The first Eurovision semi-final kicks off on May 22. To help you decide which country deserves your televote, I'm previewing some of this year's most talked-about contestants. Today's acts include Nina Zilli--Italy's answer to Amy Winehouse--and Mandinga--a Cuban-Romanian funk group that mixes bag pipes with leather hot pants with electronic accordions.
Cyprus: Ivi Adamou with "La La Love":
One of my Twitter followers called this song "La La Lousy." That's way harsh--and completely off the mark. This is exactly the kind of frothy pop that voters respond to at Eurovision. The rather simple lyrics, which you can read here, are easy to remember (she says "la" 134 times), and the melody gets stuck in your head instantly. Admittedly, it starts to feel a bit monotonous after the two-minute mark, and never really takes us higher. But given how happy it makes me, I'm fine being stuck on the ground. I just hope Ivi sucks a bit of helium before the semi-finals. During her first rehearsal in Baku on Monday, she sounded a bit like a man.
Prediction: I'm hopeful "La La Love" will give Cyprus what it deserves: a spot in the Top 10.
Italy: "L'Amore è Femmina" (Out of Love):
When I hear this song my heart goes "boom, boom, boom." It's sensual, it's fun, and unlike many of the frothy pop numbers at Eurovision, it's seriously raw in content. Gone are generic statements about being in love or missing someone. In place of that come lyrics about doing the nasty. "Love is female/ Unless you please, it will not please/ Clean up the mess you left/ I'm out of love and it's a fact/ I'm sure you'll smile/ Ready to go/ You're an independent grown man after all." I read that as, "You need to push my buttons if you want me to push yours" and then "Now that you've done your business, please clean up the mess before you go."
There's a whiff of Amy Winehouse to Nina Zilli, but it's unfair to call her derivative. Her voice is powerful--just google "Nina Zilli" and "Sanremo" if you doubt me. And, just like Amy, she is going to make a big impact visually. Her official preview video shows how well suited this song is for the stage. I picture several male back-up dancers twirling around this Italian sex kitten.
Prediction: The male dancers in her video can't resist her charms, and I suspect that Europe won't be able to either. If this doesn't make the Top 5, I'm asking for my money back. She is the only contestant with a legitimate shot of challenging the current front-runner, Loreen from Sweden.
Romania: Mandinga with "Zaleilah":
I fell in love with this song the moment I heard the bag pipes swell at Romania's national final. The opening bars bring a smile to my face, fulfilling Eurovision's mission to be Europe's Joy Factory. In a year of "we've heard it before" ballads and screeching dirges, this is a blast of sunshine. If you read the English translation of the lyrics, you'll quickly realize that the upbeat rhythm and enthralling sounds of "Zaleilah" match the song's storyline. It's about a woman deeply in love with her "chocolate boy." We don't know if this refers to someone who is merely sweet, or to someone who is of African descent. But it doesn't matter because "you touching me and kissing me makes me want to dance/ I'm so happy, I can shout out loud." The English-language chorus is slightly mangled, but the intended meaning comes through. "When you love you say, everyday, everybody" should be read as "when you're in love, say it everyday and tell everybody." How can you criticize a message like that?
Prediction: "Zaleilah" manages to tow the line between classic Eurovision camp (hello electronic accordions) and mainstream pop. As such it will appeal to voters from across the continent. This is a shoe-in for the Top 10, and depending on the staging, could crack the Top 5.
Switzerland: Sinplus with "Unbreakable":
I'm slightly biased to like Sinplus--that's brothers Ivan and Gabriel Broggini--because they gave me an awesome interview. But placing that aside, I love this song. It sounds like something you'd hear outside of the Eurovision arena--like, on a radio--and it gets me moving the moment the electro-guitar backing comes in. The boys need to work on their enunciation (it should be dream and not zrim or drim or whatever the hell they're saying). But it's got the feel-good factor and I can't help but listen again and again.
Prediction: The sad reality is that Switzerland usually struggles to advance from the semi-finals. It just squeaked through last year, but with a more middle-of-the-road song that appealed to greater swathes of the electorate. On a good night Switzerland can hope to place ninth or tenth in their semi-final, giving them a place in the May 26 finale.
You can watch all 42 of this year's Eurovision contestants by clicking here.