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Through The Darkness: The History And Rebirth Of Portugal’s Festival da Canção Written by on March 10, 2023

As Portugal’s Festival da Canção prepares for its Grand Final, Bruno Toste takes us: through darkness and light, to discover the slow yet powerful rebirth of a true Portuguese competition. 

Excitement has been growing over the thirteen competing acts who are hoping to get the Portuguese ticket to Liverpool this Saturday. This high musical quality and the growing reputation of Festival da Canção, has never been guaranteed. Portugal has had to learn to leave behind the bad times of both the Festival and of Eurovision itself.

Once Upon a Time…

The Portuguese public broadcaster RTP decided to join the Eurovision Song Contest back in 1964 after having broadcast it the year prior. In the midst of a colonial war and the dreaded regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, being a part of the Song Contest and blending in with other European countries was an idea that hoped to improve the country’s prestige beyond its borders. The Grande Prémio TV da Canção Portuguesa (roughly translated as the TV Grand Prix of the Portuguese Song), now commonly known as Festival da Canção (or FdC in our community) was used to select a representative.

With Eurovision becoming a favourite of the Portuguese audience, every year the National Final received more hype. The broadsheet newspapers dedicated multiple pages to all competing artists, and even the song lyrics, before they had gone up on stage. The tabloids never failed to sensationally report on little bits and pieces of rumours behind the scenes, before and after the competition.

Portuguese people used to stop in their tracks when the Festival was happening. Reports from 1969 state that on the night of the national competition, the streets of Lisbon were empty. Most if not all cafés around the city were crowded with ordinary people impatiently waiting for the broadcast to start, to listen to the songs and performers, to support their favourites and enjoy the community of the contest.

This interest never died down even when Portugal never seemed to quite… get Eurovision result-wise. The juries (and the public, firstly through sending in postcards to cast their vote, and then to the telephone) chose the songs they liked the most and that was that. Eurovision was never the Festival’s main concern, it was always to showcase music made in Portugal first to Portugal and then to the world.

The Festival was still a benchmark in Portugal by the late 20th century.

In 1980, later than most other countries in Europe, RTP started regularly broadcasting their content in colour. Their first show where this was applied, you ask? Festival da Canção, of course! Even though televoting had not been introduced in the National Final until 1997, it still managed to engross the attention of many households around Portuguese territory. Watching FdC on a Saturday night used to be the equivalent of going out for drinks at the club with your friends.

Well… What Happened?

If you’re expecting a short, succinct answer, this is it… a lack of interest and bad results.

However, there is more depth to it – after all, Portuguese people were still highly captivated with the Festival when the international reception was lacking. Even in 1970, when Portugal withdrew due to the previous year’s controversial tie-break, Festival da Canção was still held and watched by the population.

By the 1990s, Portugal’s public broadcaster RTP was no longer the only TV station in Portugal. Private channels slowly started stealing the spotlight, appealing to the viewers with more enticing and memorable content than the main broadcaster could ever hope for. And whilst the somewhat successful run of Eurovision entries from 1991 to 1996 (let’s skip over the 21st place in 1995) did give hope to Portuguese fans, RTP’s lack of effort in organising the festival would have a growing impact.

Despite the introduction of the relegation rule forcing Portugal to sit out the Eurovision Song Contest in 2000, the broadcaster still decided to hold Festival da Canção. In a time when public interest started declining as well, the reception by the media could not have been worse. The lineup was classified as amateurish and the event as too small. One of the tabloids even described it as the “Festival of Off-Key Singing”.

Portugal was given the chance to compete at Eurovision in 2002 but decided to sit out as well, this time without its Festival as a consolation prize. The year before, the Grand Final of the national selection had not even been broadcast live due to a fatal bridge collapse in the country days prior. Despite this decision, the same approach was not taken with football matches happening in the same week; they were all broadcast live which sparked controversy.

In a desperate attempt to revamp Festival da Canção, RTP modified its format, trying to find something that would connect. From a one artist-three song contest à la UMK 2019, to completely scrapping Festival da Canção in favour of Operação Triunfo (the Portuguese equivalent of Star Academy) or a spontaneous internal selection, nothing seemed to completely work on getting Portugal back on track.

Another aspect worth noting was that the perspective on the Eurovision Song Contest had changed. The Song Contest was being seen more and more as a joke by the Portuguese public. The introduction of a 100 percent televote and the Semi Finals, followed by the visibility of multiple bloc voting patterns (which Portugal did not fit in) did more harm than good, as viewers wondered why the delegation was still going through the pain of taking part to never score well or even qualify.

The qualification streak from 2008 to 2010 did keep the hope a little alive… only to be completely crushed by Homens da Luta.

The sensible choice to be made? Withdraw, take some time off, recharge the delegation’s batteries and come back stronger than ever. Fans did hope that the Eurovision return in 2014 would change the game. Spoiler alert: it did not. Despite Suzy being a televote darling in May, Festival da Canção’s reputation inside the Portuguese music scene had been tarnished to the core after 2014. The 2015 Festival did not make things better, with none of the finalists sounding contemporary enough to make an impact at Eurovision being highlighted by many.

Rise Like a Salvador

In 2016, Portugal took another year off from attending the Eurovision Song Contest.

But it was not a regular withdrawal for the country, this time around RTP sought Eurovision fans’ opinions on the Portuguese track record and what could be refined in order to enhance the country’s chances in the Song Contest. The insufficient promotion and attention given to the formerly renowned Festival da Canção was a big key factor that needed to be reversed by the time RTP made its big comeback to Eurovision.

The Head of Delegation since 2015, Carla Bugalho, hoped to not only bring the spotlight back to the national contest but was also the first Portuguese Head in a long time to fully mention and support the possibility of Portugal winning and hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. When broadcasting the grand final in 2016, the Portuguese commentator alleged the delegation was working towards their best comeback ever and hoping for a victory.

Who’d have thought…

So to 2017. Festival da Canção was back with a slightly different format: 16 different and acclaimed songwriters invited by RTP. This approach aimed to bring diversity and the so-wanted recognition back to Festival da Canção. Criticism was still prominent however as most songwriters did confirm that they had sent non-competitive songs on purpose, since their goal was never to compose a song for Eurovision but to compose solely for the domestic audience. One of those songs happened to be, you guessed it, ‘Amar Pelos Dois’.

Despite coming second in the televote to the group Viva La Diva, Salvador went on to carry one of the most memorable Portuguese Eurovision entries of all time… to victory.

With a record-breaking score that not even Alexander Rybak would have managed to beat in the current system, it remains the last consensual winner (both jury and televote) of the Contest as I write this.

Growing Pains After Lisbon 2018

Winning in 2017 did wonders for Portugal as a whole. The Portuguese public finally started getting a better impression of the Eurovision Song Contest for rewarding such an authentic song from the Sobrals. Viewers who had decided to stop watching the event because of the ‘dirty political games’ and ‘voting blocs’ and the lack of neighbours to allow Portugal a good result were suddenly keen in giving it another shot.

Most importantly, ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ winning had a very positive impact on RTP and the Portuguese Eurovision fans. The entire country was now shown that results will come when you have an appealing song, a notable performance and an overall good package on stage.

Festival da Canção was part of that process. Having won the contest, more and more musicians were interested in showing themselves to the nation and the world by bringing their songs to the table. Therefore, the national broadcaster held, for the first time in years, an open call for song demos. This also followed an exceptional lineup increase of 16 to 26, due to the high demand.

Of course, the results of the following years were far from being the best. No one likes coming last in an event they themselves hosted. And certainly no one enjoys when their country seems to have a song highly tipped to do well only to come bottom three in the semifinal.

Nevertheless, audience engagement had risen through the roof – exactly what RTP had desired. In 2019, the full competing songs were released before the live semifinals for the first time. The eventual winner, ‘Telemóveis’ reached one million views on YouTube before it had even been performed, two million views before it was officially selected and became a viral sensation in Portugal at the time. ‘Medo de Sentir’ was the first song in 2020 to chart on the Portuguese Viral Top 50 playlist on Spotify. In 2021, record televoting figures were hit as RTP announced that over 60 thousand votes had been cast in the midst of the final show.

The revamp and recent success of Festival da Canção has attracted big and up-and-coming names known to the Portuguese music industry. Bárbara Tinoco, Luísa Sobral (whose brother would later on become more famous than herself), Carolina Deslandes, Cláudia Pascoal (who is back this year), FF, Os Azeitonas, April Ivy and Os Quatro e Meia are just a few examples.

Be that as it may, more unknown artists are also easily challenging ones with bigger fanbases in the last few editions. In 2022 for example, both Syro and Aurea – singers whose previous songs had amounted to dozens of millions of views – were the big favourites coming into Festival da Canção, even after their songs were released. However, they came ninth and fifth in the Grand Final respectively, and none of them were able to crack into the Top Four of the televote. This further proves that the Portuguese audience always prefers to pay attention to the song: the right song to represent Portugal as a country, regardless of how popular the vocalists behind the act are.

What the Future Holds

Twenty songs competed for a place in Festival da Canção this year, with thirteen of them making it to the Grand Final (an extra one was added due to a technical issue in its voting number in the first semifinal) Out of those twenty, you can immediately notice an enormous variety of genres – there is room for rap, jazz, punk-rock, indie rock, 80s inspired pop, electropop, and so much more. At this point in time, only two of the finalists have not managed to chart on the Spotify Viral Top 50 playlist in Portugal, which should reflect the quality Portugal has at hand.

If you are planning to watch the final this Saturday, as incredible as it may sound, all the songs you are going to hear were written or co-written by the singers themselves. An incredible fact when you think that out of the 16 invited songwriters back in 2017, only two of them decided to be the ones interpreting them. Fear is no longer in the composers’ minds when they write their songs: they know what they are worth and are not afraid to showcase what they are made of and what they can do on stage. Authenticity is the key word.

Two of the main contenders in the 2023 final are ‘Ai Coração’ by Mimicat and ‘A Festa’ by Edmundo Inácio. But why is that noteworthy? Both songs were submitted to the Festival through the open call process. And out of the five songs chosen from the open submission by RTP, only one of them has missed out on the Grand Final.

Despite nothing being officially confirmed for the future, Nuno Galopim, musical consultant for the Portuguese national festival, expressed his desire to open more participation slots for open submissions this last week. It could be an incredible opportunity for even more singer-songwriters who are just starting out and want to be recognised for their art.

On Saturday night, the country of Portugal will not stop on their tracks to watch Festival da Canção as it has in history. However, a new audience will also be watching and will be fervently rooting for their favourite acts. The dark times of Festival da Canção are over. A new country of Portugal has risen above, hoping to keep up the qualifying streak they have built with ‘Love is on My Side’ and ‘Saudade Saudade’.

About The Author: Bruno Toste

As a Portuguese Eurovision fan, Bruno Toste has been following the contest ever since he caught a glimpse of Ukraine's 2009 entry on Portuguese TV. He is widely known in the community for his love of statistics and for uncovering the 2019 Belarusian jury vote error, days before the official statement.

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