You go up on stage, you sing a three minute song, and the rest of Europe votes on it. It’s got to be a new song, and you need to sing the vocals live. How hard can it be?
Not that hard, if we’re honest. On the whole, Eurovision has seem most countries play by the rules, But there have been moments where those rules have been… not exactly broken, but certainly bent as much as possible without them breaking.
There are always ways that people, delegations, and countries like to push the rule-book. It might be to give themselves an advantage on the night, it might be to get the press and media’s attention to make a name for themselves, or it might be for more domestic reasons.
Take Georgia at the recent Junior Eurovision Song Contest. Teen five piece Candy decided to appeal to two main demographics with their song, Candy Music. Unashamedly inspired by Motown, but also tinged with references to every piece of confectionary possible, it appealed to two camps. But what to do about the jury and the public voting? Where should they focus on?
Well they focussed on both. For the live show on the Saturday night, lots of pink and white candy stripes, looking very girly and aiming at the watching demographic. But the night before? For the Jury final, which is not televised, but watched in the competing countries by the selected juries which make up half the mark, they aged up and went all Diana Ross and the Supremes, with huge wigs, gold jumpsuits, and as much 70’s influence as they could muster.
Against the letter of the rules? Not at all, although perhaps not the spirit. Still, a few raised eyebrows here at ESC Insight aside, it took them to victory.
Eurovision has always featured live vocals, both for the lead singers and the backing vocalists. There’s little question about that, but when you look at this rule (all vocals must be live) with the stage population rule (no more than six people on stage) you can have a lot of fun. Let’s look at Elena Gheorghe for Romania 2009 and her number, Balkan Girls.
How many people did you count on stage?
Two dancers to open, two to spin the throne around, Elena herself… and then ‘The Mystery Singer’ tucked away stage left.
There’s not a lot of backing vocals in this song, yet she seems to be singing rather a lot. There might be no autotune at Eurovision, but a little bit of flavour and depth to the lead singers from another vocalist is perfectly acceptable to the sound engineers who can do wonders. And while an act like Jedward can sing, it never helps to have some extra male singers punching up the audio and singing with them to help make the song sound as good as possible.
What you can’t do live is play your instruments. That comes as a shock to many people watching at home when I mention that on the ESC Insight commentary tracks, but this has practical reasons. With only thirty seconds between acts to do a full stage change, there’s barely enough time to get the props on and off the stage. While radio microphones can be set to the right levels beforehand, it’s impossible to set up drums, guitars, and anything else. Trust me, I’ve seen the best of the best doing switchovers at SXSW and it takes at least fifteen minutes. Maybe with a Live Aid style revolving stage a thirty second chance could work, but at Eurovision it’s not going to happen.
The cheat here isn’t to the rules, it’s to the viewers. The illusion of live music is dented with pre-recorded backing tracks. But when you get something as strong as Raphael Gualazzi from last year hitting every jazz beat on the piano, sometimes it’s hard to spot where reality and fantasy cross over.
Oh and just to make it interesting, you have to have vocals, no ‘instrumental only’ songs. Which means bands have to bend their principles – Quartissimo drafted in Martina Majerle for singing duties in the last thirty seconds of Love Symphony, while the UK’s guitar based instrumental group, The Shadows, actually made Bruce Welch and Hank Marvin sing.
Thanks for that.
Sometimes contestants can push right up to the edge of the rules for themselves. There’s a very good reason to do full dress rehearsals, but when you have an act that can be thought of as… volatile on stage, there’s even more reason to get at least one safe recording of them in the can in case they do something shocking on the live show. Step forward Russian female duet t.A.T.u. who managed to put everyone on edge by never actually being on the stage together until the live show.
It feels a bit shocking now, but everyone seemed to be worried that they would kiss. After the antics at the San Remo final this past weekend, it does feel rather quaint. But pushing the boundaries of the schedule and the smooth running of the contest – that’s how they made their name and kept the hit records coming in.
But the big rule, that the Eurovision Song Contest must not have ‘political’ songs on stage… that gives everyone a headache every few years. While Georgia’s “We Don’t Wanna Put In” wasn’t welcome in Russia by the EBU (change it or withdraw was the official request… and they didn’t change it), the Israeli entry from a few years previously, “Push the Button”, managed to bend the political rule as much as it ever will be. Our very own Dr Jordan took a look at politics at Eurovision last week (Make Love, Not War at Eurovision) if you want to look into this subject a bit more.
But he missed my favourite Eurovision and Politics story, the Carnation Revolution. As the 1974 entry was introduced by Katie Boyle to the audience in Brighton, this was the signal to the rebels to ‘come to attention”, get everything ready their coup against the Estado Novo regime, and to wait for the next musical signal to launch the revolution (which started a few weeks later). A song that had no political meaning at all to the EBU and the audience watching comfortably from home became one of the most ‘politicised’ songs of all time… and then Homens da Luta brought the carnation back to the stage in 2011.
Here’s the thing. You keep score at Eurovision. This isn’t a friendly slice of folk around a fire, it’s a contest. The Eurovision Song Contest. And that means people are going to take it seriously, look for every advantage, and do their best to win. Does that mean they’ll sail close to the edge of the rules? Naturally. But the nature of Eurovision means it is one of the most level playing fields for international competition anywhere in the world, because it is so open, because it is so transparent.
Because it does come down to three minutes, live, broadcast around the world… anything can happen, anyone can win, and it’s almost impossible to stop Europe deciding who has the best song.