Personal Musings and Reflections

Eurovision: More Than Just…Politics

Hello Dear Readers!

As promised, the first of four posts in the series “Eurovision: More than just…”

The fallout from Ukraine’s victory last May is still resounding, particularly as the host broadcaster, The Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (UA:PBC) is struggling to complete preparations in a timely manner. The winning entry in Stockholm was 1944 performed by Jamala, who wrote the song based on the experiences of her great-grandmother who had to go through the forced migration of the Crimean Tatars by the USSR, even incorporating words from a Tatar folk song about the event as the chorus. Clearly, while this song is about a historical injustice, there are clear parallels to the 2014 invasion of Crimea by Russia. Despite Russia’s protest about the song being potentially political (which violates ESC rules), the argument made by NTU (UA:PBC’s former name) was that it was a song about history, not current politics. This was enough to allow the song to compete. There is also a history of other countries using Eurovision to send thinly veiled political messages, such as Armenia’s 2010 and 2015 entries that marked the 95th and 100th anniversaries of the Armenian genocide (and event that Turkey still denies). Many countries also send very blatant political songs about peace (Hungary 2015 is the first I think of) or saving the environment (Ukraine 2010 and Armenia 2013 both come to mind). And being political is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a role of music within our society is to express the narratives that we actually live with day to day. And for smaller countries in particular, Eurovision can be the rare opportunity to express themselves in a wide-scale venue (hence, why microstates like San Marino continue to compete). The guys at Overthinking It did a good job of discussing this.

But, we’re not here to discuss the merits of politics at Eurovision, but the ways in which the Contest transcends them. I am going to focus predominantly on the voting and coordination of the event as opposed to the music. Music is art and can take any direction it pleases. The more important aspect is how the EBU enforces its rules against politics and actions it supposedly takes to convey a political message.

Conspiracy Theories

So often, people dismiss the results as being orchestrated by the EBU to favor Western countries or “friendly” Eastern nations. This is despite the fact that less liberal nations, such as Serbia, Azerbaijan, and Russia have all won and hosted the Contest over the past ten years. In 2016, countless fans put forward conspiracy theories that Western nations’ juries purposefully stiffed Russia to avoid a return to the nation in 2017 as they knew that it would win the televote. This is despite the fact that Russia still finished in the top five among the jury scores. And despite the fact that Poland, which finished third in the televote, garnered a mere 7 points from the juries. Poland is a West-friendly Slavic nation, it’s even in the EU, why wouldn’t the juries swing their support behind it if they truly wanted to sink Russia? Or why not swing that support behind one of their own, such as Germany or Spain? The answer, of course, is that juries remain independent from the EBU’s direct influence. There is no statistical evidence to support any concerted effort between juries.

“Political” Voting

From the beginning of the Contest there has been disputes over the allegedly political nature of votes. I have said it before (and I’ll say it again), there’s a difference between political votes and diaspora votes. Political votes implies a televote is actively moving in a direction to promote (or stop) a country for political reasons. It requires a conscious, concerted effort to do so. This is the reason why we don’t see votes between Armenia and Azerbaijan (though, Armenia gave Azerbaijan one point back in 2009). We don’t see this complete refusal to exchange points between any other countries, including between Russia and either Ukraine or Georgia, both of whom gave televoting points to the nation with whom they are at war.

The splitting of Yugoslavia was particularly bitter and there are very deep divides between the various former Yugoslav nations, particularly between Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia as well as  between Slovenia and all of them. Yet, these countries routinely swap votes among themselves. Why? This is the effect of unconscious cultural bias — diaspora voting. Humans tend to like the familiar. While, politically, the countries that formerly comprised Yugoslavia may hate on another, they have strong cultural connections, they have overlapping music industries, and mostly mutually intelligible languages. It makes sense that they would naturally be attracted to the entries from the others. This is also why the Nordic nations tend to swap points, why Greece and Cyprus always swap points, and (to lesser extent) between the Netherlands-Belgium-France.

This may seem like a small difference but it’s important. There is a big difference between ascribing something to conscious effort and instinct/preference. Does this disadvantage smaller nations? Most definitely, and that’s why the EBU instituted things like the allocation pots and brought back the juries. The truth is, even if country names were removed from entries entirely, the diaspora effect would continue. It’s culture, it’s human nature, it’s comfortable — it’s not politics.

Russia 2017

I would be remiss if I did not address the controversy around Russia and 2017. For those who need the step-by-step layout of events:

  1. Russia internally selected Julia Sachenko to represent them with the song “Flame is Burning” mere days before the submission deadline.

  2. Ukraine announced that they were launching an investigation into Sachenko, as they had suspicion to believe that she illegally entered the country to perform in Crimea without passing through a Ukrainian checkpoint back in 2015.

  3. Sachenko confirms that she did, in fact, perform in Crimea in 2015.

  4. Ukraine officials announced in mid-March (with fewer than eight weeks to go before Eurovision) that Sachenko had indeed entered the country illegally and that she was prohibited from returning for five years – no exception.

  5. The EBU expresses dismay over this decision. Initially, they offer to find a way to allow Sachenko to perform in Moscow and have it telecasted in the arena. Both Russia and Ukraine scoff at this. Russia, because the rules state performances must be live in the arena AND that telecasting denies them full participation benefits. Ukraine, because showing Sachenko on Ukrainian television would violate the law and circumvent the punishment of banning her entry.

  6. The EBU reaffirms that Ukrainian law must be respected and that it will work with the host nation to find a solution.

  7. One of the highest ranking administrators at the EBU issued an ultimatum to Ukraine: provide an exception for Sachenko or risk being banned from Eurovision events (ESC, JESC, Eurovision Young Musicians, and all its entertainment content one imagines) for several years (a punishment that was doled out to Lebanon after it said that it would not broadcast the Israeli entry in 2005, forcing it to remove itself from the Contest – where it was set to debut – and drop any expectation of receiving a refund of its participation fee as well as received a five year ban from Eurovision competitions).

  8. Russia is offered the solution of replacing the artist of the song (which is the most sensible solution and consistent with past situations of similar natures, in my opinion).

  9. Again, Russia scoffs at this solution while Ukraine refuses to budge.

  10. Russia ultimately decides to withdraw and refuses to broadcast EC 2017.

This just goes to show you that, try as they might, the EBU cannot prevent politics from creeping into the Contest. Of course, this all could have been avoided if they had made Jamala change the lyrics of 1944 last year. Or if Russia decided to be the bigger man and choose an artist that did not break the law.

So, is this whole post moot? Doesn’t this just prove that my arguments against the political nature of Eurovision are wrong? No. One example, even one as big as this, does not unravel my argument. Nor does it prove the Contest as a whole is political. In fact, it can be said that the EBU was trying its best to mitigate a political event to avoid politics entering the Contest.

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Eurovision: More than just…

Hello Dear Readers!

Happy Autumn! With the start of the new season comes the start of Eurovision preselection season. As a reminder, no song widely performed prior to September 1 is eligible to compete at ESC – well, it’s after September 1! With that, we [finally] have a host city in Kyiv; we are also on pace to have around 38 countries competing in 2017. But, before we move to focusing on the music, let’s take a step back and take a look at the Contest. Specifically, as the Contest moves back to the East, several concerns have cropped up throughout the fan community that I would like to address in this series, which is titled “Eurovision: More than just…” We’re going to be looking at four concepts that have always been a big part of the Contest, but, over the past four to five years, have become pseudo-synonymous with ESC in the minds of many, inside and outside the fan community.

Eurovision: More than just Politics
Eurovision: More than just Ballads
Eurovision: More than just Sweden
Eurovision: More than just Gay Men

Yes. These four aspects are incredibly important to the Contest. But, just because they are important does not mean that they are the only aspects of Eurovision. This series is an attempt to look beyond these aspects to fully embrace, celebrate, and highlight elements beyond the Contest.

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Analyzing the Big Five: France

Hello Dear Readers!

We reach our final Big Five post (in this series, at least) – we have arrived in France! Poor, tired, finally successful France. Since 2006, France has tried over and over using genre after genre to succeed, seeing success a mere three times, but achieving historic lows, including its first-ever last place. Sad days for a once great titan of Eurovision, it is tied with the UK and Luxembourg with five victories, four second places (including a lost in the 1991 tie-break), and 13 other top five finishes.

Recent History

2006 – 22nd place with Il Etait Temps performed by Virginie
2007 – 22nd place with L’Amour a la Française performed by Les Fatals Picards
2008 – 19th place with Divine performed by Sebastian Tellier
2009 – 8th place with Et S’Il Fallait le Faire performed by Patricia Kaas
2010 – 12th place with Allez! Ola! Olé! performed by Jessy Matador
2011 – 15th place with Sognu performed by Amaury Vassili
2012 – 22nd place with Echo (You and I) performed by Anggun
2013 – 23rd place with L’Enfer et Moi performed by Amandine Bourgeois
2014 – 26th place (last) with Moustache performed by TWIN TWIN
2015 – 25th place with N’Oubliez Pas performed by Lisa Angell
2016 – 6th place with J’ai Cherché performed by Amir

New French Flag MapThe genres of the French entries: ballad – pop rock – indie – French ballad – stadium anthem – operatic aria – pop – rock – rap – ballad – pop. Not too much repetition there. Only 2009, 2010, and 2016 have been deemed successes. Et S’Il Fallait le Faire was the first French song in the Top Ten since 2002, 2010 was the highest selling single from ESC that year (after Satellite), and 2016 brought France back to the Top Ten after years of frustration and threats to leave the Contest. 2008 remains popular and is one of the few Eurovision songs to be used in commercials – but it is remembered mostly for being the first (and so far only) 100% English langauge (save two lines) entry from France. This is notable because, like Portugal, France was always seen as being in the “never English” camp. And, indeed, English all but disappeared from French entries until 2016 ~ J’ai Cherché was mostly French with a refrain in English. But why has France been so unsuccessful? In 2011 it was the big favorite to win, 2012 was supposed to be its big moment, 2013 was supposed to be Amandine Bourgeois’ big breakout party, and 2014 was supposed to get Europe dancing. But each song failed. Sure, the running order has something to do with it, 2013, France got lost as first on the night and in 2015, as second; but in 2016, France was buried in the first half and had to compete with some of the most memorable entries to date.  It’s also easy to blame a bias against non-English entries, though 2009 was entirely in French. Or, just an anti-French bias, though, arguably, Africans receive much more prejudicial treatment throughout Europe and 2010 brought one of the most commercially successful French entries to date. No, the biggest issue facing France is much more fundamental.

So, what has gone wrong?

I am going to argue that, despite what some commentators may have you believe, the issue is not the songs that France has been selecting (though, there could have been stronger choices over the years), the biggest issue with France in Eurovision in recent years has been the staging. Let’s take a look at three examples: 2007, 2012, and 2015. L’Amour a la Française was the artsy, uber-French entry in 2007. It should have stood out – and on the album it does. The song is fun, catchy, and easy-enough to sing along to, even without knowing French. The issue was the staging. From the crazy outfits (there was a stuffed cat!), the bright pink, the spinning camera, the fake running, it was something…to forget. It was all just too much – an issue that we saw again the following year in Belgrade. I said this before and I’ll say it again, many of the French entries seem to be jokes that the rest of the non-French audience just doesn’t seem to be in on. In 2012, France continued to “more is more” approach.

France is no stranger to having artists from its former colonies to represent the mosaic of the French people. AFP PHOTO / VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO

While I loved the dress Anggun had on, the acrobats, lights, streamers – it was not just too much, but it took what should have been a really strong song and mired it with all this unnecessary baggage that just distracted the viewer and made us want just turn it off, particularly when we think of some of the simple, yet powerful songs that did well – such as Albania, Estonia, and Germany.

But what about 2015? When France sent a simple yet powerful song with an equally as simple yet powerful staging (I still get goosebumps every time I see the drummers appear). But, the song appeared in second spot. The song was generally received as an outdated, boring ballad (poignant, yet boring). I think people were moved by the staging, but it was not enough to overcome its running order position and general reception. Likewise, in 2011, when France was the heavy favorite, a poor jury performance and an overly simply staging stopped Sognu‘s chances of success.

How can France improve 2017?

France2016 brought success to France for the first time since 2010. This was done on the back of a contemporary song performed by a charismatic, personable, attractive singer. Unfortunately, despite a decent running order position, France topped out at 6th place. As you know, I predicted that France was going to win (several times)- and this was one of the better, outside odds going into Saturday night. What happened, France 2 stuck Amir out there, all by himself, on this huge stage, with this random backdrop. No backing dancer to help him communicate the story of the song. No visuals to make it look as if he was searching all over the world. Nothing but him and some simple camerawork. Imagine if France 2 had actually invested energy and innovation into the staging – we could be heading to Paris (or a different city!).

Anyway, going into next year, France can take some steps to strike a balance between the craziness of 2007 and the oversimplicity of 2015. The genre of the song doesn’t matter as strongly – we have seen all sorts succeed in recent years. If France wanted to dive into its culture, but with a modern twist, they could send a nouvelle chanson song. Think traditional French-style ballad (like 2009) but with a modern, indie spin. One of the better (I think) artists in this genre is Star Academy semi-finalists Olivia Ruiz; check out:  J’Traine des Pieds and Elle Panique. And, if you doubt her English-language chops, she hit number one in the French charts with a cover of ABBA’s hit Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight) alongside two of her competitors. Something that could give France a distinct, yet catchy sound, would be something in the vein of her biggest original hit Belle à en Crever (below). Look at the video, the animation style is very French without being inaccessible, the song is contemporary, yet distinctly Française.

Alternatively, France could continue the same theme from this year – something very contemporary but less distinctive. La Voix winner Kendji Girac would be a great choice. His background is Catalan and Gitano – and this comes through in his music: Andalouse and Color Gitano. And his biggest hit, Cool. Like the Catalan language, his music sounds as if it blends the best of French and Spanish styles into a modern, urban beat. Even though I couldn’t find an English language song for him (which actually might make him more appealing to France 2), earlier this month, he did release a single, Sonrisa (below) from a yet-to-be-determined forthcoming album. Perhaps France 2 could convince him to use a different song from the album for Eurovision next year?

What’s the worst thing France can do?

Well, in addition to choosing one of the above acts (or someone like them) and then giving them a wretched staging, France could also return to the tradition of choosing a very “French” artist that then gives us a staging that no one understands. For example, Minou makes great music! But their music videos are a bit….different. I like Hélicoptères and Alphalove, but the music videos are very eccentric, too eccentric for Eurovision.

Likewise, France 2 could an amazing artist that allows them to design the staging for them. Only to give that artist another lackluster staging like this year. Very few people have the charisma of Amir. In just a few months, Amir became the best ambassador to Eurovision on behalf of the French in years! He went to preview concerts, was on news broadcasts all around Europe, did all these covers of Eurovision songs from around the continent (and history), and just did everything a performing artist could do to build a positive reputation. Unless France 2 chooses another artist of Amir’s personal qualities, another plain staging will result in a poor result.

France is seen as the center of modern Western culture, for better and for worst. Unfortunately, this does not seem to transfer over to Eurovision. It seemed for a long time, France was resting on its laurels; it was only in recent years that the broadcaster (France 3 from 1998-2014 and now France 2, again) has decided to actually try to be successful. It took a few Contests, but France finally climbed back into the Top Ten. If it wants to stay there, it needs to invest, not just in a strong song, but in a strong staging!

So, what do you think? Can better staging be the solution to France’s woes? Or do they run much deeper than that? How should France select its entries – or is internal selection still a good idea? And, more importantly, can France harness more points from its Romance language brethren, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, San Marino, Moldova, and Switzerland next year?

Be sure to check out my analyses on the other Big Five countries!

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Analyzing the Big Five: Germany

Hello Dear Readers!

Today we move on to Germany. The only Big Five country to win since the rule was introduced, Germany had a wave of success at the turn of the decade, but promptly fell back to bottom of the scoreboard.

Recent History
2006 – 15th place with No No Never by Texas Lightning
2007 – 19th place with Frauen Regier’n Die Welt performed by Roger Cicero
2008 – 23rd place with Disappear performed by No Angels
2009 – 20th place with Miss Kiss Kiss Bang performed by Alex Swings, Oscar Sings
2010 – 1st place with Satellite performed by Lena
2011 – 10th place with Taken by a Stranger performed by Lena
2012 – 8th place with Standing Still performed by Roman Lob
2013 – 21st place with Glorious performed by Cascada
2014 – 18th place with Is it Right? performed by Elaiza
2015 – 27th place (last) with Black Smoke performed by Ann Sophie
2016 – 26th place (last) with Ghost performed by Jamie-Lee Kriewitz

German Flag MapGermany has had a wide diversity of entries, from swing (2007, 2009) to dance (2013) to country (2006) to R&B (2015) to polka-pop (2014). Sadly, despite the relative strength of each entry, most have fallen on the wrong side of the scoreboard. 2010 was a standout year for Germany, as Satellite stormed to victory, making Germany the only Big Five country to win since the rule was introduced in 2000. Lena became only the third person to attempt to defend her title the following year, and got tenth. Finally, using the same formula that selected Lena, Germany chose its entry for 2012 and retained a position in the Top Ten.

So, what’s gone wrong?
The easiest answer would be that Stefan Raab is not involved. Every entry he has touched – 1998 (songwriter), 2000 (songwriter and performer), 2010 (producer), 2011 (producer), 2012 (judge for the selection show) – has gotten Germany into the Top Ten. But why? Why was the period from 2010-2012 so successful and every other year before and since have not been? Stefan Raab brought more than a producer’s touch to NDR, he brought a marketing machine. Satellite was common on radios across Europe ahead of the Contest. By the time the Contest came around, it was already a popular tune that felt familiar to viewers. Taken by a Stranger and Standing Still weren’t played as much, but still had a strong marketing plan around it. In 2013, Cascada, a popular dance-pop group with a worldwide following (arguably, the biggest name at the time of their participation in Eurovision in recent years), took the German banner to Malmö. Perhaps NDR thought that Cascada’s name alone would generate points, perhaps they thought the betting odds would protect them, perhaps they did not anticipate Natalie Horler’s (the lead singer) lackluster vocal performance – regardless, NDR did not promote Glorious as they should and now seem to be trapped in a broken system of lackluster promotional efforts. 2014 and 2015 had news coverage that focused much more on the selection than the song itself.  Every marketing piece for 2016’s entry was 100% focused on Jamie-Lee’s interest in Korean culture. Perhaps it was to preemptively head off questions about the staging, but, like 2013-2015, it meant the song was still relatively unknown.

This is the issue. The story is bigger than the song…in a song contest. See the issue here? Stefan Raab, yes, promoted his artists, but never lost sight of the main focus: getting the song in front of viewers.

How can Germany improve in 2017?

GermanyReturn to a winning formula. In 2010 and 2012, NDR (and ADR) used Raab’s format Unser Star für Oslo/Baku. The process is simple; Unser Star conducted a talent search, the top singers then compete in a typical talent show format, the final two compete with the same songs. Each artist’s best song is chosen to moved into a super-final. The people and the judges then select the best of the two. This ensures that strongest song-artist pair is selected.

We know Lena’s version of Satellite, but here is the version by Jennifer Braun, the other Unser Star finalist in 2010. Though, the super-final featured Jennifer Braum singing I Care for You.

Likewise, in 2012, Roman Lob’s final competitor Ornella de Santis had a version of Standing Still. Her super-final song, though, was “Quietly.”

All of this to say, Germany needs to return to this method of choosing its entry. NDR doesn’t even need to bring back Stefan Raab for Unser Song to work, just the concept. Given the recent string of poor finishes, Germany needs to return to a formula that works!

What’s the worst thing Germany can do?

Continue with its current format of Unser Song; which is essentially just a traditional national selection. Actually, the worst thing Germany can do is have yet another selection controversy. Whether its a winner abdicating the trophy or an internal selection gone awry, NDR needs to have a solid format that locks in the winner. Germany can no longer allow its song to be outshined by the story behind its selection.

There are almost 82 million people in Germany, I’m sure there are plenty of them who would love the chance to fly the Duetsche colors in Ukraine. Bring back Unser Star and return to the Top Ten.

What do you think? Is an undiscovered artist who emerges as the champion at the end of a crucible of a reality television talent search the answer for Germany? Should NDR and ADR just break down and beg Stefan Raab to come back from retirement to run things again? And, more importantly, can Germany reclaim points from the German diaspora throughout Central Europe?

Be sure to check out my analyses on the other Big Five countries!

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