Songcheck 2016: Bulgaria, Sweden, Italy

The shows are rapidly approaching, and as we write there is less than a week to the first semi final. However, I still have six songs to go through before it is too late. I want to say sorry for the delay – even if one of the contestants today is not sorry, but back to that later. Let us first have a look at the Bulgarian song.

Bulgaria: Poli Genova – “If Love Was a Crime”

Bulgaria has had a break of two years from the contest, mainly because of economic difficulties. Another reason might be the country’s poor results through the years: they have only reached the final once (but got a good 5th place on that occasion). However, they came 2nd at Junior Eurovision in 2014, and they hosted the contest last year with the singer Poli Genova as the presenter. She has previously represented Bulgaria in the main contest in 2011 with the Pink-like “Na inat”, and now she is back as one of many returning artists in this year’s Eurovision.

The song, “If Love Was a Crime”, is rather different from “Na inat”; we are once again dealing with a mostly electronic musical universe. As for the composition, the most striking thing is perhaps the amount of catchphrases or hooklines; the pre-chorus contains the title phrase, and the main chorus consists of two hooklines, a Bulgarian language line (I can’t write the Cyrillic letters here) which is repeated three times in a row, and a finalizing line “They will never break us down”. The two phrases in the chorus both sound very fresh and engaging, adding a good energy to the song, and they work very well together. Also the instrumental riff which introduces the song and comes back later on sounds like a hook.

The melody is generally contrasted and well balanced between the different parts of the song: In the verse it contains phrases of short notes emphasizing the 2 and 4 beats in the bars (1, 2:”You and I, 3, 4:”we collide”), making the musical feeling sound light here. It gets more heavy in the pre-chorus with longer notes emphasizing the 1-beat: “If love was a crime, we would be criminals”, and in the chorus we have the Bulgarian language hook with its syncopations making the rhythm very living. These contrasts give the song a good sense of form, and they make the composition sound very accomplished.

Despite its strong formal structure the song also sounds a bit impersonal, partly because all these very effective catchphrases leave little room for doubt and emotional layers. We are not at any time moving into anything uncertain or dangerous in the music, such as unexpected melody lines or chords. We are on safe ground all the time, and there aren’t really any elements creating any musical tension (unlike for instance in the Australian song which contains some tense chords in its chorus). Also a rather clinical and unimaginative production adds to the songs lack of personality.

There is not much poetic content to get from the lyrics either. They are filled with clichés such as “We can shine”, “They will never break us down” or “Together we’re untouchable/invincible”, and so the song moves into a lyrical area that has been touch a million times before, especially in Eurovision. I wish the writers would dare to put some more creativity into the words, also in terms of the topic. Why not a Eurovision song about, let’s say, the periodic table?

As for Poli Genova’s vocals, she is doing an OK job without doing anything particularly interesting. I haven’t heard here live yet, but judged by her 2011 performance I see no reason to be worried.

“If Love Was a Crime” is a highly effective and well composed pop song. There isn’t much depth underneath the catchiness and efficiency, but on the other hand the song’s main focus is obviously Pop with a big P, and as such it is highly successful. It is simply catchy as hell, and it doesn’t contain the overdone musical and lyrical pomposity contained in for instance the Russian song, fortunately. It is bound to get a good result next Saturday, and I would say a place in the final is almost 100% sure. 8/12

Sweden: Frans – “If I Were Sorry”

And now we come to the man who is apparently not sorry. Frans more or less came out of nowhere; he was not considered one of the favourites to win Melodifestivalen until he got through to the final, accompanied by a lot of support from the audience. Then he was seen as a runaway favourite all of a sudden, but in the end his win wasn’t actually that big. I had reservations towards the song in the beginning, partly because of Frans’s singing as well as the somewhat Justin Bieber-like package. It did however grow after I got used to it. That is usually a positive sign.

First of all the composition is very simple. The verse and chorus are built on the same progression: I-VI-V-IV (E-C#m-B-A, the main key is E major) whereas the pre-chorus has different chords. The melody lines are often based on two notes that follow each other; combined with some loose rhythmical phrasings, it makes the vocals sound like a mix between singing and talking. Despite that, the title phrase in the chorus still manages to stand out in a significant way, and it is easy to remember. An effective aspect of the composition is the long break before the chorus where the harmony is left on the subdominant (4th step) chord: it ends the pre-chorus with an element of doubt and thoughtfulness.

Whereas the composition is anything from pretentious, the production is equally simple, mostly consisting of a pulse and a few chord instruments. The simplicity is particularly striking in the pre-chorus where the instruments almost only consist of one stroke per chord. In the light of the many over-produced entries this year, it is actually very liberating with a song that is so down-to-earth, both when it comes to the composition, the production, and the vocals (more talking than singing). The song is however as harmless as can be, and it doesn’t have many artistic layers. Still, there’s a touch of something melancholic or resigned about it, especially because of the soft and uncompressed vocals, a low-pitched melody, and some mostly descending notes in the end of the melody lines, f.e. in the title phrase where the melody goes down on the word “sorry”.

The weakest side of the package is perhaps Frans’ English pronunciation. It sounds like he is not used to singing in that language, and many of the words come across as somewhat uneasy. An accent can often add some charm to the song, but here it is on the risk of disturbing the otherwise very easy and natural flow in the song. That is a shame, and I believe it would have sounded much more natural in Swedish.

If the music is simple, down-to-earth and relaxed, the lyrics are certainly counterpointing it. The narrator is singing about doing a lot of things which are the exact opposite of the song’s musical character: “climb the highest mountain”, “swim under the water until my lungs exploded”, “walk into the fire”, “crawl through the desert on my hands and knees” etc. The point is of course that these are things he would do if he were sorry, which he is not. It is of course possible that the songwriters intend to add some verfremdung into the song by letting the musical and lyrical content contradict each other, but most of the listeners probably won’t think about it, and verfremdung is there to be noticed, to make the audience wonder and think about what is going on.

“If I Were Sorry” is clearly not a particularly artistic song, but the music still sounds fresh and pleasantly unpretentious. There are no superfluous elements in it, it is just a simple song with a simple melody and performed in a laid back and down-to-earth way. As such a lot of viewers might see it as a welcome break from some of the more loud and noisy entries. I end at 8/12 because a higher rating would require a lot more artistic depth than is present here. 8/12

Italy: Francesca Michielin – “No Degree of Separation”

Just like last year Italy used their local San Remo Festival to choose their Eurovision entry. This year, however, the winners declined to go to Eurovision, so instead the place was left for the runner up Francesca Michielin. It was long uncertain whether she would sing her song in Italian or English, but in the end they decided on performing it mostly in Italian, but with one chorus in English.

The song, which is in B major, contains a melody that actually resembles the Swedish song a lot. We have the same kind of “talking” melody lines where the same two notes are following each other, and performed with rhythmically free phrasings. Apart from a few breaks from it, most of the melody is following that pattern; one of the exceptions is the short coda after the first chorus repeating the title phrase, but with a line that continues to go down, ending the chorus in an open way with the dominant (5 step) chord – a very fine detail in the music. The monotonous melody still means that the song isn’t necessarily so easy to remember, and you might need to hear it some times. That could be an Achilles heal for Italy, especially as they are only performing the song once, in the grand final.

Like in “If I Were Sorry” the tendency of letting every second syllable go down makes the melody sound rather resigned and sad. The sadness is combined with a touch of some longing, especially in the chorus, which may have to do with the fact that the 4th note, E, is emphasized a lot: “Nessun grado di separazione”; the note E is outside a common B major chord (consisting of the notes B, D# and F#), so it adds some dissonance to the music.

The harmony is quite simple, not leaving the main key B major at any point, but there are still some fine details. For instance we have a so-called “disappointing ending” in the middle of the chorus as the second chord, the dominant (F# major), leads to the so-called parallel chord (G# minor) instead of the tonic (B major, the main function of the dominant is otherwise to lead to the tonic). Another fine detail is the fact that the song does not end with the tonic chord, but instead with the subdominant (E major), leaving the song as an open, unanswered question.

Unlike in the Swedish song, the production is relatively detailed here, and it plays a bigger role. Especially interesting are the many lethargic and heavy instrumental elements which often have a crescendo (that is, becoming gradually louder) as if they were recorded backwards. There are also some sound elements which you may not notice before after several listenings as they are not put forward in the mixing. A good example is an ascending instrumental melody line in the pre-chorus adding some hardly audible tension. The slow, á la breve beat contributes to the sad and resigned feeling of the song in an effective way. Also the dynamic contrasts in the production between the different parts makes a counterweight to the monotonous melody, and it gives the song a lot of its direction.

Francesca Michielin is singing the song with quite a lot of emotion and personality, often switching between hard and soft vocal compression and performing the melody with rhythmically free phrasings. It sounds natural and honest just until she suddenly switches to English in the second chorus. That disturbs the flow in a very unfortunate way. It may be that the English chorus is easier to understand for people who don’t speak Italian, but still… it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that ‘separazione’ means ‘separation’. The switch of language is also a bit pointless in the light of the song’s lyrical content. Several of the lines contain the very, very overused together-we-are-one thematics: “There is no longer any division between us”, “We are the only one direction in this universe” or – in the English part – the very clichéd and cheesy one: “Dancing through the sky we are shining”.

Despite these flaws it is still one of the strong songs this year. It contains a lot of emotion, and there are many fine details. The elements are never overstated, and so they often have a bigger impact. The lyrics are rather weak, but the music contains a lot of poetry. Balancing between 8/12 and 9/12, I end with 8, but it may change later on. 8/12

5 thoughts on “Songcheck 2016: Bulgaria, Sweden, Italy”

  1. You’ve made some interesting points as usual. For me, Frans is the weakest link in the Swedish entry. He looks and sounds so minimalist and detached that he comes across as vaguely pretentious.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I know, but he goes too far. The whole thing looks and sounds flimsy and, as I said, vaguely pretentious. He does not have the talent to pull that through, imo.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that those 3 are among the better songs this year but personally I have Italy significantly ahead of the other 2. In fact, Francesca has recently climbed into 1st place on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

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