Musical Retrospection, ESC 2020 Semi-Final 1

2020 marks the first year in the contest’s famed history that the contest was canceled as a whole. In its wake lay 41 songs which all took different paths to earn their spot in the celebration of the past few weeks. The below traces the path each song took to earn their place in the annals of Eurovision history, as well as musical details that arise in each song.

Sweden – The Mamas, “Move”

How they got here: The song was one of the 28 selected (out of 2,545 entries) to compete at Melodifestivalen 2020. It started off the contest’s semi-final round and advanced direkt till final (directly to the final). In the final, it edged second-place Dotter by one point (two if tiebreaker is included).

Musical insights: They started Melodifestivalen and were even set to start Eurovision. The song was covered in the Three-Minute Throwdown series. The song is uplifting and performed with considerable charisma. It would be a surreal experience to hear with live instrumentals by well-practiced church musicians who, unconstrained by the sterile production values, could bring intriguing and more complex instrumentals to complement the trio’s strong singing. Long considered a role model for production values, they are ironically one of the best cases for a live music option at Eurovision in the future.

Belarus – VAL, “Da vidna” (Да відна)

Official Translation: Until dawn

How they got here: Belarus held a two-part national final, Eurofest. In the end, VAL and their song “Da vidna” triumphed, reaching second place with both the juries and the televote. A comprehensive first-impression breakdown of all the songs that competed in the national final can be found here.

Musical insights: During the first impression, I said that Belarus had an impressive selection of EDM. This song has since grown on me even more; it is in my formidable five-way tie for second place. The music uses a fascinating combination of rhythms centered around the dotted quarter rhythm of the tresillo 33-2 pattern. This can be found from the beginning in the rhythm synth line (green = 3, blue = 2, then four counts of waiting):

Da Vidna beginning rhythm
A representation of the beginning synth rhythm. The rhythm can be heard via this online MIDI sequence.

The pre-chorus, transcribed to MuseScore, is a beautiful example of word painting, when the music portrays what the text is writing. As the time progresses towards dawn, the high-cut filter, removing high frequencies from the snare, slowly lets the high frequencies shine more and more. In the last 25% of the section, a low-cut filter (removing low frequencies) starts affecting all the non-vocal sounds, resulting in a lightening in the instrumentation, welcoming the dawn of the drop. The contrasts of light and dark are appropriate for the text, and the text also justifies the usage of parallel intervals. These notes are the same distance away from each other and are not heard as independent from each other. The below video goes into a discussion about parallel intervals in Western music; however, as in the case of Go_A and “Solovey”, Eastern European folk musics may value this form of singing parallel notes as opposed to singing in unison in the case of “Fire of Love” (Pali się, Tulia, Poland 2019).

Australia – Montaigne, “Don’t Break Me”

How they got here: Montaigne competed in Australia’s national selection, Australia Decides 2020. She won the jury vote and received about as many points from the televote. She won the competition by a margin of 7 points over televote winner Casey Donovan and her song “Proud”. A preview of all 10 songs was given before Australia Decides aired in early February.

Musical insights: When I reviewed the song in the Three-Minute Throwdown, I was not expecting actual clown-ish makeup, but given the lyrical content, it makes sense. The concept of performance was shown in part during Europe Shine a Light, shown below.

The choreography works particularly well with the lyrics, and the music builds along with the lyrical intensity into and from the choruses. This would have been the second year where Australia’s song performance was augmented by an effective staging. The tresillo rhythm in the electric guitar throughout the song and in the drum part in the pre-choruses contrasts with the rap-like syncopation of the verses and the mostly non-syncopated chorus. Perhaps this can be considered as the mid-tempo ballad sibling of “Running” (Kállay-Saunders, Hungary 2014) by thematic material and emphasis on rhythmic touches.

North Macedonia – Vasil, “You”

How they got here: Internal selection by MRT.

Musical insights: Begins off-tonic with an ethereal C# pedal and barely-decipherable sampled lyrics changed to an almost cathedralic backdrop, possibly representing how holy the subject of the song is to Vasil. The tango brings forth tension between Vasil and the second person, depicted by the longing lyrics, doubled vocals in the second half of the verse (“sing it to me…”) and different singing octaves (his singing both low and high). The accordion (or is it a melodica? Actually leaning toward the latter) evokes images of French romance. The vocal layering is entrancing. When the chorus hits, a female countermelody (second sung line in contrast to Vasil’s part) starts as a sort of response to Vasil’s invitations to dance. The choruses are intricately layered with at least three other independent singers, who find four-part harmony at “find yours” in the second verse, and various synths, entrances of different instruments like what sounds like a bassoon, acoustic guitar, bass, chord synth, and two different sources of percussion – a programmed drum kit as well as auxiliary drums. The coda of the last 30 seconds of the song combines these layers in a mesmerizing display of vocal power and ends on a bang. The song was particularly fascinating in how the particularly tonal melody, harmony, and ethnic touches combined to form a commercially viable dance track such as this.

Slovenia – Ana Soklič, “Voda”

Official Translation: Water

How they got here: Among the 12 songs previewed and selected for Slovenian national selection EMA, Ana Soklič’s “Voda” triumphed over second-place Lina Kuduzović in both the jury and telephone vote. The full songs were not released before the final (with the exception of those who qualified from EMA FREŠ), so this will be the first full take.

Musical insights: The production blends beautifully recorded orchestra and deep vocals with the programmed drums, sound effects, and whooshes and sounds massive, almost like bringing humans to an underwater city. The darker mix, as well as the bass slides in the chorus, add to the feeling of wading in the deep. The overly loud water droplet sound would be lessened live, as it was during the home concert orchestral version. Majestic song, strong and unforced voice throughout.

The orchestral preview, played out in full during the Eurovision at Home concert.

Lithuania – The Roop, “On Fire”

How they got here: Lithuania held a three-stage national selection, Pabandom Iš Naujo! (Let’s try again!). During the final, “On Fire” swept the floor. It received the maximum number of points from both the juries and televote and over 34,000 more raw televotes than second place entry “Make Me Human”. A preview of all 8 competing entries at the final stage was given before the final aired.

Musical insights: After water, still people on fire. Besides what was already mentioned in the preview, the overall ethos of the song and performance remind me strongly of the non-neurotypical vibes twenty one pilots’ songs gave out in their Blurryface album. The song is particularly hooky, with enough repetition to legitimize but enough variety within the layering and motivic contrast to move the song forth. The lead synth melody at around 1:21 on the Eurovision channel’s video plays 3 notes, repeats them, and then plays two more notes (or plays one note in the time it takes to play two) before repeating the rhythmic pattern, thus hiding a tresillo pattern that does not override the overall straight 4/4 rhythms with fun additional percussive effects.

Ireland – Lesley Roy, “Story of My Life”

How they got here: Internal selection by RTE.

Musical insights: Combining the pep of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”, the bombast of P!NK’s “So What”, the musical quotation of the impudent “na na na na boo boo“, and the LGBT-positive confidence of the 2010s, Roy’s song brings a positive pop-rock anthem to the Eurovision plate. Again, this song is an apt platform to call for live performances, as can be seen from her live-looping performance at home.

The performance was engaging despite the vocals removing a lot of the belted grit that the studio version contained. Netta’s live looping skills are also engaging. This song may sound dated; however, it’s well-composed and does engage the audience.

Russia – Little Big, “Uno”

How they got here: Internal selection by Channel One.

Musical insights: Easily the most-viewed Eurovision song this Eurovision season despite not becoming a worldwide meme. Very prominent acoustic guitar and choreography, fun, well-produced, and very uniform presentation – everyone is channeling the stone-faced fun. Each line accents the A minor tonic chord before continuing on with all other non-rhythmic details (singing, bass, guitar) and even cuts out the percussion in the beginning of the second verse. The call and response pattern established in the chorus also plays into a general ethos associated with songs that compel listeners into action (now) – the leg movements in the choruses. The punchy synth echoing the melody in the chorus reminds me of a more aggressive version of the string synthesizer found from 2:55 on Vengaboys’ “We like to Party! (The Vengabus)“.

Belgium – Hooverphonic, “Release Me”

How they got here: Hooverphonic were internally selected by VRT in October 2019. In mid-February, they released the song, “Release Me“.

Musical insights: Elegiac stylings found in the 21st century, replete with wistfulness, sophisticated chromatic harmonies, and considerable guitar modulation. The song is in two keys (B and E minors) that aren’t a simple final chorus key change, a novel rarity in the modern music atmosphere. The choruses have non-standard phrase lengths; 3 measures of four beats for the first phrase, and 5 measures for the second half. The outro around 2:30 on the official music video published by the Eurovision site is 4 bars, with an additional 2 bars for each “release me… from this sad and losing game”. The story seems to imitate the other side of the “Arcade” story in a way, which makes the “losing game” lyrical connection even more poignant.

Malta – Destiny, “All of My Love”

How they got here: Junior Eurovision 2015 winner Destiny competed in X Factor Malta this year like her predecessor Michela Pace, who was the last name to be called as a qualifier. She won. A month later, her song was released.

Musical insights: E minor, off-tonic beginnings propel the song forward. The pre-chorus snaps around 30 seconds into the studio track are accompanied by drum brushes on the snare. The chorus has two prevailing syncopated rhythms that interact with each other to portray a “river running wild”: the Scotch snaps on the first two words of that lyric (and similar musical portions), and the tresillo patterns:

  • during the “all of my (love)” and “don’t let me (down)” lyrics,
  • in the bass drum under the Scotch snaps short-long rhythm, and
  • after the chorus, in the post-chorus, the “LOVE I FEEL for YOU” lyric.

The chorus was transcribed without the strings that were buried in the mix for greater ease in deciphering the rhythms inside.

In the second verse, an off-beat bass/guitar groove similar to the keyboard groove in Robin Bengtsson’s “Constellation Prize” chorus transpires. The rhythm in this song, as well as Destiny’s expressive and strong vocals, are infectious, and they drive the song into people’s heads.

Croatia – Damir Kedžo, “Divlji vjetre”

Official Translation: Wild Winds

How they got here: Kedžo prevailed in the 16th edition of Dora, Croatia’s national selection.

Musical insights: Despite having competed in a national selection, HRT did not release the songs prior to the selection’s airing; thus, no Three-Minute Throwdown article could be written about it.

The song screams Balkan ballad, but apparently the song was supposed to have a more EDM version, which was released in the past 2 weeks.

Both versions have a strong melody, which was one of the tendencies in Balkan ballads that I gravitated toward when I first started watching Eurovision. The vocal performance is strong in both versions, but in particular, the existence of two versions can highlight the effects of arrangement. The original release included some production touches, including chord synths, bass drops, and programmed drums, but combined this with prominent and relatively organic string sounds, as well as an electric bass guitar part from the first chorus onward. Some of these elements were still present within the remix, like the bass guitar and some form of strings. Instead of their original form, however, the string sounds were relegated to some sort of synthesizer sound that plays in the chorus (pizzicato/plucked), as well as after the chorus as a general chord synth. The slow tresillo and general approach of the original better suits the lyrics, and it makes the borrowed Fm chord at 1:20 in the lyric video stick out more instead of nonchalantly glossing over it in an upbeat house remix. However, the EDM approach, particularly to audiences who cannot interpret the lyrics during live performance, may attract casual viewers more.

Azerbaijan – Efendi, “Cleopatra”

How they got here: Azeri broadcaster İctimai internally selected Samira Efendi from a short list of potential contestants. Would-be Sammarinese representative Senhit had recorded a demo of the song, but ultimately, “Cleopatra” was given to the Azeri team instead.

Musical insights: Those vocalizations! The instrumentation is a bit anachronistic for the subject matter, though the catchiness and intrigue forgive this in part. What sounds like a bağlama (a sort of lute) begins the song along with what is most likely a balaban (a sort of reed woodwind instrument) and brings a sort of ethnic touch to the song. One of the most interesting things about this song is its refusal to stick to anything besides the notes D, G, A, Bb, and C. One would assume that the song would be in D minor, but the song constantly switches between the F# of major (in the verses and the “lalala” part) and F of minor (in the pre-chorus, “there was no intervention” part), as well as the E (of major and minor) and Eb (of Phrygian mode). The lyrics seem to pander toward the largely LGBT part of the Eurovision audience, which may not say much about the state of LGBT affairs in Azerbaijan itself. The Buddhist chant of “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” (Japanese Romaji for Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra according to Wikipedia) seems out of place as well, as does the constant, more Spanish-leaning than ancient Latin tresillo in the drums despite the appropriate usage of rolled “r” for “Cleopatra”, who was an Egyptian queen. Out of the bizarre blend of lyrical folklore rises an empowering reincarnation of Efendi as Cleopatra, especially in the particularly heavy ending with pounding bass drums and what sounds like distorted guitar.

Cyprus – Sandro, “Running”

How they got here: Internal selection by CyBC.

Musical insights: Deep house. According to his interview with NikkieTutorials (shown below), he confessed that the song was not in a genre he was particularly acclimated to despite being a part of the entire songwriting process (around 4:25 onward). Despite this, he enjoyed the opportunity to be able to expand his musical reach and flexibility.

As for the song itself, a high pedal G persists through most of the verse accompanied by a fat and short synth bass sound. His voice is doubled throughout most of the song in order to give the melody more oomph. The medium-low arpeggio at 0:20 in the music video highlights the C minor context of the song, playing C-Eb-F-G-C, but as the bass is playing an Ab, the chord at that point in time is recontextualized as an Abmaj7 chord (Ab-C-Eb-G; F serving as a passing tone). In the pre-chorus, a faint processed piano sound emerges in the background. The programmed snare drum sound and bass drops give nice indications about the trajectory of the song. Despite this, the actual drop of the song after the section at 0:59-1:03, seems rather understated given the constant buildup beforehand, focusing on the low bass, syncopated rhythm, and the C-Eb-F-G motif that appears throughout the song. Perhaps the drops would be more effective if some higher synth melody were created along with more harmonic variety instead of the song staying at an uneven walking pace. Eurovision isn’t just about the singing; the instrumentals make a difference in the song experience. Just ask Secret Garden.

Norway – Ulrikke, “Attention”

How they got here: After six weeks of strenuous competition, including a 10-song final, “Attention” won the final vote against runner-up Kristin Husøy in Melodi Grand Prix.

Musical insights: Delicate strings grace this modest call for attention at the beginning and then give way to minimal instrumentation backing Ulrikke’s singing. The considerable amount of reverb and echo in the background of her voice, particularly in the chorus, reflects the empty room and closed ears to whom she sings. The dynamics in the instrumental help build the mood established by the lack of attention paid to the singer, whose voice would sound far better not treated by studio effects.

Israel – Eden Alene, “Feker libi” (ፍቅር ልቤ)

Official Translation: My Love

How they got here: Alene was selected to represent Israel after an over four month-long process. She presented four songs live, and “Feker libi” was selected out of these four.

Musical insights: Alene performed this with such charisma and masked the musical weaknesses that came with the multi-part song production style. The tango introduces an active and engaging bass line that sounds naturally played as opposed to programmed. The instrumentals continue the energy on the top end, but the bass disappears in the mix, which is disappointing considering the novelty of the ideas inside. Perhaps in a venue providing sound for thousands of people and after two months, the mix could be more balanced and optimized for live performance.

Romania – Roxen, “Alcohol You”

How they got here: Roxen was internally selected by TVR. A song-only national final was held, and “Alcohol You” lay triumphant of the five songs performed at Selecția Națională.

Musical insights: By now, it’s abundantly clear that the title is a clever play on drunk dialing. In stark contrast with the hellfire of Ester Peony’s “On A Sunday”, “Alcohol You” brought an ironically sober lake filled with regret onto the stage and minimal instrumentation punctuating the sober train of thought in a manner not dissimilar to Ulrikke’s “Attention”. The main focus of attention in this sparse song is definitely the layering, which drives the forward momentum (the drums in the second verse), a cappella ensemble vocals at the head of the second chorus, triggered hi-hat cymbals that went with the lighting. The ending is on a paradoxically vulnerable “when I’m strong”, marking possibly the most dejected approach to life of all the songs in the semi-final.

Ukraine – Go_A, “Solovey” (Соловей)

Official Translation: Nightingale

How they got here: “Solovey” advanced from the semifinal round and got the highest marks from the jury and the national audience of the songs that competed in the Vidbir final.

Musical insights: The Eurovision website description of the band’s sound actually echoes a lot of the insights that were already posted in the Three Minute Throwdown article. Since the end of Vidbir, the band has posted a new mix of the song on both their YouTube channel and on the Eurovision channel. Compared to the original mix, more percussion has been added, and all the audio tracks have been made clearer and slightly more balanced, pushing the synth pad back, compressing the vocals slightly, and putting noticeable reverb on the actual percussion. With the backing track behind live performances, the song would have sounded huge as a closer given the singer’s strong folk voice.

In terms of lyrics and how they interact with the music, when Ivan (the love interest) appears, the percussion and bass synth start playing, moving the story along. The condition on how any love would be expressed between the two human parties involved in the story is punctuated by the snare hit and silence at 1:03 in the lyric video linked above, before the chorus. The bridge at 2:01, created by lyrical quotations from the chorus, presents a less instrumentally intense backdrop for seeming rumination. The final chorus, which combines a change to half-time feel as in 3:47 in the music video for PVRIS’ “My House” with added electric guitar power chords, seems to act like a musical power tool, drilling the song into my head.

Of these seventeen songs, which one(s) resonated the most with you? We are looking forward to seeing some of these artists return: Efendi, Eden Alene, Hooverphonic, Go_A, Roxen, Montaigne, Destiny, and Ana Soklič have all confirmed their participation in 2021.

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