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Melodifestivalen wouldn’t be Melodifestivalen without a little controversy. Last night it all centred around the voting – with contest veterans Eric Saade and Jessica Andersson progressing to the finals while hotly tipped debutants Molly Pettersson Hammar and Rickard Söderberg & Elize Ryd crashing out in 6th and 5th place respectively.

The conspiracy theories point towards possible flaws in the new system that allows users to vote for free using a downloadable app. The speculation that the app took too long to set up and didn’t start working until the later songs were being performed (Molly was drawn first, while Jessica and Eric were 6th and 7th in the running order) has caused something of an outcry in the Swedish press, stoked by the understandable disappointment of the eliminated artists.

The show’s producers have denied that the app voting had any impact on who did and didn’t qualify, and while of course they would say that, I think a closer look at both the performances and how Melodifestivalen viewers historically tend to vote reveals that last night’s results really weren’t as shocking as people are making out.

Three minutes to impress

Jessica Andersson

The reason Melodifestivalen works so well as a national final is that it’s easily the closest replication of Eurovision itself in terms of scale and format. As in Eurovision, no matter what the pre-contest hype might say, a lot of it ultimately comes down to how effectively you harness those three minutes of stage time.

However, it would be foolish to ignore the additional recognition factor. Several of the artists tonight were big stars who would have been familiar to the viewers at home. Looking back over previous years, the first semi final tends to find Swedish viewers voting quite conservatively. This makes sense – Melodifestivalen is a cultural institution, and the first week is almost a welcome back party. It’s not that surprises can’t happen – look at Ellen Benediktson slipping past Helena Paparizou last year – but on the whole they tend to happen later on.

The most controversial result of the evening was almost certainly Molly Pettersson Hammar crashing out in sixth place. Her entry I’ll Be Fine was a very strong modern pop song and she delivered a show-stopping vocal that many thought would take her straight to the final. Instead she didn’t even make it to the second round of voting.

Molly Pettersson Hammar

For my money, Molly should at the very least have gone to AC, but the combined disadvantages of an early draw, a relatively low level of name recognition and Eric Saade cannibalising much of the youth oriented vote are probably a fair explanation of why she fell through the cracks. Also, while she sang well, her performance felt a little tentative, and she didn’t make much connection with the camera. When you’re fighting an uphill battle from the get-go, these things can really make a difference.

It’s not all bad news though – whether or not app voting contributed to her undoing, she’ll probably be invited back next year on the back of the controversy, and with considerably more goodwill on her side. I don’t expect we’ve seen the last of her.

Daniel Gildenlöw was more or less dead on arrival. I did wonder if he might pick up some kind of anti-pop vote, but Pappa just didn’t make any impact on the big stage. The dark, claustrophobic staging and his intense expression combined for a depressing, unappealing package that deservedly finished at the bottom of the pile.

Rickard Söderberg & Eliza Ryd were the other big surprise of the evening. Rickard is a popular television personality, the song had bags of drama and it sounded like nothing else on the night – it should have been a no brainer for advancement.

Rickard Söderberg & Elize Ryd

When the 30 second clips were unveiled I had One By One down as a finalist. However, when it came to the full performance, something just didn’t connect. The verses were flat and dull, and didn’t gel properly with the chorus. Rickard and Elize had no chemistry onstage – they were separated for far too long and barely seem to look at each other – with the result that the whole thing felt rather inert and a lot longer than 3 minutes. A big missed opportunity, more time spent on this in the studio and more thought into how it was to be staged could have turned this into a real moment, but instead it wound up feeling like a forgotten offcut from Phantom of the Opera.

Dolly Style provided the clear marmite performance of the evening. An exuberant J-pop pastiche with more than a hint of Barbie Girl-era Aqua, Hello Hi will have played well with younger viewers and fans of old-school bubblegum pop alike, enough to carry the girls to AC. Eyebrows may be raised that it qualified over the more ‘quality’ Molly PH track, but ultimately this had far less competition for the kind of voters it was appealing to.

Dolly Style

Behrang Miri provided one of the most chart-friendly entries of the evening with Det rår vi inte för, and found himself joining Dolly Style in AC. This was a solid performance that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see in the final, but like Molly I expect Eric Saade took away enough of his potential voters to leave him in third or fourth.

With Eric widely (and correctly) seen as a foregone conclusion, it’s Jessica Andersson‘s advancement to the finals that has been the cause of mild outrage. However, rather than benefiting from inflated app voting, I think the main reason she succeeded is that she presented a very strong, professional performance that ticked all the right boxes. Can’t Hurt Me Now is a classy, well constructed song (it reminds me of something Faith Hill would have had a hit with), she sang it beautifully and her years of experience allowed her to sell it as well to the camera as she did to the audience.

It’s important to remember that Melodifestivalen is as popular with older viewers as it is with young pop fans – possibly moreso – and I strongly suspect she will have dominated that demographic. Factor in her considerable popularity and a song that was very on-brand for her personal narrative, and the only surprise is that people are so surprised this sailed to the finals.

Eric Saade & Jessica Andersson

Eric Saade, of course, barely needs to be analysed. I suspect 80% of the staging budget went towards his performance, and the pre-contest hype established pretty clearly that the other contenders were merely a warm-up to his arrival. For my money, the song isn’t as strong as it could have been, although as a whole package it’s certainly convincing enough to near-guarantee him a top 3 place at the finals. I’m not convinced it’s good enough to win, but that all depends what the next three heats throw up.

Next week, 2014 breakout Linus Svenning, a potential Banan-esque novelty hit from Samir & Viktor, and old-school favourites Magnus Carlsson, Marit Bergman and Sanne Salomonsen. Will the results be equally controversial?