Eesti Laul, First Semi Final: 5 Things We Learned

1. The Set is Modelled on the Estonian Countryside

Oh, Eesti Laul. You have one of the most promising semi-final line-ups in years, and you compliment it with TV coverage that... well... could sure be impoved. I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed. In 2013, ETV had an entertaining set - mannequins that looked like The Stig from Top Gear, flashy angles, and a sense that the acts and the audience were right on top of the action. This year, we have a set designed, seemingly, so that the stars and audience are as far from the presenters and performers as possible. The effect is rather like watching a football match being played in a half-full ground. The bright whites of previous years have been replaced by a moodier black, and everything feels like it could do with an extra lighting rig. The feeling, on reflection, is that the set reflects the oft-quoted sentiment that Estonians love huge amounts of personal space. But there's a difference between elbow-room, and being miles away from what's happening.

2. The Presenters Look Ill-Matched
Helen Sürje holds the thing together with maturity and precision, but Henrik Kalmet seems way too pleased with himself. In fact, watching them anchor the show together is like watching one of those male-female movies where two completely unsuited people (say, Julia Stiles and Luke Wilson) are thrown together, and the man has to stop his wisecracking ways for the sake of the plot's resolution. Don't get me wrong, I love how the programme's producers have clearly spent time looking at the way British and American music shows laugh at themselves, as happened in Simon Amstell's Popworld, for example. The difference is, I never want to shout at the screen when I watch Simon Amstell, because he maintains a fundamental likeability, as opposed to Kalmet's overarching smugness.

3. The Two Pundits Are Superfluous
Someone at ETV has clearly spent a lot of time watching past series of The X-Factor and asking what makes the show popular. Unfortunately, the answer they returned with was not, "Simon Cowell's incisive and honest judging", but "that bit when Sharon Osbourne threw water over Louis Walsh". Last year's show was far too stiff and buttoned-up, but the answer is to have artist profiles, to let us into their world, to give us an idea how they came up with the song, not to give us a sideshow. Indrek Vaheoja tries his best to comment in a considered manner on the song and the outfit, but Peeter Oja makes that all but impossible, through the oft-overlooked debating tactic of bellowing at people until they listen to him. By the end of the show, the pundits looked like they wanted to kill each other. We watch Eesti Laul to listen to a song, and hear the artist talk about it. When pundits are neither reflecting the view of the fan on the street, nor providing expert insight into the songwriting or performing process, they're useless.

4. The Performers Just Don't Seem Comfortable
The studio environment doesn't seem to bring out the best in the performers. Tanja got a lot of heat on social media, good and bad, for her performance, but her Kate Bush-meets-Loreen stagecraft for "Amazing" showed invention and ingenuity - and some awesome modern dance moves. Nonetheless, she seemed relieved to go through to the final. State of Zoe surprisingly dropped out after that first semi-final, in spite of a cool, promising song. They seem like a band best suited to audiences being right up against them, to soaking up the atmosphere - yet the characterless set seemed to drain energy from all of the performers, and it was such a shame.

August Hunt seemed to have the tune needed to do well at Eurovision, but didn't get a further chance to prove it (the song was called "Kus on Exit?", and he got his answer quickly). Lenna, who made it through, seemed baffled by the bizarre, disjointed format that the coverage took, and although she sang with precision and authority, I still can't believe "Seal Kus Jäljed Kaovad Maast", an epic song, was not her Eesti Laul choice. Thanks to Nimmerschmidt missing out, we've lost a song that sounds pleasantly like The Lotus Eaters' "First Picture of You". Still, whatever the rights and wrongs of who left the competition, at least we have Kõrsikud progressing. It wouldn't be the same show without them.

5.  All that Success? It Was Down to Anu Saagim
It came as a surprise when Super Hot Cosmos Blues Band made it through to the final. Their lyrics seemed an afterthought, and they relied too heavily for their overall "look" on three attractive, but incongruous, female backing singers. But the main surprise came when it was revealed that Anu Saagim, the Estonian publishing icon, was behind their success. You could tell this by the way she remained standing to milk the applause slightly longer than the band. Still, if Estonia is represented at Eurovision by a song that is reminiscent of Kasabian covering Depeche Mode in about 2005, we know who to thank.