Eurovision staging – getting it right and wrong

Eurovision is not just about the songs; it’s about how they’re sold. I explained this in one of my top ten tips articles written before the 2010 contest, entitled The Vision Thing.

Our comments section following last year’s event reiterated the importance of staging, as fiveleaves noted just after the final. A return look at 2011 winner ‘Running Scared’ reveals a rather weaker song than I had remembered, but it was extremely well presented.

So, with rehearsals about to begin for the 2012 edition, here’s a look at some of the best and worst examples of staging in recent years between comparable songs. It might give us a few reminders about what works and what doesn’t – before this year’s entrants show us what they’ve come up with.

Song Type: The Upbeat Fan Favourite

Best Practice: Sweden 2006 – Carola ‘Invincible’

Bad Practice: Hungary 2011 – Kati Wolf ‘What About My Dreams?’

Here we have two songs that spend the first verse building anticipation for the hands-in-the-air schlager anthems to follow.

Carola, a former Eurovision winner, is a true professional on stage, ensuring eye contact with every camera shot, working the stage with purpose, able to move and sing well at the same time. Kati, on the other hand, is far more static throughout. When she does move in the final thirty seconds, it feels much more aimless, which is compounded by the long camera shots involved.

Now compare how each performance makes use of the backing team on stage. Carola’s enter with purpose using the big visual statement of the flags. These nicely mimic the fluttering gown Carola wore for the first minute, which both make use of the full-on wind machine Sweden have deployed. There are some nice co-ordinated moments between the dancers and Carola, especially after the second chorus and for the final flourish. Overall, there is a great sense of movement.

Instead of flags, Hungary’s backing dancers have the visual gimmick of wearing, erm, light thingies on their hooded outfits. Their moves are far more removed from both Kati and the song itself. They are static for the song’s most uplifting final part. There is no sense of coordination between the singer and dancers at all. The backing singers are not vocally that strong. Overall there is a very limited sense of movement.

Sure, it’s hilarious how Carola’s unruly lips quiver in the face of a sixty-knot gale, and the whole effect is ridiculously sparkly, but there’s no doubting that the Swedish team knew exactly what it was doing at every moment of presenting this song. On the other hand, it felt like the Hungarians were at a complete loss about how to stage their number effectively.

Song Type: Ethno Drama

Best Practice: Greece 2011 – Loukas Yiorkas ‘Watch My Dance’

Bad Practice: Croatia 2010 – Femminem ‘Lako je Sve’

On paper, the Greek song had a more difficult task given its uncomfortable amalgam of two different styles. Just how badly that could come across was displayed in the national final, yet it was transformed on the Eurovision stage, whereas the presentation of the Croatian number wasn’t.

The Greeks know their choreography. The dancers are busy for the rap parts, giving us something to distract us from Stereo Mike. They remain still for Loukas’s first and second part, so that we happily focus on him and his vocals. Loukas himself adopts a less-is-more approach, unbuttoning his jacket just before the dramatic bridge of the song, and briefly doing a Greek twirl himself but only by way of encouraging some excellent solo movement by one of the backing dancers for the instrumental. During the final chorus, the acrobatics and pyrotechnics are cranked up for a worthy climax.

What with the style of dancing and the ionic columns in the backdrop, I jokingly referred to the presentation as ‘My Big Fat Greek Eurovision staging’ in my rehearsal blog that evening. This played very well with its core support. Additionally, the fiery effect in the backdrop was blue rather than the more damaging red and black, which also provided a nice contrast with the copious fireworks in the final moments.

The staging of Croatia feels much more low-rent in comparison. The three girls, despite the nice bridal-style dresses, are incongruously shoeless and draped over a bench, as if for a production of ‘Barefoot in the Park’. It’s just them for much of the song until they are joined by two darkly-clad backing dancers.

At first it feels like the interaction is going to be effective here, with some decent co-ordination – until the gratuitous hugging. Then at the song’s big moment, the dancers run up to the singers and throw confetti over them, as if they are the emo bridesmaids at a polygamous lesbian wedding.

The overall effect is incredibly kitsch and lacking any gravitas for a song of this nature, as eurovicious pointed out, right down to the final shot of the three girls framed by the heart, with the one on the left even getting this bit wrong. Ultimately, if the Greek drama was a knockout, the staging of the Croatian one made me mockingly put a finger down my throat.

Song type: Ballad

Best practice: Iceland 2009 – Yohanna ‘Is It True’

Bad practice: Malta 2010 – Thea Garrett ‘My  Dream’

I’ve mentioned the staging of Yohanna’s ‘Is It True’ before. It’s excellent, right from the opening close-up of Yohanna’s kissable lips, establishing the phwoar factor straight away. I wasn’t sure about the dress, but she’s pretty enough for it to be not too much of a problem.

There’s a guitar and cello being played on stage, just to remind us that this is, you know, a proper song. The flying dolphin does its Best Supporting Animal bit just over halfway through. There are more nice swirly shots at a big note later on. Everything is simple and allows the song to speak for itself. All in all, flawless.

Actually, coming up with an example of bad practice for a ballad was harder than I imagined, which just goes to show that there’s less to go wrong with a slow song. Nonetheless, I plumped for Malta 2010, mainly on the basis of seagull man, who wins the Worst Supporting Animal award.

There’s not much wrong with the first two minutes, save an unfortunate effect with dry ice that makes Thea look like she’s on fire. The backing singers’ movements are a bit clichéd, there are no instruments on stage to add a sense of musicality and you’d never guess Thea is younger than Yohanna, but that’s nothing compared to what follows.

In the final minute the Maltese team decided to work with a line from the song about “a seagull on the waves” and introduce a bizarre bird-like figure who emerges from behind Thea, looking likely to commit an act of avian molestation. Thea, unlike Tippi Hedren, takes it in her stride, and the seagull resorts to some bad contemporary dance, as if in a provincial ‘Swan Lake’. What a ridiculous distraction.

So what are the lessons learnt? If you’re presenting an upbeat song, movement is key; if you’re presenting something else, avoid the kitsch; and restrict any flying animals to the LED screens.

What are your thoughts on these cases, or better still, what examples would you put in a Eurovision ‘how to and how not to’ manual? It would also be good to hear what you expect from the staging of this year’s songs.

26 comments to Eurovision staging – getting it right and wrong

  • Hello Daniel. Can I feature your article as ‘Gastcolumn’, guest editorial on our website?

  • Nick D

    I’d be interested in your opinion on how Turkey 2010 got it so right and Turkey 2011 got it so wrong, considering that two very similar songs were choreographed in very similar vein. We have a few rocky numbers that are currently defying my attempts to analyse them, so any hints on what we should look for would be useful.

    My one-liner is that a band should pretty stay still and make occasional eye contact with the camera while the cameramen run about and produce some movement… is it that simple?

    • Nick D

      “pretty much stay still”, rather.

    • Daniel

      Good question Nick, and I’ve just added the relevant links. Turkey 2011 was a low-rent Turkey 2010 in my opinion. Manga’s presentation was dark and throbbing in a way that suited the song. In 2011, the lead singer’s sparkly top just about said it all. It looked like he’d got his outfit at Primark.

    • eurovicious

      As I said at the time: Malta. Gives you wings.

      Turkey was hampered by a lack of allies and an early draw – its failure to qualify was down to much more than just the staging. It still came top 10 in the televote so would have qualified under the pre-2010 system. But I agree the staging didn’t help.

      I don’t agree that bands should “stay still” per se – look at Athena in 2004…

      • Why do current day fans always comment with past situations in mind? It’s like implying that Turkey ‘will always manage to qualify in an unfair way’.

        I regret that notion. Turkey simply did not qualify in 2011. Moreover, you can also say that without Sammarinese 10 points in that 2011 semi final, Turkey would have been a complete no-hoper (37 points).

        Moreover, I found the Turkish entry just plain lame. Nothing interesting at all. If it was Manga, Turkey would have qualified for sure in the first semi final of 2011.

        Having said that: Yes, staging is important, neighbour votes too. But ever since jury’s were introduced again, you have to take into account that there is 40% less demographical influence. The song itself has become a bit more important again as well.

        Take this lesson into account when predicting the qualifiers for this year. At least one or two surprises will be reaching the surface. And also….take into account at least 4 huge discrepancies between jury’s and televoters in the semi finals and up to 6 huge discrepancies in the grand final.

        Funny that betting odds still are incapable of taking this into account :-/

        • eurovicious

          That’s not what I was implying at all, Gert… and just saying “Turkey simply did not qualify in 2011” closes off all routes of analysis as to why it didn’t. As punters, studying form and analysing why past songs did and didn’t qualify or do well is the name of our game. It’s a fact that Turkey had a reduced number of allies in its semi last year and it’s also a fact that Turkey, like several other countries in the contest, receives a significant diaspora vote. By stating this, I’m certainly not implying there’s anything unfair about it, at least no more “unfair” than Ireland voting for Lithuania, Malta and Cyprus voting for the UK, Spain and Italy voting for Romania etc. I agree with your other points about significant discrepancies between the televote and jury vote.

          • I just love to turn the arguments/reasoning a bit :-). What if Manga would have been in that same semi final? I think Manga would have qualified easily, both with jury’s and televoters.

            I think we need to see the bigger picture also. Turkey failed because of a combination of factors: Lack of diaspora, lack of good staging, lack of a good draw but ALSO the lack of a song that is good enough to qualify without the lack of diaspora, staging and good draw.

            One factor never cancels out the other factor for not qualififying.

            Having said that, that’s the reason why I still love Eurovision. Pundits and betters off course look to factors like fan polls, fan taste, staging, the draw and lack of diaspora.

            But even….if you count all these factors, but not the quality of the song, then I honestly believe betters are placing Russia way way too high. It’s the presence of jury’s and the lack of a good song that will make those grannies, that IMO have no place in Eurovision, end much lower than many people think.

          • eurovicious

            The grannies “have no place in Eurovision”? That’s pretty mean-spirited. They won the Russian selection democratically, ergo they have a place in Eurovision, and they’re a professional act. I may not like Trackshittaz (that being somewhat of an understatement) but Eurovision most certainly isn’t about picking and choosing who belongs to the club (thinking back to the Athens audience booing Silvia Night and Lithuania, which really got on my tits) – after all, it’s only Eurovision… it’s just a TV entertainment show. Arguably, acts like the Babushki are what TV talent shows today thrive on – they have the narrative/sob story and thus the sympathy factor, they’re warm, funny and cute, they remind you of your gran, they’re the underdog you root for, they’re singing a modern song in the traditional language of their homeland, and they look like walnuts. OK, scratch that last one. But otherwise, narrative- and sympathy-wise, it’s Subo x 6 without the standout vocal (though they can certainly sing – their traditional Uralic singing style just won’t be to everyone’s ears in the West).

          • Well, it is not ‘just’ an entertainment show IMO. Let me put it this way. I prefer the post 2008 Contest era more than the period between 1999 and 2007. With the return of jury’s it is indeed a bit more about songs and vocal performances again.

            And you can call it a TV Show, but why not just delete the word ‘Song’ in Eurovision Song Contest and rename it ‘Eurovision Entertainment Show’?

            My reasoning is always about protecting at least the song-part in Europe’s favourite tv show. I can tell you that the EBU is actually very fond with the return of jury’s. Without them, the EBU were facing much more criticism.

  • Eurocoder

    Your post made me curious: Can you find examples of poorly staged songs that still reached the top positions or even won?

  • Tim B

    Hi Daniel, I think your article is missing the glaring omission of ‘the gimmick’, i.e. Sweden and Ukraine, which arguably wouldn’t have achieved their place positions last year without such brilliant and original staging. Obviously we can’t yet predict which countries (if any) are going to have gimmicks this year, but it is something we need to look out for and take extremely seriously.

    • I considered Ukraine 2011 in the same field as Iceland 2009. Even beforehand, when we could not really expect the exquisit staging we got. Both Iceland 2009 and Ukrine 2011 were IMO modern ballads that profitted beforehand from a great atmosphere. Setting up the actual staging becomes much easier with excellent songs like these.

      By the way, what I do tend to forget is how staging worked in the 1990’s. I think not really that much has changed. Norway 1995, Ireland 1996 come to my mind. But what about the jolly performances from Denmark in 1988 and 1989?

  • Danny

    Hi all,
    If I was to have an anti-post bet on the overall winner would you currently recommend? Just small stakes but it would be good to get some value
    Any help would be greatly appreciated
    (I’m new to Eurovision)
    Cheers

  • Eurovicious,
    you are not right with “lack of allies”. Turkey had the same allies like Manga one year earlier. And Jury juries gave even more points (58) than the televoters (54). The points were differently allecated so they reached: Jury (12), Televoters (9), overall (13)

    Funny that i wrote a better explanation in this case before ESC 2011 than anyone here after the contest. I have posted my text on sofabet yesterday but it grew unpublished.

    • eurovicious

      That’s a fair point that Manga also had a lack of allies. They were able to overcome it with a pimp-slot draw and good song, staging and performance. But I maintain that the lack of allies did indisputably play a role in Turkey’s 2011 result. Their 4 largest points-givers, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey_in_the_Eurovision_Song_Contest#Voting_history_.281975.E2.80.932011.29) all voted in SF2, as did lesser allies like Bosnia, Macedonia and Romania. The only allies Turkey had left in SF1 were Albania, Azerbaijan and Switzerland. Manga succeeded despite a similar handicap for the reasons I’ve outlined above. But without the right song, draw and performance, and without guaranteed diaspora points, Turkey wasn’t able to repeat this success in 2011.

  • eurovicious

    Apparently the commercial breaks in the semis will be after songs 5 and 13 – so after Albania and Denmark in SF1 and Belarus and Turkey in SF2.

    • Martin F.

      And, therefore, before the up-tempos of Romania and Russia in SF1 and the ballads of Portugal and Estonia in SF2. If performing after the break really does confer a certain disadvantage, at least among televoters, that could have an interesting impact on some of the favourites to sail through to the final (and Portugal).

  • Boki

    Hi Daniel, how do you like Zeljko’s video clip?

    • Daniel

      Hi Boki, I assume you mean the new official video featuring the partially deaf boy doing the sign language, who is also apparently a winner of the 2011 Serbia’s Got Talent show.

      I don’t have any strong feelings about it, to be honest. From what I read, the boy will not appear on stage with Zeljko in Baku. Is that what you understand too, Boki?

      • Boki

        He is not on the list, however I heard some (highly unreliable) rumours that he might be included instead of one musician as part of the staging. We’ll see it in couple of days, just wanted to check how do you feel about that “gimmick” if it’s performed in Baku.

        • eurovicious

          That video is hilarious. Zeljko doing a Sasenko? I might have to return my Serbian musical passport… what’s next, is he gonna perform it sitting on a stool? :/

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