While not all forty songs this year are comprised of the ballad format, the fan community has certainly noticed that a substantial number of entries fall into the ballad category as the number of up-tempo entries suitably fall, and the Semi Finalists from the Tuesday night certainly are more ballad than not. We on the ESC Insight team want to try and realise if there is method in the madness that has resulted in this gentle year in the Eurovision world, or if this is just the way the dice roll sometimes.
Looking into detail at the different songs submitted across the continent, Ben Robertson tries to find the rationale that might be making modern Eurovision a place for ballads to shine, and he has the voting system itself to blame and locked in his sights.
Winning Is Not The Most Important Aim
There are thousands of songs each and every year submitted to various competitions in the quest to win this Eurovision Song Contest. That magical song with the powers to win is something quite hard to find and even harder to replicate. Most countries however I would argue are playing a different game. Winning can happen like a happy accident, but the biggest goal is just to be in the mix.
I’ve had the pleasure in the last few years as being a working member of press at different National Finals across the continent and spoke to some of Eurovision’s key movers and shakers. All tell a similar tale. In Moldova their Head of Delegation described their main goal as ‘to qualify to the Grand Final.’ In Latvia last year Head of Delegation Zita Kaminska spoke about wishing ‘the pressure to qualify was a little less, describing it as ‘the future of Eurovision in Latvia.’ Many other countries can say the same and the combined joy and relief San Marino had from qualification last year shows how important just being there can be.
To qualify opens the door for the artist to perform to an audience many times larger than that of the midweek Semi Final. However for the delegation it means more. They can travel back with their head held high back in the office on Monday morning knowing they have brought sufficient success. A qualification ensures positive PR in the lead up to the Grand Final, brings the viewing figures up, and may just demonstrate to a couple more artists back home that Eurovision is an avenue that you can succeed in as well.
This is what broadcasters are ultimately looking for. A safe run of qualifications, such as what Iceland has had over the recent years, secures Eurovision as a brand that keeps bringing in the best songs and best artists they can muster. In this year’s competition Iceland, population just over 300,000, received a record 258 songs for their National Final. 2 million strong Latvia has been struggling instead to make Eurovision credible, receiving just 73 songs for competition in 2014.
Such was the downward spiral from another non-qualification that the new format Supernova was brought in this year for Latvia’s selection process. Supernova was designed to make Eurovision more serious. Judges are called in to comment on each song being performed and the whole thing is done in the back studios of LTV instead of celebrating the coastal resort of Ventspils. Gone was the direct association that this was a Eurovision competition; jury comments switched narrative from what Latvia wanted to send to Europe, but instead about what they thought Europe would want and like. Latvia offers a case study for how Eurovision is changing emphasis, it’s not the winning that counts it’s the taking part in the Grand Final.
The Voting System Gives Us The Perfect Picture
Over recent years the Eurovision Song Contest has undergone rapid transformation. One of the biggest points for overhaul has been the voting system. Awarding 12 points might be sacrosanct and an unmoveable tradition in Eurovision circles, but just eight years ago our Song Contest was still be awarded on a 100% televote. Since then juries have been re-introduced in a 50/50 system along with the televote but as of yet they have not stopped a televoting winner from claiming the crown in the Grand Final.
Those jury rules tweaked constantly until settling in 2013. The songs are now ranked from a first place to a last place. This ranking of songs means that every single place up or down can count towards your final score, even something as relatively arbitrary as being somebody’s 20th or 21st place could potentially decide if you are victorious. As we saw in the earlier Voting Insight series, there is a clear difference in jury voting patterns with some songs that divide opinion and those getting relatively middling scores throughout. Because the jury now has the power to rank a song last this negative drag effect can scupper your qualification chances.
This is what delegations across the continent are trying to avoid. If your song receives a middling score from each Eurovision juror you have a good chance to make it through. A few 8th and 9th places with jurors, combined with three or four neighbouring or diaspora countries giving high televotes puts a lot of countries on the threshold of qualification. A couple of rogue votes here and there will get you then knocking on the door of 40 or 50 points which in many Eurovision years is enough to make it. What our new ranking system has created is a system where avoiding messing up gives you a better chance of qualifying than trying something brave and new. Ballads rarely push musical boundaries after all, with production, instruments and often lyrical meanings which will not offend many.
How This Generates Our Beige Competition
Poland last year in many a sense got lucky. Jurors saw the lewd performance as being inappropriate for the Song Contest and ranked it a long way down the leaderboard, converting some of their top televotes into zeroes. If rather than 15 songs in last year’s second Semi Final we had 17 or 18 Poland may have struggled to convert enough enough of those high televotes to scramble home a qualification spot.
The first seven countries announced to qualify to the Grand Final this year were all very safe performances. The part-Swedish written ‘A Million Voices’ is sweet, innocent and well-produced enough not to attract jurors to vent hatred towards Russia through their ballot papers. Qualification was never in doubt. As Albania’s composer withdrew the winning National Final song for Eurovision consideration Elhaida Dani had to find a new song for Europe, choosing a guitar-based mid-tempo tune that is hard to disagree with but arguably too less challenging than the winning FiK entry. Hungary’s ‘Wars For Nothing‘ is of a musical format unchallenging to the ear as well, pushing a lyrical message rather than a compositional one. Safety works in a modern Eurovision Song Contest.
Eurovision is now for many countries a battle of safety first. Are you able to ensure that damage limitation is high enough to stop countries from denying you a Semi Final spot? It will be interesting to see how this works for the next Semi Final, for example Israel’s attempt to invite the world to Tel Aviv this year through a 16 year old talent show winner. It is a risk, but look closer and you’ll notice that it’s quite educated, with the gimmicks in the song highlighted through the lyrics themselves, it’s self aware as a song of the gamble it is taking. Furthermore focus on the fact this will be the first Israeli entry ever to be sung completely in English. When you’ve been out of the Grand Final for five years you throw out even some of your deepest principles in order to be back in the mix.
Our Polish broadcaster may have realised their gamble from last year a risk too far and this year have produced a ballad that typifies Eurovision 2015 by the perfectly well-cooked yet tasteless musical movement. No juror, with their criteria starting on ‘vocal capacity’ is going to have an easy job in marking this down their scale. Given the established voting relationships Poland has with the UK, Ireland, Norway, Lithuania and a couple of other countries in their Semi Final sending a well presented ballad is the safe option for qualification. This is a song nobody can hate and nobody on a jury will look to kill in the voting process.
Many will also point to Australia as well for bucking the trend and bringing something up-tempo to the Grand Final party. That might be so, but this was a shock Plan B and Guy Sebastian got this song and video done at the last possible moment. However the soul-pop style Guy is bringing is nothing new to the songwriting table and is safe, inoffensive, middle-of-the-road and will no doubt guarantee Australia is not ending up with nil points on their Eurovision debut.
A look at risk taking can’t ignore Finland’s entry that was knocked out tonight, with perhaps more than ever before a song has angered the Eurovision fans with its inclusion in the Contest. Finland’s National Final process of UMK though is not mainly about finding a Eurovision song though, differing from many other countries in that respect. I met the men behind the UMK last year at the Finnish final where I got this quote which almost perfectly preludes the selection of Finland’s beloved punk group.
We wanted to put more and more effort into the idea of entertainment. What is entertainment? Today I believe it’s about stories and miracles, we want to show miracles. We want to show the whole road in their journey.
Finland is a country secure enough with its own placing and tradition in the Eurovision Song Contest that it’s in a tranquil place where the Saturday night is a bonus, not a requirement. Hence Finland can experiment, as UMK consistently shows, with new musical styles of which some may work and some don’t. This is a luxury most countries do not have, who need to play much more to the straight and narrow to make participation successful for them.
My Issue With This Suggestion Of Song Safety
Our jury system rewards songs in a style which is safe, in a style which rather than breaking boundaries gently coerces them into more normative types of song. This goes against what I believe Eurovision is all about. I want to see it as a pinnacle of songwriting innovation, a place where risks are there to be taken. The new system is limiting that creativity because the risk is failure, the risk is some people disliking it, the risk is taking a flight home on a Wednesday morning.
That sometimes songs appear in Eurovision with an aire of ambivalence to them happens, and I’m certainly not advocating for everything to be like Winny Puhh or Who See on the edge of musical thought. Our problem now is that if I represent a struggling broadcaster finding it hard to makes end meet, needing to prove to my bosses to keep Eurovision going they will look at ratings and they will require qualification. Will Moldova question now if sending the completely average but stunningly performed ballad from second placed Valeria Pasa would have been a better option? Our new system of jury ranking means that the game to qualify is about ensuring you are not hated, and Moldova this year pushed the boundaries of taste with a negative impact.
Songs are different, songs are something which should be creating strong emotional connection to them, and sometimes that might not be favourable. Our scoring can’t be there to unfairly penalise those songs trying something new which it currently does.
So many of these songs now, like Hungary, Russia, Denmark, Albania, Romania and Hungary just leave me with a feeling of…meh. In my eyes at least too many of these songs lack the creative sparkle required and the products are artistry-by-numbers. I want my Eurovision to rekindle passions, to sound different and push boundaries than things gone before, to be the highlight of a songwriting artform so often neglected by society. But why would I think about passions and how interesting my song would be on the gigantic Eurovision stage if my country isn’t there in the Grand Final to showcase this? Should this trend continue I believe Eurovision will go back to being the stale and stagnant competition we left behind in the 90’s, and we need change to our voting systems to stop this from happening.