Saara Aalto Eurovision Review and X Factor 2018 Preview

When Finnish TV tapped Brian Friedman to do the staging for Saara Aalto’s Eurovision 2018 entry, we were fascinated to see how this collision of Sofabet worlds would play out. You would think that Brian must have learned a huge amount about how to stage an act in a way that will maximise public votes, right?

Evidently not. With an okay-but-not-great song, Saara was never likely to win – but scraping through the semi-final in 10th of 10 qualifiers before finishing 25th of 26 in the final can only be considered disappointing. Let’s review how Saara’s staging went wrong, and what lessons we can draw about the workings of X Factor, the new season of which starts on Saturday.

Saara starts off standing in front of a large black circle with jaggedy white lines. It was not clear at all what this represents.

She turns to the camera. Close-ups are usually helpful, enabling acts to make eye contact with viewers at home. Unfortunately, the combination of heavy eye make-up and lighting means we can’t properly see Saara’s eyes, so it’s harder to establish a connection with her.

Now the circle begins to turn, with Saara spreadeagled on it, like a magician’s assistant in a knife-throwing trick. This is because… um… who knows? It doesn’t seem to have any relevance to what she’s singing about. The message seems simply to be: “Look at me! I can sing upside-down!”

Saara struts off the prop, and we get our first good look at her backing dancers. They have cropped hair and are wearing militaristic grey outfits with black boots, gloves and straps. What connotations is this intended to evoke in the mind of the viewer? ‘Springtime for Hitler’ as performed at an S&M club? The shock troops of a futuristic androgynous revolution? For many viewers, the subliminals will surely have been threatening and alienating.

The prop has now turned into a shiny, eight-pointed star with three triangles and two sets of steps, which must represent… um… not sure. Again, it seems to have nothing to do with what Saara’s singing about. What are the subliminals here, do you think? Altar of a new-age illuminati-esque religion?

Pyros are usually helpful, but they’re carelessly allowed to look puny in a very wide-angle shot, and then Saara’s sparkler seems to fizzle out a few moments too soon.

Finally, she falls backward into the arms of her jackbooted dancers because… um… she can?

What on earth was all that about? In the Sofabet comments, HL kindly explained:

I heard only afterwards that the wheel Saara was attached to in the beginning, was a broken mirror (self image), and the diamond/sun on the other side was the end result when self deprecating thoughts and other demons had been chased away. Then she was not scared anymore and jumped, and her androgynous ‘army’ was there to catch her and support her. So it was a journey from the dark side of the mind to light and happiness and self acceptance. Did not quite get it. Probably nobody did.

We certainly didn’t.

Eurovision staging really isn’t rocket science, as proved this year by countries such as Ireland and Germany. Both elevated distinctly average songs by 10-20 places up the scoreboard, compared to pre-rehearsals market expectations, by finding a way to show their story – respectively, through interpretive dance, and simple words and drawings on an LED wall.

At least Brian attempted to show the story; many other countries, including coulda-been-a-contender France, didn’t bother. But look at the lyrics he had to work from:

So tonight I’m making friends
With all the creatures that are hiding there under my bed
I ain’t gonna hold on to these monsters anymore
Now I’m gonna let in all the light, tear down the walls
At my worst I found my army strong
All the demons are gone
You can try and scare me now, but I ain’t scared no more

What might jump out from that as a staging concept? Saara making friends with creatures hiding under a bed, perhaps? Or tearing down walls to let in light? To run with “army strong” as your inspiration instead is… left-field.

But then we always knew Brian was a left-field creative genius. What’s new, is the hint that he’s not interested in how staging decisions will motivate or demotivate votes. All those bonkers stage shows for Kitty Brucknell or Saara were a product of Brian’s imagination and nothing more. If this had been the X Factor, we’d have been wondering why they were trying to associate Saara with fetishism and fascism. And the answer would have been: they weren’t. It was just Brian being creatively left-field, and nobody being on hand to rein him in.

With the new series looming it’s a good moment to speculate about how the X Factor works in terms of organisation, which we’ve occasionally touched on before but never set out directly for commenters to critique. Feel free to disagree with this conjecture below.

We assume that only a relatively small number of senior people sit around the table in the X Factor’s hollowed-out volcano, sketching out the bigger picture (and what fun they must have). We assume they entrust the most mission-critical pieces of the jigsaw – the judges’ script, the VT and staging for the week’s assassination target or for a favoured act who needs a boost – to the most switched-on employees, who can be trusted to be alert to the vote-nudging potential of every detail.

We assume also that they have to delegate many creative tasks to employees who actually regard them as creative tasks, rather than as exercises in highly amusing psychological manipulation. And if those employees come back with creative details that look dubious from a manipulation perspective, we assume TPTB will make a judgement call about whether they need to step in to change it or they can afford to let it ride. They won’t have time to micro-manage everything.

So when we’re confused by mixed messages – say, some apparent staging red flags for an act that had a benign VT and comments – we think the most economical explanation is that it’s an accidental by-product of an ingenue employee being high-concept and arty-farty, and producers weren’t concerned enough to step in.

And of course, producers can always change their minds, as happened during Saara’s season in 2016, when there were mixed messages galore on “Zara from Norway” and Matt “you’re like a sandwich without butter” Terry.

Much as we amuse ourselves by poring over the smaller details on X Factor, it’s a salutary reminder to interpret them always in the context of the bigger picture. We’ll be doing our best again this season to distinguish the carefully calculated drip-drip-drip effects from the faulty tap they’ve decided they can afford not to bother fixing.

That was easier in 2017, when Simon told us from the outset that he was looking for acts who performed their own material, and the Sunday of the final was fought out by the two of them who had consistently done that throughout the series.

The task is complicated this year by a three-quarters-new judging panel consisting of Simon, Louis Tomlinson, Robbie Williams and, er, Robbie Williams’s wife. It remains to be seen whether any of these will prove as reliably on-message as Louis Walsh.

The series returns this coming Saturday at 8pm, with the room auditions axed and the hopefuls starting out in the arena. Bootcamp has also been dropped, and the six chair challenge has introduced a Britain’s Got Talent-style golden buzzer to guarantee the lucky recipients a place at judges’ houses.

We’ll return before the first show with a primer on what to look out for at the audition stages. In the meantime, here’s the spoiler thread on Digital Spy (hat-tip to Chatterbox5200 in the comments), which will assist those who prefer to watch the audition shows on fast-forward. As ever, we look forward to your analysis in the comments below.

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21 comments to Saara Aalto Eurovision Review and X Factor 2018 Preview

  • Chris Bellis

    Thanks Andrew. Incisive as always. For me the lesson from the Saara performance is that if you’re in the Eurovision bubble, you don’t see it how others do. I always rather liked the performance, once she got the vocals right. At least it was interesting, unlike the car crash of the French entry. But your average tv viewer/voter would not have got it. I don’t think it was that bad of a song, in that I could play it for you now if you were here, which isn’t true of most of the songs last year.
    as for X-Factor, I’m not sure the new panel will make that much difference. We all know who runs the show.

    • The Nefeilibata

      How was the French staging a car crash? Not every song needs to be staged like a Broadway production, sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. What did you want? Two dozen people in lifejackets on stage?

    • Chris Bellis

      Quite a few of us on this site thought the French staging left a lot to be desired. It didn’t convey the message of the song. Maybe “car crash” is over-stating it, but the song deserved to do better than 13th. By the way, they wouldn’t have been allowed to have two dozen people with lifejackets on stage under Eurovision rules, but film footage and a translation might have been a start.

  • Welcome back everyone, after a bloody dismal Eurovision I’m not sure I’ll be too involved this Autumn but let’s see what happens.

    Before we put Eurovision to bed though, having been in the arena for all four competitive runs of Monsters, the bit that I really struggled with is we didn’t see Saara in the arena until something like a minute in. It was also quite obvious she was performing with her back to the audience when I watched it back on TV. In the same way Benjamin Ingrosso’s song may as well have been a music video, it caused a massive disconnect.

    I’m glad you’ve bought this up, as I went in big on Finland based on Friedman presumably knowing a lot about the dark arts of the genre both X Factor and Eurovision sit in. But as we saw with Australian Idol’s Jessica Mauboy, the tricks to win televotes on one show don’t immediately translate to another. Pretty much the only decent call I made was to ignore the hype around Oz. Jess just looked awkward, but the red herring of it having the biggest crowd reaction again all four times I saw it live didn’t throw me.

    Was nice to meet some guys on here in person (and get recognised in Eurovillage by Eurovicious!) in Brighton and Lisbon. Not sure if I’m off to Israel but I’ll definitely be at EYD.

  • Chris Bellis

    @James Martin
    Many of us made bad calls at Eurovision last year. I stayed away from Israel because of the odds. The odds were so short because the song was a winner though. UK delivered bottom 5 as usual, but Sweden only made it to 7. My resolution for next year is to be aware of the bubble. There were so many I didn’t see coming last year. About the only ones I got right were Netherlands,Norway and Australia (not to do as well as predicted). I was much more successful with the semis.

    • I think that was the problem: this year I was IN the bubble. The worst thing I did was get way too swept up in the emotion around Ireland’s odds crash particularly after Mango TV had their rights withdrawn by the EBU.

      That said, I also got Fuego Fever like everyone else in town that week and the E/W there did me OK. What of course I failed to pick up on was that Cypriot Beyonce seemed fresh and exciting after months of crazy chicken lady – to us. Most people, especially in Big 5 countries and certainly the UK, don’t even know there’s semi finals midweek – to them, it’s still a Saturday night affair.

      My sisters are bored of my obsession but they and their partners held a Eurovison party whilst looking out for me on TV. My dad and his wife also went to a party and they can’t stand the thing. My Facebook feed was chock-full of it in a way I normally only see during the Olympics or World Cup. Most people don’t give a toss about the National Finals, the build up on social media and streaming platforms, the bookies or even the midweek shows – but come Saturday night they’re partying just as hard as us. However, they’re only hearing Crazy Chicken Lady for the first time. They’re only now realising ooh that girl from X Factor is in it. And they LOVE German Ed Sheeran, Czech Jason Derulo and Austrian Sam Smith. And why were France singing Thank You, Thank You for three minutes?

      Moral of the story: you’ve got to almost pretend Saturday night is the first time you hear/see the songs, because it’s the first time most televotes do.

  • Chris Bellis

    @James Martin
    That sums it up very well, but it’s hard to stay out of the bubble when you’re a fan. To be fair, all but a few francophiles got why “Merci” wasn’t going to live up to its promise. The French now have quite a history of weird and eccentric staging that doesn’t help get votes. This last was a good song and could have achieved more with the right staging.
    Anyway, roll on X-Factor. That has been a lot more predictable in recent years.

    • Highlight of ESC apart from going for the first time ever has to be getting my phone out after SuRie’s performance to no less than 10 messages from people asking me WTF just happened and what’s the atmosphere like as a result? To be honest, songs 10-15 were a total blur after the invasion – and it didn’t even occur to me to cash out on my UK outright bet as SuRie’s odds crashed in the half hour after. Kicking myself.

  • AliciaMirza

    Just a thought: I admit to that I know quite a lot about Louis Tomlinson and even if he seems like Simon’s right-hand man based on such articles as the one where Simon said he is like a father figure of him and whatnot, I really don’t think that Louis T will be the new Louis W.
    I think if there will be anyone to go off script this season then it would be him. He really is the type to fight for his opinion – apparently he has pissed of many people in the industry by doing just that behind the scenes (and fighting for the rights of 1D). He does have a strange relationship with Simon though which is certainly hard to explain, so I will be curious to see if Simon is able to control him on the show.

    • I imagine most talent has an awkward relationship with management. It’s forever the battle of art vs. business. But the lads aren’t stupid and know 1D (and the very quick solo careers of all five members compared to how long it took the members of, say, Boyzone to go solo) are Cowell’s cash cow. I’m sure it’s the same with the Little Mix girls.

      Ironic that groups, girlbands especially, have always struggled on the show (with just two winners as opposed to the others being soloists) yet it’s two groups that have been the most successful exports.

      • AliciaMirza

        Yeah, I agree with the awkward relationship always happening, but it’s even stranger with Louis. Everyone seems to agree that he was the only one really fighting their management and yet it seems he is the closest to Simon and Simon likes him the most when we know that Simon loves to be able to control everyone. That’s why I said I’m so interested in the dynamics of the panel.
        I agree also with how ironic it is that groups do better outside of the show than on it, though it is as it is often described on this site is most probably because of the problems with creating an emotional attachment to so many people in so little time – outside of the show there is so much more opportunity to show personality. 1D for example was vastly different on the main show than on behind the scenes videos and on the bits in The Xtra Factor. On the show I can count on one hand how many times Louis even said a word when even now fans can’t stop rewatching their video diaries because of Louis’ engaging personality and stunts.

  • Phil

    I think you can look at who’s sitting where to sum up who is going to fulfill which role. Louis is in the traditional Cowell puppet seat (ie Cheryl, Tulisa). Robbie is in the joker seat (ie Louis W). To me, Ayda is the biggest mystery.

    • Originally i was thinkin Aydas role would be similiar to 2011s kelly rowland. A strong judge who is also outspoken. The overs have already been dealed a strong catergory. im guessing theyll be pushing an overs winner. Ayda seems to have her head straight so itll be good. robbie seems more jokey and giving him the groups makes it already seem as if hell be the first judge out. simon gettin the girls again is the most confusing he failed horribly last time with them (He ruined emily bless her) but it seems hes been left with them for the sake of louis having the boys especially anthony russel. both scarlet lee and anthony have made it and are speculated for JHs. hopefully anthony doesnt make it he just isnt good enough

  • Stoney

    Lets try and enjoy this series guys. It will be the last. What the actual fuck. Williams on stage singing Angels. RIP x factor

    • I think there’s one more year left on the contract but after that launch episode it may be buried past midnight on ITVBe.

      The usual approach is to stack the first episode with the strongest acts… given what we’ve just seen they might as well give Janice the win now. Maybe they’re mixing things up and future episodes will be better? That’s the only hope they have now.

      That and finding the panel personalities from somewhere – even Simon seemed to be going through the motions.

  • Stoney

    I was getting the impression they are going to be pushing a girl group this year. Littlemix will need replacing soon. I will be keeping this in mind this year.

  • Alan

    Good article, only just seen it. So do you now think it’s possible that they gave the job of creating last year’s contestants fonts to someone who was just trying to represent their personalities rather than trying to influence voters a certain way?

    • Ah, you’ll never get us to back down on the fonts, Alan 😉 😀

      I would guess that one of the senior “in on it” people will have approved the brief the graphic designer had to work with, and in such a brief there’ll be a lot of overlap between representing personalities and influencing voters, e.g. if you were to just say something like “1950s retro Americana” for Sam Black and “modern original love songs” for Grace Davies then you’re going to end up with a typographical treatment for Grace that’s likely to have broader appeal among XF voting demographics, but ostensibly it just looks like you’re describing them in a neutral, even-handed way. And I would guess that someone alert to the influencing side of things will have seen the fonts before they were signed off, and had the chance to ask the designers to rework if they’d put a favoured act in Comic Sans or something.

      But who knows, eh? Fascinated to see if they do it again this year!

      • Alan

        I expect they will. Would be much more interesting if they did it before the live shows and before we have seen how the acts are being treated by producers.

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