ESC 2010 Reviews: Estonia
Due to the ongoing global economic crisis, belts all over the world have had to be tightened. Of course, this idea extends to Eurovision. For many nations, budgets have been slashed in the arts and media, and sending an entry to the ESC doesn’t come cheap by any means. And don’t even get me started on how much it costs to host the contest to begin with! (According to ESCtoday, Norwegian broadcaster NRK estimates this year’s event cost at over €24 million, or $31.7 million.) Because of this, many previously participating nations have had to either drop out of the ESC for the year (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, and Andorra) hold off on re-entering (San Marino, Luxembourg, and Monaco), or wait until 2011 to enter for the first time (we’re still waiting, Liechtenstein!). Estonia and fellow Baltic nation Lithuania nearly fell victim to this pitfall, but because of the generosity of local foundations and media organizations (in the case of Estonia) and the investment of private companies (as in Lithuania), we’ll see smiling faces from Tallinn and Vilnius on stage in Oslo this May. We’ll come back to Lithuania in a little while, but for now, we’re here to talk about Estonia.
To be completely honest with you all, up until last year Estonia could have almost completely fallen off the Eurovision map and few people would have noticed. They made their debut back in 1994, but finished a disappointing second-to-last (Lithuania, also debuting, actually finished in last place that year, scoring the dreaded “nul points”). They actually won the contest back in 2001, the first nation from the former Soviet Bloc to do so, but out of the almost sixty winners that Eurovision has had since 1956, Tanel Padar and Dave Benton’s “Everybody” has to be my least favorite. (Pardon me while I channel Simon Cowell for a moment, but “Everybody” was the ultimate in cruise-ship-meets-awkward-bar-mitzvah-disco-kitsch, and either Greece, Denmark, or Russia should have won it that year. Their 2002 entry, “Runaway“, was much better, but the singer was from Sweden! There, I got the rant out of my system. Now let’s never speak of this again.)
After their success in the early part of the last decade, they really fell off the mark. As the semifinal system was set up in 2003, no Estonian entry could break through and make it to the finals. They tried girl-pop, neo-folk, Brit-style rock, and whatever the hell this was. Finally, though, they struck gold in 2009 with the haunting, ethereal “Rändajad (Nomads)”, performed by Urban Symphony. I’d normally put a link in here to have you go to YouTube to see this clip, but this one, in my humble opinion, deserves a full embed. It was possibly my favorite entry from last year, along with Bosnia & Herzegovina, and it deserved to be placed higher than its eventual 6th-place finish (although, as a consolation, it was the highest-ranked non-English song in the competition that year).
I’ve heard that song a thousand times since last year’s contest, and I still haven’t grown tired of it. After such a great showing in 2009, and knowing how dangerously close they came to dropping out of the ESC this year, I had a feeling that the Estonian Preselection, “Eestilaul”, was going to be either a hard-fought battle among great tunes, or a low-budget affair that would make my eyes cross in a mix of horror and hilarity (do I need to show you “Leto Svet” again?). I decided that I was going to challenge myself and watch this year’s Eestilaul.
Oh, and just so everyone is clear on this point, I speak no Estonian whatsoever. But, I’m a glutton for linguistic punishment, so I don’t let an arbitrary speed bump like “not understanding what people are saying” stop me!
The main Eurovision website often streams individual national finals (and they currently have the whole thing archived here, if you want to check it out), so I watched the whole thing, from top to tail. First, I was surprised how much I actually understood, not because Estonian bears any resemblance to English (it doesn’t at all), but because the competition was colored with so much humor, poking fun at the music industry, Eurovision clichés, and even at the artists themselves. Despite being almost completely in a language that I have no comprehension of, the program was universal enough for me to really get into, and I sometimes queue up the show and watch it over again, just for the fun of it. And out of the ten songs in this year’s Eestilaul, there were actually quite a few gems, and I’ve currently got about half of the selections hanging out on my iPod. Here are some of the greatest hits from 2010:
6th place) Groundhog Day, “Teiste seest kõigile (Inside all of us)”: A mid-tempo rock song with a soaring chorus. It’s a shame that ESC songs are limited to 3 minutes, maximum, because this was great, albeit too short.
4th place) Iiris Vesik, “Astronaut”: A more avant-garde offering reminiscent of Björk or a more offbeat Kate Bush. Surrealist and dreamlike…one of a kind
3rd place) Violina featuring Rolf Junior, “Maagiline Paëv (Magical Day)“: Possibly trying to take the violin-torch from Urban Symphony and last year’s ESC winner Alexander Rybak, Violina and Rolf Junior present an upbeat, danceable track that would even make Mr. Burns from the Simpsons smile. At the very least, Mr. Smithers would appreciate it…
2nd place) Lenna Kurrmaa, “Rapunzel“: Bringing to mind some of the girl-groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s, with just a touch of rock to make it current, Lenna’s offering was sweet and sassy, and it nearly took the Eestilaul title this year.
So, after all of that, who’s going to Oslo?
This year’s Eestilaul victor is “Siren” by Malcolm Lincoln! (The lead singer, Robin Juhkental, took the name from an incorrect answer on the Estonian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, where a contestant was convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s first name was actually Malcolm.) This is definitely one of those songs that people will either love or hate. I personally LOVE it, and have it in my top 5, nestled up with Israel, Croatia, Turkey, and Germany. It’s like no other song being presented this year, with a chorus that at times makes me think of British New Wave from the mid-’80s, and from different angles I hear touches of Motown and the current indie/hipster scene. I can almost guarantee that traditional fans of Eurovision will hate this song (Slaviša?), and I’ll be shocked and ecstatic to see it pass through to the finals (even though it’s in the first semifinal, which is somewhat weaker than the second, and neighbors Finland, Latvia, and Russia can possibly send some regionally-influenced votes their way), but as a stand-alone song, in terms of how uniquely crafted and creative this is, I think that “Siren” is absolutely genius.
My hat’s off to you, Estonia, and I look forward to next year’s Eestilaul!