Grab The Moment and Change That Rule Written by on June 10, 2017 | 10 Comments

Everyone understands that all vocals must be sung live at Eurovision. ‘Grab The Moment,’ Norway’s entry for 2017, appeared to push the boundaries. Ellie Chalkely investigates if the interpretation of the live vocals rule has changed and why this is important for the future of the Song Contest.

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.

Moving Forwards

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.

About The Author: Ellie Chalkley

Ellie Chalkley is an all-round music, media and culture enthusiast and citizen of the internet. As an overly analytical pop fan and general knowledge hoarder she finds the Eurovision Song Contest bubble to be her natural home. She comments gnomically on Eurovision matters at @eurovisellie.

Read more from this author...

Share This Post

If You Like This...

Have Your Say

10 responses to “Grab The Moment and Change That Rule”

  1. Dave says:

    Thought provoking article. As I am sure many know, Croatia were deducted points in 1999 for voices within a backing track.

  2. John Egan says:

    Excellent article. The optics of this aren’t great: the Executive Supervisor’s home broadcast shows up with an entry that everyone knows is against the spirit of the rule and they are approved. I would guess several other broadcasters were unhappy: I also assume none of them were Reference Group members. It’s also more egregious because the supposed reason for the decision is impossible: there are no “live’ instruments allowed on the Eurovision stage either–the music has to be entirely from the backing track and the vocal entirely not on the backing track. It will be interesting what the national final season tosses up for 2018.

  3. Danny62 says:

    Aren’t we getting too far away from a simple live performance? I think the contest is already cheapened by the use of backing tracks and now off-stage backing singers. At this rate, by 2024, we’ll have lip synching and in 2028 it might as well be a covers show.

  4. Robyn says:

    I’d be happy to see the rules relaxed a little to allow digitally manipulated vocal effects – but within reason. So perhaps it can’t be used on the lead vocal, it can’t be played underneath a live vocal (i.e., it can’t secretly work to boost an existing live vocal), and the performer/s on stage can’t lip sync to it.

    Otherwise music at Eurovision is going to start to drift apart from popular music. And whenever that’s happened in the past, the contest has stagnated and started to feel old fashioned, until eventually a rule change has been made that’s allowed it to catch it.

  5. Martin says:

    JOWST has just posted this on Facebook… https://www.facebook.com/jowstmusic/posts/1231614703633507 (11 Jun 2017)

    “ESC – Voice Samples – JOWST

    I have gotten a lot of questions about the voice samples, and what i feel about the rules of not using pre recorded vocals on in the Eurovision Song Contest.

    First off, I want to say that I am very happy that we got to change the rule for this year, and hopefully It will stay that way for as long as it is a song competition, and not a singing/vocal-competition. To stay up-to-date, regarding the music productions and genres, it has to follow the new things that are being used in the these days, and future music. I am sure that most people do not want the future ESC songs to sound like a Eurovision song, but just a good song.

    For me, the most important thing about participating in the Eurovision Song Contest, was to get the music, and It’s message out there, to as many as possible. To get to show the music for 186.000.000 people was the biggest win i could ever get. But every finalist got that. But did the viewers get the message?

    Most of them did probably not.. On Spotify we can see how many that actually listens to the song.. About a month after that evening, when 186 million people saw us play Grab The Moment (GTM), we have about 10 million streams at Spotify. And the last 28 days, there has been 17.200 people who have listen to our GTM, the majority of those days. So we could say, that about 0,10% of those who saw us live, got the message?.

    And i guess that sounds bad. But its not. GTM is one of the most streamed songs after the final. Last time i checked we were number 4 in number of Spotify streams. You can’t possibly get the message of our song, after seeing it on TV, once, between 25 other songs.. The people that probably got the message, was the once who listens to the song the majority of the last 28 last days.
    I think the reason that people went to Spotify and added the song to their playlist, was because they just in general liked the song. And the popular songs (the most liked songs) has a particular sound. They usually sounds “modern”. And one way to sound modern, is to use Voice samples. It has many names. Just be sure to don’t call it “Pre recorded backing vocals”. They are pre recorded. But they are not backing vocals. in fact, they are no longer vocals. They are now a digital instrument. The most used lead instrument beside lead vocals in modern/ popular music.

    I checked todays Global Top 50 at Spotify, and found out that 18 of the top 50 had the type of vocal samples, that would be impossible to do live, because they are so edited, processed, and mixed in to the sound. If these songs were to be presented at the Eurovision Song Contest, they would need to break the old rules, to sound as the was intended. And that’s the point. You want to listen to the song, as it was intended to sound. The contest would not be fair if some of the songs couldn’t be played the way they was made. It’s not just notes and words. It’s communication between sounds and feelings.”

    So that’s what Joakim thinks – will the EBU agree for next year?

  6. it’s a very tricky subject. when the orchestra was gone. i did lend to the possibility of that. i think the reference group must be clear on this. i think a voice manipulated backing vocal is ok but should not be the main part of the whole song or the jury must disregard those sounds when judging the vocal capacity. the fear is people might use it to ‘punch up’ high note on divas and slutpops. i think the rule must stipulated that if you can sing it without this aid. you can’t use it.

  7. Me says:

    So how long before Greece starts using samples that sound suspiciously like someone singing their high notes, or Christer feeds the entire lead vocal through autotune and claims “it’s just a sample” next time he gets a pretty boy winner at MelFest?

  8. Well, quite! That’s why it’s important that we have a totally solid new rule that means that everyone knows what is allowed and what isn’t allowed, then we’re not in the business of making case-by-case exceptions any more.

  9. David Howell says:

    A thought from that comment about how those sounds “cannot be made by a human voice”

    Imagine if Belgium entered Witloof Bay again with a song where they deliberately emulated that sort of sound, as I imagine they plausibly might be able to…

  10. Good article. I think this issue will become very important in future Eurovision editions. I think we could have had the same problem with Greta Zazza’s »Like I Love You« from Lithuania, if they picked her (not sure if it’s an instrument or an actual voice, but I’m still having it in my mind).

    Especially the Northern countries are bringing this topic more and more into Eurovision, as you noted the hidden background singers. I think it’s another step into the direction of pre-recorded vocals, as some (smaller) delegations urge to use them. »Wenn der Sänger zum Lippenbeweger mutiert« (http://blog.prinz.de/grand-prix/vollplayback/27/) is an interesting (German) article which already showed up this problem in the 2012 Melodifestivalen where vocal playback is getting more and more influence (I don’t know the current situation at the Mello, because I don’t even watch it). The article also says, that Mr. Björkman could be one of the leading powers to urge this in the European final. I don’t see why this old rule should be killed, just because for some people is the show more important.

    Discussing the hidden backing vocalists, someone told me, Mello fans are very likely with this usage.

    Sietse Bakker said in an Eurovision.de interview, he’s against locking out the idea that all vocals must be sung live, because earlier, nobody even had the idea to abolish the orchestra in 1999. (http://www.eurovision.de/Wir-duerfen-nicht-bequem-werden,bakker101.html)

    You’re right when writing, the EBU has to clear up these things, but I hope there will still be a 100% live vocal rule in 20 years (if there will ever be an Eurovision 2037), or I might be no longer a fan of it.

Leave a Reply