The Unbroken Maria Olafs
Posted on May 28, 2015
Whatever the Eurovision Song Contest is, few wouldn’t know it drove ABBA onto the world’s stage, into our hip pockets and changed music forever.
Eurovision 2015 has come and gone. Watching the action this past weekend, I witnessed some of the most fantastic talent showcased in a long while. I’ve always loved Eurovision … I love elections. And there’s something magnetic about countries voting for supremacy, like a weird non-bellicose outing of Risk.
For me, however, music played its true part this year and one song stood out; one I predict will break pop’s international charts. Thing is, it didn’t even make it into the Eurovision Final, and I’m trying to work out why.
The song was “Unbroken”. The claxon vocals of Iceland’s 22 year old, Maria Olafs (aka María Ólafsdóttir), gave it wings during the 2nd Semi-Final. It blew me away with its mainstream authority and it suggests that Eurovision itself needs repair. For in competition terms, there and then the song died.
Sweden of ABBA fame, once again pulled off the win with its tune, “Heroes”. When I first heard it during the same Semi-Final that featured “Unbroken”, it didn’t stir my psyche. In fact, the sheepish confidence of its Brad Cooper-esque singer, Måns Zelmerlöw, coupled with some of the most engrossing intra-act video graphics I’ve ever seen, were what had me mesmerized. And it’s why come Final, Måns carried me away with the only unique act of the night.
Certainly Russia, Greece, Serbia, Italy, and Spain impressed with some power vocals, and rookie contestant Australia with its sensation Guy Sebastian (possibly the final’s only mainstream Top 40 contender in beat and lyrics), were strong foes. Yet, none broke the entertainment mold in a fresh way.
That said, Slovenia’s headphone-touting Marjetka, the female member of husband and wife duo Maraaya, with “Here For You”, offered another mainstream alternative. Her scratchy, mezzo-soprano growl remains hard to escape—I’ve woken to her song in my head since: but her electric violin accompaniment needs a toss.
Thing is though, watch Måns’s official Eurovision teaser video and it differs totally to the visual extravaganza that formed his TV Final spot. Then, “Heroes” becomes just another nice club tune. Not Top 40 material by any means and far from spectacular.
Interactive graphics, those little line-drawn robots, and other perfectly timed special effects during Eurovision, morphed “Heroes” from a tune into a performance. And that’s why it won. Thing is, you can’t buy a performance—and you can’t listen to one on a radio.
It all leads to the question: what then is Eurovision really all about? The BBC gives a simplistic answer:
Countries from all over Europe—and some from outside Europe—send a song and performer to entertain a worldwide audience. … Eurovision started in 1956 when just seven countries took part. In 2008 there were a record 43 countries. … Many countries hold a national competition to select their entry. In the UK the BBC chooses an act to send.
It then adds contentiously:
Some people think some countries just vote for their neighbours and friends instead of voting for the best song.
CNN takes a deeper cut:
Until the late 1990s, a mysterious jury of music industry experts—sequestered somewhere in the capital city of each participating nation—were the contest’s soul (sic) arbiters. But since 1997, when a handful of nations experimented with televoting—giving people in those countries the opportunity to vote for their favorite songs over the phone—the public choice has counted for half the final vote.
Still stories of voting blocks abound: countries with trade, geographic, or ethnic ties spurring each other along. During the 2015 Final for example, I could have told you that Georgia (the country) wouldn’t have placed leading contender, Russia, in its top three. Georgia—NATO’s new partner hates Russia. So each country gave the other just 5 points. (Countries can allot finals scores of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, and 12 points respectively and can’t vote for themselves).
Maybe not so coincidentally then, Iceland give Sweden its maximum 12 points, with cousin Norway 10, thereby booting Russia down the competition list with a mere 3 points (a cool TV moment that was). And Sweden made its climb to win. Who said neighbors can’t be friends?
Few Eurovision crown holders have gone on to fame: ABBA, Bucks Fizz (remember them?) and Celine Dion the rarities. Måns Zelmerlöw has since announced a collaboration with Guy Subastian, meaning the Swede may indeed find fortune. Sabastian of course, used another competition Australian Idol to launch his bona fides.
But mainstream pop is what sells microwave ovens and color TVs, so Dire Straits reminds. And this is where non-Eurovision finalist, Maria Olafs, enters the arena.
Take the feistiness of Avril Lavigne, the textures of Jessica Alba, the lungs of Kelly Clarkson, the impishness of Sarit Hadad, and the steeliness of Taylor Swift—and you have an amalgam of feminine celebrity that molds the “Olafs” icon. In retrospect, that of course, makes no sense as it’s only mere perception at work trying to brand a stamp on reality. Olafs is her own person.
But in that description there lives enough substance sufficient to launch her to Top 40 stardom. “Unbroken” deserves to be her vehicle.
Unlike so many other songs of Eurovision 2015, “Unbroken” brought a blend of timeless rhythm, story, intelligible lyrics, backbeat and confidence that craves nonstop airplay. Much as Britney Spears brought to the FM waves in 1999, with “Baby One More Time”.
“One step at a time, out of the darkness, one foot in front of the other … I‘m letting go,” Olafs begins subdued in personal reflection, an affirmation in the making. And then finally internalized, she simply lets go—full of melody—and most importantly free of pretension. The key being, the song makes you smile.
Whether Olafs can now take the plunge into the Atlantic in a round trip from England to North America, and across the Pacific to Australia and Asia will be a factor of luck as much as sound management and marketing.
But in “Unbroken” exists a perfectly packaged product waiting the ad-selling radio mainstream with an artist talented to breathe it life. Can the music industry swim where Eurovision floundered? “Unbroken” is too good to let it go the Titanic’s way.
© 2015 Adam Parker.