After a two-year wait, a global pandemic and countless national finals, Semi-Final 1 of Eurovision 2021 is finally here. On 18 May at 21:00 CET, 16 countries will vie for just ten spots in the grand final. All of the competing artists are performing live inside of Rotterdam Ahoy except for one. Australia’s broadcaster decided that its singer Montaigne would stay at home owing to the risk of bringing coronavirus back to the country. Instead, producers will air her live-on-tape recording, which was filmed in Sydney this spring. But don’t worry: her stage show still looks sick.
Now, as the artists slip into their tightest pants and warm up their wind machines, it’s time for you to grab your popcorn and adult beverages. Let’s do this!
Eurovision 2021: Semi-Final 1 Preview
🇱🇹 Lithuania: The Roop — “Discoteque”
The Roop — Lithuania’s musical act of the moment — are known for their weird, hard-to-describe sonic flourishes. “Discoteque” is no different. The toe-tapping number comes with haunting production that pulsates and bounces on the border with darkness. Despite that vibe, the “Discoteque” lyrics are all about seeing the light and lifting yourself up from whatever is holding you back. Everyone is welcome at this discoteque, which is deliberately spelled without the letter h — this is a dance floor all its own. Fans have suggested it’s perfect for the pandemic — “it is OK to dance alone,” they sing. But the band say this is more about self-affirmation and accepting yourself and your body, and having the confidence to shake it all by yourself.
Memorable lyrics: “My body’s shaking, heart is breaking, have to let it go.”
🇸🇮 Slovenia: Ana Soklic — “Amen”
Lyrically, “Amen” is about learning to persevere in the face of adversity. Ana sings to a child, telling them they’ll “get beaten and bruised” and “scarred unto your core.” Some will find the gospel vibe and repetition of “hallelujah” inspiring and uplifting. The same people may well find this a little “heard-it-all-before” too. No matter. Ana is a master vocalist who works her lower register with the precision of Annie Lennox yet still manages to hit those mezzo-soprano highs. The staging includes a glorious Earth in the background which is reflected on the floor. At times it reminds us of a telecoms commercial — golden markers pop up across that glorious sphere.
Memorable lyrics: “Hey child, why ya hiding from the light?”
🇷🇺 Russia: Manizha — “Russian Woman”
Manizha opens with one of the most memorable visuals of the year: She sings from inside an oversized Russian doll. Controlled remotely, she glides across the stage and spins before opening a door in her dress. She emerges in a factory worker’s outfit — it’s at once throwback but somehow contemporary — announcing that she’s casting off the stereotypes of yesterday and is ready to slay as a modern “Russian Woman”. Just as Manizha reaches the spiritual chanting portion of her song, a giant image of an Orthodox-style religious icon appears on screen. Eventually Manizha kneels on the ground and sings to a wall filled with one hundred inspirational women of all sexualities and skin tones. It’s a powerful moment in which she calls on them to believe in themselves. “You’re strong enough!” she frequently chants. We’d like to add that Manizha is too.
Memorable lyrics: “You’re strong enough to break the wall.”
🇸🇪 Sweden: Tusse — “Voices”
The opening shot of Tusse walking on digital water is a come-to-Jesus moment: You can’t help but go silent and get ready for the Scandipop sermon! Tusse is a vision in velvet and diamonds and glamour, yet when he sings you hear the wisdom of a survivor and former refugee who understands struggle and what it’s like to be dragged through the mud. It’s this grit — along with his total authenticity and freedom of movement — that elevates this above all the other generic songs about haters. He sings, yes, but you also get the sense he’s speaking directly to you and from his heart. We may have heard it all before, but we haven’t heard it this good.
Memorable lyrics: “Can’t stop us now forget the haters.”
🇦🇺 Australia: Montaigne — “Technicolour”
Not wanting to bring Covid back to Australia — which has done an admirable job taming the pandemic — the country’s Eurovision broadcaster decided its team would be staying home. Thankfully Montaigne was able to film a performance from SBS studios to air in place of a live performance and boy did she deliver! It uses light to great effect — Montaigne absorbs it and gives it off — moving from darkness to Technicolour fantasy. The hyperpop genre can feel loud and cluttered. To many, this will all seem disjointed and jarring, but to others, it will be a stroke of genius held together by one hell of a performer. For now, I’ll side with the latter camp.
Memorable lyrics: “We got style and lasers, yeah, time to take off your cloaks.”
🇲🇰 North Macedonia: Vasil — “Here I Stand”
Vasil’s “Here I Stand” may sound like a Disney ballad. But the technologically advanced performance speaks very much of sophistication. Vasil starts in the darkness and we see a golden heart projected onto his body. Eventually golden stardust emerges from behind him and bursts from his heart, as if our man is disintegrating into the universe. But in breaking apart he also becomes whole — Vasil grows in confidence and belts it out, putting his operatic training on full display. The most memorable moment comes toward the end when a white light refracts from Vasil’s mirrored vest. It’s an explosion of light that provides a memorable climax.
Memorable lyrics: “They all tried to break us, not knowing it’s what makes us.”
🇮🇪 Ireland: Lesley Roy — “Maps”
With its honest lyrics and sincere delivery, “Maps” reads like poetry: “Thought I was done, but I got it wrong, I fell twice, I’m twice as strong.” Lesley wraps that message up in equally inspiring sounds — strings, guitar, drums and electronic flourishes come together in a swell of positivity. More concerned with contemplation than dramatic swells and dips, the song progresses in a linear way yet it maintains drive and direction with on-point production. Lesley has managed to meld a singer-songwriter feel with a pop sensibility. The result is a divine track that’s polished without feeling sterile and one that carries a clear point of view without being pompous
And what of the staging? “Ireland’s staging is all sorts of wow!” writes our Padriag. “And it delivers one of the most fully-formed visual narratives. In essence, we see Lesley transported into a real-life storybook complete with paper trees. It’s like a fantasy version of the music video. It borrows elements from performances such as Sweden 2015, Iceland 2016, Austria 2016 and even Silvàn Areg from France’s Destination Eurovision 2019. Lesley herself looks stunning, barefoot and dressed in a green jumpsuit as she traverses the landscape created by the paper.”
Memorable lyrics: “My soul is a map, my heart is a compass, I am the road.”
🇨🇾 Cyprus: Elena Tsagrinou — “El Diablo”
Elena sings of falling in love with a man as bad as the devil. And with that comes a sensual performance replete with devilishly good choreography performed by Elena (at times on her back, at times bending her back) and four dancers in skin-tight red catsuits. The stage moves between solid black, red and white, always framing Elena and her dancers beautifully. At the end of the song letters spelling out EL DIABLO become apparent and they catch fire — providing extra heat to an already hot performance.
Memorable lyrics: “Hotter than sriracha on our bodies, Ta-Taco tamale, yeah, that’s my mood.”
🇳🇴 Norway: TIX — “Fallen Angel”
This is not a song about unrequited love. It’s about a man battling the dark voices in his own head that tell him he isn’t worthy of love. As he makes clear in the verses: “Here in the dark, inside the hole in my heart, I’m fighting all of my demons trying to tear me apart, and I’m still not sure what you ever saw in me.” TIX conveys that tortured subject matter with ease, wearing his heart on his sleeve (and his furry coat). The song itself has a real earworm quality and glides effortlessly from pained verses to soaring chorus. The literal treatment of heaven and hell with all those winged angels adds a level of drama worthy of the big screen.
Memorable lyrics: “I’m fighting all of my demons tryna tear me apart.”
🇭🇷 Croatia: Albina — “Tick-Tock”
Albina’s song is all about letting go of toxic relationships: “Lost in your playzone….now we’re in a warzone!” Our girl banishes the bad vibes by slipping into a futuristic warrior suit that reflects all manner of purples and pastels. She’s the only artist this year to stay entirely off the main stage — she and her four male backing dancers perform on a platform located just in front of it. Eye-catching visuals include beams of light that seem to fire from Albina’s body, and a moment where her dancers propel her toward the ceiling as she sings on her back. What’s better than one Albina? Try five. There’s a gorgeous hologram moment where she duplicates the fashion, the hair, the vibe.
Memorable lyrics: “I hear those voices from far away, they help me to escape.”
🇧🇪 Belgium: Hooverphonic “The Wrong Place”
Hooverphonic are serving the coolest song about a regrettable hookup. The lyrics of “The Wrong Place” are packed full of amazing lines, including the absolute gem “You get up because you need an organic cup of tea”. It very much paints a picture of morning-after regret, when the choices of the night before seem a million times worse in the cold, hard light of day. In a semi-final filled with over-the-top visuals, this three-piece pare things back. Geike’s steely eyes provide one of the most impressive focal points of the show. That the bandmates perform together — but remain isolated from one other on stage — reflects our times in a subtle but poignant way.
Memorable lyrics: “Don’t you ever dare to wear my Johnny Cash T-shirt.”
🇮🇱 Israel: Eden Alene — “Set Me Free”
“Getting you out of my life — I feel so strong.” The words of Eden Alene as she says goodbye to a relationship that feels like a prison. This upbeat number comes with slick group choreography and a dramatic dress reveal. Eden’s white coat gives way to a nude illusion dress — she appears completely naked except for extra-long braids that snake around her private parts. As she told me in an interview, the nudity connotes freedom and the braids celebrate her Ethiopian heritage. Brace yourself for the high notes toward the end — they are officially the highest notes ever performed in the contest.
Memorable lyrics: “Used to be your treasure now I’m gone forever.”
🇷🇴 Romania: Roxen — “Amnesia”
Roxen’s performance includes one of the most memorable phrases of the year: “self-love amnesia.” It’s apparently the state of forgetting to take care of yourself and succumbing to inner demons — an idea that’s brought to life on stage through modern dance. “The message is to speak your truth and to ask for help if you need it — even if people judge you,” Roxen tells us. “At the end of the day the most important thing is for you to be safe. I just wanted to give a voice to people who struggle, because I know very well what it means.”
Memorable lyrics: “Self love amnesia, don’t worry if it got you.”
🇦🇿 Azerbaijan: Efendi — “Mata Hari”
“Scandinavian Orientalism” — that’s how Azerbaijan’s team describe their Eurovision 2021 stage show, which sees Efendi portraying the infamous Dutch spy. “On stage you will see powerful, strong women,” Efendi tells us. “After that, no one needs to be afraid of anything. I want to give this strength through my songs, my costumes — everything.” The LED fire looks so real you worry our girl may get burned, and an LED snake inside of a golden orb may leave you thinking of Cleopatra and that asp. Musically this plays on sounds of the near east, including traditional Azerbaijani instruments. The quickening pace of the ending is a rush of adrenaline to the head — don’t blink or you’ll miss some of the fiercest choreography of the year.
Memorable lyrics: “I’m a liar, playing the game of desire.”
🇺🇦 Ukraine: Go_A — “SHUM”
“Shum” honours a “vesnyanka”, a traditional Ukrainian song that helps usher in spring. The season is the protagonist of the song: “Oh vesnyanka, vesnyanka, where have you spent your winter?” The answer comes in the catchy phrase siyu, siyu, siyu — “sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing hemp plants, Sowing, sowing, sowing, sowing green ones”. It’s understandable why the group might have an interest in rebirth and renewal: The lead singer Kateryna grew up near Chernobyl. Go_A — who rose to fame by mixing Ukrainian folk with EDM — have come with staging as outré as you’d expect. They perform on a white, snowy patch of ground that seems to float through space. At times the LED features golden silhouettes of men that chase after said island. Taken together it connotes the changing of the seasons and the relentless passing of time.
Memorable lyrics: “There on the edge of a forest an owl is blowing into the water.”
🇲🇹 Malta: Destiny — “Je me casse”
Hell naw she is not your honey! But Malta’s Destiny may well be your next Eurovision winner. The 18-year-old vocal powerhouse has been pitch perfect throughout her time in Rotterdam, nailing all three minutes of her empowering song “Je me casse” — French slang for “I gotta go” or “I’m outta here!” Destiny wears a silver, sparkly number with thigh-high boots and stands centre stage with four dancers flitting around her. The staging features bold blocks of colour — from pinks to yellows — and eventually turns into a gigantic starscape. When Destiny hits the bridge — Ladies, listen to me! — the stars seem to shoot out from everywhere, creating a real moment.
Memorable lyrics: “Hell no, I don’t want your money, got it wrong I ain’t into dummies.”
Who should qualify? And who will win? Shout it out in the comments down below.