In every relevant language (plus Swahili, just in case)…yes, it’s that time again!
Nearly four weeks have gone by since Eurovision 2020 was cancelled, and though the show won’t be going on, the show must go on. In other words that make more sense, just because the contest isn’t happening doesn’t mean we can’t do what we usually do and review the heck out of the songs. There’s no reason not to – they’re still valid ESC entries, and we Eurofans are in desperate need of both normality and entertainment at the moment. That’s why I’m kicking off this year’s reviews right now, feat. my trademark lengthiness and attempts at side-splitting humour. I hope you’ll enjoy them (or pretend to so you don’t hurt my feelings).
The 41 will be coming to you in randomly-selected rounds, since I drew the countries one by one out of a sandwich bag (I’m nothing if not professional). First up, Armenia’s Chains On You, Estonia’s What Love Is, Israel’s Feker Libi and Switzerland’s Répondez-Moi. A pretty mixed bag, basically. Keep reading to find out how much love (or not) I have for Athena, Uku, Eden and Gjon’s songs-that-would-have-been for Rotterdam – and if you make it through to the end, you can vote for your favourite of the four.
FYI: It’s hard to judge Eurovision entries when you can’t talk about possible staging scenarios and chances of competitive success, et cetera, so I’ll be discussing those things hypothetically anyway. I also gave up on trying not to mention the cancellation because…well, it’s like glossing over the spaceship that’s parked in your backyard when you invite your friends over for a barbecue. Practically impossible and super awkward if you do it.
Now, let’s get going!
Armenia has had a rough couple of Eurovision years. Once upon a time they were a contest powerhouse, but at the moment they’re stuck with two DNQs in a row and no chance to redeem themselves in 2020. Chains On You will forever, like every other semi-finalist of the year, be the musical equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat: a qualifier and non-qualifier at the same time, with nobody being able to realistically argue that it’s only one of those things. For imagination’s sake, if you asked me whether I think Athena could have been Armenia’s good-luck charm or not, I’d have to fence-sit and answer maybe. Annoying, aren’t I.
You know how people say that with subjective stuff like books, art, fashion and movies, one person’s trash is another’s treasure? That applies to music too, but somehow Chains On You manages to be both trash AND treasure – meaning it’s a little “affordable”, but I love it. I felt that way the first time I heard it in full, despite barely noticing it before Depi Evratesil (go figure). It’s different to everything it would have competed against in May: urban in a vaguely similar way to the Czech Republic’s Kemama, only more ‘gritty R&B-meets-ethno fusion’ than Afrobeat party anthem. It’s almost like the popified musical offspring of Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow and USNK’s Posztolj (from A Dal 2019) with the same hypnotic instrumentation and edginess. There’s some Ariana Grande 7 Rings DNA in there too. I really like the song’s ethnic twist – it might seem like a throwaway trap ripoff on the surface, but I think it runs deeper than that. It’s also very catchy, with that ‘chains on, chains on you’ hook being one you’ll need to remove from your brain with industrial-strength pliers. Even if it irritates you (understandable) there’s something to be said for such instant memorability. Athena, who tried out for JESC back in the day and appeared on the X Factor UK for five minutes, suits the song in studio, but I want more power and attitude from her live performances. You can’t put 75% into a track like this and expect to get away with it, so I’d advise her to channel Cardi B like crazy (probably the first and last time I’ll ever give that particular piece of advice).
If Eurovision were an audio-only contest a) it may not have been cancelled this year, and b) Armenia would be in trouble yet again. But the reason I think Chains On You could have done okay is thanks to all the performance possibilities it has. A balance between under-staging (Qami) and WTF visuals (Walking Out) would have been easy to strike with this. A slick lighting scheme, backup dancers and chains/diamonds littering the stage and you’re done, armed with a cohesive package that would reach the final but do little else. And you know, that would have been an improvement for Armenia at this point. Baby steps!
In a line Exotic, hypnotic ethno-R&B that has more to offer than meets the eye 2019 VS 2020 CHAINS ON, CHAINS ON ME if that clears it up Ranking #20 Score 8 points
It was third time lucky when Uku won Eesti Laul this year, after trying and failing with Supernatural in 2017 and Pretty Little Liar in 2019. His win wasn’t a surprise to me personally as I didn’t think he had very tough competition – Jaagup Tuisk and Stefan aside – and I was excited to have him at Eurovision upping the temperature. Call me shallow (I am) but this is the guy who was named Estonia’s Sexiest Man in 2010, and he’s aged like a luxurious French fromage (or the Estonian equivalent) since then. Don’t worry, I only base 57% of each review on how sexually attractive I find the artist/s. Engelbert Humperdinck should be grateful he wasn’t selected by the BBC this year.
Sadly, Eurovision 2020 won’t be Ukuvision 2020 after that teeny-tiny cancellation, but let’s pass judgment on this entry anyway. I’ll start by saying that What Love Is = marginally better than Supernatural, but not a patch on Pretty Little Liar – placing it bullseye on the Suviste Pass or Yasss Scale I just invented. The song was penned by Uku himself alongside Sharon Vaughn, whose ESC-related portfolio includes Waterline by Jedward, Scream by Sergey Lazarev and both Greece and Moldova’s 2020 entries. Make of that list what you will, but she was also responsible for Agnes’ Release Me which automatically erases most mistakes. What Love Is does seem to be modelled more after Scream than anything else though, in terms of being an over-dramatic dated ballad. The formula is almost identical: a panty-dropper in human form emotes down the camera while singing a song that passed its expiration date at least ten years ago. This one does take advantage of Uku’s powerful man-voice and smouldering gaze, I’ll admit, but he’s better than the song suggests – something he proved last year. My biggest pet peeve is the lyrics, which were clearly churned out of the cliché machine based on all the destiny, power and miracle mentions (though the dreaded higher/fire/desire rhyme was avoided – only Eleni Foureira and The Roop can pull that off). I also find them a bit unbelievable. Who’s going to buy that a guy with good looks like these is just now, at age 37, discovering what love is? That he honestly thought he was ‘meant to be alone’? PUH-LEASE. If you really feel that way, Uku, I’ll give you my phone number, okay?!? Jeez.
At this point, I might have led you to think that I hate this song with a passion. Plot twist: I actually don’t, I just feel like I should. If I get mad at Moldova for sending stale ballads, I shouldn’t let Estonia off scot-free…but this is a guilty pleasure for me, folks. I’m conveniently able to ignore the mid-2000s sound and questionable lyrics in favour of the memorable melody and a chorus that slaps you in the face (lightly, then apologises for it afterwards). The pros outweigh the cons against all the odds. Having said that, What Love Is doesn’t commit EVERY possible crime – it doesn’t have a key change, for example. So perhaps not all the odds are against it. I might practice what Tamara Todevska preaches and be proud of my affection for this track. Oh, and proud of not mentioning how hot Uku is for an entire paragraph. Until just now. Oops.
In a line The guiltiest of passé pleasures performed by one smoking hot Estonian 2019 VS 2020 2019’s Storm, but not by a landslide Ranking #24 Score 7 points
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and Israel’s approach to Eurovision either being businesslike or a bit bizarre. There’s wiggle room in those two categories, of course – but you’ve got the likes of Made of Stars + Home in one, and Golden Boy +Toy in the other. I think we know which type results in better results. Potential for scoreboard success is now irrelevant, but I’m still happy Israel has bounced back to the quirky, fun pop that scored them that win in 2018. Not only that, but they did it with the man behind Golden Boy and Toy, Doron Medalie. Medalie also co-wrote Made of Stars and staged the Israeli ESC entries in 2008, 2010 and 2013. He co-created Feker Libi alongside Idan Raichel, who I adore and who was one of the many, many interval acts in Tel Aviv. To cut a long story short after already telling it, this song has pedigree.
Feker Libi is a three-minute good time packed with vocal wow moments, ethnic touches and seamless language switches. It’s pretty much a masterclass in unique, culture-representative pop that feels authentic and not like it was based on a Thomas G:son blueprint from 2011 (not pointing any fingers – I’m just admiring how genuine this feels). There’s really nothing to complain about, especially after 2019’s host entry Home which came across to me as overblown and emotionally manipulative. In contrast this is light, bright and original. It has a heap of different moving parts that manage to work together as a whole, ensuring the song never becomes boring. I appreciate its creativity, even if – and this might come as a shock considering the thickness of the compliments I’ve just laid on – it doesn’t come close to touching my top 10. That’s purely because I like or love the majority of 2020’s entries (spoiler alert) so even songs sitting dangerously close to my bottom five are songs I enjoy. I just happen to like twenty or so other songs more than Feker Libi, but make no mistakes: I know it kicks butt. While it’s a sizeable shame not to see it compete at Eurovision, I’m sure another off-the-wall banger will be prepped for Eden to perform in 2021.
Speaking of Eden (the solo artist and not the boy band that represented Israel in 1999), she’s a superstar who can sing and dance like a seasoned pro and has charisma oozing out of every pore. Not to mention that it took her weeks and weeks to win her ticket to Eurovision, which she earned fair and square. We should all be grateful to the universe and the Israeli broadcaster for sticking by her, because I think we’ll be in for a treat come May next year. I’m hoping for a song that I can find room for in my top 10, since all the ingredients are there. But for a last word on Feker Libi, yep, it’s damn good and will be added to any ESC party/workout playlists I make in the future. I wish more countries would aim for this level of creativity.
In a line Energising and quirky pop that’s a perfect fit for its performer 2019 VS 2020 I’ll take 2020, thanks Ranking #28 Score 7 points
Remember Switzerland finishing 4th last year? I can’t believe I don’t have to follow that up with ‘Me neither’. The flip side of doing so well (out of nowhere) is that with great success comes great responsibility – leaving a lot of pressure on Swiss shoulders to keep up the good work. We’ll never know if they could have matched or bettered She Got Me’s placement, but I think they gave themselves a huge chance of doing so with Gjon’s Tears and Répondez-Moi. Not only is Gjon a precious cinnamon roll who’s hilarious on Instagram, but his song for 2020 is an absolute stunner.
All I knew about him before hearing Répondez-Moi for the first time was that he could SING (that was obvious from his audition on The Voice of France). I hadn’t heard any of his other music before giving the ESC entry a go, however, so I had no expectations. I definitely didn’t think it would take my breath away, but that’s what went down! The whole thing is spellbinding. It’s nothing flashy – it’s actually quite minimalist, instrumentally and lyrically – but every element has been included with precision and care, and that has paid off. This is a song Marie Kondo would go mad for because there’s no unnecessary clutter and everything in it sparks joy (in a sad sort of way). Stylistically there are similarities to Kristian Kostov’s Beautiful Mess, another song I was instantly obsessed with, but I’d also compare the entry as a whole to 1944. Before you call me crazy, I just mean in terms of emotionally-charged subject matter (in this case, someone of a migrant background questioning their past, present and future identity) and a vocalist who seems to be letting some of their soul fly free every time they open their mouth. The combination of such an emotive song and a powerful/fragile vocal balance gives me the entire catalogue of feels. I think you can sense the story even without understanding French (á la moi…I had to use Google Translate on the lyrics since my childhood French lessons apparently failed me). That’s a valuable asset. Even if you can’t connect with the lyrics, though, how could you be unimpressed by Gjon’s climactic high notes? They make my spine tingle so intensely I feel like I’ve been tasered. Even Blas Cantó’s big Universo note takes a backseat to those babies. There is a way of ramping up the ‘wow’ factor while staying understated, and Switzerland has found it – I’ll be referring to them as the Chanel handbag of Eurovision 2020 from now on.
Of the four songs I’ve reviewed this round, Switzerland’s is the one I’ll miss most going into the (hopefully on schedule, pandemic-free) 2021 contest. Répondez-Moi was 3rd in the odds at the time of Rotterdam’s cancellation, just behind Bulgaria and Lithuania, and I think Gjon could have created a magic moment on that amazing Ahoy stage. Gjon and Sasha Jean Baptiste, who was hired to stage the song, that is. She did a top-notch number on She Got Me (a slightly different song, but whatever) so my hopes were high. Let’s pray that the stars re-align next year, because with a song as striking as this one, Switzerland should find themselves riding high in the odds again and have the best chance of winning Eurovision they’ve had since…well, 2020.
In a line A breathtaking contemporary ballad that brings to mind Beautiful Mess 2019 VS 2020 If my life doesn’t depend on it, I’m not deciding Ranking #5 Score 12 points
4 down, 37 to go. HELP ME. Here’s the standings for this first round:
- Switzerland (12)
- Armenia (8)
- Estonia (7)
- Israel (7)
So Switzerland takes the win comfortably, but that’s only my opinion. Now it’s your turn to choose the best of this bunch.
Who did you pick and why? Let me know in the comments – and if you want to review all four yourself, go for it while you’re there. Critiquing and scoring is very therapeutic in these trying times, guys!
NEXT TIME Which countries did I draw out of my trusty plastic bag and review for Round 2? That would be Cyprus, Latvia, North Macedonia and the United Kingdom. Stay tuned to find out who gets a gold star for their 2020 effort and who gets a ‘thank u, next’ instead.