Despite writing about the Disco Hunger Games and watching it every year, I don’t normally bother with the Eurovision semi-finals. You see, by and large, I like to be surprised. Sometimes those surprises are telescopic opera singing disco Time Lords , sometimes they’re surprisingly lovely, oddly muted songs about anxiety and sometimes they’re a piano that’s on fire, quick change outfits AND a man in a hamster wheel.
But this week I watched the 2018 Semi-Finals and was surprised in the best way. Here’s what I found
There’s a lot of excellent dresses and pretty samey songs about love and peace in the first heat. That’s fine, there always are and they absolutely have an audience. They also serve a vital role in the Disco Hunger Games. They’re basically District 1 and 2 Tributes. You know most of them are going through, you know one may well win. None of them are especially interesting but they’re there to do a job and that’s what they do.
But the other songs, the Black Swan events with a chord change? Those are what I’m here for. And semi-final 1 did not disappoint. And pretty much all the really fun acts are through!
First up, Eugent Bushpepa, owner of a fantastic name, rock credentials for days and a serious set of pipes. Mall, his number, is one of my favorite subsets of Eurovision songs; the stealth rock. About halfway through, right around the time you think you’ve got the song figured out, Bushpepa gears up vocally, twice. It’s like the moment in Frozen where they let Idina Menzel do what she does and it makes you sit up every time it happens.
Next, from the Czech Republic, we have Mikolas Josef and…okay, I can’t sugar coat this; it’s Czech white guy rap. He does the backpack kid dance. His backing dancers dab and have button up shirts on under their tracksuits. The horn section sounds like something Jason Derulo would put in a first draft before he figured out what really should be there. Dirt is brushed off shoulders. There is bogling.
And. Yet. What could so easily have been a horrifying mess is both a horrifying mess and really really fun. He looks like he’s having a blast, the chorus is annoyingly catchy and the thing just projects a really endearing self-awareness of its own ridiculousness.
Then there’s Saara Alto, whose career is quietly very odd. Alto has bounced around music talent shows for years, has ability for days and an amazing look, can talk on camera, has easy charisma and has never quite taken off in the UK. In Finland, it turns out, she’s massive. And with Monsters, the Finnish entry she delivers one of my favorite Eurovision numbers in years.
She starts off being spun upside down, there are flares (The inferno not disco inferno kind) and it’s got the exact pseudo-goth pseudo-techno feel that always works, and plays, well in this field and in doing so warms the cockles of my pre-millennial dystopic roleplayer’s heart.
And then, there’s Toy by Netta Barzilai, the Israeli entry. Just press play.
Chicken noises! KT Tunstall style sample assembly! Female empowerment! A badass person of size who looks awesome! AMAZING hair! Possible concealed swearing! I LOVE this. It’s subversive and gleeful and sassy as all Hell and I’d be delighted with it winning. It’s deeply strange, eminently hummable and exactly the sort of wildly eccentric pop music that Eurovision excels at showcasing.
And that brings us to the one song I never expected to be happy to see go through; Ireland’s.
A little cultural context. I’m Manx. I was born on the Isle of Man, which is a strip of land halfway between England and Ireland. On clear days, depending on which coast you’re on, you can see the English or Irish coast. On really clear days, half an hour later when you’ve driven across the island, you can see both.
Culturally, the Isle of Man is one-part British, one-part Irish. Which means so am I. Which means, knowing full well how vibrant and healthy that culture is, spending a decade or two watching endless floppy haired Celts singing this year’s version of ‘My Lovely Horse’ has been a little hard to deal with. There’s more to us than our Eurovision entries and this year, for the first time in a long time, I saw that.
Together by Ryan O’Shaughnessy is an acoustic ballad. It’s about a break up and it does the exact thing 15.2 billion songs just like it have done before. The difference, especially in this theatre, is that the story of the song is played out by two backing dancers. Both of them men.
Ireland is in the run up to a referendum on abortion right now, which gives you a pretty good idea of how accepting a lot of the country still is of women’s rights and the idea of an inclusive culture in all its forms. To make a statement like this, in this classy a fashion, on this large a stage is extraordinary, especially considering how the EBU have backed that decision up. It’s still not a song I’d cross the street for, but I have nothing but admiration for everyone behind it and honestly? I’d like to see it win. Good job, folks.
The Black Swans (Or the outer Districts if you like) are where the heart of Eurovision lies for me. They’re exuberant, pointed, political and gloriously, fearlessly weird. And they’re just the start. A good chunk of the other finalists are just as eccentric. Also Sweden and the Netherlands have songs that will happen.
Look, I have nothing but love for my friends in the bit of Europe that I always think looks like a Xemomorph head but these were NOT good. First, off, Benjamin Ingrosso from Sweden with ‘Dance You Off’. Yes, it’s really called that. Yes it is DEFINITELY a euphemism.
Ingrosso is notable for three things here. The first is his sterling work as the Justin Timberlake of Earth 2. The second is the just astounding level of smug he, intentionally or not, projects. The third is his role as the increasingly traditional ‘Idiot performer who says nasty things about his competitors and has to publicly apologise’ . Tedious song, tedious performance, BAD career choices.
But hey, at least he’s not Waylon. With Outlaw in ‘Em. A country and western song from The Netherlands. How bad could it be, right?
And not because of the song, which, let’s face it, is one Christian Kane away from being kind of fun. No, the decision to have four black backing dancers krumping, around a guy dressed like a southern gentleman has, rightly been criticized for being musically and culturally tone deaf. It’s a complex issue which is, as ever, open to interpretation but Catherine Baker’s excellent breakdown of the imagery here does a lot to show how tone deaf this performance is going to be to a lot of people.
You know what we need? Vikings. We need some Vikings. Denmark, could you?
Thanks, Denmark, and Rasmussen. Nice to see you got off The Wall before it collapsed.
All joking aside, those are some epic beards! And staging! And awkward Viking man dancing! As someone who grew up on an island the Vikings pretty much used as a retirement home (There are no cottages called ‘DunPillagin’. I checked.) this was oddly sweet to see. It’s a bit Hans Zimmer, a bit Vangelis. I’m pleased it’s gone through.
Oh, Australia! Who did great! It’s not as outlandish as anything else on this list but it’s a good performance of a decent number from a country enthusiastically working off the decade or so it’ll take the ‘But…Eurovision?’ Jokes to wear off. Here’s Jessica Mauboy with We Got Love.
Now, let’s see what Hungary ha-OH SWEET JESUS
WOW that is…WOW. I mean, my first response was ‘The Sixth Form metal band are aging well’ and if I’m honest, that was my second response too.
And I like this kind of music! I own Mike Patton side project albums! I’m still laughing about the Jim Martin cameo in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey! But this didn’t land for me. Marks out of ten for being different though, and I’m pleased they’re through.
As is My Lucky Day by DoReDoS from Moldova! This is adorable!
It’s like LaLa Land only fun! It’s a song AND a farce! It’s very high energy, charming as Hell, deliberately funny and I’m super happy it’s gone through. Also I would watch the HELL out of this sitcom.
Alexander Rybak from Norway, has actually won once before. His second run at Eurovision glory is…well…it’s best you see it for yourself.
Yeah…no. The virtual instruments, the RELENTLESS weaponized cheerfulness, the scat singing. Just a WORLD of No from me. Only one person is allowed to scat sing in my book, and he’s animated.
Sanja Ilić & Balkanika with Nova Deca from Serbia made it through with this surprisingly good, mildly ponderous ballad. Always there for a good cape and backing singers that go all in.
Lea Sirk, performing Hvala, ne! from Slovenia also qualified and this is an interesting case. See if you can spot the ‘Dear God What are you THINKING?’ moment in this performance.
Ah yes, the comedy technical difficulties spot. The one that never, ever EVER lands. EVER. When you grind the song to a halt for a cheap pop, three quarters of the way through, you really have to work to get it moving again. They manage it but don’t be surprised if this spot gets dropped in the final.
Whereas Under The Ladder by Melovin from Ukraine should go absolutely all out for the final. And given what happens in this video, I’m excited to see what that looks like.
Flames! Flames! On the stairs to my coffin piano!
YES. This is pure Eurovision for me and I’m so happy it, Israel and Moldova are through. They’re all weird as Hell, they’re all brilliant and they’re all completely different. That’s what I want to see at Europe’s brutally honest, strangely political and surprisingly sweet yearly office party.
This semi-final is also notable for a couple of glorious acts that didn’t go through and really deserved. First honourable mention is San Marino.
Yes those are toy store robot backing dancers! Yes that is more Euro rap! Yes it is actually pretty good! And I’d take super enthusiastic pro/am rap over Captain Smiley and his magic violin from Norway any day of the week.
And finally,Christablle from Malta with ‘Taboo’.
More closeup magic and some classic boxy staging and post-apocalyptic cyber stylings! Again, they deserved better but I’m delighted I got to see them.
So that’s the two semi-finals and a pretty decent and massively varied finalist line up. The main event, including the five countries that don’t have to qualify, is Saturday and I’m looking forward to it. This one feels much less like a Ballad Parade than some past years and it’s going to be fun to see how some of these acts can escalate their performance. I’m guessing multiple flaming pianos at the very least.
So there you go, things kick off in half an hour. Enjoy, hydrate regularly and if you can’t stand this stuff, mute #eurovision for the next four hours or so. See you on the other side!