So we’re nearly four days into ESC Insight’s coverage of Eurovision 2015’s rehearsals, and debates rage on. What’s qualifying, what’s crashing out, what’s lived up to expectations, what’s faceplanted, and, in one extreme case, how a person would get from Minneapolis to Sochi for the least amount of money. But what are we actually doing when we watch these rehearsals? How do we gauge if a run-through is “good”, “bad”, or “ugly”?
Before coming to Eurovision at any given year, all that most obsessive fans and pundits have to go on are audio tracks, preview videos, national final performances, and maybe a live event or two (like the concerts in London or Amsterdam). These all provide a massive amount of insight into the possibilities of the staging and presentation that will eventually hit international airwaves, but try as we might, all of our interpretations and extrapolations really don’t amount to much until rehearsals start.
For some nations (generally speaking, the Scandinavian nations), Eurovision staging stays pretty close to what we see in the National Finals. Of course, tweaks for stage dimensions and specifications have to be made, but on the whole, Loreen’s snowfall and capoeira-pas-de-deux, Emmelie De Forest’s drummers, and Margaret Berger’s skintight gown and minimalist staging did not change much from National Final to Eurovision itself. However, there are many nations where opportunity (or budgets) simply do not allow for an early performance to be as fleshed-out. When a song is selected, and funding for staging comes not only from the performer and any label, but also the broadcaster’s Eurovision budget, the potential for new and innovative staging becomes a lot more possible.
So, What Are We Looking At?
First and foremost we have to ask the big question, especially in the context of a Song Contest: how are the vocals? This is a question that is particularly important for songs that had been selected internally. For artists that have been battle-tested in National Finals, viewers can get a general sense of how they’ll perform live. If the only place a song has been heard is a studio recording and polished music video, it’s often difficult to gauge just how good it will be on stage. Some artists more than live up to expectations (Dina Garipova’s vocals on “What If” were near-flawless in 2013), while others, quite literally, fall flat (Slovakia’s 2012 entrant, Max Jason Mai, could not keep up with the demanding vocals of “Don’t Close Your Eyes”, even though he was able to manage in studio).
Secondly, we ask if the artist is able to connect with the camera and, by extension, the audience at home, where the lion’s share of votes would potentially be coming from. Sometimes something as simple as making sustained eye contact can make the difference between “a song” and “a performance”. Glen Bartlett, from Welsh broadcaster S4C:
“When we come to dissecting performances, because we see it from a viewers’ point of view, we want to see [singers] connect with the camera. If they’re not connecting straight away, then they either a) haven’t practiced it yet or b) just aren’t ‘getting’ Eurovision.”
Last year, after many rehearsals with closed eyes, Finland’s Softengine made the effort to have lead singer Topi Latukka actually look into the camera, and it created a link between singer and viewer that made the song feel genuine and real. Conversely, that same year, Ireland’s Kasey Smith’s gaze kept getting interrupted, either by her own diversion or poor camera angles, and the performance felt disconnected as a result.
Speaking of camera angles, the way that a song is presented on camera can make the difference between a performance looking slick and elegant or looking disjointed and chaotic. As we’ve seen on Ewan’s series “Every Song a Story“, camera angles, which are agreed by both the delegation and the camera crew at the host broadcaster, can create moods and narratives that can enhance or undermine a presentation.
The opportunities that the stage itself provides can also affect how a country will want its song shown. Just comparing the LED-laden facilities in Moscow versus the pared-down stage we saw the next year in Oslo, it’s only natural that a delegation’s tactics would have to change according to the specifications of the host venue.
For the first time since 2009, the Eurovision stage this year will lack a catwalk and satellite stage, which some artists used to their advantage. When A Friend in London took to the catwalk in Düsseldorf, it brought in a sense of community that was inherent in the song. Putting Anouk on the small stage, surrounded by fans and waving flags, gave her toned-down performance an intimate feel. On the other hand, staging can be too ambitious. In 2010, Safura was nearly out of breath after traipsing back from the catwalk during her semifinal performance of “Drip Drop”. It came across as awkward and poorly-considered, and was luckily changed for her Final performance.
Certain nations (such as Moldova, Azerbaijan, and, when they were participating, Ukraine) seem to have cornered the market on bringing in tricks, shocks, and other methods for getting viewers’ jaws on the floor, with few of these secrets being revealed until we hit the ground at the venue itself. Whether it’s a shocking outfit, a hamster wheel, or a cheeky kiss, surprises like this not only grab the attention of the viewers at home on the night of the show, but they also drum up a lot of social media attention from the press on site, which can filter into news coverage of the program ahead of the event. These moments are the ones that go viral, the ones that garner ratings for a broadcaster, and (hopefully) get votes for a participant from intrigued or shocked viewers.
Emerging Fully Formed From the Mind of a Delegation
Delegations are looking for more or less the same things that we are. They want to make sure that their artists are not only performing at their best (although it’s often the tactic that an artist keeps their voices restrained until the full dress rehearsals, lest they start to run on empty), but performing a fully-formed routine that is engaging to voters. Nobody comes to Eurovision in the hopes that they come last, no matter how much you think a delegation is shooting themselves in the foot (I’m looking at you, UK-based fans…). Delegations come in with polished presentation packages, incorporating camera angles, lighting cues, costumes, and more. Glen Bartlett:
“Delegates know that press will be seeing first rehearsals, and we get an opinion. I think the press and Eurovision fans expect that when you get to the host city, you want everything to be perfect and ready. If you’re thinking ‘oh, we could have done with a prop or some pyrotechnics there’, you’re too late. It’s not about the song anymore. It’s about the performance.”
That being said, there’s still room for improvement. Emma Backfish, who runs the radio show “Meanwhile, in Europe” out of New York:
“I think you see a lot of performers go on stage and change costumes, and there are plenty of examples of that. Particularly in the first set of rehearsals, it’s more about making sure that they know what their voices sound like on stage. I think that part of the puzzle has to be figured out, of course, the song and the performance capability of it, but things can be worked on during the time leading up to the actual shows.”
And in the End…
Of course, every opinion on “what looks great”, “what sounds rough”, “what will get votes from which population”, and “where we’ll head next year”, is just that: an opinion. What is beautiful to one person is shocking to another. What gets one fan energized might completely alienate their neighbor. And as analytical as some of us like to be, others lead with the heart first. When I asked Will Adams of WiwiBloggs his input on what he looks for in a run-through, he said:
“I don’t know if I’m looking for something; I’m feeling something…surprise, shock, amazement. We [Eurovision bloggers] often get lost in the bubble, and we’re thinking about costumes, dress…but ultimately, it comes down to a feeling. I don’t want to be too technical, because when I do, I forget what’s most important. And that’s the heart. I know it’s cheesy, but it’s true. When you don’t feel something, that’s when you pick up on the technical flaws. A lot of the songs don’t make me feel anything, so I’ll get more technical.”
Furthermore, all of the preparation and rehearsal (or lack thereof) in the world can’t prevent a potentially great song from failing on the night when it counts, or a diamond in the rough from pulling itself upright at just the perfect moment. That’s the maddening magic of Eurovision.