Prepare to see the “douze points” showered over a number of countries, in what is being billed as one of the most competitive Eurovision Song Contests this century. The odds of six or seven potential winners have been plunging up and down quicker than those Polish milkmaids from 2014.
Having a great song can only get you so far in this contest, and potential champions have to slay the competition both on and off stage. In the 2018 “TOY” vs “FUEGO” climax, Team Netta (Israel) narrowly pipped Eleni (Cyprus) to the post by winning the PR game – selling her powerful story of female empowerment across the continent before the grand finale.
So what’s going on this year? The Netherlands have been the favourites to win for weeks but a number of competitors are coming for their wig, so we’re going to take a look at each one. For fans of ridiculous side-dramas, it’s worth keeping an eye on San Marino and Norway as they battle to qualify for the grand final on 18 May.
What can we say about Iceland? We interviewed everyone’s favourite BDSM funsters back in March when they sailed through the Songvakeppnin national finals.
Already causing a stir in Israel, Reykjavik’s savvy, art-school hipsters haven’t been afraid to share their political opinions with journalists. While they’re unlikely to unfurl a Palestinian flag on-stage, expect hijinks that could see their PR machine going into overdrive this week, propelling them from electroclash outsiders to genuine contenders.
Duncan Laurence – “Arcade” (The Netherlands, semi final 2)
“Arcade” has long been the pre-contest favourite and has been doing well in rehearsals. There’s absolutely nothing in the way of Duncan winning the contest, though the presentation veers worryingly close to “I’m just going to let the song do the talking” – which regulars viewers will know doesn’t always cut it at Europe’s biggest circus.
What it lacks in fireworks, it delivers in heart: “Arcade is based on someone close to me who I lost when I was younger. She always longed for her love to come back after they’d split up, but until the day she died they never came back. I wanted to tell her story,” Duncan Laurence explains.
A contestant on The Voice of Holland, Duncan was mentored by Ilse DeLange, who is one half of the Common Linnets (runners-up to Conchita Wurst at Eurovision 2014).
“We had a Dropbox together and I kept on sharing my songs with Ilse, and she kept on listening. After a while she Whatsapped me saying: ‘This is one is great, when did you write this? It would win Eurovision’”. It probably will win.
Kate Miller-Heidke – “Zero Gravity” (Australia, semi final 1)
With news that Australia will compete for at least the next five years, the most welcome surprise of the Eurovision pre-show season was the introduction of an Australian national final (SBS’s Australia Decides). To the delight of UK-based fans, this broadcasts on a Saturday morning, around 11am GMT, providing the perfect excuse for a boozy brunch – like we needed one anyway.
As with Iceland, this entry can be a little Marmite, or in the case of Brisbane-born Kate Miller-Heidke, Vegemite. But this year’s performance is a visual spectacular like nothing else on stage, it’s Frozen’s Elsa meets the Dementors from the Potterverse on giant wobbly mops. However, the song is a mix of pop and opera with a tempo that flails about somewhat. It might take the average viewer time to appreciate, and that could be its downfall or its making.
Miki – “La Venda” (Spain, auto-qualifies for the grand final)
This one’s a real crowd pleaser and could finish highest up the table out of the “Big 5” (those countries that auto-qualify due to their significant financial contribution: Spain, Italy, UK, France, and Germany). It’s an undeniable bop that’ll remind you of every summer holiday you’ve ever had.
Most importantly, for a Eurovision contestant to carry the hopes of a nation, they need to have big, strong arms… and Miki’s are incredible. He deserves your douze points based on that alone.
John Lundvik – “Too Late For Love” (Sweden, semi final 2)
If Hatari are bringing S&M to Eurovision, John Lundvik is serving M&S – aka a quality product your mum would like. This Melodifestivalen winner has the full weight of the Swedish music industry juggernaut behind it, so it’ll be no surprise if the Scandinavian does well. You can never, ever write off Sweden when it comes to Eurovision, and Gothenburg 2020 is a distinct possibility.
During national final season, Lundvik put forward this ballad as well as one other song to Swedish broadcasters SVT. Two weeks later, the phone call came, and he was told that “Too Late For Love” was a potential winning song that had been earmarked for Melfest. But what became of the other track? Ever mindful of recycling, the Swedes sent it across the North Sea, where it became “Bigger Than Us” - the United Kingdom’s entry for 2019. Cheers guys!
Serhat – “Say Na Na Na” (San Marino, semi final 1)
There are a couple of returning contestants this year. The first is Russian mega-pop star Sergey Lazarev with his track “Scream”. You might remember him from a couple of years ago – he did a crazy performance with projection mapping, clambered up a wall, and had a bakery for dogs in Moscow called Poodle Strudel... no? I don’t want to talk about him anyway. I want to tell you about one of my favourite contestants of all time: Ahmet Serhat Hacıpaşalıoğlu.
Flying the flag for San Marino, this Turkish Jeopardy! host and part-time dentist is back for another stab at Euro glory. Trashy bangers are becoming a rarity at this increasingly sleek and serious competition, so San Marino closing the first semi-final with a massive slab of cheese could be just what the audience wants.
With odds of 350/1, they’re not going to win Eurovision by any stretch of the imagination – but they are in with a shout of qualifying for Saturday, and that’s as good as a win for the tiny principality. Expect #Serhat4Saturday to trend alongside #Iceland and #Australia on Tuesday evening.
Mahmood – “Soldi” (Italy, auto-qualifies for the grand final)
The Italians always do well at Eurovision. Primarily because they select their entry via the Sanremo Song Festival – the inspiration behind the Eurovision Song Contest, which pre-dates it by half a decade. The list of stars who have been involved in Sanremo is impressive: Marianne Faithful, Shirley Bassey, Andrea Boccelli, Dusty Springfield, Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick… no Scooch though.
I bumped into Mahmood at the London Eurovision Party in Cafe de Paris: “I’m really proud to represent my country, and I’m happy to bring some new culture to Eurovision,” he told me. “My mama is Sardinian and my dad is Egyptian, and part of the song is in Arabic – there’s a phrase my dad used to tell me as a little boy.” Soldi explores the difficult relationship Mahmood has with his father.
KEiiNO – “Spirit in the Sky” (Norway, semi final 2).
We suspect you’re gonna love this one. This year, Norway are on what is now known as the “Verona trajectory”, which was named after the 2017 Estonian entry “Verona” – a song hyped by Eurovision enthusiasts who expected Koit Toome & Laura to storm the semi-finals with their Romeo and Juliet inspired uber-bop. When it came to the evening, a lack of finesse and questionable vocals sealed their fate as they crashed out of the competition. Of course, Estonia flopping only intensified fan love of the song.
There are similar concerns that “Spirit In The Sky”, the track most beloved by fans this year, could meet the same unfortunate end. We hope it doesn’t because it slaps so hard, and with their Sami joiker (a sort of Finnish yodeler) they’ll be a talking point on Friday morning whether they qualify or not.
Bilal Hassani – “Roi” (France, auto-qualifies for the grand final)
This French contestant is an absolute delight to watch. Eurovision has always been a bastion of queerness when other TV shows shied away from it, but few contestants since Conchita have been quite so proactive in delivering an overt message of pride and inclusivity. Bilal deserves to be on that grand stage, and with a YouTube channel boasting a million subscribers across the continent, he’ll be hoping to convert those numbers into televotes.
Chingiz – “Truth” (Azerbaijan, semi-final 2)
Last but by no means least, it’s Azerbaijan, with what could be a dark horse. When rehearsals began last week this entry jumped from 125/1 to 10/1. Each performance we’ve seen shows significant improvement on the last, and it could be gathering momentum at exactly the right time.
Having been victorious in the Azerbaijani version of Pop Idol, along with performing at the New Wave festival in Latvia, and competing in The Voice Ukraine, Russian-born Chingiz has already built up a significant profile across the continent. Could we be returning to Baku?
The Eurovision Song Contest semi finals take place on Tuesday 14 May and Thursday 16 May (available on BBC Four), with the grand final on Saturday, May 18 (BBC One).
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