Eurovision Song Contest 2003 Review

Welcome everyone to Riga. We’re continuing to jump around Europe because countries will continue winning for the first time for quite a while. This contest set a new record for the number of participants: 26. Originally, the bottom ten countries were going to be relegated to make way for debuts from Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro and Ukraine, all of whom broadcast 2002 to join this year, but then the EBU decided that it would be Really Bad and asked them to hold on for one more year while they went back to the drawing board and redesigned the system to be better (honestly, they didn’t even have anything in mind until this point). In the end, Ukraine was allowed to join anyway (probably because we had a population of about 50 million, so our participation fee was higher than that of Albania with their 3 million or Serbia and Montenegro with 10 million). I’m sure that was appreciated by Latvia as the contest almost didn’t take place due to widespread organisational problems and monetary issues (not that it was noticeable in the production itself). Since the semifinal will get introduced next year, we have our last big swapout due to relegation, so let’s pay our respects to Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, North Macedonia and Switzerland and welcome back Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Portugal as well as extend a warm welcome to the debutant Ukraine.

Preface

Yes! We’re finally here! Two thousand and three! The 48th Eurovision and actually the best Eurovision year ever! It feels like everyone really did try their best this year, and almost all of them succeeded. Same for LTV, they put on an amazing show, even though it had a very troubled production and even in January, the EBU wasn’t sure if Latvia would hold it after all. But they buckled up, LTV fired the producer they had working on the event, invited a team from SVT and pushed through all of the issues to deliver a truly great contest to the audience.

I’d like to specifically remark upon a couple things that this contest introduced. The first one is the LED floor and some LED screens, which is the first time Eurovision offered anything like this. Since then, every contest has had LED floors, and most of the recent ones have also had massive LED walls. The second one is a scoreboard that automatically sorts itself! We’re finally in the era where this was easy to do (though I wonder why it hadn’t been introduced earlier - the same company that made this year’s scoreboard also handled the one in Tallinn last year. But no matter, I’m glad it’s here anyway). Of course, they didn’t bother to align the scoreboard at all and put fourteen countries on the right side and just twelve on the left, but I think that isn’t a bad thing, as the slight wonkiness gives it its own charm. Combined with the claymation theme - because, yes, the contest was still heavily themed - the scoreboard feels almost handmade, and the asymmetry helps this feeling a lot.

Another change that actually didn’t affect that many things was the change in the tiebreak rules. Before this, the ties would be broken by the number of 12 points received, then 10 points, then 8, and so on, down to 1 point. But from this point onwards, the number of countries that voted for an entry would be considered first, and the countback rule would only be used if that number was the same. If the EBU used this rule from the start (right after they abandoned the sing-off idea), then two contests would’ve had big changes: first, France would’ve won in 1991 instead of Sweden and, more importantly to what we’re discussing right now, the Netherlands would’ve been admitted to the 2002 contest instead of Latvia. Funnily enough, from this point on, none of the ties would be affected by this change. The only time a tiebreak ended up mattering was in 2012 when Norway and Bulgaria tied for the last qualifier in their semifinal, and Norway won based on the number of countries that voted for them. But they still would’ve won the tiebreak based purely on the countback. And since every other tiebreak could’ve only changed a country’s position by one place, they don’t matter anywhere near as much.

But anyway, the contest opens with a lovely claymation film about two aliens embracing each other, which ends with a beating claymation heart (foreshadowing the 2004 permanent logo, no doubt), which transitions into the arena showing the same beating heart on the LEF screens (I like a bit of continuity). After that, we get welcomed by our two hosts - Marija Naumova and Renārs Kaupers - who had competed for Latvia before. They walk on stage dressed in the most garish coats imaginable, but I’m absolutely fine with that, as it’s all part of a (fairly funny) gag. They talk a little about Eurovision, but not as much, since, in their words, we already know what to expect. They make fun of the fashion at Eurovision, which is fair enough, as I’ve always made fun of the massive lack of dress sense in this contest myself over the years (and that won’t change in the future either, but c’mon, it’s so fun to make fun of bad costumes). After they remove the coats, they’re left in outfits that aren’t much less of a fashion crime, but at least that leads to a funny gag of the coats being dragged away from off-screen. After a little more talking, as well as a satellite linkup with Lys Assia (in Cyprus), Elton John (in Austria) and the ISS (in space), as well as a small short about some of Riga’s landmarks. Also, the hosts have terrific chemistry, and their script is pretty good. In a way, they’re the proto-Petra and Måns, taking little lighthearted jabs at each other that actually feel cute, not mean.

But after this opening (which took around 9 minutes), we finally move to the songs and the postcards. The postcards might be the only subpar part of this contest, but the reason for this is apparent: the EBU rejected the original postcards at the last second, and these ones were filmed in the week before the contest, which really shows, as their production values are noticeably lower than those of the other parts of the contest.

Songs

Iceland - Open Your Heart

Performed by
Birgitta
Language
English

Perfect opener? Perfect opener! You really can’t do better than open with an upbeat song titled Open Your Heart. I absolutely love the violin intro here, and, in general, the instrumental is much better than the version she performed in the national final. While it had a very chill vibe, it really wouldn’t have done anywhere near as well without the revamp it got. The ESC version has a certain sense of urgency that really gets your blood pumping and gets you ready for the rest of the contest. Plus, Birgitta’s accent is very charming and definitely makes me like the song even more, even though my ideal version would be with the lyrics in Icelandic and the ESC instrumental. This song is one of many proofs that opening the show is not a death sentence, and a good song can still do really well (but I’m sure the reverse recap helped here). But even the English version is just too likeable not to make it on my playlist, which makes it the first 2003 song on it.

Austria - Weil der Mensch zählt

Performed by
Alf Poier
Language
German

And after that, we move to a very divisive entry. Austria was, of course, one of the countries that would’ve been relegated before the EBU changed their minds about the debuting countries, so they needed to find something that grabbed everyone’s attention, something people would remember enough to vote for. And I actually think this is good! Yes, I think it’s a credible song with a memorable melody that I actually listen to, unlike some of the joke entries we’ve seen before. But it also comes down to Alf Poier being a pretty good performer as well, and I don’t mean vocally.

The thing is that he has that kind of stage presence that comes off as a lack of stage presence at first - I know this doesn’t make sense, but bear with me. He comes on stage dressed in very plain clothes, looking like an average guy, which makes people subconsciously biased toward him - after all, he’s just one of “them”. And he keeps up the pretence throughout the verses, looking a bit lost and helpless, but drops that persona when the rock chorus kicks in. I think that this whiplash is what sealed the deal for most people and made their minds remember this. Though the cardboard animal cutouts must’ve helped as well, I find them hilarious.

But it’s also just composed really well. The switch between the childish poppy verses and the much harsher chorus might give people a bit of whiplash, but I love harsh transitions (I did love Doomsday Blue this year after all), so this song really scratches that itch for me, especially coming after the straightforward Icelandic entry. Which is why it’s the second entry on my playlist for this year.

Also, here’s a fun fact: the Austrian NF had a truly ridiculous voting system this year. The televote was split between men and women, with both groups awarding their own points. In the end, there was barely any variation between both groups, and this entry ended up safely winning the NF with a total of 20 points (the maximum, as both men and women awarded it 10 points).

Ireland - We’ve Got the World

Performed by
Mickey Harte
Language
English

Oh my god, Ireland didn’t send a ballad this year. Instead, they sent a guitar radio pop song that’s incredibly similar to Fly On The Wings Of Love. It’s even in the same key, which I managed to identify. And yet, I actually don’t mind that fact because it’s still very nice and pleasant, especially the chorus, which is insanely sticky and actually flows really well into each following verse. Mickey also has a very good voice as well and it provides an important break between two hectic entries, allowing us to breathe, and actually stands out because of it. It’s the kind of song the producers would’ve put here anyway. In general, the draw this year was excellent - there’s only one transition that I find to be a bit bad, but I’ll point it out later.

All in all, it’s actually pretty good. It isn’t particularly ambitious, but it knows what it wants to be and executes its idea really well. We need a couple songs like this each year to anchor us to reality and make the more zany songs stand out even more. It’s for these reasons that I’ve added it to my playlist and this means that all three songs I’ve reviewed so far are ones I listen to regularly.

Turkey - Everyway That I Can

Performed by
Sertab Erener
Language
English

And now, here we have it, the winner of 2003 and the song that changed the way a lot of countries approach Eurovision. Up to this point, Turkey was experimenting with their approach, tweaking it a little, trying different amounts of ethnic sound, as well as different proportions of languages, and finally, they cooked this up. After a bunch of songs with a language change, they finally decided to drop that and have a song that’s 100% in English but set to an instrumental that sounds very Turkish (but composed with English lyrics in mind - this obviously wasn’t made in Turkish and then translated). But Turkey has indeed finally managed to figure out the correct balance between “ethnic” and “accessible”, between “exotic” and “catchy” because oh my god, it’s super catchy. And not just the chorus, the verses are also very memorable, despite not having the most catchy and straightforward melody.

But it’s also about the performance, maybe a little more than it’s about the song. Sertab and her backing dancers give a great and intense performance, one that really sticks in your mind. Again, it feels very unashamedly Turkish, there’s no holding back or trying to tone it down. There’s a lot of very elaborate choreography here which actually tells a story with the backing dancers clinging onto Sertab and her pushing them away. To remark a little more on the backing dancers, they were vital to this entry as they helped fill the stage as much as possible and keep your brain engaged at every moment. The pink ribbons might look a little weird at first, but I always found them iconic and memorable. In fact, you could say that they’re a signature of this entry. In general, you can see that a lot of thought went into presenting Turkish culture as well as possible in a way that would still be faithful but approachable (since Turkey was hoping to join the EU around that time, they really tried to present themselves as Western).

But it was also helped by its running order. In 2002 and 2003, performing early on was a good thing for the most part because of the reverse recap. Later songs still had a slight advantage, but the early ones would stick with people after the recap finished over the ones performed at the end. And I have no doubt that, with a voting sequence as close as this, Turkey got its tiny edge over Belgium and Russia due to the recap order, especially since nobody has ever won while performing fourth before. But I’m actually glad that it did because I said that it changed the way a lot of countries approach Eurovision, and I stand by it. It shows that ethnobops were a valid genre for Eurovision. Without this song, we probably wouldn’t have had Wild Dances, Jan Jan, Hora Din Moldova and about a thousand other certified bangers. So, in a way, it really started a new age of Eurovision (just another revolutionary thing in 2003, I’ll keep pointing that out).

I suppose my only criticism of this entry would be the camerawork. It’s a bit too chaotic and has some weird cuts. For example, two of the backing dancers do a synchronised kick right before the second chorus, but the camera cuts away right in the middle. There are also some very questionable wide shots and side shots that are zoomed too far away and don’t let us appreciate the performance. It generally diminishes what we see, and the camera director should be a bit ashamed. But still, it doesn’t ruin it or anything, but it could’ve been better. I also can’t say I enjoy the hip-hop part a lot (the one where she goes “nuh-uh-uh-uh”), but it’s brief, and I still don’t dislike it, so it’s obviously another song that I’ve put on my playlist with no hesitation.

Also, since I attended Eurovision 2024 in person, I actually saw her live during the singalong. A part of me wanted to believe that they’d announce that Turkey was coming back, but that was just a very silly and impossible dream.

Malta - To Dream Again

Performed by
Lynn Chircop
Language
English

It’s difficult to follow an amazing entry like Turkey’s and Lynn didn’t really pull it off. But even so, I still really like the song, it has a very nice vibe to it and, just like the Irish entry, gives us a bit of a break after Sertab took our breath away. She starts out sitting at a grand piano, but gets up after the first verse and never bothers with the piano ever again, which kinda annoys me, but only barely.

During the second chorus, we get another first for Eurovision: we get the steadicam (which wasn’t used particularly often in old Eurovision) revolving around Lynn, which creates an effect we’ve never really seen before, once again, doing something new and fresh and pushing Eurovision forwards. In general, the camerawork really holds up well here - and it might be one of the best ones in this year’s contest. And while this song wasn’t rewarded for it, coming 25th (the first really poor result for Malta after a huge streak of top 10 placements) with just 4 points, I still find it pleasant and gentle to have it on my playlist.

Bosnia and Herzegovina - Ne brini

Performed by
Mija Martina
Language
Croatian, English

After a little bit of a breather from Malta, we’re back to something more energetic, with a bit of a rock vibe. I actually think this is a very fun time, but one thing that annoys me is that the 2003 CD has this song fully in English, not the live version with the language switch and not even the fully Croatian one, which means I’m way more familiar with the English version. But I suppose this has only made me more appreciative of the live version with the language change, as it really does add a certain something to the song. It might be here just to hide the lack of progression and the repetitiveness, but it successfully does that to the point where I don’t really care. And even the English version is good enough for me to listen to it as a part of my playlist.

Portugal - Deixa-me sonhar

Performed by
Rita Guerra
Language
Portuguese, English

The trend this year seems to be switching between high-energy songs and low-energy ones. Case in point, this is a pretty slow ballad, but I actually really like it too, I think Rita has an exceptional vocal performance and I really feel what she’s singing. My big issue with this is the language change. Unlike in Bosnia’s entry, it just feels completely out of place here and kills all of the momentum the song has (though the way the camera changes on the beat during that helps rescue it a bit). But the Ukrainians (like me) clearly liked it enough to give it 3 points. This starts the weird exchanging of points between Ukraine and Portugal, as both will appreciate each other’s entries when they can (and when they’re good). And it makes sense too, since a lot of Portuguese entries are moody and melancholic, which is exactly the kind of music a lot of us appreciate. Plus, the studio version doesn’t contain a language change, and that means this is, once again, a song I’ve put on my playlist.

Croatia - Više nisam tvoja

Performed by
Claudia Beni
Language
Croatian, English

This is a proper banger of a song. It has a very strong Britney Spears vibe to it in a good, fresh way and with a bit of a Balkan twist. Claudia is a very energetic performer who really sells this song to me too, because the live performance brings it to life even more. There’s something innately fun about this, and it shows why Andrej Babić will be a force to reckon with in the coming years. It’s also staged well, with the backing singers doing some moves, getting in line behind Claudia and so on, which really adds to the energy of this performance.

But I do have to criticise the language change at the end. Since the studio version doesn’t have it (because I have it on my playlist, which makes it the ninth song on my playlist out of nine so far), I always forget that it’s present in the live version - for whatever reason, HRT held a poll on whether this song should be kept in Croatian or changed into English and, despite the Croatian version winning the poll, they decided to have a change into English at the end anyway. Now, I don’t actually mind it as much as with Portugal’s switch, but I still don’t find it great. Plus, once again, the camerawork is pretty bad here, but it doesn’t make me enjoy it any less (just as with Turkey). Also, her outfit is horrible and would’ve deserved the Barbara Dex award a lot more than Russia (we’ll get to that a bit later).

But I really love it even despite its flaws. I would’ve loved it even more with these flaws fixed, but I just don’t think that the (minor) downsides outweigh the (big) upsides here.

Cyprus - Feeling Alive

Performed by
Stelios Constantas
Language
English

And here we have it, the first song I really don’t care about. I mean, I don’t dislike it either, but it just has no energy at all. It has a bit of a nice disco vibe, but listening to it just bores me. And I can’t even put the blame on Stelios, it’s just a subpar composition with janky lyrics (like rhyming “me” with “me” in the chorus). So yeah, this is just not very good. But I’ll give it some credit for being fully self-written and self-composed (even if both were done poorly), since I always have respect for songs that the performers made themselves.

Germany - Let’s Get Happy

Performed by
Lou
Language
English

Ralph Siegel decided to redeem himself after I Can’t Live Without Music and made something really fun. It’s very schlagery and energetic, performed really well and, is just distilled joy. It might be one of the most Eurovisiony songs ever entered into Eurovision. I actually don’t have a lot to say about it, it’s one of those songs that don’t lend themselves to a lot of analysis, but I love the “Let’s get happy and let’s be gay” line, it very simply summarises all of Eurovision for me.

But it also shows Ralph Siegel’s biggest weakness: production. He can compose a good, catchy tune, but he just can’t elevate it by polishing it during the production. Ideally, he would’ve found someone else who can do that, which probably would’ve made all of his 21st century entries that much more successful, but he didn’t. Instead, he decided that he can do everything on his own and started falling behind the times more and more.

Russia - Ne ver’, ne boysia

Performed by
t.A.T.u.
Language
Russian

Now, I have to admit something: I’ve never been a huge Tatu fan myself. Their only songs I truly like are the singles for their debut album: Нас не догонят and Я сошла с ума, though especially the first one (it’s also my mum’s favourites, she loved it when she was in universiry). Otherwise, I’ve never really clicked with most of their songs, even though logically they should absolutely be “my thing”. That is until I watched this year for the first time.

Once I did, I had to admit that there was a third Tatu song that I actually liked. It’s, without a doubt, the most gritty and dark song of the year, with a very compelling atmosphere. It has a lot of character and I’m glad they didn’t dial down their musical style to appeal to the Eurovision crowd (and why would they? They were already topping the charts all over Europe). The staging is really good, unlike most performers, they didn’t make use of any bright colours, the stage is all black and has a strobe light, which gives this even more of a gritty feel. It’s definitely a striking performance that’s guaranteed to stick in your mind at least until the end of the show and actually pushed the envelope a bit further - I kinda want to compare it to Minn hinsti dans, Iceland’s 1997 entry. Both of them didn’t feel like a Eurovision entry that would’ve been entered at the time, but did feel like an actual contemporary song. Additionally, both of them have a techno feel to them and both were performed in a non-English language, and both of them are way more televote-friendly than jury-friendly. Granted, all of these similarities are more spiritual than musical, and I wouldn’t put them both in the same musical box.

Unfortunately, they also brought their, well, let’s say, “scandalous” attitude to Riga. After antagonising the media, fellow competitors and the staff working on the show, is it a wonder that they walked on the stage to very loud booing? And since they threatened to have a lesbian kiss during the live broadcast, there were very few close-ups since the producers (and the EBU) feared that they’d have to cut away very quickly at the first sign of them kissing (also, their lesbian image was forced on them by their producers - don’t forget that they were 14 and 15 when they first got together, so it’s not like they had any say in what they were forced to do. Granted, we should still hold them accountable for the beliefs they’ve expressed since - or specifically one of them, Yuliya - but I don’t think that they were doing queerbaiting or anything like that).

And yes, the vocal performance on the night was pretty bad, but it actually works? At least, in my opinion, the vocals they had fit with the song pretty well, but then, I’ve never cared about vocals too much. And I don’t think I need to even say that this is one of the songs from this year that have made it on my playlist.

Also, the commentators (I’m still watching this with the Russian commentary btw, I tried finding a recording with Ukrainian commentary, but I just couldn’t) were surprisingly reserved about supporting them. Of course, they were happy for them and told everyone to support the girls, but they didn’t go over-the-top, just some classy positivity. If only some other commentators could be more like this.

Also also, here’s a fun fact: Yuliya and Yelena started their musical career in a child band called Neposedy. Do you know who else was in that band at the time? Sergey Lazarev. This means that all former members of Neposedy got 3rd place in Eurovision.

Spain - Dime

Performed by
Beth
Language
Spanish

In my personal opinion, this is one of the best Spanish entries ever. It just has that characteristic Spanish sound to it and an impeccable performance that make this absolutely irresistible to anyone watching it. The melody is incredibly sticky in both the verses and the chorus, and I love the way it transitions between them. Sadly, I can’t really articulate exactly why I love it, it’s the kind of good song that’s just all around good, with no specific part that sticks out as being better than the rest. But honestly, it’s a good thing, it simply means that a song was thought out well and every part (the vocals, the melody, the performance, the lyrics etc) all fit together harmoniously and coherently. I don’t think I need to mention that this is one of the entries I have on my playlist and revisit quite often.

Israel - Words for Love

Performed by
Lior Narkis
Language
Hebrew

Oh my god, yes, thank you, Israel, for going back to sending fun, upbeat, danceable minor-key entries, it’s like going back to the 80s (in a good way). It’s an immense amount of fun and has a super sticky melody. The brief phrases/words in other languages don’t bother me at all and, in fact, add a certain something to this song. Plus the backing singers do what most Israeli backing singers have always done (and what a lot of backing singers started to do in general) and did some dancing. Granted, it doesn’t stand out as much because, as I just said, everyone was doing that by now, but still, it’s really fun. I always found this song to be extremely underrated (both by the fandom and the real life results), but I’ve liked it since first listen. And, luckily, it’s on Spotify, so adding it to my playlist was trivial.

Netherlands - One More Night

Performed by
Esther Hart
Language
English

Since this is the first song of the second half (not that people split songs into halves before 2013), there was a short break for interviewing performers in the green room while some channels ran ads. It’s another way in which this contest defined the future of Eurovision as this would become the standard way of entertaining the viewers in ad-less countries.

As for the song, I really like it. I think it has a very well-made instrumental and a catchy chorus, combined with a really good performance. I especially love the part before the key change that only has the percussion, there’s something about this musical trope that makes me happy. In general, there’s really nothing I dislike here, and quite a lot of things that I like. Sure, it’s radio-friendly, but we shouldn’t scoff at radio-friendly entries, there are a lot of good ones. Just like with a lot of entries today, I can’t exactly pinpoint why I like it, I just do. I find it joyous and nice to listen to and it never fails to lift my mood. So I don’t think I need to say that I have it on my playlist (and, luckily, it was on Spotify, so I didn’t need to do anything extra).

United Kingdom - Cry Baby

Performed by
Jemini
Language
English

Alright, it’s really hard to defend this entry in any way. The performance was absolutely dire, and the song itself isn’t much better. But. I still like it. I do, I actually find this to be a lot of fun. I know that I tend to dislike UK entries, so why do I like this? Well, it’s simple: it’s a very earnest attempt. At its core, it’s a pleasant song, but that obviously didn’t come through in the live performance. However, I’m inclined to believe them that their in-ears weren’t working for one simple reason: they might be off-key, but they’re consistently off-key. They aren’t just trying to find the right note, they believe that they found it and only move to the correct one after the first chorus. And another killer argument: we have the footage of the dress rehearsal and they sound fine in it. I mean, it still isn’t an outstanding performance, but it’s fine. It might not even have scored so poorly if that was the live performance. But the idea that it was some kind of “retaliation” for the Iraq war is absolutely ridiculous because Poland was also part of that and scored seventh place anyway. It’s just absolutely idiotic cope.

However, I still have to question the choice of the British public and the BBC. Because 2003 was the year the BBC decided to switch to counting the televotes by region instead of aggregating them from the whole country. In 2002, Jessica Garlick got around 64k votes and won and that was that. This year, the UK was split into six regions: Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland each counted as one region and England was split into three: Northern England, the Midlands and Southern England. Each of the regions could award 12, 10 and 9 points to three of the four songs in the final (which is a very stupid system). Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Northern England each awarded their 12 points to Jemini, but the Midlands and Southern England gave 12 points to Emily Reed with her ballad Save Me. And I honestly believe that it would’ve been a much better choice. With very few ballads in the competition, it would’ve stood out a lot amongst the upbeat entries and probably earned the UK a decent score (probably a lower top 10 result). And here’s the kicker, it most likely would’ve won under the old system as the Midlands and Southern England account for about 50% of the UK’s population. So it very well could be that the BBC shot themselves in the foot with the voting system they introduced.

Ukraine - Hasta la vista

Performed by
Olexandr
Language
English

And we’re finally here, at our debut. We’re here and ready to slay, but not right away - our broadcaster will need one more night year to figure out how to do well in Eurovision (“do well” is a bit of an understatement, but eh). For now, it made sense to send Olexandr Ponomariov, as he was very popular at the time. It also made sense to involve Svika Pick, the composer of Diva, since he clearly knew how to do his job. While I don’t like the operatic start, the rest of the song is some decent, if absolutely forgettable, pop. As someone who knows nearly every 2003 entry by heart, I wouldn’t be able to hum this entry at all, maybe a tiny part of the chorus. And the stop before the key change just annoys me to no end. Still, this entry scoring fourteenth place probably gave our broadcaster (and our artists) enough confidence to iterate on the approach. But as it stands, this is a resounding forgettable meh. But it is a little nostalgic for me because my mum used to have it on a CD she played in the car a lot.

Greece - Never Let You Go

Performed by
Mando
Language
English

After a bunch of upbeat entries, I’m really glad to see something slower and more reserved, a bit ballad-like, though I wouldn’t call it a ballad. At best, it’s a pop ballad because it sounds a lot like a pop song. But I still really like it, Mando sings really well, the lyrics are good, and her diction is good as well (I think it’s more important in slow songs like this). On the whole, it’s another entry that just comes together. I even like the high-pitched pseudo-screams that she does from time to time - they actually improve the entry for me. And I like it enough to put it on my playlist.

Norway - I’m Not Afraid to Move On

Performed by
Jostein Hasselgård
Language
English

Honestly, yes, the lyrics here might be a bit janky, but they also still make a lot of sense if you fill in the blanks. They feel like disjointed thoughts of someone very unsure of themselves and their relationship - or life in general - and I can definitely relate to that. Plus, it’s a piano ballad, and you all know I’m a sucker for those. He also performs it beautifully and makes it easy for me to relate to him. It’s honestly really easy to see why it came fourth (though by a pretty significant margin) - with most entries being upbeat, a slow song like this stands out, and with the majority of viewers having, at best, a rudimentary understanding of English, they don’t care about the lyrics. All they see is a handsome guy singing his heart out and respond to him. And so do I, I just can’t not put it on my playlist.

After the performance, the Russian commentators mentioned Norway’s lack of luck in Eurovision and that they god zero points four times and said that they hope that nobody will have zero points at the end of this show as every country put forwards very strong candidates. And, from my commentary so far, you can see that I completely agree with them, though I couldn’t help but chuckle at this comment.

France - Monts et merveilles

Performed by
Louisa Baïleche
Language
French

Yes, her hair did get mysteriously messed up during one of the wide shots. No, I don’t care about that one bit, even if I find it a bit strange that she didn’t fix it at any point later, as she had many opportunities to do so. But it doesn’t take away from the entry in any way, it’s just a slightly funny thing that happens during it, so it actually adds to it in a way.

The reason I don’t care about that is because this song is absolutely amazing. Louisa just simply feels the lyrics and absolutely makes me believe what she’s singing. She’s melancholic during the verses and introspective during the chorus, but she still gives off incredible strength and determination. There’s something about seeing someone that looks so fragile manage to look so strong that activates some neurons in me. Also, huge props for making the “lalala"s and “nanana"s during the opening and the breakdown not only work, but improve the song.

But the part that really seals the deal for me is the instrumental. It’s easily one of the best compositions of this year. It has my favourite kind of progression: adding new instruments. It starts off simple, just with a piano, but an acoustic guitar kicks in at the end of the first verse, which always hypes me up. In a way, it acts as preparation for the chorus, as it brings percussion and an electric guitar with it and really ups the energy. I also absolutely love the breakdown and the way the second verse transitions into it. Instruments don’t just abruptly disappear - they slowly recede throughout the whole verse until only the drums and some chimes remain. That makes the chorus that follows just that much more satisfying. It also has a great ending, with every instrument being wrapped up logically and satisfyingly. I think it’s much better than Je n’ai que mon âme or Il faut du temps and it’s a bit disappointing to see that it scored way lower than both.

Poland - Keine Grenzen – Żadnych granic

Performed by
Ich Troje
Language
German, Polish, Russian

This one is probably the most Eurovisiony of all entries this year, but not in a standard and boring way. I’ve said that I like multilingual songs before, but only when they combine the languages in a natual way. For example, It’s Just A Game from 1973 pulls this kind of trope perfectly. And here’s another entry that mixes three languages together very naturally and seamlessly transitions between them.

In the same way, the combination of German, Polish and Russian feels very natural and well-executed. There’s nothing jarring here, unlike in many entries that switch their language at some point in the song. And I think it’s because it was designed around these languages. They didn’t just add a different language to appeal to more people like a week before Eurovision. Instead, they added these languages to appeal to more people right from the start while they were writing and composing it. Because yes, they obviously added them to make sure the German and Russian speakers enjoyed this song more, but there’s no shame in that, it’s a perfectly valid strategy.

So why exactly does it feel natural? Well, it’s probably because two different people sing the song. The fact that the female member sings in Polish while the male member sings in German helps our ears adapt to the changes between the languages much better. And since the change to Russian comes after the change to Polish, it, once again, feels natural as both are Slavic languages, even if they aren’t the closest relatives ever.

But the actual reason I like this song is its symbolism, incorporating German and Russian, both of which are languages of states that have fought with Poland for centuries. In a way, this is an offering of peace and unity, a proposal to stop fighting and start working together. And it’s all done in a very sincere way that makes me include this among the very few peace ballads I actually like (because I think I’ve made my opinion on most peace ballads apparent).

Latvia - Hello from Mars

Performed by
F.L.Y.
Language
English

This is the first time a host entry has placed outside of the top ten since 1992 (in fact, it’s the first time a host entry placed in the bottom five since 1992). Did it deserve to do so poorly? Well, kinda, I suppose. It’s a far cry from this year’s high standards, but I still find it charmingly naff. First of all, like so many other songs this year, it provides a bit of a break between two entries. However, while Ireland acted as a breather between two musically hectic songs, this acts as an English-language break between two songs with crazy language gimmicks (in a good way, you should all know by now that I almost never mean the word “gimmick” in a bad way). Which means that, yeah, I have it on my playlist.

Belgium - Sanomi

Performed by
Urban Trad
Language
Imaginary

During the postcard, the male Russian commentator said that this was his favourite, which is just so nice. Not all commentators can admit that they prefer a song from a country different from their own.

This entry asks a very important question: are lyrics actually important? While a lot of countries switched to singing entirely in English or at least incorporated some parts in English, Belgium decided to forgo using real language at all, despite having 4 languages to choose from (their native French, Dutch and German, as well as English), as Terry Wogan snarked in his commentary. And he was right, why did they do this? Didn’t they understand that they had to sing in English to get a good result? After all, it was impossible to win with a non-English song (I’m being sarcastic, obviously).

As the Russian commentator said, this group aims to bring folk music back into the mainstream. It’s an admirable task, as folk music was considered boring and outdated at the time (and it still kind of is - a lot of people still dislike plain folk music). The way they decided to do it is nothing short of genius: they made folk music that feels culturally neutral. At first, that might seem like a contradiction since folk music is based on a specific group’s traditions and history, so how can you detach it from a culture? Well, what’s the biggest differentiator between cultures? The answer is simple: language. If you can make a song in a language that’s equally unfamiliar to everyone, you can, counterintuitively, make people relate more to it, not less.

This is why this specific entry succeeded. This is why people connected with it enough to make a complete outsider in the odds finish second. Being equally removed from every culture really helped it. After all, nobody had any advantage at understanding the lyrics, everyone started out on equal footing and made their own interpretations. Is it a peace song? Is it a traditional folk song? Does it carry some other meaning? Everyone got to decide for themselves, to put their own biases into it, since we (as in, humanity) love categorising stuff. But they were really assisted by the live performance. The lead singers perform a lot of hand movements that add some appearance of meaning and let our brains grip onto them and produce some analysis, despite them not being grounded in anything. And that’s this entry’s strongest side: it doesn’t actually have meaning - or, at the very least, no discernible meaning.

But that’s not to say that it’s meaningless. It’s kinda like life - it’s lack of meaning is its meaning. The intent behind it seems to have been to let everyone make their own interpretations and they’ve definitely succeeded at that. To me, the message of this song is exactly what it appears to be on the surface: let’s put our differences aside and celebrate what we have in common. It’s made even more powerful by the fact that they’re Belgians, a country where both Flemish and Walloon people are fiercely proud of their language, so a band that has people from both groups saying this is even more of a powerful statement that it would’ve been otherwise.

But there’s another thing, and this one is specific to me. The truth is that I actually don’t care about lyrics all that much. You might’ve noticed that I very rarely comment on lyrics - usually only when they’re exceptionally good (or exceptionally bad). For the most part, I really don’t pay attention to them - someone could be singing about baking a cake or singing na na na, and I really just wouldn’t care at all. So this is the big test for me: does knowing that a song has no meaning lessen the impact for me in any way? And actually, no, it doesn’t. I still don’t really care that the lyrics are nonsensical; they sound realistic enough for me to be satisfied. In fact, I treat the vocals as another instrument here, not as their own thing, which means it’s closer to purely instrumental tracks for me than to vocal music. Case in point, listening to this doesn’t break my concentration while reading, unlike most songs with vocals.

Also, I want to praise them a bit for managing to make the conlang the song is in sound realistic. First of all, it has the most widespread configuration of vowels: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/. If vowel systems were foods, then the five-vowel system would be water. It’s used by languages all over the world, most of which aren’t related to each other. The consonants are also all very common: /m/ and /n/ as nasals; /p/, /t/, /d/, /k/ and /g/ as plosives (notice the lack of /b/ - this isn’t that uncommon, Finnish lacks both /b/ and /g/ in native words despite having /p/ and /k/), just /s/ and /h/ as fricatives (lacking an /f/ is uncommon, but not rare) and finally /l/, /r/ (though it’s closer to /ɾ/ in my opinion) and /j/. In fact, there’s one language that matches this set of phonemes almost exactly: Japanese. It has /b/ and /z/ and lacks /l/, but it’s very close otherwise. The phonotactics seem to be a little different as well, with Sanomish (I have no idea if it’s got a real name) only allowing (C)V syllables, more in line with Hawaiian (for example) than Japanese, but that’s to be expected, I doubt they were trying to copy Japanese and a lot of people prefer the sound of languages with open syllables anyway, so this was definitely the correct choice. Also, despite the transcriptions of this song using both <l> and <ll>, it doesn’t seem to differentiate between short and long consonants (or vowels). I also haven’t really been able to tell the word order, but it definitely seems like a pro-drop language from the first look, as there aren’t any words that look like pronouns. In general, it’s hard to say which words belong to which part of speech and I’m not sure if the band thought about it themselves. I don’t believe it’s a fully developed conlang fit for communication, just a collection of nice-sounding words.

It really is an immense effort that really tried to stand out from the rest of the songs and massively succeeded. But here’s the thing: would it have been a better winner than Turkey? I really don’t think so. Like I said before, Turkey’s win really transformed Eurovision for the better, and I’m really not sure Belgium winning instead would’ve done the same. After all, Everyway That I Can was a pretty sizeable hit in Europe, which was pretty rare for a Eurovision entry in those days. It also showed the importance of good staging and a memorable performance. Would this have done the same? Probably not. Worse than that, other countries might’ve taken the wrong lesson out of this, and we would’ve had 2008 five years earlier. So, in a way, I’m really glad this ended up placing second - plus, everyone gets to complain that it was robbed, which is the favourite pastime of eurofans.

Estonia - Eighties Coming Back

Performed by
Ruffus
Language
English

This year, Estonia had a truly stupid voting system in Eurolaul. They had juries and a televote, which sounds pretty normal, but, of course, I wouldn’t be bringing it up if it actually was normal. Only the votes from the juries counted towards the final results, so they selected this entry. The televote overwhelmingly votes for an entry by Vanilla Ninja called Club Kung-Fu. And honestly, I don’t have a single clue as to what possessed ETV to do this. It’s obvious that the televote would’ve known better what to select for a televote-only contest than the juries.

That said, I still think that this is a good song. The title really says it all, it’s a parody of late-80s and early-90s britpop. It really has a bit of a Blur vibe that really appeals to me, but slightly toned down. It serves this entry really well, and I just can’t not enjoy the piano here. But it’s the kind of good song that I don’t have a lot to say about, except that it’s good. Also, the band already broke up before Eurovision, they only performed because they didn’t want to fail their country. I would’ve liked to put more of their songs on my playlist aside from this one.

Romania - Don’t Break My Heart

Performed by
Nicola
Language
English

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for this entry. It might not be the most musically complex song (I mean, drum and bass music rarely is), but it’s just so much fun. I think that Nicola’s voice really fits it and enhances the song, even though it’s probably this song’s most divisive element. I also really like the staging, even if it’s a bit over-the-top and campy, but you all know me, I like camp. Plus, it actually tries to covey a story with it, not just grab your attention, which will become more and more popular as time goes on.

Also, it really reminds me of Freestyler, which was absolutely everywhere in the 2000s (especially at school discos), but the synths are especially similar. Now, I’m not saying it was plagiarised or anything, just that it reminds me of another song - one that I find really nostalgic. But I still would’ve liked it, even if it didn’t remind me of anything, which is why I added it to my playlist after the first time I heard it.

Sweden - Give Me Your Love

Performed by
Fame
Language
English

While this song might be extremely Swedish (affectionate), I still think it’s really good. It has a very catchy melody that just sticks around in your head for days after listening to it (though it might just be a me problem, since I already know nearly every song from this year by heart) and the performers actually have chemistry on stage. I know that a lot of people compare it to ABBA, but I honestly can’t hear it, it sounds nothing like ABBA or the kind of sound ABBA brought into the Swedish musical industry. This just sounds very normal and radio-friendly, but in a nice, enjoyable way, so it’s, of course, a part of my playlist.

Slovenia - Nanana

Performed by
Karmen
Language
English

The Russian commentators committed the ultimate commentary sin and talked over the intro of this song (granted, they just had a lot to say about Karmen’s background, like the bands she sang with and that she’s a prolific songwriter and writes all of her own songs).

As for the song, I think it’s a really nice ending. It’s fun, upbeat and catchy and has a pretty nice performance (ugly costuming aside). The lyrics are highly questionable, for example, the fire/desire/higher/liar rhyme in the chorus and naming the song Nanana (which is a very forgettable title), but honestly, I’m willing to forgive it for this because it’s just so joyful and catchy, enough for me to make it the 24th and final song from this year that has made it to my playlist.

Final thoughts

I’m sure that this review has shown you that I’m a bit of a fan of this year. But I just can’t dislike it. It really is the template year for pretty much every modern Eurovision. In my 1997 review, I said that it was the first modern-feeling year, and I stand by that, but 2003 is another huge leap forward. And, unlike a lot of the previous years, I liked the majority of the songs and didn’t truly dislike any of them because even the songs at the bottom are just meh, not bad. And it’s clear that Europe thought that at least two of these songs were worth listening to again since both Everyway That I Can and Ne ver’, ne boysia charted across Europe. It was pretty rare for Eurovision winners to chart, let alone third places. Plus a couple songs like Give Me Your Love and Never Let You Go charted in their own countries, which is also a good indication that the song had some appeal. It really shows that ESC was finally ready to embrace modern music that the general public liked.

As the recap goes on (still with clips from the rehearsals, since the UK song is on key), the Russian commentators remind everyone of the name of the performer(s) and the song, keep reminding the viewers that they can’t vote since Russia is using a jury and so on. Since the Russian broadcast went on an ad break instead of showing the interval act, I watched it uncommentated. I actually really like it, even though I wish it was performed live on stage instead of being pre-recorded, but I don’t actually mind it not being live too much, it’s still a lot of fun - and I always appreciate when countries showcase their musical diversity, including the fact that they can produce music that conforms to global styles (and I also like the parrot during the classical music segment).

But, as we all know, the truly exciting part of this year is the voting. I’m so glad that the auto-sorting scoreboard was introduced this year because I don’t think the voting sequence would’ve been anywhere near as exciting as it was without it. But, before this, there’s another big first for Eurovision: the green room is actually integrated into the stage. From this point on, quite a few of the years will follow this and do the same (including the most recent year - 2024). I think it really adds a lot to the contest, especially for the people watching it live from the arena as they get to see the artists’ reactions live.

Now, I won’t bore you with an overlong description of the voting, but this year is worth watching just for the voting alone. But before the voting began, Sarah Yuen, the Executive Supervisor for this contest (and only this contest), announced that from 2004 onwards, Eurovision would finally get semifinals. Or rather, a single semifinal for now, which is already an insane improvement on the relegation system and an infinitely better way of admitting countries to the final. Now, she said that it would be held “the day before the final”, but we all know that the 2004 semifinal was held on a Wednesday, but I’m sure they hadn’t worked out the exact details by that point. But man, I’m so glad that it’s finally being brought in, I’m so tired of relegation and thinking about all of the entries we probably missed.

Throughout the voting, the Russian commentators kept an upbeat and cheerful atmosphere, being very happy whenever Russia got any points at all and extra happy when they got high marks, but also being happy for Belgium, Norway and Turkey when they got points as well. They also chuckled at the mistakes made by the spokesperson for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but not meanly, more endearingly. Even from the start, you could tell that this would be a close one. Even halfway through the voting, there was no clear leader, with the votes being spread around as if the voters were rolling dice. But I want to give a quick recap of the final five sets of votes: the ones from Belgium, Estonia, Romania, Sweden and, most importantly, Slovenia. After Latvia voted, only four countries could still take the prize: Belgium with a 19-point lead over Turkey, Turkey with just 3 points ahead of Russia and, theoretically, Norway, though it was obvious that they were out by that point. And the votes from Belgium Belgium did indeed put an end to their chances, as well as close the gap between Belgium and Turkey to just 7 points and the gap between Turkey and Russia to a mere 15 points.

After Belgium, it was Estonia’s turn to vote, and they awarded 8 points to Belgium and 12 points to Russia, completely ignoring Turkey. This allowed Russia to temporarily take second place, still behind Belgium, as Turkey fell to third. The votes from Romania would actually widen the gap between Belgium and Russia by just one point as they awarded 7 points to Russia, 8 points to Belgium and 10 points to Turkey. After this, the standings were as follows: Belgium first with 162 points, Russia second with 150 points and Turkey a very close third with 149 points. By this point, it seemed like Belgium had it in hand and Eurovision 2004 would be held in Brussels, but we still had votes from Sweden and Slovenia. Sweden did something unthinkable and completely blanked Belgium and awarded just 2 points to Russia, just enough to keep them in the race, as well as gave 8 points to Turkey.

Even with 26 countries awarding points, it all came down to the last set of votes from Slovenia. They could still make sure that either of the three countries won. For Russia to win, they’d need to get 12 points and for Belgium to get nothing. Before giving the results, the Slovenian spokesperson dragged on a little, making some jokes, but it was charming because he was still the only one doing that. And he did something extremely important: gave just 3 points to Belgium. This would make sure that Russia would not be able to win anymore, even if they received 12 points. This meant that Belgium’s strong lead that it held since the early stages of the voting has finally evaporated. But if Turkey received 8 or less points, Belgium would still win (by a tiebreak if Turkey was awarded 8). Unfortunately for Urban Trad and fortunately for Sertab Erener, Slovenia awarded 10 points to Turkey, cementing their victory. And even 12 points to Russia made them finish just third.

This was an absolutely monumental voting sequence, the last one with a proper cliffhanger where nobody knew who’d win until the last set of votes. Since the BBC has released the full voting breakdown, we know that the margin between Belgium and Turkey in the UK was just 7k votes, and it’s hard to imagine it was any different in most countries. Just a couple thousand people changing their minds could’ve led to an entirely different outcome for this year, affecting every other year as well. The current system creates enough suspense that I still find voting fun to watch, but the 2004-2015 iteration resulted in early landslides for the most part and made the voting quite a boring affair. Still, if that’s the price we had to pay for a more fair contest, then I’m fine with that.

On that note, I’m going to bid you all goodbye and see you all in Istanbul as Eurovision had its most significant set of upgrades and changes yet as I cover both the semifinal and the final in one post.

Results

I had a very hard time with ranking these entries, but this is the ranking that makes me the least unhappy with the positions of the songs. If it were up to me, I’d have 7 joint winners this year and the entries from 8th to 24th as my joint 8th place.

  1. Belgium - Sanomi (+1)
  2. Turkey - Everyway That I Can (-1)
  3. Russia - Ne ver’, ne boysia (=)
  4. France - Monts et merveilles (+14)
  5. Spain - Dime (+3)
  6. Romania - Don’t Break My Heart (+4)
  7. Croatia - Više nisam tvoja (+8)
  8. United Kingdom - Cry Baby (+18)
  9. Israel - Words for Love (+10)
  10. Netherlands - One More Night (+3)
  11. Iceland - Open Your Heart (-3)
  12. Poland - Keine Grenzen – Żadnych granic (-5)
  13. Germany - Let’s Get Happy (-2)
  14. Sweden - Give Me Your Love (-9)
  15. Portugal - Deixa-me sonhar (+7)
  16. Ireland - We’ve Got the World (-5)
  17. Estonia - Eighties Coming Back (+4)
  18. Norway - I’m Not Afraid to Move On (-14)
  19. Greece - Never Let You Go (-2)
  20. Austria - Weil der Mensch zählt (-14)
  21. Malta - To Dream Again (+4)
  22. Latvia - Hello from Mars (+2)
  23. Slovenia - Nanana (=)
  24. Bosnia and Herzegovina - Ne brini (-8)
  25. Ukraine - Hasta la vista (-11)
  26. Cyprus - Feeling Alive (-6)

Winners

  • Austria - 1 (1965)
  • Belgium - 2 (1961, 2003)
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina - 1 (1999)
  • Croatia - 1 (2002)
  • Cyprus - 2 (1992, 1995)
  • Denmark - 2 (1963, 1989)
  • Estonia - 1 (2001)
  • Finland - 2 (1974, 1985)
  • France - 4 (1969, 1976, 1977, 1979)
  • Germany - 3 (1957, 1972, 1978)
  • Iceland - 1 (2000)
  • Israel - 1 (1988)
  • Italy - 3 (1958, 1983, 1990)
  • Luxembourg - 3 (1956, 1964, 1973)
  • Malta - 1 (1991)
  • Monaco - 2 (1968, 1970)
  • Netherlands - 1 (1959)
  • Norway - 2 (1966, 1996)
  • Poland - 1 (1997)
  • Portugal - 2 (1967, 1984)
  • Russia - 1 (1994)
  • Slovenia - 1 (1993)
  • Spain - 2 (1971, 1982)
  • Sweden - 2 (1962, 1980)
  • Switzerland - 2 (1981, 1986)
  • Turkey - 1 (1975)
  • United Kingdom - 2 (1960, 1998)
  • Yugoslavia - 1 (1987)

Fun fact: this whole post contains 10384 words, while my master’s thesis only had 7482 words. This means that I found Eurovision 2003 more important than the project I did for my degree ;)