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The View from San Francisco: Another Summer Night

by | Jun 13, 2019

The View from San Francisco: Another Summer Night

by | Jun 13, 2019 | Eurovision, Featured |

They Can’t Stop the Spring
The last few days in San Francisco have been ridiculously hot, which made me very miserable and earned me quite a few “are you sure you’re Middle Eastern” comments.

Yes, I’m sure. And throughout the fortnight in Tel Aviv, this particular Middle Easterner was also reminded why she usually avoids visiting at any time between late May and early October. But most people who were not Shi and/or Israeli passport holders seem to have enjoyed the ESC weather – in which Tel Aviv skipped spring and moved straight into summer – and to be fair, for such a colorful and party-heavy event, the weather had its advantages.

You could take a break from Eurovision and remember you’re actually on vacation by going to the beach and having ice cream, and even though Eurovision is broadcast at 22:00 in Israel, the weather was warm enough to go to any public viewing – be it at Eurovillage or just sitting on the sidewalk and watching in one of the many pubs and bars that were showing the event, like my sister, brother-in-law and myself did on the night of the second semi-final.

It was also really nice to be able to sit in the large patio area of Euroclub at 4am and actually enjoy the night air as it went from unbearable during the day (I tell you, my inner Middle Easterner is broken) to pleasant during the night. And though I spent a lot of time at the press center – something I normally try to not do as much during ESC, but it seemed to matter less in a country where I didn’t have to play tourist and where I tried to avoid the daytime weather – even there, they made sure to provide us with a reminder that we were on a vacation. More than that, they forced us to remember: once you sat down in one of those sun chairs, it was impossible to get up again.

Being me, though, I spent a lot of my time in those chairs analyzing Eurovision data. Because I’m a nerd and I can also multitask. As such, my look back at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest doesn’t stop with the above review of the weather. This is your coffee alert! Or frappe. Or something with a colorful umbrella.

Sommar’n som aldrig säger nej

Believe Again
It always amuses me to see that the Wikipedia entry for every contest contains a few paragraphs about that year’s returning artists. I mean, each year is its own story, so why does it matter that much, really? At the same time, I’ve always liked the idea of returning artists, because as a fan I know many artists actually go to Eurovision without it being their lifelong dream or even knowing much about the competition and what it’s like. And it’s always made me happy, somehow, to see artists “getting” it and wanting to experience the whole thing again, maybe even doing it better next time. Not necessarily in terms of results – we had quite a few returning winners whom I assume knew were unlikely to repeat that feat – but at least getting the most out of the experience now that they knew what to expect.

Five lead artists from past ESCs returned this year, each with a different story arc. We’ve covered Joci Pápai already; he came back with a much more personal song, and sadly (especially for me) was far off his previous achievement, as he didn’t even qualify for the final.

At 24, Nevena Božović has spent half her life in the Eurovision circuit – starting with her Junior Eurovision participation in 2007, through being part of Moje 3 in 2013, to competing as a solo artist this year. Despite only finishing 18th in the final, I imagine this year was very special for her. Not only for being back in Eurovision, this time as a solo artist, but for writing her own song and actually qualifying after narrowly missing out in 11th in her semi-final back in 2013.

I could have lived with Serhat not coming back, to be honest. But credit where credit’s due, and my views on his musical capabilities aside, he did improve on his previous result – 12th in the semi – by both qualifying and getting San Marino’s best result to date. 19th in the final may not much to write home about if you’re any other country, but it’s a good year in San Marino’s unnecessary Eurovision book.

It was a mixed bag for Sergey Lazarev. He generally looked relaxed throughout, and I think in part that was because “Scream” was never a really big favorite in the way his previous entry was. I’m sure they hoped to do really well, but you never know what the actual expectations behind the scenes are. Still, finishing in third again with a song that is quite different from your previous entry probably counts as over-achieving, all told. If you’re a glass half empty kind of person, though, you might point out that Sergey got 121 points fewer than last time (with only one more country participating then compared with this year), and he actually did worse with both the public and the juries: fourth in the televote this year after winning it in 2016, and ninth with the juries compared with fifth in 2016.

Of course, none of the returning artists this year had quite the journey Tamara Todevska had. After four qualifications for the final, her 2008 entry with Vrčak and Adrian – “Let Me Love You” – was the first Macedonian entry to miss out in the semi-final era, albeit only losing out to Sweden on a jury wildcard. This kicked off a stretch of eleven years in which Macedonia only qualified once, including Tamara witnessing her older sister Tijana failing to qualify as well. Knowing all this made it even more special seeing her emotions when she qualified and during the final jury vote (which she did eventually win, even if not on the night), where it was clear that, whatever happened in the televote, she was already going to deliver her country’s most successful result ever.

Plus, random useless trivia: North Macedonia’s previous five finalists scored a combined total of 299 points. Tamara got 305.

‘s got alls vo seal, weil’s dr guat got

Don’t Play That Song Again
The main problem with actually attending Eurovision and its 323,435,300 run-throughs is something I have been in denial about for much of the season: it’s a lot harder to avoid certain songs. Normally, I’m able to skip a song until I absolutely must endure it in the live broadcast. But watching and blogging the rehearsals, I wanted to be fair and give all the songs the same amount of attention.

Thankfully, this year I actually liked most songs – I still shudder at the idea of attending ESC 2018 instead and having to sit through endless rehearsals for that second semi-final. Still, every year has its share of songs I really don’t need to ever listen to again, and 2019 was no different.

So without further ado, Shi’s 2019 blacklist:

  • Montenegro: As likable as those kids were (and they were adorable, really), there was no need for this song to exist. Or to have actually won their selection. And while I am grateful for the last minute of their performance, because it distracted me with all sorts of “what the hell are they doing?!” thoughts to allow me to manage and somewhat ignore the song, I feel no need to ever play “Heaven” again.
  • San Marino: I don’t care if this was their most successful entry to date. Everything about this played nicely into my ongoing rant about the “why are they even in ESC?” issue. I already found the song annoying in its studio version, and considering how much worse it was live, I intend to never think of it again.
  • Croatia: Sort of like Montenegro, really, except the distraction here was in the form of some really pretty backdrops and two miserable people who had to wear angel wings and be dropped from the ceiling into the hall. I hope they got paid well for it.
  • Israel: I could never stand this song to begin with and wasn’t much of a Kobi fan, but as long as I was in the US and not feeling the Eurovision frenzy in Israel, I could at least avoid the part where so many people in my country were actually really behind the song without any concept of how bad it was and how badly it was going to do on the scoreboard. I have a lot of words to say about the Israeli song and performer selection this year, none of them positive – but you know what is positive? It’s done. It’s over. We never have to think about it again. Onward and upward, or something.

Lost and Forgotten
When I was looking through the list of participants this year to make sure I didn’t forget any pet hates for the list above, I realized there were a few songs I’d already forgotten about. Because I’m a nice person, I want to make sure everyone gets a shout-out in my 2019 wrap, though, so I’m going to quickly scribble a few thoughts about them before they return to the drawer marked “who was that again?”.

  • Finland: In theory I actually sort of like this, in the sense of never feeling an urgent need to fast-forward when it comes on shuffle. But the live performance was so disengaging it constantly made me wonder why I should care about it if even its performers couldn’t be bothered.
  • Belgium: Another one where I like the idea more than the actual end product. I already struggled with the studio version – I liked some parts of it a lot, but there were underwhelming parts too, and the overall result was that I always ended up not wanting to listen to it. The performance had exactly the same problem: I liked the idea of it, but in practice it was gray and lifeless, and I had already forgotten it happened until Wikipedia told me otherwise.
  • Moldova: No, please, don’t stay. To be fair, I like Anna, but the song was never more than just reasonable, and then they had to go and borrow someone else’s staging but make it considerably less interesting so even that didn’t work.
  • Lithuania: Wait, are we certain they actually participated this year?

Lykken er et spann med sand i en liten barnehand

What’s the Pressure?
When writing Eurovision rehearsal coverage from the safety of your laptop in the faraway lands of Northern California, there are a lot of things that can be hard to see and feel. Over the years I have found myself theorizing about the state of mind of certain delegations coming to Eurovision, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to imagine what it would be. For example, it’s very easy to assume that the big favorites will come in with a huge amount of pressure on their shoulders, between their own expectations, the press interest and the general atmosphere of the press center which tends to amplify everything. In a documentary about Israel’s history in Eurovision, a few delegation members from last year talked about the relief Netta had when Cyprus overtook her in the odds: with the Israeli public and press preparing itself for disappointment, the pressure was off and this helped her enjoy her final performance a lot more and deliver a stronger performance as a result – essentially making sure she would win it after all.

On the other end of that scale are the delegations that come in with very little chance of doing much of anything. I never had it verified by anyone, but I always assumed that the Icelandic delegation last year came in absolutely understanding they were going to finish last (which they did), and that knowledge, together with Ari’s personality, helped them to get through the experience and focus on doing the best they could.

Being on the ground this year, the interaction with delegations was more limited than I expected, but the bits and pieces I picked up provided some insight and even a few surprising moments for me. Russia and Azerbaijan, two big hitters that always aim to do well, were two I expected to be highly strung, but they actually gave a very grounded feeling, putting the work in, taking the time to relax and get away from the madness and never coming out with big declarations.

Cyprus, much like last year, came pretty well prepared – for better and for worse. The positive of that was they were confident enough in their preparation and experience to not get swallowed up by the hysteria of the bubble and the Cypriot press – apparently the level of concern caused by Tamta’s vocals at rehearsals caused speculation that she might not even qualify, and the delegation had to basically handle the local press while not letting it get to them. The downside was that they were not very flexible about making any changes, and as a result perhaps ended up getting less out of the rehearsal period than they could have.

I was somewhat surprised to see the explosions of drama coming from countries with so little chance of achieving anything big that you might not have expected their delegations to be so invested. Instead, they seemed set to spend their time being angry at everyone and everything.

The Moldovan delegation is one such example. I doubt anyone there thought they could do much more than borderline qualifying at best, and since they did at least have a capable lead performer, aiming for her to present the entry to the best of her ability would have sufficed. And to be fair, they were close – only nine points separated Moldova from tenth place and qualification. Instead, they made sure to constantly complain to everyone about all the ways in which they were being wronged, without ever actually detailing them. It’s a great method, really: it’s very easy to complain about having asked for something and having been refused without actually saying what you asked for, just as long as everyone knows that if you fail, it’s not your fault. It’s not that I think that they’re lying – in fact, I’m sure they’re not – but I also mentioned in my previous piece that, having seen the amount and degree of changes other delegations were allowed to do, being refused something would require a damn good reason. Considering the finished product, it’s also very doubtful that any changes they might have done would have changed much overall. Spreading so much negativity for such low stakes suggests that someone, somewhere, was going to ask for explanations afterwards, so some precautionary groundwork needed to be done.

It was even like that to a degree with the Dutch delegation. With criticism about their staging from many quarters (myself included, as you well know – obviously they couldn’t care less about what I think, but there were other critics the Dutch delegation did care about), there were a couple of days in which we heard several voices from the delegation complaining about Kan not doing this and not doing that, even though the run-throughs showed very little willing to change anything. Again, putting this kind of claim in the context of seeing how much other delegations changed between runs, it was hard to believe that supposedly crucial requests from the delegation would be ignored to such a degree. Discussing this with a few Dutch journalists, we all felt like they were trying to get their excuses ready in case they didn’t win, just to make sure no one accused them of not doing enough.

Since I talked about Ari from Iceland earlier, I should say that I had Croatia 2019 down as the candidate for the same role this year. A lovely, talented guy with a fairly chanceless and tacky song. He’s obviously great, I thought, and they put a lot of effort into the staging and really did everything they could with it, even if that’s not much. They should be pleased with themselves, whatever happens.

In reality? Not so much. It turns out the delegation was under so much pressure to qualify, especially from certain people on high, that being around the Croatian delegation was pretty dangerous. The delegation actually demanded to have the volunteers assigned to accompany them during their stay removed, after they had the joy of witnessing some of the verbally explosive incidents which took place within the delegation. I may never like his song, but my respect for Roko grew knowing that he kept smiling throughout and giving it his best despite having all this noise boiling behind him.

And for what? No matter how much pressure you’re under, everything everyone does within a delegation plays a part in how well you do, and the mental well-being of all delegation members – not just the performers – is as important as everything else. Just ask anyone from the German team in 2002, which fell apart under stress from above. If you want your performers to give their best on stage, you need to make sure you give them the best opportunity to do so.

It’s you and me and everybody out there

We Are the Winners
One of my favorite things to write about when I was a sports journalist was stories about the process and getting a look behind the curtain. It’s easy to see a talented and charismatic sports star or a performer and not really think about how many other people had a hand in getting them to that moment, which is what makes the green room reaction shots into one of my favorite things about Eurovision – it’s wonderful seeing the entire team celebrating their achievement together.

It’s not often that we get to see the team share the stage with the artist for the winner’s reprise, though. We sometimes see the other team members join at the very end or when the song ends, which also means there are about three seconds between that and the final Te Deum of the night.

Last year, in an entirely unsurprising display of Israeli chutzpah, composer Doron Medalie had strategically placed the entire team on one of the stage’s bridges after placating a stage worker by telling him they were just going to stand there and get a look at Netta while she performed. Of course, he then proceeded to cause a diplomatic mini-crisis and put the reputation of Israeli delegations in question as he led a stage invasion which saw the entire delegation join Netta for the final part of the song. For me, that was one of the best moments of the night and one of the highlights of any reprise I can remember seeing in Eurovision. There’s something in that display of togetherness and celebration of everyone who was a part of the journey that really works for me – I guess my inner Israeli isn’t that broken, after all.

With Israel being the host this year, stage invasion wasn’t a risk anyone could afford, not even a participating delegation. But luckily for the Netherlands, having Israel as the host means you’re talking about a country that’s very fond of that “all singing together” thing. Twenty years ago, on the tiny stage of the 1999 Eurovision, Charlotte Nilsson ended up sharing the stage with pretty much all the other participants and interval act members as well as her entire delegation.

This year, as Duncan began his winning reprise performance, the Dutch delegation were led to the wings of the stage and then given permission to join him, which they were all too happy to accept. Seeing them together at the end, laughing and crying and singing the lyrics, was the perfect dose of emotion with which to end Eurovision 2019.

All images from eurovision.tv except the sunchairs, which are ours

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