Archives for category: music

It is that time again where I air my thoughts on the results of Eurovision Song Contest. It was a year of contrasting musical styles, with the traditional ballads, dancefloor bangers and ethno-pop meeting pop opera and BDSM techno-punk. Oh, and Madonna turned up.

In fact, let’s start with her. You would think after being in the industry for nearly 40 years she would know how to make chat with TV hosts, but no. Her stilted conversation with the poor presenter was the most awkward moment of the night. Until that is we got to her actual performance. Barely a note was in tune and was actually mind-numbingly dull. A waste of 10 minutes that could have been given to hurrying the vote along so we could have gone to bed before midnight.

Honestly, most of the half-time entertainment was sub-par. Thank god for Verka, who should be a feature every year. At least give him a five-minute cabaret slot at some point.

The songs themselves were all very middle of the road in terms of quality. Bar a weirdly cold Slovenia and an overly saccharine Germany (and the bizarre world of San Marino) there were very few clangers, but also very little genuine quality. Norway was a personal favourite of mine, for actually bringing a bit of a tune and some energy. Azerbaijan was another high point and I have to reluctantly give some credit to Russia.

The biggest talking point was, of course, Iceland. The song itself was deliciously OTT, as was the staging. How they got away with something bordering on BDSM porn is beyond me (we were one ball gag away from an 18 rating), but I’m glad they did. Quite what Europe’s take on their Palestine protest during the voting will be is another matter. It’s interesting Madonna got away with her political statement with the crowd but not them.

The Netherlands were victors. It wasn’t a surprise though. Although not a personal favourite of mine, it obviously had a quality to it that would chime with juries and public alike. It is yet more proof that sincerity, regardless of genre of song, is the biggest vote winner. If you can sell the story of your song to the audience, you are going to be in the running to win.

Which brings me to the UK. Whilst the song was poor and the staging no better, last felt harsh when you consider some of the other songs out there. But it did lack anything to make it sound special. It takes more than a good voice. There will always be a debate as to if internal selection or public is the way forward, but there needs to be quality to begin with.

Still, there’s always next year. Amsterdam here we come!

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Some mysteries are easier to solve than others. I for one wouldn’t want to unpick any of those impossible maths challenges. I can however solve the case of the UK’s terrible run at Eurovision.

All the clues are there, but the problem is too many people look at the symptom, the grand final in May, rather than the cause, which in this case is the national selection process, the final of which occurred on Friday. I present to you, the criminal that is Eurovision: You Decide.

The format this year was a little different from normal, with six acts divided into pairs and having a song each. In other words, three songs in two different styles. In theory this is a good idea, as you can pair up the arrangement and the singer better to the song. It does prevent self-written songs though, with all the tracks produced by committee.

Of course, that relies on the three songs being quality to begin with. I don’t think any of them were. ‘Freaks’ was infuriatingly catchy but had awful lyrics. ‘Sweet Lies’ never really hit top gear as either a dance track or a ballad. ‘Bigger than Us’ was the cheesiest of cheese-fests. A stronger performer on all three was fairly self-evident, although if true justice occurred the public would have been able to vote on both versions of ‘Bigger than Us’ and ‘Freaks’ eliminated straight away.

Michael Rice’s take on ‘Bigger than Us’ was the best vocal of the night and an understandable winner. It fails the charisma test though. Some proper performance arts training will help, as will someone teaching him how to keep the microphone in the right place at all times. There is too much arm flailing in the choreography at present and a cruel draw in the final will guarantee us last place.

In some respects the problems run deeper than the songs though. The mocking tone we associate with Eurovision is present here. There is an amateur hour standard of production, with Mel Gidroyc and Mans Zemerlow frequently looking at the wrong camera and Gidroyc even at one point wandering off the set. I doubt you would see such sloppiness on any of the Scandinavian selection shows.

It is this feeling we are taking it as a joke that costs us every year. We can send whatever song we like, but if it is done with a sneer or a giggle we will get punished.

I argue we need to promote Rylan Clarke-Neal from head judge to presenter (he is surprisingly professional for a reality TV graduate). I also think that as good as the matching exercise was in theory, it didn’t work in practice. If they want a twist, make is self-written songs only. This encourages the performers to sing sincerely, a common theme amongst previous winners. And make the whole thing more professional. If even all that fails to produce a result, then we may need to make a second exit from Europe.

We have come to that time of year again where I offer my thoughts on the Eurovision Song Contest. This year felt like a bit of an odd one. A lot of slow ballads and weak mid-tempo songs in the first half, lifted only by the cheesy Norway and distinctly odd Ukraine, with a second half filled with party bangers and eccentricities.

It was the slow start for the show that made me struggle more to enjoy it this year than normal, blandness topped with mediocrity being the theme. Of course, interest was piqued with the stage invasion during the UK’s song. One of these seems to happen a year now – if it’s not an onstage protest we get a member of the crowd mooning. Security is clearly a bit lax at this event.

The voting system also highlighted massive disparities in terms of what the critics want and what the public loves. The juries rewarded tight pop efforts from Austria and Sweden and dismissed the theatrics of Ukraine and the earnest folksy Denmark, both of which got more love from the viewers. The former I could understand, as it proved to be one of the high points of staging. The latter less so. It takes more than a beard for me to buy into some Viking backstory.

But did the right song win? Well, in my opinion, yes. TOY – the Israeli entrant – was one of the other masterclasses in staging, although one that was driven by the performer rather than the props. Netta worked the arena and the audience at home, no mean feat considering the stakes. The song also managed the feat of being up tempo but still with a message, in this case female empowerment. There have been grumblings of cultural appropriation with her geisha styling, but if we are to celebrate coming together as one, shouldn’t we be prepared to incorporate such things without fear of criticism? Or is that not woke enough?

I also enjoyed Moldova, despite Graham Norton’s criticisms of it. If you are going to bring the novelty, do it with conviction. It was also one of the few performances to really throw everything into the pot – props, choreography, a storyline – what more could you want? Likewise, Finland was too harshly judged by jury and viewer alike.

And finally, what about us? Well, I found the song to be beige in musical form. The staging was little better. The invasion probably saved us from being forgotten and SuRie’s admirable fortitude picked us a few sympathy votes that saved us from last place. But we wouldn’t need that if the song was stronger to begin with.

Which brings us to how we go about doing better next year. Two things for me. Firstly, the song writing by committee has to stop. Some of the best songs over the last few years have only written by one or two people, preferably the artist themselves or someone close to them. Second, there needs to be more of an investment from the record industry as a whole – genuine up-and-coming acts need to be scouted. An undiscovered talent who writes their own material seems to be the perfect act for Eurovision. But, until next year, that is that.

And so to my yearly review of The Eurovision Song Contest. I did not have high hopes for this year’s contest – stories of backstage chaos, tensions between the hosts Ukraine and Russia and an overall opinion on the fan forums of the quality of the songs being lower left me concerned that I was facing a very dull and badly organised three hours.

Thankfully, events transpired rather better than that. I don’t profess to be an expert on musical quality, but I found enough of the songs enjoyable to compensate from any that were lacklustre, and there seemed to be return to the creative eccentricities the contest is known for.

Amongst my favourites this year were the joyful Moldova, the cool and contemporary Norway and the slightly oddball but magnificently done Azerbaijan and Croatia. Quite how a man wearing a horse’s head sitting on top of a ladder was designed to add anything to the song is beyond me, but it worked, as did the solo duet. I even warmed to Sweden’s entry, which had been written off as cold and cynical by many fans.

But what of the winner? Well, I personally didn’t fall for the charms of Salvador from Portugal. The song seemed reminiscent of a particularly downbeat Disney song from the 1950’s and the singer’s tics were not sweet gestures that people seemed to be worshipping. Yet clearly enough people fell for the simplicity and subtlety of the moody staging and the quirks of the performer, as it won in a landslide, topping both sets of votes by some distance. Expect next year to feature a glut of foreign language retro love songs on minimal staging.

Speaking of next year, where do the UK go from here? We sent a strong package: a decent song, excellently sung and well staged, and still only managed 15th (although we did get a top 10 finish from the jury). To be fair, the song always did seem more jury bait than something that would win over a public vote, but even so, it felt harsh to only receive 12 points from the televote.

The solution to this problem is perhaps to keep up and build on the efforts of this year by throwing our weight behind the song but adapt where we went wrong. Find an artist that writes their own stuff and knows how to sell the narrative, keep the staging subtle but effective and make sure there is a story to tell the viewers. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the winners for the past two years have written very personal songs. Perhaps rather than hiring the best songwriter and pairing them up with the best singer, we get the performer who can do both.

Normally on this blog, I like to leave a gap before I review a show a second time. It could be a year, sometimes two, but always enough time to for it to progress and evolve, for better or worse. However, some shows a done a disservice with this approach. Even a few weeks can make a difference in whether or not the trail of breadcrumbs you followed at the start are the ones you are following now.

The X Factor definitely deserves another look now we are deep into the live shows. For a start, there has been some massive surprises in the selection for the finalists, in particular in the Over’s. I always felt that Honey G was primed for a spot, even when Sharon Osborne sent her packing at boot camp. But there had also been a definite narrative for the other two spots to go to any out of James Wilson, Janet Grogan or Samantha Atkinson. Instead, the virtually previously unseen Relley C and the initially unpopular Saara Aalto took them.

Not that I’m disappointed. Saara is one of the strongest vocalists and an increasingly bold performer, although she has received more love form the judges than the public. Relley C, meanwhile, was easy cannon fodder while they kept in the more contemporary 4 of Diamonds and Ryan Lawrie.

Overall, this year is a strong line up. Matt Terry and Emily Middlemass are easy leaders, the former good looking with an excellent falsetto, the latter with a definitive sound and style. Such as been the ease of their dominance that the show has deliberately de-ramped them this week, Terry dropping the killer falsetto and Middlemass being ever more rooted to the spot in productions, to actually make it look like a competition.

5 Minutes to Midnight are easily pitching for the JLS vote. They are perhaps not as likeable, and some productions have seen them fall back on backing tracks rather than their own voices, but anything less than a semi-final spot would be amiss.

Aalto, Sam Lavery and Ryan Lawrie are all easy targets to pick off over the next three weeks, the only question being the order. Aalto, for me, needs to be spared a few weeks yet, purely because she is more at home in the big productions the show thrives on and is a stunning vocalist. A sing-off between Lawrie and Lavery would be interesting – the latter has gone off the rails and is being denied her moment, while Lawrie has upped his game but still is relatively forgettable.

And what of Honey G? Is she a cultural appropriating prankster catfishing the show? Or a slightly deluded middle-class woman? Personally, I think her love of the music and of entertaining is sincere, and I think deep inside she knows she is the novelty act. But what I like about her is that she actually seems nice. She thanks the whole team at the show for given her opportunities, works hard and has a streak of self-deprecation that is joyful. A win would be a step to far, but having her in the final at Wembley Arena? I wouldn’t say no. I say Honey, you say G. Honey…

And so, to my yearly blog on The X Factor. I feel as if I say the same things every year – the judging panel looking fresh, the format is really working this year, there is some great talent, yada yada yada. Yet, no return to the years where it could scoop up 12 million viewers without so much as breaking a sweat.

Of course, last year was a car crash. Olly Murs and Caroline Flack were single-handedly the worst presenting double act I have ever seen. Chemistry was at zero, and they could barely walk across a stage and speak at the same time. The judging panel also fell flat, the desperate grab for youth too cold. Having to work around the Rugby World Cup didn’t help either. There was a time when a major sporting event would play second fiddle to Cowell’s whims, but not no more it seems.

So obviously this year is going to feel like a return to glory compared to that. But I feel it genuinely is. I haven’t enjoyed watching the show so much in years. For a start, the show is yes less abrasive than it has been, with the bad and deluded kindly shepherded away rather than ridiculed. The judges have a spark between them and seem a perfect balance, with a ‘gang up on Simon’ mentality. The return of Dermot O’ Leary is also a big boost. He is Mr X Factor. Cowell can come and go, but Dermot stays.

The room auditions help. There is no baying mob to face and that gives contestants the freedom to be more experimental, picking lesser known songs or being more creative with big hits. There is some real talent shining through, both in returning contestants like Emily Middlemiss and Janet Grogan, and new finds like Matt Terry and boyband 5am. Of course, there is still the cruel but unmissable six seat challenge, which is always a brutal watch, it feels as if The X Factor is dropping its brutal image for more a family-friendly one.

Whilst it will never be all conquering again, it feels as if the show is finding a nice groove. No longer chasing ‘cool’, it is beating its own path and, as it happens, feeling a lot more fresh. It has remembered how to be fun and entertain. When it is on this kind of form, we could watch it for years to come and not be bored.

As this year’s Eurovision Song Contest once more blows through, it is time once again for me to conduct the post-mortem on the event. As ever, I will be asking three basic questions. Firstly, was it a good show? Secondly, did the right song win? And finally, where next for the UK after another spectacular failure?

In response to the first, I have to say it was very enjoyable. The fact it was in general much more up-tempo this year helped, as last year did seem to creak under the weight of the ballads. Plus, elaborate staging as embraced in such a way as never seen before.

Sweden are always good hosts anyway, striking the right balance between tongue-in-cheek humour whilst keeping an ordered seriousness. Petra Mede, in particular, is a natural at this kind of thing, with a sharp wit and a keenness to hurry along any spokesperson who is taking too long. Justin Timberlake’s appearance didn’t hurt either, giving the interval a Superbowl feel. He won’t be the last big superstar to happily exchange pleasantries with the hosts about how lovely European music is in exchange for promoting their new song to 200 million viewers.

So on to the songs. The split voting system certainly made things tenser, whilst also showing the disparity between the juries and the public. In fairness, the juries seemed to have got it spot on – Bulgaria, France, Russia and Ukraine all hovering around the top with Australia leading. Even the UK seemed to be doing alright.

Then the public votes came in. Countries that had been on course for doing well plummeted, such as Malta, Belgium and The Netherlands. Vice-versa, Poland and Lithuania found themselves shooting up. Poland is a particular bug bear of mine – a weak song and dull staging that took third in the public vote and then managed to finish 8th overall. Then the biggest shock – Australia had taken 4th in the public vote but still looked good for the win. Then, a gigantic wodge of points went to Ukraine for 2nd, pushing them to first overall. Even Russia couldn’t stop them.

In my view, Ukraine was not the right song. I found it too heavy and political. The staging was beautiful and she sang well, but I am confused how a Saturday night voting audience wanting a good time rated it so highly. Maybe the diasporas have it now.

Personally, I preferred France and Bulgaria. I also, to my surprise, enjoyed Russia, whilst Cyprus was the most underrated song of the night. Israel, Australia, Spain and Armenia also delighted me. On the flip side, Italy bored me, Sweden and Poland irritated and Georgia gave me a migraine.

So, what of the UK? Well, the splitting of the vote has helped identify our problem. A respectable 17th from the juries, including a douze points from Malta. But then, a crushing second to last in the public vote. To be fair, as pleasant as our song was, there did feel to be a missing ingredient from it. The staging didn’t wow me or my friends, and it felt overall like it was competent rather than stunning.

The lack of love from the public suggests it is this connection between the performers, the song and the staging that is missing. We didn’t exploit the new technologies other countries have embraced over the last couple of years. In 2011 we had the opposite problem of a weak song from Blue but a good connection with the public. Clearly we need to combine the two halves – an experienced and charismatic performer with a strong sense and great staging.

How we achieve this though is a different matter. I think perhaps we need to make a bigger thing out of our selection process, which will lead to bigger names, and perhaps better songs. It also wouldn’t hurt to mirror the voting system used, giving an equal split to juries and the public.

Anyway, until next year, when it looks like the show will be coming from Kiev with artillery fire in the background, we will just have to lick our wounds. Again.