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The view from Tel Aviv: Is it true? Is it over?

by | May 6, 2019

The view from Tel Aviv: Is it true? Is it over?

by | May 6, 2019 | 2019 Tel Aviv Blog, escgo at Eurovision, Eurovision, Featured

Is it true? Is it over? Can we please go and deal with semi 2 already? Because seriously, after yesterday’s relaxed day, today did everything it could to mess up with my brain (and I suspect pretty much everyone in the press center) in every way possible. It wasn’t just that it had the likes of Iceland, Portugal, Australia and San Marino. It was that almost every delegation today had me staring at the screen and asking “Why? Why would you do that to yourselves?”

But surviving this day doesn’t only mean having me a few hours closer to a saner day tomorrow (although I suppose you can never know), it also allows me to reflect on the first semi and see if I can make some sense of the madness.

I started writing my View from San Francisco series when EBU started cutting down the materials which were allowed to be released from the rehearsals. Getting such short glimpses made me curious to whether it was even possible drawing any conclusions out of it. I’ve done pretty well, if I say so myself, but this year I have the privilege of watching the full rehearsals, but also the specific challenges that come along with that. How much of what we are feeling is a result of expectations or wishes? How much can we really predict how first time viewers will react to what we’ve just seen? How much difference to the deficiencies and merits of what we see makes a difference?

As today’s rehearsal run was a gloriously mixed bag of everything one might possibly see in Eurovision, I’m going to try and divide the performances I’ve seen over the last few days to groups based on my deep philosophical questions.

Let’s start with the easy ones first: those are the delegation that did their homework. They learned as much as they could about the stage and worked with that to create a staging that will work up there. They got their art and their camera work together, it was well rehearsed and as pretty much as ready to go after the first runthrough.

I never thought I’d include the Czech Republic in that category, but what do you know. Alongside Cyprus, Hungary, and Georgia, all very different songs, those were the ones that worked right away, despite their complexity. Everyone involved knew what they had to do and the stagings are all incredibly appropriate for their songs. They have varying degrees of success chances, depending on their actual song but they did everything in their power to give their song its best fighting chance. The accessible three out of those four are on top of my qualifier list, and while I still hesitate about giving Georgia a spot just based on my doubts regarding of the audience size when it comes to this kind of song and singing as well as its appeal anywhere in the west, but I really can’t fault them: they picked a risky song and did everything humanly possible to get 150% out of it. That’s all one can ask for.

On the other side of that spectrum are the delegations where seeing a bit of their rehearsal you know they are doomed, even when you know it’s just a first runthrough and of course things can change but some things just can be rescued. They might not come in with the same level of preparedness and some might be still further out the area of where they want to be, but it doesn’t matter. Often those are songs that were written off anyway, and I guess it is appropriate that they end up having stagings that are equally useless. This year’s “I really hope you get to enjoy your stay until next Wednesday morning” group includes San Marino and Montenegro – shocking, I know! – one was very prepared and the other the most underprepared delegation of the semi, but the result will be the same and there’s absolutely no saving grace.

Next up with have the recyclers, the ones who have slightly adapted their national final performance, and where it gets more complicated for us because it’s really not the first time we’ve watched them. I think that some really do believe they have the right concept, even though it was initially meant for a smaller space, and they really don’t want to have to come up with a new concept. The hard thing is that with having the other performance in mind it’s really hard to say what’s a real response to what we just saw and what is a result of being underwhelmed just by the lack of development between the two versions?

Let’s look at our candidates. Finland kept some elements from their national final performance, but doesn’t seem to have really internalized what they were symbolizing and therefore moving that to the bigger stage felt like it had no purpose. It was just there, happening, and not very well. In many ways I do think their national final performance was overall better, but it was never strong enough for me to think it was a qualifier and the negative changes are killing it. It’s its vocals and the lack of a good idea that are doing that.

Slovenia went down the copy paste route, still not learning the Maaraya lesson about the importance of understanding context. EMA and Eurovision? Not only it’s not the same page, it’s not the same book. It’s hard to be particularly let down when we already knew ahead of time that they kept that NF staging, and naturally it loses some of its charm when the staging has a much bigger stage. And its issues are the ones it already had in EMA – it’s very small and intimate, and the staging lacks light and shade. It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility yet, but it’s not really in either. Since there is so little that actually happens there, it’s impossible to call this one without seeing it in context.

Serbia and Iceland fared somewhat better, taking a lot from their NF performances and making just enough changes for it to feel more developed, but much like the recyclists it seems like they have figured out that they have got it more or less together thanks to the brainstorming they performed ahead of the national final, and didn’t see real reason to push it further. Serbia has the better excuse, being a lone proper old school female ballad and pretty much the last island of sanity before heading into the sea of madness that is the second half, but Iceland is of course the one that is hard to read. It’s always been a divisive one and by keeping it pretty much as is it also kept the impressions at the same place: if you thought this is amazing and gives you winner vibes, there’s no real reason for you here to not think that. And if you thought that this just targets a very small slice of the audience and their fashion style isn’t your thing? You probably still think that. I suppose that is the main problem with presentations that remain more or less in tact: watching them is a very different experience than a first impression of a song we have never seen live or competing in a national final before. The level of familiarity is different and when we get to stick to our NF season gut feeling about a song it also means we’ve been with it for too long to have a sense of how a first timer will experience it.

We’re now progressing to the “I get what you’re trying to do but I’m not entirely sure it’s working” corner, where we can find Tulia and Eliot. Interestingly enough, they both try to blend modern and ethnic elements (to different degrees of success and necessity) and feel like they are trying to fill the shoes for some sort of a current trend. This probably relates back to why they were both chosen to begin with, but it feels like it was the general idea that was chosen rather than the complete product and that some parts that should have been developed more remained untouched. Because those are internal selections we are at least free of much familiarity and comparisons, although expectations are always dangerous when it comes to those. I actually attempt to avoid picturing how I’d like an internal entry to be staged because I want to be able to judge it without dealing with my own expectations. It makes the run-through gut feelings easier to trust, but it also needs to be balanced with those kind of songs, when they are just not quite there yet. This is what the maybe column was invented for.

Today’s most active category was “but why would you do that?”, in which broadcasters take their songs and try to self-sabotage them by making a series of decisions that make listening and watching their song as hard as it can possible be. It’s also the category where the question of whether our expectations are getting in our way is the most relevant, because a What the Hell reaction always has to do with expectations. Even when you don’t have specific ones, there’s that “but not this” bit which makes it a different experience than going in blind and getting the song AND presentation together at the same time.

The success potential of Belarus, Australia, Portugal and Greece is vastly different for each one, but they have a few things in common. They all suffer from a visual idea overdose. Let’s do this! And this! But also this! And this! I have no reason to add more things at this point but I really want to know what the red button is doing! Between the expectations and the sensory overload, how do we call what can actually do just the same with the viewers than it would have otherwise? But I feel that once again, despite the style differences, they all lost something very similar and important in the process of the staging – they lost the personal element that each of them had in order to make up roon. At 16, Zena was poised to be the next kid star of Europe, but instead of targeting this market, they went down trying to make it older and cooler (failing at both), and not capitalizing on Zena’s youth basically makes it just “that other uptempo female pop song that is not Tamta”.

Australia’s Kate Miller-Heidke is so busy flying on sticks and getting the right angles and right notes from a somewhat uncomfortable position that she never gets to emote or tell a story. I always thought that what made this better than another Cezar was how likable she is and that with her personal history behind it she could reach out to her audience more, but instead she is busy doing everything else.

Portugal is not for everyone, but its previous setup had a continuity element of seeing both guys at all times and being given the chance to ease into the weirdness of it all. Instead the darkness and long shots mask both of them, the cuts to the dance moves are jarring because we don’t get enough time with the dancer to care, and seriously, who forgot to turn on the lights?

Greece’s Katerine Duska, much like Miller-Heidke, is too focused on everything that is going on around her and seem so remarkably uncomfortable in the style of that performance (and her dress) that despite her recognizable voice all the other elements that made her come across as a very cool and relevant performer are gone.

It doesn’t necessarily hurt their qualification chances, but it definitely doesn’t help. My personal expectations are never really about a specific idea but just for something that will complement the song and performer and push it to the front and center, but with all those four I kept noticing all the details that weren’t either. It’s easy to give the Blanche example, or the Netta example – a fan favorite with a staging that felt like a letdown or just not what we thought it should be, but those two cases were exactly the examples of no matter what the staging decision was, the priorities were right: artist and song first. Both Blanche and Netta WERE their songs.

Estonia, in case you wondered, is that “we can’t REALLY give you a full prediction based on all the rehearsals of this semi because we never got to see this one”. Bonus points for the fact it wasn’t a feed issue preventing us from seeing it, it was that they just never actually got a single runthrough together.

I’d like to say that this semi will make more sense to me in a few days, but I think lying is very rude. For now I’d settle for asking semi 2 to make sense to me. Wish me luck.

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