Archives for posts with tag: music

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.

Advertisements

This week I’m not going to talk about why I watch a show. Instead, I want to discuss why I’ve stopped watching a show. This is a big deal for me, to officially give up on something, as it almost never happens. I am psychologically programmed to stay to the end, as horrendous as it may be.

But this year, I’ve decided: no more The X Factor. Thirteen years is enough. But why, you may ask, especially as I’ve spent the last few years vigorously spent the last few years defending its place on our schedules?

Well, the simplest and most honest reason is that I’m just not excited by its return. It felt like investing two nights a week was becoming a millstone round my neck. This was increased by the fact virtually none of my friends watch it, so I couldn’t discuss the highs and lows as a viewer even if I wanted to. I felt a similar relief when I let go of Big Brother when it left Channel 4 – I had got my summer back.

Digging deeper, there are several reasons for my lack of excitement. Firstly, the reduction in live shows and increased audition shows is not something I’m a fan of. I didn’t like how the live shows were hacked away at two years ago, as I felt we saw less of acts ability to demonstrate variety and quality. It also makes it easier to manipulate the results, knowing Cowell now has two shots at ditching acts he doesn’t like with double eliminations.

Another is that, whilst we always knew there were machinations to push viewers to backing the producers preferred choice of winner, we now KNOW these occur. It is very unsubtle. We know the tricks – the bland praise, the props and song choices, the carefully planned running order. The only excitement comes when such plans go wrong, when an act earmarked for an early bath picks up traction.

Finally, it seems to me like the show has given up, happy to trundle along until ITV give up on it entirely. Yes, I like the fact they are having another go at letting acts produce their own material, but other than that it feels like decidedly subdued. Don’t get me wrong, the judging line-up is the best since the Minogue/Cole era. But last night I didn’t find myself compelled to watch.

Whether I last all autumn and winter is another question. Dark nights make for poor companionship. But for now, I feel happy in my choice. A new life for me at the weekend beckons. Wish me luck!

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?