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Eurovision 2019: Semi-final 1 May 14

National finals, internal selections, promotional tours and rehearsals are done: it’s time for the biggest music shows of the year.

There are 17 acts taking part in tonight’s semi-final, one fewer than originally planned as Ukraine is no longer taking part, which reduces the overall number of competitors to 41 – 41 worthy songs and performers, all with something going for them.

But only 10 can make it through to the final today. Each time I look through the list, I mentally mark songs as deserving to make it through and then reach the end and find I’ve marked many more than 10. So I’m going to force myself to pick just 10 qualifiers knowing full well that the juries and the televoters often surprise us.

Cyprus

It is the least original observation of this year’s contest to note that a number of songs appear to have taken inspiration from last year’s runner-up Fuego, but it has to be said – especially about the same country’s entry for this year, Replay. It’s absolutely a different song but Cyprus have nevertheless doubled down, delivering an energetic opening to the competition.

Why it might not qualify: The biggest risk is Tamta’s vocals faltering from the dancing.

Montenegro

Even the least remarkable of tonight’s songs is a pleasant three minutes thanks to the harmonies from this group of young vocalists. Their staging seems to have got gradually less ragged but it’s still six of them standing in a line singing with their arms.

Why it might not qualify: Lost in a collection of much more memorable songs.

Finland

Darude is the man behind Finland’s entry this year. Yes, Darude off of Sandstorm. No, this did not mean much to me but now I get it. Anyhoo, he and singer Sebastian Rejman served up three song options for Finland this year and the Finns opted for Look Away, a song about the Bad Things going on in the world sent to an EDM beat. It may need Darude’s name recognition and an unforgettable pair of trousers to make it to the final.

Why it might not qualify: The lyrics and music feel like they belong in different songs.

Poland

Tulia have distinctive outfits and a distinctive, traditionally Polish style of singing. Unfortunately it’s a style that I find palatable only in short bursts and three minutes of it is just too much. The song itself is fine but whether it qualifies depends on others’ reaction to this Marmite style and if the Polish diaspora matches up with the countries voting today.

Why it might not qualify: The singing.

Slovenia

This is an extremely low key number performed in an extremely low key way, singer Zala staring into musician Gašper’s eyes throughout. It’s an unusual, borderline creepy choice that keeps her from connecting with the audience. It doesn’t help a song which I know a lot of fans love but I’ve found instantly forgettable every listen.

Why it might not qualify: Uncomfortable to watch, like three minutes of live Stockholm Syndrome.

Czech Republic

Lake Malawi bring a modern interpretation of late 90s Britpop to Eurovision. It’s charming and different from every other entry and should appeal to a section of the audience not catered for elsewhere. Their biggest risk is that it feels thin: they’re a band that suit a basement gig in Maidstone more than a massive, over-engineered stage in Tel Aviv.

Why it might not qualify: It may struggle to fill a stadium.

Hungary

Joci Pápai returns to Eurovision with another Hungarian language song after finishing 8th in 2017. I prefer this one, Az én ápam, but I can’t see it doing as well. He’s a good singer and there‘s a strong musical hook in the chorus but it feels touch and go for qualification.

Why it might not qualify: Another song that could struggle to stand out.

Belarus

I’ve liked Like It since seeing ZENA’s national final performance and it’s only got more polished. This is upbeat, fun and youth-oriented (greetings, fellow kids!) and features some ridiculously athletic dancers. She is just 16 but has already hosted Junior Eurovision.

Why it might not qualify: The song may seem 10-15 years late.

Serbia

Nevena brings a big set of lungs to croon Kruna. It’s a strong vocal performance so expect that to be the focus – there’s not going to be a lot else going on.

Why it might not qualify: Voters more likely to respect it than love it.

Belgium

Another year, another classy song from Belgium. Teenager Eliot is their singer this year. He has a good voice but occasionally seems daunted by the scale of what’s going on. They’ve also put him in a bizarre outfit that hinders more than helps. But it’s a fine song and deserves to go through.

Why it might not qualify: Inexperience performing on this scale.

Georgia

I don’t knew if it’s anger or determination or a distinctly Georgian emotion we don’t have a word for but there is a lot of intensity in this performance. Unfortunately it makes you want to run away rather than listen to the song, which is sung at you more than to you.

Why it might not qualify: I’m scared.

(Good news: it’s all great from here on.)

Australia

It’s popera. It’s dramatic. It’s meaningful. It’s Wicked. The rehearsal footage gives me happy tingles; I just hope the camera shots do it justice tonight. I didn’t warm to it – always a danger at Eurovision – but that’s old news now. Plus Kate sounds like she’d be a scream down the pub.

Why it might not qualify: A pole would literally have to snap.

Iceland

The title of this song by anti-capitalist BDSM art boys Hatari translates as “hatred will prevail”, but it’s very much meant as a warning rather than a goth demand. Amongst the PVC, fire, metal cage and harsh vocals, this has a musicality to it. Iceland loved them and Eurovision will too.

Why it might not qualify: Your grandparents may spit out their tea.

Estonia

A slice of pop that borrows its title Storm from last year’s UK entry. Victor was born in Sweden and has appeared in their Melodifestivalen competition – and it shows. They’ve been battling technical issues with the staging but hopefully it will go smoothly tonight. (As a bonus, on backing vocals is co-writer Stig Rästa, who reached 7th place in 2015 with Elina Born performing the excellent Goodbye to Yesterday.)

Why it may not qualify: It could end up being too “normal” in the final batch of songs.

Portugal

OK, when I said it was all great from here on… Portugal’s song has its fans but I’m not one of them. The artiness is dialled up to 11. I can see and appreciate what they’re going for but it’s not for me. Worth a look though and hooray for entries like this that dare to do something completely different.

Why it may not qualify: It is 100% WTF.

Greece

Another song that’s popular and just doesn’t do it for me. Good message, good staging, vocal talent… but it’s not a song I’d buy or choose to listen to.

Why it may not qualify: Upstaged by Cyprus and Belarus. 

San Marino

The night is rounded off with a simple, up tempo number from Eurovision royalty Serhat. He’s represented San Marino once before and – as with all but one of their entries – didn’t reach the final. If the infectious fun of the video comes through and Serhat pulls off the vocals in the chorus, this might yet get him to the final – which would make me very happy.

Why it might not qualify: It’s possible to be too simple.

That’s your lot for tonight. They’ve all worked extremely hard to get to this point but we have to lose seven of them. Here’s my guess as to who’s going through.

Predicted qualifiers:

Cyprus, Poland, Czech Republic, Belarus, Belgium, Australia, Iceland, Estonia, Greece, San Marino

We’ll find out how wrong I am this evening. Thursday has 18 acts and an even tougher competition. See you then!

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