The Affect Effect in Eurovision

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.

42 comments to The Affect Effect in Eurovision

  • Interesting.

    Okay, just for argument’s sake, let’s say the emotional component is truly necessary to make a winner and the Australian entry is bereft of this, unless the emotion can be interpreted another way. A rebirth or transition of the Eurovision Song Contest, perhaps? Moving on – Sweden is the next obvious reference point, but there’s plenty of arguments to suggest it’s just cynical and clinical as well.

    Italy are certainly emotional, but not in a way that connects with such a broad audience, given the language barrier and stereotypical nature of the package. Estonia are quite simply too dour and do not bring out any kind of heightened emotion.

    Slovenia presents Marjetka as a… caring friend or a shoulder to cry on, I guess? But the song isn’t quite strong enough and the staging is suffering from disconnected elements, rehearsals pending.

    Lithuania’s song, by its very nature, is heightened emotion, but in its final studio form, I do think it might be too twee and perhaps a bit annoying to win everyone over.

    Looking down the list, a couple of others mildly interest me strictly within the context of this article, but for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on – Macedonia and Albania. The Netherlands is also a big happy beast which I’m expecting more intruiging, creative staging for, but it’s not cohesive as a package and the song isn’t commercially relevant enough. Remember there’s other factors at play which can easily cancel out whatever emotional component may be on offer, strength and commercial relevance is one of them, I stand absolutely firmly by that.

    Cyprus stands out as a moment of sympathy and as a well-written song, I expect it to do well, but I do not think it has the gas to outscore Sweden, Italy and Australia.

    Romania and Hungary offer something I suppose, but in rather insipid songs.

    I look down the list further and I see two intruiging outsiders with potential emotional components of rebirth and/or transition and potentially powerful performances. Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

    Any thoughts on those two? I feel that the Czech Republic especially is being enormously underrated this year, while Melanie Rene carries the most clear and painfully obvious message of rebirth in her lyrics.

    • chewy wesker

      There’s a book titled “The Hour Between Dog And Wolf” by John Coates. Well worth a read all about risk taking and our gut feelings. Pretty much what EV was saying on how these songs and performers can trigger our personal emotions. I find I’m looking for patterns from the past when judging an Eurovision entry, but really the past is the past and is history but will history be repeated? That’s the question, and that’s the unknown. EV is right when he says that Emmelie De forest and Farid Mammadov were a different 1st and 2nd place to last years winner Conchita and runners up The Common Linnets it’s almost that the song contest has evolution of it’s own, but I always feel that the right song/performer always wins. Sometimes it’s a great song, sometimes the staging plays a greater part and sometimes it’s the artist themselves are just bigger than life and walk away with the crown. I also look down the list to see if I’ve missed something that could come from long odds to win Ben, but It would take a drastic turn of events to challenge Sweden Italy and Australia at this point. What puzzles me is how Italy is holding up, it’s like Il Volo have a force field around them and I feel like only Mans with his stick man Tractor Beam Repulsor is the only thing holding them off.(but Italy are within range)

  • Tess

    I think we’re really in need of an upbeat song to win this year. Or maybe just I do 🙂

  • Robo

    Great article so we need to find a song that shows a transition in life, something that encapsulates moving on with your emotions that says oh I don’t know maybe, goodbye to yesterday?

  • PurpleKylie

    Very interesting article. The idea of effect and heightened emotion basically sums up the reason for my favourite ESC song of all time being my favourite, being through interpretation of recent experiences and emotions frequently experienced in the past and still today.

    Thinking of this year, I struggle to think of an entry that could have that big an emotional effect of viewers. Sweden and Australia are too flashy, Italy is too pompous and stuffy, Estonia is too whiny and negative (people like a break up song but they don’t want to hear a miserable couple fighting).

    • The thing about Estonia though is that although it’s a downbeat act, it does portray two very strong sets of emotions very effectively. Both sides acknowledging that their relationship is deeply flawed, but with differing feelings about whether it should end. As a result it succeeds in making the listener empathise with both of them despite (or possibly because of) their flaws. If the theory is that emotion plus transition wins, then on that criteria this is the standout song.

      • PurpleKylie

        Norway does that better, they portray a break up in a more dark and romantic way and the two have much better chemistry together, plus the mystery of the song feels more compelling, whereas to me Estonia comes across as a douche trying to take the easy way out of a relationship and a whiny girl who won’t accept it, it’s like the annoying 3 act breakup in a bad romcom.

        • My own take on Goodbye To Yesterday is that they’re not just in a flawed relationship but also are two very damaged individuals. Him tortured by self-loathing, her desperately needy and clingy. Just the sort of people one could imagine having an intense but fiery relationship that one day suddenly collapsed.

          I guess that’s why I like it. It just seems very believable that this would like happen in this way.

        • Ron

          This year Estonia, Albania and Greece all have songs involving women begging lovers to take them back. One I can handle, but three just starts to get really irritating.

  • Keley Ann

    Contrary to the above commentators, I think Australia does capture an emotion – it even starts with everybody has their problems but tonight lets leave them behind.

  • “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.”

    Interesting theory. If there’s one song that does that most effectively this year, it’s Estonia’s. The end of a stormy and difficult relationship, with both parties having strong, but very different emotions about it ending. I know some commenters above feel it’s too dour. I’m not convinced that it is.

    If your theory is correct, then we could well be looking at an Estonian win. I guess we’ll find out in a couple of weeks.

  • Chris Bellis

    Great article as usual, EV. I had to reach back in time for the vocabulary of my sociology and philosophy courses. I pretty much agree with your assessments, apart from the UK, which I don’t rate at all. BTW, be careful about dissing Ceca. She has some very powerful friends, has Svetlana, and indeed, she can handle herself without the support of her bodyguards. She makes Cheryl Tweedie/ Cole/ Fernandez Versini look like an amateur in the fighting chav department. Be fair, she’s not as anodyne as some of the other Eastern European superstars, Zhania Friske for example.

    • Robo

      she can handle herself without the support of her bodyguards.

      Those 11 firearms weren’t hers though 🙂

      • Y’all have remarkable Ceca knowledge. Her villa was in my guidebook(!) when I went to Belgrade a few years ago. I didn’t go look at it though. Too busy in Bojan Bjelic’s bachelor pad.

        • Chris Bellis

          EV & Robo – they like her in Serbia, Bosnia etc because they like powerful women. If you look at her concert audiences you can see she is a bit of an icon to a certain sort of young woman. She is very fit, and she is very well armed. If she had been that toilet attendant who tried to stop Cheryl pinching her sweets, we might have a completely different outcome. One of my all time fantasy contests – between Cheryl (spoilt Geordie) and Ceca (wronged toilet attendant).

    • Hi Chris, thanks. I deliberately didn’t discuss this year’s entries in this article having done that in the previous pieces. There is certainly cause for concern regarding the UK entry’s performance and staging. I’ve always thought it needs to come over a la The Artist – classy, stylishly humorous and suave. There’s too much distracting focus on the dancers in both the video and the recent performance. Alex and Bianca need to emerge as distinct personalities like the main couple in The Artist.

      • Chris Bellis

        Sorry – I see you didn’t discuss the other entries. I mentioned the UK in passing. Women in my extended family like it, and it’s grown on me. Staging is poor though. It’s better than most of our recent efforts. Keep the articles coming – always well worth reading and highly entertaining, even when I don’t agree with all of your thoughts. I agree with most of them, but I do worry that we have an interest in Balkan music that might not be shared by the majority of the Eurovision voters, and hence might “contaminate” our judgement. EG I can’t stand the Dutch entry, but does that mean it can’t do well?

      • Thanks Chris. Yes, I can’t be truly objective on Serbia, though I’m temped to view it in the same vein as Cezar, ie. it may surprise people. Though I find the English lyrics a little awkward and too specifically about body image when the original was a much broader self-empowerment/coming-out anthem. (Eurofan-hipsterdom: “I preferred it in the original Serbian!”) I wasn’t a fan of Lisja esenski and while Autumn Leaves is a huge improvement, the 90s boyband thing they apparently have going on on stage now seems like exactly the wrong approach to take.

        I similarly noticed, especially while doing realtime Twitter sentiment analysis in the week after the UK song’s unveiling, that a lot of women seem to like it, certainly more than in the fan wooftersphere. This is my Sofabet articles done for the year.

        Walk Along is unmitigated balls so I wouldn’t worry about your judgement in that regard too much…

  • john kef

    Nobody said anything about Russia…

    We are the worlds people
    Different yet we’re the same
    We believe
    We believe in a dream

    Praying for peace and healing
    I hope we can start again
    We believe
    We believe in a dream

    So if you ever feel love is fading
    Together like the stars in the sky
    We can sing
    We can shine

    When you hear our voices call
    You won’t be lonely anymore
    A million voices
    Your heart is like a beating drum
    Burning brighter than the sun
    A million voices…

    i believe we have a case here…add that she’s an manic pixie dream girl…

  • Donald

    A real decent heart surgery of an article Eurovicious :-).

    The emotion emanating does play a part and feel of song. They do tend to be uplifting. but anything can be uplifting if you’ve backed it ! At least they are a few that fit the bill this year.

    There are a few if they get their staging and performance right. I noticed Daniel mentioned he was backing Lithuania as an outsider, had done same, it’s catchy and that one kiss part is potentially good for TV, but me hoping Russia get Polina staging right, that the song with lift and emotion towards the end where it matters. I have a few personal favourites against the front three.

    Rehearsal watch the name of the game.


    • Hi Donald, thanks – I’m all about Lithuania too, it’s great and I’d love to go to Vilnius for Eurovision. Know what you mean about “anything can be uplifting” if you’re emotionally or financially invested in it – I was convinced No Dream Impossible was gonna win in 2001…

  • The emotion with Australia is the entry of the country itself. The far away country that: is a fan of the show; remembers its roots; and accomplishes this year’s theme of “Building Bridges”.

    • Underdog Syndrome, perhaps?

    • Whether and how they can and do communicate this is key. For Australia to brand itself as Australia, it can’t just look like another entry that could be from anywhere… and I agree, underdog syndrome is always something to be very aware of as a general point.

      • Ben Gray

        But at the same time, they can’t adorn the stage with stereotypical kitsch to scream Australia.

        I think Australia will distinguish itself because as an outsider country, they offer something fresh and enormously credible that goes at odds with the cheese Europe puts up every year. It will seem like it’s not from any old country by virtue of being good!

  • dicksbits

    I couldn’t understand a word.

  • Peter

    Another great article, thanks much Eurovicioius. More on affect and Eurovision can also be found in “Performing the ‘New’ Europe: Identities, Feelings and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest” by Karen Fricker and Milija Gluhovic (eds.)

    • Chris Bellis

      Thanks for that Peter – my partner works at Warwick Uni and it is entertaining that they are engaging in research that is of interest to me, instead of all the boring stuff they usually get up to.

  • Chris

    Belated but not too late, hopefully – this was a great article and some good, insightful contributions. Thanks!

  • Chris

    Interesting. Thanks for this!

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