcome Europe!" makes way for "The Final Countdown" gag. (And even at this early stage, I'm already sick of BBC4's UK commentators Scott Mills and Mel Giedroyc talking over Petra and Måns.) Tonight, Petra would also deliver her now-legendary quip: "grab your towels, it's time to come together"!
For a long time, the postcards were once a tourism advert for the host country but since 2013, that’s changed and the focus is back on on the artists (although Vienna 2015 tried to combine artists and tourism). My favourite postcards of recent years remain the inventive flag displays from Copenhagen 2014. No flags this year though, but the stylish postcards this year just put a slow-motion focus on the artists and show them going about their business in their respective countries.
FINLAND: "Sing It Away" - Sandhja.
Sandhja gives it loads of attitude with an energetic and lively performance, accompanied by her backing singers who also dance around. “Sing It Away” is in the style of Jess Glynne-meets-90s dance and hasn’t been favourably received, although in my view it’s pretty interchangeable with Spain’s “Say Yay!” which was much more of a fan fave earlier in the season. Although Sandhja’s an enthusiastic performer, someone really needs to have a word with her stylist, as that catsuit doesn't do her (or anyone for that matter) any favours.
Reason: I just don’t see anyone really having a reason to vote for it; there were also some iffy vocals.
If I’ve complained about the modern-day ESC lacking songs/artists with any national characteristics, that can’t be said for Greece. This is unmistakably Greek. Although Argo manage to fill the sunburst-stage well, and they sing “dance with us and have some fun” the overwhelming feeling is of weariness and sadness, which is probably more reflective of that lovely country's hard times over the past few years. I just like my Greek songs more uptempo. This is just too downbeat and all the dancing and the shirtless finale can’t save it. Oh, and all that drumming is more ESC 2006 than ESC 2016.
Reason: It’s a tough decision as Greece have always qualified, sometimes in spite of bad songs, but the draw-of-death position combined with the weaknesses of the song, means it’s just not enough.MOLDOVA: "Falling Stars" - Lidia Isac.
So this is a Melfest reject right? Lidia herself seems a likeable enough performer and vocally capable, but this is suffering from Unnecessary Distracting Dancer Syndrome (example: Lithuania 2014). Keeping with the Falling Stars theme we have the appearance of a dancing astronaut and it all just gets ridiculous. Given the draw position, this song has minimal qualifying chances anyway, apart from the stupid choreography. But it's certainly not the worst song in the contest.
Reason: The song just doesn’t stand out enough. Moldova has lost its way at ESC and now seems a long long way from its 2010-2013 glory days; bring back Pasha, Zdob si Zdub or even bloody Epic Sax Guy. Moldova aren’t bringing the crazy any more. Bring back the crazy.
WILL MEL GIEDROYC EFFING STOP CALLING IT THE EUROVISH? That makes me cringe.HUNGARY: "Pioneer" - Freddie.
Reason: It’s just too much of a bland mid-tempo generic ballad with nothing special about it. One of these years I would love Hungary to win, but not with a ‘nothing’-song like this.
Result: Qualifier. Which rather baffled me, but there you go.
CROATIA: "Lighthouse" - Nina Kraljić.
Reason: Despite the on-season hype, I just couldn't understand the love for this song. On the night, however, she gives an impressive performance. Even despite the dresses which had guaranteed her a clear run at the Barbara Dex award.
Result: Qualifier. As it turned out, the hype worked.
Reason: After I heard this song for the first time I got that feeling which I last felt in 2001 when I heard "Everybody" and got the "winner-chills". However, the 10 second pause is embarrassing, and filling it with "I love you too baby" is, well, even more cringeworthy.
ARMENIA "Love Wave" - Iveta Mukuchyan.
Reason: It might be a non-song in my world, but the overall presentation and performance of it is one of the best of the night. Iveta would later put herself at risk of disqualification by waving the flag of the disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh during the recap in the green room.
And now it is time for the 'Hat.
Now, good people, I have a soft spot for this, because it's basically Old Eurovision and is a break from all this modern nonsense. There is nothing cynical or calculated about this. It is just three minutes of sheer unadulterated old-fashioned cheesy disco pleasure from an old Turkish bloke singing for San Marino. And why not? Flanked by metallic disco vixens, Serhat takes us back in time. And if there’s handclaps, count me in – I didn’t know (clap clap), I didn’t know (clap clap)…and so on. Thank you Serhat, for gracing Eurovision world.The "peeing inside our minds" is a bit sinister, but this always makes me smile. I just wonder who got the hat which he threw away? By the way, before the disco-version was revealed I played the original version to faithful travelling companion whose reaction was.....well, basically, if we were married it would have been grounds for divorce, lol :)))))) I think my mum would have had a wee chuckle at this though!
Reason: You either get the 'Hat or you don't. My theory was that many of the juries/viewers wouldn't 'get' this.
Result: Non-qualifier. (Although it is later revealed that this song came 12th out of 18 songs, narrowly missing out on bringing out some much-needed fun to the final).
Petra and Måns are already a million times better than last year's personality-void trio of presenters. The script is written by Melfest regular Edward af Sillén, and Petra's delivery is spot-on. "Size doesn’t matter in this competition….all you wonderful boys and girl in the audience”. Whilst, how shall I put it? - the 'referencing' is admittedly funny, dare I say it's also becoming a little bit boring and predictable now?
Reason: They are aggressively in-it-to-win-it with the most ambitious staging of the year, although I thought it was unprofessional of BBC4's Scott Mills to comment that there is "desperation in the air".
CZECH REPUBLIC: "I Stand" - Gabriela Gunčikova.
Reason: For the same reason as Croatia - I didn't think that the pre-contest fan-hype would translate into votes.
Result: Qualifier. And regardless of the way I feel about the song, I'm so happy that the Czech Republic have qualified to the final at last.
Reason: Uptempo energetic pop-rock which provides welcome respite from all the power ballads and Sia-alikes...
AUSTRIA: "Loin D'ici" - Zoë.
Reason: It may be too sweet for some, but it's genuinely charming and I could see it appealing to voters.
We get to see Pooters' bum in the postcard - well there's certainly a first time for everything in a Eurovision postcard! What follows is a prime example of how bad styling and bad staging can completely scupper a song's chances. In the Eesti Laul final, the staging perfectly matched the song: dark, brooding and mysterious. By the time "Play" reached Stockholm the staging had been influenced by the "Play Your Cards Right" opening titles, with Jüri as the cheesy game show host in the blue suit - and as for that card trick....! The staging is completely incompatible with the broody, sensuous nature of the song.
Prediction (before the show): Qualifier.
Reason: Although I did say in my prediction preview that Estonia and Austria may be at risk if Greece was to qualify, I still strongly believed (before the show) that Estonia would make it.
Result: Non-qualifier. I'm very disappointed because I always want to see Estonia in the final. I'm not blaming Jüri: it's the whole staging concept which completely diluted the song's strengths.
AZERBAIJAN: "Miracle" - Samra.
Reason: It's Azerbaijan, innit? And as sure as every day ends in 'y', then they will always make the final, regardless of the quality of the song (or in this year's case, the singer, who is lucky enough to have some particularly strong backing vocalists on hand!). Nothing else to say really.
MONTENEGRO: "The Real Thing" - Highway.
Now here is an example of a song which never registered with me at all through national finals season, yet on the night it's a very different proposition. I may be in a very, very small minority but I really enjoy this on the night. "The Real Thing" isn't much of a song, rather a brilliant guitar riff wrapped around a rather forgettable and repetitive hook. However, it all works for me on stage. (Update: I would go on to play it a lot after the contest as well). Credit to Montenegro for trying something different anyway.
Reason: It's not a strong enough song and will take more than a great guitar riff to make people want to vote for this.
ICELAND: "Hear Them Calling" - Greta Salome.
Every year I trot out the same old stuff about Iceland being the one country I really want to win ESC.
I never had "Hear Them Calling" down as a winner this year, but in semi-final 1, Greta does more than enough to warrant a qualification place. Regardless of whether or not the staging is derivative of "Euphoria" and "Heroes" it has enough special visual factors of its own (the grabbing hands, and the belching smoke) and there is now more light and close-up camera angles to ensure that connection between Greta and the viewers.
Reason: Greta's experience shines through and the song and staging are just in perfect harmony with each other.
Result: Non-qualifier. The major shock of the night for me. (Even all these months down the line, I'm still puzzled....!)
Deen is now unrecognisable from his "In The Disco" persona. The 2016 vintage is a bald guy in a Herr Flick coat, and the staging is all very meaningful with the barbed wire. One aspect of modern Eurovision which makes me sad is the move away from native language. What was once the (compulsory) norm is now a risk. Even Serbia and Croatia are now singing in English, which leaves BiH and FYR Macedonia flying the native language flag for the former Yugoslavia.
This is shouty, serious and dramatic, But unfortunately it is also lacking that something special which you usually expect from a Balkan ESC entry. This is certainly no classic and I'll admit my attention wanders during it.
Prediction: Qualifier (before the contest)
Reason: I genuinely thought there would still be enough love for Bosnia-Herzegovina who have always been guaranteed finalists.
Result: Non-qualifier. Native-language? Complex staging? Just not a good enough song? Who knows. Due to the broadcaster's financial problems, it's been announced that Bosnia-Herzegovina will not compete in 2017. Hopefully they will come back again - and stronger - at some point in the future.
Reason: the pre-contest hype combined with the draw should translate into votes. It's musically contemporary enough as well, although Ira is probably better than the song.
So that's the first set of songs. In their infinite wisdom, BBC4 decides to go with its usual mix of interviews and stupid VTs and deny us the chance to watch the acclaimed dance number "The Grey People" based on Europe's refugee crisis. It's all very well the BBC advising us that we can go to eurovision.tv to watch it, but despite the change of channel, from the now online-only BBC3 to the more high-quality and credible BBC4, the coverage remains third-rate.
Some of the finalists are then introduced with rehearsal clips of their songs: Sweden's Frans, Spain's Barei and France's Amir. Then it's time for the announcement of the songs which have qualified to the final. Unlike the speedy, dismissive way in which the finalists were announced in the below-par Vienna 2015 contest, Måns and Petra get it right, and the individual country-logos appear as each finalist is announced.
As it turns out, I get 7 out of 10 of my predictions correct. Hungary, Czech Republic and Croatia are in the final, in place of my predicted Iceland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Estonia. Congratulations to Måns and Petra and SVT on producing an enjoyable and very slick first semi-final. Onwards to the next semi-final!