The National Final season for the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest begins on Saturday 17th December. It’s not unusual for a song for the Eurovision Song Contest each May to be selected this early. Last year the Czech Republic ran an online selection which culminated on December 16th and Albanian broadcaster RTSH will, as is its tradition, choose their act for Liverpool through the multi-day Festivali i Këngës which ends on December 22nd.
But bringing forward its national selection for the Song Contest forward to December this year is Ukraine. Not only is this the first national selection of the year but I would argue this is the most important and anticipated within the Eurovision community. And that isn’t just because Ukraine left Turin with the Eurovision trophy and we are wondering who will try and retain its crown in Liverpool.
That is because this national selection is going to be held this Saturday in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24th shows no signs of letting up, as attacks continue on key infrastructure and fears are high that many civilians will suffer a cold, harsh and isolated winter. Just this week drone attacks continued to bombard the capital where once again air raid sirens alert the population to head down to shelters located within the city’s metro system.
It will be within this metro system that Ukraine will choose its 2023 Song For Europe.
A Secret Location But A Open Process
To find out more about the logistics of organising a national selection in these times of war we spoke to Oksana Skybinska. Oksana attended Junior Eurovision in Yerevan as the Head of Delegation for Ukraine. Originally working for the Ukrainian state broadcaster within its translation team, it was the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest held in Kyiv that gave Oksana a foothold in the mad world of the Song Contest, where she was Assistant Show Producer. Fast forward one year later and she became the Head of Delegation for Ukraine’s efforts in Eurovision and furthermore is project manager for the Vidbir selection show to choose their Eurovision song.
Oksana describes the organisation of Vidbir this year as “difficult”, in what is perhaps the biggest understatement of this entire Eurovision season. Let’s take the location for starters. Last year the show took place in the Center for Culture and Arts at the National Aviation University, providing a proper theatre space for the artists to put on a fantastic show in front of a full audience and an electric atmosphere.
This year the Ukrainian broadcaster has confirmed that the show will be held within the metro system of Ukraine’s capital. Such use of metro stations for safe, uninterruptible broadcasts has been a common feature of Ukrainian television broadcasting in these challenging times. This underground location, “a bomb shelter” as Oksana describes it, will ensure that the show can be transmitted across the Ukrainian nation and beyond despite what happens at ground level. “For security reasons” the broadcaster has refused to reveal where the exact location of the show will be at this point.
“There will be an audience. The audience will be limited because of the limited space. Those will be people who will be invited. We will not even announce the location until very late, so that this message is not spread as much as possible but there will be an audience because we want to create that atmosphere.”
A further operational difference for this year’s competition is the selection of the jury. As is traditional for Vidbir, the selection of the Ukrainian song for Eurovision will be a 50/50 jury/public split. However, the way both of these will work is different due to the difficult situation with the Ukrainian nation currently.
The unique feature of the three-person jury for this year’s Vidbir is how they were selected. The public broadcaster compiled a shortlist of nine potential jurors to the Ukrainian public, who voted via the country’s e-governance Diia app to select a top three. Over 500,000 votes were received and the selected jurors include Julia Sanina, frontwoman for The Hardkiss who finished second in Vidbir 2016 and Jamala, who won Vidbir 2016 before winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm.
With the most votes the head of the jury will be Taras Topolia. Not only is he the frontman of the popular band Antytila which has recently collaborated with Ed Sheeran, he has also this year fought for Ukraine’s Territorial Army and is the spokesman of the Youth Council for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The reasoning for this democratic jury selection isn’t purely to generate more interest in the show or make the jury selection process more democratic, Oksana explains. Instead, giving power to the people in this regard was one of many “different backup plans” to ensure the selection is as smooth as possible.
“We really hope that everything goes well but because of the [risk of] large scale power supply cuts so people can not vote online…then the jury will make this decision and we wanted this jury to be the jury chosen by people. So these are the jurors that people trust to make this important decision for Ukraine. We are very happy about the jury that people selected.”
The public vote has also been overhauled. In a time when phone networks are at heightened risk, the broadcaster has decided to switch the public vote away from SMS messaging to the online app interface, “the most reliable app in the country” as Oksana describes it, increasing the robustness of the public vote and also ensuring that voting costs nothing for the individuals watching the show.
The Creative Difficulties Of Wartime
This year 384 different songs were submitted to Vidbir, and then ten will take to the stage on Saturday competing for that Ukrainian ticket to Liverpool. This is an increase from the 284 entries that were submitted the year previous. Despite the number of entries increasing, the challenges of wartime have impacted the selection.
One element that the Ukrainian broadcaster brought in to help was the introduction of a new music producer of the show, Dymtro Shurov, better known as Pianoboy, who outside of being an artist and songwriter has organised music festivals and being a judge on the Ukrainian X Factor. Oksana attributes part of Vidbir’s success this year to how he could “inspire so many artists to write songs” despite the difficult conditions.
“Pianoboy is a very talented musician who knows about what making music is and what an artist feels. Because artists are in very difficult conditions now. To write music you need inspiration and it’s really hard to get inspired when there is war around you, you sit in the basement and you do not have an internet connection or power supply. Physical things of course influence artists so it was really important that we had this talented musician who would help, unite and support artists to submit songs and he managed.”
And while there might have been an upturn in the number of submissions this year into Vidbir, some of the original quality of these submissions struggled due to the limitations of wartime Ukraine. Oksana explained that some of the songs were not the best quality because artists were having to record vocals on their phones, or instruments from basements, at times when normally they would be able to meet together. Furthermore the successive power cuts across the nation have also been a limiting factor, both for those submitting songs and for those within the broadcaster trying to organise the show,
Indeed all the current difficulties of daily life in Ukraine today are the main reason for the earlier December date for this year’s Vidbir. Knowing how unpredictable daily life in Ukraine is currently, the broadcaster moved Vidbir to this calendar year so they “have more time for planning the representation of Ukraine in May.” Should the show have been in February, a time that Oksana already describes as “really tight” to submit all the documentation required to the EBU, this tight deadline would become more difficult. Another factor is of course that this leaves the broadcaster and the selected artist more time to prepare for their important role in Liverpool.
Who Ukraine Will Select To Liverpool
Unsurprisingly this year’s Vidbir has been dominated by song submissions about the issues of today, with a variety of topics amongst those submitted including themes such as life in bomb shelters, emigration, grief and faith in the Armed Forces.
With more than two times the YouTube views of any other song on the Ukrainian broadcaster’s YouTube channel the early favourite for representing Ukraine is ‘When God Shut The Door’ by Jerry Heil, who finished last in the 2020 Vidbir final with ‘Vegan’.
This entry is a direct plea to a greater power to ensure there is a way out from the artist’s current terrible situation, and while one way out has been closed due to war, it is God who has the power to ensure another route is kept open.
“When Got shut the door
I fell on the floor
I don’t want war
But He knows, sure
When God shut the door
He opens one more”
This somewhat harsh chorus is unrepresentative of the entire two-and-a-half minutes though. This song soon breaks into a Ukrainian language choral plea and Latin prayer weaving in across an operatic vocal and drum and bass drum line, which all increases the gravity of this prospective Eurovision entry. It is easy to make a comparison to previous Ukrainian Eurovision successes when hearing this, be it their recent winners ‘1944’ or ‘Stefania’, or perhaps ‘Shum’ which placed second with the televote in 2021. However, compared to the other Vidbir competitors ‘When God Shut The Door’ stands alone in being a musical cousin of this modern Ukrainian Eurovision genre. Producer Pianoboy pointed out in an interview with the Ukrainian broadcaster that “nearly half of the entries were an imitation of this sound”. In his role, he wanted to showcase a new sound of Ukrainian music through organising this selection.
And the diversity of genres that appear within the ten-song shortlist is a representation of this, from Swedish-written ballads to folktronica to lullabies and ethnic rap, the songs in Vidbir this year show a wide smörgåsbord of the Ukrainian music scene. But that theme of the current troubles lingers in their text.
The artist Krutь for example, who will participate with the song ‘Kolyskova’ brings to the Vidbir stage the viewpoint of a mother trying to sing her small child to sleep during the conflict. This song tells the tale of a father who is away trying to protect the vast Ukrainian steppe from their enemies, and that his efforts will turn the nightmares into dreams. It’s also impossible to non hear the current situation playing out in Angelina’s ‘Stronger’, describing a world that “crumbles outside your door” but ultimately the artist is “stronger than you think”, and somebody who will not be defeated easily. Similarly Moisei’s ‘I’m Not Alone’ repeats in its chorus how “you will find death in front of me” but the artist has a craving to see people this Christmas, especially “all those who left me.”
If you are looking for this year’s Vidbir to be a slice of light entertainment, think again. Almost every track in the lineup takes aim at the lyrical bullseye of the biggest issue in Ukraine today.
Hope and Unity
The Ukrainian broadcaster has put in numerous steps to ensure that this final choice of what will represent Ukraine is a decision for the people, not for themselves. Firstly, as previously mentioned, the voting system has a public-selected jury and a robust public vote system ready to withstand the worst. Secondly, the show production has been tendered out to a separate company (Starlight Media, who held the tender from 2017 to 2020), keeping key production decisions about each of the performances at arms length from the broadcaster itself. Finally, in a rarity for modern Eurovision selections, the show’s running order was decided through a random draw that all of the artists participated in at their press conference. Oksana explains why.
“We want to create very equal conditions for all artists. We want to be fair to all the artists. So every artist knows that it is not something that was decided for them and they may not like it, but this is them who choose and then work with it.
“We understand that maybe it is not the best for the show but experience shows that it actually works.”
Saturday’s show will not be the highlight of the national final season from a production perspective – and that goes beyond running order. The limitations of the venue and the complications in organising a show mean that we can’t expect a visual extravaganza at this year’s Vidbir. But this year the message of the show is more important. Not just for the artist’s taking part, and their personal stories of conflict, but for the entire nation of Ukraine itself.
“It is all doable when you know why you do it. When you are inspired by the goal you are working for, that you know that you are doing it for people and people actually need it, people need this hope, and Eurovision and Vidbir are these kinds of events that give hope and unity so we know what we do and why we do it. These technical things are just details. They are details that of course may cause inconviences in every day life but they are not important. What is important is what exactly comes out of it. What people will see and people will feel.”
The main goal for the Ukrainian broadcaster is to encourage the Ukrainian people, as much as possible, to “gather together” for Saturday’s show and “feel that the heart of Ukraine is beating” from it. During the one-hour pause in the Vidbir production a documentary called “Kalush Orchestra, or How We Stopped Worrying and Won Eurovision During the War” will be broadcast, another attempt to make the show on Saturday as inspiring as possible, or as Oksana explains, “gives them [the people] this sense of light.”
And as conflict continues on a daily basis if the Eurovision Song Contest can be that beacon of hope for the Ukrainian nation then we are all for it. The country may not be able to host Eurovision on the ground in Ukraine next May but the efforts to include Ukraine in the show and cultural programmes from Liverpool help to demonstrate that required unity.
We end this article with words from Oksana. Words she gave me when I asked her about how important this Vidbir in December 2022 is for the Ukrainian people.
“War is something unacceptable. There shouldn’t be war and people shouldn’t be dying. People shouldn’t be suffering, because they are, people are suffering in Ukraine. Of course it’s something unimaginable. And I really don’t want people to experience it. Because you can totally understand it only when you actually experience it. And I would never wish anyone to experience war.
The most important thing is that we want this war to come to an end, and we really hope that it happens very soon and that is why this unity of nations, of European nations, of all nations is very important. Eurovision is just one of the arenas of this unity where we unite through peace, we unite for good, and this unity is very important to bring all these hardships to an end.”
Saturday’s National Final may not be the most technologically important but it almost certainly will be the most important of this National Final season, for reasons that go well beyond who heads to Liverpool.