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Playing To Archetype: A Formulaic Approach To Winning The Eurovision Song Contest Written by on May 19, 2015 | 2 Comments

The cry of ‘that’s so Eurovision!’ implies that Eurovision has a formula for winning. That’s not the case, but John Egan explores what sorts of artist profiles and archetypes have persistently found success in the Contest – and which artists in 2015 best represent each. 

There have been 62 winners of the Eurovision Song Contest; on 23 May we will have our 63rd. As the Contest has evolved, from orchestras to backing tracks, juries to televoters then to a hybrid scoring system, all sorts of artists have taken out the trophy.

There is no magic formula that produces a winner year upon year, otherwise we would have 27 nearly identical acts in this year’s Grand Final. There are, however, a few archetypes – tropes, or memes, if you prefer – that have produced Eurovision winners numerous times.

Let’s take a look at five particular archetypes—the ingénue, the powerhouse, the local hero, version 2.0 and the outlier—that have stood the test of time. Each has at least one exemplar in this year’s entrants.

The Ingénue

Without question, an ingénue – the next female star, on the cusp of greatness, has produced more winners than any other archetype. To qualify as an ingénue (an “innocent” in its literal sense), you need a charming, somewhat innocent young woman, usually, but not always, a teenager. Some ingénues are belters, others just good pop singers. Ingénues succeed because of their broad appeal: part of the audience goes “aw, she’s lovely,” while another part goes “mmmm, she’s…lovely.”

Nicole (1982 ‘Ein Bisschen Frieden’, Germany), Dana (1970, ‘All Kinds of Everything’, Ireland) and France Gall (1965, ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’, Luxembourg) are all great examples of ingénue winners. If you were wondering about Sandra Kim (1986, ‘J’aime la vie’, Belgium), she was too young (at 13 years old) to meet both aspects of the lovely/lovely standard.

However the ingénue gold standard is Gigliola Cinquetti, who won the 1964 Eurovision Song Contest representing Italy with Non ho l’eta: it remains the only song to have won both the Eurovision and Sanremo Song Contests. The song itself is about a young woman refusing an older gentleman’s romantic advances. *ahem.*

There are a few acts this year that could be considered ingénues, including Ireland, Latvia and half of San Marino. But our nominee for this year’s ingénue is Iceland’s Maria Olafs, who sings ‘Unbroken’ in semi-final two. Hers the sort of up-tempo, instant pop song that, when it captures the ingénue vibe, can lead to Eurovision glory.

Lovely? Great voice? Contemporary song? Tick. Tick. Tick.

The Powerhouse

What Eurovision fan doesn’t enjoy a belter: a diva with a powerful, goose bump-inducing voice? After the ingénues, the powerhouse is the archetype that has produced the most winners; like the ingénues, this is a ladies only category.

Powerhouses are the ones who have to hold the microphone away from their mouths, lest the poor sound engineers go deaf. Equally important, their song needs to be a vehicle that showcases their remarkable, multi-octave voice. They have to demonstrate their skill for singing softly and for the big, Eurovision winning notes. They have to be equally comfortable at the bottom and top of their register. Most of all, they make us believe every single word they sing, sometimes even when the lyrics of their song seem trite or saccharine. These are the queens of Eurovision: we bow in deference to their awesomeness.

France’s Frida Boccara was perhaps the first powerhouse winner of Europe’s favourite light entertainment programme. In 1969 she commanded the stage in Madrid with ‘Un jour, un enfant’. 1983’s champion, Corrine Hermès blasted everyone else off the Munich stage with ‘Si la vie est cadeau’. More recently, Sweden’s Loreen brought the powerhouse leitmotif into the modern electronic dance musical realm in 2012 with her massive hit ‘Euphoria’.

The archetypal powerhouse winner? Switzerland’s Céline Dion, who used a pretty good song, ‘Ne partez pas sans moi’ as a vehicle to Eurovision glory. Neither a bad 80’s perm nor a cringe-worthy frock could hold her back.

Whilst Albania, France, Latvia and Serbia this year in the vocal powerhouse mix, there is one powerhouse who leaves the rest in her dust: Russia’s Polina Gagarina. ‘A Million Voices’ shows off her range, her ability to sing both subtly and bombastically, and her ability to sell the song. At a time when a number of fans are conflicted about supporting any Russian entry (particularly a peace anthem), she is nonetheless generating a lot of buzz. She is the total package: she creates a moment every time she sings and convinces you she believes every single word.

Keep your eye on Polina.

The Local Hero

Each of this year’s 40 entrants represents their country’s participating broadcaster, rather than their country, per se. Similarly, athletes at the Olympic Games represent their national Olympic committees rather than countries. This ostensibly keeps politics at arm’s length from the Contest, regardless, there is often immense pressure on contestants to well represent their countries. It’s especially true when a local heroes is sent to bring home the Eurovision crown. And while we’ve not seen this strategy from many of the long-term participating broadcasters (particularly not the big five), the explosion of new Europe participants since the 1990s have often taken this tack.

Back in the 60s, however, it was common for each country’s top notch, hugely popular stars to participate in the Contest: often singers very popular in their local market, but not well known beyond it. For the UK it was often part of a package deal: a singer would be hired to perform on locally produced programming and be obligated to carry the Union Jack at Eurovision. Sandie Shaw took ‘Puppet on a String‘ to victory this way in 1967.

Sending a local hero isn’t a guarantee of a victory, or even a strong result, and that is the risk for our local heroes. Many take up the challenge for the honour of representing their country; many seek to use the Eurovision stage as a launching pad to a more international, ABBA-esque career. But for such artists there is the risk of ignominy—not winning, and quite possibly not doing well at all. Yes Cliff Richards, we are thinking of you.

In 2004 there were so many countries wanting to participate that a semi-final was introduced. Amongst the participants were two local heroes. Greece’s Sakis Rouvas was their best selling male recording artist. In the end he finished a respectable third with ‘Shake It’. But it was. Ruslana’s ‘Wild Dances’ that earned Ukraine its first victory on only their second attempt.

In fact, it was the woman who brought us all to Istanbul who is the archetypal local hero. When Sertab Erener agreed to represent Turkey in 2003, it was on her terms. First, she and her producer would write and produce the song: they required complete creative control. Second, she would sing it entirely in English. Having only managed one top three result in two decades, TRT was (somewhat) willing to try something different.

And it worked. ‘Every Way That I Can‘ not only brought Turkey its first victory, Sertab managed to do so from the dread fourth spot in the running order, also a first. The Sertab formula—a contemporary song, equally Turkish and universal, sung all or mostly in English, kept Turkey in the top ten for much of the rest of the noughties.

This year’s local hero is also this year’s special guest entrant. Like Sertab, Guy Sebastian has been a top selling recording artist in Australia for more than a decade. Also like Sertab, he’s taken control of his song choice and co-wrote something not only specifically for the Eurovision Song Contest, but for this year’s Contest: in the year of the ballad, ‘Tonight Again’ is up-tempo pop at its best.

If Australia manages to win, their one-off becomes a two-off and song choice becomes rather prophetic. Tonight again, in other words.

Version 2.0

Many who have competed but not won have returned to try again. Linda Martin competed twice singing Johnny Logan compositions. On her second attempt ‘Why Me’ conquered all in 1991. But the road to Eurovision glory is littered with the broken souls of those who have tried again (and, in a few instances, again and again) to win. Something that only works when the 2.0 version brings something extra to the Contest.

40 years ago Udo Jurgens earned Austria its first victory with ‘Merci Cherie’ in 1966. Udo had competed in the two previous Contests; third time’s a charm. More recently, Dima Bilan managed second place with ‘Never Let you Go’ in 2006. Fast forward to 2008 and Dima—by now perhaps the most popular singer in the russosphere—sailed to a comfortable victory with ‘Believe’. But for every Udo or Dima there are a handful of Chiara’s (3 tries, no higher than second, for Malta), and Wind (same as Chiara, but for Germany). Previous winner Niamh Kavanagh didn’t make the top 10 in her comeback effort; previous winner Dana International didn’t manage to make it out of the semi-final during hers. Both were champions when the fate of each contestant was held mostly or entirely in the hands of jury members rather than televoters.

Our archetypal version 2.0 winner started out as an ingénue, but came back as a powerhouse. First representing Sweden as a 16 year old in 1983, Framling brought Carola a respectable third place in Munich, though she had been one of the bookies’ favourite prior to the final. In 1991 a much more polished Carola returned to the Eurovision stage with the slickly performed, ‘Fangad av en Stormvind‘.

This year sees the return of Elnur Hüseynov, who was one half of Azerbaijan’s first Eurovision entry. Day After Day finished in 8th place in 2008, which, in hindsight is one of their lower placings. In the interim, Elnur’s moved to Istanbul and won the Turkish version of the Voice franchise. This year he’s singing ‘Hour of the Wolf’, a strong, contemporary song.

In every respect this is a reboot from his first appearance at Eurovision. Can Elnur bring Azerbaijan it’s second trophy in five years?

The Outlier

In statistics an outlier is something that confounds the overall trend in a data set. Sometimes outliers are “noise”: they don’t, in fact, belong in the set. Sometimes, however, outliers are exceptional: they stand out for all the right reasons. Every few years Europe’s favourite song contest throws up an outlier: a surprise winner that few fancied prior to the Contest itself.

For example, few outside the hard-core Contest fan base gave Conchita Wurst much of a chance last year. Looking back a year later, many now see her victory as inevitable. Tell that to Sweden, Hungary and Armenia, each of whom were pre-Contest favourites (and all of which did well). The last outlier winner was in 2002, when Marie N. tangoed ‘I Wanna‘ to Latvia’s sole victory. ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ was also a pan-European hit single, whilst Marie N.’s winner wasn’t even much of a hit in Latvia, let alone anywhere else. In 2000 the Olsen Brothers won with ‘Fly on the Wings of Love’: two older pop singers making something of a comeback. Few fancied its chances until the week of the Contest – much like Conchita in 2014.

Sometimes outlier winners become evergreens. For example: think of a country that had sent entries for more than three decades, yet never finished in the top five. Many fans thought Finland’s 2006 entrant was an act of either cynicism or despair. Lordi’s ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ finished well ahead of the rest; today it’s seen as a worthy and popular winner. But few thought a pop metal song performed in monster drag had a place at Eurovision. Like most outlier winners, the Contest is all the better for it.

But an even bigger outlier than Lordi, and our choice as the archetype for this category, stands out in several ways. It featured a collaboration between a violinist and a composer; the arrangement was more classical than pop. Their vocalist was a guest of the group who sang a mere 27 words: ‘Nocturne’ was mostly instrumental. But there had been nothing like it on any Eurovision stage and in 1995 Secret Garden scored Norway its second victory. Unlike most of the winners from the 1990s, Secret Garden subsequently had a strong international career, particularly in the genre of new age music.

The profile for our choice for 2015’s outlier might seem familiar. It’s a rock entry and once again it’s Finland. But Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (PKN) thrash through ‘Aina mun pitää‘ punk anthem in just over 90 seconds. Without question they stand out from every other act here in Vienna. Whether that translates into jury support and televotes remains to be scene.

Watch this space.

Typical And Not

Of course winning the Eurovision Contest isn’t about ticking the right boxes. It’s about gathering enough support from the public and juries on one specific weekend in May. Winning isn’t everything: numerous participants who haven’t won have subsequently leveraged their exposure through the Contest into chart success: think Netherlands 2014 and United Kingdom 1996. In fact, there have been many winners who found breaking out of the Eurovision pigeon hole rather difficult. On a fundamental level, whomever creates the most impactful moment (three minute version) will rise above.

Keep an eye on Iceland, Russia, Azerbaijan, Finland and Australia, assuming the first four make it out of their respective semi-finals. before it can have its shot at the crystal trophy. There is a buzz in this year’s press room here in Vienna, the buzz of a year where we might well be in for a Eurovision surprise.

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2 responses to “Playing To Archetype: A Formulaic Approach To Winning The Eurovision Song Contest”

  1. Nice article there – I suspect the ‘Powerhouse’ and the ‘Local Hero’ have most chance of winning this year!

    I think that the EBU would be very, VERY happy if Australia won this year – another chance to let them enter without having to come up with a new reason why and less hassles as far as any LGBT issues are concerned (although the Sochi Winter Olympics would suggest that Russia would ‘play nice’, at least for two weeks)…

  2. John Egan says:

    Thanks Martin. And course our outlier is out now…alas.

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