If you have ever watched a rehearsal video from the Eurovision Song Contest or a National Final, you might have seen a box with a timer running and various numbers on screen.
That is CuePilot, and it has brought about some major changes to the look of our Song Contest.
What Is CuePilot?
CuePilot’s Eurovision debut was in 2013, and has been used in numerous National Finals. It lets Directors pre-program the camera work, allowing for more creative, advanced and appealing performances for those watching. The Director programs the shot list for each performance and synchronizes it with the other aspects of the performance, such as sound, lighting effects, pyrotechnics, and the video backdrops). This allows the visual show to be run ‘on automatic’. It reduces the potential for human error in a live show, which in turn allows for more advanced performances to be created with the help of quick cuts between cameras or the introduction of video-based special effects in a live performance.
The visual script is programmed into an online platform and shared with each of the camera operators who each get an individual script so they know when it is their turn to be live and what image they should be providing at that time. The usage of CuePilot enables the camera work of a performance to run multiple times under the same conditions, and helps delegations to alter and improve the visual look of the performances at the Song Contest.
Using CuePilot in Australia’s very first national selection, Eurovision: Australia Decides 2019.
CuePilot And Eurovision Rehearsals
During the rehearsal weeks of the Eurovision Song Contest, the journalists and bloggers in the press centre often try to analyze if the camera work helps a performance or going to harm its chances to qualify to the Grand Final, and in turn towards winning the Song Contest. Meanwhile, delegation members sit in the viewing room and negotiate with the production team over the same camera work as the press. Delegations are looking to have the best three minutes possible, while the production team are looking to make every performance in the show unique with little visual repetition.
Does the camera work really make a difference, and can the viewers even notice that a tool like CuePilot is in use?
Along with my colleague Alexander Åblad, I study Media Technology at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and we’ve tried to answer this question in our study ‘Spirit in the Screen: The effect of CuePilot on the viewer’s experience in live broadcasted music competitions.‘ I’ve spent ten years writing about the Song Contest, I’ve also been working with Swedish broadcaster SVT; and have been involved with the production of the Eurovision preview event ‘Israel Calling’ and Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv. Alexander has grown up watching the Contest and the National Selections, and also worked with lighting and camera production in church environments.
Alexander (l) and Gil (r) at work. (Photos: Emanuel Stenberg, Private)
Our hypothesis was that pre-programmed camera work will result in a more unified experience among the viewers. A unified experience means that in terms of emotions and their intensities, each individual among a group of viewers would feel the same as the other group members. This can be measured and later analyzed using statistical methods.
Most Eurovision productions will start using CuePilot very early in the process to help plan the camera work with the staging concepts and initial designs, before taking to the actual stage and running rehearsals. It was therefore difficult to find material where the use of CuePilot is the only difference to allow for a comparison.
However, Latvia’s Supernova 2017 was different, CuePilot was only used in the televised Final. As the competition had three stages (2 heats, 1 Semi Final, and the Final), it meant that each of the four finalists had performed twice without CuePilot.
A side-by-side comparison of Triana Park’s “Line” performed during the second heat (without CuePilot) and the final (with CuePilot).
For the research, we used the Semi Final and Final performances of each entry. A total of six different combinations of the four entries were made. Each variant includes two entries with CuePilot and two entries without. The four entries were presented to the participants in the same running order in which they performed in the Supernova 2017 final:
‘Your Breath‘, by Santa Daņeļeviča.
‘I’m In Love With You‘, by The Ludvig.
‘All I Know‘, by My Radiant You.
‘Line’, by Triana Park.
Triana Park at Supernova (Latvia 2017)
A total of 30 Media Technology students aged 19 to 31 from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden participated in the research. Out of them, 18 identified themselves as females, 11 as male and one as other. Each received a video file featuring one of the six variants and was asked to watch it using their own computers and monitors, with their own headphones, at a quiet location of their choice.
In order to measure the evoked emotions the Geneva Emotional Music Scale (GEMS) was used, a special instrument which was developed exactly for this kind of studies. GEMS includes a set of 45 labels that describe a wide range of emotions and states that can be evoked by listening to music. A shorter scale of 25 labels also exists and is preferred by most users due to the favorable balance between brevity and validity. The labels are grouped into nine different categories (GEMS-9).
GEMS Categories and Labels
After watching each of the four entries, the participants were asked to rate the intensity with which they felt each of the nine categories – not a description of what the entry should mediate but their pure personal feelings – on a five point Likert scale (1: not at all; 2: somewhat; 3: moderately; 4: quite a lot; 5: very much) and had an optional place for leaving short-text comments explaining their ratings.
At the end, the participants were introduced to CuePilot and its purpose. The participants had then to determine which two of the four performances they watched had CuePilot in use and to explain their choices. This was asked in order to understand if the use of CuePilot is noticeable among viewers.
Each of the nine GEMS-categories in each performance was ranked on a scale from 1 to 5 for a total of 15 times each, as each performance was watched by half of the participants. The mean value and the variance were then calculated for each feeling, summed for each performance, and compared between the two variants of each entry (without CuePilot or with CuePilot). These are shown for each entry in the following tables. In each of these tables, the variance value in bold indicates the lowest variance for that specific category among the two versions of the entry, and thus a more unified experience among the group of viewers.
Manual vs CuePilot comparisons
Although the sum of the variances for all entries is smaller for the performance that was directed with CuePilot, a significance test was conducted in order to ensure that the outcome of the experiment did not happen by chance.
Using F-Test for equality of two variances, the question “Is the variance between the means of the two versions significantly different?” was answered for each feeling in each entry. Our null hypothesis assumes that the variances are equal and our alternate hypothesis is that the variances are unequal.
The output of the F-Test is a numerical value. Two equal variances would give us a value of 1.00, like the value of Peacefulness in “Line”. That value gets bigger as the variances are more unequal. In order to assume that the variances are significantly unequal, a desired outcome in our test was getting a result bigger than 2.48, with a sub-condition that the version with CuePilot has the smaller variance. The F-Value of Tension for “All I Know” could not be calculated as a division by zero occurs.
F Values for CuePilot Study
Categories in blue had the smallest variance in version with CuePilot, while the categories in red had the smallest variance without. Categories in bold have a value of more than 2.48 and thus passing the significant test, however in some cases it was the opposite result that was achieved.
Amount of Shots and CuePilot identification
How many shots were added to each entry with the introduction of CuePilot? Going through the CuePilot scripts of the Final performances and comparing them to the Semi Final performances showed that Entry 4 saw the biggest increase in the number of shots followed by entries 1, 3 and 2 in that order.
Shot Count (CuePilot Study)
The two entries that saw the biggest increase in the number of shots were songs that had electronic music as a characteristic (‘Your Breath‘ and ‘Line‘). The same ranking applies to the successful identification rates of the version directed with CuePilot. A majority (80 percent) of the participants managed to guess only one entry correct. Apart from arbitrary explanations (“I’m not sure, but I felt like, they had a bit of ‘cooler’ camerawork, especially the last one”), more than half of the participants managed to explain their choices in technical terms:
“In ‘Your Breath‘ there are ‘special effects’ at some parts when turning from one camera/angle to another, for example the clouds that ‘blur’ out to another picture, which is most likely pre-programmed” (guessed ‘Your Breath‘ correctly but not ‘Line‘).
“They felt more staged. At one point in ‘Line‘, she was waiting for the camera, which I reacted to. Overall, those two entries felt more complex” (guessed ‘All I Know’ and ‘Line‘ correctly).
The overall identification rates per entry were as follows:
Identification Rates (Cue Pilot Study)
The conclusions drawn from the research is that pre-programmed camera work can result in a more unified experience compared to manual camera work. The ability to do that depends on the overall creativity value of the production, which in turn depends on various aspects such as the number of cameras and the available shooting angles, the production team’s proficiency in using tools as CuePilot, and in the time that the team got to spend on the production.
As seen in Australia Decides’ and Supernova, the use of CuePilot increases the expressive potential of the production while reducing the time needed for reaching a specific production level. Adding more cameras and having a skilled production team will increase the creativity value even more, thus allowing the creation of more unified experiences.
Though not enough significant results were received to conclude CuePilot’s effect on the viewer’s experience, there was a overall tendency of the usage of CuePilot resulting in a more unified experience, which is why further research is encouraged, for example testing two different CuePilot scripts for the same performance or having a bigger and varied test group which is not limited to Swedish university students.
Regarding the subproblem, whether pre-programmed camera work is distinguishable, the conclusion is that it is more noticeable if the performance has quick cuts, special video effects or explicit interaction of the artist with the camera. It is based on the participants’ explanations provided when they choose which two of the entries they watched were directed with CuePilot. These aspects are not unique to pre-programmed camera work but are easier to implement with such tools.
The most significant result in terms of difference between sum of variances, significance tests and overall identification of CuePilot was achieved with ‘All I Know‘ although not having the most radical changes in production. Just adding more shots, quick cuts and video effects will not directly lead to a significant more unified experience among the viewers.
So whether you’re watching the Eurovision Song Contest or making it happen from behind the scenes – know that the camera work can affect the way you feel about a specific performance. Interested in reading the full study? Find it here.
Laufer, Gil & Åblad, Alexander. (2020). Spirit in the Screen: The effect of CuePilot on the viewer’s experience in live broadcasted music competitions. 10.13140/RG.2.2.19169.33121.
During the first of Glasgow’s ‘Ne Party Pas Sans Moi‘ in January 2019, the mysterious and beautiful Île de Bezençon appeared on the stage, complete with Ellie Chalkley’s customs desk, and a visiting Elaine O’Neill with eight records and a luxury that will (hopefully) be welcomed on to the island.
Eurovision Insight Podcast: Eurovision Castaways with Elaine O’Neill
Île de Bezençon welcomes another visitor, as Elaine O’Neill brings her eight records and a luxury… if she can get them past the customs desk and Ellie Chalkley.
Stay in touch with the Eurovision Song Contest over the summer months by listening to the ESC Insight podcast. You’ll find the show in iTunes, Google Podcasts, and Spotify. A direct RSS feed is available. We also have our email newsletter which you can sign up to here.
One of the Eurovision Song Contest highlights during lockdown was Eurovision Again – a weekly watch-along of Song Contests from the past. This weekend saw the first monthly show as we all travelled back to Jerusalem and the 1999 Contest.
We’ve been working with the Eurovision Again team to bring you this companion podcast to the ’99 show, to go behind the scenes, talk about the National Finals, look at the 99 rulebook, and memories of the Contest.
Eurovision Insight Podcast: Eurovision Again 1999
A companion podcast to Eurovision Again’s trip to Jerusalem 1999. Join us as we go over the new rules, National Final gems, the State Of Pop, and more. With Ewan Spence, Ellie Chalkley, and Roy Delaney. Read more at www.escinsight.com and again.vision.
Stay in touch with the Eurovision Song Contest over the summer months by listening to the ESC Insight podcast. You’ll find the show in iTunes, Google Podcasts, and Spotify. A direct RSS feed is available. We also have our email newsletter which you can sign up to here.
There was always something that felt special about the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. Looking back, I’m not sure if I started sensing that on August 30th 2019 when Rotterdam – one of the most culturally diverse cities in Europe – was chosen to host at the Ahoy Theatre in Charlois, one of its most culturally diverse neighbourhoods. Perhaps it was on January 10th when Jeangu Macrooy, a black artist born and raised in Suriname was announced as the Dutch representative at said contest.
Whenever it was, I definitely felt it by the time the confetti had rained down at the end of Melodifestivalen on March 7th as five years of solo male (and mostly white) winners had been brought to an end by three black women singing a song packed with hope, love and overcoming adversity.
By that point, we had our full list of artists competing at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest including nine entirely BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) competing acts (nine and a half if you include half of Ben & Tan).
Eurovision has had BAME representation since Anneke Grönloh competed for the Netherlands in 1964; with BAME performers winning the Contest in 2001 (Dave Benton’s triumph for Estonia alongside Tanel Padar & 2XL) and Loreen’s 2012 victory with ‘Euphoria‘. 2020 was shaping up to be the first time that racial representation at Eurovision wasn’t just sporadic; BAME artists comprised a remarkable 23 percent of the competing acts. Not only that but subjectively, they were all very high quality from a range of different genres around an incredible variety of themes.
Then came March 18… The day when the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest was officially cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Initially, I hoped that the songs and artists from this year’s competition would be automatically carried over to next year so that the Song Contest would not lose this brilliant opportunity to showcase racial diversity. Two days later, the Reference Group confirmed that this year’s songs would not be eligible and each broadcaster would have to make their own decisions about inviting artists to return in 2021.
As a BAME Eurovision fan and writer, I felt robbed of not only high quality songs, a fantastic stage, and a brilliant team of Dutch hosts; but importantly robbed of the opportunity for BAME people like me across Europe and the world to see ourselves on the stage of the world’s biggest song contest.
Then of course, I felt sick for the competing artists. Every artist who won their nation’s ticket to the 2020 Song Contest worked hard to earn that right, but I guarantee that BAME artists worked even harder to ensure that they were recognised and respected in predominantly white nations. That’s before we discuss any personal abuse or prejudice that they may have been subject to.
Black Lives Matter
Which brings us to May 25 2020, the day when George Floyd was asphyxiated by police officer Derek Chauvin who had kept his knee on George’s neck for almost nine minutes. The result was international outrage leading to protests around the world, widespread debate on social media and most vitally commitments from governments, organisations and individuals that they need to do better.
I feel conflicted about this movement. On one hand, it is really positive to see the extent to which people of all ages (particularly young people) care about these issues and seeing that all types of organisations are sitting up and paying attention to the widespread injustice sewn into the fabric of our society. On the other hand, we have all most definitely been here before.
Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City 2014(All-Nite Images / Wikimedia)
‘Black Lives Matter’, the slogan for the movement against racism that many of you may have seen on social media, was first used in 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges after shooting African-American teenager Trayvon Martin (see the Black Lives Matter). It became nationally recognised in 2014 during the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Now here we are again in 2020 and once more this message is on everybody’s minds again at protests, on social media, and in politics.
Many organisations will make promises during this time to combat racism but for anybody who well and truly cares about racial inequality beyond its current topical relevance, it is our responsibility to hold all of them to account for the promises they make no matter how big or small they are or what their industry is. For BAME people, our struggle against racial inequality will continue far beyond this discussion being topical. I refuse to get excited about the positive effects of this particular edition of the movement until I am able to see and experience change in our society from governmental level all the way down to interactions with people on the street.
For too long, we have been promised that moments like these are a watershed for society and what have the results been? The optimists among us have gotten our hopes up only to seem them dashed when we are inevitably confronted by racism again and the cynics amongst us have lost faith in the commitments and words of organisations in power from top to bottom. The only way that we can move towards peace is if all of us (especially white people) act towards diversifying our society to become more inclusive of those who are marginalised, no exceptions.
The Responsibility Of Eurovision 2021
There’s one last date for you to consider, May 22nd 2021, the day that Rotterdam will (potentially) host the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 that it was destined to host a year earlier. Eight of the aforementioned ten BAME acts have been confirmed to return next year, with Denmark and Sweden sticking to their existing National Final structures to find their 2021 songs. With several internal selections yet to be confirmed and National Finals to be heldl, we could very easily add to that roster.
At that point, the question turns to the quality of the songs, staging and performance.
It is not enough for BAME people to be represented; it is essential that that representation is of all-round high quality. Whilst quality is admittedly subjective, broadcasters across the EBU can all take note of the events taking place around the world and offer the benefit of the doubt to artists from BAME backgrounds. They can work closely with them to understand their artistic vision and how to best bring it to the stage, giving the artists support, investment, and most importantly professional respect.
Jessy Matador (France 2010)
As many of next year’s competing BAME acts as possible need to reach the Grand Final so that they can be showcased in front of that global audience of almost 200 million viewers, so that they can express their truth live on stage with their music, and so that maybe, just maybe next year will be the one where we have a third BAME winner of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Maybe then the Song Contest will be able to prove itself as a platform built on cultural diversity where racism is unacceptable and black lives not only matter but are celebrated.
I am too painfully aware that racism won’t be fully taken care of come the next Grand Final. I am also conscious that even with a lot of hard work and the best of intentions, we could be waiting years for a third BAME winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. To quote The Mamas, “there ain’t no mountain baby that I wouldn’t move” to get Eurovision to that point and, with a nod towards Ben & Tan, that is an opportunity and a hope to which everybody should “say yes.”
If you were expecting a soaring epic with ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga‘ then you might have missed the memo. It’s a Will Ferrell film with a pretty straightforward plot. Every Chekhov’s Gun is obvious both in their placements and denouements, every expected twist that you guessed would happen after watching the first five minutes comes true, and no risks are taken at any point.
But the biggest question in the Eurovision Song Contest community is not “is it any good?” but “how does it treat the Song Contest?” In short, it treats the Contest with respect. We didn’t cringe massively over the presentation, nor did we want to throw rocks at the screenwriters during any of the scenes at the Contest.
That doesn’t mean the Contest on screen reflects an actual Contest. This is not the Eurovision Song Contest, this is a standard three-act drama that has the Song Contest as a backdrop. Packing in a National Final, a Semi Final, and a Grand Final; alongside as many elements of Joseph Campbell ‘The Hero’s Journey’ as possible in 123 minutes means that some short cuts have to be taken.
In a sense the short cuts add a layer of comedy for the community. To take the portrayal of the Semi Final; in this world the Big Five are in the Semi Finals, and the jury and televote points are announced as if it was the Grand Final. There are countless other tiny moments – the wrong flags being used, Graham Norton has a huge commentary booth and all the other commentators and bloggers are squashed onto a bench – perhaps in years to come Eurovision fans will take great delight in midnight rewatches and Sing-A-Long-A-Fire-Saga but it’s not a film that calls for an immediate re-watch.
Just as ‘Blades of Glory‘ used ice skating as a backdrop in a comedic setting, ‘Talladega Nights‘ used NASCAR, and ‘Bewitched’ used, err, ‘Bewitched‘, ‘Fire Saga‘ in essence laughs with the Song Contest as the story takes place, rather than laughing at the Song Contest.
It’s just a shame that, as a Will Ferrell film, it’s rather… pedestrian and by the numbers.
With Eurovision pushed into the background for most of the film, the moments for the Eurovision community to enjoy are focused in specific areas rather than scattered throughout the film. So here’s our traditional ‘Spotter’s Guide’ for ‘Fire Saga’, and obviously some light spoilers now follow.
Of Course They Start With Abba
Because it’s a film about the Eurovision Song Contest. For almost everyone watching that means Abba. And for most of the people watching, Abba can also mean Mama Mia, leading us to Pierce Brosnan in a supporting role. It’s a nice bit of circular film connections.
Thankfully Brosnan does not sing in ‘Fire Saga‘…
Eurovision fans will of course be ahead of this when April 6th 1974 pops up on screen. Eurovision fans will also be wondering why the Icelandic population is watching the Song Contest with the UK commentary from David Vine. Also, the crate of cold beers that gets passed around is 100 percent illegal. Beer was only legalised in Iceland on March 1st, 1989.
Hold On, What About ‘Volcano Man’?
The heavily trailed track and musical video for ‘Volcano Man‘ is not Fire Saga’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s more like a Bond Theme that introduces the film, but is never heard again. Instead the song is ‘Double Trouble‘ – but not this ‘Double Trouble‘…
How does Fire Saga’s ‘Double Trouble‘ compare to the Eurovision greats?
The intro is classic Nordic pop – and it feels like they were aiming for Euroband’s ‘This Is My Life’ by way of Paula Seling & Ovi’s ‘Playing With Fire‘. Even autotune can’t stop it from taking a turn for the worse when Will Ferrel joins in on the chorus.
Let’s take a look at the staging. An act with as little support from their broadcaster as Fire Saga are depicted as having would not have been able to enlist the support of a star production designer like Kevin Swayne (I like to imagine Will Ferrel being excitedly told that “someone has a Sasha Jean Baptiste staging!” in Lisbon and him going, oh, right, that’s good is it?) and certainly wouldn’t have had expensive props that would have required several layers of risk assessment.
Finally, in the classic Eurovision fashion, Rachel McAdams isn’t actually singing any of Fire Saga’s material… it’s Molly Sanden.
Let’s Talk About Iceland
Just a few things of note. ‘Fire Saga‘ portrays a Eurovision world where Iceland doesn’t seem to like the Eurovision Song Contest and RÚV’s management would rather echo that episode of ‘Father Ted‘ than push for a victory. Could this be the most unrealistic part of the film?
The Iceland portrayed in the film isn’t the one we know. It’s a nation that seems sartorially and artistically stuck in the 1970s. You couldn’t imagine the Iceland of the film producing Reykjavikdeatur or Une Misere or Hatari. There are a lot of natural, wholesome brown lopapeysur around, which people do wear, but you’re more likely to see a young Icelander in a technical parka or puffa jacket as outerwear.
A picture of a lopapeysur
The Songvakeppnin final is one of the TV events of the year, and while I’m sure there are some people who don’t watch it, widespread indifference to the contest doesn’t seem realistic. And in the event of a disaster befalling the whole cast and crew of Songvakeppnin, it seems highly unlikely that RÚV would have the personnel or the heart to send anyone to the Contest. We remember the story of Sjonni’s Friends coming together to sing ‘Coming Home’ after Sigurjon Brink, the songwriter, died days before he could compete in Songvakeppnin. What happens in the film is… not like that.
A Postcard To Edinburgh
Can we just stop and think about how Edinburgh is able to host the Eurovision Song Contest? Either whoever won the Song Contest the previous year has turned down hosting and the BBC is the alternate host… or the United Kingdom has won the Song Contest for the sixth time.
Either of these are more likely than Salvador Sobral busking in Scotland’s capital.
They Took Him Away
Good news! Jon Ola Sand is in the film! After a fashion…
The First Sight Of The Stage And Arena
Every Eurovision Song Contest fan who has been on the ground knows that the Fire Saga’s awe and wonder at their first sight of the stage and arena is one hundred percent accurate.
The Production Design
If you like your movies with lavish, extravagant attention paid to costuming and production design (and you’re a Eurovision fan so, yes, you do) then you’ll enjoy the costumes and styling of the whole backstage area. The costumes for the Croatian, Belarussian Finnish artists look amazing, there’s a Greek dressing gown that’s beyond belief and don’t even get us started on the looks for the Russian Delegation Party…
The Russian Delegation Party
If the production team landed the ‘first stage’ moment, they almost nailed a delegation party – the male/female ratio doesn’t quite ring true to life. As for the ‘Song-A-Long’, well this is the part that is the biggest indulgence to the Eurovision community. Just sit back and see how many of our favourites you can spot.
And with the pace-destroying fan-service complete, it’s back to ‘this is a Will Ferrell film…’
The Rehearsals And The Rules
They are, frankly, all over the shop.
Does this matter to the film? In terms of servicing the storyline and the fracturing of Fire Saga, it works. But in terms of the Eurovision Song Contest, it takes so many liberties that it feels like someone saw a highlights reel of a single Contest before writing the script.
Where to start? How about the multiple changes to the backing tracks, countries with seven performers on stage, language and lyric changes in the Semi Final, and there are even more transgressions in the Grand Final. RUV in the film is facing a ridiculous number of financial penalties here, and probably a disqualification. And as mentioned previously, the Semi Final appears to be following the format of the Grand Final.
A script editor working alongside someone knowledgeable about the Contest should have been able to accommodate the fact and the fiction. Imagine watching a film about football and the match is portrayed as running for 35 minutes in each half, both teams get 17 substitutes for the 9 players on the pitch, and home goals count double. You want to watch Pele, but all you can think is Sylvester Stallone is the goalkeeper.
What football fans feel when watching ‘Escape to Victory‘ is what Eurovision fans will feel when watching ‘Fire Saga‘.
A Man In A Hamster Wheel
But everything following that would never have happened… the broadcast would have switched to the backup tape and Henric von Zweigbergk’s booming voice would yell “Stop!‘
The Grand Final
Nope, we’re not going to spoil the final act, but what goes unsaid in the conversations between Sigrit and Lemtov, and then Lemtov and Mita, is quite explicitly political for something that got signed off by the, ahem, 100 percent non political event that is the EBU’s Eurovision Song Contest.
And Now, For Viewers in Scotland…
With Edinburgh hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, there are a lot of landmarks to watch out for, and hilarious juxtapositions.
The Songvakeppnin afterparty is in Newhaven harbour; the Elves live in Salisbury Crags; the 90 seater Bedlam Theatre has been replaced by the 14,500 seater SEE Hydro… (which is in Glasgow); the Usher Hall (Eurovision 1973’s venue) is never show; you can see where Pif Paf Blog’s Ross Middleton works; the dramatic driving scene is as hilariously geographically consistent as the opening to ‘Trainspotting‘, the Starbucks nearest to the fountain is in the other direction, and of course Edinburgh’s Eurovision stage which is inside Glasgow’s Hydro is actually in Tel Aviv.
Here’s a fun game… see how often you can call out “Edinburgh! Glasgow!! Tel Aviv!!!” in quick succession… fun for all the family…
Finally… if Edinburgh is hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, I’m pretty sure that not only would the hosts be Scottish, but it would be Jackie Bird and Des Clarke up front, and Susan Calman in the green room.
Play ‘Ja Ja Ding Dong!’ Can’t think where that came from…
‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’ is available from June 26 2020 on Netflix.
First up, let’s start with the core message from the EBU today regarding the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s not the rule change around backing vocals, it’s not the temporary nature of the rule change, it’s that the Song Contest will continue. Executive Supervisor Martin Ōsterdahl:
The lessons learned from the spring of 2020 are that we need to plan for a global crisis, and we have tailored the rules of the Contest to that effect. We must be able to be more flexible and to make changes even to the format itself and how we organize the event in these challenging times.
The Eurovision Song Contest will return. When it does return it will have changed. Good. Change is not only good, but necessary, for the Contest to survive.
One Show Or Many Shows?
Let’s look at another beloved TV series with a highly engaged community and ask a simple question. How long has Doctor Who been running?
Given the show first aired in 1963, the easiest answer is 57 years. But is that actually the case? Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor was a dandy helping the authorities on Earth to fight off alien invaders, something that was vastly different to the impish and innocent Doctor played by Patrick Troughton the year before. Every actor brings his or her own interpretation, and each regeneration could effectively be a different television show, albeit sharing the title with a previous show.
Naturally there are other voices in the community that suggest each show should not be determined by the actor, but by the production team. Looking at Tom Baker’s run, there were three different shows – the gothic horror Phillip Hinchcliffe, the lighter tone of Graham Williams, and the soap opera stylings of John Nathan Turner.
Doctor Who in the 21st century has also had multiple series, depending on your viewpoint, and the now highly connected in real time community will defend ‘their’ series against all others, decrying the ‘death’ of the show at the point of any major change. Yet ‘Doctor Who’ continues.
Which leads to a fundamental question for our community.
How long has the Eurovision Song Contest been running? Is it the sixty-four editions since 1956? Is it nine years old, spanning the reign of Jon Ola Sand as Executive Producer? Did it only start four years ago with the changes to the voting presentation? Or three years old, starting only with the new voting system?
The answer is all of the above. The Eurovision Song Contest is an ever-changing constant.
Things That Have Been Lost And Gained
By the very nature of being a long-running television show, things will change at the Eurovision Song Contest. By the very nature of fandom, when certain elements are changed the show will never again be the show that someone fell in love with.
A look back through the history of the Song Contest shows that elements of the show that were once considered fixed have been diminished or removed. At one point the Contest’s entry list was full up and some countries (such as Malta) stayed on the alternates list for years before appearing. Then relegation was introduced, before a single Semi Final, followed by two Semi Finals.
The invited audience in their finest evening wear is part of history now. Tickets can be bought by anyone, and a standing audience around the stage is the current norm.
Not only do we not have an orchestra providing live music, we also no longer have an artist able to play their own instrument on stage.
Certain songs have also led to changes in the Contest. Sometimes they force a change on the music presented at the Contest; ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son‘ dragged the Song Contest away from its earnest Variety Hall years into a more pop orientated sound, ‘Making Your Mind Up‘ brought an increased focus on staging and choreography, and ‘Ooh Ah Just A Little Bit‘ forced discussions on the orchestra and how music was presented.
If you are looking for a turning point in regards the use of vocals and vocal effects on the backing track, Jowst’s ‘Grab The Moment‘ may end up as being one of the key songs of this decade, as Ellie Chalkley lays out here:
“The post-chorus ‘kill…kill…kill” section in ‘Grab The Moment’ is clearly intended to be interpreted as vocals…. the fact that we have cyber-Aleksander’s mouth opening and cyber-vocals coming out does put us in a new area for which the original rules aren’t enough any more.”
If the Song Contest is to stay true to Marcel Bezencon’s goals, of reflecting modern society and culture, it has to change with the times.
Why The Change Is Good For Music
In 1957, mathematicians Yutaka Taniyama and Goro Shimura theorised a connection between the two different fields of elliptical curves and modular forms. It was elegant, it was easily understood, and it was an incredibly useful tool. It was also not proven until 2001. Until then, mathematicians would start their own proofs with ‘Assuming Taniyama-Shimura…’ and carried on as if the theorem was true.
Thankfully for more than forty years of mathematics, it was proven.
The changes to the pre-recorded vocals on backing tape are just for Rotterdam 2021, to offer more flexibility in how next year’s Contest will operate in the face of Covid-19:
“The ESC Reference Group agreed to trial the rule change for one year. As with all the rules for the Eurovision Song Contest it will be reviewed following next year’s event.”
For now, though, let’s ‘assume Taniyama-Shimura’ and consider this a permanent rule change (much like Australia’s one-off invite to enter the Contest).
This is a rule change that will benefit the Eurovision Song Contest
Firstly, the sound of modern music is not easily replicable on the Eurovision stage while staying within the ‘no pre-recorded vocals’ rule. Any treatment of vocals was not allowed, at which point we return to Jowst’s vocals and highlight contemporary tracks such as Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande’s ‘Rain On Me‘.
This features vocal samples on the backing track in the chorus. These are clearly not part of the lead vocals, and you would not be able to replace them with a synth. And they add complexity and power to the sound.
‘Break My Heart‘ by Dua Lipa has close harmony ‘voice chords’, an effect that you would never get with five backing singers on stage… but put it on the backing track and you have magic.
‘Black’ by Dave creates an immense and emotional soundscape infused with choral effects and vocal treatments alongside a critically acclaimed blend of reportage and rap.
The Impact On Eurovision
Anyone looking to bring popera to the Contest can bring a powerful choral section to the backing tape, although the limit of six people on stage could make it look awkward… almost as awkward as Gina G having to wheel a PC on stage in 1996 because ‘all instruments used in the song had to be visible’
It leaves scope for more spectacle on stage. With a limit of six performers and a need for backing vocalists, a delegation’s presentation choices are limited. Freeing up five positions on stage will allow for many songs to be presented in a way that the audience at home will be more familiar with… namely a music video
This of course stands out as a negation of the ‘potential for a smaller delegation’, but as with any artistic choice, budget will always play a role. The option is there to leave the backing singer at home and reduce the number and expense of the delegation in attendance.
It also means that in a band with seven members, the ‘Sad Tony’ seventh member can be involved in the final performance, albeit still out of sight.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the EBU has been explicit that lead vocals are not to appear on the tape… that includes any ‘lead dub’ where a backing singer matches the melody of the lead singer’s vocals. If a delegation wants to go down that route, then it will have to put that singer on stage, either as part of the performance or in an ‘off-camera but still counted as the stage’ location.
Why Change Is Needed
Is the Eurovision Song Contest behind the times in terms of music? To quote the revered text of ‘Love Love Peace Peace‘, ‘…this can easily be fixed by adding a DJ who pretends to scratch. In real life of course, this is thirty years old but in Eurovision, it will give your number a contemporary feel.”
In practice it’s clear that there are many massive hits that could not translate to the Song Contest. With the new rule on backing vocals, that will change. While the superstar artists may not join us, the Contest just became a little bit more attractive for songwriters.
There’s a reason that this change has been announced at the very start of the season. This is when the Eurovision songs are composed, submitted to broadcasters, and selected either for National Finals or to go directly to the Contest. Changing the rules while the canvas is blank is the right time to change the rules.
Nothing Stays The Same
Over the years, the Eurovision Song Contest has changed. There is a clear line from ‘De vogels van Holland‘ opening up the first Contest though to the reprise of ‘Arcade‘ last year, but between those two moments almost everything has changed.
Change is hard, but change happens.
It’s also natural that something a community of fans are going to feel comfortable and connected to the current format of the Contest. Those feelings are going to be challenged by new rules and formats, and there will be resistance.
But Eurovision will be renewed, and while many will feel a loss for the old Contests, there will be a lot of love in the new Contests.
The more the Eurovision Song Contest changes, the more the Eurovision Song Contest stays the same.