Archives for posts with tag: music

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.

 

For the first time since 2010, we got to choose our Eurovision entry. Yes, us, the public, the same people who sent Scooch and Josh Dubovie! So was the right act chosen? Did the format of the show work? Do we actually stand a chance of a decent finish this year? Well, allow me to offer my humble opinion on these matters.

To answer the first question, let’s remind ourselves what we had to choose from. First, there was Dulcima. The song was pleasant enough, had a good melody to it and all that. Sadly, the female singer’s voice was, for me, to divisive. Not enough people across Europe would love it enough to back the song, so this was a non-starter. Ditto, song 2 from Matthew James, which had a great final third, but a dull first two. It also felt very 90’s. I know Eurovision can sometimes reward the dated, but there is a limit.

Darline, up next, looked real contenders. They were sweet and tuneful, but the song lacked a hook, which is what probably cost them in the end. Miracle, by Karl William Lund, had the catchy hook in spades and was delivered on a vocal level quite well. It had been on the receiving end of a lot of smack talk on the forums, whilst also being a fanboy favourite. As a result I went into with a negative frame of mind, and if others did the same, it is easy to see why it lost votes.

Bianca had been a crowd favourite on the night. She certainly had the panel’s backing. The chorus was strong, and vocally she seemed the most accomplished. The whole performance looked very polished, although the reggae-tinged verses threw me slightly. Still, it looked a safe bet.

Finally, came Jake and Joe. Again, the hook felt quite instant, and the song as a whole was quite catchy. The certainly had the most energy on stage and came the closest to what could be described as charisma. It was probably this that saw them top the vote. There are several elements that need work though. Firstly, the one without the guitar (Joe, I think) needs to work a little on the dancing, as it looked a little manic at times. The verses seemed to dip a little too much, particularly the second one that followed a rousing chorus. Having said that, there is a great energy to them and the song, and a decent stylist and artistic director away from having a cogent production.

My early feeling is that they will come roughly the same place as Molly two years ago, depending on draw and what the remaining countries bring to the table. I still think Bianca and Karl had better songs and voices though. It would be interesting to see a full breakdown of the vote to see if it was a close run thing or a landslide.

As for the show itself, well, a bit like the winning song, some bits worked better than others. It was good to have last year’s winner perform, if only as a nod to the fact that we’re not bitter about doing so badly over the last few years. Mel Gidroyc was a great choice of host, although having someone who is so comedy orientated could have sent out the wrong message if a novelty act had been on the shortlist. The tribute to Terry Wogan was a nice touch as well.

I wasn’t keen on the panel though. I would like to have heard more about they would actually develop the songs, rather than have some bland Simon Cowell-esque critique, with the accompanied pantomime booing from the audience. Katrina seemed to not be used to her best potential, often asked for her own memories rather than actually being asked to give a real view. Other than the bigging-up of Bianca, there didn’t seem any content to what was said at all.

I think, going forward, the BBC should really invest in the selection process. Even if they just had a couple of semi-finals and then a final, the public would get a better chance to judge which songs bear a repeat listen, and it also gives the acts the chance to try out different staging to see what works. Still, let’s get this year out of the way with first, eh?

 

Another year rumbles on, and it is now time for the annual post-mortem of The Eurovision Song Contest. This time, although I still want to ask the questions ‘did the right song win?’ and ‘did we deserve to do as badly as we did?’ I feel that this year they are so easy to answer that I may have to pad out with a general overview of the event as well, which is where we will begin.

Much has been made of Australia’s inclusion and the fact this was biggest final ever. To be fair, Australia didn’t disgrace themselves despite the temptation for them to go down the novelty act route. A strong singer, well-written song and nicely put together staging made for a strong performance, one which we could learn from (more on this later).

I do feel the execution of the show overall was quite weak, lacking the military-tight organisation of the Soviet bloc whilst also lacking the joie di vivre of the Scandinavian broadcasters. In fact, they were points during the interval and voting, and even occasionally between the songs, where things were boarding on the shambolic. Faulty satellite link-ups, wandering cameras, and hosts that struggled to left the awkward chats up from being almost funeral eulogies. Thankfully we are returning to Sweden next year, who are able to present with a nod and a wink whilst still being professional.

That leads us smoothly to the question of whether they should have own. For me, it is a strong yes. There were half a dozen or so songs that could have challenged, but each had a fatal flaw. Belgium had a strong song and charismatic performer, but I felt the staging (especially the dancers) a bit so-so. Russia had a very strong song and staging, but having a country that is a poster-child for intolerance singing about coming together as one stuck in the throat slightly. Good on countries like Lithuania for breaking rank and awarding none or low points for this. Italy was very good, but didn’t quite make the jump to ‘winner’ for reasons I can’t tell you other than gut instinct. Finally, Georgia was a favourite of mine, but too many flashing lights and a profusion of smoke in the first 30 seconds put me off. Sometimes less is more.

Sweden had none of these issues. Realising that it is the centre of European EDM it put that genre front-and-centre with imaginative and beautiful staging and a singer that knew how to sell the song. They are now officially behemoths of this competition with barely a foot wrong over the last 5 years. Again, this is a country we could learn from.

So what went wrong with us? Well, whilst I don’t think it was the best song, or staging, or performance, I still feel we deserved a few places higher on the scoreboard. Having said that, the genre was of electro-swing is slightly obscure, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find this bombed more with juries who perhaps spotted the limitations of the singers than the public. Our place in the draw didn’t help – a slot in the second half would have helped where we could have broken up the ballads could have seen a few more points come our way.

Where we go from here to me seems obvious, if difficult to achieve. We have two models to choose from based on this year’s line-up. The first is what I will dub the ‘Australian Model’. Keep the internal selection, but pick an act that is current and has some credibility. Allow them to write the song, perhaps even give them free reign over the staging as well. Obviously we won’t get Adele or Ed Sheeran, but a respectable act from The X Factor like Fleur East would work.

The other route is the ‘Swedish Model’. Sweden spends weeks of airtime and money selecting an act. The vote is split between juries and public, and new acts and established alike compete. It is now coincidence that the last time we even attempted something like this was 2009 when Andrew Lloyd Webber was involved an there seemed to be a genuine search for a star, and we eventually managed to place a very respectable 5th. We shouldn’t be surprised that the years we where we don’t sneer at it, we do well. A culture change is need in how we treat the show, and we need it fast.

So the Eurovision circus has been and gone, and a mixture of delight and disappointment has surrounded the results. So here are my answers to the questions that seem to be dominating the chatter.

Q1 Did the right song win?

Well, yes and no.

On the yes side, Eurovision has always on the surface at least been built around unity, tolerance and triumph. Conchita Wurst connected with all these themes and more. Gimmick or not, the ‘bearded lady’ was always the biggest story of the week, and the tale of beating adversity and being yourself is an easy sell to a crowd that are only intolerant to intolerance. To paraphrase Jay Rayner’s tweet, Wurst’s victory was liberalism flashing two fingers at an increasing conservative political elite.

On the no side, I personally didn’t think the song was the best of the night. Of course this is always subjective, as I wasn’t impressed by the Netherlands or Armenia either, two songs that were seen has the greatest musicality. My favourites were Iceland (similar subject matter to Austria, but less worthy and not so much about ‘look at my triumph’ as it was ‘stop being mean to those who are different’), Hungary with its catchy drum ‘n’ bass chorus, and France, which although clearly tacky and ridiculous at least brought some fun to what at times was an over-emotional night.

However, overall I think it is a positive that Austria won, not only for exposing some interesting contradictions amongst the former Soviet-bloc – the strong struggled with the juries but won over an apparently homophobic public – but also because they have a dire record in Eurovision, and of they can turn it around, so can we. Which brings me to question 2….

Q2 Should we have done better?

Absolutely. I can’t think of a year where we worked so hard on our entry and got so little in return. The song was strong, we had a contemporary singer, and the performance on the night was great. This was easily on a par with Jade Ewan’s song in 2009 when we managed to place 5th. We deserved at least top 10. However, there were things that cost us, so let us turn to the final question…

Q3 What went wrong?

This can be broken down into 4 areas:

a) the draw: we were on last, which if there was only about a dozen songs would have been excellent, but when you have 26 means you are facing a wall of viewer fatigue who have already chosen a winner. I know that I was hard to be won round by any of the songs after Iceland, and they were on 4th. Even just 2 or 3 songs earlier in the draw and we could have doubled our points.

b) the staging: whilst visually strong, it may have lacked relevance to those east of Vienna. The theme was very New Age, Molly as a yogi/hippy, none of which really connects with a lot of Eastern cultures. Going down a more Florence + the Machine route would have helped, placing her as some kind of minor deity or tribal princess, a much less restrictive theme.

c) the opening: the first 30 seconds of the song were too quiet and subdued. Coupled with a late slot, I can imagine a lot of viewers running to the toilet or topping their drinks up thinking the song was going to be a duff.

d) the promotion: I have to admit my knowledge here is a little hazy, as I don’t really know how much the BBC promoted Molly in the build-up to the contest in other countries. The fact that outside of the Eurovision fan communities there wasn’t much of a buzz about her suggests not a great deal was being done. Also, our automatic final spot means that she got less exposure during the week than many of the other front-runners, with no semi-final performance to whet the appetite. Maybe the Big 5 could actually gain a big advantage by competing in the semi-finals with everyone else.

Disagree with me, or want to add any insight? Please do comment!