Staging, Symbols, And Semiotic Realness: Construction Versus Authenticity Written by on May 8, 2016 | 3 Comments

Authenticity is the hidden axis upon which we judge Eurovision Song Contest performances, and ESC Insight’s Ellie Chalkley presents the hypothesis that our most beloved Eurovision winners represent a very specific combination of authenticity and construction. The opposition of authenticity and construction can help to explain why non-pop genres tend to underperform at the Song Contest

There is an ingrained expectation at the Eurovision Song Contest that pop music is a constructed affair –  rock and indie acts at Eurovision provide a bit of cognitive dissonance – how do we judge these songs against the big pop productions? Many sub genres of rock, country, rap and indie prize the authenticity of the music as being the thing that gives it meaning. The songwriter should be the person who is on stage singing it, it should be about a real experience that they’ve had and the presentation should be about the authentic experience of playing that song, rather than a constructed stage show that enhances the musical effect.

We instinctively know when a Song Contest performance somehow doesn’t reflect the performer’s true self. Something doesn’t ring true and it makes us feel uncomfortable. We sense the inauthenticity of the presentation and sometimes it stops us from picking up the phone and voting, however technically interesting or hook-laden the song is.

Defining Construction and Authenticity

First of all, let’s construct a quadrant diagram to help explain how authenticity works in a Eurovision context. Along the top we consider if the performance is an authentic expression of the performer’s true self, or if the performance is a construct that could interchangeably work with many performers. Down the side, we consider whether the performance appears to be an authentic performance of the song or if it appears to be a construct.

Is Constructed Is Authentic
Looks Constructed Pure pop

MOR song

‘So Eurovision’ light entertainment

Theatrical presentation of a heartfelt song

An artist with an ongoing presentational gimmick

Looks Authentic Manufactured rock bands

Faux troubadour solo singers

Genre performers with external pop songwriters

Real rock bands

Rap acts

Singer-songwriters

Folk groups

This gives us four categories into which we can sort Eurovision songs. Overwhelmingly at Eurovision we see constructed songs that are presented in a constructed manner – this is where pure pop lives, where the traditional ‘oh, this is so Eurovision!’ gimmickry lives. Because mainstream pop is presented as a wholly constructed artwork that exists only as a theatrical or video presentation, this works for us. All the signifiers we expect to see are there – lighting effects, wind machines, fancy graphics, dance routines, props, gimmicks and costume changes.

An authentic song presented in an authentic manner is, for example, a singer-songwriter playing their own song at the piano, a traditional folk music group playing a song they wrote on traditional instruments or things like rock, country, indie or rap groups presenting their own songs in the manner they would outside of Eurovision.

A constructed song presented as if it were authentic is the category of songs which seem somewhat fake or make us feel somehow uncomfortable. It’s a guy presenting as a heartfelt troubadour singing a song that someone else wrote about a heartbreak he never felt and isn’t able to convey. It’s the rock band singing a schlager song in brand new leather trousers. It’s the syrupy country ballad sung by the former hard rock diva. Something doesn’t fit, something is trying to be passed off as something else, and we sense the mismatch. This is because either the signifiers used by the artist are not a correct match with the musical form or the audience notice that the signifiers are fake or inappropriately used.

The final category of authentic songs presented in a constructed manner is where the Eurovision magic happens. This is where a big, theatrical performance lacking in the traditional signifiers of musical authenticity supports and accentuates the inner emotional truth or ongoing artwork of the performer.

This is where we find many recent winners and top ten finishers. The connection of real emotion with an amazing theatrical performance makes it easier for the audience to identify with the act and pick up the phone. This group for me includes post-2000 winners like Lordi, Conchita, Loreen, Marija S and other recent favourites, like The Common Linnets, Stig & Elina, The Ark, Aminata, Sebastian Tellier. Mr Lordi even had a good stab at explaining the how Lordi are an example of an authentic construct in the winner’s press conference back in 2006.

“Could you tell us what is under the masks?”

“What masks? I started the band 14 years ago, and 12 years ago I had the idea of monsters. These are our working outfits. It’s a bit like Father Christmas – if I took off the mask it would spoil the illusion. These are the characters and we leave them on the stage. It builds the mystery: this is Lordi!”

The other way you can enter the ‘authentic construct’ group is by being able to fake the authenticity of your performance sufficiently well that the majority of viewers of the performance aren’t able to distinguish your inauthentic signifiers of authenticity from authentic ones. For example, let’s say that someone like Emmilie de Forrest did a really good job at performing the authenticity level of her material. When the whole performance is being mediated by the giant constructs that are the Contest itself and the television presentation of it, the performers are able to use that extra margin of uncertainty to reinforce their use of signifiers of authenticity.

What Does This Tell Us About 2016’s Contenders?

Let’s limit the scope of the enquiry to the acts which are living in genres that have a reasonable expectation for authenticity – our crop of rock, indie and country influenced songs.

Is Constructed Is Authentic
Looks Constructed Slovenia – Manuella (a pastiche of a popular pop country artist) Belarus – IVAN (a pop/rock song with an extraordinarily committed stage show)

Serbia – ZAA (a big, heartfelt rock ballad performed in a highly theatrical style)

Looks Authentic Cyprus – Minus One (a real band, looking like a real band but bringing a G:son schlager-rock number)
Georgia – Nika Kocharov & Young Georgian Lolitaz (a real band with external songwriters, but with a stage show that is authentically weird)
Poland – Michael Spaak (a soft rock power ballad, presented as such)

Montenegro – Highway (a rock band with their own song and almost their own stage show)

The Netherlands – Douwe Bob (he’s even left a gap for some spontaneity on the night – see Sam Ross’s article for thoughts on the risks and rewards of improvisation )

At this point I ought to point out that authenticity is a separate axis to skill or song quality. Going back to last year, even though PKN were about as authentic as it is possible to be, and looked authentically as they were, their song was significantly less complex than the other contestants and so their performance suffered.

A good or average song can also be hampered by choosing the wrong sorts of signifiers. Let’s look at the United Kingdom’s Molly from 2014. ‘Children of the Universe‘ was by no means the worst that year, but the onstage signifiers placed around her were very confusing. A drummer whose kit doesn’t look like it would produce the beat from the track, a gold leather minidress that signifies ‘warrior princess’ much more than it signifies ‘21st century hippy peacenik’, lots of feathers where stars or cosmic imagery might have been more appropriate, and no link between the mendhi patterns in her background and the other visuals. Matching up the semiotics with the lyrical themes would have supported the idea that this song was an authentic plea for world peace being made by a traditional British hippy.

One of the big perceived authenticity deficits in the class of 2016 is San Marino’s entry. Even before we heard the song, we knew that the performer was going to be Serhat, a man with quite limited links to San Marino. When the song was revealed, everyone was suprised that Serhat was sending us this extremely genuine sounding, almost unpleasantly sad ballad about some unspecified relationship trauma.

I think the main reason that we are unhappy about Serhat’s fan-prompted change to the disco version is that it reveals the lack of authentic feeling behind the project, just when we’d decided that Serhat might indeed be ‘for real.’ We would have been willing to believe entirely in Sad Serhat’s lachrymose ballad version but when the remix versions showed up it showed that it was very easy to place Serhat’s spoken vocal over a backing track of an arbitrary genre. A construct this obvious makes us recoil.

Conversely, we can also over-estimate the authenticity of a performance. When Greta Salome originally performed her song in Icelandic, it was easy to make the assumption that ‘Raddinar’ was Greta’s original version. It wasn’t, though and so when the language switch to English came for the Songvakeppnin Grand Final, suddenly large parts of the fan community had a problem with Greta Salome going back to the original, authentic English version of her own song.

Even though ‘Hear Them Calling’ was originally written in English, the fan community felt that it appeared to have a greater degree of authenticity when sung in Icelandic, and so we were disappointed when that was removed. This adds a further problem – when authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, whose truth do you try to tell?

The answer is as always,  ‘Do whatever supports the message of the song best’. Or, if you’re cynical, do whatever you think will garner the most voting and jury support.

Do What You Love

While people enjoy thoroughly constructed performances at Eurovision, we can really love a construction based on an authentic statement where there is a sense that the construct is somehow part of the lived experience of the artist and that it’s not just a ridiculous front being presented by someone controlling the show off the screen. When the constructed element of the performance is a thing worked on by the artist and is part of a continuing statement, artwork or project then I think we find that very endearing and more emotionally impactful than a general theatrical performance. It has to make sense that it is that particular artist performing, and that their role could not be performed by any other similarly talented vocalist.

Manuella + Arbitrary Acrobat Friend. Photo: EBU/Andres Putting

Manuella + Arbitrary Acrobat. Photo: EBU/Andres Putting

In conclusion, if you’re faking it, you have to keep faking it until you believe that it’s real yourself. If you’re for real, and you’ve got it in you, you should resist any attempts to change your outer presentation for the Eurovision Song Contest. Do not arbitrarily bring on the dancing girls, unless the dancing girls are an integral part of your act. Don’t, as Slovenia have done, suddenly bring an arbitrary acrobat on a stick into your pop-country show.

Now that we are in the final rehearsal period we can see which acts are adding additional signifiers of authenticity or construction to their stage shows – it seems like many countries are going for showy projections, large theatrical elements and generally building up layers of images that act as semiotic reinforcement for their themes.

If my theory is right, then the really showy performances we see this year that are effectively graphics card demo programs with no signifiers linked to the songs should underperform, while performers whose visuals that support the themes or who really look the part should add to their public vote.

It’s going to be a close Contest this year and it could all come down to the semiotic realness.

About The Author: Ellie Chalkley

Ellie Chalkley is an all-round music, media and culture enthusiast and citizen of the internet. As an overly analytical pop fan and general knowledge hoarder she finds the Eurovision Song Contest bubble to be her natural home. She comments gnomically on Eurovision matters at @eurovisellie.

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3 responses to “Staging, Symbols, And Semiotic Realness: Construction Versus Authenticity”

  1. Excellent article, which actually puts into words why I might have found some performances slightly unnerving and now I know why!

    Looking at your chart, my dark horse of Sanja from Serbia and even my love of the Polish ringmaster might not be that far off the mark…

  2. Balanti says:

    The dance genre (and it’s many many sub-genres) is another one for this – no dance song that doesn’t have a very strong stage show has ever scored well.

  3. Very interesting article. I suspect Barthes would either chuckle or shriek over the phrase semiotic realness. But it makes total sense to me.

    As they tell the kids on reality TV, “if you (the performer) don’t commit to it, no one will believe it – if you do commit, you might be surprised how many believe it.”

    BTW I’m convinced what saved Mans last year was the close-up bit where he says “let’s sing together.” Made it instantly human and connected.

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