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Analyzing the Big Five: Italy

Hello Dear Readers!

We now head to Italy, arguably the most success Big Five country since it returned to the Contest and joined the group in 2011 with four out of six entries finishing in the Top Ten. Overall, Italy has two victories, two second places, and eleven other top five victories since 1956.

Recent History
2011 – 2nd place with Follia d’Amore (Madness of Love) performed by Raphael Gualazzi
2012 – 9th place with L’Amore É Femmina performed by Nina Zilli
2013 – 7th place with L’Essenziale performed by Marco Mengoni
2014 – 21st place with La Miq Città performed by Emma Marrone
2015 – 3rd place with Grande Amore performed by Il Volo
2016 – 16th place with No Degree of Separation performed by Francesca Michielin

Italian Flag MapAs I said above, Italy has been the most successful Big Five country as of late, topping the Top Ten totals of each other country since 2011 (France: 1, Germany: 2, Spain: 2, UK: 0) and hasn’t finished below 21st unlike the others which, other than Spain (25th place), have all been last at least once. Italy has seen this success with jazz, ballads, and even opera. But, the Italian record is not spotless. They have twice fallen toward the bottom of the scoreboard – once when they had a poprock number that was halfheartedly performed with a mess of a staging and the other when a young, eccentric singer took a pretty, but boring, song with a questionable staging to ESC.

So, what has gone wrong?
Honestly, Italy could have won in 2011 (#1 among the juries), 2013 (one of the top betting odds and remains one of the most popular entries to date), and 2015 (#1 in the televote). Why has Italy not been able to close the deal and hoist the crystal microphone? Apathy.

RAI took its time returning to the Contest and has shown little interest in winning. Italy won JESC in 2014 then promptly refused hosting the Contest and sent a weak song to ensure that it would not win again. They seem to be equally disinterested in winning and hosting the adult version. Success in 2011 was a complete surprise and was brought on by the juries. RAI has not made the mistake of allowing their artists to have a strong jury performance since. In 2013 and 2015, seemingly easy victories were prevented by relatively weak jury performances. I was in Vienna for 2015. Il Volo were unenthused on Friday night (for the jury show) and were clearly using it as a mere warm-up. On Saturday, however, they took it to eleven and gave, without a doubt, a winning performance that made the arena standstill in awe. It’s clear to see why they won the televote. Grande Amore would have sent the Contest to Italy if RAI had directed Il Volo to ensure Friday was a full-strength show. Likewise, in 2013, reports were of a mostly aloof Marco Mengoni that had an overall air of disinterest. Throughout the entire performance, jury and televote, he barely made eye contact with the camera, despite various angles that were utilized for him to do just that. Denying his smolder to the audience cost him, and Italy, the victory.

What can Italy do to improve in 2017?
ItalyWell, it’s obvious: care. RAI needs to do some soul-searching. If it doesn’t want to win, then why is it competing? Just to perform well and feel superior to the rest of Europe? Why not win and then throw the “best” ESC to date?

There is not an artist recommendation for Italy. No, only a chastising for the RAI producers.

Shame, shame on you RAI!!!

So, if Italy wants to win, what can it do? Once an artist and song are selected (San Remo still works) the artist should be coached to smile and act like they care about the Contest (such as they did this year), they need to promote and send it around to the various pre-Eurovision concerts (as they did this year), and they need to give strong, powerful performances for both the jury and the televised shows (as they did this year)….

But, if this happened in 2016, why did they achieve such a low placing? The song had a swell of fan support and slowly was picking up speed in the betting odds ahead of the Contest. Well, the answer comes in the form of staging. Italy tends to go for a simple staging (except for 2013, which was a hot mess). The problem: No Degree of Separation didn’t go for a simple staging. There were screens with digitized effects, there were sparkly brown overalls, and a pond theme that did not match the song.

Here’s No Degree of Separation at Eurovision in Concert that sparked its rise in the betting odds.

Michielin has an eccentric personality and probably fought for a more interesting staging, but RAI did not direct this creativity in a positive way. If they did, perhaps we would have gotten a staging more like the music video.

Instead of reigning in Francesca Michielin’s vision and pushing for a simple staging (that was more in line with the simplicity of Eurovision in Concert) or one in line with the music video that compliments the song, RAI allowed for the confusing production that we got this May. Again, if RAI had wanted to win, they would have worked with Michielin to craft a staging that would have allowed for the song to shine. Instead, RAI allowed it to die.

Again: shame, shame on you RAI for not trying harder!

What’s the worst thing Italy can do?

Depends on who you ask. RAI? Winning.

For the thousands of ESC fans in Italy and around the world? To allow another great song to fall prey to apathy by not allowing the artist to perform at their full potential for the jury final or by not channeling an artist’s creativity into a successful presentation.

Italy, unlike so many other countries, does not have a problem with the quality of its entries – the songs or the artists – the problem lies with the hearts of those in control at RAI. Once those hearts are changed, I imagine we’ll be back in Italy without haste.

What are your thoughts? Do you think that RAI needs to care more? Do you disagree that their songs have actually been strong enough to win? And, more importantly, why has San Marino not given Italy 12 points since 2011 and will the #SanMarinoPlan help with this?

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

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Analyzing the Big Five: Spain

  1. Hello Dear Readers!

We turn our gazes today out west – to Spain! Debuting in 1961, España has had mixed success through the years, winning in 1968 and again on home turf in 1969, but rarely tasting much other success, having only two second places and six other top five finishes. This is well-reflected in Spain’s recent finishes, as the country has been up and down, but rarely achieved its full potential.

Recent History
2006 – 21st place with Un Blodymary by Las Ketchup
2007 – 20th place with I Love You Mi Vida performed by D’Nash
2008 – 16th place with Baila El ChikiChiki performed by Rodolfo Chikilicuatre
2009 – 24th place with La Noche es para Mi performed by Soraya
2010 – 15th place with Algo Pequiñito performed by Daniel Diges
2011 – 23rd place with Que Me Quiten Lo Bailao performed by Lucia Perez
2012 – 10th place with Quedate Conmigo performed by Pastora Soler
2013 – 25th place with Contigo Hasta el Final performed by El Sueño De Morfeo (ESDM)
2014 – 10th place with Dancing in the Rain performed by Ruth Lorenzo
2015 – 21st place with Amanecer performed by Edurne
2016 – 22nd place with Say Yay! performed by Barei

Spanish Flag MapSpain’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. There is an intense desire to use Eurovision to display Spanish culture, whether its showcasing the Celtic roots of Galicia (2013), bringing idioms to life (2010, 2011, 2016), or simply displaying contemporary Spanish pop music (2006, 2007, 2009, 2016). It is this emphasis on culture that leads to the inevitable, annual discussion of whether or not the entry should include English. Honestly, language isn’t the issue. The composition and staging display the culture just fine. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the incorporation of Spanish (or one of its dialects or a regional language) into the entry – but is it worth the fuss that we see ever year? In 2016, the Minister of Culture nearly disowned “Say Yay!” because it was entirely in English despite the composition and the presentation displaying Spanish culture. Likewise, the international fans are quick to blame the Spanish language for the nation’s lack of success, forgetting that two of Spain’s most successful entries in the past ten years were entirely in Spanish and the last was 50/50 with English. And this is why the emphasis on culture is a weakness for Spain – instead of unifying the country behind an entry that celebrates (at least a segment of) Spanish culture, each year there seems to be a firestorm – the public seems to whine about every entry, it’s either not “Spanish enough” or its the “wrong” kind of Spanish, etc. And, complaining from the public is typical, but it seems to be led by the government. It’s hard for RTVE to garner support when the government whines about the entry for not adequately representing “Spanish” culture. Spain is a diverse country, rich from the influence of many people groups (many Western European countries are diverse, but Spain is one of the least integrated countries, where the various groups tend to stay separated) – Catalonia, Galicia, Majorca, Canary Islands, Andalusia, etc. No one entry will be able to capture every aspect of every culture within Spain. The sooner that this fact is accepted, the easier it will be for RTVE to garner public support.

So, what has gone wrong?
The issue of culture surely puts RTVE on edge, as they have to try hard to win over the doubters within their own country in addition to trying to win the hearts of Europe. Add the fact that it was the last of the Big Five to join the Contest and the least successful, and you get a situation where entries come off as desperate. 2007 and 2015 are great examples of this. Both were songs that were meant to capture the essence of contemporary sound, both went into the Contest with decent betting odds and a lot of attention. However, both had stagings that were too elaborate, so much so that it took away from the song. These overly-elaborate stagings come off as desperate for votes and we all know that desperation is a turn-off. 2016 was in a similar situation, but had betting odds that were on a downhill trajectory throughout the month of May and had the unfortunate task of performing after Russia’s show-stopping presentation.

What can Spain do to Improve in 2017?
SpainIt’s tempting to say that Spain just needs to send another diva. Spain’s two Top Ten songs were both ballads. But, 2008, arguably the most memorable and popular song, was a pure gimmick act. All three songs had something in common that the other seven we’re examining do not: authenticity (you could argue that 2013 was authentic, but was not performed very well). No one expected Rodolfo Chikilicuatre to have a strong song, but he went out there and got people dancing and laughing and enjoying the song. Even though there were other entries that have done better than 2008, this is still one of the first (if not the first) Spanish songs most ESC fans will name. Why? Because Rodolfo was true to who he was and basked in his oddity and made us want to join him in it. 2012 and 2014 have similar stories. Both were very traditional ballads that should have been lost in Contests with more dynamic entries and news stories that dominated headlines (“Russian grannies!” “Azerbaijan’s spotty human rights record!” “Loreen is literally everywhere in Baku!” “Denmark has gone broke over this Contest!” “Conchita is queen/the devil!” “Russia vs. gays!”), both songs maintained relevance and had powerful, heartfelt emotions that few entries have matched – and none of the other Spanish ones have.

The focus for Spain, more than anything, this year must be on a singer who is truly authentic and can convey this through their singing. 2008 showed that this doesn’t have to be a ballad, even something uptempo can work. Furthermore, don’t overcrowd the staging. The singer should stand out. 2008 basically recreated the music video, Rodolfo singing with his crazy dancers. 2012 was Pastora standing still in a beautiful gown with minimal light work. 2014 was Ruth Lorenzo singing with wet hair and a rain backdrop. 2017 needs to be minimal – no crazy camera work, no magic tricks, no major choreography – just a strong song performed well by a singer who knows who knows themself. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that 2017 will be won by a singer-songwriter type (think Germany and Belgium 2010, Germany 2012, or Netherlands 2016). Spain can bring this kind of authentic entry to the Contest. I’m not quite as up on Spanish music scene as I am on the British one, but I did find two artists that I think would do well for Spain.

Lantana is singer-songwriter and actress who predominantly makes piano-driven ballads. She has been critically acclaimed and has a strong following. Her biggest hits are La Noche de los Muertos Vivientes and Ex-Corazón. She is also known for being a bit of a performance artist (using the stage to create living art pieces of which she is a part). Which means she would create a staging that compliments the song. And for those wondering if this would be too crazy and distracting, here is a clip from a concert in Berlin (I chose a performance of my favorite song by her, Perdón).

Another artist that I think could do well for Spain is Luis Ramiro. Like Lantana, he tends to produce passionate ballads that are presented simply. He has also been critically acclaimed and has won several awards for his work. One his most acclaimed songs is Dos Coplas earned him a Young Creators Award. One of my favorites is Magia. The reason I think he can be successful thanks to the fact that every song he creates is stirring. One of his most recent singles is Contigo.

Both of these artists perform exclusively in Spanish (as far as I can tell). There’s one benefit to having an internal artist selection – it allows the broadcaster to take a hand-off approach. Think Netherlands 2013. TROS wanted Anouk to be their representative. She accepted on the condition that she gets full control. She chose a slow, haunting ballad and had one of the simplest presentations of the year. RTVE could offer the same deal to Lantana or Luis Ramiro (or a similar artist). Then, the entry is no longer representing ALL of Spanish culture, but is now just the vision of one Spaniard fighting for their people. It’s much easier to rally around one person who is fighting for you as opposed to trying to convince everyone that this three minute song is a representation of who you are.

What’s the worst thing Spain can do?
In reaction to the controversy over 2016’s full English-language entry, Spain decides to go full tilt in expressing Spanish culture. They have an artist and an entry more focused on culture than on success (i.e., Portugal just about every year). Think about if the RTVE sent a flamenco song, or a Sardana song (to make nice with Catalonia). It would add wonderful diversity to the Contest and I would love it but it would fail – hard. Just ask Finland how successful their Finnish tango entries are (not very). Again, this is not to say there’s something wrong with putting your folk cultures on display; Eurovision, to some degree, is meant for this. However, don’t put your folk cultures on display with the expectation that they will win. The last pure folk song to win the Contest was…arguably The Voice (Ireland 1996).

Essentially, Spain needs an artist that can take their experiences and life and authentically translate them to the Eurovision stage. This can even be done with a contemporary interpretation of a folk style; how many winners have won with this equation? 2016, 2009, 2006, 2005… Putting the entry in the hands of a singular artist who can set a vision for the presentation is the solution that Spain needs at this time.

Your thoughts? Is a singer-songwriter the right path for Spain? Is Spain right to focus so much on language? And, most importantly, under the new point system, can Spain still harness a big chunk of votes from Portugal (who returns next year)?

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

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Analyzing the Big Five: The United Kingdom

Hello Dear Readers!

The United Kingdom remains the most successful country in the ESC despite recent history. It is tied for third most wins at five (with France and Luxembourg), an astounding 15 second places, and a total of 10 other top five finishes. Since 2006, though…..not so much.

Recent History
2006 – 19th place with “Teenage Life” performed by Daz Sampson
2007 – 22nd place with “Flying the Flag (for You)” performed by Scooch
2008 – Last (25th) place with “Even If” performed by Andy Abraham
2009 – 5th place with “My Time” performed by Jade Ewan
2010 – Last (25th) place with “That Sounds Good to Me” performed by Josh Dubovie
2011 – 11th place with “I Can” performed by Blue
2012 – 25th place with “Love will Set You Free” performed by Englebert Humperdinck
2013 – 19th place with “Believe in Me” performed by Bonnie Tyler
2014 – 17th place with “Children of the Universe” performed by Molly Sterling-Downes
2015 – 24th place with “Still in Love with You” performed by Electro Velvet
2016 – 24th place with “You’re Not Alone” performed by Joe & Jake

British Flag MapFrom legendary singers that couldn’t stand out in the crowd, songs that stood too out too much for the wrong reasons, and pulling a proven hits-maker out of retirement to write a song, the best the BBC has done was on the back of Andrew Lloyd Weber, one of the most influential and important composer of the modern era thanks to his prolific career creating musicals, who decided that it was time for the UK to do well again back in 2009. Blue was supposed to do well, but utterly destroyed their chances during the jury final. In 2014, the UK was a legitimate contender to win, only to finish a distant 18th place.

So, what has gone wrong?
The UK suffers from two primary issues:
First, the BBC (and by extension, the populace) still view the Contest as being stuck in the 1980s/1990s. ESC coverage tends to pull footage from these years and many of the songs sent reflect this era in either the campiness (2006, 2007, 2015) or style (2008, 2010, 2012, 2013). Personally, I like these songs (particularly 2015 and 2012), but they’re entries that win the modern Contest. 2009, while old-fashioned, was powerfully sung (which makes a big difference) and had Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Second, when the UK does send a contemporary song, they hurt themselves through not taking it seriously (2011) or in having a rather odd staging (2013). 2016 was widely seen as the BBC’s best entry in years, but failed, in part, due to a staging that downplayed the playfullness of the song and didn’t do enough to connect the visuals with the message of the lyrics.

How can the UK improve in 2017?
United KingdomWell, the BBC has the power, influence, and money to land just about any artist who is not currently on the Top 100 chart. Additionally, with as much whining as the BBC does about the Contest being too “political,” the Beeb never makes a politically-driven choice for its representative. This needs to change; the BBC complains about the way the game has evolved without ever changing its tactics – that needs to end in Ukraine. This is particularly crucial as Europe will still be bitter about the Brexit, which should be in full swing by this May, as every EU country (except Luxembourg) competes in the ESC. Additionally, one of the biggest stories out of Britain as a result of the Brexit has been the severe increase in xenophobic (that’s anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner) and racist speech and actions across many areas of England (and, presumably, the rest of the UK). The BBC must select an entry that shows that it (1) still loves Europe, (2) affirms its positive relationship with the Continent, and (3) reinforces a commitment to diversity.

With that in mind, I think the BBC has two options.

First option: Show their love of Europe by choosing an artist that comes from the most European part of the British Realm: Gilbraltar. Not only that, but celebrate diversity by having the song performed, at least in part, in Llanito (an English-Spanish hybrid language native to the region). In terms of a specific artist, Surianne comes to mind. She is an established artist that, while having several hits in the past, might currently be looking for a new opportunity to share her music with Europe. Having her represent the UK can show the Continental side of the country and provide an opportunity for the first non-English entry in UK history. Check out her biggest hit, Stronger Than Before as well as her newest single, Hold On produced by Mikki Nielsen.

Second option: choose an artist, or collection of artists, that can bring a song too good to ignore. I would recommend Naughty Boy and Emeli Sandé. Not only would it bring a united England-Scotland partnership to the stage (which is important for both the UK and the world to see), but both artists are well-known without being so big (or busy) that they would turn down money from the BBC and the opportunity to be on stage. Both artists are also racial minorities; they’re the children of immigrants, but both are Britons; they would send an important message of diversity, not just to the UK but to Europe/the world as every country struggles with racism and xenophobia. Musically, we also know that Naughty Boy has produced, not just fun club stuff, but legitimate artistic pieces – just check out his single from 2015 Runnin’ (Lose it All) featuring Beyoncé and Arrow Benjamin – both the song and music video are powerful. Emeli Sandé is a powerful singer and big in her own right, just check out her biggest single Next to Me or her version of Crazy in Love from the Great Gatsby soundtrack. And, the two have done great work together; Naughty Boy produced a large portion of Sandé’s debut album and she was featured on several tracks of his.

What’s the worst thing the UK can do?

Essentially, the worst thing for the UK is to keep doing what they have been doing. While it can be good to have newly discovered, young talent, unless you have Simon Cowell (or an equally as prolific producer) molding them in his image, they will not develop into strong contenders. In 2009,  Jade Ewen was the winner of the national talent search to find a singer and had Andrew Lloyd Weber to mentor her – finishing in the Top Ten. The following year, the BBC tried to replicate the process with Josh Dubovie, who was mentored by 80s-pop producer team Stock & Waterman who lacked the same vigor as Lloyd Weber – the song came last. Unfortunately, 2014-2016 have followed the 2010 paradigm of choosing a new talent, giving them an uninspired pop song, and then blaming their lack of achievement on politics and bloc voting. Sticking to this pattern will result in the same, low place for the UK.

Additionally, I know that it is British culture to rail against everything, but it would behoove the BBC to do a big, positive publicity push, as well. It’s hard to do well when the dominant narrative from your own country about your entry is overwhelmingly negative. The BBC is a media outlet, surely they can do a better job at controlling the narrative than they have been. The last two years, the British media and public have been particularly harsh on the British entries, despite the fact that both were distinctive and showed that the BBC was finally ready to take risks. Eurovision success will only come with a shift in the cultural perspective towards Eurovision – which the BBC must lead.

 

What do you think? Will the BBC listen to my advice and send a strategic entry to Eurovision? Or will the UK continue to try the same things and expect different results? And, more importantly, how can it garner more points from Ireland and Australia?

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

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Analyzing the Big Five: How can they get better?

Hello Dear Readers!

As decided by you on Twitter, the first series this summer will be on the Big Five – looking at their past ten entries (only six for Italy, as it rejoined in 2011) and determining their best path for success going into 2017. I’ll be examining them in reverse alphabetical order: United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France.

But first, who are the Big Five, how did they get their status, and how do they *keep* their status?

Who are the Big Five?
In short: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Big Five

In more detail: the Big Five are the countries (and by countries, I mean participating broadcasters – remember, Eurovision is a competition between tv broadcasters) who (1) give the most money to the EBU – without their contributions, Eurovision would simply lack the funding to exist and (2) have (historically had) the largest television audiences in Europe. Simply put, France (France 2 + 3), Germany (NDR), Italy (RAI), Spain (RTVE), and the United Kingdom (BBC) have the greatest potential for the number of viewers of ESC. More viewers equals more money generated from advertisers. It also means more potential buyers of ESC merchandise.

How did they get their status?
Imagine it’s the nineties. Yugoslavia has split up and other Communist nations are slowly starting to look towards the West. In 1993, the EBU tried having a pre-selection show to handle all the new countries that sprung up in the East. It accomplished its goal, but this was not a permanent solution. As more countries wanted to participate, 1996 brought another pre-selection show. Juries would listen to songs from every country looking to participate (except the previous year’s winner, Norway) and select the songs joining the prequalified entries in Oslo. The German entry, Planet of Blue, did not qualify. 1996 was one of the lowest watched Contests, losing lots of money for the EBU. Why? Because Germany had unprecedentedly low viewership. After a few more years without a preselection, the EBU implemented a relegation system. Needless to say, the EBU did not want to risk another situation in which a major broadcaster had low viewership, especially since Italy had decided to stop participating altogether after 1997. When setting the rules for relegation, exempted would be the four countries with the largest tv audiences and financial contributions. Therefore, Germany, France, UK, and Spain would never be relegated – and thus, the Big Four rule was introduced. When the semi-final was introduced in 2004, the Big Four rule was maintained; these four countries and the top ten from the previous year would automatically qualify for the Final. When Italy rejoined the Contest in 2011, it was determined that it should join its peers and create the Big Five.

Why do they keep their status?
In case you doubt their contributions, keep in mind how many countries don’t know from year to year if they will be able to participate due to finances. When the EBU provides money for those broadcasters, it is typically from the dues of these five countries as well as from the revenue generated from their content. For example, San Marino was able to participate in 2008 because RAI, a major stockholder in SMRTV at the time, wanted to test the waters for an Italian return. They helped fund San Marino’s 2008 debut and helped them return in 2011. This happens beyond Eurovision; as broadcasters need funds (or the waiving of dues payments) to operate – the EBU is able to provide assistance because the Big Five broadcasters provide a substantial portion of funding. The debts that caused TVR (Romania) to withdraw in 2016 and could possibly dissolve BHRT (and its subsidiary RTRS) (Bosnia & Herzegovina) were built by loans that the EBU was able to provide thanks to the Big Five broadcasters.

From a competition standpoint, it may not seem fair that these five always qualify, especially since their entries as of late (~past sixteen years) have not done too well. The fact remains, there would be no Contest without these five countries – from their financial contributions that help other European broadcasters operate, to the advertising revenues they bring to the EBU, to the audiences they provide for Eurovision and year-round programming, the Big Five are as vital today as they have ever been to the Contest.

So, why haven’t they been doing too well these past ten years? Well…it depends on the country. We’ll spend the next two weeks examining each one’s recent history, identifying potential weak spots, and giving suggestions for 2017.

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