[update: the next day]
So, the predictions were mostly reasonably close, although I missed Switzerland completely. Italy won (I predicted 4th), I got France right at 2nd place, and Iceland came 4th (predicted as 3rd). My predicted winner (Malta) actually came in at #7, and my safe-bet Scandies (Norway) ended up in 18th place. Maybe people are tiring of those pop anthem formulas?
See you next year!
[original full blog post below]
[update 11:04pm Rotterdam time / 5:04 pm Boston time]
The show is over, and voting has not yet begun. So it’s time to commit. My top 5 are as follows:
- Malta (empowering: changed my mind – actually think it could win)
- France (best chanson from the French in many years)
- Iceland (just love that geek-disco)
- Italy (a good-enough rock song, and a great performance on the night)
- Norway (hedging my bets with a safe Scandi formula choice)
I want to give honorable mentions to Ukraine and Russia for authenticity, to Netherlands for doing something musically unusual, and to Portugal just for classic old-school great songwriting.
Final results will be posted here after voting is complete, so we can evaluate and record my level of wrongness. Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this post to get Mark’s ‘American outsider’ favourites!
Original blog entry below:
Tonight I’m delighted and honoured to welcome my friend and colleague Mark Simos, Professor of Songwriting at Berklee and author of the book Songwriting Strategies. I thought it would be interesting to get an American’s perspective on the songs, so our blog (done as ‘pre-live’) is more conversational – here’s how we put it together.
As always, we’re going to comment on each song, so you can follow along with the show, or (later) watch the embedded videos. And we’re going to try to predict the winner, before voting begins, then leave the prediction up here for posterity when the votes are in.
- Americans – the show goes out live at 3pm Eastern time on Saturday May 22, 2021. You can watch live with a free Peacock TV account. When you have an account, the show will be streamed here.
- Europeans – you know the drill.
Our predictions, and later the final results, will appear here at the end of the show.
1 Cyprus • El Diablo • Elena Tsagrinou
- BPM: 114 Key: Am
- Verse: Am (/ / E-F)
- Pre: A Mixolydian riff (4 bars)
- Chorus: F | G | Am | G
- Bridge: F | G | Am | –
[MS] There’s a kind of postchorus hidden in this chorus; it comes in an AABA spot of the chorus: what I hereby christen a Embedded Lyric-less “Woh” Post-Chorus (ELLWPC)! And notice that line gives a unique high point and low point in the melodic contour of the chorus. And though the chorus chords loop, the lyric creates a nice ABCA closure by repeating the first line as the last line.
[JB] This is a good start to introduce you to Eurovision, Mark! Classic Euro-pop – subdued verses, quirky and short pre-chorus, and a chorus that just won’t quit. Nice that the harmony resolves to the home key chord of A minor halfway through the chorus – that’s a slightly unusual take on the four-chord loop (you’re gonna hear a lot of these tonight!). Note that pentatonic ‘nyah-nyah’ at the end of the chorus – a melody that appears in a lot of cultures, and not something I think I’ve ever heard in a Eurovision song.
That unaccompanied scalic line works well in the prechorus: “Mama-mamacita, tell me what to do / Lo-la-lo-la-loca, I’m breaking the rules” – just up and down the middle of the scale, and gives power to the chorus drop.
I can’t help speculating about the future of this relationship. If El Diablo is telling her she’s his angel, how would these two ever choose where to settle down? They’re certainly going to argue about the thermostat temperature. I’ll give it six months.
[MS] What interests me about this song is the ambivalence of effect: in the “El Diablo” dangerous boy vibe and the seductive yet childlike aspect of the singer “I’m his angel…” – telegraphed by musical elements like the mocking Mixolydian riff of the prechorus, and that children’s taunt “nyah-nyah” – (I’d call it a “bridge-let” it’s so short!). You’ve said that key changes are getting less common in recent Eurovision songs, and here I like that they get an equivalent “lift” in the final chorus with the high harmonies in the vocals.
2 Albania • Karma • Anxhela Peristeri
- BPM: 75 • Key: Dm
- Verse: Dm | Gm | Am | Dm
- Chorus: Dm | Gm | C A7 | Dm || Dm | Gm | Bb A7 | Dm |
[JB] Tinkly piano intro – the ghost of Evanescence intros past looms large here. Vocal melody is Aeolian mode, which is often used in Eurovision to inject just enough (but not too much) ethnic authenticity from the country of origin. The choruses have that 3:3:2 kick drum rhythm under everything, which is more interesting than a generic dance beat. Lyrically it’s a tale of romantic loss and desolation; in translation the chorus is “God won’t forgive me this / The world fell on me / You left me, my friends left me / There’s not even light”. There’s a cool turnaround in the verses; in verse one the narrator has all the power, but is callous with it “I was laughing like crazy when you were sobbing / Heartless, I was in love with myself”; by the bridge the tables have turned “ When I was sobbing, you were laughing like crazy / I deserved it to crawl / Guilty I am”.
The strings melody (is that doubled with a dulcimer?) puts this squarely into what I’ve been calling ‘ethno-pop’ – a nod to eastern Europe, but with trap hi-hats from Atlanta!
I think we’ll see this one in the middle of the pack – not dreadful by any means, but the chorus isn’t communal enough to turn voters’ heads.
[MS] I’m digging the ambient “dripping with reverb in a smoky cafe” vibe of the entrance. I can clearly hear the archetype you named “Ethno-pop” here: traditional Albanian instruments mixed into a big “anthemic-cabaret” kind of sound. The instrumental hook here after the CHORUS clearly references traditional dance music (as does the 3-3-2 “chifte-telli” rhythmic groove). But traditional dance music is all about dancing when you are feeling despicable: “The tears gathered in my hand… rusted they are.” I hate it when those rusted tears remind you of how guilty you are.
To nerd out a bit, this is mostly Aeolian but you can hear shifts to the raised seventh of harmonic minor, intensifying some transitions to add more drama. It’s like Aeolian is there for sadness, harmonic minor for actual anguish. And then we dance.
3 Israel • Set Me Free • Eden Alene
- BPM: 107 • Key: C#m
- Verse: C#m G#m (G) | F#m
- Pre-chorus: A E | F#m C#m | A E | F#m
- Chorus: C#m G#m | F#m
- Bridge: C#m | F#m
[JB] If 2018 and 2019’s grand finals are any indicator, we’re going to hear a lot of this reggaeton-lite beat tonight. There’s a lot to enjoy here – lovely squidgy bassline, disco unison strings, and some cool risers/ramps between sections. I love that whistle singing – an amazing sound, and Eden showed in the semi-finals that she can pull it off live on stage. Because we’re pre-blogging this ‘as live’, I can’t say right now if it worked out on the night, but I have high hopes.
[MS] I really like the swagger of this song. I hear “Set me free” is really functioning as a prechorus but it’s strong enough to be a chorus in most other songs. But it’s short and unbalanced, so the first time we hear it we’re teased with the instrumental ear-candy that follows, then back into a full-on verse, another prechorus, then the deep drop into the chorus of “I’ma make it on my own.” This pattern of Verse-Pre-Verse-Pre-Ch builds incredible energy in the form. And later in the form, we get to hear two of those “Set me frees” back to back.
I like the combination of vulnerability and defiance in the vocal. We hear two lone E chords (the 1 chord of related major) in the form: on “free” and “harmony” in the chorus. The loops sound the struggle against the forces that hold her down: but there’s that glimmer of hope. And yes, some amazing vocal pyrotechnics with the “whistle-money note” toward the end.
[JB] Agree with you Mark on the ‘swagger’ – the titular chorus that is really a pre-chorus, leading us to the main chorus where the biggest instrumental hooks can be found in between “Oh, oh, oh I’m a make it on my own”. All the sections come together in the final chorus, and it works so well because the verse and chorus chords are the same. And some of those high “Set me free” vocal ad libs are kind of reminiscent of Black Box’s ‘Ride On Time’ from the 1990s – but I guess you can’t copyright a pentatonic vocal trope.
I like this one a lot; the messing with form might keep it out of the top five, but I don’t think it will do badly.
4 Belgium • The Wrong Place • Hooverphonic
- BPM: 80 • Key: Gm
- Verse: Gm | F | Cm | Cm
- Prechorus: Eb | Gm | A7 | Eb | Gm | A7 | C
- Chorus: [Gm Bb | Dm C] x3 A7 | C
[JB] This makes a nod to two songs that I’m very fond of: Marianne Faithful’s ‘Broken English’ and Alana Myles’s ‘Black Velvet’. Not for anything specific about the melody or lyric, but in the vocal delivery style, and maybe a little in the harmony. That picky percussive staccato electric guitar line isn’t something you hear much in contemporary pop.
The coolest chord moment, for me, is that arresting A7 to C change in bar 5 of the prechorus on the words ‘that’s why’. It comes out of nowhere. Clearly the songwriting team thought it was so good they decided to reuse it at the end of the chorus.
There are some lyric moments that come right out of your teaching at Berklee, Mark! When you talk to students about using small images to create a specific sense of place, and tell the story more authentically. You mention the Johnny Cash T-shirt – I’d add the ‘organic cup of tea’ also.
It’s a little dark to be a top-5 contender, I suspect. So although we both liked it in terms of song craft, I’m not so sure it’ll be a hit with the international voters.
[MS] I love the refrain of “last night” in the verse, not the title but letting us know exactly how we wound up in the wrong place. “I took you to my messy place…”—now there’s “furniture” for you, Nashville songwriters!—then the sonics take us right to that messy place, with that snarly hint of industrial dissonance in the whammy-bar careening guitar. I love the harmonic surprise move from Gm to A7, then the shock of an early return to that Eb: root motion about as edgy as you can get in pop harmonies. We get the surprise of a three-bar phrase, then it opens out into that luscious portentous C chord. (C for the Johnny Cash T-shirt you really shouldn’t oughta be wearing…)
5 Russia • Russian Woman • Manizha
- BPM: 102 Key: Em
- Verse: (Em)
- Bridge: Em | Am Em | Am Em | D Em
[JB] Ooooh this starts off kinda dark. Or am I just too scared of minor-second intervals in pop? To my British ears there’s a disparity between the dark-ish backing and the empowering lyric “You’re strong enough, you’re gonna break the wall”. Interesting to hear the mashup of influences – we have that sampled fretless instrument playing the sliding microtonal riff (something oud-like?), with a Euro-pop friendly chord loop in the bridge, and a hint of that reggaeton “boom, k’boom cha!” rhythm.
[MS] Well, Joe, I can totally understand your reactions to this track, but I have to say I think it’s a brilliant piece of work. The lyric transforms from the really dark: “bounce against the wall” to “You’re strong enough—you’re gonna break the wall.” (Though the printed lyric didn’t indicate this: I wonder who did the translation?)
This is a risk-taking song, and I salute it. The YouTube video for this song has already been viewed over 11 million times, garnering over 300,000 likes — and more than 170,000 negative reactions. She must be doing something right!
The mashup of styles here is deeply ironic. I remember when we had the artist Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) visit our Berklee class on Songwriting and Social Change, and we discussed the technique of “Theater of Cruelty”: sometimes, for some truths, you have to be willing to disturb, disorient, defy the listener. In addition to a rapped flow that sounds really indigenously Russian, not like an overlay of Western rhythmic patterns into Russian, the choral section references Russian “state choral” presentation of nationalist identity: and then comes the microtonal reeds and plectrum (that fretless village instrument in the track), and that’s not your theory teacher’s neat Phrygian b2; that’s got some snarl.
“Actually quite pretty, but should lose weight”/ “What, almost thirty already — and where are the children?”/ “Grown up without a father, that’s why she’s roaming the streets,”
[JB] Mark, you’ve convinced me to listen past my own conditioning and find the song craft beneath. I like the idea of Theatre of Cruelty (don’t worry I can help you to spell it 😉 applied to songwriting. Thanks also for alerting me to the politics of this song – what an interesting controversy. Good to see that songs can still speak truth to power in 2021!
On the voting, it’s probably not going to set the scoreboards alight, which is a shame, I think, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff here. As you said today – “an edge entry”!
6 Malta • Je Me Casse • Destiny
- BPM: 112.2 • Key: G#m
- Verse: G#m [x4] | C#m [x2] | G#m | D#7
- Pre: G#m [x4]
- Chorus: G#m | B | C# | E D#7
- Bridge: G#m G#m/Fx | G#m/F# G#m/E# | E | D#7sus | G#m [x3] | C#m D#m | E F#
[JB] This is one of the favourites to win, and it’s easy to see why. An empowering lyric sentiment and lots of hooks, delivered with a Lady-Marmalade-style belting pop diva vocal. Personally I hate those almost-Charleston breakdown sections that push everything to double-tempo interpretation; this saxophone-sample arpeggio postchorus isn’t an egregious example, but it still seems like the weakest part of the song after such a cool buildup. We seem to be seeing more of these postchoruses compared with previous years – in Eurovision, and in pop generally. I guess the Tik-Tokkers need something to choreograph to.
The bookies have this one at number 2 in the running – I liked it but don’t think it’s at that level, so I’m saying probably 5 or 6.
[MS] “So if I show some skin, doesn’t mean I’m givin’ in … not your baby.” I’ll confess, when I agreed to do this listen-through with my buddy Joe, I expected it to be a bit of a trip through dated pop songs perpetuating tired old cultural tropes. In fact, I’m really encouraged by the risk-taking and challenge I’m hearing in several of these songs. This song sounds a clear defiant push-back to date-rape and the culture that surrounds it, yet in a remarkably empowered and celebratory way. It says “you should be able to flaunt it, and that does not thereby surrender your agency.” That is not a generic pop message: that is subverting the tropes of pop form and stylistic conventions to send a clear, and much needed, message. Even the sax-sampled postchorus is in keeping with that ironic tone: the listeners may not like it, or even get the joke, but I salute the artists for taking the risk.
7 Portugal • Love Is On My Side • The Black Mamba
- BPM: 69 Key: B
- Verse: B | Em | B | A | G#m | D#/G | F# | C# | E | Em (G) |
- Chorus: B A | E | B A | E | B D# | E | Em | B | Em | (with variations 2nd time)
[JB] My favourite chord sequence of the night – possibly my favourite song, in fact. There are so many things I love about it. It’s a European in a Stetson. It has a rock guitar solo at the end. It uses (well, perhaps over-uses) minor iv – all those Em chords, in the verse and chorus. And it’s a lovely universal sentiment. It puts me mindful of Randy Newman at his most melancholy, or possibly Billy Joel’s ‘Vienna’ (come to think of it, that “maybe not tonight” is melodically rather uncomfortably close to “Vienna waits for you”. Some Berklee folks might hate the ‘Lady Madonna’ G-A-B chord resolution on cliché grounds, but I think it suits the soft-rock-ballad style, and the optimistic lyric.
Will it do well with the voters? I really hope so, but I suspect that many of them are more swayed by contemporary dance-pop than by the classic rock influences we’re both enjoying here. This is “hey, old guys” music!
[MS] Okay, I’m diggin’ this Joe. We’re birds of a feather: I love those old 70s era songs where the chord progressions really tell a story. I mean four-chord loops are no longer the objects of my contempt as they once were, but man I miss this kind of song. You don’t hear it often these days. I’m hearing Joe Cocker here, actually—he wasn’t a writer, of course, but knew how to pick, and how to sing a song.
I don’t really like this singer’s tone, much, to be honest: he’s a little high and whiney for my taste, for this kind of song, that seems to ask for a vocalist to dig a little deeper. As a result, what should be the “break my heart” moment of the song—the hope and optimism of “love is on my side”—crashing into that resigned “maybe not tonight” should be wry, philosophical, like yes I’ll grant you Randy Newman in “Think It’s Gonna Rain Today.” And instead, with this vocalist, it feels a little more—I don’t know—complain-y…? But that’s the performance, not the song. The song does the job.
Love the Nelson Riddle-style strings at the intro. Listening again, I love the swirl and spiral journey the chords take us on in the verse. The mode of this song with that B-A-E motif in the chorus, is firmly in a branch of Mixolydian I think of as Southern rock-inspired, and it certainly is a progression “of a certain age” for today’s (in?)-discriminating young listeners I suppose. But it carries gravitas and world-weariness in a way you can’t really beat; and combine it with a little gospel move through the D# to the E to change things up and you have yourself a story. Yeah, the G-A-B can get a little shopworn the third time round, and maybe E minor can only sprinkle fairy dust so many times before you wind up with glitter in your throat. Overall though, it’s a solid old-school song.
8 Serbia • Loco Loco • Hurricane
- BPM: 105 Key: Dm
- Verse: Dm C | Gm
- Pre: Dm Am | Bb
- Chorus: Dm | Bb | Gm | Bb C Bridge: Bb | Dm | Gm | A | Bb-B
Don’t be angry, gather courage / A girl like me doesn’t ask for promises
You don’t take your eyes off of me / I got into your veins so easily I see it in your smile,
You want me, don’t you lie.
I’m sweet as choco moco / Come on, be loco
Ram ba-ba-bam / And I am cute and nice
And you’re alone, alone, alone / And I know, I know, I know
It will be wild, wild, wild / So, Come on, be loco loco
Baby, baby, baby, what’s the fuss? / A girl like me doesn’t ask for promises
Baby, baby, baby, I dance alone / Not being with me is your flaw
I see it in your smile, / You want me, don’t you lie.
I’m sweet as choco moco / Come on, be loco
1,2… Girls, Come on! / Loco loco (x3)
You don’t take your eyes off of me / I got into your veins so easily
Come on, be loco loco
[JB] I always enjoy the entries that sing in their native language – and here we get three languages in one song – Serbian, with a fragment in English, and a title in Spanish! But for me, this song doesn’t have much to write home about; kind of basic chorus melody, the too-popular reggaeton snares, and predictable prechorus builds. It even resorts to two very old-school Eurovision tropes – the nonsense-syllables “Ram pam pam” and the semitone key change for the final chorus.
[MS] Have to say, this is kind of what I expected from Eurovision entries. It feels to me like an assortment of familiar mainstream pop devices (even a “hey”!), but wow, with Serbian lyrics! Nor does the content have much original to say to my ear: it feels unironically in the very zone that entries like the artist from Malta are willing to confront.
The main interest in this song for me, from a songwriting point of view, is the use of rhythmic devices and phrasing in the chorus – “sam sam sam” wrapping around the end and then the beginning of the next phrase, nice for that trancey club vibe. (I am getting lost in the music: listen to me get llllooossstttt….) I also hear a lot of the “vocalese” nonsense lyrics you mentioned, Joe–perhaps a way of overcoming the barriers of different languages.
But hey — at least there’s one of those tasty half-step modulations in the final chorus!
9 United Kingdom • Embers • James Newman
- BPM: 126 • Key: F#
- Verse: F# | F# | D#m B | F# || F# | F# | D#m B | F# A#
- Pre: B | C# | A#7 | D#m C# | B | A#7
- Chorus: D#m | B | F# | F# A#7
- Postchorus: [B C# | D#m] x2, B C# | A#7 D#m | B C# | F#
[JB] Good title, and they manage to sustain that lyric metaphor through it (we also get “fire burns low”, “burn us out”, “feel the heat”, “in the ashes”. At least they’re consistent!).
The production feels a little dated – what is it? The brass section making me think of Modern Romance in the 80s? Or the brass pads making me think of Roland synth sounds of the 90s?
For me, it’s the wrong metaphor; like we said in our earlier chat “the imagery of embers can’t carry the energy of the vocal performance”. Images of embers are, for me, about fires dying out, about energy dissipated. Fire turns to embers, turns to ashes. I think the writers are aware of this and try to fix it “Down herе in the ashes, yeah, thеre’s something growing” but I don’t think it really works all that well. It’s not a massive flaw, but I think writing a song called ‘embers’ to convey high-energy romantic feelings is just an uphill battle.
Aside from that, there’s a lot that I like – the shape of the chorus melody is a lovely memorable hook, and he delivers a great vocal performance.
But as for the voting, there is no point in any British patriotism on my part. This is a UK Eurovision entry, in the first year after Brexit went into effect. Hasn’t got a chance.
[MS] Well, I take all your points. The “vintage” feel of the production doesn’t bother me that much: I’m thinking of artists I love like Van Morrison, and more recently folks like Bruno Mars who are masters of older grooves. Although the synthy bass line feels too modern for the rest of the horns: it’s like rollick meets techno-cool.
At first I thought the form was flawless, with that lovely foreshortened prechorus tumbling us into that chorus. By the way, here’s another canonic form for a chorus: AABA, with a counterthought in line 3, and a return to the first line for the last line (what the rhetoric lads like to call ‘epanalepsis’). A good form to study: though one that begs for a postchorus.
But I take your point: “embers” as a central metaphor is a kind of low energy notion for such a high energy song. That’s a songwriting problem: you know, because the stronger the performance by the artist, the WORSE that problem will get! If this song were brought into one of my classes, I might say that “embers” is the prechorus idea and “light up the room” is really the emotional heart of the song.
Have to say though: I love the little drop into that instrumental post chorus, hookey as heck.
10 Greece • Last Dance • Stefania
- BPM: 147 Key: Dm
- Verse: Dm | [x4] C | Gm | C | Gm
- Pre: Bb | Bb | Dm | Dm | Gm | F | C | C
- Chorus: Dm | Bb | C | Gm
- Bridge: Bb | Bb | Dm | Dm | C | C | Gm | Gm
[MS] Hate to admit this in print, but I’m a sucker for a goddess riding Pegasus. (However, distracting Atlas is never a good idea: he’s holding up the world you know, though in the video it looks like a large plug of very dense tobacco…)
[JB] More high-energy euro-pop. Close your eyes and try to think of Greece – go on, just try. I bet you’re seeing Scandinavian pine forests. Whenever Sweden enters a song like this I always score it highly, and the Scandies do this kind of music really well. Here, the template is reliably applied, and this is a creditable result. The builds in the pre-chorus are really great – I think I can hear some subtle sus4 V chords in there. And Live-And-Let-Die influenced minor-scale voice string “whoa-oh-oh” riff under the chorus vocal is fantastic – really propels the chorus forward (on the wings of Pegasus, as you say!).
The heartbreak last-dance theme is well carried throughout, although the imagery lines in verse 2 feature some kind of haphazard similes and metaphors: “heart was born in neon lights / Floating in space like satellites […] As we collide in black and white”.
I think this is a strong entry, and should do well.
[MS] High-energy euro-pop indeed: but I’ll buy this more than the entry from Serbia, which just seemed to be mimicking—sorry to be blunt—American pop tropes (or maybe I really mean Swedish? Credit where credit’s due, after all). This feels European to me, and I can enjoy washing around in the pathos of it all.
I really love the melody of the verse and prechorus—elegant and shapely in contour, and the vocalist wraps around with a sinuous, crystalline tone. The chorus doesn’t feel quite the equal of the earlier sections in lyricism, so the overall effect is a little disjointed to me. Given the imagery and melodic lyricism of the first sections, I want to be heartbroken by the last dance, not bouncing around just all “what the hell.” So if it were me, I’d turn this into two songs. But hey: that’s why I’m not making the big bucks.
As for the lyrics of the verse, Joe: okay, maybe the melody lured me into a fall sense of coherence. I confess I’m a little confused by “Let’s dance / our last dance / a rockin’ romance / this ain’t our last dance…” I mean, make up your mind! Maybe by the last chorus you could decide: hey, maybe it isn’t REALLY our last dance; but, one line later?
11 Switzerland • Tout l’univers • Gjon’s Tears
- BPM: 124 • Key: Am
- Verse: Am | Am G | F | F Em || F∆ | F∆ G | D | D || F∆ | F∆ G | D | C∆
- Chorus: Am | C∆ | F | Dm || Am | C∆ | D | D || Am | C∆ | F Em | D || Db | Db | F∆ | F∆ Em (Second chorus: Db–C∆)
- Bridge: F C/E | D C# | C | C
[JB] Starts off in chanson territory, although I suspect there’s a big rampy-up chorus coming. You could argue that they maintain 62 BPM throughout, and just use drums later to create the feeling of 124 (or vice versa, I guess). Thematically, it’s carrying on the trend that my 2020 Netflix research project found – ‘winter’ sad breakup songs are getting more common.
The lyric here tells the story of “I’m lost without you” well enough with suitably astronomical/planetary imagery, although I hope the line “derrière mes paupières / trouve de l’air [behind my eyelids / get some air]” isn’t as gross-sounding in the original French as it does in literal translation. Truly, eye-watering.
He has a great falsetto voice, and the chorus uses it really well. This song is ‘big’ in every respect – theme, imagery, vocal range, dynamic range; what better title than “The Whole Universe”?
Everybody likes the Swiss, right? I think voters will go for this one, although it’s arguably slightly similar to Netherlands’ 2019 winner ‘Arcade’, and the style pendulum tends to swing a little between consecutive contests.
[MS] There’s a lot of craft in this song, especially in the melody that seems to have been tailored for the impressive range of this vocalist who makes me think the “pop countertenor” is really a thing. And there is something deliciously and operatically overwrought about this song, which seems to shoot for the heights and plunge to the depths. I can’t say the lyrics follow along in the trail of the meteor in a completely cooperative spirit, and I’m not really sure exactly what it’s about: I just know that it affects me deeply, deeply—in a place beyond words. (And yet there are the words.)
Musically: I’m struck by how many of these songs flirt with a basic foundation of sturdy Aeolian (natural minor), just as you, Joe, warned me to expect. (In fact, in preparation for this marathon, I read through Milton Mermikides’s advice about how to write a fair to middling Eurovision song, and set out to craft one in faithful Aeolian mournful array. The experiment was—interesting…) But then they invoke other modes with some clear narrative intent. Here the shift to Dorian (via that striking D major, IV major in the tonal center of A) brightens the emotion and the imagery, in a way very fitting to the universe/stars/planetary theme. I guess I wish those shifts back and forth were used a little more sparingly and with a clearer intent in terms of the lyric content: as is, I feel a little bit flung between the mud and the stars, like Don Quixote on a bad day after tilting at windmills.
12 Iceland • 10 Years • Daði & Gagnamagnið
- BPM: 123 Key: Dm
- Verse: Dm Am | Bb | Dm Am | Gm
- Pre: Bb | A7 | Dm7 | Dm7 || Bb | A7 | Gm | Gm
- Chorus: Dm | Dm | F | F | Gm | Gm | Bb | Csus
[JB] One of the tragedies of the 2020 contest that never was is that Daði & Gagnamagnið’s excellent song ‘Think About Things’ was never exposed to voters. I had it down as the winner, but we’ll never know. Here’s what I wrote:
“Iceland’s Daði Freyr is a real-life Lars [Will Ferrell] type, having grown up in a small Icelandic town and tried for several years to achieve Eurovision success, eventually winning the country’s nomination with a band made up of local friends and family. Think About Things is a cheerful minor-key electro-pop 127BPM dance number with an 80s synth production, augmented with snappy brass riffs and a charming dance routine, under Daði’s deadpan understated vocal. It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, which helps it to stand out from all the straight-face dance music we hear in the finals. There’s a classic-era whole-tone modulation in the final chorus, which we haven’t seen in a winner in more than 10 years. Perhaps the time has come.”
Most of the comments above also apply to ‘10 Years’ in 2021, and although for my money it’s not quite as awesome as the 2020 song, it has the same aesthetic, and a lot of the same charm. That 8-bit synth-disco geekery sound is a very technology- and era-specific postmodern music production joke, and it’s pulled off with such panache (not to mention straight-to-Icelandic-TikTok dance moves) that it’s hard to be cynical about it. The anti-Eurovision performance style (complete absence of diva vocals, pyros, current-pop beats, tortured angst etc) might appeal to those looking for a change. I hope they do well – they deserve it after being ‘robbed’ of their near certain victory last year!
[MS] “I can’t remember the last time I was bored.” You want to be careful with lines like this in a song, because there’s always the chance some snarky listener will answer: “Right now.” But there’s not much boring in this song: it’s full of clever, crafty, inside-baseball ironic meta references that always provide a new treat but, truth to tell, at a certain point, start fatiguing my ear a bit.
This is all personal reactions: I agree with you Joe about the charm of their fresh entry last year. But this feels a bit too much like “trying to capture the magic again” and trying a bit too hard: like that studio solo you play well the first time, but with that one mistake, then you keep trying for a better second take and it keeps losing a little more of the sheen…
Some of this may be the extremes of phrasing tricks they play in the song. It’s a song about being happy you’re with someone, and learning to be more comfortable with yourself, and about slowing down and enjoying the ride. But they sing about slowing down in life at an awfully fast pace.
13 Spain • Voy A Quedarme • Blas Cantó
- BPM: 76 Key: Eb
- Verse: Cm Eb | Ab Eb | Fm | Bb / / G7
- Pre: Ab | Eb G7 | Ab | Bb
- Chorus: [Eb Bb | Ab Bbsus] x2 Cm | Ab Eb/G | Fm | Ab
- Bridge: Ab Bb | Cm Bb | Ab | Bb
[JB] Four-to-the-bar piano chords under plaintive falsetto vocals are a sure sign of what is to come – this ballad is going to get BIG very very soon.
They manage to get a bridge in – how did they do that in the 3-minute timeframe imposed by the ESC rules? Actually that’s a really interesting question, and one that we should probably study further at some point Mark – what is the effect on song form of imposing a 3-minute song-length limit? Voy A Quedarme manages to do it all – a capella intro, quiet verse, piano in, bring the band in on verse 2 (at almost exactly the 1 minute mark), bigger second chorus, a proper bridge with new harmonic and lyric territory, and a soaring last chorus.
They bring it in at 2 minutes 50 seconds. Remarkable! You can see where they cut to fit – no intro, the bridge is 4 bars instead of 8, and there is only a single outro chorus instead of a double one. But it’s still remarkable song engineering!
2021 is the first contest year that the ESC has relaxed the rule about backing vocals. For the first time, they now allow BVs to be pre-recorded on the backing track, probably to allow for contemporary pop styles that require lots of effects processing. The Spanish team here has taken full advantage of this new opportunity – there are those lovely ‘ba-ba-baaa’ BVs in the second and third choruses, and in the bridge.
I doubt this one will drive them crazy out in the votelands, but I’ve been wrong before!
[MS] Joe, I like hearing your “anticipatory listening” at the start of the track: kind of your Eurovision-informed version of the old “drums stop, now comes—bass solo!” joke.
First, I’m struck by the preference for fairly reedy, thin-voiced male singers in the contest. Not just moments of high range, but the whole song sitting pretty high in the range. I wonder what that says about cultural trends, gender, and emotional tropes?
I hear what you mean about form: this does feel like an epic scrunched into an epigram, kind of a Hallmark card of song form. I really hear it in how early those “ba-ba” background vocals come in: it feels like they should be conclusive, coda-like, yet they’re in from about the middle of the song. To me, that means this builds, hits the ceiling, then stays there. I’d have at least pulled them out of the bridge—a bit distracting to my ear, like driving through background vocal traffic for the second half of the song.
You can condense form: it’s much harder to convincingly condense the “energy arc” of a great dramatic song—and that’s what all these big ballads have to be about.
I don’t speak Spanish, but “quedarme” feels like it ought to be a word so the long space before “quedar … me” certainly sounded weird to my ear, but I’m not a Spanish speaker, so as you just wisely said, Joe, let’s not weigh in on that—wait, oops, too late!
Oh, well, call that an unfortunate lapse in my commen.
14 Moldova • Sugar • Natalia Gordienko
- BPM: 120 Key: F#m
- Verse: F#m D | B A
- Chorus: F#m | F#m/E | D | C#
- Bridge: F#m F#m7 | F#m6 D/F#
[MS] Okay, no lie, when the guy’s head turned into a slice of cake that was a little much for me. (Maybe I was just calculating the calories?)
I like the chromatic slide in the prechorus: yet another example of modal interchange, from Dorian to Aeolian, used here to communicate a slippery, seductive, suspenseful vibe.
[JB] What cake? I was busy analysing the chords.
I started disappointed here, and gradually recovered, to some extent. That unimaginative minor pentatonic scalic verse melody didn’t grab me at all, especially coupled with an unremarkable opening couplet: “I can’t explain it but there’s something going on / A crazy energy inside of me”. But the interesting F#m – D – B chord change perked me up a bit, and when we got to another of those post-chorus instrumental hooks, I was starting to enjoy it a lot more – especially that chromatic C-C#-C-C# (“oo-a-oo-a”) brass/vocal riff.
It didn’t develop as much as I hoped, lyrically and particularly dynamically. A songwriting teaching colleague sometimes used to tell students “don’t drive everywhere in third gear” [sorry Mark, I know few Americans are comfortable around a stick-shift], and verse 2 drops the energy so much after the first big postchorus that the second half of the song doesn’t build the excitement as much as a 120BPM danceable song about addiction really should.
Agree with you Mark on the thematic consistency – the sugar addiction metaphor is consistent and nicely carried through.
Moldova have never won Eurovision, although they placed third in 2017 with ‘Hey, Mamma!’ (about which I was uncharacteristically snarky, writing: “Geography question: where is Moldova? Eurovision answer: way down the leaderboard.”). Same again, I fear.
[MS] Yeah, right you were “analyzing the chords.” (We’re in the States now, dude—check your spelling!) That’s what you have your trusty assistant for, right?
This is another one of those extended metaphor songs that, as you said earlier, at least has the virtue of consistency. What we have here is thematic focus. Yet I’m struck by the heaviness of the production in keeping with a central metaphor that seems to promise something a little more playful and frothy. It’s high energy and exciting, maybe just a little scary and maybe that’s the idea. (Hence having your face become a piece of cake?) I can’t help hearing that instrumental/dance postchorus as out of keeping with the imagery of the song. By the way, Joe? What is it? It comes BETWEEN the prechorus and chorus, then AFTER the chorus. So is it a POSTPRECHORUS/POSTCHORUS? In a song trying to get it all done in under three minutes? Or is it just—an excuse to dance with the ice cream cones?
Favorite line: “Compared to you no one has anything to brag about.” First off, it’s praising with faint damns: takes a moment to figure it out. But it scans impeccably: just a little longer than you expect, which I like. Gonna go write myself one of these now!
15 Germany • I Don’t Feel Hate • Jendrik
- BPM: 114 Key: Bb
- Verse: Bb | Gm | Eb | F
- Pre: Bbm | % | % | Eb5/Bb F5 |
- Chorus: Bb | Gm | Eb | F |
[JB] Sales of sparkly silver ukuleles are going to spike. Buy shares now.
This is the weirdest A-B form contrast in the whole set, I think. You’ve got the flapper-20s-charleston verses, using perhaps pop music’s oldest chord loop (I-vi-IV-V – the 1950s ‘doo-wop’ changes)… into that crazy #9 chord synth stab B section. It’s obviously deliberate, to go with the song’s general quirkiness, and presumably to illustrate the love/hate contrast in the lyric theme. The Germans know what they’re doing – they have a decent track record (albeit only 2 wins, but plenty of high-placing finalists) – and so this feels like a properly calculated attempt at postmodern tweeness. Although is someone telling you “I don’t feel hate” a bit like someone arriving at your house and saying unprompted “I’m really not an arsonist”?
So, I get it. It’s mostly charming. And kind of arch. Does Europe want this song to be played in every news report about the return of the contest in 2021? Doubt it. Expecting to see this one near the bottom of the pack.
[MS] Joe, in an earlier entry (the song from Portugal) you invoked the great Randy Newman as a source inspiration for those great lanky narrative chord progressions. I think of Randy Newman in another capacity: the master of the ‘untrustworthy narrator’ of ‘Short People’ or ‘Sail Away’. I really want to like this song and be charmed by its message: but there’s some part of me that doesn’t buy it. It’s like someone saying “I’m not offended” through clenched teeth. Maybe songs that have a playful feel when they’re written, by the time they get curated and produced enough to make it into the Eurovision sphere, just acquire a certain inevitable weight and freight that can work against them to a degree. Or maybe it’s the “I don’t feel hate, I just feel sorry…” which comes off as “sorry for you, that you are being such a dumbass…”
Either way, something isn’t quite working in this song for me. I feel like it could be funnier, more ironic, and then the joke would be “I don’t feel hate” and the listener going, “Um, no? Really?” But enjoying the joke. Or it could be a genuine, sincere song with a message to share with the world. But that’s not likely the intent here with that rocking synth stab B section (which is pretty awesome). But there is one problem with using sectional contrast to make a musical joke. We doesn’t listen to and laugh at jokes three times in a row. So it’s hard to turn a musical punchline into a good one-two punch. (Unless you spike it.)
Between sincerity and sarcasm lies a treacherous swamp occupied by Rats of Enormous Proportions. We songwriters have a tough job. I’m biased in one way. I teach songwriters to make the song do the work. If I need the video to get the irony, that to me is a songwriting problem.
16 Finland • Dark Side • Blind Channel
- BPM: 98 Key: Bm
- Verse: Bm | G | Em | G
- Pre: Bm | Bm | Bm | Bm
- Chorus: Bm | G Em
- Bridge: G | Em | Bm | A | Em | G | Bm | Bm
[JB] Metallll! Ever since Lordi’s surprise victory in 2006 with ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’, there have been a number of attempts to bring proper rock to Eurovision. The Fins are really going for it here, at least with the production – blast beats on the kit and dropped tunings on the guitars. It’s still metal-lite, of course (the harmony is all Aeolian, the chorus melody is a nice intervallic octave-fifth hook, and the only vocals that would be recognisable to a true Finnish metalhead are the grunts on the chorus BVs). But this is to be expected – go and listen to some real Finnish metal like Impaled Nazarene, or Children of Bodom, and you’ll see why it has to be toned down for the contest (I don’t think Eurovision would vote for a song entitled ‘Armageddon Death Squad’).
But really, this is great, and refreshing. Enough metal authenticity to please rock fans, and enough pop craftery to keep it off the bottom of the voting. Should do OK – somewhere in the middle, I’d guess.
[MS] “Of all the dark things that keep me wasted / You’re the sweetest that I’ve ever tasted”
I’m not a metal aficionado, but I’ve been educated enough by students who work in those genres to have come to appreciate the many levels of craft that go into these songs. And to my ear this is a very strong entry in that style, really impeccably structured. The angular phrasing of the chorus reminds me in an eerie way of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and although it’s not rap or hiphop the lyric phrasing has drawn some inspiration from its asymmetries. But I also find this melodically really strong, with the “I’m I’m I’m” line and the little melismatic slur on “dark si-ide” like a sinister little worm wiggling at you at the bottom of a shot of absinthe. (Sorry, mixing my drinks metaphors here.)
Maybe this wouldn’t qualify as metal to purists of the genre (there is a final “growled” vocal as if to show their cemetery cred at the last minute) but I think it’s a more melodically accessible song that owes a lot to, and celebrates, that genre. And that is worth a shoutout I think. Again, I don’t know the Eurovision aesthetic at all, so I’m the last person to speculate how the vote will go for this. But it’s nice to hear the diversity of styles showing up in the contest.
17 Bulgaria • Growing Up Is Getting Old • Victoria
- BPM: 93 Key: G
- Verse: G D/F# | Em D | C | D
- Pre: Em Bm/F# | C | Em Bm/F# | C D
- G F#/D | Em | C Bm | Am
- Bridge: C D | Em | C Bm | Am | G D | Em |Am | D7
[JB] Cool opening lyric “Playing Tetris with my feelings”, and the ticking clock sample is a nice bit of production prosody, as Berklee folks might say. I’m pleased to see countries trying out introspective singer-songwriter material, but this seems a bit unfocused, melodically, lyrically and structurally. The tendency of the melody to linger so often on the major third – the B natural – makes it feel a bit samey for me.
It’s a killer (double-meaning) title – promises so much, especially with that great opening line. For me, it loses its way lyrically after that. It’s hard to write a lyric about sadness (maybe depression?) if the narrator is the only character, and introspection is their only means of making sense of the story (and communicating it to the listener). I get that the character is having a tough time, implicitly connected to entering adulthood, with disillusionment being the theme, but beyond that I’m not really getting it – the lyric is just so unspecifically miserable, and in 3 minutes I don’t think a song lyric can communicate this level of emotional complexity – or at least this song doesn’t. The title melody works well.
Almost certainly far too thematically weird for the voters, I fear.
[MS] Well, delighted to finally have a proper disagreement with you, Joe—don’t you agree?
I certainly hear my share of vague angst-ridden self-indulgent songs. This isn’t one of them, in my book. Life is ambivalent; states of anxiety and depression even more so. A perennial songwriter’s dilemma is: am I conveying a state of confusion in a clear way, or just conveying something in a confusing way? For me this song describes a specific moment of anomie, accidie, depression, and then—in classic Eurovision style, perhaps—manifests a moment of emotional transformation: “Maybe I could tread the waters of time—get out of my mind.”
It’s because the singer has that moment of transformation that they earn the privilege of sending a message of hope to the listener.
So the real question to me is: how would someone actually living through this respond to this song? I think they’d find it tremendously comforting: first that someone has lived through what they’re living through, and has captured it—and in capturing it, shown they need not be captured by it, beholden to that state. And that the singer reaches out to them at the end in direct “break the fourth wall” address, with a message of hope. That cuts through the cheese rather than just cutting the cheese, if you know what I mean.
That’s why the wordplay of the title works: without the emotional clarity to back it up it would just be—what is it you Brits say, “twee” or affected.
Have I made my case?
[JB] You’ve certainly convinced me to give it another few listens! I do see what you’re getting at, but it’s still not doing it for me. In ESC terms, of course, we can reasonably speculate that the voters, on a single listen, are unlikely to give it the generous level of lyric scrutiny that you’ve applied here. Which might be a good thing for the Bulgarians.
18 Lithuania • Discoteque • The Roop
- BPM: 115.1 Key: Fm
- Verse: Fm | [x4] Ab | Gm
- Chorus: Fm | [x4] Ab | Ab | Fm | Fm
- Bridge: Fm | Fm | Ab | Ab
[JB] Depeche Mode in heels.
[MS] Guilty pleasure music.
[JB] how much guilt can you stand?
[MS] Oh, Joe, you’d be surprised. But I’m gonna say, this is a strong entry in its style. My golden moment “I got the moves, it’s gonna blow” and then that robotic/monotonic laser beam of a corrugated bass line, like beads of solder dripping down a wire… Here’s what I love. This song has fun, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and its musical vibe exactly fits its theme, which is about the glory of giving yourself permission to bounce off the walls of your own living room. So this has charm, playfulness, and the repetition all serves the song. Even the awkwardness of “It is (the s slightly too hard for conversational English) okay…” makes me feel the joy of being a Lithuanian retro electro-pop fan.
[JB] So, you can’t go wrong with a retro dance song called Discoteque. And to turn it into a verb “Let’s discoteque” and throw in a subtle COVID reference “Let’s discoteque right at my home” – bravo! Like you, I enjoyed those Georgio Moroder-style synth bassline 16ths (“corrugated” is such a great adjective – you should be a songwriter). I wonder if that lyric “dancing on my own” is a deliberate reference to Robyn? That 16s bassline certainly has similarities.
It’s fun, danceable, camp, and very Eurovision. At 115 BPM, a bit subdued to drive them crazy maybe, but pretty good overall.
19 Ukraine • Shum • Go_A
- BPM: 115 • Key: Em
- Loop: Em [x4] | Em | Bm C | Am | G C |
Oh Spring song, Spring song / Where have you spent your Winter?
In the garden, sitting on a maple tree / You’ve been spinning a shirt.
There on the edge of a forest /An owl is blowing into the water.
I’ll sing a song – Let her hear it.
Shum, get twined with periwinkle / I’m singing the vesnyanka to you.
Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing hemp plants, / Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing green ones.
Come Spring, come / Don’t wait around
We’ll go outside / to love each other.
Oh Spring, our Miss, / Look in our window.
We had sang our song / And the Sun shined on.
Come on, come on, let’s twine the Shum, / Twine the Shum, dance it around.
Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing hemp plants, / Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing green ones.
Shum, get twined, get twined! / Shum, get spread with periwinkle.
Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing hemp plants, / Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing green ones.
Oh vesnyanka, vesnyanka / Where have you spent your Winter?
In the garden, sitting on a maple tree / You’ve been spinning a shirt.
There on the edge of a forest / An owl is blowing into the water.
I’ll sing a song – Let her hear it.
Shum, get twined with periwinkle / I’m singing the vesnyanka to you.
Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing hemp plants, / Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing green ones.
Come on, come on, we’ve made some noise. / Made some noise and awoke the Spring.
Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing hemp plants, / Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing green ones.
[JB] This is an electro version of a Vesnianky, a traditional Ukrainian spring folk dance. For me, this is by far the most interesting song in the grand final. It is seriously *out there* in Eurovision terms. It uses the most exotic (and in pan-European terms, obscure) parent scale, being mainly based on the Ukrainian Dorian scale (which you can hear on the vocal and whistle part). And it has tempo ramps all over it, starting at 115 BPM and accelerating throughout. I clocked it doing 155 in the final chorus before I lost it on the horizon.
I admire Ukraine for doing this, and a part of me wishes that Eurovision could be like this for everyone – that is, real, authentic songs based on the home country’s traditions, updated with contemporary production. It would be a very different show, of course (and the broadcast probably couldn’t sustain itself on an exclusive audience of musicologists), but it would help to circulate these musical traditions more widely.
It’s also a great performance – energetic, wonderful vocal harmonising, and the (what’s the word, “wintry?”) techno production sounds absolutely right in the context of this theme. Lyrically, it’s relatable if you’re a Ukrainian agrarian, but alas I feel that may be an insufficient number of these in the electorate to push it up the leaderboard.
[MS] I listen to a lot of hard core traditional music from all over, so I quickly recognized that this song, unlike some of the ‘ethnopop’ entries that are basically pop songs with a little dash of ethnic flair in the form of a traditional instrument (think Justin Timberlake’s ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ for a non-Eurovision reference), this was basically a folk song that had been mashed up with a cool loopy thumbing electro bass line and some production. The singer, Go_A frontwoman Kateryna Pavlenko, apparently had to rewrite the lyrics of the original version, which hewed much more closely to the traditional song, to be in compliance with Eurovision rules. But she obviously knows the tradition, and has been able to turn a traditional song sung to a personified spirit of the Spring into a song with more contemporary resonances of renewal and rebirth. As a result, though the lyrics are new, the melody, the strident clashing vocal harmonies, and even elements of the form are very much an incursion of a traditional regional musical offering into the Eurovision lineup. A refreshing surprise: no matter how it does in voting, it’s a great thing for Eurovision to be a means of letting people all over Europe learn a little more about the music of their neighbors. It’s said that once you know a poem in someone’s language you’re less likely to go to war with them: let’s hope that’s true of songs as well.
20 France • Voilà • Barbara Pravi
- BPM: 68 Key: Dm
- Verse: Dm | Dm | Am | Am | Dm | Dm | Am | Bb | Bb | Dm | Dm | Bb | Gm | Eø | A7sus A7
- Chorus: Dm | Dm | C6 | C6 | Bb | Gm | Eø | A7
Listen to me / Me the half-singer
Talk about me / To your loves, to your friends
Tell them about this black eyed girl and her crazy dream
What I want is to write stories that reach you / That’s all
Here it is, here it is, this is who I am / Here I am even though exposed I’m afraid, yes
Here I am in the noise and in the silence
Look at me, or at least what’s left of it / Look at me, before I hate myself
What to tell you that another’s lips won’t tell you / It’s not much but me all that I have I put it there, that’s it
Here it is, here it is, this is who I am / Here I am even if stripped naked it’s over
It’s my face it’s my cry, here I am, too bad / Here it is, here it is, here it is right here
Me, my dream, my desire, as I die of it, as I laugh at it / Here I am in the noise and in the silence
Don’t go, I’m begging you stay a long time / It may not save me, no
But do without you, I don’t know how / Love me as we love a friend who is gone forever
I want people to love me because I don’t know how to like my outlines
Here it is, here it is, this is who I am / Here I am even if stripped naked it’s over
Here I am in the noise and in the fury too / Look at me finally and my eyes and my hands
All I have is here, it’s my face, it’s my cry / Here I am, here I am, here I am
There, there, there, there / here
[JB] That’s arresting – an a capella opening with the imperative “Écoutez moi” – or is it a bit bossy? This is a classic chanson a la Jaques Brel, Edith Piaf etc. The French do these from time to time, and they are so good at it! Total mastery of form here; the verses lyrically disciplined and identically syllabically structured, over a 16-bar linear chord pattern. There’s a nice ii-V half-diminished turnaround | Eø | A7 | – it’s the same in the verse and chorus. Our Berklee colleagues in the harmony department could use this as a great example of propulsion in a chord sequence.
And in the outro choruses we have that fantastic tempo ramp – like Barbara’s tragic character is chaotically whirling around in a deserted ballroom. Do we hear this as a fast waltz or as a 6/8 in compound time? I guess as it accelerates in that final chorus it feels more 6/8 – what say you?
[MS] Yes, here’s a real classic chanson from your archetype list. The waltz tempo, the rubato a cappella introduction (that free time is a lovely rarity in contemporary songs, rolling old school here!), and the accelerando in the final reprise of the chorus. It’s worth noting how this style or genre really involves several different varieties of musical time, something I wish we paid more attention to.
As to the time signature: I believe this evolved from a fast waltz (3 / 4 time) feel, but at a certain tempo really begins to be heard in 6. Yet it’s not a ‘jiggy’ 6/8 rhythm, but a ballad rhythm. (Many traditional ballads are in this same rhythm, and it’s always hard to know how to name the time signature!) It’s a great rhythm for storytelling though: whether it be a traditional ballad of murder and betrayal, or a modern chanson of more modern emotional crimes. That’s my folk song guy weighing in!
Love those lush ‘cabaret’ harmonies, descending line cliches, the drooping cello lines in the second verse. And that little heartbeat-hiccup skipping into a prechorus tucked into the verse, like a tragic orphan child cradled in the arm of a peasant mother on the barricades…
I love that in this style, the build is left up to the dramatic delivery of the singer: it’s not done with production layers, the accompaniment stays relatively spare; spoken-sung delivery, dramatics, timing, tempo, all those are used to create the intensity.
Songwriters would do well to study this style and form: there are so many amazing compositional techniques here you can apply in other styles as well. Old school has its lessons to teach us! Voilà!
[JB] And I feel we could read that title ‘Voilà!’ as an emergence from lockdown – in keeping with the contest’s ‘open up’ theme perhaps. Or am I over-reaching? Anyway, this is one of my favourites – and has a good chance of placing because it’s so classic and accessible. It’s in my top five, for sure.
21 Azerbaijan • Mata Hari • Efendi
- BPM: 100 • Key: Bm
- Verse: Bm | Bm | Bm | G F#
- Chorus: Bm | C Am
[MS] More ethno-pop here, in the plucked-strings accompaniment under the verse, and the reeds under the strident chorus. We’re hearing a lot of those instruments: I’m cautious naming them, because there are dozens of regional variations of these instruments, with varying numbers of strings (single and double course), some fretted, some fretless (and some with tied frets that allow for microtonal intervals). You can hear the clash of those untempered ethnic scales with the techno side of things.
Love the transition from the more conventional European Aeolian in the verse into the Phrygian chorus. It’s like hearing an essay in modal musico-cultural politics right in the track!
[JB] Agree on the ethno-pop, for sure! What’s that percussive baritone-range plucked stringed instrument in the intro? There’s also a double-reed (duduk maybe?) playing the answering melodic hook in the choruses.
It’s managing that Eurovision ethno-pop trick again – using mostly the plain old Aeolian mode to give a hint of the ancient and traditional in the vocal topline. And it goes one step further, by introducing some Phrygian flat-2 intervals (in the title hook) and major thirds in the alternate riff about halfway through the song (the “let’s go” section), putting us into harmonic major territory. What could we call that mode in an Azerbaijani context? Damn, some days I wish I was a proper ethnomusicologist.
The Mata Hari metaphor works really well – using the real historical character as a metaphor for a powerfully sexual and deceitful protagonist: “I’m a spy, I uncover all of your secrets, I want them / There’s no stopping me now, I’m a liar, Playing the game of desire”.
This is solid Eurovision fare, combining the home country’s traditional music with just a hint of contemporary pop via a reggaeton beat, until those frenetic 8th drums in the final chorus. I liked it a lot, but I can’t see it being a big vote-winner.
[MS] And then after “Let’s go…” we get that raised third, a more ‘exotic’ scale. There are a lot of names for this scale and its variants in different traditions, Middle Eastern maqam theory, Jewish klezmer music, etc. What it shows, though, is the pervasive echo of centuries of Ottoman Empire influence throughout many countries in Eastern Europe, and the more easterly countries like Azerbaijan.
As we listen to these various songs, especially the ‘ethno-pop’ examples, I’m thinking about your comment that good old-fashioned key changes are less common now than in past Eurovision eras. What’s interesting is to hear the other ways you get compressed intensity at the end of a song (forced into a three-minute development window): breakdown style bridges, shifts of mode, layering, etc. Lots of ways to raise the stakes and some eyebrows!
22 Norway • Fallen Angel • TIX
- BPM: 93 • Key: C#
- Verse: C# | C# | A#m | A#m | F# | G# | C# | C#
- Pre: C# | C# | A#m | A#m | F# | G# | C#
- Chorus: C# | C# | A#m | A#m | F# | G# | C# | C#
- Bridge: F# | C# | A#m | A#m | F# | G#
[JB] This is so relaxing and familiar – the sort of mid-tempo anthem that the Scandinavians do so well, and can sometimes even win. The chord sequence in the verse is Stand By Me / Every Breath You Take, which helps with that sense of instant familiarity of course.
And in a nod to those older Eurovision tropes, we welcome back the whole tone step up key change – the only one so far in this final, I think? It works so well here.
I’m intrigued by the rhythm of “I’m a / I’m a” in the chorus – it’s a scotch snap, the short-long 2-syllable rhythm. which we’ve been hearing in contemporary pop-rap (Ariana Grande), Trap and reggaeton (there’s a nice Adam Neely video about it here). They’re mixing ingredients really carefully here: 1960s chord sequence, crown-pleasing simple anthemic chorus, melancholy and regretful protagonist, contemporary hip-hop scansion. Plus angel wings, silver dice bling, dancing chain-wielding black demons, and wearing your sunglasses indoors.
Everyone who has followed this blog over the years knows that I always bet big on the Scandies, and this year is no exception. The bookies only give it a 1% chance of winning – I’m more optimistic than that.
[MS] Pretty flawless Scandi-pop here. Man, you have to admire the craft. They know how to sculpt a melody, where every note is doing some narrative task. There’s amazing economy in the structure of this song: There’s a six-bar phrase in the verse, and the prechorus, and the chorus: I I VI- VI- IV V (I use Nashville numbers, so for me: 1 1 6- 6- 4 5 – isn’t that easier to read? 🙂 ). The first part of this loop gives you the old-school ‘Heart and Soul’ loop, definitely a retro reference. Then the foreshortened lift of the IV – V — and ‘Bob’s your uncle’ as the Norwegians would never say. But the melody over these chords is crafted so you get all the sectional contrast you could want. And it’s economical, getting you through two verses and prechoruses with time for a swing back at the chorus with a great whole-tone modulation at the end. I think it’s amazing how fast they get to that first prechorus!
A nerdy note about that modulation: The loop ends on the V and then you “fall” down into the II which becomes the new I. That’s slick: and an elegant way of getting a key change up by a major second with an “anti-harmonic” (what I call a falling’) chord move.
But dip in a little more. That little instrumental ‘ear-candy’ riff plants the melodic cell in your ear you need to make everything feel familiar, remembered, like the trails of heaven we bring into life as babies said some Romantic poet… But check the melody on “fallen angel’: mi ti ti do. You fall down a fourth, like an angel falling from heaven, and then valiantly climb back up to the third of that VI- chord. That’s ‘narrative melody’: I think these pop melody-masters know that listeners are hearing the melody itself as a metaphor, a character living through the story.
Now – do I actually like this song? I don’t actually believe it, to be honest. The metaphor is cloudy to me: the singer’s a fallen angel, and the Beloved is an – unfallen angel? So: is he asking her to reject him, for her own good (bad boy warning off love interest) or actually asking her to fall along with him? That’s the bit of a real emotional message I listen for to nudge a piece of well-crafted pop perfection into something that really touches my heart. But then, I’m not a Eurovision fan.
23 Netherlands • Birth Of A New Age • J. Macrooy
- BPM: 95 • Key: Bb
- Verse: Bb | Dm | Ab | Gm | Bb | Cm | Ab/Eb | Ab/Eb
- Chorus: Bb | Eb/Bb (implied) | Bb | Bb
[JB] Netherlands as reigning 2019 champions have come back with a different angle from their runaway winner ‘Arcade’. 2021’s ‘Birth of a New Age’ is ‘Kawina’, a style that originated in Suriname, where Macrooy was born. To many ears the choral call-and-response will sound maybe African, but Suriname is actually in South America. What an interesting set of influences – Suriname, Caribbean, Dutch, Brazil!
And on top of that diasporic journey, this is a super-enjoyable and relatable song in its own right, almost completely devoid of cheesy Eurovision tropes. A songwriting teacher I worked with in Bath once said “there are three main pop lyric themes – love, dancing, and self-assertion”. This is self-assertion writ large, as an individual and as a we-are-all-one call to action. As you know, Mark, every year in our Songs For Social Change competition I keep hoping to hear a big anthemic entrant like this.
It’s an outsider in the voting predictions, but I think it’s going to do well, because it’s so universal and empowering to listen to.
[MS] Maybe my favorite entry heard so far. Joe, you told me when we were listening to the Berklee Songs for Social Change student contest entries how much you’re always jonesing for one of those big social change anthems—and they are damn hard to write!
This one hits it out of the park for me. Honestly, I don’t think you can pull this off, as an artist anyway, unless you have ‘standing’ to authentically put the message out there—and the life story of this artist gives him that standing I think, so it rings true.
There’s history in this song, but also a great sense of energy and change. I love the call and response in the verse (“Your rhythm is rebellion, your rhythm is rebellion…”) and the message that, in our world now, music is not just a means for conveying content about social change, but embodies that change in the musical form itself. (An American roots version of this: the great songwriter and activist Hazel Dickens once said – paraphrasing a bit – that the continued existence of roots music traditions is a political statement in and of itself.)
You can even hear change in the elusive form of this song, which can’t really be analyzed in the stock ‘Lego blocks’ language of song form we use: verse, prechorus, chorus, hook, bridge, etc. It’s messier, and wonderfuller, than that: it moves in layers and echoes. It really reminds me of some of the innovations of Hamilton, I’m sure a resonance that would not have been lost on the writers. Whether European listeners will respond to that the way American audiences would is an interesting question. It also reminds me in some ways of ‘This is America’ the Childish Gambino song you just analyzed for your forensic musicology blog because of that recent infringement kerfuffle. To me, this is exciting: to hear traditional elements infuse themselves into popular music at the DNA level, not just with a little sample of an ethnic instrument used for a loop in a song that otherwise is saturated with the cultural norms that pop music too often colludes with and reinforces. Not that I have an opinion on this stuff, of course.
24 Italy • Zitti e buoni • Måneskin
- BPM: 103 • Key: Em
- Verse: Em | Em / C5 B5
- Chorus: Em | Em / G5 A5
- Bridge: Em / C5 B5 [x 3] | Am / C5 B5
[JB] this is the only Indie-rock finalist. That riff (in E, of course) puts me in the zone of The Strokes, White Stripes, Lenny Kravitz maybe. It’s one of the favourites to win, and I find it refreshing that rumours of the Death of Rock are exaggerated – but should probably check my biases here (I teach History of Rock at Berklee).
Is it a good song? It’s a whole lot of rock swagger, performed with gusto and great production. It’s a lyric about (probably teen) rebellion and assertion of identity; verse 2 tells us “Troppe notti stavo chiuso fuori / Mo’ gli prendo a calci ‘sti portoni / Sguardo in alto tipo scalatori / Quindi scusa mamma se sto sempre fuori” – “Too many nights I’ve spent locked outside / Now I’m kicking these doors / Eyes up like climbers / So excuse me mum if I’m always out.”. Interestingly, they had to make some lyric changes from the original, to clean up some of the swears. Mark I like your take on the lyric – the protagonist colliding the articulate and the inarticulate and exploding in rage as a result.
Musically, it’s very familiar rock riffing territory – simple minor pentatonic shouting for the chorus melody, and letting the riff carry the melodic interest. Fine, and perfectly genre-authentic, but an anthem for the whole of Europe? It’s the favourite to win, and I think it will do well, but I can’t see all the voters uniting behind it.
[MS] It’s interesting for me to hear how various unruly styles—the burnished metal of Finland’s ‘Dark Side,’ the angst-ridden anxiety-singer-songwriteristicality of Bulgaria’s ‘Growing Up is Getting Old,’ or this solid indie-rock offering—get disciplined into the rigors of a highly competitive contest with a three-minute time limit. It’s a test of song form skill; since it’s about theatrics, it also forces the writers to find ways to create that intensity fast within the form. As the song says: “That’s why I am training now.”
Here, the rapid-fire propulsion of a semi-rapped bridge helps build the energy to explode into that final chorus reprise. It’s as if the rest of the song is in that – yes, Joe, I agree, ‘Teenage Rebellion’ – trope which says: I’m mad at the world, and tired of being told what to do; and I embrace my inarticulateness with youthful ferocity… (Wait, do teenagers use semicolons?) Then the bridge comes along and it’s: In fact, let me show you just how eloquent, cryptic and lyrical I can be about my inarticulateness. “With wax wings on my back / I’ll seek that high…” When in doubt, an Icarus reference will always establish some symbolist cred, especially if someone gets their head chopped off shortly afterward.
Personal anecdote: I think the Italians are really good at this sort of thing. Traveling in Europe many years ago, I was in a campground in the Dolomites when an Italian biker club roared in. They came into the restaurant, and one of them spied my guitar in its case leaning against the wall in the corner. “You are American? You play guitar?” he asked. He was tall, thin, leather-clad, slicked-back hair, dangerous-looking. I nodded reluctantly. “You play blues?” I shrugged noncommittally. “I play blues!” he announced triumphantly, and grabbed my guitar. I had no idea what to expect, when he strummed a bold E chord and sang, in phonetically perfect faux-English: “I been to tha desert on a hor swith nonam-eh…”
25 Sweden • Voices • Tusse
- BPM: 90 • Key: Am
- Verse: Am | C | G | F
- Pre: Am | C | G | F
- Chorus: Am | C | G | F
[JB] *One second* of a double-reed instrument on the intro – talk about tokenistic ethnic insertion! This is a classic Eurovision concept – we all sing together as one, united as a single one-Europe (one-World) community. And musically it has all the tropes of my ‘anthem’ category from the 2020 analysis – mid-tempo, minor pentatonic declamatory melody, massed voices (thanks in part to the new rule allowing BVs on the backing track).
[MS] This doesn’t have a lot of surprises for me. It ticks all the boxes I suppose, but to my ear it feels like it was put together that way – it’s so boxed in, it ticks me off a bit. It does have that nice little half-step modulation, but doesn’t do anything particularly clever to get there: just sort of “okay, time to do that modulation…” I’d like a little more subtlety.
I’ll say one thing about this loop, used throughout the song. One of my favorite things to listen for is the emotional quality of moves between chords. My thesis (as I wrote about, he said humbly, in my first book on songwriting…) is that in diatonic progressions, these moves can be felt as either rising or falling in quality. Rising moves are the ‘proper’ functional harmony moves: I to IV to V to I. Falling moves are sometimes called ‘retrogressive motion’ by music theory teachers; but roots music, rock, blues, and lots of loop-based pop music are built on them. For obscure musical reasons, the move from VI- up to I (i.e., root moves up a major third) has not a rising but a falling quality (it’s because you’re moving to a new root that is already in the chord you’re leaving, if you want to know).
Based on this theory, this loop (VI- I V IV) consists entirely of falling moves: 6- to 1, then down to 5, down to 4, then, as the loop wraps around from 4 back to 6- another one of those counter-intuitively falling moves. So the whole loop has a mood of surrender, of melancholy in the midst of victory, a kind of vulnerability rather than triumphalism. The whole emotional vibe of the song depends on this for its effect. It’s good: I just wish it didn’t feel quite so calculated and paint by the numbers.
[JB] Agree with you on the semitone-up key change for the final chorus (aka “half-step” – I have become musicologically bilingual since my arrival in America). It’s not subtle – turns on a dime after a four-bar breakdown. But it does the job of inserting an energy jolt at the right time – which is needed if you’re going to create an electric crowd-lifting moment at 90BPM.
The loop (Am-C-G-F) is interesting, and it’s a surprisingly little-used anagram of the ubiquitous Am-F-C-G. I wonder why it’s less popular in songwriting? Mark, your entirely-falling hypothesis fits the facts, I think. We can hear this as a minor-key song (from the start of the loop) or as a major-key song (from bar 2 of the loop).
This is the kind of song that the Scandies do so well – the Swedes particularly – although mid-tempo anthems are always a risk, easily eclipsed in the voting by an overwrought ballad or high-energy dance number. And we had a very good second place anthem entitled ‘A Million Voices’ (Russia) as recently as 2015.
Not quite strong enough, in my opinion, and Mark I’m swayed even more to this PoV from the melancholy you identify in that surrendering-falling-loop concept.
26 San Marino • Adrenalina • Senhit feat. Flo Rida
- BPM: 104 • Key: Bbm
- Verse: Bbm, and lots of it
- Chorus: Bbm Ab | Bbm | Ebm F | Bbm || Bbm Ab | Bbm | Gb Db | — (implied F?)
[JB] Flo Rida! American guest performers are allowed, it seems. Reggaeton beat again, and plenty of other familiar ESC tropes – enthnic instrument, Aeolian mode, lyric-less “whoa-oh-oh” vowel hooks. The chorus lyric is filled with simple similes, all of which reinforce the title “fire and gasoline… one touch and I’ll ignite… I’m a flame, I’m dynamite”. Flo Rida’s rap section continues the theme: “she know to do my body like hot coals / Gasoline, kerosene, stop, drop, roll / I can’t blame it on the stove”, and “We got the blaze, so we in inferno… We up in smoke, fireworks…”
Melodically, the root-5th of the title hook is the strongest part of the song to my ears, and the thing that made it instantly familiar to me on this pass, which is my second listen.
As for its placing, I think Europe might be getting a bit tired of all these reggaeton beats. Is it cultural appropriation for countries thousands of miles away to be using Latin American / Puerto Rican grooves… or is it just the natural evolution of a musical idea as it spreads without borders? I guess there’s no point getting too wound up about cultural Darwinism doing its thing. Not a total vote-loser, but I can’t see it in the top five.
[MS] Joe, I see we both gravitated to “I can’t blame it on the stove”: the funniest and most original line in the song to my ear, and also one of those unfortunately self-describing lines. If the Eurovision style constraints and conventions are the “stove” in which these various musical concoctions are cooked, then the question is: who is serving up a tasty meal, and who is heating up a TV dinner (dated reference there I’m afraid) because they got home late from work and can’t be bothered? Can’t say I like this song very much, because it feels like the TV dinner variety. And whose fault is that? The Eurovision conventions? I say: “Can’t blame it on the stove.”
Here are a few nitpicks. At Berklee, we care a lot about the rhythmic setting of lyrics in musical context: an area pioneered by my colleague Pat Pattison under the broad term ‘prosody’ – a term which has since come to be used for a broader set of concerns of how lyrics and music can weave together to tell a unified and emotionally coherent story. This song is rife with what we judiciously call “mis-settings” in our jargon. One or two could be put down to going for an edgy rebellious style—like “AdrenaLEEN”; but a lot are just clunky. Such flaws, in my experience, often arise from having a really strong melodic or rhythmic idea, but then just shoving lyrics at the melody syllable by syllable without regard for conversational rhythm.
You can say: in a pop dance number like this it doesn’t really matter. I say, if you’re a songwriter, and you think anything you’re doing doesn’t matter, you’re working in the wrong form. Be a beat maker. But if you write lyrics, care about the lyrics. Every aspect of the lyrics. Saying it doesn’t matter in a happy club dance song is actually insulting to people in the club. Why are they less important? Don’t they deserve well-set lyrics too? (End of channeling the spirit of Pat Pattison: he’s alive and well, so it’s slightly creepy to do so anyway.)
Then there’s the metaphor. Adrenaline is a hormone secreted by the body. It happens to rhyme with kerosene, which suggests fire, and heat, and all that good stuff which no songwriter ever has previously thought of connecting to the theme of love, passion, seduction or orgiastic dancing. But hey, if you’re going to use a metaphor, it’s got to ‘work’ at some level. And saying “you’re my adrenaline” just feels like an incredibly contrived add-on that adds nothing except the fancy sounding word to a song where the real images are all about fire and kerosene. There’s simply no real ‘concept’ here to build the song around, besides accidental collisions of sound and sense that fall apart on a moment’s reflection and create no vivid picture in the listener’s mind. It’s lazy songwriting, sorry.
I’d be more forgiving and put it down to “Hey it’s Eurovision, what did you expect?” Well, when I started this exercise with Joe I might have expected just this. But I’ve heard songs in this batch of finalists that have genuinely impressed me, on all sorts of levels, in all sorts of styles. That tells me that creative writers and artists across Europe and Central Asia are finding a way to work within the constraints of Eurovision to still say something important. It’s a big stage and a big audience, and a big opportunity. If you’re going to grab the mic, you best have something worth singing into that mic. Otherwise, I say, pass the mic. Drop mic.
- Commentary: Joe Bennett and Mark Simos
- Chord transcriptions: Will Bennett
[JB] So Mark, who are your top three?
[MS] Well, when we went into this I said that you’re the guy who has studied Eurovision contests for the past 10 years and made an art out of predictions, not me. So I don’t know that I want to guess at what the popular vote results will be: how should I know? I can maybe pick out my favorites just as songs. And I can pick out the three that feel like they best suit the parameters of the contest. And for good measure, I will also nominate my three songs in terms of message and social change content.
Mark’s favorite songs
Finland • Dark Side • Blind Channel
Just in terms of pure craft, I think this song is really well put together, bottles the chaotic energy of metal in a way that steers admirably between the Scylla of denaturing the style and the Charybdis of blowing out the contest parameters.
Bulgaria • Growing Up Is Getting Old • Victoria
Joe, you and I disagreed on this one, which is okay. Perhaps you’ve never lived the life of a depressed young Bulgarian woman—as I have. But I think this song holds up, with some subtlety and nuance that probably means it won’t stand a chance in the contest but should still be a badge of honor for writer and artist.
Ukraine • Shum • Go_A
I was really excited to hear this entry, and to know that this band is serious about drawing on traditional music sources and bringing them into more contemporary forms and settings. Much of what’s musically awesome about this is really there in the traditional forms themselves: it’s to the credit of the artists that they could faithfully reflect this, but it’s not—yet—all about their own originality. But it is a harbinger of things to come.
I’d love to see a version of something like Eurovision—more global, even, in reach—with specific artistic criteria for success that encourage artists to draw on their own regional forms and styles. Where entries like this one would be the exemplar and not the exception.
Best guess at a Euro win from an ignorant Yankee prof:
Israel • Set Me Free • Eden Alene:
All the elements of a great dance song but also a really empowering message. And whistle voice money note!
Malta • Je Me Casse • Destiny:
Same as above. Without the whistle voice money note but plenty of vocal firepower.
France • Voilà • Barbara Pravi:
Just a gorgeous entry in full-on chanson mode. A tradition that should be revitalized, in my opinion. Let’s have a Chanson competition! (Or maybe there is one already?)
24 Italy • Zitti e buoni • Måneskin:
The kids are all right. If a little angry at the world.
Best Songs for Social Change:
Malta • Je Me Casse • Destiny
Russia • Russian Woman • Manizha — I think this is a courageous song that is really about using the platform to make a difference. I want to bring Manizha to Berklee as a visiting artist!
Netherlands • Birth Of A New Age • J. Macrooy — Truth is, this also belongs in my best song from a craft standpoint, and—I’d like to think—that maybe it also has a shot in the “Euro win” category. But I think it’s a great anthemic song for social change, and a model I would recommend to all the songwriters we work with who are wrestling with the challenges of writing those kinds of songs: songs that, as Pete Seeger said, “might just change the world.” It could use a bit of changing right about now.
Thanks for letting me be a part of this, Joe! Now I’m ready to go work on my Aeolian Eurovision entry for next year. But which country should I move to?