In the year that Bonnie Tyler is representing the UK, punters are clearly ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ in the Eurovision ante-post market. The latest great white hope is Anouk from the Netherlands, after her song ‘Birds’ was revealed on Dutch radio today. You can listen to it here.
She’s been backed into a general 10-1 to reverse nearly 40 years of hurt for the Dutch – their last Eurovision victory was in 1975. This price looks even more remarkable when you consider how heartily the Dutch would celebrate mere qualification to the final, a feat which they haven’t managed since 2004. Failure to get there this time would be a great disappointment given Anouk is one of their biggest names.
This is the first preview article written since the Eurovision community woke up to a significant rule change for this year. In the past, the awarding of each country’s points was decided by combining that country’s televote 12-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 with the national jury’s 12-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 to determine the finishing order of the combined top ten. This year, the jurors will be asked to rank all of the songs, from first to last, and those rankings will be combined with the televote first-to-last ranking to determine the finishing order. Viewers at home won’t notice any difference, but it creates a huge headache for punters.
‘Birds’ is a good example of why.
Let’s start with an opinion on the song, which is a melancholic ballad featuring an atmospheric combination of Anouk’s smokey vocals and some lovely instrumentation. Having said that, I think the verses tend to drag and are not melodic enough, though the refrain in the chorus lifts it.
It’s a shame the child choir that provides a suitable backing in the final third can’t be replicated exactly as it is in Malmo (no pre-recorded vocals are allowed and the minimum age for Eurovision is 16) but other vocalists can at least step in.
In the Sofabet comments, Tim B sums up what is the feeling of many about how the song will fare: “Anouk has a charming and haunting quality to her voice that I’m sure the juries will go for. Unfortunately, I think televoters will largely ignore it.”
I don’t disagree with that. ‘Jury bait’ was the phrase that came to mind when I first heard it. I don’t think it’s televote-friendly enough to win in May.
Tim is even unsure of its qualification hopes. One disadvantage in the semi is that Anouk is up against a plethora of other slowish numbers, many of them featuring female soloists. There are rather a lot of them in the first half of the first heat in which the Netherlands has been drawn, including Austria, Estonia, Russia and Ukraine. Slovenia is the only truly uptempo number among these first eight entries.
In the Netherlands’ favour, this semi is slightly more ‘western’ in feel and includes Belgium. I would hope that a song of the quality of ‘Birds’ would get one of the top ten places in a weak field of 16. At this stage, I don’t think the entries from Ireland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Cyprus, Estonia and Austria are particularly strong. We are yet to hear the final version of Belgium or the Moldovan and Montenegrin entries. None of these countries have a big, guaranteed televote to rely on either.
In these circumstances, I would normally have said that a very high jury score for Anouk should be enough in itself to get it to the final, and then to get at least a respectable number of points on the board on Saturday night. But this year’s rule change makes it much harder to be confident about any of this.
The beauty of the old system was that you had to guess only the top ten of televoters and jurors in each country. Allies and diaspora helped fill in some of the televote jigsaw, whilst we have got used to working out the more earnest and/or vocally superior songs that juries tended to put in their top ten.
What we haven’t had to do is worry about who comes eleventh onwards with either constituency. Now we do. Imagine a song in the final that comes eleventh with a particular country’s jurors and eleventh with its televoters. That gives it a ranking of (11 + 11 =) 22. Under the old system, it would have got no points. Under the new system, it would finish above a song that comes first with jurors but 25th with televoters, giving a combined ranking of (1 + 25 =) 26.
In the past, if punters considered that a song like ‘Birds’ was unlikely to make the top ten in a country’s televote, they simply didn’t have to think any more about it. It didn’t matter whether it was likely to finish 11th, 20th or 25th. Now, it’s imperative for us to figure out if we’re likely to be looking at mid-table mediocrity or bottom of the pile.
I should point out that this is relatively less important in a semi of 15 rivals than a final of 25 rivals. The difference between an 11th finish and a 15th finish is obviously less stark than the difference between an 11th finish and a 25th finish. That’s another reason to be hopeful of Anouk’s qualification chances.
We have to ask ourselves, how would this rule change have played out in previous years? There are recent examples of songs that were jury bait in the same way that Anouk’s promises to be: Patricia Kaas for France in 2009 springs to mind. Plenty of jurors clearly put her in their top five. Ordinary viewers largely failed to put her in each televote top ten. The question we cannot answer but would like to know is: to what extent were televoters ignoring it?
If this example – well performed, but not ideal for a Saturday-night Eurovision audience – was finishing just below the top ten in general televotes, then combining that with a high jury ranking would see it pick up plenty of points under the new system. But if it was regularly down in the televote bottom five, it would score badly with the rule change.
My own guess at answering the new and vexed question of 11th-to-last in the televote is that blandness is the kiss of death – you’ve got more chance of getting a smattering of votes if you’re attention-grabbingly awful than if you’re completely forgettable. Belgium’s derisory televote score in last year’s semi is an illustration. It was a nice enough song with a nice enough performance, on which basis I incorrectly thought it would qualify. But in hindsight, televoters clearly found the whole package as bland as Iris’s white dress.
What makes this new system such a conundrum for punters is that the exact reverse applies when it comes to juries – it seems likely that the attention-grabbingly awful songs are going to be marked right down at the bottom of jurors’ scoresheets, while the bland and forgettable songs are going to fill the middle of the jurors’ table.
Back to ‘Birds’, and how low it finishes in national televotes may come down to where it lies on a spectrum of blandness against its rivals. And it has to be said there’s a lot of beige in this year’s contest. In order to distinguish oneself in these circumstances, much will depend on presentation and the stage presence of the artist in question. The rehearsal period will obviously tell us more about this, though staging has not been a strong point for the Netherlands in the past.
A kind draw in the final would also help a great deal. Patricia Kaas was not lucky in this respect. There is an argument that if Anouk is in the final, she could be very well treated by the Swedish producers who decide the running order. She’s a big name in her country, which just so happens to be one of the bigger contributors to the EBU. The Netherlands has been staunchly loyal to the contest despite a run of bad results. If politics enter it at all, even sub-consciously, that could mean a last-ballad-in-the-final penultimate slot.
In the circumstances, whilst I think ‘Birds’ is far too short in the win market, I’m not looking to lay it in the top ten market despite being sceptical of its televote appeal.
What do you think of ‘Birds’ and its chances in Malmo, and how is the rule change affecting your strategy now that you’ve had a few days to digest it? Do let us know below.