We in the Eurovision community tend to let very little pass us by, musically. We pounce on every low-budget demo, every live performance, every obscure National Quarterfinal, always hoping to not only find the next Eurovision winner, but also to find the next song that simply grabs us by the eardrums and refuses to let go. An innovative arrangement, a stunning voice, insightful lyrics…we all instinctively gravitate towards different songs, with different rationale.
In that same vein, we have all heard songs in our musical travels that grate on us to no end, often for seemingly odd or arbitrary reasons. A clip that might work so well on certain levels, when examined closely, might have one irrevocable fault that takes it from “hey, this is pretty decent” to “I’ve just wasted three minutes of my life that I will never get back”. In this edition of “ESC Insight Asks”, I’d like to focus on our Eurovision Dealbreakers. What one single trait in a song can turn you off more than any other?
I thought long and hard about my answer to this. At first, I thought that my biggest pet peeve was “when a song talks about the competition”, but then I realized how much I loved Belgium’s surreal and self-referential entry from 1980, ‘Euro-Vision‘. I then veered towards other traits, like rusty English pronunciation (“sweem against the strim”, anyone?), unoriginal composition, unnecessary bells and whistles on stage, or a general sense of entitlement or cockiness from the performer…but then I could think of beloved counter-examples for each one of those characteristics.
After letting the question roll around in my head for a while, I found my answer:
What I value in a Eurovision song is how well it would fit into the musical world “beyond the bubble”. Could it stand on its own two feet when it’s released out into the ether, and left to the mercy of time? If someone says “this is a great Eurovision song” with the subtext that it isn’t also a great song on its own merits, I recoil, envisioning the corner that the song has painted itself into. If the song can not succeed on its own without the supporting framework of the Contest, I turn off.
When I first heard Latvia’s entry for Eurovision 2012, I thought Anmary’s vocals were perfectly pleasant, and the chorus was catchy enough, but one examination of those lyrics broke any illusion that ‘Beautiful Song’ would have any sort of life beyond Baku. If you played that song to someone who knows nothing about Eurovision, references to Johnny Logan and a “grand parade of winners” make no sense whatsoever. Even among Eurovision fans, a then-thirty-two-year-old reference is a bit esoteric. Furthermore, by mentioning “distant 1980”, the songwriters are effectively preventing the song from becoming timeless, and locking it into a specific moment in time. It took all of the irksome quirks that I’ve mentioned and blended them into a single perfect storm of “hell no”.
You would think spending seven years living in Asia would have inoculated me against poorly-worded English, or what is known in highbrow music circles as “dumb lyrics”. Sadly, this has not panned out. Take a song like Latvia’s 2011 entry (sorry, Latvia, we don’t mean to gang up on you), ‘Angel in Disguise‘. A surprisingly catchy number with an amazing backing track and a chorus that goes:
Kill me with killa kiss
Kill me with tempting lips
Stare me with candy eyes
Love me with luscious thighs
That just makes me want to put my head through a wall.
Now, I’m willing to give this a bit of a pass when singers or songwriters are working in their second (or even third) language. Given the recent penchant for performers to sing in English (34 out of 40 songs last year), I respect them for pushing their personal boundaries and using the Contest’s lingua franca on stage, even if they’re rusty in conversation. However, when it’s demonstrated that a performer can speak English with at least near-fluency, I have to wonder if they even bothered to read the lyrics before performing in front of millions.
What I am about to say may be controversial, but Sweden’s latest winner, ‘Heroes’, is a really dumb song, lyrically. While I am dazzled by the staging, the endlessly charismatic Måns and his disarming grin, and the sweeping, anthemic arrangement, I just can’t get past those lyrics. Why does the only hero left want you to fire up your gun? Since when do worms, not caterpillars, turn into butterflies? And how are the barely audible chirps of hummingbirds in any way anthemic? With no substantial context in the song, “We are the heroes of our time” comes off as an empty catchphrase.
After I experienced the song for the first time, I had no idea what it was even supposed to be about. The lyrics read like an absurdist poem. Later, Måns’s explanation in the Swedish press conference came across as his personal interpretation, as opposed to the actual meaning. Considering he didn’t write the song, this makes it feel like lyrical sleight of hand. I don’t think it too much to ask that a song’s lyrics be as strong as every other element.
Team, this lyric bashing is a little over-the-top. Pop music has forever harkened back to pre-language grunts and growls, and those basic do-re-mi’s are often more effective than anything more nuanced. Let’s reward great lyric writing when it appears, but let’s not dismiss a song just for messing up the final edit. The theme of ‘Heroes’ gave the impression of empowerment which was effective, and lyrical themes and hooks (‘we are the heroes of our time’) are what listeners ultimately latch onto.
That said, a bad theme is a real turn-off in the Robertson mindframe. Take ‘I’m Alive’ from Albania last year and the idea of Elhaida loving this mystery man unconditionally, despite him leaving her heart to bleed and shutting down her dreams. Thanks but no thanks, I expect more from my female role models nowadays than such submission.
However if you are putting me against the wall to name one dealbreaker, I’d leave the lyrics alone and focus on the universal language of music. Whatever the genre, the aim of Eurovision is for your song to be number one and to reprise your performance as the credits roll.
You do not, therefore, let your song fade away into nothing.
While it’s a perfectly acceptable compositional technique for radio airplay, it makes no sense in the world of the Song Contest. Songs worthy of the Contest should build up an emotional outpouring and end in a climactic moment. Yes, you can bring the tempo down, linger on that last note, take a breath before delivering the title line a final time, I don’t require bombastics for all 43 songs coming to Stockholm. But to just let the volume slider move down to zero as the bars play underneath is not how you let the music die and move on to the next song, as the audience just forgets about what passed its ears for three glorious minutes.
Thankfully most composers know this is a technique to avoid…but there’s been a sprinkling of Eurovision songs fading out which immediately induce proverbial vomit from my mouth.
Eurovision, never ever fade out.
Let me explain by illustrating my deal-maker. I love when music challenges me. I like it to take risks, to push the envelope, and to go all-out to meet an artistic vision. The best songs are those that are utterly confident in themselves. Art is expressive, wonderful, and combative. It should step up to you and hit you right between the eyes. After a musical track is over it should stay in my mind, it should make me ask questions.
‘Rise Like A Phoenix‘ is the easy song to suggest here, because there was no fear on show from Conchita or her team. In the same breath PKN’s ‘Aina mun pitää‘ had that same lack of fear, that same almost righteous energy; The Shin’s ‘Three Minutes To Earth‘ offered no compromise; and ‘L’Enfer Et Moi‘ was such a naked and raw performance. It left every emotion on stage and that requires commitment and artistic courage.
They may or may not be ‘good’ Eurovision songs, but the songs that stay with me are those where there is risk. Show me the courage. Show me the vision and the art and the emotion and to hell with the scoreboard.
Back to the fear. Art is never finished, there will always be compromises in the choices that are made. At every stage of a song’s composition there needs to be a decision. And there will always be an easy option, a choice offering the least resistance, where nothing is actually wrong but there is no risk by going for the safe option. In recent years this has crystallised around the idea of semi-finals songs built to ‘just get to Saturday night’, doing their best to not offend the juries, to give the core diaspora just enough reason to vote, and offering nothing controversial or divisive that would stop anyone voting.
That’s fear. The fear of being different, the fear of not following a formula, the fear of putting something on stage that someone might not like. And you’re left with an ugly mess of bland, formulaic, and squeaky clean popular music. If a song shows fear… I’m out.
And the worst of it is when the challenging songs in a Contest drop just enough points to let the safe, scared, fearful Denmark through to victory.
There was an overwhelming sense from me to keep my answer as a simple one-word, but as a writer I feel I need to justify myself.
I’m 38 years old, which isn’t that old, but enough for the entire music genre to pass me by. I still enjoy much of what is on the music charts, but dubstep has reached into my soul and created its very own hole which is filled with confusion and annoyance.
I applaud (as do many other fans) Eurovision when it embraces modernity by way of the song and artist, but dubstep irks me. The off-beat doesn’t allow me to dance, or feel welcomed to join in. To make matters worse, the use of the genre seems to be accompanied by over-the-top visuals that create a further sense of dis-harmony in me as a viewer. That’s my personal opinion, of course.
Example: Dubstep, astronauts and rapping? That’s a deal breaker for me.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with novelty songs at Eurovision. After all, there are few performances that are more suffused with the sheer batshit joy of the contest than Verka Serduchka’s ‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai‘. And who among us can completely resist the spectacle of a bejewelled Romanian countertenor trilling like his life depended on it while ascending heavenwards in an eruption of taffeta?
However, there is a certain kind of novelty song that really gets my goat – and that’s the kind that approaches Eurovision from a place of obvious contempt for what they imagine the contest to stand for. These are the entries that say “Europe only votes for rubbish anyway, so let’s serve them shit on a platter”, only for the performers to complain bitterly when the songs that even they have no serious regard for inevitably fare badly in the voting. Not coincidentally, these songs often come from nations reeling from a run of poor results. I’m referring to the likes of ‘Flying The Flag (For You)’, ‘Bailar el chikichiki’, ‘Irelande Douze Pointe’ and ‘Leto Svet’ – possibly the most dispiriting 3 minutes in Eurovision history.
There are cliched, badly written and incompetently performed Eurovision songs that still come from an authentic place of joy and passion for the contest. And then there are cynical, joyless exercises in sour grapes. On-stage temper tantrums that deserve none of our time. If you’re not going to play the game properly, don’t take up space on the board.
To Sum Up…
There is no such thing as a hard and fast rule that can take a song from ‘Euphoria’ to ‘Cry Baby’, in the eyes and ears of a Eurovision viewer. Off-the-wall lyrics might drive one of us nuts, while it could simply add to the mystery or charm of an entry to another. Some of us might hate silly, tongue-in-cheek songs, while I’d ask for a second helping of Aārzemnieki’s ‘Cake to Bake’ any day of the week. Some of us might have been left scratching our heads after Cezar went for his fifteenth glass-shattering high note, while others might have been sincerely impressed by his vocal prowess.
As I’ve said on a number of podcasts over the years, if we all gravitated towards the same genres, stylistic choices, vocal characteristics, lyrical themes, or any of the other billion facets of a Eurovision entry, voting would be incredibly boring, and ESC Insight would likely not work as an editorial forum. If there are nearly 200 million Eurovision viewers out there, you’re going to end up with at least 200 million opinions.
You’ve heard what we’ve had to say…what about you? What turns a Eurovision song into your personal version of nails down a chalkboard?