2014. Latvia’s National Final voting was one of the closest known to the Eurovision community. In one corner was the new local star, performing a song he’s been serenading sell-out concerts with for weeks and topping each and every chart in the country. In the other corner was the bunch of cobbled-together street artists, lead by a German immigrant, singing a frantic clap-a-long number almost as dishevelled as their appearance. By less than 100 votes, this was the result.
Under the radar in that twelve song show was a young energetic performance from a lady in a tight blue bodysuit. Her name was Aminata, and despite trickling in only to 5th place she picked up the Eurovision bug. Aminata came back the year after and recorded a victory with ‘Love Injected’, then lifting the performance up to dizzying levels for not only Latvia’s first qualification since 2008, but Latvia’s best placing since its 2002 victory.
This year Aminata was behind the creation of another song in Latvia’s selection program. ‘Heartbeat’ was performed by 21-year-old Justs and gained traction each week to become the huge favourite before Sunday’s final. Just like her own Eurovision entry the year previous, the production values and off-beat rhythms in ‘Heartbeat’ stand miles above anything else the rest of the Latvian competition could create. When it won Latvia’s selection, it automatically catapulted the nation to the top of Eurovision predictions for 2016. Aminata has two local victories in the bag and is now heading to Stockholm with every chance of improving on last year’s phenomenal result.
The Aminata Difference
The sound that Aminata brought to Eurovision through her collaboration with music producer Kaspars Ansons was fresh. Those deep electronic sounds of ‘Love Injected’ allowed Aminata to enter this battle-ready character on the Eurovision stage and hoover up points from juries across the continent. The same principles have been applied to the more conventional pop song that ‘Heartbeat’ is this year, adding layers that direct the viewer to listen harder and be more captivated by the performance.
These foundations alone were not enough for Aminata to stroll to success last year, and few bloggers were tipping her to even qualify before May, never mind storm to contention in the way it did. One of the key factors was the staging differences. Aminata’s red dress was shaped to give her character, the low-cut mid section making her huge vocal seem even more spectacular as her rib cage visibly strained across her tiny frame. The camera work cut frame-by-frame with the music backwards and forwards. It was jarring, but in time and keeping with the musical mood. The waist up shots of Aminata at the end of the song are incredibly powerful and iconic. Couple this to some of the strongest lights used in Eurovision last year and the whole performance was lifted to its maximum potential. Those three minutes were made Aminata shine and look a class above the competition, and the second place result with the Eurovision juries was hardly a surprise.
With Justs, some of that hard work is yet to happen. It is worth reminding ourselves that the creativity seen in the stage show last year was in the hands of Nicoline Refsing, who managed the creative content for Copenhagen’s Eurovision Song Contest in 2014. That was where the lift came, and for Justs we’ll truly know if the song has winning potential once we see what stage show he brings to Stockholm. The same team has now been confirmed to be working on his stage show for Stockholm.
It looks to us at ESC Insight that Latvia is in this to win.
How This Journey Almost Didn’t Happen
Justs has dominated each round of voting in Latvia’s selection process Supernova. In the first heat Justs scored more than double any other artist from voters. It was a landslide. In the Semi Final, the gap narrowed by a few hundred votes, but nothing suggested there could be any blockade from his coronation. After all the other hot contender for the crown, Markus Riva, was a shock knockout. In the final, with just four songs to compete against, Justs scored a very respectable 20,725 votes. However the shock was in second place was in the darkly gothic metal band Catalepsia, scoring just less than two thousand votes short of Justs and comfortably winning the televotes.
Justs sneaked through thanks to the international online vote.
How did this happen? A few different theories have came up as to how Latvia almost turned down one of the hot favourites for the entire Contest. An easy one is that the small yet loyal metal community engaged with Supernova in the final round, and gave a boost. Another potential vote source is from disgruntled Markus Riva supporters, looking to spoil Justs victory parade. Furthermore it could be as simple as people at home looking to create drama, and with the results looking closer and closer supporting the underdog became all the more tempting for others.
Although I think ‘Damnation’ would have been a fine Eurovision enty, it was clear that a Catalepsia victory would not have been the hoped for result for Latvia. I squarely point the finger of blame for it almost being them at Latvian Television. The week by week system of Supernova means the songs have all been heard three times on television, and have already competed against each other at least twice. The exact televoting breakdowns of those heat are publicly known. In making the final with only four of those eight Semi Finalists you are actively encouraging negative voting, and also are giving people one week in which to mobilise themselves. Latvia almost threw potential victory down the drain themselves because of their terrible show scheduling. Indeed they probably need to thank the internet voters across the world for logging in to save them from a PR disaster.
The Supernova That Doesn’t Even Explode
The creation of Supernova came in the run-up to Latvia’s Eurovision selection in 2015. This re-brand took it away from the Dziesma tradition that had left Latvia flagging at the bottom of too many Semi Final leaderboards. There was a clear move to make the TV more controlled, to help find and select the right song. After all, Dons was the one who was meant to win, rather than the German busker (I’ll add here that Dons would have flopped much harder than Aarzemnieki in Copenhagen, who were only seven points from qualification, but that’s not how local Latvian press would have looked at that 2014 result).
Dons himself got his own slot to help out with this, sitting on a four person expert jury that analysed each song after it performed and critiqued it for the viewers at home. Now perhaps my lack of Latvian knowledge was a problem here, but after the jury have heard the same song performed three times without any extra production or choreography changes I doubt they had anything more insightful to comment upon. This is a huge flaw in this process and makes the Final of Supernova dull, tepid TV trending over ground that previous shows have already churned up.
Increasing this lukewarm lack of competition was the fact that jury voting did not marry up with televoting. What happened each week was that the top two televoting songs progressed to the next round, and only after those results were revealed did the jury decide who to ‘save’ for the big show. This led to the procession that two of the songs in the Latvian final knew they were turning up chanceless, as did the rest of the public. Anybody looking to vote against Justs only had the one option with any possible chance of clawing back the victory.
Furthermore in terms of a spectacle Supernova was a safer step, but ultimately a step backwards. Moved to a Sunday night showing recorded in the depths of the Latvian TV studios is hardly a highlight for any professional artist. Supernova is regimented; interval acts are pre-recorded while the audience are crammed into a zero-atmosphere setting, numbed by listening to jury members harp on and then tedious artist interviews backstage. It’s overkill, and it’s little surprise the re-brand hasn’t attracted new headline names in Latvian music to the show. MyRadiantU, who finished 3rd in Supernova this year, were one of those acts protesting on stage about Ukraine in that car crash 2014 final.
I’m even going to take aim at the beaver. Yes, the Riga Beaver. Yes, the beloved adoring #adbreakbeaver who became the star of the show for foreign viewers. It’s fantastic that Latvian Television realised the phenomenon the beaver became, and acted to make him have more presence. However Latvian viewers in the audience watched with a stony silence to most gags, and you can feel awkward embarrassment in the room as the realisation hits that people across the world are watching this hot mess… and is gathering more support on social media than the performing acts.
Remember the beaver trend only started because fans watching online could see him in the corner of the webstream as half-time children’s entertainment for the studio audience – it wasn’t until the last show in 2015 that LTV turned on the audio so the world could hear him.. It was an accident that it became this viral success. The same could be said about Latvia’s upturn in the Eurovision Song Contest. Latvia’s change of fortune is a happy accident caused by Aminata’s presence and nothing to do with what Latvian Television provided with the format change.
Beyond A Potential Victory In Stockholm
Whatever outcome the results give us in Stockholm, for Aminata and Justs they are going to enjoy months at the top of fan polls, predictions and betting odds until at least rehearsals this May. They are going to find their style of pop music lapped up by millions across the world; as a platform to success Eurovision might be the excellent springboard. And yes, if the team find a way to lift the staging up like last year we could be booking hotels in Latvia’s capital next May.
Imagine a world though without Aminata, where Markus Riva and Catalepsia won Latvia’s Eurovision process. The Baltic state would be almost certainly without qualification in nine consecutive attempts, and looking over at Estonia’s success even more in baffled and bemused by the contrast in fortunes. The fact is that Eesti Laul celebrates the local music scene with such commitment that it becomes the breeding ground for local success, which fuels the high quality Eurovision entries we then see. Supernova makes the winners even feel like losers, with the jurors critiquing each performance with such seriousness – they have to find flaws in the artistry. This doesn’t bring your big names back, missing part of its mission objective in restoring Latvian Eurovision glory.
Win or lose in May, Latvian Television needs to look at Justs’ margin of victory and realise the disaster their format almost created. That doesn’t mean it was wrong to change formats necessarily, an explosion of Supernova proportions was needed after those repeated failures. However I argue ‘Love Injected’ and ‘Heartbeat’ would have happened anyway, and there’s been nothing else of note that has come through the format change other than a man sweating buckets in a beaver costume for the delight of the international fan community.
Supernova needs to make itself more dynamic as a show, more artist friendly in the results and criticism and more exciting for the viewers to make it a pinnacle of both good TV and good songwriting. Supernova has started off with a sideways shuffle, now it needs to step forward to build post-Aminata momentum.