Any credible competition is meritocratic: success is directly related to the calibre of a competitor in relation to others. Without some element of merit behind victory, victory itself is rather hollow. Which is why the European Broadcasting Union and the Eurovision Song Contest Reference Group have endeavoured to tweak the scoring system over the years: in the nineties, decades of juries picking winners eventually diverged so greatly from public taste (what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “a logic of distinction”) the credibility of the Song Contest was at risk.
In some ways the Song Contest is very much a level playing field: there is a single set of rules, participants all perform on the same stage, and each country has the same number of points to allocate, whether the Russian or Cypriot delegation. In other ways, however, the Contest is not at all level, fair, or balanced: there are differential participation and broadcast rights fees (based on population and relative wealth of a participating broadcaster’s domestic market). There are petroeuros available for the Azeris to hire the best songwriters (usually Swedish), and best directors and choreographers (often Turkish, British, or Swedish). Australia’s SBS have relied on international record label financing to underwrite its entries, resulting in three consecutive Top Ten placings. Well-resourced music industries—located in wealthier countries—often can be more… resourceful.
In operational terms the Song Contest seeks a balance between equality and equity. Equality is treating everyone exactly the same way: equity is treating groups or individuals somewhat differently to mitigate unfairness. This is why:
- All participating countries have the same voting heft, regardless of population (equality)
- The larger and wealthier countries shoulder more of the costs of staging the event (equity)
This does not erase the inequities, but the consensus behind it ensures the Eurovision Song Contest isn’t torn apart by strife. This is, after all, the Contest to defeat all conflicts. Ostensibly.
To be fair there is no perfect arrangement for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. The Reference Group (and by extension the EBU) have refined, tweaked and reworked aspects of the Song Contest when required—though arguably a bit later than ideal (diaspora and bloc voting come to mind; ditto the way the scores are reported).
For a cultural phenomenon so steeped in tradition and ritual, a cautious approach to change is not unreasonable. Moving beyond the strict domain of the Contest itself, there are wider dynamics in play come May. There is neither equity or equality in terms of the popular music footprints of various participating countries. The United Kingdom and Germany have two of the five largest music markets in the world. Swedish songwriters and producers are consistent hit makers globally. There are regional linguistic music markets across the Balkans and ex-Soviet regions where shared languages (Russian and Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian/Montenegrin) have perpetuated an overlapping cultural sphere. Within any such sphere there will be shared logics of distinction, which somewhat explains why an entry can romp to victory in a national and do badly outside its region.
Our 2017 champion, Salvador Sobral’s ‘Amar Pelois Dois’ was only second in the Festival da Cançao public vote, yet scored a comprehensive televote victory months later. In the era of the mega-Contest—since we leapt from 2004 onwards from having 20-plus to 30- or 40-plus participants in a single year—we have had only two recent winners that had no bloc voting support: Sobral and Austria’s Conchita Wurst, who sang ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ to victory in 2014. Every other winner between 2004 and 2016 was either part of a reliable voting bloc or drew upon a shared cultural sphere.
Innovations like the “pots” used to split voting blocs across the two semi-finals have increased the chances for the participating broadcasters from smaller countries to make it to Saturday night. The equal weighting of jury and public scores also ostensibly insures scores based on some measure of musical quality—merit—rather than just the ability to inspire a large televote.
But it is a big world, and the Eurovision is a big Song Contest. How can smaller countries have a chance when competing against much bigger ones? How can smaller countries produce high calibre entries, ones with good songs, strong performers and with memorable staging? Without a wealthy broadcaster, major record label support, or the resources of a globally ranked music market, how fair is the Contest?
In a world ever more focused on environmental justice, the idea of recycling—using the same thing more than once—doesn’t really work within the rules of the Contest. However, upcycling—taking elements of something and creating something related yet unique—is not merely permissible. It has been used for decades, to varying degrees of success. Two countries in particular have done this in the Semi Final era: Moldova and Iceland. These are two small (population size, geographic foot print, economy or a combination of the three) countries that have found success at the Eurovision through upcycling.
For this article we are focused on upcycling the artists on stage: were we to consider songwriters, the webs of interconnectedness become labyrinthine very quickly!
Moldova was annexed from Romania by the Soviets as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR. Its official language (Moldovan) is almost identical to Romanian, though it has a significant Russophone community. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe (GDP per capita USD5,597), has a population of 3 million, and occupies 34,000 km2 so it meets two of our three conditions to be considered ‘small’: economic and geographic.
Since their debut in 2007, Moldova has managed three top ten entries. Out of 13 attempts it has qualified for nine Grand Finals. It’s not a perfect record, but it’s better than Poland (one top 10 and 5 qualifications), the UK (one top 10) or France (two top 10s): plus both the British and French are automatic Grand Finalists. In terms of Eurovision results, Moldova is certainly punching above its weight.
Of these 13 entries, two were by Zdob şi Zdub: ‘Bunica bate doba’ (2005; 6th place) and ‘So Lucky’ (2011; 12th). Both songs were performed entirely or nearly entirely in English. Most of the members are ethnic Moldovans, though lead singer Roman Iagupov’s father is Russian.
Of the remaining eleven Moldovan entries, four share a common lineage, which we call the Sunstroke Nation. It makes for a very pretty graphic:
Let’s unpack this a bit.
First off, before current vocalist Sergei Yalovitsky (who joined Sunstroke Project in 2009), the group’s lead vocalist was Pasha Parfeny. In fact, Pasha sang the lead on their 2008 Moldovan national final entry ‘No Crime’, which finished third. Pasha quit the group shortly thereafter; in 2010 the group (with Sergei as their lead singer) invites Olia Tira to sing ‘Runaway’. Whilst it qualified for that year’s Grand Final, ‘Runaway’ only manages 22nd on Saturday night. But the saxophone riff from Runaway spawned the Epic Sax Guy même:
How about the 10 HOUR mix? (Source: YouTube/TehN1ppe)
Pasha Parfeny finished third in both the 2010 (‘You Should Like’), and 2011 (‘Dorule’) Moldovan national finals. In 2012 he takes ‘Lâutur’, finishing eleventh in that year’s Grand Final:
His trumpet made us his (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)
Not content with Moldova’s third best placing, Pasha writes an entry for the 2013 Moldovan final, asking one of his backing vocalists from Baku, Aliona Moon to sing it. Unusually, while ‘A Million’ was performed in English during the national final, Aliona’s discomfort with the English lyric leads to a switch to Moldovan. ‘O Mie’ also qualified from its semi-final and finished eleventh in its Grand Final. With Pasha playing piano onstage:
Epic frock gal (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)
Sunstroke Project appeared in several other ‘O melodie pentru Europa’ National Finals in the intervening years, but took a break after the 2015 fiasco. They came back this year and took themselves back into the Grand Final again:
She’ll back until sunrise? (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)
‘Hey Mama’s’ third place in the 2017 Grand Final is Moldova’s best result to date.
The issue of culture and language—in terms of national affiliation if not performance language—is an interesting one for Moldova. Ethnic Moldovans are around 80% of the population, but artists from its Russophone communities have often represent them at the Eurovision. All but two entries have been entirely or partially in English (Hora din Moldova and O Mie being the exceptions).
Moldova’s been at the Eurovision for a bit more than ten years. There’s been a lot of continuity, in terms of the Sunstroke Progeny’s contributions to its entries. But there’s another, longer term participant, whose interconnected web goes back decades.
Iceland has been an independent republic since the mid twentieth century: prior to 1944 Iceland was a colony of Denmark. Iceland is about three times the size of Moldova in terms of geographic footprint (103,000 km2), but its 300,000 population is much smaller. Most strikingly, Iceland is a very wealthy country (GDP per capita $52,000), despite suffering a fiscal thumping during the global financial crisis.
In terms of music, a few Icelandic acts have broken out beyond the national musical market, largely by recording and performing in English. Sigur Rós and the inimitable Bjork are perhaps the two best known Icelandic acts. Similar to Moldova Iceland is “small” according to two of our three criteria: geography and population.
As for interconnectedness between various years’ Icelandic entries…it’s complicated. See for yourself:
Let’s start in 1988 in Dublin, where Beathoven opened that year’s show with ‘Thu og beir’ (Sokrates), which only managed sixteenth place. Half of Beathoven was a gent named Stefán Hilmarsson. Three years later, as half of Stefan and Eyfi, he took ‘Draumur um Ninu’ (Nina) to fifteenth place. Eyjólfur Kristjánsson, the other half of Stefan and Eyvi, was a backing vocalist for:
- Nætur, Sigga (12th) in 1994
- Núna, Bo Haldorsson (15th) in 1995
- Tell me!, Telma and Einar (12th) in 2000
And…Sigga was making her third appearance onstage in 1994 after performing:
- As a member of Heart2Heart taking Nei eða já to7th place in 1991
- As a member of Stjórnin taking Eitt lag enn to 4th place in 1990
Nætur – Sigga (Source: YouTube/escLIVEmusic1)
A decade later, Sigga would return as a backing vocalist for Silvia Night (2006), though Congratulations did not qualify from its semi-final. All told that gives Sigga four appearances on the Eurovision stage.
We are just getting started!
Grétar Örvarsson was also a member of Heart2Heart and Stjórnin. She came back to sing backup in 2008 for Euroband’s ‘This is My Life’ (fourteenth). Euroband’s members have also made other appearances on the Eurovision stage. Fridrik Omar Hjorleifsson sang backup for Yohanna in 2009 (‘Is It True?’, second). Regina Osk sang backup for Selma in 2005 (‘If I Had Your Love’, did not qualify). Selma had returned to the Contest after finishing second in 1999 with ‘All Out of Luck’. One of her backup singers in Jerusalem was…Stefán Hilmarsson of Beathoven and Stefan and Eyfi…
Yohanna’s other backup singers in 2009 included Hera Bjork and Kristján Gíslason. Hera also sang backup for Euroband in 2008 before stepping up as lead vocalist in 2010 with ‘Je ne sais quoi’ (nineteenth). Kristján Gíslason was member of Two Tricky whose ‘Angel’ finished 22nd in 2001: one of Two Tricky’s backing singers was Regina Osk from Euroband. Gíslason was also backing for Eythor Ingi’s ‘Ég á líf’ (17th) in 2013.
Interconnected entries from 1988 through to 2013… quite a lineage.
There’s another, smaller cluster of inter-connected Icelandic Eurovision entries too. In 2003 Birgitta took ‘Open Your Heart’ to 8th place in Riga. One of her backing singers was ‘Viggi’ Snær Vigfússon. Viggi represented Iceland in 2011 as a member of Sjonni’s Friends, whose ‘I’m Coming Home’ were 20th in Dusseldorf. Another member of Sjonni’s Friends, Benedikt Brynleifsson, sang backup for Eirikur Hauksson on ‘Paradise Lost’ (non-qualifier) in 2007. Eirikur previously represented Iceland as part of Icy in 1986 (‘Gleðibankinn’, 16th place) and Norway as a member of Mrs Thompson in 1991 (‘Just 4 Fun’, 17th place).
In most years between 1988 and 2013, one of these two sets of upcycling was in play.
Why does Iceland upcycle so many artists—besides having only a few hundred thousand people from which to draw? Perhaps because in smaller nations it can be paradoxically both easy to get access to performing on television and difficult to become too egotistical when success is found in the local music market. Most of these artists knew one another before the Eurovision entered into their performing lives. The Eurovision “stars” singing backup for other artists are often friends.
There’s also wanting to help your country do well—and if that means grabbing a microphone and learning some choreography for a friend, perhaps the question is why wouldn’t you do it?
Linguistic pride is probably not a feature. The last few cycles of Söngvakeppnin (the Icelandic national selection) have required songs to be submitted in Icelandic and English, performed in Icelandic during the heats, but performed in the version that would compete at that year’s Eurovision (English or Icelandic) at the national final.
In the semifinal era Iceland have failed to qualify six times (all English versions) and qualified seven times (six English and one Icelandic version). In this timeframe Iceland have only managed one top 10 result: 2009’s ‘Is It True?’
Moldova and Iceland are two small countries with big hearts: Moldova has been more successful by some measures (most top 10 results, most qualifications), though Iceland’s second place in 2009 trumps Sunstroke Project’s third place in 2017. There is also one other important difference here: language.
Moldova has linguistic and cultural traditions with both Romanian and the Russophone roots: its entries have been crafted by artists this cultural duality: Sunstroke Project does too. In terms of genre, some entries have been EDM, pop, traditional or a blend of multiple styles. Often this has meant settling on English as an ostensive non-polarising linguistic space—or as a vehicle to reach an international light entertainment audience.
When a non-domestic act won their national final in 2015 it seemed to wake the Moldovans up: was their goal to do well at the Eurovision or to represent Moldovan music—regardless of which elements of Moldovan culture its origins—and perhaps do well? A couple of years after the debacle of ‘I Want Your Love’, a Sunstroke Project banger brought Moldova its first top three result. Perhaps the audience can’t readily articulate what “Moldovan” means in this context, but many would agree their entries are, more often than not, very Moldovan.
But Iceland, regardless of its high levels of multilingualism, is the only country where Icelandic is the quotidian language. Yes, there are lots of Icelanders in Copenhagen and London—but an ex-pat community in the thousands does not render Icelandic into a working language in those countries. Iceland’s entries lately have been more often generic contemporary pop music. Even as Icelanders (or at least RUV) see the Eurovision as a platform for sharing their culture through music. Songwriters: (mostly) Icelandic. Artists: Icelandic. Entry: Icelandic. Reception from the Eurovision audience? Mixed.