Eurovision 2004 preview: the semi-finals, 1st half.

This year – to the ecstatic delight of some, and the horrified disbelief of others – Eurovision graduates into a two-day event, with a semi-final on Wednesday May 12 and a final on Saturday May 15. In the semi-final, 22 songs will compete for 10 places in the final, where they will join 14 songs from last year’s most successful countries (plus the four countries which always stump up the most dosh generously provide a large proportion of the funding for the event, thus guaranteeing themselves a place).

With no less than 36 (woo!) songs taking part in this year, I am splitting my preview into three sections – starting with the first 11 songs in next Wednesday’s semi-final. This will be shown live on BBC3, complete with tele-voting, but without the drama of the scoreboard; the ten qualifying songs will simply be announced at the end of the contest, in no particular order.

1. Finland – Takes 2 to tango – Jari Sillanpää
Tonight on Stars In Their Eyes: Michael Ball is… Marc Almond! Singing tango! With just the merest hint of Mamma Mia! Ludicrous but oddly likeable, like all the best Eurovision is supposed to be. Bonus points for the key-change. 75 points.

2. Belarus – My Galileo – Aleksandra & Konstantin
Utterly, utterly demented – and yet, quite, quite brilliant – this comes on like a kind of Eurodisco barndance, with folksy “ethnic” touches, a flute player who appears to be listening to a completely different song altogether, and – best of all! – yodelling. Oh joy! With quite the most eccentric vocal performance of this, or indeed of any other Eurovision, this could either sweep the board or flop completely. One of my personal favourites. 93 points.

3. Switzerland – Celebrate – Piero Esteriore & the MusicStars
Achieving the rare distinction of running out of ideas within the first 15 seconds, not even two (count ’em!) key changes can save this truly pitiful attempt at clap-along jollity. Look, even could have written a better song than this. Seriously. So simplistic that it makes Jemini’s Cry Baby look like Stairway To Heaven by comparison. 7 points.

4. Latvia – Dziesma par laimi – Fomins & Kleins
The normally dependable Latvia have served up a right clunker this year, with a stridently yowling mid-paced rocker that will appeal to almost no-one. No flow, darlings. Deeply unattractive. 12 points.

5. Israel – Le’ha’amin – David D’or
Ooh, is that what they call a counter-tenor? I’m that ignorant. “Operatic” seems to be one of this year’s big Eurovision trends, and our David certainly has an impressive set of chops, soaring away above his cheesy James Last-style backing singers into ever higher flights of fancy. Unfortunately, we’re firmly in “peace anthem” territory here – possibly my least favourite Eurovision category of all – but a suitably sincere performance may yet win the day, and banish memories of all that “light a candle” nonsense from a couple of years back. Bonus points for the key-change. Are you spotting a pattern yet? 54 points.

6. Andorra – Jugarem a estimar-nos – Marta Roure
Spirited melodic pop which tries hard (and I have to say that I love the way that Marta rolls her Rs), but ends up sounding merely strained and unmemorable. Destined to be lost in the rush. 23 points.

7. Portugal – Foi Magia – Sofia
Do you remember when they wheeled Margaret Thatcher out during the 1997 leadership election for the Conservative party? “Hague. Hague. William Hague. I like William Hague. That’s Hague. Shall I spell it for you?” Well, a similar tactic is deployed here by Portugal, who doggedly repeat the song’s title (pronounced “foy ma-ZHEE-ya”) all the way through their allotted three minutes. “Foi Magia. That’s Foi Magia. Vote for Foi Magia. Remember that name now: it’s Foi Magia. And here’s another quick reminder: Foi Magia. Would you like me to write it down for you?31 points. (Parting thought: why does Portugal NEVER submit any fado?)

8. Malta – On again…off again – Julie & Ludwig
So, like, what is it with all this operatic stuff this year? Who deemed this was hip? Did I miss a meeting? Malta have historically specialised in a kind of fresh-faced naivety that straddles the line between “charming” and “twee”, and this is no exception: pretty melodic pop, with a groovy dinner-dance backbeat and some frankly hilarious vocalising from our lovely, smiling duo. The middle section – where our Julie completely goes off on one with some smashing operatic arpeggios – is destined to be featured in “ironic” video-clip montages for the rest of recorded time. Luvvit! 65 points (including bonus points for the key-change).

9. Monaco – Notre planète – Maryon
Suffering from being the fourth song in a row with the same shuffling Eurodisco backbeat, this is also not helped by Maryon’s rather insipid vocal delivery; when given a chance to show off with some freestyle soaring in the middle section, she blows it badly, merely warbling away ineffectually until the key change (bonus points!) kicks in. However, the song is partially redeemed by some rather lovely pizzicato counterpoint flourishes, which distract one’s attention quite effectively from the essential slightness of the song itself. 50 points.

10. Greece – Shake it – Sakis Rouvas
Ooh, Sakis, you’re such a Romeo; you can pluck my bouzouki any time! With an unabashed cheesiness that is more over-ripe Roquefort than understated Feta, Shake It undoes all of its hard work with a moronic, repetitive turkey of a chorus – after which, not even a rousing percussion breakdown can save it. (And where, pray, is the key change after the percussion breakdown? If ever a tune was crying out for a key change, then this was it. Haven’t you read the rules?) However, I am awarding extra special bonus points for being the first of this year’s entries to rhyme “fire” (FYE-ya!) with “desire” (diz-EYE-ya!). 51 points.

11. Ukraine – Wild dances – Ruslana
Yes! Yes! Yes! This is why we love Eurovision so much. Vying with its neighbours in Belarus in the Totally F***ing Bonkers stakes, this is an almost impossibly exciting piece of rousing Cossack dervishry, fronted by a belter of a singer who comes on like Shakira on uppers. I can see her now, twirling her fringed gypsy skirt in the glow of the campfire, as all around her do that cross-armed squatting dance that plays such havoc with the joints. Total entertainment! 89 points, including a bonus for the impressively inept trumpet player (we had one like him in the school band).

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