Toy Story

Mar 22, 2018 by

Toy Story

The ESC Outright has had a fragile look to it for much of the qualifier season, with all those countries at the front of the market having significant question marks hanging over them. Then Israel dropped and like Italy last year, this has given it a much sought after entry to coalesce around as favourite. But overall, the sense is of an open year.

We have had two worthy ESC winners in the last 2 years courtesy of Jamala and Salvador. In his winning speech, Salvador implored ‘music is not fireworks’ and it is notable TPTB in Portugal have responded by ditching LED screens and projection effects on the Lisbon stage.

It remains to be seen how much visual impact this will have. The assumption is, delegations will still be allowed to bring their own equipment but certainly Mans heavily staging-effects reliant ‘Heroes’ feels like it belongs to a past era.

Very late in the qualification season, Israel’s ‘Toy’ arrived sung by Netta Barzilai and has ignited the betting market. It is a valid favourite but with clear risks attached. The questions surrounding ‘Toy’ are similar to the ones we had last year with Italy: whereas the televote appeal looks obvious, will jury members give it respect as a credible, modern pop song?

This is a bigger banger and potentially more impactful compared to ‘Occidentali’s Karma’. It races along and maintains your attention. The concerns are: do the clucking noises send it perilously close to novelty territory? And can Netta elicit empathy from viewers or might she risk coming across as too fierce and annoying/unlikeable?

‘I’m not your toy. You stupid boy.’ The lyrics are claimed to be about the empowerment of women. Does this chime with the metoo movement? It all looks a bit of stretch and it is probably wiser to focus on the live delivery of the song.

The vocal looper gives her potential x factor, and Israel are usually a safe pair of hands when it comes to staging fun, uptempo tunes. If they get things right, the feel-good energy this song creates could offer up a show-stealing, vote-winning 3 minutes. But they have to pitch Netta’s performance just right. She needs to be the underdog; someone the audience is rooting for. We will learn a little more when she appears on Tuesday April 10 at the Israel Calling concert.

If they get things right, the feel-good energy this song creates could offer up a show-stealing, vote-winning 3 minutes

Czech Republic has gradually contracted in price, aided by an engaging performance Mikolas gave during the Ukraine qualification, but was he lip-syncing there? The song itself, while undeniably catchy, feels somewhat lightweight. It has a nice Justin Timberlake-esque chorus and it ticks the ‘commercial’ box.

Czech Rep at least has the advantage of offering one of the few uptempo blasts in this year’s competition, and they have wisely toned down the misogynistic lyrics in the official version. Mikolas is likeable enough, offering a certain geek chic in the way he performs the song.

Bulgaria has taken a cloak-and-dagger approach to this ESC campaign, teasing the ingredients of ‘Bones’ and waiting until the last moment to release the song, seeking to build hype. It has the components of a highly credible, contemporary tune in studio form.

The nagging concern is, whether it will end up less than the sum of its parts live. With 5 different singers involved, the harmonising could be difficult to pull off, and visually it might not gel. A further worry is, it looks like going down a dark, gothic path that might come over as too cold and forbidding.

Estonia has clear USP as a powerful, operatic number and there is no doubting the quality of Elina’s voice. ‘Vocal capacity’ has always been part of the judging criteria and she should get plenty of jury love for her impressive vocal prowess.

The closest recent song comparison we have is Il Volo who finished 3rd in 2015 from the pimp slot, topping the televote but somewhat surprisingly falling down to 6th place on the jury side that year. Courtesy of her remarkable vocal powers this may do better on the jury side and Elina will certainly be memorable on the night.

But the projection effect on her dress, if it is allowed, is a slight sticking point with the staging. We have seen this gimmick on the ESC stage before and does it risk cheapening her performance?

‘Vocal capacity’ has always been part of the judging criteria and Elina should get plenty of jury love for her impressive vocal prowess

Fellow Baltic nations, Latvia and Lithuania, also serve up solo female efforts this year. Latvia’s Laura Rizzotto with ‘Funny Girl’ has been surprisingly overlooked by the market up to now. ESC fans obsession with ‘Esamiba’ this year may partly explain this snub but watching Supernova this came across as a highly competent entry.

There is certainly scope for jurors to rate the commercial-sounding ‘Funny Girl’ which has echoes of The Weeknd’s ’Fifty Shades’ smash hit ‘Earned It’ in its production.

Like Latvia, the Lithuanian song is considered an also-ran by the betting market but has potential pluses as a tender, plaintive, stripped back ballad. It might be too under-stated but it ticks the ‘authentic’ box and if making the grand final could end up fighting with Spain and Germany in trying to strike a chord with viewers’ sensibilities.

Saara Aalto’s team have been using social media to hype her bid for Eurovision glory. ‘Monsters’ always felt like her best option, promised a memorable stage show and with Brian Friedman drafted in hopes were high on this front… and then the Finnish final happened, which was annoying for layers hoping the Saara hype would see Finland drop significantly in price.

Saara’s first attempt at the song was such a hot mess it crept into parody territory but it did improve when seen in Lithuania. It is also worth remembering that outside of the UK and Finland, Saara is little known across Europe and while she is seeking to create a profile for herself as an LGBT icon, she is no Conchita.

Fundamentally, ‘Monsters’ seems to be plagued with difficulty as a live song to perform. It stretches Saara vocally who risks getting screechy in the upper register, lacks control in the lower parts and her natural timbre is too shrill for this track. It looks like it has a mountain to climb.

Spain is the most divisive entry this year among the ESC trading community. It was surprising to see and hear the vehemently anti-Spanish sentiment expressed after this was chosen. Without even knowing Alfred and Amaia’s back story, the performance of this song, in its original form, totally charmed this viewer.

They have a strong chemistry together and Amaia, in particular, has an endearing stage presence. Televoters may be won over but whether the song is strong enough to persuade jury members of its merits is more questionable.

Sweden’s Melodifestivalen earns enormous focus during qualification season but this year we perhaps saw evidence of declining music quality there, and anything vaguely original and interesting (Dotter, Felix) was shunned. Benjamin’s song is classic MF fare, a song masquerading as modern and credible but ultimately too run-of-the-mill and calculated in requiring LED effects to try and bring it to life on stage.

France stands alone in this year’s Contest as a cool and classy slice of minimalist electro-pop. Its simplicity is potentially one of its biggest strengths, with a chorus that is something of an earworm. As a duet Madame Monsieur come across as assured and credible, and the clap-along at the end of the song that Emilie invites should definitely stay.

No doubt the majority of national broadcasters will explain the meaning of ‘Mercy’ – a message that could resonate around Europe – but it ideally needs some powerful visuals to help convey it as a humanitarian anthem, because it is the story behind the song – of a baby born on a refugee boat during the European migrant crisis – that is its biggest selling point and which could help propel it further in Lisbon.

France stands alone in this year’s Contest as a cool and classy slice of minimalist electro-pop

Greece and Armenia both offer up sincere, authentic, ethno ballads, powerful and evocative. Being sung in their native tongue should aid them in terms of their diaspora appeal.

We probably need to tread slightly carefully now in terms of banking on diaspora with Armenia after it failed to turn up last year to support Artsvik but this should motivate the Armenians as the first ever Armenian entry sung fully in Armenian, with Sevak enjoying a high profile from his stint as a judge on Armenia’s version of The Voice.

A similar sort of staging as seen in Depi Evratesil would serve the song well enough, though he should probably ditch the body armour look. The revamp of the song, with more instrumentation added, has given it a more rousing climax.

Russia’s Julia Samoylova has a pleasant enough ballad. The main issue is, she is something of an uncomfortable listen and sympathy for her will be in short supply. It is hard to envisage much support for this outside of Russia’s traditional former Soviet voting allies.

Ukraine is much like a good few other midtempo pop entries this year in being something of an empty vessel, in this case trying to be propped up by Melovin’s stagemanship. The burning scaffolding has to be a visual negative, and overall it comes across as too lightweight unaided by Melovin’s poor enunciation.

Moldova is trying to play the same trick as last year in fobbing off uptempo trash as something vaguely decent. From the stage show to the actual song this screams low rent. It might have done well at Eurovision 20 years ago but feels inescapably dated.

Alexseev’s song ‘Forever’, in its original form as a Russian language release, is a decent ballad and the sort of thing a Dima Bilan would have probably gone close to winning ESC with back in the day.

But for it to get the green light from the EBU they have had to go with the English version which sounds significantly inferior as a song, more so due to Alexseev’s poor diction, even more so due to his live vocal deficiencies, and even more so if they continue to decide to outfit him like an extra in the movie Tron which looked wholly discordant with the song at the Belarusian national final.

The Belarus delegation will be savvy enough to have him largely concealed by backing vocalists in Lisbon but you have to remain skeptical regarding its skills of marrying the song to a more suitable staging canvas, as it has a history of incongruous, gimmicky visuals.

Romania has a certain appeal for those who feel nostalgia for old school soft rock of the Journey/Foreigner ilk. It will probably be more palatable to the masses than ‘Viszlat Nyar’ by the Hungarian metal band, AWS, but like the Netherlands perhaps risks being considered outdated by jury members.

The Greek song ‘Oniro Mou’ is arguably among the strongest the country has sent to the Contest in the last decade. It has racked up over 5 million YouTube views, highlighting that the Greeks are excited by an entry which is being interpreted as a love letter to the country. It’s an atmospheric, ethereal track, and the staging in Lisbon has been teased by Yianna as ‘emotional’. Four backing vocalists will aid her, there will be no choreography for this and she has hinted at something happening with her dress.

The Greek song ‘Oniro Mou’ is arguably among the strongest the country has sent to the Contest in the last decade

Greece’s neighbour Cyprus is relying on the stage skills of the smoking hot Eleni Foureira to sell ‘Fuego’ to the max live with Sacha Jean-Baptiste tasked with creating the show. The main concern is, her ‘ah-yay-a-yay-a-yeah-yay-a-yay-a-yeahs’ struggle to conceal a wafer-thin pop tune despite its catchy chorus.

If it wasn’t for the fact Portugal won Eurovision last year there is no way it would be being offered at such generous prices on Betfair. The 8 draw is a marginal setback but semi winners drawing first half have historically been placed between 10 and 13, so probably won’t harm it.

You can also guarantee this going big in the hall in front of a partisan home crowd – there is a moment towards the end that was greeted by rapturous applause during the Portuguese final. It’s beautifully performed by Claudia and the emotion she conveys has a touch of magic about it, reminiscent of Salvador last year. Her pink hair could also help make her lodge in viewer’s minds.

If it wasn’t for the fact Portugal won Eurovision last year there is no way it would be being offered at such generous prices on Betfair

Belgium has offered up another quality entry this year. ‘A Matter Of Time’ has a hint of timeless, Bond theme appeal and is a commendable piece of lounge music. Sennek seems to have a clear vision of who she is as a music artist. and with Hans Pannecoucke on board as creative director Belgium fans will be hoping for some Common Linnets inspiration on the Lisbon stage to help this stand out.

The Netherlands this year also has the famed Pannecoucke creating the staging. Waylon is seeking the authenticity ticket but the trouble is this is a pale imitation of Americanised country music and is there really much of an audience for this sort of thing across Europe? ‘Outlaw In ’Em’ also feels like it runs out of ideas as a song after about 2 minutes and gets repetitive.

Azerbaijan, while perfectly acceptable for what it is, suffers for being too generic, offering up some particularly banal lyrics. It’s a shame for the artist who is clearly highly talented.

Australia has similar issues to overcome. What some are trying to claim is anthemic and uplifting is coming across to others as bland, trite and synthetic.

While we can bank on Aisel’s live vocal and the skills of Fokas to help elevate ‘X My Heart’, there have to be greater concerns regarding firstly Jessica’s live vocal, after her previous outing on the ESC stage back in 2014 and secondly her performance skills. Watching more recent live performances by her haven’t dispelled either of these concerns.

The Outright market’s love for Australia each year seems to be based partly on the belief the EBU will try its utmost to help it win, and also due to it being in the jury top 5 for all 3 years it has competed. Certainly the jury score achieved by Isaiah last year was one of the more head-scratching results, but this year’s competition looks much stronger on the jury side.

There is also a strong school of thought that Australia will always struggle to power through on the televote and Jessica, on all known evidence, is no Dami Im who wooed the audience with her vocal powers two years ago.

Germany was a short-lived market springer ahead of the German final, only for Michael to disappoint there in terms of live vocal and performance. It is certainly not a write-off as it’s a decent Ed Sheehan-style song but the delivery needs to improve significantly otherwise it will be at risk of fading into the background.

Italy has been attracting decent money on Betfair but it feels like a hard listen by simply being too wordy, with Ermal and Fabrizio not the most telegenic. While it’s another zeitgeist message song, this looks harder to convey on stage compared to France unless they plan on using subtitles as the backdrop.

Franka’s ‘Crazy’ for Croatia, while promising much in snippet form, fails to deliver as a coherent 3 minutes. It is more style over substance and with talk of her only being joined on stage by 2 backing vocalists, there doesn’t seem to be much artistic vision in terms of the stage show. FYR Macedonia is a similarly disjointed effort and somewhat schizophrenic in not knowing exactly what it wants to be.

Austria has a touch of Hozier about it and is a solid, soulful offering in studio form that could tick the radio-friendly, contemporary boxes with jurors. It has a hook-y chorus and a gospel choir offering Cesar vocal assistance on the Lisbon stage would help raise it up live.

Rasmussen is trying to bring Viking realness with ‘Higher Ground’ for Denmark. While vocally he was a bit hit and miss during the Danish final, the nicest thing you can say about the song is, it might work well as a ‘Game Of Thrones’ soundtrack filler.

Austria has a touch of Hozier about it and is a solid, soulful offering in studio form that could tick the radio-friendly, contemporary boxes with jurors

The returning 2009 winner Alex Rybak has a far inferior song to ‘Fairytale’ he is attempting to sell to the audience. It may end up the grand final opener, or closer. Some televoters could be won over as he is undeniably a charismatic performer but as a song this is woefully poor and looks likely to be punished by jury members.

Overall, this is a solid year despite the traditional chorus of disapproval about it being the worst ESC ever. There are a nice variety of song genres represented, and it is also good to see more songs sung in their native tongue.

It is easy to envisage some high profile casualties among the current market leaders with semi 1 shaping up to be one of the most competitive we have ever seen. The top 10 market is keenly-contested and there is plenty of scope for some of the perceived front-runners to fall through the cracks.

As usual, the great imponderable is what the juries are going to go for. In recent years they appear to have had a fixation rating entries that are considered contemporary and radio-friendly. Equally, songs which showcase a strong live vocal and some authenticity have also tended to show up well on the jury side.

It is easy to envisage some high profile casualties among the current market leaders with semi 1 shaping up to be one of the most competitive we have ever seen

More than anything 1st rehearsals will be revealing this year in telling us exactly what impact the decision to have no LED screens and projection effects on the stage in Lisbon has had.

As for the UK, it is such a middle-of-the-road, vapid song it looks a serious contender for last place. The rest of the Big 5 and hosts Portugal look strong this year, as does semi 1, so we perhaps need to consider what is likely to scrape through from the much weaker semi 2 for the possible wooden spoon challengers to SuRie.

More intel will be gathered over the coming weeks as we see many of the artists perform during the traditional pre-ESC concert circuit. Keep an eye out for reviews which will appear following the London Eurovision Party on April 5, and Amsterdam’s EiC on April 14.


  1. Tim B

    Here’s a video podcast I guested on for ESCKAZ

  2. Tim B

    First Semi-Final

    The running order of the first Semi-Final of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest:
    1. Azerbaijan
    2. Iceland
    3. Albania
    4. Belgium
    5. Czech Republic
    6. Lithuania
    7. Israel
    8. Belarus
    9. Estonia
    10. Bulgaria
    11. F.Y.R. Macedonia
    12. Croatia
    13. Austria
    14. Greece
    15. Finland
    16. Armenia
    17. Switzerland
    18. Ireland
    19. Cyprus

  3. Tim B

    Second Semi-Final

    The running order of the second Semi-Final of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest:
    1. Norway
    2. Romania
    3. Serbia
    4. San Marino
    5. Denmark
    6. Russia
    7. Moldova
    8. The Netherlands
    9. Australia
    10. Georgia
    11. Poland
    12. Malta
    13. Hungary
    14. Latvia
    15. Sweden
    16. Montenegro
    17. Slovenia
    18. Ukraine

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