Austria: Zoë – Loin d’ici
The year after a country hosts Eurovision is always an interesting one. For Austria this is particularly true, as – unlike the likes of Sweden, Denmark and Azerbaijan, their 2014 victory was not the result of a long, committed process of sending competitive entries but a genuine lightning in a bottle moment. Indeed, before Conchita, their record in the modern contest was one of the worst in Europe – with just one qualifying entry from 2005-2013.
So, now that they’ve emerged from the winner’s cycle, will they emerge reinvigorated, or sink back into the mire? As hosts last year they made a concerted effort to put together a half-decent national selection, but ultimately played things too safe and made a disastrous showing on home turf. Another flop could convince their media – and more important their record industry – that Conchita really was just a fluke, preventing other established names from throwing their hats into the ring in the future.
To their credit, they got off to a good start this year by pulling together a genuinely competitive selection of entries for their national final. Admittedly, not many translated particularly well on the night, but the raw materials were there. Emerging victorious was 19 year-old Zoë Straub, who records predominantly in French and was also in the top 3 of the 2015 Austrian national final with the bouncy Quel filou. She capitalised on that success with a top 5 album on the Austrian charts, boosted by the hit single Mon cœur a trop aimé, which was nominated for an Austrian Grammy.
In other words, Zoë brings exactly the kind of pedigree that a country with serious Eurovision ambitions should be looking for. More importantly, she also has an excellent track. Loin d’ici is a beautifully produced pop song that’s highly reminiscent of the early hits of French pop singer Alizée. The choice to sing in French may be something of a head-scratcher for an Austrian singer, but the combination of the string-drenched arrangement and Zoë’s airy vocal register help to create a romantic, dream-like atmosphere that should effectively communicate the meaning of the song. There’s also a strong middle eight and and a good sense of escalating momentum that should keep the audience’s attention throughout the song.
As you can probably tell by this point, I’m a big fan of this sound and of this song. So much so that it’s entirely possible that I’m overrating it. Objectively, there are some clear factors working against this song. Austria’s own non-Conchita record and lack of sympathetic neighbours is one. The kitschy, distracting stage show from the national final is another. Also, no song entirely in the French language has ever qualified from a Eurovision semi-final in the modern age, though admittedly a ragtag handful of Swiss, Monegasque, Belgian and Cypriot efforts is hardly enough of a sample to identify a trend.
To be clear, I don’t think Austria have a potential winner here. In fact, I’d be quite amazed to see this anywhere near the top ten on the Saturday. It just doesn’t have the sort of strong emotional core or sense of drama that tends to attract voters in high volume. What it does have is a very catchy tune and an aura of professionalism that marks it out as easily worthy of a place in the finals. Whether it gets there could depend as much on the quality of the competition as it does on Zoë herself. I have real faith in this one, but it could turn out to be a heartbreaker.