Like everybody reading this piece, I was devastated when the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest was cancelled. The world was at its knees and, metaphorically speaking, having the Song Contest to look forward to was the only thing keeping me standing.
I know I’m not alone in saying that.
On that same day, indeed mere minutes after the cancellation was confirmed and while shockwaves were still travelling, some broadcasters made announcements. In my home country of Sweden, SVT confirmed that, as a new song would be needed, a new Melodifestivalen would take place in 2021. Other nations announced that they had already agreed to send the same artist to the Song Contest in 2021, including Spain’s Blas Cantó.
Still to this day I feel uneasy about many of these decisions. It feels a heavy burden to be given the baggage of being a Eurovision artist for thirteen months – with all that time to dwell on three minutes of performance. This is all true especially given how the last year has passed before our eyes, with so much uncertainty and so many long term plans being crushed, planning for something a year away feels very heavy. Think too about the fact that, as I write this in the month of prior to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2021, that there’s still this awful risk that some of the acts catch this virus and are unable to make that performance they have worked so hard on.
Yet more than half of last year’s cohort have made the leap to this 2021 edition with success apparently awaiting them. five of the current clear top eight with the betting market are entrants denied the opportunity to represent their country last year, as well as the top three on the My Eurovision Scoreboard app, all come from artists returning one year later on. Whether it translates to success in May is obviously unknown, but at this point in the season it seems likely that many ‘returning’ artists will be more than satisfied with what the Song Contest will give them.
What I’m interested in this article is the evolution of the artists as they grow up from 2020 to 2021. Some have made a complete departure and are offering a new style and a new story, whereas some of them are returning with the same formula, seeing if the magic still works twelve months later.
Coming Back With 2020 2.0
Numerous of the artists have come back with exactly the same game plan that made them popular in the build up to the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. The first example I want to highlight is ‘Mata Hari’ from Efendi, representing Azerbaijan. Featuring some of the same songwriters as her previous entry, ‘Cleopatra’, this song doesn’t just follow on in terms of musical style but also lyrical content, with Efendi speaking in an interview about her inspiration for “women who left their mark in history.”
The throwback and comparison between ‘Mata Hari’ and ‘Cleopatra’, strong female characters from completely different eras, is played up in the lyrics, with the “just like Cleopatra” line in ‘Mata Hari’ a clear intentional nod to last year’s attempt that fans will recognise. While not in the lyrics, the nod to 2020 is equally as prominent in The Roop’s ‘Discoteque’. Here the band uses their most memorable visual moment of last year, the hand above the head as a flickering crown, as the reference to last year’s much anticipated performance of ‘On Fire’.
It seems that more of last year’s favourites also included 2020 references in their 2021 music video. Starting off with Iceland, the music video to ‘10 Years’ begins with Daði Freyr having the ‘Think About Things’ music video playing on one of the video screens in his control centre before the song kicks in. Like with The Roop’s inclusion of the hand gesture, the blink-and-you-miss-it moment for casual viewers is intentional to remind those viewers who know about their previous success.
This reminder has also been played up as an emotional point as well. The introduction to Victoria’s music video to her 2021 song ‘Growing Up Is Getting Old’ begins with a staged news announcement about the cancellation of the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest, pulling the viewer in to the heartbreak of last year’s events, and makes the poignant and reflective words that Victoria sings possess more gravity.
Reminding all of us of where we once were is an emotional strategy that each of these songs and videos uses in an attempt to reach out, and hopefully succeed in May. The rational is clear, we’ve seen by the landslide victories of Uku Suviste and The Roop, as well as the way The Mamas in Melodifestivalen scored a huge initial public vote in their Heat, that there’s a theory at play that returning artists from 2020 may get extra support from the voting public. Artists like Daði, The Roop and Efendi want to remind you of that, with the aim that if you loved 2020 you’ll be emotionally connected to them to cast a vote their way in 2021.
Letting 2020 Itself Influence The Song Contest
I’m further struck by how the past twelve months, and the way society has changed to reflect the natures of the COVID-19 pandemic, has also influenced the choices the artists have made in what themes to present this year. ‘Discoteque’ deserves another mention here, with the band explaining how the song’s theme, about enjoying music even though you are separated from others, came to them having experienced that themselves last autumn.
Equally, while ‘Growing Up Is Getting Old’ isn’t explicitly written for these times of quarantines, working from home and self-isolation, choosing this song in 2021 has extra pertinence in an era where life becomes monotonous and repetitive. Many more in society today struggle without moments to look forward to.
Vasil, representing North Macedonia this year, notes how his song ‘Here I Stand’ was in fact written in the aftermath of the 2020 cancellation, explaining how he wrote the song while still “in tears” at the announcement. Considering this introduction to his entry, it clarifies much of the lyrics. Is the “wait, it won’t be long” section about the twelve months that have passed preparing for this moment, knowing it is now “not pretend”?
Less emotion, but no less 2020 inspired, is the Czech Republic entry ‘omaga’. This entry shows off the frustration of living through the pandemic, with Benny Cristo and his prospective partner spending less time together due to their situation, citing “you’ve been home too long, I’ve been home too long”. The lyrics reveal some hard truths about how the world has been, and the comic timing in the revelation that the subject of the song has “gained a few pounds” in a way my waistline has full empathy with.
While less direct than the Czech example, I’m drawn by the return of Roxen for Romania this year as another that fits today’s habitat so well. ‘Amnesia’ is a contemplative song that urges the listener to spend time to love themselves. I interpret the lyrics of once being a shining star, and now being alone, as being incredibly reflective of our time. The idea that you may “lose control” in this era in a world that “feels in a rush” where they “say they know it all” strikes a certain chord with me about how powerless, like a pawn in a game of chess, one feels in this rollercoaster of thirteen months. The listener, like Roxen herself, is suffering from this “self love amnesia” – forgetting and not having a purpose to love yourself and live life to its fullest.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom entry, like Romania, also has this soft spark in the lyrics that makes it fit where the world is in May 2021. ‘Embers’ is a summer hit of a track and purposefully written with the hopeful re-emergence of society this summer in mind. Speaking to the BBC, James explained that the song “is about those sparks that don’t die out.
“When we were writing this, it felt like I wanted to show everyone that we were coming back together.”
“It’s about having that connection and something reigniting. It’s about us emerging from this rubbish time we’ve been having. It fits with the idea that Eurovision is coming back.”
The Greater Themes Of This Era
I’m struck in particular by a couple of the entries that feel especially 2021, but for some of the wider themes of the time that they incorporate. I firstly must include Malta’s ‘Je Me Casse’ here, fitting into the current focus of feminism and female empowerment – and especially how female characters have no need in 2021 to have their world dictated by the advances of men. The pandemic has, to quote the European Commission, has “exacerbated existing inequalities between men and women in almost all areas of life”. Destiny herself has dedicated the song to all the women who are feeling “sidelined”, and that “we can make great things happen when we believe in ourselves and get to work”.
My other example that resonates so much of the mood of today is Jeangu Macrooy’s ‘Birth of a New Age’. Jeangu spoke to Dutch radio station NPO Radio 5 to explain the rationale behind Jeangu bringing the Sraran Tongo language to its debut in the Song Contest. He is quoted as follows (translation provided from Wiwibloggs):
“I grabbed back to my roots and I used Sranan, because it empowers me a lot. I know where I come from. The [Sranan] saying on which the song is based on — Mi na afu sensi, no wan man e broko mi [meaning “I’m half a cent, but you cannot break me”] — is a way to say that although I seem small and useless, I know that I cannot be broken and that I know my own values. That you shouldn’t underestimate me. It thinks back to the moment in which it has its origin, the period shortly after the abolition of slavery.”
The events and focus on race relations throughout 2020 are a clear influence to this topic, but also from the symmetries that Jeangu has experienced as a member of the queer community. The song though is not an angry or frustrated one, but instead one of hope, with a theme that shows that overcoming the adversity of the current age will lead to a new one where such prejudice will be removed from our society.
Nevertheless, the song doesn’t pull punches in the historical wrongdoings of generations prior. The recurring hook “your spirit is rebellion” is taken from the terrible situation that Jeangu’s ancestors would have experienced via their culture’s suppression by their colonisers, and that the spirit, the thing that gave them their identity, was a rebellious act against the doctrine controlling them. The song’s conclusion, reaching that point where this generation, referred to as the “fruit” will still be “adorning the legacy of every forgotten revolutionary”, referring to their past generations, but now comes a time when they can be “proud as a lion” of that heritage.
Why Would So Many Return With A Message?
The Eurovision Song Contest 2021 is not a normal one. We know there will be a Song Contest, but perhaps one vastly different than usual. It is little surprise that this year’s Song Contest has reflected more than most on these strange times in different ways. The thirteen months many of the class of 2020 have had until this moment has unsurprisingly reflected in the music and message they want to send across the continent.
As a collective group, compared to their entries into the Song Contest last year, I am struck that more of these acts have chosen to take their music and message into more daring directions this year. One reason for that is the world that we live in, but I believe for many part of the difference is psychological – especially in the difference between being selected with a National Final or in an internal selection. Without the shackles of having to overcome a national level contest, many of this year’s artists could focus instead on presenting the song they wanted to Europe directly. I believe it has created a 2021 competition that has tracks that are less immediate in their power and gravity, but perhaps tell a more crafted message underneath that.
That though, is a generalisation, and I am well aware that this article doesn’t touch on each of the returning artists one by one, and not every entry has came to tell a story. Some of the stories came to the Contest accidentally too. Go_A’s entry ‘Shum’, for example, was never originally intended to be a Eurovision entry and clocked in at four minutes long, but the Ukrainian broadcaster loved it so much they convinced the band to submit it for consideration. Daði Freyr once more wrote about his family, which was also the inspiration that kick started the writing process behind Montaigne’s ‘Technicolour’. And there are others in this year’s Contest which simply offer a much appreciated escape from the terrible themes of the last twelve months as well. And that is fine.
I hope there will never be a cancellation of the Song Contest again and, with that, a situation where so many artists return twelve months later. But the unique environment of the last twelve months has given some great artists time for reflection and time to create stories to share. Songs are always different from just music. Songs live for the performance, and exist in a time and space to entertain and engage an audience in the message and mood they are creating. So many of this year’s songs, despite their different genres and personalities, feel so 2021.
Time will tell if all this results in success for the artists both on and off the scoreboard.