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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: 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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