The general consensus during April was pretty clear, “Italy needs to make a mistake if it is going to lose the Eurovision Song Contest.” Given we’ve all booked our hotels in Lisbon, what happened to Francesco Gabbani and ‘Occidentali’s Karma’? We all sat down to workshop the fall of man.
On paper, ’Occidentali’s Karma’ has everything that I love in a Eurovision song. It has a strong vocal performer, it has key visuals to grab the attention of the voting public, it is sung in the performer’s first language, and it tells a story over the duration of the song. Only when all of these line up correctly do you get perfection. When you start to stray, even minutely, from that path, it all collapses like a soufle.
It’s illuminating to go back to the first performance at Sanremo and realise that almost every element from the Festival Della Canzone was on stage in Kyiv. The overpowering and busy backdrop that graced the stage in Kyiv… is the same one used in Sanremo, the late switch to using a bowtie on Gerlad the Gorilla happened in February as well, the energetic dance routines and mugging to the camera were always there.
…if you asked which was the earlier performance and which was the one that benefited from rehearsal time, you’d have to say Sanremo. Take the almost spoken word intro. The shot count is pretty much the same, but in Sanremo you have quick cuts, Gabbani dominating the frame in every shot, and you are left in no doubt who the star is and why you should love him. Storytelling wise, the quick cuts, the jumps, they all fit the principle of the busy western life.
In Kyiv you have a similar shot count but the cameras are always zooming the frame in and out, it’s more important to see the whole backdrop loom over a small and weak Gabbani, and theres no thematic link between the visual and the verbal. “The west” should be represented by those sharp camera cuts, not a motley collection of sluggish pans and zooms.
Gabbani failed to command the stage while the camera was more concerned about floating around the venue, showing off the big screen, the huge stage, and the cavernous arena.
Unlike Sanremo, Kyiv was not showcasing Gabbani the charming performer who can win you over with a smile that guarantees votes. The language of the framing has subtly changed the focus of the storytelling. ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ was, physically, lost in translation.
The Sanremo staging on screen portrayed Gabbani as an electrifying, dizzying, and powerful performer. In Kyiv the production decisions meant the audience had no chance to bond with the star or to build up a connection that would guarantee votes.
The energy that we know Gabbani could bring to the screen was never delivered.
If Ewan thinks that Francesco’s Grand Final performances were lacking in energy, I can make a guess as to why that is. The promotional period for ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ was too long, and too focused on the single issue of the gorilla.
Normally, an artist will promote a new single for a month to six weeks, and then take some time to regroup before releasing a second single. Francesco didn’t have this option for ‘Occidentali’s Karma’; he’s been performing the same single song with the same dance and the same gorilla in public since February 8th.
Looking through all the footage, I think we can locate the peak performance of the song as being the one at London Eurovision Party on April 3rd. In terms of Francesco’s energy, the crowd reaction and everyone’s overall excitement, I never saw this song performed better than on the tiny Café de Paris stage.
And then there’s ‘Magellano’, Francesco’s album which came out in Italy on April 28th, meredays before rehearsals started in Kyiv. The second single from the album, ‘Tra le granite e le granite’, came out on May 8th, right in the middle of the Song Contest. In an ideal album promo campaign, I don’t think you would want to have your artist in Ukraine answering a limited set of questions about the first single off the album at the point where you’re trying to get the second single and album to chart back in Italy. Three months is a long time to be playing one song, especially when you’ve got more to give. I would totally understand if Francesco was not at peak enthusiasm for ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ and the accompanying gorilla related circus by Saturday May 13th.
Personally, I went out to Kyiv thinking that Francesco had a 90% chance of winning, and that any other winner would have to capitalise on any strategic errors made by Italy. In the end, I think that the die was cast a lot earlier on, when the 3 minute edit was revealed. By removing the second verse in its entirety in order to maximise the time that our simian pal Gerald was on stage, and remove the problematic lines about Chanel and cocaine, the song structure was fundamentally altered. The build to the chorus was removed, and the whole thing became a bit unbalanced and repetitive. I should have realised that something was going wrong when I switched the San Remo full version back into rotation instead of putting up with the truncated version.
Why didn’t I voice any of these doubts? I don’t know. Momentum and groupthink is a powerful thing. I know that the last time I did the Gerbear favourites sorter that Italy had fallen out of my top 5 in favour of Belarus, Portugal, Belgium, Armenia and Estonia, but I assumed that everyone else was still Team Francesco and the drop-off was just me being a contrary hipster, as usual.
There is an element of groupthink about these things. This is a powerful thing in the Eurovision bubble. When people you speak to explosively reply ‘It’s country X, or country Y’ there’s little point in disagreeing. At least, that’s how it seems in the moment. “They’ve got it sorted, so I figure they’re right.” That’s what I thought up until I heard the song for the first time in the hall.
For me, the song didn’t fly. It didn’t raise the roof like it did when I listened to on my headphones. It didn’t transport me like the truncated middle eight did when I listened to it on the plane over to Kiev. It didn’t live up to expectations. It didn’t uplift me in the arena.
I figured this was just the typical arena-based incongruence. The Eurovision Song Contest is a TV programme after all. You need that cropped image. But back home, I’m sorry to say that in the context of everything else around it, Francesco looked tired and the gorilla looked comedic. It catapulted Italy’s song in the same fenced-off pen as Croatia’s effort. Three minutes isn’t long enough for the mainstream audience to consider the meta-narrative. They take far less time to dismiss a track than those of us who willingly invest in the backstory.
Where Russia failed in 2016 failed to win me over, Italy succeeded in 2017. Francesco’s number is a keeper. It will live on long after the Sontest. It’s a rousing thing. A pleasing thing. And his warm smile and twinkly eyes still make me go a little wobbly at the knees too.
But on the night, it demanded too much and focused on the wrong areas.
Several things conspired against ‘Occidentali’s Karma,’ but on a fundamental level, none worse than the three minute rule. The Eurovision edit ripped the guts out of a perfectly crafted, contemporary Italian pop classic: we lost the narrative, the ratcheting up through verses and choruses, until the “Namaste… Allez!” launches the rocket. Instead we got a quarter verse, the chorus twice, and the last verse. It really didn’t make much sense musically.
And…I don’t think Francesco’s soul was in it, with “it” being the television show.
At Sanremo he was much more focused on the cameras and the song. It was a simple storyboard: singer in repose, kick it up a notch on the first chorus with the simple yet effective dance, keep singing the next verse, chorus again with Gerald, bridge, then take it home once more with the chorus. Performing for the camera without coming across cold is a tough thing, but Gabbani did it studiously at Sanremo. Alas in Kyiv he was – like any former cockroach dude would be – swept up and then dwarfed in the energy of the arena.
But the honest answer as to why Italy did not win the Eurovision Song Contest is this. Even if everything had lined up, even if Italy had made all the correct decisions, even if everyone watching understood the metaphors and the gorilla… nothing would have impeded Portugal this year, not even a suite of perfect performances by Francesco Gabbani.
Simply put, ’Amar Pelos Dois’ was unstoppable.