It’s a year today Conchita won Eurovision. Would a female singer have won with Rise Like A Phoenix? Would Conchita have won with That’s What I Am? Would I have won playing the spoons? (No.) What made Conchita’s performance so special to people that she became the first victor since 2004 to overcome a first-half draw?
“The meaning of her music – and consequently its success – arises not from content or form, but from an affective economy that produces politics of sincerity. In other words, [her] music amplifies certain emotions and affects in a way that creates the impression that she is more genuine and honest about her music than any other […] performer. To reach this conclusion, it is necessary to go beyond music and aesthetics. Examining the content of her lyrics leads to the conclusion that they are typical pop love songs, and that their popularity stems from them performing a social function of communicating and amplifying experiences and emotions in ways that make them more convincing. [.] [Her] music communicates the emotions and defiant attitude of someone who has experienced enough difficulty, and it is these emotions and this attitude that evoke sympathy in the public.”
Agree? Disagree? The rapturous reaction Conchita received from many QUILTBAG (and hetero) viewers, as well as the Conchita vs. Putin narrative prominent in the media in the wake of her victory, chime with this analysis: culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Either way, I’m toying with you here, because that paragraph wasn’t written about Conchita – but about Balkan superstar Ceca (who I can’t stand) in the 2014 book “Turbo-folk Music and Cultural Representations of National Identity in Former Yugoslavia” by Dr Uroš Čvoro, Senior Lecturer in Art Theory at UNSW Australia. I’m pulling it over into a Eurovision context because I think Čvoro’s discussion of the importance of affect and the affective economy in people’s responses to popular culture is highly analytically relevant when assessing entries’ chances. So what exactly is affect?
“Affect can be described as a ‘basic emotion’ and an ‘unwilling muscular and glandular response’ that moves in the space between the visceral body and consciousness,” continues Čvoro . “Affects are immediate reactions that people have to stimulus prior to a cognitive response, such as getting goose bumps and becoming lightheaded when hearing a favourite [.] song [.]. In her analysis of the presence of affect in political speech, Anna Gibbs suggests that the voice is one of the primary sites of affective communication and plays a crucial part in heightening and intensifying affects by amplifying the tone, timbre and pitch.”
Čvoro notes that in Ceca’s music, “emotions are always articulated through extreme affective states”, and believes “the ‘presence of competing affects’: sensations that are commonly found among the population” to be key – arguing her popularity “can largely be attributed to her ability to capture affects in the region”, thereby producing the effect of sincerity. “This presence of intense and competing affects in her music and public personality is crucial because it grounds Ceca’s musical expression and symbolism in what [Jill] Bennett calls the ‘politics of sincerity’: a musical expression that is perceived to be beyond politics, beyond manipulation and beyond doubt – an expression that stems ‘from deeply felt experience’.”
How does this relate to Eurovision? “Capture affects in the region” is exactly what Austria’s entry last year did, for sure, tapping into a wider cultural narrative riding high in the media at the time that pits (newly) liberal Western European values against “homophobic” Russia and Eastern Europe in far too binary a way. It’s a similar story for Nicole’s victory in 1982, months after the introduction of martial law in Poland. And Koza Mostra’s self-parodying anti-austerity knees-up was also able to entertainingly milk economic malaise, biting a hairy thumb at crippling cuts in hedonistic defiance the way many of us would like to. But most entries can’t explicitly tap into sociopolitical sentiment in this way. Rather, they aim to express other common affects such as first love or the end of a relationship, life experiences almost all of us go through, characterised by competing emotions, and that are the staple subject matter of most of the world’s popular music. At these moments of transition in our lives, our feelings are heightened, and it’s by portraying a heightened emotional state that a Eurovision entry can activate this affect in us – we relate, we empathise, we connect with the performer and share a moment with them. (Adele’s emotional performance of Someone Like You at the Brit Awards is a superlative example of this.) Each Eurovision song is a three-minute multimedia staging of an emotional state, and the most successful entries portray a state of heightened emotion (an obvious statement given that being boring at Eurovision is to fail) that resonates with a large number of viewers at home.
Recent winners, and indeed the top 2-3 songs of the past few years, have all been quite different from each other in form. Bond-theme ballad, stripped-back country, Celtic-tinged folk-pop, EDM, jaunty indie-pop. there’s no narrow musical formula for success. This can seem inscrutable when viewed in terms of personal taste – I’m struck, for instance, by how different the top 2 of 2013 and 2014 seem from each other. I love Rise Like A Phoenix and Calm After The Storm, but Only Teardrops and Hold Me leave me cold, a split some of you may share, while others may have the opposite reaction. Yet how is it the average viewer on the night – firmly outside the Eurovision bubble and hearing and seeing the songs and artists for the first time – can often reliably call the winner on immediate gut reaction? We’ve had fun discussing what makes a winner in the comments section, with suggestions ranging from “timeless dream state” to the “mum test“. “I trust my Mum because as soon as she saw Emmelie, she texted me and said ‘that’s the winner.’ Ditto Conchita,” writes Ben. “I replied with basic ‘here’s why it won’t win’ thoughts only to end the night with egg on my face. My Mum didn’t need to see the rest. When the anchor’s down, it’s down. Mummy knows best.” My own experience backs this up: I think it’s absolutely characteristic in terms of the way many people react to entries and quickly make their minds up based on visual, emotional, wardrobe and other seemingly irrational factors rather than just the song. You just have to watch Gogglebox to get a handle on it. Ben elegantly summarises that for his mum, “the song is merely a soundtrack to what she sees and feels.”
Commenter chewy wesker uses the term “timeless dream state” to describe a successful Eurovision performance that exists in its own magical universe and seems ageless. With Conchita, he writes, “we were taken to a wonderland and shown how deep the rabbit hole really goes. [.] now ask yourself this, will Conchita’s performance ever look outdated? The answer is no. Why? Because it’s from a different time.” Not so conceptually different from how Ben’s mum described one performance to him: “It’s a class act, it doesn’t have that Eurovisiony boringness to it.” These are ways of describing the affect effect – the magic you need to achieve to make an immediate impact and get people to pick up the phone. Just liking an entry isn’t enough, you have to be motivated to support it: enjoying a song doesn’t equal voting for it. And given most winners fail to set charts alight, Euphoria excepted, the song needn’t be spectacular, just good enough and broad enough in appeal.
“[Jill] Bennett warns that effect cannot be orchestrated or anchored within an object, but it can be activated, expressed or excited by an image or an object,” outlines Čvoro. “Affect cannot be orchestrated or controlled; however, specific cultural forms ‘enfold emotional politics’ and amplify affect.” We can look back at how recent successful entries portrayed a heightened emotional state that activated affect in viewers (thus creating a connection and motivating them to vote) by evoking emotional states from their own lives. For instance, you don’t have to look much further than the unexpected phenomenal success of Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody That I Used To Know to understand why Ilse and Waylon’s wistful, sonically sparse breakup song did so well last year, a comparison that I think has been largely overlooked due to the latter being viewed through “country” glasses. Both songs are loaded with subdued emotion, the atypically minimal arrangement evoking the sudden barrenness after a relationship ends and creating a moment of solace in which feelings can flow free.
Some of the most vivid emotional experiences in our lives, universal across cultures and generations, are those of birth, rebirth and transition – the birth of a child, seeing a child go off to university or marry, finding love, moving on from a bad relationship, embarking on a new phase of life or overcoming a significant personal obstacle. (Look at how the waterworks come on on Gogglebox when the families watch One Born Every Minute.) They’re also times we experience a heady and often overwhelming mix of emotions we can’t necessarily parse from each other: competing affects. What I think Euphoria, Only Teardrops, Rise Like A Phoenix and many other recent winning or successful entries have in common is a sensual, intimate, even euphoric artistic representation of an intimate moment of birth, rebirth or transition. I’d argue that all three songs, as staged and performed at Eurovision, depict a birth, rebirth or new dawn for the protagonist – the departure from an old emotional state and the finding of love, identity or emotional freedom. That Eurovision is largely a contest for unknown artists is important context: each performance is a kind of birth of an individual previously unfamiliar to audiences and offered up for their appraisal, and by voting, viewers birth a star. (Susan Boyle’s “Britain’s Got Talent” audition is archetypal of this.) Loreen, Emmelie and Conchita all perform vulnerability throughout much of their entries, especially at the beginning – lost and alone in a storm of wind then snow; abject, virginal and sorrowful, slumped shoeless on the floor as a melancholy folk whistle plays; and recovering from dark times, hidden in shadow “walking in the rubble” and “over glass”. Each triumphs: Loreen finds a partner who mirrors her movements and who she’s literally able to lean on; Emmelie rises to her feet, begins to interact confidently with the men on stage and commands “let’s leave the past behind us”; Conchita flies from the fading light and is “transformed” and explicitly “reborn”, as the spotlights illuminate her and the initially dark LED screen bursts into flame and light. Feel free to contribute your own birth/rebirth/transition analyses for other recent successful entries.
Last year I wrote that “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.” That’s certainly what carried Conchita to victory, together with the powerful rebirth storytelling and strong song and vocal. I also discussed heteronormativity and the tropes of the “non-threatening boy” and “manic pixie dream girl” (both representations of innocence) in relation to recent winners, only for the trophy to be taken by a bearded drag queen, and correctly argued that televoters are more accepting of queer entries than juries. Happily, just as Coronation Street viewers took Hayley to their hearts, Europe was won over by Wurst. Juries, meanwhile, hated the sexy My Słowianie as much as they did the homoerotic Only Love Survives the year before (while I loved both). Maybe the lesson here is that as much as you celebrate a birth, you don’t necessarily want to hear about the shagging that led to it – or while televoters are privately aroused, jury arbiters of taste disapprove of these public displays of flesh as not befitting of the event.
In summary: with a good song and performer as prerequisite, I think countries succeed best at Eurovision by using the storytelling tools at their disposal to tap into universal emotional currency via the classy, intimate metaphorical depiction of a birth, rebirth or transition characterised by the presence of mixed strong emotions, just as these moments are in our lives. Entries that succeed in activating affect in the viewer by triggering personal emotions and recollections from their own life experiences establish an emotional connection with viewers much more readily and are perceived as more intimate and sincere.