My guide to the ESC Grand Final 2018

Ieva Zasimauskaité (Lithuania) Semi Final 1 | Photo: Thomas Hanses (EBU)

Ieva Zasimauskaité (Lithuania) Semi Final 1 | Photo: Thomas Hanses (EBU)

This is it – just after midnight tomorrow we’ll know if Eleni Foureira and her flames of Fuego will bring home the crystal microphone to Cyprus or if anyone else will be fortunate enough to challenge her for the victory. Until a couple of weeks ago the victory seemed to be reserved for Israel’s Netta but as the stage performances came to life during rehearsal week things have changed dramatically. France have also been there near the top of the list for quite a while but after stunning performances at Tuesday’s semi-final this favourited trio has been challenged by two really strong love ballads from Ireland and Lithuania. One of these five entries should bring home the victory this year, I have a hard time envisioning any other outcome.

So, what do we have to look forward to tomorrow tonight? Well, the qualifiers from Tuesday’s First Semi Final include two heart wrenching love ballads, lots of up-tempo, a gospel anthem, the mandatory pop-opera entry, a bunch of Korean lucky cats, a dancing couple under a streetlamp, some scary-looking uniformed dancers, an enormous dress, a mysterious backpack and heaps of fire.

And after Thursday’s Second Semi Final, we were able to add some country, some growling heavy metal, a former Eurovision winner, eight beards, one cowboy hat, an old man with a flute, a burning staircase, four awkward break-dancers, two main sails, a funky violin, a fake tech failure, some gypsy trumpets and loads of flaming pyros.

And to top it off, we complete this evening’s Grand Final with the pre-qualified entries: a German grieving son, young Spanish love, a newborn refugee, a perfect storm from the UK, a Portuguese garden and a desperate cry for change from Italy.

Sounds good?

I wish you a fantastic Grand Final – filled with ‘oh’s, ‘ah’s and ‘what the f***?’s – and regardless of who’ll finish on top tonight – Cyprus or Israel – to me, either destination looks nice enough for a trip in mid-May next year. Who’s coming with me?

(The bookmakers’ rankings by each entry below is according to the current standing by the time of the publication of this post. I may decide to make an update of these before Saturday’s broadcast if something significant happens along the way. Otherwise, you can follow the current standings in real-time here >)
Updated:  May 12, 20.20


01 Ukraine: MELOVIN, Under The Ladder
21-year-old MELOVIN won the Ukrainian version of The X Factor three years ago and has been a popular artist in his home country ever since. His ESC entry, Under The Ladder, is quite good, and even though his singing is still lacking live his performance in Lisbon is far better than it was in the Ukrainian national selection; and the studio version available on Spotify sounds even better. It’s still a mystery to me why he’s decided to sing the first verse lying trapped inside his fake grand piano like a vampire in his coffin but it’s rather memorable, and so is the flaming staircase at the end, and adding his devotion and energy to the act will probably reward him a lot of televotes.
I’m well aware you might find it difficult to interpret his lyrics, his pronunciation is rather atrocious (many ESC Fans even classifies this special version of English as a separate language altogether, called Eurovision English), but apparently, he’s telling us to not fear failure, to never give up and to fight for our dreams against all odds – an important message in my opinion, but will it get across?
Bookmakers’ ranking: 19/26

02 Spain: Amaia y Alfred, Tu Canción
Amaia and Alfred both joined the Spanish qualifications – Operación Triunfo; a reality TV series hybrid between The Voice and Big Brother – and fell in love. And as their love blossomed during the weeks of the show, the Spanish people fell in love with their love story. Amaia ended up winning the show and the duet Tu Canción (Your Song) was especially written for her and her newfound love.
This song is so sappy I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s provoking me so much, maybe it’s just that I’m not 19 and newly in love anymore.
In the history of Eurovision, no participant to date has ever entered the Grand Final going out second and won – and it won’t happen this year either. Spain should be happy if they ended up in the first half of the scoreboard when the evening is over.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 20/26

03 Slovenia: Lea Sirk, Hvala, ne!
Cool and confident Lea Sirk from Slovenia was one of the pleasant surprises qualifying from the second semi-final. Before Thursday’s broadcast she was placed way down on the bookmakers’ lists, but thanks to a brilliant performance she beat the odds and made it through. Her attitude is positively mesmerizing, all sure movements, sparkling eyes and wicked smiles – she simply just owns it up there, and there’s no doubt what she’s singing about even though most viewers don’t speak Slovenian. The title, Hvala, ne!, translates to No thanks! and is a statement against all the social pressure found in our society today.
For the live performance in Lisbon they’ve added an effective and memorable break close to the end of the act, a fake tech failure that’ll probably make unaware viewers choke on their popcorn. (Can’t help comparing it to Spanish Barei who did something similar in Stockholm 2016; her thing was better though…) In the semi-final Lea decided to sing the last few lines in Portuguese which didn’t go over unnoticed by the fans.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 25/26

04 Lithuania: Ieva Zasimauskaitė, When We’re Old
This exquisite love song is a true gem among the acts in Lisbon. And Ieva’s delivery, filled with honesty and raw emotion, almost makes me believe in eternal love for the three minutes her song invades my heart and soul. The projected couples around her are sweet as honey, but I’m missing at least one couple who doesn’t fit the hetero-normative picture, something the Eurovision fans would be quick to reward for sure (just look at what happened with Ireland’s entry Tuesday night).
In Tuesday’s semi-final she was suddenly bursting into a fit of jiggles at the end of the act when she faced her presumed lover. It was clearly not a part of the staging and I sooo want to know what caused this – it was so cute.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 6/26

05 Austria: Cesár Sampson, Nobody But You
It’s a challenge sending a gospel piece to Eurovision with the max-six-people-on-stage rule. Can you imagine how amazing this would sound with a full-bodied gospel choir on stage? And, somehow, they make it work fairly good anyway (even though the studio version is immensely better). Cesár is a talented vocalist, something he’s already proved in previous years singing backing vocals for the Bulgarian entries of both 2016 and 2017.
Soul girl as I am, it’s no surprise the Austrian entry is one of my absolute favourites in Lisbon. Each syncopation in this composition is a pulse of pure pleasure through my body. Although, if I was in charge I would have made the choir sing “ain’t no one” instead of “ain’t nobody”, this sounds off somehow.
Swedish Connection: Nobody But You is the first of two entries by Symphonix International in this year’s Grand Final (the other being the Bulgarian entry Bones). Swedish Joacim Persson and Johan Alkenäs can be found among the team writing and producing the Austrian entry, together with Sebastian Arman, Borislav Milanov and the singer Cesár Sampson himself.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 18/26

06 Estonia: Elina Nechayeva, La Forza
Many countries have attempted to, in one way or another, bring opera to this competition over the years, more or less successfully. Estonian La Forza may well be the best of them all. Elina is an amazing singer, and she delivers every note perfectly on pitch every time. And the staging, with the tasteful projections on her gorgeous dress draped around her, makes the act complete. It shows you can stay perfectly still on a Eurovision stage for three minutes, focus on the delivery of the musical performance, and still make a memorable impression with the viewers. Well done, Estonia!
Bookmakers’ ranking: 9/26

07 Norway: Alexander Rybak, That’s How You Write A Song
The beloved Eurovision winner of 2009 is back, with his violin and a new funky soul piece that’ll make you wanna dance. The song has got a lot of critique for it’s naïve lyrics, but if you translate it to encompass any good idea, and how you should embrace it and believe in it, it’s quite good advice, not only for upcoming composers but for young entrepreneurs and others as well. I loved this song long before I knew it was Rybak doing it, or even that it was the Norwegian entry. And with his disarming and charming personality I’m sure it’ll go well for Norway this year. I also love the use of cool tech to bring the playfulness of the song alive on screen.
Unfortunately, Alexander’s been suffering from the flu during rehearsal week, but he seems to be alright now and delivered good enough in the semi-final. However, it still felt like he was holding back during Thursday’s broadcast, hopefully he’ll give it all in the Grand Final.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 10/26

08 Portugal: Cláudia Pascoal, O Jardim
“Why change a winning concept?” thought the Portuguese and followed, in the footsteps of Salvador Sobral’s exquisite low-profile ballad from last year, with another low-key act. O Jardim (The Garden) tells us about a lost love, and of the garden Cláudia promises to take care of in their absence. The composer of the song is with her on stage, singing the backing vocals by her side.
I’d love to have an extended instrumental version of this song playing in my headphones while laying on my back in a meadow watching the summer sky and letting my thoughts soar. It’s not something for the Eurovision stage though…
Bookmakers’ ranking: 23/26

09 United Kingdom: SuRie, Storm
SuRie – short for Susanna Marie – is the Annie Lennox lookalike who won the British qualifications, Eurovision: You Decide (co-hosted by former Swedish ESC winner Måns Zelmerlöw) this year. She’s no stranger to the Eurovision stage, previously singing backing vocals for Belgian Loïc Nottet in 2015 and also acting as Musical Director for Belgian Blanche’s act City Lights last year in Kyiv. With both these entries she placed fourth in the competition, a feat Storm will have a hard time repeating.
Storm starts out promising and SuRie’s cool voice really fits the lower notes of the verse. It builds naturally – until we hit the chorus and it all unfortunately falls flat. The football World Cup break makes you wanna hope again, but the blow of the disappointment afterwards just gets me frustrated. The composition is a good start, it’s just not finished yet. Back to the drawing board…
Bookmakers’ ranking: 22/26

10 Serbia: Sanja Ilić & Balkanika, Nova Deca
This is a stange mix of genres. Starting out as a traditional ethnic Balkan ballad it sounds rather promising, giving you vibes of Enya and Lord of the Rings. And then suddenly they add a male rock voice and an electronic house beat and all hell breaks loose. One of the Swedish commentators nailed my thoughts exactly during the semi-final performance when he humorously said it sounds like all Serbia’s former entries put together.
Many were surprised this entry qualified from the second semi-final, and it’ll probably be a contestant for the place right at the bottom of the scoreboard in the Grand Final.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 26/26

11 Germany: Michael Schulte, You Let Me walk Alone
Michael Schulte started out a YouTuber singing covers ten years ago. Since then he’s competed in the German rendition of The Voice and released three albums. In You Let Me Walk Alone he laments his beloved father who died when Michael was only 14 years old. It’s sweet, it’s moving, it gives me Ed Sheeran vibes, but listening to the lyrics I can’t help feeling he’s rather blaming his father for leaving him, his mother and siblings alone rather than grieve his absence. There’s nothing in the lyrics saying he couldn’t just have been one of those dads who just walked away… The staging is effective and moving though, with all the projections in the background, even though I feel it gets a little disturbing at times with all the lyrics popping up, as if he wants to rub it in my face.
This is the best song Germany sent in a long time, and I sincerely hope they place better than they’ve done in recent years when they’ve been fighting for the absolute bottom of the scoreboard three years in a row.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 8/26

12 Albania: Eugent Bushpepa, Mall
This song’s Albanian title, Mall, translates to longing/yearning in English, and surely you can hear the longing in his voice when Eugent performs? Mall is a folksy song and Eugent delivers it with a certainty and passion lots of other Eurovision artists lack. Maybe that’s why he surprisingly beat the odds Tuesday night and grabbed his ticket for the Grand Final right under the noses of predicted finalists as Greece and Armenia. But he did it, and on Saturday Eugent’ll be the first male Albanian solo artist ever to enter an ESC Grand Final. And, the more native languages in the Grand Final the better, I say.
Albania’s act was cut out of the Chinese broadcasting of Tuesday’s semi-final due to China’s ban on television performers displaying tattoos.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 24/26

13 France: Madame Monsieur, Mercy
This is the story of a Nigerian refugee being born on a humanitarian boat after her pregnant mother was rescued in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The little girl was named Mercy and when the couple behind Madame Monseiur, Emilie Satt and Jean-Karl Lucas, heard about her on the news they decided to write a song about her.
Despite the rather simple and repetitive melody, the background story has made this song one of the absolute favourites in this year’s competition. However, this is not the only entry in Lisbon treating this subject, and the Italian version closing the show later on is so much better… Emilie and Jean-Karl seems to engage the audience in the arena well enough though, with those arm movements at the end of their performance, and they’re pretty high up in the rankings right now, so you’ll never know.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 4/26

14 Czech Republic: Mikolas Josef, Lie To Me
This is one of my absolute favourites this year, despite the appalling lyrics (did #metoo never reach Czech Republic?). I usually discard songs with tasteless lyrics right away, but I can’t help loving the beats and groove of Lie To Me – I just wanna run up on the dancefloor and dance all my worries away. And, silently I’m horribly amazed a song this side of the turn of the millennium can sound as modern and fresh and, at the same time, send out such strong Fresh Prince in Bel Air vibes.
Mikolas has had a rough time in Lisbon so far, started the rehearsal week falling and hurting his back doing a somersault on stage during his first rehearsal, and spending an unfair amount of time in different hospitals trying to recover from this injury. The Czech delegation has obviously been forced to change the staging to accommodate this new challenge, but Mikolas still felt stiff and cautious on stage during Tuesday’s semi-final and I really hope he’ll get better fast for the Grand Final.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 15/26

15 Denmark: Rasmussen, Higher Ground
And so, Game of Thrones enters the Eurovision stage. No, not really – but you could’ve fooled me. It’s powerful, it’s heavy, it’s raw; and it’s oozing testosterone and fighting spirit. Which is why the message hidden in the lyrics becomes all the more interesting – because these guys are fighting for peace and the power of non-violence. Definitely an extra point from me for the key change; historically almost a mandatory element in this competition, these days they’re more of an endangered species – only three of them in the Grand Final this year.
The inspiration for Higher Ground was the Viking Magnus Erlendsson, an 11th century Viking who believed in non-violence and solving conflicts through peaceful means. Rasmussen’s voice and personality fits perfectly with the song, even though the selected key sounds a tad too low for him, not allowing for him to belt out his notes as the song requires until after the key change near the end. And just so you know, the backing vocals are in Icelandic if you were wondering.
Swedish Connection: Higher Ground is written and produced by Swedish composers Niclas Arn and Karl Eurén.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 16/26

16 Australia: Jessica Mauboy, We Got Love
Jessica Mauboy has actually been on the Eurovision stage before, in 2014, when she delivered the much-appreciated interval act Down Under in Copenhagen that preceded their debut in the competition the year after. Ever since Australia entered this competition in 2015 they’ve delivered success after success, finishing fifth in Vienna, second in Stockholm and ninth last year in Kyiv. For the third year in a row the entry is written by DNA, who won the composers award in 2016 with Sound of Silence. This is unfortunately their weakest attempt so far and even though they made it through to the Grand Final, their entry this year isn’t as sure and convincing as we’ve become used to.
In Thursday’s Semi-Final her singing unfortunately was a little off. It seems her energy and adrenaline levels are too high to properly handle the low notes of the verses, but her energy is quite contagious and the audience in the arena seems to support her performance well enough. All of you who knows me are certainly aware of how much my heart beats for my fellow Aussies.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 12/26

17 Finland: Saara Aalto, Monsters
Forever the runner-up – finishing second in the Finnish qualifications 2011 and 2016 as well as in TV shows The Voice of Finland in 2012 and The X Factor UK in 2016 – Saara Aalto finally got the chance to represent Finland this year after Finnish broadcaster YLE handpicked her for the job. The Finnish national final consisted of Saara performing three songs from which the viewers picked Monsters.
She’s confident on stage and delivers a powerful message of the importance of being yourself, not caring about what other people think. If you can explain where the uniformed dancers fit in with this narrative, please let me know.
Swedish Connection: Monsters is written by Joy and Linnea Debb, the couple behind the 2016 ESC winner Heroes, together with London-based Dutch Ki Fitzgerald and the entry’s singer Saara Aalto.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 13/26

18 Bulgaria: EQUINOX, Bones
This super group, specially put together for Eurovision 2018, consists of three singers from Bulgaria and two from the U.S. In the studio version their vocals sounded amazing together, something not always accomplished when you try to make a group out of talented solo artists. To find the performance didn’t feel as flawless onstage during Tuesday’s semi-final therefore wasn’t so surprising, albeit disappointing. I really like this song but I’m afraid the stage performance didn’t do anything for me and suddenly it didn’t feel memorable at all.
Swedish Connection: This is the third Bulgarian entry in a row written and produced by the producers’ collective Symphonix International. Behind Bones we find Bulgarian Borislav Milanov, American Trey Campbell (who’s also one of the five performers on stage) and Swedish Joacim Persson and Dag Lundberg. Additionally, the staging is the work of legendary Swedish Sacha Jean-Baptiste who’s responsible for two acts in the Grand Final this year (the other being the current main favourite for the win, Cyprus).
Bookmakers’ ranking: 14/26

19 Moldova: DoReDoS, My Lucky Day
This is a catchy tune with a lot of folksy touches, just what we’ve learned to expect from Moldova; from their debut entry in 2005, the unforgettable Boonika Bate Toba with the drumming grandmother, to last year’s highly successful Hey Mamma with the dancing brides and the Epic Sax Guy finishing in third place in Kyiv. This year they’ve switched the saxophone for a bunch of gypsy sounding trumpets which, even though they won’t be seen on stage, are going to make you wanna get up and dance. A colourful and humorous act filled with body doubles, opening and closing of various doors, and general confusion.
Swedish Connection: My Lucky Day is written by Swedish composer John Ballard and Russian Eurovision legend Philipp Kirkorov.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 11/26

20 Sweden: Benjamin Ingrosso, Dance You Off
Practically born on stage, Benjamin showcases confidence and certainty like few others. The production is fresh and elegant, while at the same time bringing nostalgia to those of us old enough to remember the eighties. And the staging, with Benjamin’s suave dance moves in front of the red and white lighting, stands out well enough – as long as the tech in the rig stays friendly. (They’ve had tech failures during rehearsals on both Wednesday and Friday afternoon – let’s cross our fingers it won’t happen again during Saturday’s broadcast.)
This is the fourth male solo artist from Sweden in a row; will it also be the fourth Top 5 ranking in a row? Guess we’ll find out soon enough…
Bookmakers’ ranking: 5/26

21 Hungary: AWS, Viszlát Nyár
The members of this Hungarian metal band, who by some unfathomable reason have chosen to call themselves AWS – which apparently is short for Ants With Slippers – have been touring intensely for the last twelve years. Viszlát Nyár, which translates to Goodbye Summer in English, is about how the lead singer, Örs Siklósi, has processed the grief of losing his father.
Easily the heaviest entry of this year’s competition, it stands out from the rest and has over the last week become a favourite, at least among the journalists in the Press Centre; to date winning the daily press polls twice since rehearsals started. Whatever happens, this act will write Eurovision history being the first ever performance including a stage dive.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 17/26

22 Israel: Netta, TOY
Who would have thought K-pop with a dash of Israeli seasoning could taste so good? And in the hands of the cool and charming DJ and loop artist Netta, TOY was long predicted to win this year’s competition, currently ranked second after Cyprus amazing performance in Tuesday’s first semi-final. Her wit and unashamed attitude is mesmerizing, and the empowering lyrics, perfectly timed with the recent #metoo debacle, has floored the Eurovision fans from day one. In Tuesday’s semi-final I felt her stage performance lacking somewhat, some notes here and there out of tune, but I hope she’ll deliver in the Grand Final. Eurovision needs women like her on stage.
This is the first time in Eurovision history a performer brings live looping on stage, Netta singing, recording and looping her sounds live to create the unique intro to her entry.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 2/26

23 The Netherlands: Waylon, Outlaw In ‘Em
There seems to be something special going on lately between the Dutch and genuine country music. And looking at recent Eurovision history it’s not hard to understand they’ve chosen Waylon to represent them in Lisbon. Last time he was on the Eurovision stage Waylon was half of the duo The Common Linnets who placed second in Copenhagen in 2014 with the gem Calm After The Storm.
I usually don’t listen to country on a regular basis, but I seriously like this. Outlaw In ‘Em is a raw, upbeat country classic which feels all the more honest and genuine in this environment, surrounded by all other flashy, polished and crazy entries in this competition. However, the person who chose to include that misplaced and awkward break-dancing should be put off the team, this choreography is almost as catastrophic for this entry as Ireland’s is a stroke of genius.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 21/26

24 Ireland: Ryan O’Shaughnessy, Together
Ryan’s moving performance at the audition for Britain’s Got Talent 2012 has been viewed over 46 million times on YouTube. Almost as moving is this song, Together; a sweet and honest ballad telling the love story of a young couple who once believed their love to last forever but now finds the narrator heart-broken and alone. Few people thought this entry would have any chance at qualifying, but their performance Tuesday night was splendid, and the act really deserved it.
But let’s face it, I’m quite sure it wasn’t so much singer Ryan, or even the song Together, who qualified as it was Kevin and Alan; the contemporary dancers in the background, who seem to have captured the hearts of the Eurovision fans. They were already renowned and loved from the amazing video before coming to Lisbon, and when they entered the stage Tuesday night the reaction from the audience in the arena gave me goose bumps.
Earlier this spring there were speculations regarding a possible boycott or censoring of Ireland’s entry on Russian television due to these dancers. From what I understand, the performance was eventually included in the Russian broadcast of Tuesday’s semi-final, while the Chinese broadcasters chose to leave it out in accordance to their censoring rules. I find it disturbingly amazing how some people can still feel so provoked by certain displays of affection, even when it’s as harmless and subtle as this is.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 3/26

25 Cyprus: Eleni Foureira, Fuego
This entry is made to knock you off your feet; 100% energy from start to finish, well-produced Swedish pop, flawless dancing, Eleni oozing confidence on stage. The first time I saw the mediocre video for this song I absolutely hated it (and her) but the stage performance has transformed the song completely and since the rehearsals started last week Fuego has climbed the bookmakers’ lists faster than anyone thought possible, and since Eleni’s performance in Tuesday’s semi-final Cyprus is pinpointed favourite to win the whole shebang. Extra points for choosing dancers with female curves.
Swedish Connection: Fuego is written and produced by a Swedish team consisting of Alex Papaconstantinou, Geraldo Sandell, Anderz Wrethov, Viktor Svensson and Didrick. Staged by Stockholmer Sacha Jean-Baptiste, and with four Swedish dancers joining Eleni on stage in Lisbon, this entry is in some regard more Swedish than Benjamin’s, who have three non-Swedes among the composers.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 1/26

26 Italy: Ermal Meta e Fabrizio Moro, Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente
Two renowned solo artists got together for the Sanremo Festival, which also acts as the Italian qualifications to ESC, and wrote this song about the frustration they feel over the current situation around Europe (and the rest of the world). They ask why more isn’t done to prevent and counteract the conflicts, terrorism and refugee crisis we see around us. Their video is amazing and leaves me with tears in my eyes, no surprise Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente is the entry with the most views on YouTube this year.
I love listening to the Italian language, and songs like this (just as last year’s Occidentali’s Karma) always makes me pick up my old school Italian to be able so suck in every word; it’s like a drug… And Ermal and Fabrizio really makes us feel their growing frustration and anguish as the song proceeds, leaving you breathless. This is how an important message is supposed to be delivered.
Bookmakers’ ranking: 7/26

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