A new Eurovision Song Contest has reached its end, and we have found a new winner. For the first time in history, Portugal can take the trophy home with the gentle, jazzy ballad “Amar pelos dois”, performed by Salvador Sobral. What impact, if any, will it have for the future of Eurovision?
In the following I will discuss some issues about the development of the contest in recent years, and I will discuss the new winning song in relation to these issues.
Other aspects than the music taking the focus
In 1999 the orchestra was abolished in Eurovision. The singers have since performed to a pre-recorded backing track, and since there isn’t an orchestra to look at anymore, other aspects have come to catch the viewers’ eyes: costumes, dancing, stage props, fireworks, pyro, LED backdrops etc. Some of these elements had been there before, but since 1999 the show factor has played a major role. At times so much that the actual songs were more or less overshadowed by things going on on stage. That goes for several winners as well: In 2002 we saw a Latvian strip show, in 2004 a wild Ukrainian dance, in 2006 a Finnish heavy metal band dressed up as monsters, in 2008 the Russian singer was surrounded by an ice skater, in 2014 there was an Austrian drag artist with beard, and in the Swedish 2015 entry some visual graphic effects took much of the focus.
Several other winners have had certain visual effects attached to them as well, though I would say that for these entries the song was still the main thing after all. But not necessarily in the examples mentioned above. For some non-winning entries the visual aspects have been exaggerated to a point where it almost became grotesque. Examples include the Ukrainian excesses in 2009 or the Irish Turkey in 2008.
In the last few years other aspects have tended to steal the spotlight as well. The Austrian 2014 winner, the bearded drag artist Conchita Wurst, became part of the debate about LGBT rights, and last year’s winning song, “1944”, despite being a musically strong entry, was widely viewed in the lights of the ongoing political dispute between Russia and Ukraine about the Crimea peninsula. Some might even argue that the votes for Conchita Wurst could actually be interpreted as voting for LGBT rights rather than for the song “Rise Like a Phoenix”, and that the votes for “1944” were a declaration of sympathy for Ukraine.
For me personally, as a musician and songwriter, my main interest in the Eurovision Song Contest has always been the songs. I mostly watch the contest for the sake of the music, and I want to learn about the music scenes in the European countries. I can not really identify with the focus on outfit, hairstyle and dancing, and I have mixed feelings about Eurovision entries where other aspects than the song itself are taking the main focus.
I am of course aware that this is a televised contest, so obviously visual aspects do have an impact on the way we perceive the entries – it can’t be any different – but still, we call it a song contest, so the song really should be in the foreground. Otherwise we might as well speak of the Eurovision Show Contest. Also, it is of course important to support f.e. LGBT rights, and the deportation of Crimea Tatars in 1944 is indeed a crime that needs to be talked about, no doubt about that. But does it really have to be in a song contest?
If you look at f.e. the Wikipedia article about Eurovision 1999, the first contest since 1976 that allowed any language, and then at the article about Eurovision 2017, you will immediately see a big difference in the language lists: In 1999 12 of the 23 entries were performed entirely in English. In 2017 it is 35 of 42 songs. The development is logical in the sense that English is the most widely used international communication language – the delegations probably want people to understand the songs – and it is also logical in the light of the dominance of the English language music industry. But it is not good for diversity.
Moreover some songs may work better when performed in the singer’s mother tongue; a good example is the song from Moldova in 2013. In the national final it was performed in English, but clearly not with the best pronunciation. For Eurovision they changed to Romanian, and all of a sudden the song got a much more natural flow, and it managed to get into the final. Nevertheless, the number of non-English songs has decreased a lot since 2013.
Obviously there has been a lot of really great English language songs in the contest, and not all non-English songs are worth listening to. I’m generally in favour of the free language rule. But it usually adds something extra when a song is performed in a language that the singer grew up with. It is however a valid argument that before 1999 the few countries that were allowed to sing in English almost always did well.
Now obviously diversity is not just about language. There are other factors such as musical style, song structure and vocal performance, and clearly there have been a lot of entries sounding very different to each other in terms of expression and genre. The Armenian “Jan Jan” from 2009 was mostly in English, but it clearly included a lot of local sounds.
Unfortunately there have been fewer and fewer of these entries in the last couple of years. The majority of songs in both the 2016 and 2017 contest used many of the same musical patterns. It’s the same 4-5 chords over and over again, and the same melodic patters are repeated in a lot of songs. In other words, it’s songs that are based on musical clichés, and which are just following trends instead of having something unique to offer.
That goes for the lyrics as well. Just look at the number of songs that have included the word “shine” in recent years, either in the song title or elsewhere in the lyrics. Other examples include “unbreakable”, “untouchable”, “invincible” etc. It quickly sounds hollow when heard again and again and again.
Zvim against ze strim
The winning entry of this year’s song contest, “Amar pelos dois” performed by Salvador Sobral from Portugal, seems to go against all these trends on almost all parameters which is quite remarkable. First, the song is performed without any stage props, fireworks, pyrotechnique or visual gimmicks. There is still a backdrop: a dark forest (a music video cliché!), and Salvador Sobral is doing some gestures while performing, but in general it is very non-spectatular. Moreover he is clearly not styled as pop idol, he is just being himself on stage, and that makes it much more honest and personal. There is no need for a big circus around him.
Second, the song is one of only three songs to contain no words in English (the Italian song contained the words “singing in the rain” and “sex appeal”), it was the only non-English song in its semi final. Third, it goes totally against the musical patterns and trends otherwise dominating the contest by 1) being built on a jazzy harmonic structure, 2) not sounding like something from the English-language music world – you can clearly hear where it is coming from, using musical style elements from the Portuguese speaking world such as bossa nova.
And finally the music contains some artistic depth that was clearly missing in the majority of entries. Both the music and the vocal performance seems to express real emotions rather than overdone fake sentimentality. There are no “invincible/we will shine” clichés, neither in the lyrics nor in the music, and the vocals contains subtle and poetic phrasings. By singing gently, he is able to make people really listen.
In the light of the development of the contest in recent years, it is remarkable that a song like this can actually win. Have people been longing for something genuine with musical depth? Did they vote for Salvador’s personal charisma? Did he get sympathy votes because of his health problems – or the “SOS refugees” blouse he wore during some of the press conferences? We don’t know, but it could very well be a combination of several factors.
So what’s happening now?
Now it will be interesting to see, what the field of songs will look like in next year’s Eurovision. Will it be without pyro and visual gimmicks? Probably not. In this year’s top 10 we still had a dancing gorilla, a singer standing on a rolling board, as well as some bride maidens with their microphones disguised as flower bouquets. But maybe there will be more songs which aren’t just following musical and lyrical trends, but which have something genuine to offer, and with lasting qualities. We may also see more songs in other languages than English. We can only hope.
In the words of Salvador Sobral: “Music is not fireworks, music is feeling.”