Amar pelos dois – a turning point for Eurovision?

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?

Celebrate conformity?
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 clichΓ©s, 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 clichΓ©!), 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” clichΓ©s, 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.”

26 thoughts on “Amar pelos dois – a turning point for Eurovision?”

  1. Great article, Anders.

    Context plays such a huge role in our perception of music. As soon as a piece of music is recorded, elements such as arrangement, studio skills, the sound of instruments, the personality of the singer and their voice, all these things begin to influence how we feel about the music we hear. Our perception can change again when we see the song performed, as other visual elements come into play, such as the physical appearance of the singer, the playing of people accompanying them, facial expressions, gestures etc. The staging, costumes, choreography, gimmicks etc add yet further layers of context that influence our experience of the ‘song’. Where do you draw the line? It has become a show contest, perhaps it always was, but the layers of context have become in some cases more important than the song. The only way to judge a song purely on its own merits as a piece of music is to read it from written score – obviously that would make for a very dull show!

    While I agree with you that Conchita’s appearance was a huge part of the performance of Rise Like A Phoenix, I do feel that it is an excellent song, beautifully crafted and powerfully delivered. I have performed it myself with a band, and learning the nuts and bolts of a song gives a valuable insight into its complexities. I also played Hard Rock Hallelujah as part of a Eurovision covers set last Saturday and can tell you that of all the songs we did, it was by far the hardest to play because of its erratic chord sequence!

    I thought this year’s crop was much weaker than other recent years, especially with some of the better songs being rudely overlooked at the semis, so I was surprised and delighted that Salvador’s beautiful ballad won so decisively.

    Thanks again for another thought-provoking piece!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “The only way to judge a song purely on its own merits as a piece of music is to read it from written score”

      Sure. I wouldn’t want to watch that either (though some YouTube clips with classical works actually contain the score so that you can follow the notes while listening – I sometimes do that). I like “Hard Rock Hallelujah” as a song too, and I must admit I find the monster concept very amusing, but still.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the article, The Anders. It shows how the contest has been evolving through the decades and makes accurate points. I am very curious too see and hear what will the next season bring to table; I hope that there will be more diversity and less formulaic plastic, but I am not too optimistic.

    P.S. – I’ve posted the other day this Danish version of ‘Amar pelos dois’ on ET; it’s one of the best I’ve heard so far:

    Liked by 2 people

    1. She has a beautiful voice, but she simplifies the chords. I miss the jazz harmonies, they are a crucial part of the song.

      On the other hand, she is making a different song out of it which is (almost) always a plus. I would probably appreciate it more if I didn’t know the original version.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think that the way the melody allows people to appreciate it is one of the keys to the song’s success; perhaps that is why there are so many versions of the song in such a short period of time.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Interpretation and instrumentation can make such a difference. I can’t stand pompous SWE06 f. e. but really like this cover version:

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I would love to hear you doing a stripped down version of ‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai’. However, I have to admit that I enjoy Verka’s version too. It is wicked fun and makes me want to get up and shake it hard everytime it comes up. *blush*

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I will watch your top 100 YT clips once again now, and if I approve, I’ll send the links to my sis and some friends. I terribly miss SVN97 in your top 100 btw. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Notice that it doesn’t include any 2017 songs. I made it before the contest, and I wanted to wait for the performances in Kiev. But I will make an update later, and “Amar pelos dois” will be there for sure – and pretty high πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      1. NDL57 is out then? You should make it 150 songs. Or forget about numbers and just make it a “ESC songs worth knowing and listening to” list. πŸ™‚
        Btw, have you finally come round to seeing/hearing the appeal of HUN17? Joci ended up in 3rd place on my 2017 list. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I can clearly hear some qualities in it though it is not entirely my taste. I ended up voting for it because of that, and because it stood out. As you probably know, I have never been a fan of rap, and the rap part pulls it down for me somewhat on a personal level. But again, I recognize its qualities.

        Like

      3. Well, I am a rap fan and I particularly like the transition from rap to chorus. That moment gives me the chills everytime I listen to it.
        Btw, I miss “Hora din Moldova” in your top 100 too. It’s among the best ethnic ESC entries ever imo. πŸ˜‰

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I have it at 7/12. I like the energy in the chorus a lot, as well as the brass instruments, but as a composition I find it somewhat thin.

        Like

      5. And I have just realised that you ignored YUG completely. I love their 62, 63, 65, 67, 71, 74,75 and 76 songs. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I like some of them, especially 1974. Their 1970 entry was considered for the top 100. But in general I am more fond of some of the ex-Yugoslav countries’ songs after the break up. There are several songs from both Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina there πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I am so glad and feel so honoured to have read this.
    I would like to see it in a Music magazine πŸ™‚
    Thank you Anders!

    PS: I love the last line.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is really interesting actually. There’s a lot of musical creativity there. Was it from Ukraine? It’s a much better song than the one they participated with in Kiev.

      Like

      1. Yes, it’s from Ukraine. There are more of their songs available on YT. Most of them are just as good. πŸ™‚
        It got kicked out in the semi-finals. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

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