Saturday, March 11, 2017

EuropeCrazy is 10 years old today!

On Sunday 11th March 2007, I started a little blog where I would write about European music and travel, and also some other (non-European related) interests.  I never thought that anyone would ever read it, as it was just a little hobby, and I'd never have guessed that I would still be blogging 10 years later,  The best thing is that I have got to know some really lovely people thanks to this blog.  And even though I've never met any of you, I consider you to be my friends!  I know it sounds like a cliche but blogging really changed my life.  As a "quiet" person who has struggled throughout my life with shyness, social anxiety, a lack of confidence and not having the same interests as everyone else, blogging opened a door to a new world for me and I finally found a place I could feel at home, where many others shared my interests. This 'virtual world' quickly became a happier place than the 'real' one and provided an escape from the stresses of day to day life.

In my early, hectic blogging years between 2007 and 2009, my life was very different and I had more time, energy and opportunities to blog than I have now.  In the first year of EuropeCrazy, I blogged relentlessly, writing as many posts in one month as I now do over a year. The posts were short and snappy, enthusiastic and excitable.  It was a golden age of pop blogs which introduced me to a lot of great music from across Europe.  It was the start of an incredible journey of musical discovery, and I had a particular interest in Swedish music.

By accident, on 14th July 2007, I came across a Swedish singer/songwiter/all-round musical genius called Salem Al Fakir,  By the end of 2007, one blog became two.  My enthusiasm for Salem spiralled into a spin-off fan blog called Planet Salem, ( and I just didn't expect what would happen next. The blog quickly gathered a large readership of devoted Salem fans and almost every minute of my spare time was spent on almost daily updates whilst keeping EuropeCrazy going at the same time. Eventually I was to achieve my dream of going to see Salem in concert in Gothenburg on 18th April 2009, but the biggest surprise of all was yet to come - I was invited to meet Salem before his concert. Looking back, I don't know where I got the courage or confidence from!  And then the following year, I returned to Gothenburg to see him play live again on 26th March 2010.  A lot had changed by then - Salem was now a household name in Sweden thanks to his participation in Melodifestivalen, but when I got the opportunity to meet him again that evening, it was very clear that he remained such a likeable, humble and down-to-earth person in spite of his growing fame.  Salem's decision to retreat from the spotlight to focus on songwriting and production for other artists was initially disappointing but, with hindsight, not so surprising.  And although it's been a generally dormant blog in recent years, Planet Salem is still going and I continue to report any news about the great man's musical adventures.

Back to EuropeCrazy now: although I enjoyed writing about all the new music I discovered, I also wanted to share my love for the music which I've loved throughout my life, and that was the inspiration for Retro Saturday, a feature which ran on the blog during its first few years.

Over the past couple of years, two factors have impacted on the reduction in music coverage on this blog: the 'globalisation' of music and the impact that streaming has made on the charts.  In 2007, I could look at any iTunes chart across Europe and of course it would include the big international hits, but there would also be enough home-grown music to provide a genuine alternative to the UK chart. Nowadays it's all about Spotify streams etc, but I'm pretty much old-school so I still like to check the iTunes charts....only to be greeted with the same songs in every chart, in every country, for weeks and months on end.  There is also a complete lack of variety in what is passing for mainstream 'pop' music these days - it's either faceless EDM or acoustic bores. And most importantly, where have all the good tunes gone?

I used to listen to a lot of Swedish commercial radio, but I rarely listen these days as it's often indistinguishable from my local radio station, due to that 'globalisation'. I have no doubt that there is still some good music out there, but you have to put a lot more effort into looking for it, and over the last couple of years I have just given up and turned my back on current music in favour of older music from my own vast collection.

There is one annual musical event which remains at the heart of this blog.  Yes, what else but the Eurovision Song Contest, and the national finals season leading up to it. However I decided from the beginning that this blog would not be an ESC news blog as there are so many others out there doing this job very well. There are so many excellent ESC-related blogs providing in-depth coverage and analysis, and also some great podcasts which I always make sure to download during 'the season'. To each and every one of you bloggers out there who work so hard to keep our ESC obsession going, a huge thank you - Eurovision wouldn't be the same without you. Due to my personal circumstances I have always been a 'stay at home' fan who has never been to a contest, so all of these blogs and Twitter accounts really bring the experience alive. Especially as here in the UK, the general mainstream mindset about ESC has never changed, and people are generally frightened to discuss it for fear of ridicule, so it's nice to be part of a world where the contest continues to be the event of the year!  I will continue to write my reviews of ESC and national finals season on the blog, but as you know by now, these posts will be retrospective due to time constraints and other commitments.

One of the reviews which I will be posting in the coming weeks will be about Melodifestivalen, which was once my favourite annual selection.  I can't say this any more though.  In the rush towards a more 'modern' line-up of songs, I'm sad to say that Christer/SVT have 'thrown the baby out with the bathwater' and for me, the quality of songs has deteriorated. I was never really a schlager fan as such, so I don't miss that, but what I do miss is just a good, catchy, memorable song which will stand up to repeated play long after the contest is over. Tonight I will watch the 2017 Melodifestivalen final: as usual it will be a visual feast, the production will be slick, the staging will be impressive, and the artists will sing their hearts out, but for some reason this year, I can't get excited about the final line-up of songs. Most of them just leave me cold. (And no, before you ask, it's nothing to do with Loreen's shock elimination, because I wasn't excited about her song either  #controversialopinion)

I do not have Facebook, but in terms of Twitter, I have noticed one unwelcome change over the past couple of years with respect to Eurovision fandom.  As ESC becomes more and more 'mainstream', there appears to be a new generation of hysterical ESC fan emerging on social media, who does not appear to have any respect for the contest's history, nor for anyone who does not share their views. This is not from personal experience, as I want to stress that my own experiences of the fandom have been 100% positive and there are so many wonderful people whom I follow on Twitter.  However I have read some very nasty and hurtful comments on forums and Twitter, directed towards some fans who have dared to express an opinion which differs from their own.  These so-called 'fans' should remember that the Eurovision Song Contest is the most inclusive entertainment event which unites people all over Europe and the world, regardless of your age, class, race, gender or orientation.  There is enough hatred in the world right now without it spreading to our happy Eurovision world. A little bit more respect wouldn't go amiss.

It should be acknowledged that we all have different views about the quality of the songs and the direction the contest is going in.  As an 'older' fan of the contest I am beginning to feel a bit marginalised.  Eurovision fandom seems to be a young person's game now, and the contest and national selections have radically changed over the past 10 years of this blog, for better or worse.  Of course Eurovision had to modernise, but something suffered along the way.  Yes, it is now reflecting modern music more than ever, but a little more variety and musical diversity would be welcome.  So you won't be too surprised to learn that my two favourite entries this year come from Italy and Portugal: both in native language, with national characteristics and little concession to what's 'current' and crucially, they immediately made that 'connection' with me, which can't be said for the blander, more generic/ 'current' entries lack.

On to something different now.  When I started the blog, the other thing I wanted to write about was travel. and in the past 10 years I have been fortunate enough enjoy some fabulous holidays in a number of different destinations across Europe, and have written on here about all of them: Stockholm, Berlin, Riga, Nice (twice), Dublin (three times), Gothenburg (twice), Dusseldorf, Icmeler (twice), Bratislava, Bodrum, Pisa, Palma, Copenhagen, Trogir, Brussels, Puerto Pollensa, London, Madrid, Llandudno and Carcassonne, some during-holiday day trips to Cologne, Vienna, Kos and Mostar. as well as a fabulous Med cruise in 2013 which took in Messina, Athens, Kusadasi and Chania.  Of course I don't have a social life - any money I have left after paying all the bills goes into the holiday fund!!  My philosophy now is do it while you still can, because you don't know what's in the future.

Whilst there have been extreme highs and happy times over the past 10 years, the past 3 years have brought a breakdown, depression, an eating disorder and continuing struggles with my weight - all chronicled over at my 3rd blog, EuropeCrazy's Random Ramblings ( - it's not all doom and gloom over there though, it just feels like it :))

10 years on from 11th March 2007, the world is a very different and increasingly horrible place in so many ways.  Closer to home, my partner and I (faithful travelling companion to regular readers) also continue to struggle with the impact and pain of the loss of our loved ones over recent years. However, there is another side of grief and loss, as it makes you more aware of your own mortality, and that you must make the most of every day you have left.  Our more carefree selves of 2007 may be a million miles away, but life goes on and we are determined to live it to the full.

Before this post gets too depressing, I need to remind myself that today is a celebration of my 10 years in blogland! In my post from this time last year, I said that once the blog hit 10 years I would make a decision about whether or not to continue. Although blogging is no longer as popular as it was in 2007, sometimes you can't just say what you want in 140 characters, and writing some of my backlog of posts over the past week reminded me of how much I do enjoy blogging when I have the time and opportunity to do this. And in writing this post, so many happy memories have been triggered.  So I've made a decision - it's time to make some new memories. EuropeCrazy will continue!

Finally, as I said in my introduction, when I started the blog I never thought that anyone would read it.  I would have been excited if even one person had read it, so I'm delighted and overwhelmed that so many of you have visited over the past 10 years.  I want to say a massive thanks to all of you, wherever you are in the world, whether you're an accidental one-off visitor or a regular reader.  Your support means the world to me, and I appreciate it so much.

Here's to the next 10 years!

Laura xxx

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: February 2017

I don't really understand Simon Brodkin (above)'s motivation for being "BRITAIN'S GREATEST HOAXER" (Channel 4) but it's fascinating to see just how much research and work he puts into his stunts.  From auditioning as an Orthodox rapping rabbi on "Britain's Got Talent", to posting a "BHS destroyer" sign on Philip Green's superyacht, and finally to throwing swastika-emblazened golf balls at Donald Trump on his golf course in Scotland.  This documentary will have raised his profile, but of course that means that the better-known he becomes, the harder it will be for his future stunts to succeed. However when it comes to attention-seeking pranks and stunts, "Brodkin's Got Talent" so I'm sure there's much more to come.

There's no end to the news coverage and speculation about Brexit on our TV screens, but we very rarely get the chance to see what's happening in European politics.  Katya Adler explored the current state of play in "AFTER BREXIT - THE BATTLE FOR EUROPE" (BBC2) which looked at the rise of anti-establishment politics in Europe, and the growing Euroscepticism which may eventually tear the EU apart. As Ms Adler concluded, the EU may not be there for us to leave...

On to a documentary about Russian football hooliganism.  "THIS WORLD: RUSSIA'S HOOLIGAN ARMY" (BBC2) explored the world of Russian's football hooligan 'firms' who made the headlines last summer after the shocking scenes in Marseille during Euro 2016.  They are far from the bevvied-up stereotype of a football hooligan - in Russia, the firms prefer the gym and sauna to the pub, and they are trained to fight combat-style, and the job interview is a brutal 'forest fight'.  They proudly display themselves as a symbol of a country where aggressive masculinity is now encouraged. "When we are good, no-one remembers us, when we are bad, no-one forgets us" said one masked group (a couple of them pictured above) who promise to roll out the red carpet for the 2018 World Cup.  Be very afraid.

Whilst this documentary was going out on BBC2, here in Scotland we were being treated to "THE INSIDER'S GUIDE TO THE MENOPAUSE" in which broadcaster Kirsty Wark (pictured above) explored what is still a taboo subject, but what is a part of every woman's life.  You don't have to be a "certain age" though; as this programme revealed, many younger women are also going through "the change" for various medical reasons.

This was very close to home of course as this daily debilitating hell has been my life for the past 3½ years.  However I just wish that the programme would have focused more on alternative treatments to hormone replacement therapy (HRT), as not everyone chooses to go down that route.  We need more positive coverage in the media of this much-misunderstood aspect of women's lives, which as this documentary showed, is often material for comedy sketches.  Let me tell you though, it's definitely no laughing matter.

I'm not really a fan of the fad for documentaries fronted by celebrities, but sometimes they can be a good way to raise our awareness. In "THE TROUBLE WITH DAD" (Channel 4), comedian and writer David Baddiel gave us a very personal insight into Pick's disease, a previously little-known form of dementia, which his father Colin is living with. (David, his brother Ivor and dad Colin are pictured above).  Sad, shocking, funny and warm-hearted all at the same time, and a fascinating exploration of a family relationship which, although unconventional and complicated, is characterised by enduring love.

"HOW TO LOSE WEIGHT WELL" (Channel 4) was one of those typical shows which turns up at the start of every year on TV.  All this new year, new you nonsense, you know. This show compared a number of 'fad' diets and tried them out on people either wanting to lose weight quickly or over a longer period.  It didn't really tell us anything apart from that these diets will work if you stick to them, but they are definitely not a long-term lifestyle choice.

There are a lot of shows on TV at the moment which I call "empty TV" - the kind of lightweight factual format which seems to pop up on every channel.  You know this type of programme - the dumbed-down-documentary format which spends the first five minutes telling us what it's going to be about, then spends the rest of the show on numerous recaps etc, and doesn't go into any real depth about its subject. These shows particularly tend to focus on food/diet/health issues.  Whether it's "SAVE MONEY, GOOD HEALTH" (ITV), "TRUST ME, I'M A DOCTOR" (BBC2) or occasional issues of "TONIGHT" (ITV), these are the kind of shows which were once consigned to daytime TV (and probably still should be).  I can appreciate the need for escapist entertainment in these difficult times, but we also need quality investigative journalism too, rather than these bland, throwaway substitutes.

"SHOP WELL FOR LESS" (BBC1) returned with another series.  This show follows the same intelligence-insulting template of "Eat Well For Less" where extremely well-off families are shown how to save money by swapping their overpriced brands for cheaper stuff.  When many people are struggling to make ends meet, a programme like this is in such bad taste.

Talking of bland TV......

I initially had high hopes for "LET IT SHINE" (BBC1). I really can't stand talent shows any more but the idea of this one initially appealed to me thanks to the Take That angle.  The purpose of this show was to put together a boy band for a new musical which will feature the songs of Take That - although, just to confuse you, they won't actually be playing Take That.

After the initial auditions, which were not that far removed from every other talent show, the programme then went down a very strange route by forming five different bands with different names (Drive, Neon Panda, Five To Five, Iron Sun and Nightfall), before the eliminations started and confusingly, the remaining contestants were absorbed into other bands.  By that point I completely lost interest but returned for the final on 25.02.2017.  The eventual winners were Five To Five (pictured above).  Since the final, there has been some controversy in the media as the winning band will not have as much of a role in the musical as was first thought.

The problem for me was that I just didn't care enough to invest in any of the contestants in the way that I did 10 years ago in the BBC's previous musical-casting show, "Any Dream Will Do".  Aah, 2007....those were the days :)

"WHO DARES WINS"  is back but over the past couple of months it received some very shabby treatment in the schedules; either shunted into a teatime slot, in preference to Pointless Celebrities and Casualty, (both bookending the aforementioned "Let It Shine") or it wasn't on at all.  It now seems to have been restored to its rightful slot.  BBC, stop messing this show about! Interestingly enough,  the show which we watched being recorded in Glasgow last May was finally screened on 18.02.2017.

"TOP OF THE POPS 1983" (BBC4) is still an enjoyable nostalgia trip, and during the past month we've had everything from Kajagoogoo, Wham!, Duran Duran and the Thompson Twins to Orange Juice, Big Country, and of course who could forget New Order's unforgettable live performance of "Blue Monday".  Even bands which I definitely wasn't a fan of, like Altered Images, could surprise me, with a song like "Don't Talk To Me About Love" which was just a great pop song. It's actually nice to reconnect with that time, because, as in 1981 and 1982 I was in my "parallel universe"of just listening to indie/alternative music, however as time has progressed I have rediscovered the mainstream pop of those years, thanks in no small part to the 80s chart followed by the brilliant "Forgotten '80s" on Absolute 80s radio.

"THE EIGHTIES" (Sky Arts) was the follow-up to the CNN documentary series on the previous decade, co-produced by Tom Hanks. Like "The Seventies" it delivers a curiously American slant on that most scary, greedy and troubled of decades (if you weren't lucky enough to be rich/a yuppie/the up-and-coming billionaire, Donald Trump of course).

Finally, to the annual experience of suffering my way through "THE BRIT AWARDS" (ITV). Once upon a time, when music (and everything else) was better, this ceremony was never screened live as even though it was always the most corporate of events, there was always a risk of - shock horror! someone swearing or doing something shocking. But over the past few years it's been broadcast live, because bland musical times get the bland awards ceremony they deserve,  2017 brought yet another slick and soulless ceremony, however there was one very striking emotional moment as Andrew Ridgeley and Pepsi and Shirlie (above) paid tribute to their dear friend George Michael, who very sadly passed away on Christmas Day. Unfortunately this was followed by Chis Martin's version of "A Different Corner". A song which cannot, and should not, be covered by anyone.

The next Square-Eyed should probably appear around the middle of April.  I haven't been watching much telly since the beginning of March, thanks to a) writing my blog posts backlog and b) catching up with all the national selections for Eurovision. National finals season ends this weekend, so that should give me a bit more time to watch TV ....although I still have a lot to write about national finals season, so TV will have to wait a little while longer, I guess :)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Notes from National Finals - Eesti Laul, Estonia 04.03.2017

For me, Eesti Laul is always one of the strongest national selections in ESC and this year was no different.  I'm not usually one for watching heats and semi-finals, especially in the high-demand Super Saturday weekends when there are so many contests competing for attention; however, choices had to be made and I chose to invest in the whole Eesti Laul process this year.  

The semi-finals were staged in what appeared to be a TV studio, whereas the final was in the completely different environment of the 2002 host venue, the Saku Suurhall in Tallinn.  The move to the larger venue last year was very successful and I hope this venue will host the final for years to come.  

This year's final was opened by last year's Eesti Laul winner, Jüri Pootsmann, with his latest song, the drum-driven "Silmades", which led on to a special performance of "Play" accompanied by Stig Rasta on guitar and a choir backing.  Jüri seems to be growing in confidence as a performer and I hope he goes on to greater things. 

1. "Keep Running" - Liis Lemsalu.

A good, uncomplicated pop song which was sung by a charming performer.  The audience got in on the act, flashing glow sticks. Liis was all alone on stage but surrounded by lots of pink orbs!  It was a solid start to the show.  

The two presenters, Mart and Ott, were also responsible for the between-song sketches ("Reklaam") which were done in the form of spoof adverts.  Sometimes they were funny, but as the show went on they started to annoy me and they got in the way of the flow of the songs.  

2.  "Verona" - Koit Toome and Laura.

Back in't day in 1998, still one of my most favourite Eurovision Song Contests ever, a young Koit Toome represented Estonia with "Mere Lapsed", in the final year of compulsory native-language entries.  19 years on and a) he still reminds me of Gary Barlow and b) he hasn't really aged that much, has he?  Koit and Laura were dressed up for the occasion, more straight outta Vegas than Verona, and they gave a very strong and professional performance of a song inspired by Romeo and Juliet, with a Verona as a metaphor for love lost and found.  

3. "Have You Now" - Whogaux and Karl-Kristjan featuring Maian.

You would have to be living on Mars not to be aware of the chart-conquering boring-dance-music phenomenon that is the Chainsmokers.  Song number three was basically just a Chainsmokers tribute act, with the two singers - an irritating hipster in a hat, and a Holly Willoughby lookalike in a dress and trainers - walking around in a circle on stage.  This kind of thing is popular, but it did nothing for me. 

4. "Slingshot" - Lenna Kuurmaa. 

When I saw this song in the semi-final I had initially wrote it off as yet another in a very long line of Sia-alikes, but Lenna had won me over by the end of the song.  She  was surrounded by her backing singers doing slow but sharp choreography, then she disappeared during the middle-8 of the song, only to reappear, flying above the audience, to bring that "wow" moment.  It was another very controlled and professional performance from Lenna - I like her and I hope that she will get a chance to represent Estonia at ESC some day, with a stronger song.  

5. "All I Need" - Daniel Levi. 

Firstly I have to explain that I always get Daniel Levi and Markus Riva mixed up.  Now you are probably wondering why, as one is Estonian and one is Latvian, but they always seem to be competing in their respective national finals in the same years and I have to always remind myself which is which.  #badfan

Daniel must have offended a barber, with that hairdo.  He also had to perform mainly in darkness, accompanied by lasers, but at least he resisted the temptation to do that moving-lasers-about thing like David Lindgren on "We Are Your Tomorrow" in Melfest 2016.  But I digress.  This song was ok, but not great, and his vocals weren't always up to scratch.  

6. "In or Out" - Elina Born.

Now there is no doubt about it that Elina is in my list of fabulous Estonian female ESC contestants - "Goodbye To Yesterday" still remains one of my favourite ESC entries of recent years.  When I heard she was coming back to Eesti Laul, I was quite excited - but that was followed by extreme disappointment after seeing her first performance of this on the semi-final.  Where had the cool and classy Elina of 2015 gone?  In her place was another version of Elina, (under)dressed in a very revealing leotard.  The overall effect of the styling and staging was just trashy and cheap, and it completely overshadowed the song (another Stig Rästa co-write, by the way).

7.  "Suur Loterii" - Ivo Linna. 

67 year old Ivo is an Estonian music legend who previously represented his country back in 1996.  I find it hard to dislike "Suur Loterii" as a) it is in Estonian and b) it's a sweet and likeable song.  If my mum was still here she would have described this as "a nice song" too. I'm glad he made it to the Eesti Laul final :)

8.  "This Love" - Rasmus Randvee. 

Like Daniel Levi before him, Rasmus must also have offended his barber as he has another one of those lopsided-haircuts!  

This song was co-written by Ewert Sundja from Ewert and the Two Dragons, who have been hugely popular in Estonia over the last few years.  So "This Love" had some credibility to begin with, and Rasmus gave a very enthusiastic and strong performance, throwing himself around and giving it all he had.  I never really paid too much attention to it in the semi-final, but he took it to a whole new level in the final and so we should not be surprised that he ended up as one of the superfinalists.  

9. "Feel Me Now" - Ariadne.  

A big contrast to Rasmus' powerful indie anthem, "Feel Me Now" wasn't trying to be anything else other than a sweet, lightweight and understated little pop song.  Her styling reminded me a little bit of Zara Larsson, and she did the 360 back-to-the-audience shot which was a regular feature in Eurovision 2016.  I liked this song in the semi-final and also in the final, but the only thing I didn't really like about it was the song's title. 

10. "Spirit Animal" - Kerli. 

In the world of internet Eurovision fandom there is a certain word - you know, that one, which is used to describe songs/artists which are massive favourites among particular sections of the fandom. "Spirit Animal" has been one of  those songs this year.

My problem with this song is that it tried too hard to fit the new Eurovision stereotype of a very "modern" and minimalist song which is more of a performance piece accompanied by striking visuals.  In a contest with several very impressive vocalists, Kerli's voice just sounded rather weak and the song wasn't memorable enough to cover up her vocal shortcomings.  

The Eesti Laul final was broadcast in two parts, with the second part devoted to the superfinal where the 3 songs with the biggest combined jury and televote from the main show would then compete again solely for the televote.  

The three finalists were Kerli, Koit and Laura, and Rasmus.  Unfortunately during the superfinal, my internet stream was playing up, presumably collapsing under the weight of running Andra Chansen and Eesti Laul at the same time, and not to mention the reaction of a shocked fandom coming to terms with the fact that Loreen did not make it to the Melfest final...!

Back at Eesti Laul, Måns Zelmerlöw was doing his interval act thing, with a medley of "Heroes" and "Glorious".  This was followed by a group called, I think, Beyond Beyond, although by that point my internet connection was "beyond" a joke!

Eventually it was restored in time for the results.  Rasmus was 3rd - well done to him and I hope we see him back in Eesti Laul again.  Then in a night of shocks came yet another shock result - "Verona" won, beating "Spirit Animal".  By the look on Koit and Laura's faces, I don't think they were expecting that either!

The win had hardly been announced and Twitter, and presumably everywhere else in social media land, was incandescent with rage, that another fan-fave had been eliminated, this time at the hands of an "old-fashioned cheesy song".

Well, I say, what's wrong with cheese?????  

Yes, "Verona" is old-school Eurovision.  But in yet another national finals season when songs without tunes outnumber memorable melodies, and indeed when the 'Melodi' is sadly absent from the contests bearing that name in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, you have to ask if things have got so bad that you can't send a song with a tune and/or memorable chorus to ESC anymore without it being branded "old-fashioned", "cheesy" and the like.  The same criticism was levelled at Sergey last year of course.  
But what about those songs in many a national final this year, which have tried so hard to be "current"?  The tropical house ones? (Although I do have a soft spot for the daft and funny "I Love My Phone" from the Lithuanian national selection).  The ones which are inspired by Sia's "Chandelier"/"Titanium"? The ones which are inspired by Shawn Mendes or the Chainsmokers? All of these may be "current" but they will also become dated very quickly, because they lack that "timeless" quality.  That same quality which characterises many of the Eurovision songs which certain fans accuse of being "dated". That thing called.... "a tune".

OK, rant over.  There will be more national final reviews to come over the next couple of weeks, when I'll be taking a look back at the selections from Finland, Sweden, Latvia, Germany and Slovenia.

Notes from National Finals - Albania: Festivali i Këngës 55 - 21.12.2016 - 23.12.2016

FiKmas, Këngëmas, Këngësmas, call it what you want....but whatever you want to call it, you can't deny that Albania's annual national song contest provides a very welcome distraction from the stresses of the festive season.  This was my 5th Festivali i Këngës (I've been watching since 2012) and every year I look forward to catching up with the Twitter ESC family, to chat about the three night extravaganza.  The other good thing about FiK is that it takes place outwith "the season" so it doesn't have any other finals/heats competing for our attention.

Regular viewers of FiK will know that this annual experience demands stamina and patience.  As usual, you never knew when the show would actually start, which inevitably leads to many a frustrated tweet, particularly from newcomers to this experience! This year though, there were no comedy clips or model promos or a video of the Tirana Christmas lights soundtracked by Michael Buble.  Ohhh no.  Instead, we were given a real treat: clips of winners from 80s and 90s Fests. In those days of course Albania was a very different country from what it is today. Having said that, some of the FiK winners from the 80s and 90s could probably have fitted very well into the Eurovision Song Contest in those decades.

But onwards to 2016.  Semi-finals 1 and 2 took place on Wednesday 21st and Thursday 22nd December respectively.  That was very considerate of RTSH, as I had finished up on the Wednesday for my pre-Christmas leave from work so I was definitely in the mood for a pre-Christmas Albanian spectacular!

One of the much-loved aspects of FiK is its famous theme song, although we had to wait a little while for it this year. The semi-finals and final began with a colourful little animation of the lights going on all over Albania and everyone making their way to watch FiK55.  The animated sequence was accompanied by a pretty orchestral overture.  Found this clip of the first 10 mins of semi-final 1 - our beloved theme song is 3.30 mins into the clip.

This year's presenters were Kasem Hoxha and Ledina Çelo.  Kasem is a little red-haired guy who (from certain angles) reminded me a bit of Kevin McKidd from Grey's Anatomy.  Ledina of course is the statuesque blonde bombshell who represented Albania when Ukraine hosted ESC in 2005, so there is a nice link to this year's contest.  Over the course of the three night FiK extravaganza, Ledina had many a costume change.

One major innovation in FiK55 was - shock horror - a green room.  Andri Xhahu, the country's Eurovision commentator and ESC voting spokesperson was the green room host, going round and interviewing the contestants, although Genc Salihu was more interested in his phone and this rapidly became a Twitter GIF :)

There were 12 songs in each semi-final, with 7 songs qualifying from each one to the final.  I think the final line-up was a pretty accurate reflection of the best entries over the two previous nights.  I thought Albulena Jashari might have made it, as I quite liked her song but her vocals could have been better and the most offputting thing about it was that she had her eyes closed throughout the song, so failed to make that connection.  And then there was that outfit.  We are talking Barbara Dex award standard...

My main surprise non-qualifier was "Koha Plaket" by Luka and Serxhio Hajdini.  Bit shouty, but they delivered.

Back to fashion disasters and potential wardrobe malfunctions: hello Xhesika Polo.

Xhesika was unwell in the first semi-final but recovered well to perform her very intense song in the final.  Pity about that outfit though!

Talking of 'intense', this brings me to the one and only Flaka Krelani, the woman who keeps the Albanian bronzer industry in business.

Flaka worked two different hairdos in the semi-final (above) and in the final (below).  She brought lots of drama too, spitting out the lyrics with the swagger you expect from her by now.

Another act which caught my eye was the very unusual Franc Koruni (pictured above), Despite being styled like an Albanian Michael Jackson tribute act, he went on to give us a bizarre jaunty hybrid of rap and folk. I'm not sure if it was meant to be funny, but it certainly made me smile and was a nice change from the big-voiced-women-with-powerful-ballads which FiK is renowned for.   

Rezarta Smaja (pictured above) has competed in almost every FiK since I started watching it.  My favourite songs by her are "Ti,.." and "Më Rrembe".  Last year's duet with Klodian Kacani was just too shouty for me, but you can't deny that Rezarta has a great, distinctive voice.  In FiK55, Rezarta showed that she wasn't just all about the big ballads and mid-tempo numbers.  "Pse Prite Gjatë" had a catchy chorus with a Latin/reggaeton-style beat, and she showed off yet again why she is one of my favourite FiK artists.  I liked her Spanish-influenced black dress too. 

One of the best things about FiK is the orchestral accompaniment, although there are many in the internet fan community who are of a different view from me and would like to get rid of the orchestra if the contest is to modernise.  I think the orchestral arrangements can often turn a song into something pretty special, as was the case with my favourite song in FiK55 - more about that later. FiK is modernising in other ways year after year - we don't get close-ups of the conductors any more and I miss my annual close-ups of Gridi Kraja!

We did get plenty of close-ups of this year's group of lovely backing singers (below), a well-turned-out, classy and talented ensemble who provided strong vocal backup for all of this year's contestants.


FiK is of course the home of the "drunk uncle" song.  I don't really know how to explain this, except to say that it's usually a rock-type song performed by someone who, let's just say, isn't in the first flush of youth :) There's always at least a couple of them every year - and FiK55 was no exception. In the final Ringo Starr lookalike Xuxi had replaced his Yankees baseball cap with this, um, fetching piece of headgear.  

Bizarrely, I have found myself listening to the funky-drunky-uncle foot-tapper "Metropol" quite a lot since the contest.  I'm getting very worried about myself!!

Before we go any further, it's time for a commercial break.  If this marathon song contest is driving you to drink, let's open up a bottle of a new brand of sparkling wine. With a menacing voiceover, Cobo Winery presents....Shendeverë!

Weddings must be a big thing in Albania.  Firstly we had these Il Volo lookalikes modelling smart suits on repeat to a soundtrack of Maroon 5's "Sugar".  Now whenever I hear "don't wanna be needing your love/just wanna be deep in your love" I automatically think of this....

Think of weddings and you automatically think of Geraldina Sposa, no?  All together....boom boom boom - you're simply the best!

On the other hand, you might fancy a cable-car ride up a mountain on the Dajti Ekspres with a bunch of hipsters.  Which is a really depressing thought, the idea that the hipster trend has even reached Albania :(

Other honourable mentions in FiK55 go to the New Generation beauty school, Vodafone, and that rather unsettling watch ad with that well-known Albanian actor Gerard Butler (!)

All hardcore FiK fans understand that the ads play as important a part as the songs every year (and then of course in Latvia, the ad break takes on a whole new meaning thanks to you-know-who).

But back to the songs.  After the first semi-final, "Shiu" by Yll Limani was an overwhelming favourite, although I wasn't so keen on this Albanian take on Ed Sheeran's "Photograph".  So that made him Ed Shëëran I guess :) After semi-final 2, it was another young male singer who had the momentum.  Dilan Reka's "Mos Harro" was a big fan favourite and I really liked it too. 

As it turned out, Yll and Dilan would share 3rd place in the competition.  It is often the case in FiK that artists will change their outfits, hairstyles etc between the semi-final and final.  With regards to Dilan, he inexplicably went from this in night 1.... this in the final.  What's with the comedy rapper look?  That back-to-front baseball cap and ridiculous glasses, good grief, just no,  That's not a good look. 

As it turned out, neither Yll or Dilan would be the most successful male singer in FiK 55.  

Genc Salihu already had a high profile as he's been one of the coaches on "The Voice of Albania". His song "Këtu" was certainly not to everyone's taste: it was a slow, moody, abstract, intense number as far removed from anything else which you're likely to hear in national finals season.  It came second. Now imagine how the fandom would have reacted if that song had won!  I'm not really a fan of the song but am glad that a contest like FiK still exists, so that we can hear many examples (whether good, bad or indifferent) of music which we just wouldn't get to hear anywhere else.  That was why I fell in love with the Eurovision Song Contest in the first place.

So, what was my favourite song in FiK55?  Well, regular readers of this blog will already know that "Sot" by Lynx ended up topping my chart of my favourite songs from 2016.  There are very few songs which I love on first hearing (which inevitably skews my attitude to many of the songs in national finals season) but I completely lost my heart to this song when I heard it for the first time and have listened to it every single day since then.  Yes, we are now into March 2017 and I still have "Sot" on repeat.  The mixture of rock band and orchestra is sublime, the orchestral arrangement is terrific and every listen finds me discovering something in the instrumentation which I never noticed before.  Oh, and this just gives me a reason for a couple of gratuitous Renato Rexha screenshots!

That was my winner, but what about the winner?

When the FiK 55 line-up was announced, one name jumped out and many of us were very excited about the return of Lindita Halimi to the competition.  After her explosive debut in FiK 53 with "S'të fal", she went on to enter "American Idol" where she made the top 50 in that contest, a great achievement for this very talented Kosovo-born singer.  So I eagerly awaited what Lindita would bring to FiK 55, hoping for something equally as great as "S'të fal".  However, I did initially feel disappointed as a) it was a ballad and b) "Botë" wasn't really developed enough as a song, as the last half of it just seemed to be Lindita showing off her vocals, exceptional though they are, but it needed more.  However her emotional and powerful performance was more than enough to make her the overwhelming winner in the jury vote, and even if she only came 3rd behind Yll and Dilan in the televote, the combined total was enough for her to win FiK55. 

10 weeks have passed since FiK55.  A number of songs have been chosen for Eurovision, either through national finals or internal selection.  Amongst them, there are many ballads/mid-tempo songs, most of which are forgettable and unremarkable.  Suddenly, "Botë" is not so underwhelming after all.  I want Lindita to do very well in Eurovision because she is such a nice person as well as a very talented singer.  At the time of writing, we still haven't heard the revamped English-language version of "Botë" - which will be titled "World".  If this song has escaped the traditional curse of the Albanian revamp, then it could become something special in Kyiv,  Good luck Lindita!

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: December 2016/January 2017

A very historical post now (!), as I take a look back at my telly viewing in December and January.

The big news in December was that I finally got Netflix, on Christmas Eve to be exact and it immediately impacted on my TV viewing.  The great thing about it is that their original programming can also be downloaded so this has enabled me to watch shows on my tablet as well as on TV.  Of course BBC iPlayer also lets you do this, and I just wish that more broadcasters could do the same. So come on ITV!  Although if I'm honest, there is very little on ITV worth watching, let alone downloading....!

The first series I watched all the way through on Netflix was "THE CROWN" which in more financially stable times would have been the type of lavish historical costume drama you'd seen on the BBC.  But in these cash-strapped days, the online broadcasters like Netflix and Amazon Prime are the only ones with the cash to splash, it would seem.  "The Crown" is Netflix's most expensive series to date, and also had an ace up its sleeve as the writers and producers didn't have to seek royal approval for the scripts or storylines. Although I'm not a royalist by any means, I found the first series to be consistently watchable and it certainly fitted well into the Netflix reputation for binge-watching.

In case you're unfamiliar with the series, it's a dramatised account of the lives of the British royal family which begins with the early years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.  The royals are ripe for the soap opera treatment and this series is certainly very soapy and addictive.   The series was very well cast and acted and is truly a high quality product.  One of the stand-out performances was by John Lithgow in the role of post-war Winston Churchill, however on the whole the series was extremely well-cast with some convincing performances by all involved.  Bring on series 2.

I also caught a couple of films on Netflix: "EDDIE THE EAGLE" and "SOMMEREN '92".  Both films were warm-hearted biopics which share the theme of sporting underdogs, although admittedly with opposing degrees of success.

Back in 1998 at the Calgary Winter Olympics, after fighting the powers that be, to be allowed to compete, British ski jumper Eddie Edwards was eventually allowed into the ski-jumping events.  He would never reach the standard of Matti Nykänen and his team of flying Finns, and came last in both individual events, he became a worldwide talking point and certainly embodied the definition of a true Olympian: it really was the taking part that counted.  My only gripe about this film was that his coach, a fascinating character named Bronson Peary, played with great glee by Hugh Jackman, was entirely fictional.  I guess we just need to put this aside and enjoy the film for what it is: a much-needed lightweight escape from the increasingly miserable state of the world....

As for "SOMMEREN '92", this Danish-language film told the fairytale story of the Danish national football team which won the 1992 European Championships, against all the odds.  Under new and seemingly unpopular manager Richard Moller Nielsen, the team had failed to qualify for the tournament.  That summer, the players headed off on holiday only to be summoned to Sweden at the very last minute to take part, replacing the Yugoslavian team which was disqualified due to the civil war ongoing at that time.

The film explores the tournament from the viewpoint of Moller Nielsen, who had replaced the acclaimed Sepp Piontek but inherited a team which were no longer 'Danish Dynamite' like the World Cup squad of 1986.  He also faced player rebellion and resignations, yet this quiet and unassuming character managed to turn the team's fortunes around.  I would highly recommend this film, which has some very good performances.

In December, the 14th series of "STRICTLY COME DANCING" (BBC1) came to an end.  This show just gets more and more popular every year and continues to hammer "The X Factor" in the Saturday night ratings.  The standard of contestants was extremely high this time round, and there was some controversy as Will Young quit the show and  and the show also attracted lots of publicity thanks to former politician Ed Balls, whom we all thought was going to be this year's hopeless contestant with two left feet.  And then this happened....

Of the real contenders, actor Danny Mac was in a completely different class, paired with the excellent Oti Mabuse.  But this also meant that he attracted a lot of criticism for his previous dancing experience.  He reached the final along with Louise Redknapp and Ore Oduba.  BBC presenter Ore was the only one of the three finalists with no previous dance experience, and in this instance that "journey" was a crucial factor in him winning the competition. Strictly 2016 was the last series to feature legendary judge Len Goodman, who has now retired from the show.  It won't be the same without "SEVEN!" and "a ten from Len".  I guess he's got more time now to focus on "pickling his walnuts"! :)

A very interesting fly-on-the-wall documentary series on BBC Scotland.  "THE COUNCIL" looked at the various aspects of the work undertaken by Fife Council.  Over recent years, public services have been strangled by massive budget cuts and year after year, the challenges increase, to provide a high level of service with the more and more limited resources available. Hopefully this programme will have persuaded many people who are quick to blame council services that people are working as well as they can, within tighter limits, to deliver the best possible service.  

On to another TV show made in Scotland.  "PRISON: FIRST AND LAST 24 HOURS" (Sky One) came back for a very welcome second series.  

"THE MISSING" (BBC1) was one of the biggest, best and most gripping drama series of the year. After a very successful first series, I had my doubts about how a second series would go.  However, in my opinion, I thought the second series was even better than the first.  It was a very gripping story set this time in Germany. Linking both series was Tcheky Karyo's brilliant character Julien Baptiste, who is one of the best TV cops of recent years.

On the lead-up to Christmas I discovered a cracking little drama series on the online-only BBC3.  "BARRACUDA" was the story of a young Australian swimmer from a working-class immigrant background, who won a scholarship to a private school and was thrown into a very different world of champion swimming. This was a very gripping series exploring a number of issues along the way - race, sexuality, social class and the pressures to achieve success - and was well worth watching.

After an excellent first series, I eagerly awaited the second series of "30 DEGREES IN FEBRUARY" (Sky Arts) as I felt that there were more stories to be told about the characters who had gone to Thailand for a new life.  It was well worth the wait and picked up where the last series left off.  A little Melodifestivalen link here, as Björn Kjellman, who participated in Melfest 2006, joined the cast as the father of Joy and Wilda (above). Like the first series it was an emotional rollercoaster and often heartbreaking at times.  And yes, I did have something in my eye at the end of the series...! It was a satisfactory conclusion though, and I don't think there will be a 3rd series.

What with the combination of getting Netflix, catching up with my TV backlog and the small matter of immersing myself in Festivali i Këngës, I didn't really watch too much traditional "Christmas TV" on the terrestrial channels.  One very strange thing happened though: I decided to quit watching "CORONATION STREET" (ITV), a programme which has always been a part of my life.

I've watched the show decline over the past couple of years, with the introduction of characters I don't care about (and the departure of those which I did care about), and one ridiculous storyline after another.  The particular straw which broke this camel's back was the story of Mary's search for her son (above) whom she gave up when he was born.  In no time, just like magic, hey presto, he appeared and it was no time until he was inviting her to come and live with him in South Africa.  Of course the lure of Weatherfield proved too much for Mary and she didn't go.  I reached a point over the festive season when I decided that my intelligence had been insulted enough and I could do better things with the 2½ to 3 hours per week which I waste on watching this show.

Since that time I haven't seen Corrie, and to be honest I haven't missed it!