As the Eesti Laul contest built to its climax, hardened, cynical contest veterans were writing their pieces for local media, detailing how they saw that 2014 marked a clean break from pop, and Estonian judges started to form a consensus that they should send a rock song to Eurovision.
Super Hot Cosmos Blues Band came out of the judging round with a convincing points lead Saturday night at the Nokia Concert Hall. When they were pitched against the admirable Tanja Mihhailova, who seemed to carry less weight with the appointed experts, there were many watching who would bet their house on the black-clad bluesmen going to Copenhagen in May.
The men themselves, flanked by three young female backing singers dressed like 1920s Tiller Girls, seemed unruffled. "I wrote ("Maybe-Maybe") while having a nice sauna. I was aiming for more of a blues song, with a desert feel. It's an honest song, I hope people like it," singer Janno Reim said, explaining his languid creative process.
The public voters, as always in televised contests, had other ideas. Possibly the difference in opinion between public and judges was motivated by a wish to punish the judges for the way earlier audience favourite Winny Puhh had been hamstrung by a low judges' vote in 2013.
There is another view, though, and maybe the public saw this — Eurovision is about the show. A great song, a great performance, and enough countries looking upon yours in a favourable light, and you have the chance of a great result in the pan-continental song contest.
A fresh-faced Tanel Padar, together with his partner-in-crime Dave Benton, proved in 2001 that a universal lyric, mixed in with the right amount of hope, danceability and a song with its sense of its own ridiculousness can go a long way. That Estonian success came for a song sung in English, and yet it still brings fond recollections from an international audience for whom it put Estonia on the map.
It is possible that the Estonian public remembered this magic formula when they saw the joy and expression in Tanja's song-and-modern-dance performance, her singing almost note-perfect in spite of her body being thrown around at extraordinary angles. Eurovision experts in the hall were muttering about "Amazing" being at least a top-10 song in May, and now Tanja has a chance to prove them right.
The post-concert adrenaline still pumping, Tanja told ERR, when asked about her chances at Eurovision, "I have NO idea! We're gonna do our best. We'll see what we need to maybe change a little bit — or maybe not — but it's the ultimate thing a person can do."
When asked if she had felt there was an element of increased risk in her high-tempo acrobatic routine, Tanja replied, "of course, but it's what I like to do; I've been doing dance music for seven years now, and danced contemporary since 2001, so we just put the two things together. We trained for a month every day, except for breaks when I had musicals or performances."
There were two former Eurovision representatives at Eesti Laul this year. Vanilla Ninja, the Estonian girl group, represented Switzerland in 2004, and Lenna Kuurmaa was part of that much-loved band, forever marking her as a nation's sweetheart. Lenna had been among the roaring favorites to win Eesti Laul in 2014. Her song "Supernoova" seemed to some to be melodic, but a little too mid-tempo and, whisper it — indie — for Eurovision voters' tastes should it have won Eesti Laul, although the singer said, "It's always a good year for a rock song to win Eesti Laul!"
Seemingly echoing the "back down to earth" sentiment of many of the competitors, she wore high-street clothes, with a see-through white shirt over jeans, presumably hoping to cut through the usual hype to show the sentiment in her music. Though Lenna's performance was heartfelt, she received only a middling level of votes, surprisingly finding herself out of the superfinal play-off reckoning.
The other Eurovision veteran in the ranks, Sandra Nurmsalu, could have given songwriter/producer Sven Lõhmus another Eurovision hit. The songwriter has been a consistent presence in the final stages of Eesti Laul, and Nurmsalu did not disappoint, doing a professional job in spite of a baffling bit of stagecraft, where a bizarre, hydraulic Viking ship rose up, only for the song to end and leave her stranded in mid-air, an unnecessary embellishment to a happy, Latin-themed party tune that might have done Estonia proud in Eurovision.
The audience were left to debate if this was the first example of Eesti Laul chances having been extinguished by a superfluous prop. One thing that can be said for Eesti Laul is that it represents many, if not all, parts of Estonian culture and society. Kõrsikud have never knowingly taken Eesti Laul seriously, but their songs of happy times spent together are always well-received thanks to their very Estonian quality, telling stories with which Estonians can empathise, in a folksy, accessible way.
In a way, Kõrsikud, rather than the aforementioned Winny Puuh, are the ultimate anti-Eesti Laul band, appearing as they do to go against the grain, acting irreverently towards Eurovision, wearing their usual performing clothes to the concert, and generally viewing it like any other gig. This makes them heroes to many, guaranteeing them a strong following.
Traffic took an indie-folk theme, inspired by the Estonian countryside, according to guitarist Stig Rästa. He said the song was "a bit dark, about a girl waiting for her husband to return from the war, somewhere in the 19th century, but I think there's hope in the lyrics." The indie-folk sound has been prevalent for a couple of years in the pop mainstream due to the success of groups like Mumford and Sons.
"Für Elise" demonstrated a full sound with a sense of theater, mandolin and soaring harmonies up front and center. They undoubtedly had one of the strongest tunes of the contest, sounding and appearing like the group of experienced performers they are. We live in the era of the "hipster", with younger people in Tallinn and Tartu adopting a new look that brings modern style together with the music, furniture, cooking and clothes of their Estonian ancestors.
17 year-old Brigita Murutar seemed to embrace this aesthetic experimentation in her Eesti Laul debut with "Laule Täis Taevakaar", arguably the strongest melody of any of the final 10 entrants. The sidecut in her hair, the flowing country-girl dress, the sweet, unaffected song, the sheer hope of her performance — it all seemed to embody a new, young, Estonia, and a break with the stodgy establishment of previous generations. She will be a big star in the future, even though victory was not in the cards this year.
Brigita Murutar may show the way Estonia is going, but the 2014 Eesti Laul demonstrated a battle between the gritty earthiness of a number of guitar bands, and polished dance and pop showpieces. Tanja won the day for pop this time around, and it will be fascinating to find out how her running, leaping, exuberant performance is seen by an international audience.
Stuart Garlick is a journalist and blogger based in Tallinn. Since 2012 his blog, Charm Offensive, has offered insight into Estonian music, fashion and food.