What Have We Learned From The National Finals? Written by on March 20, 2014 | 5 Comments

It’s the quiet time now, that period after the songs have been selected by the broadcasters and handed over to the EBU, but we’re not quite ready yet to head over to the Eurovision Island in Copenhagen to start the rehearsals. So there’s going to be a lot of previews online, a few concerts and events to attend, and lots of discussion.

We’ve got our plans at ESC Insight, which includes the return of Juke Box Jury, updating our ‘Top 100’ lists, a look at many of the issues around the Contest, and we’ll have some fun along the way as well.

But first, let’s look back at the 2014 National Final season. It’s been a strange one, with the Winter Olympics sitting in the middle and forcing many countries to work around the changed broadcast schedules. Every year is unique, with songs left behind that feel like surefire winners, controversy, and the occasional ‘Jerry Springer’ moment.

So just before we say goodbye to the selections, what has the 2014 National Final season taught us about our favourite Song Contest?

Melodifestivalen 2014 Contestants (picture: SVT)

Go on, guess who’ll try again in 2015…

You Don’t Go Back Again

Pretty much re-affirming one of the main rules of the Eurovision Song Contest, returning to musical battle is fraught with danger. There are so many variables that can affect a song’s chances of winning a National Selection that the odds of managing that elusive win (or even an improvement on last year) are usually far smaller than the first time around. Notably Helena Paparizou’s return to Eurovision attention in Melodifestivalen will be seen as a failure by many, and the less said about Anton Ewald’s score in the final the better.

Still, if all you want to do is remind the local audience that you still exist (ahem, Alcazar) then treat the National Final as a means to an end, safe in the knowledge that someone else will be going to Copenhagen. There will always be a singer who proves the exception and this year it’s Sanna Nielsen, although this wasn’t a case of going back for a seventh time, but being more a national fixture at the event.

It’s Never As Good As The First Time

And if you do go back, and you fight through to the big show, the chances of you having a better song, getting a better result, and not damaging your hard-earned reputation , are very low. As countless returning performers such as Niamh Kavangah, Charlotte Perelli, Carola, Lena (and further back Domenico Modungo, and Gerhard Lux) have found, it’s hard to recapture the success of your first appearance.

Put simply, Paul Seling and Ovi are going to be playing with the fire of their careers at Eurovision this year.

A New Word For Europe To Learn

gob·shite [gob-shahyt]
noun Chiefly Irish Slang: Vulgar.
1. a mean and contemptible person, especially a braggart.
2. a stupid and incompetent person.

Thanks, Linda!

Linda Martin, Billy McGuiness, Ryan Turbidy (picture: RTE THe Late Late Show)

What I want to know is this… what is Ryan Turbidy (r) doing with his tongue?

Local Chart Success Is Not Enough

Look at the Estonian Eesti Laul final. Pretty much every media commentator looking at the line up decided that it was Traffic’s to lose. With ‘Fur Elise‘ riding high in the charts, and reaching number one for a brief period, it seemed odds on to win. Instead it finished third. While Ace Wilder reached the top of the Swedish charts, it didn’t translate over to the public vote at Melodifestivalen.

And probably the biggest local hero to fall was in Latvia. Dons walked away this year with multiple music awards, topped the charts, and was the biggest name in the Contest. Second place, beaten by the guy who wrote a funny song about the Latvian currency disappearing and then had some culinary issues.

…Neither Is Being The Fan Favourite

Eurovision fans are a picky lot. Apart from a few holdouts that would really like to see Napalm Death represent the UK (Evening, Roy) the fan consensus around the Schlager mould has seen a year with vociferous support for a number of artists – notably Catarina Pereira in Portugal, Lenna, and Sandra Nurmsalu in Estonia (both of which fall under the ‘Don’t Go Back Again’ clause). That creates a huge amount of noise online and these sense of a victorious tidal wave, which fails to emerge.

Sandra Nurmsalu Eesti Laul 2014 (picture: ERT)

Rose, I’m on top of the world!

Fan support can have many benefits, and it’s useful to set the tone of the media story, but cutting through that noise to find out the thoughts of the public is a vital skill.

The Impact Of The Rules And The Running Order

Here’s something that’s worth paying attention to. The production team for each National Final sets the rules. Those rules alter the playing field, and these alterations can be used by the team to guide the result if they so wish.

Take the case of a tie. This happened a number of times this year. To highlight two of them, the Spanish tie-breaker rule was the performer with the higher public vote would go through, while Belarus would be represented by the performer with the higher jury vote. While it is not a direct influence from the production teams, the decision on the tie-breaker rule will lead to a song that is biased towards the jury or the public.

Also consider the format of the show. A straight-ahead vote with a large number of performers means that those performers with a large fan-base are more likely to score heavily, thanks to a concentration of votes. But in a smaller final with only a few performers, where you can cast a negative vote by voting for the opposite performer, it becomes much more about widespread popularity than a mobilised fan base.

You also have separate uses around the ‘superfinals’, where performers go head to head. In the case of Germany it’s very likely that if they had went with a single round vote, Unheilig’s fan base would have seen him through (much as Cascada’s pushed them forward last year). But by deciding on another round, Unheilig would need to have broad support to head to Copenhagen – at which point Elazia proved to be the more attractive choice to the voting public.

Unheilig (picture: NDR) Germany 2014 NF

This is Unheilig’s best Jennifer Holliday impersonation

That leaves a lot of indirect power in the hands of the producers of each show. And if that worries you at all, just remember we have another producer-led running order for the semi-finals and finals in Eurovision once more. Have a look through the running orders of the National Finals and see where the majority of the winning performers came from…

‘Modern’ is the word of the year, not ‘schlager’

For all the public image of Eurovision being full of easy ABBA knock-offs and dance routines lifted from Bucks Fizz, for a Contest where the popular view of the sound is that it belongs in certain clubs just off Tottenham Court Road, this year’s music covers a wide range of genres, from Americana and EDM, to power ballads and soft rock (with some more classical sounding numbers in the mix as well). Compare the genres on here to the latest ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ album, and you’ll find a lot of commonality.

The Eurovision Song Contest needs to be constantly changing, and if the next few years push chart-friendly and modern music, then that’s a good thing. There’s still a place for the ethnic sound to come through (Georgia and Montenegro), but Eurovision music is catching up with popular tastes, which is a good thing.

It’s All About The Remix

While some countries take the winning song form the National Final season and send that, there are a number of countries that are masters at taking a song that managed a national win, but then completely rework it into something more suitable for the Eurovision stage.

Ukraine, once again, have taken a rather unbalanced and lackluster number in ‘Tick Tock’ and managed to create a little gem that now looks likely for a Top Ten position (with a false start at the Maltese National Final). Speaking of Malta they also have taken their winning song and given it some light re-engineering and created a much better sound for the Contest.

Unfortunately some countries that had the time to do a remix have left their song as it is and perhaps not maximised their opportunity. Emma Marrone’s ‘La mia città’ has been around for some time and it’s not the greatest song in her repertoire. It could easily have picked up a Eurovision version, but no, it  stays as the album mix. And then there’s Albania, who really should have trimmed to length rather than butcher Herciana’s song into English.

Emma Marrone (picture: RAI) Italy 2014

If only this was Marrone’s outfit in the video…

Tweet First, Check With Your PR Team Later

Social Media is a wonderful tool for letting artists talk directly to fans. It also means that if you are free with your opinions it can spoil the nice PR plans or public image your back office team are working on. In the rush to identify the potential UK singer, the name Paloma Faith rose up rather quickly, and died out after she personally tweeted ‘Of course I’m not doing Eurovision are you all insane?!’ Later that day a more diplomatic statement came out, likely with input from management and media consultants.

Closer to the Contest, Poland’s Donatan and Cleo were adamant that they would not be singing at Eurovision, and it certainly wouldn’t be their hit YouTube song ‘Slavic Girls‘. Until it was and they had to extract themselves from previous statements.

Still, I would much rather have the snap emotional views of the people I follow on social media than bland links to carefully formatted news stories, devoid of any interaction with their fan base.

The UK Has A Long Way To Go

Compare Paloma Faith’s reaction to the reaction every single artist asked to appear in Melodifestivalen had. Or Unser Song für Dänemark. Or Dansk Melodi Grand Prix. That’s the mountain that Guy Freeman and the BBC team need to address in the UK media. Still, at least we know they’re trying to climb that mountain rather than avoid it with Geri Halliwell.

That’s what we’ve seen in the National Final season, what about you? What lessons can be found before we travel to Copenhagen? Let us know in the comments.

About The Author: Ewan Spence

British Academy (BAFTA) nominated broadcaster and writer Ewan Spence is the voice behind The Unofficial Eurovision Song Contest Podcast and one of the driving forces behind ESC Insight. Having had an online presence since 1994, he is a noted commentator around the intersection of the media, internet, technology, mobility and how it affects us all. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, his work has appeared on the BBC, The Stage, STV, and The Times. You can follow Ewan on Twitter (@ewan) and Facebook (facebook.com/ewanspence).

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5 responses to “What Have We Learned From The National Finals?”

  1. Stephen Colville says:

    Sorry Ewan, but I can’t agree with you about modern sounds being a good thing. I believe Eurovision is (partly) so popular BECAUSE It isn’t simply an extension of the garbage in the top 40 charts. The quality of songs this year is the worst in a decade, and that has in part to do with the lame attempts to “modernize”.

    Give me a good Balkan Ballad any day of the week, instead of Country, Dubstep or Drum & Bass. Keep that crap away from my beloved contest.

    Good article though. I agree that Guy Freeman has a hell of a job on his hands. That will be made easier if Molly wins this year.

  2. Things I learnt from the NFs:

    1) Finland have Dave Grohl and Darryl Hannah look-a-likes.
    2) This year’s UMK had THE BEST introduction to any Eurovision event EVER – Krista, the hosts and the judges were excellent!
    3) Albania’s Klea and Belarus’ Olga are seriously the hottest hosts I have seen in a NF.
    4) I don’t know what TEO does to women but he should write a book about it as every woman seems to become putty in his hands.
    5) Maltese television is one long advert interspersed with programmes!

  3. Peter says:

    @Stephen
    As much as I want agree with your comment about keeping Dubstep or Drum & Bass away (but not Country – Texas Lightning was one of the best things in 2006!), I believe that Eurovision is popular because it covers a wide variety of different styles of music, so everyone who tunes in on the night can find at least one song they can get behind.

    If we had an endless stream of MelFest pop / schlager and Balkan ballads designed purely to keep OGAE members happy, I’m fairly sure that it wouldn’t be long before OGAE members became the only people left watching.

    I’m now looking forward to see if Guy Freeman can get Napalm Death signed up for 2015! 😀

  4. If Napalm Death did sign up, they could fit at least FOUR or FIVE of their tracks in three minutes :)

    12 points from Finland maybe?

  5. Peter says:

    I personally don’t mind how the producers want to run the national finals in their own country. It’s their contest, their rules, their entries they selected, their audience they have to entertain and their ratings they have to chase.

    In the long run, any problems with individual national finals will iron themselves out, because if the viewers don’t agree with the winner or feel cheated by the result, they likely won’t tune in again next year. This means that the producers will have to tweak their processes to make sure they get the viewers back on their side.

    This is totally different to the main contest though, where it needs to be fair (and seen to be fair!) for all the countries taking part. Letting the host producers change the rules on a whim or fix the running order in their favour, gives them far too much power to both hurt songs they don’t like or help songs they do. The last thing the contest needs is debate over whether a country got the dreaded opening slot because the producer didn’t like them, or if a country only got a prime slot because the boyfriend of the producer is a backing singer in the group!

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