It’s been a good decade since I last attended Eurovision rehearsals, and that decade, apart from making me older than I’d like to admit, also taught me a few things about obsessing about – analyzing, I mean analyzing – rehearsals from a distance.
Don’t get me wrong: rehearsals – and first ones in particular – are tricky. Each delegation arrives with a different level of preparation and different things it wants to use the rehearsals for. Things are very different on the actual Eurovision stage, no matter how much you rehearsed, and some types of acts will need more work than others to put together properly. Some singers show up in full attire and give all in every run-through, while others don’t really bother with the vocals until later on, but that inevitably makes many fans run into the hills screaming that this song is now going to not qualify because the singer can’t sing.
The first rehearsals provide a limited amount of information sources: Video snippets that get shorter every year, to the point that next year they will probably be invisible, various live blogs, and some great high-quality and often underutilized stills courtesy of the official Eurovision website. Yet, even when we know that at this point everything we see is work in progress, there’s much to learn about what we will eventually get on the night. Let’s face it, even with changes, adjustments and better rehearsed camera work, an act that shows up for the first day with edgy clothing, five dancers and a dark backdrop will probably not end up with 3 backing vocalists wearing flowing pink skirts, holding hands and standing still for the entire song as doves fly on the backdrop screens. Not even Azerbaijan, who has managed to magically make a backing disappear in 2010. And if we can’t obsess about rehearsal snippets, what can we obsess about?
*Fair warning first: You should properly get coffee. Or tea. Or both. And a cake.*
(If you actually want to bother with the very short official video snippets, clicking the country’s name will open it for you in a new tab).
The first thing I learned today about this year’s stage, is that our hosts really REALLY love spotlights. It will be a recurring theme later on.
I also learned that Finland has invented a new method of working out, which involves backing singers, microphone stands, and said backing singers moving around the main singer a lot while holding said stands. This seems to have evolved from the national final performance, in which they just stood there with their stands, and Sandjha went over to them when they wanted something to happen on screen.
Having the backings move around is an idea that adds a bit of dynamism to a pleasant uptempo track that has little working for it otherwise. The general atmosphere is colorful and warm, and the vocals – judging by the video and the blogs – are what they have always been, which: not great, but probably doesn’t matter much, unless you actually thought this will qualify and with this I cannot help you.
Oh, how much I was looking forward to that one. The Greeks somehow always know how to get the most out of their entries, and this year’s entry presented Maria Lyraraki, who previously staged Greece’s One Last Breathe and Alcohol is Free, with quite a challenge. Instead of turning to her own work, though, she turned into two other successful Greek entries, Opa and Watch My Dance.
Ethnic instruments: check
Greek dancing: check
Modern dancing: check
Contrast between dark backdrop and light clothes: check
Bonus points for a cliche backdrop featuring a rising sun: double check
Vocals: Eh. It sounds like it does in the studio, which under normal circumstances would be a compliment, but this particular studio version features the worst ESC studio vocals to have ever been recorded, so this is a very small victory.
In fairness, considering the style of the track, there wasn’t really another direction to turn to, and yet – song aside, which is an obvious problem that cannot be fixed anymore – I do have a few problems. The first one is probably a Eurovision joke about how many elements are needed to change a light bulb: we’ve got instrumental bits and singing and rap and English and Greek and movements and dancers and non-dancers making dance movements and people playing instruments all at the same time while there’s also a very busy backdrop going on in the back.
The second thing that bothers me, and at this point I can’t tell if it’s a question of rehearsal time or just general inexperience with that kind of performance – is that from the little I have seen, they seem quite uncomfortable with some of their choreographed moves. They do seem to try really hard, though, and that’s the most I can ask of any Eurovision artist on the night.
If you have watched official video clips in the past, you might have noticed that from time to time there’s a sense of continuity between the official clip and the Eurovision staging. Moldova is a (sneaky) case in point. For the better part of the NF season they had one official videoclip, to only launch a new (and unintentionally funny) one two days ago. If you somehow managed to pick up on the connection between the peculiar timing of the video’s late release and the date of the first rehearsal, you were probably better prepared mentally for it than I was.
Some things were as expected. Lidia is still sweet, devoid of charisma and unable to convincingly sing her song. The mandatory thematically appropriate dark blue background with shiny stars on it? Also there: A breakdancing astronaut – sure thing! WAIT WHAT?
Moldova, apparently, has been so strongly impacted by their last best result, 4th in the 2013 semi, that they have returned to the same semi to ask their colleagues from Montenegro and Slovenia (12th and 16th, respectively) for styling and choreography advice.
The appearance of the astronaut had brought up some burning questions: Why is there an astronaut? Doesn’t gravity interfere with dance moves? If the song is about falling stars does this mean he also fell from the stars? Did that hurt? How is he still dancing after falling from that high up? Did he practice with Felix Baumgartner? Wouldn’t it be more practical to borrow Albania’s green alien? Isn’t it much more plausible for an alien to survive that kind of fall? Will this qualify?
At least the last one was easy to answer. Obviously not.
Continuing on the space theme, we have Hungary’s Freddie, who has been stranded on Mars and is waiting for Matt Damon’s friends* to come and rescue him from his National final performance. If you watched that one, then you’ve seen his rehearsal, minus glowing sticks and Tibetan monk drummer wear – both are likely to make an appearance later on.
The bloggers in Stockholm have pointed out the lack of visual development in this, to which Hungary responded with promising some changes by Friday’s second rehearsal. At this point, such promise means very little and it is totally depending on the delegation to decide what they think will improve the visual presentation. Usage of lights in certain places in the song and a backdrop that changes over the course of the song seem like obvious changes, but we shall see. Otherwise, it is what it has always been, and if you like the song, the performance you already know or a dark, tall and brooding man, look no further.
*If you didn’t get that reference, do go and either watch or read The Martian. This recommendation is probably the most useful thing I’ll do in this entire post.
The Croatians are doing something they have never done before: a costume change! You know who really absolutely despises costume changes at Eurovision? Moi. But the Croatians found an interesting solution to that, and have wrapped Nina with something so ugly, that there was no end to my sense of relief – considering this song is one of my favorites – to find out that she takes it off. Of course, we are yet to discover what dress she will actually wear on the night, as today she wore her regular clothes, and judging by her sense of style and THAT THING I’m drastically pessimistic, but hope never dies and all that.
Once I managed to temporarily repress the memories of whatever that was, I turned my attention to the rest of it. The backdrop and lights are appropriately atmospheric, even if unimaginative – yes, blue, stars and spotlights again! – and her vocals sound lovely in the little we’ve got here (if to trust the blogs they were uneven all the way through). Unfortunately for Croatia (and my initial prediction for it), this so far seems to be a package that is far off the special, standout staging this song needed. I am not writing it off the qualifying list – I still think the song and the singer are good enough – but my OMG I THINK CROATIA CAN MAKE A GLORIOUS RETURN AND DO A TOP 10 IN THE FINAL needs to go sit in the corner and think about what it has done.
The first thing that came to my mind as I watched the video and photos from this rehearsal was that it’s probably time I learned how to pronounce Douwe. Then I was somehow reminded of last year’s Irish entry setup, which despite being in a forest of all things, created the same sense of intimate warmth as this one did, and also a little bit of Denmark’s Should’ve Known Better (which at least qualified, if you were looking for bad omens following the Irish reference). After a few years in which Netherlands attempted – to a contrasting degree of success – sophisticated stagings, they are scaling back on this one. It seems appropriate, considering what the song is about, that it will be as relaxed, warm and inviting as they can possibly make it.
Apart from the ticking clock audio intro, the concept of time is being referenced visually – at least in some shots – through turning cogwheels in the background and on the floor – a reminder to take a step back and let time move slowly once in a while. This is also where the problem of the song is – it’s a thin line between a calm and relaxing atmosphere and a totally boring one. Another risk that the Dutch are taking with this is a 10 second break in the song (no, don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything – it’s not in the studio version!) in which they seem to intend involving the audience in the hall as he approaches the satellite stage. For a song that requires such intimate surroundings, switching the attention to the hall and detaching it from the viewer at home can be very dangerous. If it works, though, it can be a very special moment, and something similar created a very lovely performance for Douwe Bob’s neighbor, Tom Dice.
Also, Douwe Bob (seriously now – how is this pronounced?) has two important advantages: One, he’s absolutely charming, and two, if I initially thought that coming after Folkish Croatia is not ideal, it now the island of sanity, especially taking into account the songs that follow.
Iveta also turned to past participants for fashion tips, this time Magdalena Tul and Mei Finegold – well all know where those two ended up, and apparently she mixed it up with stealing a few holograms from Paola and Ovi as well as Oscar Zia’s camerawork in the last MF, but all past references aside, when you put it all together with that particular song we get something that we have nothing to compare it to.
I always said that this one – probably one of the strangest songs we’ve had in Eurovision, at least in recent years (and it is to each individual’s personal discretion to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing) – relied on the visual presentation more than anything else this year. For such a track to be somehow processed on first listening, it had to be a proper visual spectacle.
The entire setup is very dark, even with the backdrop of abstract shapes constantly flickering in the background. There is also a bit of fire. And when I say a bit I mean you could probably heat up an entire village in Northern Sweden during the winter.
As a whole, this relies heavily on Iveta’s ability to convincingly sell a sexy, mysterious image of herself and on the camera work being nothing short of perfect. Singing-wise, it sounded great, but if there’s one song that I don’t think I will be able to call until seeing it on the night, it’s this one.
If you had told me yesterday that my biggest disappointment of the day would be San Marino, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s exactly what happened as it was time for Serhat to show up for his first rehearsal, and his entourage and him took the stage, taking themselves and the song utterly seriously. A bit of a disco mood, some moves, sure, but all in all a standard, unimaginative, un-fun, un-cult staging that makes mocking this a lot less entertaining.
I can’t even make jokes about him having half of the San Marinese population tagging along because his backing singers / dancers are probably not even San Marinese either, and what’s the fun in that. It is a lot less creepy than when we first met this, but as it stands, instead of finishing in the bottom 2 while making a splash of a show for years to come, it will finish bottom 2 without anyone remembering its three minutes on stage.
Things I learned today:
1. I will never be able to write something about a Russian entry without using the random words “kitchen” and “sink”.
2. Someone in the Russian delegation suffers from an acute case of Understatephobia.
3. Sergey is actually a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Seriously, Russia. I know that you were not the first ones to come up with the idea of making your staging look like a videoclip, but I’m not sure anyone meant to just take the videoclip and put it as is on stage. It is a very impressive show at times, and then in other times (thank you, person who illegally uploaded the entire thing to youtube) some of the moves and effects are so ridiculous it’s hard to even be properly impressed, so much is the sense overload.
Even for such a ready package, there were definitely signs of first rehearsal syndrome – like, you know, Sergey managing to fall off his own prop – but he seemed to have gotten control of his invisible steps they borrowed from Belarus 2007 alongside his song just fine and quite easily breezed through the song, with good vocals and great backing singer support.
Does that change anyone’s conviction about whether this is our winner? Probably not. I don’t think anyone expected any less than a massive and well-executed show from Russia and Sergey’s team. If you thought this can win before, you probably still do. if you thought before that this belongs to 2009, that even the audience doesn’t always buy the biggest show and that the juries have definitely punished such shows in the past, you probably still do. Instead, it’s up to the other 41 acts to convince that they can beat the mark Russia has set.
And that is all for today! If you made it this far, go celebrate with more cake.
Coming up tomorrow: The Underachieving Republic of Czechia, The Mathematically Challenged Republic of Cyprus, The French Republic of Austria, The Estonian Republic of Long Forgotten VCR Buttons, The Republic of Fire, The Land of Black Holes of Musical Structures, The One Who Stole All the Swedish Stagings, The One with the Most Ridiculous Artist Eurovision Name in the History of Ever, The Republic that is Bigger Than Europe, The Republic of SVT and hopefully some better writing.