One of the most fundamental rules of the Eurovision Song Contest is that all vocals must be performed live. This means that we know songs like ‘Suus‘, ‘1944‘, ‘The Voice‘ and even ‘My Friend’ are achievements of sheer performance and vocal capacity before we even begin to examine the songwriting and artistry of the staging. We know that they’re doing it live, with no back-up tapes and no safety net, which is part of the reason that the Song Contest remains an unmissable piece of thrilling event television, and not just a popularity contest based on YouTube views.
However, one song in the 2017 contest gives us an opportunity to grab the moment and clear up the rules on vocals and vocal imitations. Norway selected a song by producer JOWST and singer Aleksander Walmann that skated very close to the edge of the live vocals rule, which I’ve reproduced in full below.
“Artists shall perform live on stage, accompanied by a recorded backing-track which contains no vocals of any kind or any vocal imitations aiming at replacing or assisting the live/original voice of the Contestant(s). The Host Broadcaster shall verify respect for this rule.”
The rule would appear to forbid the backing track from containing any identifiable vocal sounds that aim to replace a live vocal. Thanks to JOWST, the original stems from ‘Grab The Moment’ are available on Soundcloud. I’ll let you listen to them and you can work out whether they are vocals or vocal imitations, and whether they are aimed at replacing or assisting a live vocal. The track with these sounds on it is called VOICE CHOP, by the way.
Listening For Clarity
During the run up to the Song Contest, NRK sought clarification as to exactly how JOWST were going to be allowed to reproduce their track on stage. From looking at how JOWST performed live during the preview party season, we theorised that the manipulated vocals could potentially be produced by live sampling of Aleksander’s performance which JOWST was playing from the Launchpad synth controller in his DJ booth.
Live sampling and looping is a technique that many musicians use to great effect in a in a live context – see KT Tunstall performing Black Horse and The Cherry Tree for a really clear, classic example.
However, the released stems and the stand-in rehearsals show that Aleksander’s manipulated vocals are present on the backing track and that there’s no synth in the DJ booth for triggering any loops or effects patches.
We asked the EBU for comment on the specific exception that was made for JOWST and Aleksander’s performance. A representative from the EBU said:
“The sounds in question are not vocal samples but made using a synthesizer and cannot be made by a human voice. These sounds are not there to support or replace the real voices of the vocalist or the backing vocalists, but added as an effect. This song, therefore, does not break the rules of the competition.”
The Question Of Imitation
The post-chorus “kill…kill…kill” section in ‘Grab The Moment‘ is clearly intended to be interpreted as vocals.
There are audible lyrics in the section, and it is synced up with an on-screen graphic of a low-poly rendering of Aleksander mouthing the words. The graphic overlay is likely to be a deliberate decision which means that we don’t have the real Aleksander lip-syncing along to these sounds even though it’s impossible for him to be producing them. However, the fact that we have cyber-Aleksander’s mouth opening and cyber-vocals coming out does put us in a new area for which the original rules aren’t enough any more.
The existing rules allow main vocals to be supported by hidden backing singers, which can be seen to be much more dishonest to the audience than using vocal-like artistically sounds to produce a new instrument. With incredible vocal capacity and these new sounds beyond human capability, we might hear something truly extraordinary.
The live vocals rule, combined with the ‘six on stage’ rule does somewhat limit the sonic palette available to artists at the Eurovision Song Contest. Any kind of vocal backing group is limited to five voices, which means that songs which aim for gospel or polyphonic choral sounds often sound very thin. We haven’t been able to have songs which include treated vocal samples. A famous example is the dance break in Robyn’s ‘Call Your Girlfriend‘, where the last powerful note of her chorus vocal is sampled and becomes the instrument that plays the melody.
Finding The Moment
The exception given to ‘Grab The Moment‘ means there is a need to change or clarify the rules. How did we end up at this point?
Firstly, we have to look towards NRK. You would maybe expect that a competing broadcaster would ensure that all the songs competing in a national selection were reproducible in conditions similar to the final contest. However, Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix does not follow Eurovision conditions – the artists can have as many people on stage as budgets allow, which saw Elin & The Woods supported by a beautiful Sami choir, and Ammunition supported by a troupe of scantily-dressed lady demolitions experts.
They also allowed JOWST and Aleksander to submit a performance which included lengthy sections of synthetically manipulated vocals, which audibly contain words and are therefore definitely either vocals or vocal imitations. The inclusion of this musical element definitely enhanced the song, and it was definitely artistically justified – the reactions of the professional juries at Melodi Grand Prix and at Eurovision itself confirm that the song definitely sounded modern and technically interesting. However, the post-chorus synthesised vocals seem not be in the spirit of the rule forbidding the use of vocal imitations.
We have allowed musical innovations to result in rule changes throughout the history of the Eurovision Song Contest.
If we accept that extreme vocal-like synth sounds are just part of modern popular music – and lets be clear, they are – then we have to make specific provision for them within the rules of the Song Contest in order to clarify the rules for future composers and these provisions need to be explained in public.
With the combination of extraordinary singers, innovative songwriters and modern electronic musical techniques there’s the potential for incredible art to be made, but we must find a way to prevent any relaxation of the live vocals rule reducing the vocal skill level required to win the contest.
As we head to Portugal in 2018, where innovation and authenticity are likely to be strong themes, the updating of this rule cannot come soon enough.