Verona, Eurolaul, and Eesti Laul: Towards a Second Estonian Eurovision Crown Written by on May 20, 2017 | 1 Comment

Despite winning Eesti Laul handily, this year’s Estonian entry failed to escape its Semi Final in Kyiv. John Egan takes a look at how ERR updated its national selection for the 21st century–and how they might avoid shooting themselves in the foot for 2018.

Their first impression was almost entirely unremarkable. Among the seven débutant countries at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, Estonia scored a mere two points (courtesy of  the Greek jury): 25th of 26 entries. But in a year where two other new delegations managed top five placements—Poland’s Edyta Górniak finishing second with ‘To nie ja’ and Hungary’s Friderika Bayer with ‘Kinek mondjam el vétkeimet’ – Europe’s collective reaction was rather muted for ‘Nagu merelaine (Like a seawave)’. A one year relegation followed.

Competent and professional does not set jurors’ heart aflutter (Source: YouTube/esclivemusic1)

Silvi Vrait, Estonia’s 1994 representative, was a giant of the local music industry, whose legacy was both cultural and political. Different countries’ cultures, broadcasters and music industries have a range of practices and traditions. For the Estonians, music is both an integral way to preserve culture and a political act. This is, after all, where a singing revolution occurred. In their next attempt (in 1996), Estonia would rack up the first of several top ten placements.

Kaelakee hääl (Voice of the necklace) featured another veteran of the singing revolution, Ivo Linna. But for Oslo Linna was paired with ingénue Maarja-Liis Ilus.  Decidedly more contemporary than Nagu merelaine with its integration of a youthful face from the newly (re)born nation state, Kaelakee hääl had been selected by an international jury, rather than a wholly domestic one. Here’s the results for Estonia’s first ten competing entries at the Eurovision:

Year Placing
1994 25th
1996 5th
1997 8th
1999 12th
1999 6th
2000 4th
2001 Winner
2002 3rd
2003 21st
2004 DNQ (11th in semi-final)

In an era where national juries determined the winner of the Eurovision, Estonia seemed to have cracked the puzzle rather quickly…but very soon after their triumph in Copenhagen, things seemed to awry – badly so: Estonia would not appear in a Eurovision Grand Final again until 2009.

What happened, how did they get things somewhat back on track, and how might they tweak things a bit to increase their chances of a second Eurovision crown?

Eurolaul and Eurovision Victory

Until 1997 the general public had no voice in selecting a Eurovision winner – unless a delegation chose to integrate some sort of public vote in its own selection. The BBC had done so for several decades, whether it was to choose a song or a song and artist combination (first by postcards sent to the studio for a results show one week later, later by telephone). Germany ran its first televote -voting by telephone – in 1989: their results in the 1990s were inconsistent and unremarkable. Sweden’s Melodifestivalen began toying with some sort of public vote in 1993, four years before the Eurovision itself trialed one. In other words, in 1996 going for a jury for Eurolaul (“Eurosong”), particularly an international one, was a smart move by ERR.

Beginning in 1997 with a limited televote (Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the UK), the voting system rapidly moved towards a more popular—in the literal sense (popular being ”of the people”) – selection.. After her success the year before, Maarja-Liis Ilus returned to the Contest as a soloist (with the ink drying on a global Sony Music recording contract) and took ‘Keelatud maa’ (literally “Forbidden Land”, but in fact the song’s English version was Hold on to Love) to 8th place.

It worked at Eurolaul. 8th place in Dublin too (Source: Youtube/europeandreaming

Tellingly, Ilus earned 24 of a possible 60 points on offer from the televoting nations (Ireland topped the televote table with 47 out of a possible 60 ponts: UK [46 out of 48 potential points], and Turkey [35 of 60 points],  followed. In 2001 Tanel Padar, Dave Benton & 2XL earned Estonia its lone victory: only Poland blanked ‘Everybody’, which earned a total of 198 points. The following year in Tallinn Sahlene sang ‘Runaway’ into third place (111 points). Things were going so well for Estonia, even as a minority of countries retained a jury only voting system. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

Except… ERR kept the international jury selection protocol in place until 2003. With a poor result the year after hosting, the decision to go 100 per cent public vote could have got things back on track. Instead Neikõsõ’s ‘Tii’ (sung in Voro rather than standard Estonian) missed out on qualifying from the 2004 Semi Final. If the pan-European public was primarily selecting each year’s Eurovision winner, what better mechanism to select their representative could the Estonian delegation use?

Eesti Laul: the Shake-Up

For the 2009 Eurovision season, ERR decided to start from scratch. The emphasis would be on finding great local, contemporary music to showcase for Europe. The concept was deceptively simple: rather than trying to send something ostensibly European, hoping it would do well in the Eurovision, ERR would focus on sending something reflective of the domestic music market. Songs would have to be composed by Estonians and performed by Estonians (eventually international collaborations were allowed, so long as at least fifty per cent of the song’s composer and lyricist team was Estonian. Implicit was that “Estonian” has meant ethnic Estonians and either Estonian or English lyrics.

She’s singing about a desert rather than the Arctic. Just ignore that (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)

The winner would be selected by a combined televote and juries, since both were components of the rapidly evolving Eurovision scoring system. Depending on the number of entries, the top two (2009 -2014) or three entries (2015 onwards) based on the combined public and jury scores would compete in a new, televote only “super-final”.

What has resulted is a national selection that surfaces the best of what is currently on offer – regardless of language. Of the nine winners there have been:

  • Three in Estonian
  • Five qualifiers  (including the three entries in Estonian)
  • Two top 10 results (both in Estonian)
  • Pop, rock, EDM, New Age tracks

This year Eesti Laul gave Estonia a strong entry. ‘Verona’ is a well crafted pop song performed by two experienced singers both of whom had already represented Estonia in 1998 (Koit Toome) or 2004 (Laura). Despite lukewarm jury support—the Eesti Laul jurors ranked ‘Verona’ 5th of 10 entries in its semi-final and only 6th in their grand final—they were the overwhelming public favourite in each stage of the selection. In the three song super-final ‘Verona’ netted 55 per cent of the public vote: jury favourite Kerli’s ‘Spirit Animal’ garnered 30 per cent.

Kyiv is Verona’s Waterloo

The Estonian public expected a strong result from Koit and Laura. When they failed to qualify for the Grand Final many in Estonia were shocked. Rather than help them, it was perhaps Koit and Laura’s experience doing badly at the Eurovision that sealed their fate: rather than learning from those experiences Koit and Laura looked panicked and sweaty in their Semi Final performance.

The irony of all of this is that some pundits assumed ‘Verona’ would need to lean heavily on jury support for any sort of decent result (despite this being absent in Eesti Laul). In fact, the televote had ‘Verona’ in 6th place – the juries had Estonia in 17th. Koit and Laura’s public support at home is what pushed them past tepid jury support in Eesti Laul, but there wasn’t enough of it in Kyiv.

The Problem

There is much to comment about Eesti Laul. It routinely attracts many established, popular, contemporary musicians. It offers a showcase for upcoming and sometimes highly innovative artists. For a small country to be able to consistently populate two semi-finals with interesting, well-presented music is an achievement. Counter-balancing this with a professional jury component helps insure against death by televote.

Tanja Mihailova’s ‘Amazing’ at Eesti Laul 2014 (Source: Youtube/ERR)

Death by televote is when an artists’ public profile drives up – and arguably inflates – their public support regardless of the quality of their song, singing or the overall production of the entry. In the era of numerous talent reality show franchises – and copious opportunities to perform in a local television market featuring no less than ten Estonian language (and one Russian language) channels—there are opportunities to build a following. The “death” occurs when such a selected entry competes in the Eurovision itself, without the currency and cultural capital held in the Estonian cultural sphere, failing to connect with the wider public.

Is it possible to see when this “death” has impacted on Estonia’s Semi Final results? Yes, achingly so. In years where the super final changed the results (2010, 2014, 2017) Estonia failed to qualify for that year’s Grand Final. In each instance the winner had either built up a following via reality television (2010; 2017) or regularly appeared on Estonian television (2014).

Conversely, years where Eesti Laul results did not change between the first round and super final have resulted in five qualifications (2009, 2012, 2013, 2015) and only one non-qualification (2016). Some of these have been won by artists with similar profiles to those above… but to be the entry with the highest combined score necessitated substantive support in both scoring components.

A Cure

Our friends in Estonian could fix this rather easily: simply go with the mixed system and forgo the super final entirely. There is no super final in the Eurovision Song Contest: integrating one into a national selection is undoes most of the benefit of a mixed public and jury scoring system.

There is no guarantee that Kerli’s ‘Spirit Animal’ would have done better than ‘Verona’. ‘Spirit Animal’ had its own challenges: Kerli losing the melody at times, some sloppy choreography, and the whole matter of cultural appropriation of First Nations culture (superficially).

Kerli – Spirit Animal (Source: YouTube/ERR)

But a delegation need not select a perfect entry: there is time to refine and develop what comes out of a national selection. It needs an entry that is likely to achieve some success under the current aggregate televote and jury scoring system. All the makings of an intriguing, visually striking entry were on offer. Only to be lost, in…

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One response to “Verona, Eurolaul, and Eesti Laul: Towards a Second Estonian Eurovision Crown”

  1. Eurojock says:

    Verona failed to get out of its Semi for two reasons. Firstly, despite it being a well crafted pop song, it’s incredibly dated and, with the exception of Portugal, Eurovision juries just weren’t supporting dated songs this year. I followed Eesti Laul 2017 from the Semi Final stage and in my view there were a number of as strong, more modern songs than Verona – not just Spirit Animal but also Have You Now, Feel Me Now and This Love. All were songs that might have proved more attractive to Eurovision juries. What Verona had over them was not only was it sung by artists with a higher public profile, it also had by far the best staging.

    And that brings me to the second reason for Verona’s demise in Kyiv. What Koit and Laura brought to the Eesti Laul semi was in my opinion (and I know not everyone agrees with this) very clear, very elegant, almost video quality, storytelling style staging. Compare that to what was served up on the Kyiv stage. It was as if they had listened to (again in my view, and I would say this, wouldn’t I?) ill informed criticism and cut out all the good things from the Eesti Laul semi-performance, leaving an absolute mess. What was Koit doing with that ridiculous cheesy grin on his face? It was almost as if he was trying to sabotage the performance.

    Estonia’s recent Eurovision record is such a shame given the strength in depth of Eesti Laul (the UK would kill to have such a choice of songs). For me the lessons for the future are (1) as you say, John, introduce an Eesti Laul voting system that doesn’t favour established acts and conservative song choices and (2) get the damned staging right!

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