JAZ REVIEWS JESC 2019 | Round 3 (Kazakhstan, Malta, The Netherlands + North Macedonia)
We’re approaching the one-week-to-go mark of Junior Eurovision 2019, guys. How do you say ‘woohoo!’ in Polish?
Actually, don’t answer that. I’ll just embarrass myself trying to pronounce it…and type it, for that matter.
Since time is running out for me to fit all my remaining reviews in for the year, I’m going to go against all my natural instincts and get straight into this round without any more rambling á la Jaz. Want to know what I think of Kazakhstan, Malta, the Netherlands and North Macedonia’s – a.k.a. Yerzhan, Eliana, Matheu and Mila’s – songs for next weekend’s show? Then keep reading, and as always, make sure you scroll down to the poll to vote for your favourite.
Now, in the words of a pretty popular Eurovision fan site that hopefully hasn’t trademarked this phrase, let’s do this!
Around this time a year ago, I was convinced Kazakhstan was going to win JESC with their first-ever entry. Sadly, that wasn’t to be…and even more sadly, social media evidence of me stating with 100% certainty that they would still exists. Daneliya Tuleshova’s 6th place was only a letdown because hopes for her were so high. Öziñe Sen is, regardless, one heck of a hard act to follow, but Kazakhstan is trying their best with another big ballad. Armanyńnan Qalma will be sung by Yerzhan Maksim, a finalist on the most recent season of The Voice Kids Russia and the 3rd-placed act from last year’s Kazakh NF. This kid is super cute (anyone else see a mini Psy?) and if there’s anything that makes a cute kid even cuter, it’s dressing them in a tuxedo. Enter the official video for this song, which is equally as majestic as Daneliya’s, just in a different way. They’ve made the required effort in that department, but the question is: can Yerzhan replicate something so grand live in Gliwice and potentially do what Kazakhstan couldn’t in Minsk?
As if I know the answer to that, being the World’s Crappiest Predictor of Eurovision Events™. But here’s my two (hundred) cents: Yerzhan may be just as spectacular of a singer as Daneliya, but Armanyńnan Qalma is not as good as Öziñe Sen, and if it were to win I’d feel cheated. What I liked most about Kazakhstan last year was how they brought a power ballad but made it unique and authentic. This one, despite including more traditional instrumentation (which does get my tick of approval) and more money notes, feels less impressive and definitely more cookie-cutter. It’s a Disney ballad by numbers, from the lyrics about following your dreams to the soaring chorus and key change. The only thing missing is animated talking animals, but maybe we’ll see them acting as backing vocalists. Multiple times on my Twitter feed, people were shocked to discover that Yerzhan is singing in English for the first half of this song, and I can see where the confusion comes from. He hasn’t perfected his English pronunciation, and the awkwardness that creates makes me wonder why fully Kazakh lyrics weren’t an option. As soon as he makes the switch I start to like the song a lot more, and it begins to feel more genuine. It still seems like more of a billboard reading ‘Check out the vocals on this kid!’ than an actual song, and I think the vocals are what will leave an impression on people above anything else. Having said that, and all the other stuff I’ve said that has led you to believe I dislike this, I actually DO like Armanyńnan Qalma. It has its magical moments even if it is predictable, and Kazakh is one of those languages that makes any song sound mystical and alluring. I also like the build of this – it sits on the scale somewhere between slow burn and instant Fuego, which adds some light and shade and makes it more interesting. Yerzhan is the real star of the show though, and he has the biggest voice of all the boys competing in 2019. We could be looking at another Vincenzo Cantiello here if he nails all those massive notes, plus the angelic first verse/chorus. Or if he doesn’t, but wears that tuxedo and melts us all anyway.
The thing is, it didn’t feel like Italy was trying too hard when they sent Vincenzo Cantiello to Junior. For all the things I like and appreciate about this entry, all in all it feels like it’s been engineered to be magical and majestic and make jury members swoon in their seats. None of that good stuff feels very organic. Even liking what I do, I feel like I’ve been manipulated to feel that way. Am I overthinking this? Probably. No one will care about any of that when Yerzhan is blowing us away with those epic vocals. And although this is a hit-and-miss entry for me, I can’t deny it’s a strong sequel to Öziñe Sen. And it’s normal for sequels to be inferior to the original, right? In a year this competitive, by rights this song should finish in the 6th-10th range, but I can see it going higher if the performance is as polished and impressive as I’m expecting. I can come to terms with that, but please universe…don’t let this actually win. 8 points.
The tiny but lovely island of Malta is a country all of us with functioning hearts root for at Eurovision events – but they seem to need less support at JESC, where they regularly kick goals and occasionally, score trophies without even trying. They seem to get what it’s all about. Last year, that was proven by Ela’s massive jury score and eventual 5th place overall, which I thought was well deserved (even if she should have been docked some points for wearing a glorified tracksuit on stage). This time round they’re sending another female soloist with a lot of talent and a solid song to compete with. We Are More has serious street cred in the songwriting department: among others, it was co-written by Kevin Lee of Wiwibloggs fame; and Jonas Thander, whose name is also attached to I’ve Been Waiting For This Night, Bigger Than Us and a few songs by Fifth Harmony and Ariana Grande. Incidentally, I actually rubbed shoulders with Jonas at Donny Montell’s press conference in Stockholm (I sat right next to him, which has nothing to do with anything except my desire to name-drop).
Anyway, esteemed creators should make for an excellent song, but that’s not always the case. My verdict on this one? Well, it’s good, but I wouldn’t call it excellent. Funnily enough, my main problem with We Are More is that it ticks every box I can think of too easily. It’s flawless in such a sterile way that it lacks authenticity. But I’ll come back to that after I’ve sung its praises, because there is lots of goodness in this. It’s contemporary, well-produced (you can tell there are pros involved), atmospheric and anthemic. It builds well, to the point where Eliana can unleash the same Mariah Carey high notes Ela did without it sounding like they were put in just because she can hit them…although that may be why they’re there. It’s a tactical addition, and the juries will go bananas. There’s a pretty good chorus on this even if it leaves me wanting a little more. I prefer it when the chorus changes to Maltese, which is another thing I wanted to mention. Malta occasionally combines both of their official languages in their JESC entries – most recently, there was a bit in Dawra Tond, title obviously included – and I love it when they do. This is no exception. Here it adds another element to the song, and it’s always interesting hearing the flip side of all the tracks that are 75% official language, 25% English. Maltese sounds so good in We Are More I wish they’d used more of it, but I’ll take what I can get.
I know this song isn’t competing against its ESC 2019 counterpart (duh) but I have to compare it to Chameleon for a second. Chameleon was just as contemporary as We Are More, but less intense and more fun/playful. It almost seems like Malta mixed up the songs they were sending to each contest by mistake. But to get back to that authenticity thing, I think Chameleon felt genuine whereas We Are More feels a little soulless. It seems like it could have been palmed off to one of a zillion different singers with the same results. Eliana does a great job with it, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t feel like she really makes it her own. I also think the song is missing some oomph. It sounds like the perfect background radio song but not the perfect performance-based competition song. That doesn’t mean it can’t do well, it just means I’m not looking at Malta as a possible winner this year. There’s something missing – the list of magical ingredients that helped them win in 2013 and 2015 has a few items scribbled out. But, as I always say, maybe the performance we see on the 24th will fill in the blanks. Eliana might find the heart and soul in this. There’s no doubt she’ll sing the socks off it, and juries (who vote with their heads) will reward her, but us home viewers (who vote with our hearts, aww!) might be tougher to crack. I like this, but I want more real feeling behind it. 7 points.
The Netherlands has had an up-and-down few years at JESC, from Fource winning the online vote in 2017 to Max & Anne not making much of an impression last year. Since then, as we all know, they’ve won Eurovision – so I’m wondering if they’re keen to do the double. Taking on the task is 13-year-old Matheu, who already has a stack of stage and screen experience (making him one of those contestants who gets me thinking I’ve achieved nothing in my much longer life…but that’s a story for my therapist). Song-wise, he’s armed and dangerous with Dans Met Jou, which I have to say is the Dutchiest (Dutchest?) song in Junior Eurovision history. It’s basically a mixture of every up-tempo track the Netherlands has ever sent, and the only other country I can imagine sending something like it is one that doesn’t even compete anymore. Don’t tell me Sweden wouldn’t send this song with Swedish lyrics slapped on.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘Jaz, how did you come to be so intelligent AND stunningly beautiful?’. No? That’s not what you were thinking? Okay, I’ll have another try. You’re thinking ‘Well, I guess she’s not a fan of this song if she reckons it’s so unoriginal.’ That’s where you’re wrong (not on the smart + stunning thing). Originality be damned – I love this. Sometimes all I ask for in an appealing contest song is for it to be catchy, well-produced and fun, and Dans Met Jou is all of those things. It’s also one of the 2019 entries that strikes a balance between being youthful enough for JESC, and mature enough to not alienate viewers like myself who are a tiny bit past their tween/teen years. Sure, it’s predictable and doesn’t do anything you wouldn’t expect it to (e.g. insert an awkward Hvala Ne ‘OMG, the music has stopped!’ interlude) but that makes it instant and accessible, if not the most memorable three minutes on the planet. You guys may know, because I bang on about it so much, that choruses are very important to me. Without a good chorus, a competition song is DOOMED! DOOMED, I TELL YOU! Luckily, Dans Met Jou has a 10/10 chorus in terms of infectiousness and singalongability (I’m just making up words all over the place, and I apologise). It’s a clever one, mixing easy-to-pronounce Dutch with simple English to create a chorus that sticks, while satisfying that pesky 75% native language rule (a rule I don’t really think is pesky and hope always hangs around). Two other things I like about this entry are Matheu himself, who is a heartbreaker in training and has more charisma than many ESC artists; and the ending, which is almost as important as a chorus when it comes to keeping the standard of a song high from start to stop. But who am I kidding singling things out? I love everything about this.
Dutch is a language that works really well with dance-pop, and that’s a genre that the Netherlands executes excellently at JESC – even if it doesn’t translate to trophies. I for one have dug stuff like Teenager, Around, Kisses and Dancin’ and Love Me way more than the retro-vibey Click Clack (sorry Ralph ‘best surname ever’ Mackenbach) or Tik Tak Tik type of song. So I’m very happy to hear Dutch dance-pop again. The problem is, while those songs do okay on the scoreboard, they rarely crack the top five, let alone win the whole thing. I’m fine with Matheu not winning in Poland, as there are songs that deserve it more – but I still want him to do well. He isn’t going to wow the juries with his vocals, but with the confident and typically Dutch presentation I’m expecting (think slightly rejigged NF staging) a slightly above average jury score isn’t out of the question. I doubt a Fource-level online vote is coming, but again, just above the middle mark is what this could aim for. Based on those predictions, I think there’s an 8th-10th in this. Anything better than that will have me more excited than finding stroopwafels on sale in my local supermarket. 10 points.
Remember how North Macedonia finally found a combo of good song + good staging in Tel Aviv, instead of sabotaging another good song with godawful staging that had us like, ‘WTF are you wearing/doing/singing in front of?’. I don’t even have to say ‘No, me neither’ now that it’s actually happened. That was at adult Eurovision though, so there’s no guarantee they can do the same thing at Junior. Last year’s staging of the AMAZING Doma almost did it justice, but it did leave NM sitting in the 12th spot for the millionth time (seriously, it’s becoming a disturbing pattern). If they want to hit a higher mark in 2019 and break that curse, they’ll have to stage the shiz out of Mila’s Fire and make no mistakes. They definitely have some damn good musical material to work with.
This song is really, really good, simply put. Nearly every North Macedonian JESC entry has been, and this isn’t my favourite of them all (that honour is reserved for the timeless classic Prati Mi SMS) but I can’t say it isn’t top quality. For starters, Mila is a majorly talented 14-year-old, with an intensity and vocal growliness beyond her years. She makes Fire even better than it already is. The song itself is what would happen if Adele and Sia made a musical baby and handed it over to a teenager to sing at a televised song contest taking place on November 24th…most of which is true. It’s dramatic from beginning to end and has lots of layers, making it complex (in a good way). There’s a great gradual build to the song, making sure it goes somewhere satisfying. My favourite part might be when the backing choir comes in with their ohs (how else am I supposed to say that?) because that really ramps up the drama and gives the song some depth. I think the language mix, though clearly split, works well. Keeping the chorus in English is usually a good idea and it absolutely pays off in this case. Mila sounds natural singing in both languages – it’s effortless, leaving us to enjoy the strength of the song rather than be distracted by a thick accent. Something that isn’t effortless is North Macedonia’s whole approach to this entry, and I mean that as a compliment. For the last few years, they’ve shown they are trying hard via their selection of artists, chosen songs and music videos, and they have put effort into their performances too even when it’s backfired. Everything about 2019’s entry so far suggests they might be in this contest to do very well.
As keen as I am to see what happens with Fire live, minus the questionable Victor Crone green screen of smoke – unless they actually do that live – I’m also nervous. I don’t want to go on and on about this country’s tendency to self-sabotage with staging, but it is a thing. Fire gives so much space for great stuff to happen on that incredible stage (have you seen the pictures? It’s a stunner) and the title and lyrics even give direction on what could be done. Hint, it involves fire (CGI preferably, but I’m open to real if adequate safety measures are taken and Mila doesn’t have to come out dressed in a padded stunt suit). A predictable performance might be just what this entry needs to avoid a case of OTT. But I’ll leave that decision to the professionals and do my part just by crossing my fingers. With staging that makes the most of this song, North Macedonia could be leaving 12th place behind and then some. I don’t think Fire has quite enough gas in the tank to go on and win (I learned my lesson from 2018 when I said Doma might win) but it deserves a top 10 result. And if it miraculously ended up on the podium, I wouldn’t complain. 10 points.
12 down, 7 to go! Now that I’ve shared…well, basically every thought I’ve ever had about these four entries, I’ll leave you to share your own thoughts by voting in the poll below and dropping by the comments box.
NEXT TIME Stay tuned, because it’s the turn of a few contenders to be reviewed – plus a few countries who probably won’t be playing host in 2020 (but we love them anyway). FYI, that’s Poland, Portugal, Russia and Serbia. Have your opinions at the ready!
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