“I want to be this person”
“I want to be friends with this person”
“This person’s story inspires me”
“This person is cool”
“This performance reflects my values”
“I don’t like her, her styling is terrible”
“He reminds me of my schoolteacher/dad”
“I don’t like this, it’s too slutty”
“This is gay”
Viewers at home are not musical sophisticates. Their tastes are simple. And certainly in the case of Eurovision 2013, we can say this of the juries too.
Gianluca’s ‘Tomorrow’ – pleasant, unchallenging and competent but hardly the best sung or most musically worthy entry – won the jury vote in SF2. Greece’s high-kicking furballs, with their two-note singalong chorus, were second. Even the perfectly presented yet poorly sung sub-Katy Perry bubblegum of Krista’s ‘Marry Me’ came an astonishing 6th out of 17 with juries – ahead of far more vocally and musically impressive entries like ‘Rak Bishvilo’.
My point: come May, no-one is going to be sitting at home – or around the jury table – approvingly noting the 3/4 time signature of ‘One Night’s Anger’ or the use of an augmented chord in the chorus of ‘Cake To Bake’ while they watch the show.
After last year’s Eurovision, my neighbour said “We liked the one with the box”. Her Twilight-reading daughter thought Farid was cute. That’s the level we’re operating on. That’s what they remembered: the cute non-threatening boy and the box.
When we talk about Eurovision songs, we often say their success or failure comes down to the “overall package” – indeed, “overall impression” is the wording in the voting guidelines provided to juries. But what in effect does this mean?
How does one weight the various parts that comprise this package? What’s more important – that a song be well-written, or that it sound good and have good production values? That the singer hit the right notes and boast impressive range and control, or that they be young, charismatic, and interact well with the other people on stage and with the camera? Is it important that they be someone you can imaging hanging out with, are attracted to, or aspire to be like? How do our worldview and value systems, which we always bring to the table, affect how we perceive an entry?
And: are we even consciously aware of why some entries and performers appeal to us more than others, or are there factors to Eurovision performances that operate on a level we aren’t even really aware of?
The thoughts in quotation marks that I opened this article with are examples of some of the things I think go through viewers’ and jurors’ heads – consciously, subconsciously or anywhere in between – when watching a performance in Eurovision or any TV talent show. Feel free to add your own to the list.
It doesn’t take much of a leap in thought to understand that this is how people are responding – after all, isn’t this how we react to people in general, whether or TV, in a magazine or in real life? Isn’t that how you’re reacting to this very site now – the welcoming face at the top engendering trust and promising shared expertise, the declaration of wealth and success suggesting this could be yours too if only you read further?
The way I piqued your curiosity by opening this article with disembodied quotes, the paragraphs of build-up that tease new analysis and insight, the way I use words to create a vivid personality so that you read on for emotional reasons rather than out of academic interest? Aspiration and personality: this is what it comes down to.
I strongly believe there’s an aspirational element to Eurovision voting, and that like other TV talent contests, it’s in no small part a personality contest. I’m not saying the song isn’t important – it’s still really, really important, which is why I can’t see ‘Tick-Tock’ winning this year no matter how much of a sympathy vote Ukraine gets – but other factors play a big role too.
Would Loreen have won if she’d had Charlotte Nilsson’s staging and styling from ‘Hero’? Would ‘Only Teardrops’ have won if the performer had been 15 years older but the song and staging exactly the same? Would ‘Fairytale’ have won if it had been performed by Didrik Solli-Tangen, not Alexander Rybak? Would QUILTBAG people relate to ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ as much if Natalia Kelly were singing it – and would viewers on the night be more likely to vote for it? Questions worth asking.
Why was I wrong about Georgia, Germany and Ireland doing well last year? Simples: Nodi and Sophie were uncool and old. The singer from Cascada is uncool and old. (As you can see, “old” is relative.) And Ryan Dolan’s staging was gayer than the average Mr Leather Kilkenny contest.
As of the 50%-jury era, Eurovision is a heteronormative event – the era of songs like ‘Molitva’, ‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai’, ‘Diva’, and ‘It’s My Life’ (loved by voters, hated by juries) – is over. (Even Ryan Dolan came a relatively high 14th in last year’s televote; it was juries that killed his chances.)
For juries more than televoters, credibility and heteronormativity are conflated to the extent that they go hand in hand, and camp – which includes “ethnic” camp – is intrinsically bad. Unless it’s the type of performative heterosexual camp that has characterised recent winners. What do I mean? Time to look at the last 6 victors through a prism of gender, sexuality and patriarchal norms:
Dima Bilan – non-threatening boy whose shirt falls open, signifying availability to girls watching. Backed by floppy-haired non-threatening ice skater and floppy-haired non-threatening violinist.
Alexander Rybak – floppy-haired non-threatening boy, singing expressly about a girl and about love (= he’s not just gonna use you, he’s a sensitive boy of emotional depth, callously ignored by the girl in the song). The male battle-dancers in the background are competing for a girl; the female backing singers provide decoration and cutesy, submissive vocal support.
Lena – manic pixie dream girl, singing an expressly submissive song (she buys underwear, paints her toenails and does her hair in an attempt to please her love interest, who’s the planet around which she orbits like a satellite). As a package, the coyness of the lyrics, the childlike flirtatiousness of her performance, her age, and the LBD (little black dress) are a clear come-on to heterosexual male viewers; it’s an ephebophile magnet. (When Lena returned with an equally sexual but threatening rather than childlike on-stage persona the following year, she scraped into the top 10, despite the song being vastly superior in my book.)
Ell and Nikki – fundamentally non-threatening heterosexual love story performed by non-threatening boy and girl. White and gold lend a church-like setting to this role play of male-female love; the overall effect is a gilded paean to traditional values.
Loreen – mystical hippy dream girl, lost, confused and alone until metaphorically rescued from her turmoil and isolation by a strong male saviour.
Emmelie – manic pixie dream girl; her bare feet and sitting on the floor in a white dress communicate virginity; her interactions with the militaristic masculine archetypes surrounding her, especially the whistle-player – whose metal phallus she circles, eyes ablaze with proto-sexual longing – are loaded with a burgeoning sexual tension.
See what I’m getting at? It’s not exactly feminist central. Call this overanalysis, but don’t tell me a lot of thought doesn’t go into these performances and the messages and values they’re intended to communicate. Now you see why I put the 2014 contenders to the non-threatening boy/manic pixie dream girl test in my last article – because this is what has consistently won Eurovision in some shape or form since 2008.
The tonal gulf between the 2003-7 winners and the 2008/2009-2013 winners is remarkable, possibly unique in the contest’s history. It’s a lot harder to do this sort of gender- and sexuality-based reading for a “big ethnic dance” winner like ‘Wild Dances’, ‘Everyway That I Can’ or ‘My Number One’, songs that won on spectacle and impact as well as diaspora and regional effects.
A heteronormative reading of ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ or the expressly queer, feminist performance of ‘Molitva’ is simply not possible. But all of the winners from 2009 on – the year 50% jury voting was introduced – are unmistakably heteronormative in either their lyrics, presentation or both.
All of them had a shtick, a subtext, especially the female entries. Lena’s entire persona is shtick, onstage and off, to the extent there seems to be little underneath. Loreen and Emmelie’s entire performances were shtick – flailing around ethereally in a confetti snowstorm, and dancing about in bare feet and a negligee while staring down a bloke playing a tin whistle.
At Eurovision, you only have three minutes to communicate your message. The average viewer is not sitting in rapt silence, paying close attention to every song, but talking with family members, friends, fellow Eurovision party guests, while snacking or eating and in many cases drinking alcohol. If your Eurovision package doesn’t reach these people, you fail.
First impression is everything, because there is no second impression apart from the recap. So the performer is as important as the song: their personality needs to come through if viewers are to forge a connection with them. On the most fundamental level, a Eurovision entry is a three-minute meme in which the song, its staging and its message are all carried by the performer – it’s the performer’s perceived personality that sells or kills the meme.
The viewer’s and juror’s response is dictated by the extent to which they connect with the personality being presented, and whether this personality and the message of the meme align with their worldview and value systems.
Not singing in English, I’m sorry to say, acts as a considerable barrier in this regard: how can I connect to a performer and relate to their song’s lyrics and message if I’m linguistically excluded? Personally, I’d happily restore the language rule before you could say Chcę znać swój grzech, but in today’s contest, the fact is that unless the personality that comes through is very strong (Koza Mostra, Rona Nishliu), singing in a domestic language expressly communicates “this song is not intended for you” to viewers and jurors, giving them no stake in the entry and no reason to vote.
Let’s look at this year’s German selection, Unser Song für Dänemark, as a microcosm for the personality-contest theory. The two acts in the superfinal:
– Germany’s most successful act of the 2010s, a stadium-filling, multi-award-winning band with millions in record sales, whose fans queued outside the arena from 7am, and whose place at the crossroads of popular music and national identity in Germany I’d equate with Gary Barlow’s in the UK. The singer, an older male, is charismatic, the songs empowering, but with the German language being such a fundamental part of the recipe, there’s a sense that this is for a domestic audience and won’t translate. The singer’s gravitas is also slightly undermined by his tendency to make gestures resembling those of an air steward pointing out the locations of emergency exits before takeoff.
– A completely unknown group made up of three young women, who’ve never sold a record and have had almost zero media exposure (the wildcard show that Elaiza won was on NDR, a little-watched regional channel) singing a – let’s face it – only mediocre song in English. The three are fresh-faced yet with a certain intelligence, artfulness and maturity, and the lead singer is gorgeous: sparkly, humble, endlessly endearing and perky, like a cute anime character made flesh. Note also how the accordionist smiles from ear to ear throughout the performance.
Any conventional reading indicates that Unheilig should have won, as was near-universally predicted in advance, and that Elaiza – given the other big-name acts they were up against – shouldn’t have even made it to the superfinal. A personality-based reading suggests that Elaiza are the obvious winners of the two.
If we’re to read Eurovision performances as memes, hyperreality is another important factor we can’t afford to overlook. Hyperreality refers to the phenomenon of copies that mimic the original so closely, by presenting certain signs understood by the target audience, that they effectively become indistinguishable from the original.
To use ‘Only Teardrops’ as an example, give a song the signs that say “winner” – the white and gold, tickertape shower, spark curtain – and it will be perceived as a winner. Eurovision today is in no small part about song as simulacrum, product over art, tropes over originality.
In Western society, we are environmentally trained – through media, advertising, and our wider culture and socialisation – to respond to the hyperreal over the real or at the very least not to be able to distinguish between the two.
Hence much of the overwhelmingly Western European Eurovision fan bubble displays a strong affinity towards artifice and the derivative (not least in the case of Melodifestivalen), as well as specific tropes, and a concomitant aversion to songs of a raw, authentic, personal, or even just unpolished or off-kilter nature. This skews the betting market and skews perceptions of what will do well.
Even more relevantly for punters, the 2013 jury results reflected this concerning affinity towards the hyperreal by rewarding not the most musically worthy songs, but – as Rob at EntertainmentOdds wrote after the split results were revealed – those with memorable staging gimmicks (Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine) and that looked like winners (Denmark), and by plumping for the safe and the expected while simultaneously dismissing anything even slightly culturally alien.
Hence the South Slavic countries (all of which but Slovenia performed in their own language) landed at the very bottom of the jury vote in both semis. The German jury in the final placed all 5 Scandinavian countries in its top 6, while the Dutch jury’s top 3 were Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and its bottom 4 in SF1 the four ex-Yugoslav nations.
All of us debating Eurovision on the internet are music fans. A lot of viewers on the night aren’t. A fair proportion of them probably only own a handful of CDs. So when appraising the chances of Eurovision entries, look beyond song and staging – read between the lines, consider the meme and the message, what the song is communicating, and whether this message will be well-received.
Is it heteronormative, implicitly or clearly? Is the performer, as they come over in those vital three minutes, someone you could imagine spending time with, who you think is hot or cool, or who you might aspire to emulate? Are they inspiring, desirable, perky, fun, cute, safe, a breath of fresh air? If so, they’re one to watch. This is increasingly what it comes down to.
Let us know your thoughts on this subject and continue the Eurovision discussion below.