Do you remember that two week period in February 2016 where it seemed like ‘Cool Me Down‘ was all set to be the big sound of the summer and Poland were almost certainly going to win the Eurovision Song Contest? It wasn’t to be, obviously. One of the biggest fan-shocks of the 2016 National Final season was when Margaret failed to earn her ticket to Stockholm, with the Polish people instead selecting Michał Szpak and his more traditionally Eurovision ballad ‘Color Of Your Life‘ (along with his American spelling).
But even without getting to the competition proper, ‘Cool Me Down‘ might turn out to be one of the most influential Eurovision songs in recent years. It exists at a pop-cultural tipping point and the ways in which Margaret’s stomper succeeded and failed could affect the sound of the contest for years to come.
It Should Have Been A Contender
On paper, ‘Cool Me Down‘ looked like an unbeatable proposition. Electropop with a dancehall influence has become a major presence in the pop charts all over the world, thanks to huge singles like Rihanna’s Calvin Harris collaborations, the prevalence of Sean Paul as a featured artist on records like The Saturday’s ‘What About Us‘ and a handful of huge one-off singles like ‘Lean On‘ by Major Lazer, MØ and DJ Snake. Another factor that can’t be ignored in the rise of post-dancehall pop is that the international songwriting market is likely to be flooded with songs that were written with a lucrative collaboration with Rihanna in mind, but which get picked up by other artists. In short, the post-dancehall sound is basically inescapable and it was only a matter of time before it appeared at the Eurovision Song Contest.
However, one of the unwelcome peculiarities of the Contest has been an ongoing under-representation of music from genres that are associated with black musicians when compared with the wider pop charts. It takes a little longer for these genres to make it to the Eurovision stage than you might expect. Reggae first graced the Eurovision stage in 1981 courtesy of Finland’s Riki Sorsa (16th position, but not nul points) and I’m sure everyone remembers the UK’s 1995 Love City Groove which brought gentle daisy-age hip hop to the Contest, a good 16 years after The Sugarhill Gang’s seminal ‘Rapper’s Delight‘.
Viewed in this context, it hasn’t actually taken the post-dancehall sound very long at all to become a totally plausible Eurovision pop sound. The Contest may be catching up with the rest of the pop world, and this is almost certainly due to the accumulative and collaborative instincts of today’s Eurovision songwriters.
Cool Me Down was written and produced by an extremely impressive association of songwriters:
- >Robert Uhlmann – a Basshunter & Arash collaborator, who is also interestingly credited on South African rap group’s breakthrough album Mark of the Ninja
- Arash – an Iranian-Swede of Azeri origin who co-wrote Azerbaijan’s 2009 song ‘Always‘
- Alex Papaconstantinou – a Swede of Greek origin who is an occasional RedOne cohort, and also co-wrote Cyprus’s 2012 song ‘La La Love‘
- Anderz Wrethov – a Swedish songwriter responsible for much of Gunther’s output and both Kizunguzungu and Samir & Viktor in 2016
- Viktor Svensson – a Swedish songwriter who was part of the ‘La La Love‘ team
- Linnea Deb – who is responsible for Sweden’s 2013 and 2015 entries You and Heroes plus many recent Melfest fan favourites>
The make-up of this songwriting team almost tells us the mission statement for the ‘Cool Me Down‘ sessions – it was more about making a Eurovision-friendly pop version of current chart music than it was about making an authentic representation of dancehall or writing a song for Rihanna. The average sound of the Contest changes in response to the tides and prevailing currents in the wider music industry, and the involvement of these cross-genre, multi-disciplinary writing and production teams acts to speed up the cross pollination between the charts and the Contest
Plus, with a list of writers of this pedigree, ‘Cool Me Down‘ was sure to receive a great deal of fan attention before the national selection. By the time the National Final rolled round on March 5th 2016, the betting markets showed that Poland were the clear favourites to win Eurovision all on the strength of Margaret’s studio version and lyric video of Cool Me Down. Margaret’s fabulous image probably also contributed to the fan hype. She looks like the someone you’d get to play a commercial popstar in a film – she’s fresh faced and gorgeous, she dresses loud and has a wild and anarchic streak.
With the fans behind her, and with the time being right for Cool Me Down to spring from Eurovision to a potential worldwide megahit, how did Margaret miss out on Eurovision?
I don’t want to be the person who always comes here and tells you that your fave is problematic, but a large component of the reason has to be Margaret herself. For whatever reason, her normally ok to quite-good vocals didn’t come across at all well during the Polish National Final. She sounded nasal and flat, which made her look particularly bad in comparison with her more polished competitor Michał Szpak. Many viewers also felt that Margaret’s dancing lacked energy and in the green room Margaret didn’t have the demeanour expected from a successful reality contest singer (humble, starstruck and generally on a magical journey). All these perceptions presumably cost her votes.
The post-dancehall genre may also have worked against Margaret on multiple levels. Aside from the technical difficulties of reproducing a style of music that relies heavily on vocal sampling in a contest where all vocal sounds must be performed live, the cultural meaning of a white pop singer performing a dancehall-inflected electropop song in an affected Bajan accent against a context of encoded social and ethnic prestige in pop music provides a lot to unpack.
In order to gain some background, earlier this year I spoke to Dr Catherine Baker, Lecturer in 20th Century History and researcher on the interaction between European national identities and pop culture.
I suggested that one of the trends for the 2017 contest could be the appearance of more songs like ‘Cool Me Down‘, but Catherine wasn’t so sure. She says that in some parts of Europe the genres which would fuse with dancehall influences aren’t seen as being the kind of music that is suitable for the Contest. She continues, “Pop-folk type genres in south-east European popular music in particular (such as chalga in Bulgaria) have the whole symbolic hierarchy of Europe vs the Balkans projected onto them by critics, and symbolically ‘sound Roma’ even when the performers are white.”
I asked Catherine how the dancehall sound ends up influencing Southern and Eastern European pop. She says, “Pop-folk producers are always adapting musical trends from Western popular music (and from the wider post-Ottoman cultural area), and the Rihanna mode of pop-dancehall lends itself quite well to that.”
Catherine continues, “The horn sections can translate into what south-east European pop-folk already does with brass band music (which is predominantly Romani itself). For example, listen to the trumpet phrase on ‘The Balkan Girls’.” In pop-dancehall, these counter melodies are usually constructed from vocal samples, but in genres like chalga and turbofolk, these post-chorus melodies are carried by the brass section.
The way that Margaret looks and performs also fits in with the melding of pop-folk and dancehall. Catherine says, “Even the way glamour works in pop-folk and the way glamour works in the kind of pop dancehall that makes it to European charts map on to each other – Rihanna, who’s black, a white pop-folk singer and a Romani pop-folk singer can all look very like each other and be seen through the same ‘gaze’ on what’s beautiful and fashionable.”
We can’t go on any further without talking about the cultural appropriation in ‘Cool Me Down‘.
While many white European artists who have performed on pop-dancehall have decided not to affect a Bajan accent for the song, Margaret went for it. She also uses some patois and mentions things as being on fleek (which is in itself a phrase which came from an African American Vine user before being appropriated by internet and pop culture at large). While I can’t say that Margaret intends any harm by this, we certainly have to deal with the fact that ‘Cool Me Down‘ is written and performed by a largely white group and is presented with a large degree of exoticism..
In short, many of the factors which made ‘Cool Me Down‘ so exciting also lead to it failing to be selected. It was an extremely chart oriented pop song in a genre with potential cultural appropriation pitfalls, sung indifferently by a singer with a bit of an attitude. In the current contest where qualification for the Grand Final requires that you don’t actively offend the juries and make a positive impression on the audience, maybe Margaret’s performance wasn’t the best choice.
When offered the chance of a nicely dressed and polite man singing a big anthemic ballad or a hot mess of a pop starlet doing something vocally risky (and even visually risque), a Eurovision national final audience will often take the Michał Szpak option.
Where Does Margaret Go From Here?
Well, she’s clearly an interesting pop star in the making. ‘Cool Me Down‘ continues to get airplay across Europe, but her follow-up single Elephant didn’t make the same splash despite hitting a lot of the same influences as her big hit. If she can make her sound more her own and continue to develop her live skills, she’s got a great pop future.
Where Does Poland Go From Here?
Whether the incredible televote for Poland’s 2016 entry ‘Color of Your Life‘ was a reflection of a culturally united Polish diaspora or a vote of confidence for a straight-down-the-middle unifying Eurovision ballad, the Polish delegation must surely be thinking that they could be serious contenders for the 2017 contest if they can find a song that will also attract votes from juries. The selection of ‘Flashlight‘, a powerful anthemic ballad with jury baiting chorus notes sung by the polished and demurely dressed Kasia Mos shows that they’re serious about picking up the extra jury votes and winning the contest, even if doesn’t happen this year.
Where Does The Post-Dancehall Sound Go From Here
It continues to make up a significant part of the pop charts, to mutate into new forms as new artists seek to make their mark and I predict it will appear at Eurovision in one form or another in 2017. As National Final season draws to a close, we’ve seen a lot of dancehall influenced songs participate but not yet succeed. Hungary’s Spoon 21 qualified for the semi-finals of A Dal but got no further, Spain rejected the tropically tinged sounds of Brequette’s ‘No Enemy‘ and Fruela’s ‘Live It Up‘, Switzerland snubbed ‘Cet Air La‘, Sweden enjoyed Etzia’s song ‘Up‘ but not enough to put it through to the next round and Eesti Laul featured a piece of melancholic post-dancehall influenced pop by Whogaux called ‘Have You Now‘. The last songs still standing are ‘Hypnotised‘ and ‘Night‘ in the Icelandic selection, Greta Zazza’s ‘Like I Love You‘ in the Lithuanian marathon and Ace Wilder’s ‘Wild Child‘ in Melodifestivalen (although let’s be honest: that song has more in common with <'em>Bow Wow Wow‘ than Rihanna). But next year, there’s more to come.
If you’re interested in further listening, I’ve made a YouTube of songs in this genre from all over Europe. If you want to investigate the different ways that the dancehall sound has filtered into mainstream pop, give it a listen.