Destination Eurovision, France’s national selection for the Eurovision Song Contest, began January 12 with nine acts gathered for the first semifinal. Each act sang twice, first singing a cover song then their potential Eurovision song. Performances were judged by a national televote making up 50% of the overall score and by an international jury who comprised the other 50%. Four singers from each semifinal would advance to the national final.
For brevity, I will skip each contestant’s cover and review only his or her Eurovision number.
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The first contestant of the night is Naestro, singing “Le brasier.” Naestro has a deep, clear tone and his song is pleasant enough but it lacks a real draw. The songwriters appear to have realized this because suddenly after the chorus there’s a surge of percussion and synth beats in a desperate attempt to ‘modernize’ the song.
Next up, we have Florina, whose “In the Shadows” is a pre-contest favorite online. The song starts out with a syncopated verse, has an ethereal feel, and then comes together in a banger of a chorus. Unfortunately, Florina’s voice doesn’t soar as it was supposed to; she’s off-pitch most of the time. This is one of the first major misfires of the Eurovision season.
After nailing Édith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” as her cover (seriously – watch it!), Chimène sings her Eurovision number, “Là-haut.” It starts slow, then is joined by percussive backing, then reaches a banging chorus. Chimène’s voice carries the stage, but I must admit that a little something seems ‘off.’ Is it the dark lighting? The weird purple cube? The fact that Chimène doesn’t look at the camera at all? Was anything bound to disappoint after her Édith Piaf cover?
Up next, we’ve got Battista Acquaviva, whose name suggests that she’s either a Corsican singer or a Cuban drag queen. If you don’t believe that the latter is a possibility, I refer you to the pyramid of scantily-clad men surrounding Battista at the start of “Passiò.” The song begins with a beat drop, but then the Gregorian chant backing vocals start and Battista whispers a few half-baked notes. Le sigh. To be fair, some of the harmonies are entrancing but Battista’s voice is unable to fully create the otherworldly sound she was hoping for.
Next up, we’ve got Silvàn Areg, who looks somewhat like Francesco Gabbani’s French older brother. Silvàn’s original song, “Le petit Nicolas,” is a stylistic mash-up of French accordion tunes and rap. Let’s call it “Straight Outta Montmartre.” This is the most visually distinct entry of the night, with paper cutouts creating an illusion that Silvàn is wondering through a storybook. Silvàn is a real charmer as he mugs for the camera and, though he could chill with the hand gestures, the audience seemingly enjoys it.
Bilal comes into tonight’s semifinal as the favorite with his buzzy entry, “Roi.” With dyed blond hair and a white pantsuit that screams “Lady Gaga in Space,” Bilal begins his number in the audience. He sings a mixed French/English verse then robotically marches over to the stage to sing a chorus about being his own person. It’s a powerful social message, particularly when sung by an androgynous artist like Bilal, but his underwhelming vocals make this number seem more anemic than anthemic. Eurofans are in love with this song and I can understand why, but it seems to promise more than it delivers.
Aysat is the seventh contender of the night with her Afrobeat-infused pop ditty, “Comme une grande.” It’s a very current hip-hop song but it’s a bit too fast for Aysat, who seems to bobble some lyrics. The catchy chorus is somewhat marred by mediocre dance moves which Aysat tries to do with a microphone in her hand. The studio cut of this is great, but live it does not deliver.
The duo Lautner is up next. Their original song “J’ai pas le temps” starts out with a furious string intro, which one of the boys pretends to play on a violin while his partner squeaks a few high notes. The violinist then starts to bleat a few notes while skateboarders go back-and-forth on a halfpipe in the background. (I think it’s a metaphor for how repetitive this song is?) The boys seem to be having a great time, but as one might expect from a group named after an actor from Twilight, Lautner appears to have more beauty than talent.
Our final performer of the night is Mazy who, for reasons unknown, sings “Oulala” atop a pink, glowing box. The song has a non-traditional verse that drops the end of every phrase, builds to a pre-chorus that heightens the tension, and then… the chorus is merely a refrain of ‘Oulala’s. Bummer. Mazy has a nice, smoky voice and shakes things up with a percussive break towards the end, but this one feels like a missed opportunity.
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The results are in and Bilal Hassani is revealed to have crushed the first semifinal, winning both the televote and jury vote and scoring 115 out of 120 possible points. Chimène Badi finishes a distant second with 66 points on the strength of her second-place finish with the televote. Silvàn Areg is third with 59 points after finishing second with the jury. With 40 points, rounding out the list of those advancing is Aysat, who finished last(!) with the televote but third with the jury. The second semifinal will occur on January 19 and the national final on January 26.