Fake news isn’t new; we’ve always lived in a constructed reality. I don’t mean your garden fence is a hologram, I mean that stories and symbols shape our societies in ways that are profound but commonly invisible, unarticulated and taken for granted. Money has no intrinsic value, it’s just paper, metal, and figures stored in a computer (plus the occasional injection of pig fat); prices are arbitrary because no-one knows the true value of anything (the haircut I paid €14 for today would have been €35 at the hipster male-grooming place down the road or free if I’d asked the woman next door who perms poodles on the side), there’s no particular reason why you should work 5 days a week not 3 or 6, or perhaps even work at all, and most of the planet’s population believes the world was created by a supernatural being (they just disagree which one; I’m going with Dustin the Turkey) who still oversees it and even actively intervenes in their lives. (Or as an American friend once explained to me after surviving a car crash with only minor injuries, “God protected me”.) Before you click away to Digital Spy lest I hit you with even more aphorisms straight out of an A-level philosophy essay-writing contest, let me bring things back to Eurovision. Allez!
Both the EU and Eurovision share a founding story of being created to bring the continent together after a devastating war, thereby helping prevent further conflict. They’re peace projects. If everyone trades together without tariffs, if we’re free to move between countries without any checks or restrictions, even free to work or study in whichever EU country we choose, if we all use the same currency, and if we’re exposed to each other’s cultures through the Eurovision broadcast network and its eponymous song contest, this increased togetherness – unite, unite, Europe – decreases the likelihood of our knocking seven bells out of each other, right?
It worked for a while. And it’ll keep working in a lot of important ways; both the EU and Eurovision are here for the duration, whatever the Trump-Putin-Erdogan-Assad-Siegel axis might have to say about it. But for storytelling to succeed in making believers out of us, keep us on board and keep attracting new followers, it has to stay relevant, which is why organised religion is in freefall and the European project is starting to resemble Dorret’s gateau on Bake-Off. Institutions lose power when the stories they tell don’t speak to us anymore. For instance, Labour is in freefall because they have no idea what story they want to tell anymore or even to whom, and because their outdated basic appeal of “Vote for us because we’re not the Tories” hasn’t been good enough for quite a while now. As to the EU, the basis on which people are expected to feel positively towards it needs to be greater than just the absence of war, because that’s something people long take as given and that isn’t in living memory for most. How do you tell a country like Portugal that the EU’s primary purpose is to maintain peace in Europe, as various senior EU figures have asserted, when euro membership has harmed its economy and it wasn’t even involved in World War II in the first place?
When the status quo has forgotten how to engage with the citizenry, all you have to do to get people on board with your alternative is tell them a better emotional story, one that’s more relevant to their lives and speaks to them on a more fundamental level – even overtly or covertly acting as a vector for their inchoate fears and desires – than the competitors. It’s the intersection of story and identity, and the feeling of being listened to and appealed to, sold by a personality with perceived authenticity and sincerity. Make America Great Again. Take Back Control. Rise Like A Phoenix. Boum Badaboum.
“Over the past few years, Eurovision entries have been gradually shifting towards a more cinematic approach, focused on story-telling rather than just presenting a musical piece. So when we refer to ‘Beautiful Mess’, we want to call it a story and not just a song. The story here is quite simple – it’s about love. But we don’t mean love in the sense of feelings between two persons, but rather love for humanity and friendship, as both are an integral part of the core values of the Eurovision Song Contest. The main character is a youngster who is facing a world full of darkness that he is living in and is searching for an oasis of light for him and the people he is willing to fight for. ‘Beautiful Mess’ is a story of contrasting pictures and characters – both on the dark and bright side, all combined into one eclectic mixture. Our project this year is dedicated to all young people living in the midst of [an] insecure and confused world. We are urging them to define themselves and fight for the values they believe in.”
Thus reads the Bulgarian press release. This very much echoes what I’ve said in past articles about how Eurovision today is about storytelling, perceived personality, and conveying a meme with an emotive take-home message in the space of 3 minutes. As video walls, LED flooring and augmented reality have vastly broadened Eurovision’s technical possibilities, some countries now treat their entry as a 3-minute film with the act as protagonist – Sweden 2015 and Russia 2016 are archetypal recent examples of entries staged primarily as mini-movies in which the song acted as backdrop to the visual storytelling rather than the other way round. Bulgaria’s statement on how Eurovision is now about cinematic storytelling most strongly echoes my 2015 article The Affect Effect, in which I talked about birth/rebirth narratives and concluded that “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.”
It’s Easter weekend, and I think for most of us in the secular West, the amount of time we spend thinking about the religious aspects of why we get a four-day weekend is inversely proportional to the amount of milk chocolate we consume during it. As religion has atrophied out of our everyday lives in the transition to modernity, other coca dei popoli, oppio dei poveri have taken its place. Because of our basic need for community, identity, and for heroic and inspirational figures to look up to and model our behaviour and values on, as we’ve moved away from organised belief, we’ve turned to a variety of other sources in our attempt to find meaning and affirmation – including Eastern religions but also technology, as Francesco observes. In our ever more atomised lives, as loneliness skyrockets, social media fills the void – each Facebook post, each tweet, each mugshot posted to Instagram by the soci onorari al gruppo dei selfisti anonimi is an act of communion, as is this article; think of me as a marginally burlier Dami Im reaching out to you through a screen, trying to feel your chest hair through
FaceTime face time. We all seek certain things in our lives – role, purpose, meaning, belonging – and while the internet is a major paradigm shift in how we seek and form these, it was preceded by two equally great paradigm shifts in the form of the invention of the car and the television, the widespread availability and affordability of which starting in the 1950s hugely transformed how we relate to each other and form basic communities. With car ownership and the post-war social settlement came the creation of the suburbs, and people began to leave dense inner-city housing and rural villages – both organic communities where everyone knew each other and children played together outside – to live in better-quality new housing with far-improved amenities but without that community, and with the spectre of the automobile leading parents to discourage outdoor play. So kids stayed indoors and watched TV, and here we are today – in a society where screens are our primary form of engagement with the world, and where visual narratives have superseded both books (holy or otherwise) and oral tradition as our society’s main form of storytelling and central cultural tenets.
In the post-religious West, our favourite media narrates the trials and tribulations of larger-than-life celebrities we look up to, and our favourite oppio dei popoli cinema entertainment consists largely of superhero and epic fantasy films that are highly mythological and full of characters with godlike powers who battle evil within the framework of a well-defined value system. Eurovision is itself a kind of polytheistic folk religion, fans worshipping an annually-changing pantheon of demigods and gleefully memorizing each new batch of hymns to sing along with.
For an act to succeed at Eurovision, does it have to provide secular audiences with something akin to a communal religious experience? I’d argue yes, increasingly so. Many recent winning and successful acts display something akin to supernatural powers in their staging, manipulating either organic or technological elements in a display of demigod omnipotence. The staging for 1944 portrays Jamala as a kind of nature deity – we see a tree grow out of her, and as she sings “We could build a future where people are free”, a new world is born from her pain; the idea of the world tree is central in Indo-European mythology. Zoe and Greta were also depicted as nature goddesses, but while the former appeared as a virginal innocent in a paradisiacal garden who magicked some poppies into life (a benign and pleasant gesture yet not especially moving or transformative, making her a friendly minor deity), the other was essentially depicted as a goddess of the underworld – dressed in black, controlling flocks of crows and hurling them at the audience, with ghostly shadow-figures behind her; at one point, a woman running towards her is even transformed by her body into a plume of dark smoke emitted from her bosom, pretty much the opposite of a rebirth narrative. There was no sense of the darkness that accompanied Greta being overcome, whereas in Jamala’s performance, we see Ukraine reborn out of pain (just as Conchita was) in the form of the giant tree of light that spawns from her. It’s the dendrological equivalent of Rise Like A Phoenix. The fact Jamala physically reaches out to the viewer at the end, almost as if drowning, is also crucial, I think, in establishing the need for the viewer to Do Something (by televoting) and in its echoing of renaissance art.
Organic elements grow outwards from behind each of the last three winners – while Conchita sprouted wings and Jamala was the seed from which a tree grew, Mans summoned a following of virtual disciples to march behind him and even had his own sacred heart moment. Arguably, dancers can also be the organic element summoned or brought to life in a successful but less overtly sacral Eurovision performance, as in the case of Loreen and Poli Genova, whose dancer(s) materialize just 30 and 20 seconds before the end of the song respectively.
Sergey’s wings superficially fall into the same category of organic manifestation, yet unlike Conchita’s transformative rebirth which endures until the end of the entry, Sergey promptly loses his wings shortly after the start, and much of the rest of his performance shows him scrambling to keep up with various obstacles rather than directing the action around him. While Jamala, Zoe and Greta were shown as being in deity-like control of the elements to varying effect, Sergey is at nature’s cold mercy as he leaps from platform to platform – rather than summoning the asteroids (or regrowing his wings), he has to risk life and limb to reach the next one in time; he is never in charge. (Why does he have wings at the start of the presentation then lose them when it’s in this section that he actually needs them?) But still he overcomes all manner of obstacles in those three minutes without making it look easy, making him a likeable action (super)hero who takes on the gods – more Hercules than Hera – as we follow his journey and root him on until he completes his trial and ends up on top.
While the above acts are shown commanding or mastering nature in different ways, Dami is shown commanding technology. Her swiping a few graphics may pale in comparison to Mans leading and inspiring a cartoon army, but the emotional content is resonant and contemporary, and she displays greater actual control over her environment than Sergey. Dami’s alienation-infused lyrics and augmented reality visuals convey the sense of her being trapped in digital isolation, forced to interact with others only through screens (highly relatable in 2016), until she dismounts her podium and sings “I know I’m stronger and I’m capable”, moving freely around the stage and interacting radiantly with the camera. It’s the Eurovision equivalent of turning off your phone and going outside, a sentiment no less powerful for its mundanity. Dami leaves behind the technological to embrace the organic, just as Super Sergey navigates the level to win the princess.
Sergey wouldn’t have done as well if he’d stayed at the bottom of the wall, Dami wouldn’t have done as well if she’d stayed on her podium, Jamala wouldn’t have done as well without her tree and Poli wouldn’t have done as well without her “friends” joining her. So what does this mean for 2017’s storie dal gran finale? This year’s short-odds favourite, Occidentali’s Karma, is seemingly loved by all (including myself) because it’s a good tune by a charismatic performer with a neat gimmick (though I think it’s harmed not inconsiderably by the three-minute edit that leaves the song excessively repeating its chorus in the first half rather than the second). It‘s fun. As commenter Ron writes, “the song is a hit because people like the gorilla, the fun dance and the bit where everyone shouts ‘Allez!’. The social commentary is [merely an] Easter egg for those who want to dig deeper.”
This being the case, the question is: Is fun enough? I dunno about you, but when I look back at the past 10 winners, even the top 2/3 of the past few contests, I don‘t exactly think ‘fun’. Emotive, for sure – whether Conchita and Jamala‘s issue-driven performances or the bottled Scandiproduct emotion of Heroes, Euphoria, Only Teardrops and Fairytale – but not fun. Fun can perhaps win the televote, as Sergey and Il Volo go at least some way toward proving, but can it win the jury vote? The last pure ‘fun’ winner was Lordi – and they wouldn‘t have gotten past the jury these days. Will Francesco? Does his gorilla count as a summoned organic element? If so, is it a meaningful and effective one? What does it say about Francesco and in the context of the song and performance? What are you saying by voting for it?
Demigod staging aside, voting for Conchita and Jamala allowed people to say ‘I support gay rights’ and ‘I support Ukraine’. This is a really important factor in an increasingly issue-driven contest. In a world characterised by superficial-only interactions where we’re starved of meaningful connection, televoting becomes a way of reaching out to others and showing you give a shit about a hot-button issue. Eurovision allows us to have encounters we wouldn’t normally have – to hear an Austrian drag queen or a Crimean singer whose great-grandparents were forcibly displaced from their homeland tell their story in song form makes an issue real and relatable through the emotional connection. (This is also why Russia has a superb chance next year if it re-enters Yuliya with a song genuinely intended as a contender: what better backstory for your entry than the expertly orchestrated debacle of the past month?)
Female Eurovision singers in particular can also function as personifications of nationhood – think back to how nations used to be represented as women like Britannia, Germania and Mother Russia (as well as how since the introduction of in-vision voting, broadcasters have overwhelmingly chosen young, conventionally beautiful woman as the beneficent face of their nation to read out the points.) ‘Singer as nation’ is a function that Jamala absolutely fulfilled last year in the context of her song, performance and staging combined with her country’s geopolitical situation, given even more resonance and credibility by the fact it was her own personal story. Obviously whatever artist you send to Eurovision automatically becomes the representative of your nation to the European audience, but when you just send a generic artist and song, this particular resonance is absent: for instance, Mariya Yaremchuk couldn’t become a vessel for expressing Ukraine’s pain – and for Europe to show solidarity with in return – to anywhere near the extent Jamala could. Nations don’t have to be geographic: Conchita also functioned as a representative of LGBT+ people as a disparate nation without borders, united by their outsider experience.
To summarise: in a high-tech, secular but socially atomised era where people don’t know their neighbours, screens are our tools of community, and celebrities and superheroes our folk gods. TVs are our church, Eurovision is the pulpit, and the more cinematic and issue-attuned the contest becomes, the more I think Eurovision performances need to have a sacral quality – in the combined effect of staging, performer and song – to hit the very highest reaches of the scoreboard by giving viewers something approximating a religious experience and meaningful sense of communion. Even if you dispute this, I think we can agree that staging and connection are everything: if you don’t get those right, you can have one of the best songs in the contest and still come last (just ask Jamie-Lee).
So what will Bulgaria’s cinematic staging be? Which other countries will roll out visual narratives that portray their act as a demigod able to exert control over organic or technological elements? What form does this control and interaction take, and what’s the take-home message for the audience? Is the singer shown as a goddess of nature, of rebirth or of a nation (Jamala and Conchita were all three), or as a superpowered masculine folk hero with admirable qualities of messianic leadership, unification and standing up for the weak (Mans) or Herculean courage, perseverance and tenacity in the face of insurmountable odds (Sergey)? Or something else altogether? Both Beautiful Mess and City Lights explicitly mention dark and light, with the singer being instrumental in the transition from the former to the latter (a transition carried out more completely in the Bulgarian song than the Belgian, which ends on the downbeat “Are we going to lose it all?” as opposed to “Our love is untouchable”), while Armenia’s lyrics refer to casting winds and flying high. There’s a lot of possibility here.