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How far can you push the rulebook at Eurovision? Written by on February 21, 2012 | 10 Comments

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.

About The Author: Ewan Spence

British Academy (BAFTA) nominated broadcaster and writer Ewan Spence is the voice behind The Unofficial Eurovision Song Contest Podcast and one of the driving forces behind ESC Insight. Having had an online presence since 1994, he is a noted commentator around the intersection of the media, internet, technology, mobility and how it affects us all. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, his work has appeared on the BBC, The Stage, STV, and The Times. You can follow Ewan on Twitter (@ewan) and Facebook (facebook.com/ewanspence).

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10 responses to “How far can you push the rulebook at Eurovision?”

  1. Seán says:

    I still think Croatia 1999 “sailed closest to the wind” with their mysterious “instruments” on the backing track. While they may have been deducted points in the long run it still should not have been allowed.

  2. Jaz says:

    Great article, although I have to pick you up on one mistake – you said that Jedward can, in fact, sing? What was that all about?? (unless you meant sing, just not well).
    I always feel sorry for those lone backup singers that get shoved in a corner for three minutes despite the fact that they are sometimes doing the majority of the vocal work. Eric Saade’s backup last year was positioned particularly awkwardly…
    Also, I often forget about the impossibility of live music, and whenever I’m reminded I always look back on the performances of Mor Ve Otesi and Raphael for example and feel a bit cheated. But what can you do?

  3. Ewan Spence says:

    I was there, in the press conference. A Cappela lipstick. Less than an octave of range, but it was there and worked.

  4. Rob says:

    A good read. I must admit, I have wondered how far a country (with a hefty budget) could exploit the six people “on stage” rule. In other words, could an act – in theory – have an entire flashmob of backing dancers planted in the audience aisles but not on the stage? Or have Cirque du Soleil swinging around the rafters of the arena?

  5. Ben says:

    Could you please write an article on how the rules regarding performance may be outdated, with particular focus on the use of computerised vocals or “vocal effects” being omitted from the backing tracks in the performance, usually at the song’s expense.

    Please feel free to contact me if you would like my assistance with the article. My e-mail address has been entered into this comment form.

  6. Im still shocked how exactly the Ukranian entry back in 2005 managed to make it onto the stage in Kiev, from what I could tell from it it was more or less bringing the Orange Revolution to a world stage. I personally never realised the Italian entries fakery of live playing, I really think that may have actually contributed to a few points on the night. The Romanian entry I remember because of Paddy on the night wondierng if what Romania was doing was breaking the rules. Rule bending will always happen Israel managed to get the balance just right, while Georgia managed to just go a bit too far.

  7. howard a says:

    Excellent atricle, Ewan.

    Last year, we had seats at the side of the stage and there was a backing singer for Russia positioned BEHIND the set who most of the audience and the cameras didn’t see.

    Question: what were “the antics at the San Remo final this past weekend” ?

    ;.)

  8. Pedro Sá says:

    Wrong, wrong, wrong about PT 1974. That song was the first sign…at around 23.00/23.30 of April 24th, for the troops to get ready. Not its performing on ESC.

  9. Ewan Spence says:

    Pedro, indeed – hence noting the ESC song was the “come to attention” and the subsequent broadcast of Grândola, Vila Morena was the “go go go!”. It still makes it, in my book, a political song at Eurovision!

  10. Von says:

    ESC rules stated also “All songs must be completely original in terms of songwriting and instrumentation” but on Eric Saade “Popular” they completely broken the rules , the instrumentation in the background from the start of the song is completely from the Boney M. original song, meant or not its no doubt.

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