The Press Centre for this year’s Eesti Laul is… intimate. There are few benches of workstations, a press conference corner, and a somewhat larger stand-up space. On one wall is a projection screen of the main feed from Saku Suurhall, though the audio is muted—otherwise the press conferences and stand-ups would be incomprehensible. But the walls between the press room and the arena aren’t especially thick…it is evident when someone’s vocal blows the roof off the arena. And when someone else is badly off-key.
In the press room a mix of English, Estonian and Russian being spoken—reflective of Tallinn’s unique linguistic hybridity. About one third of this year’s finalists are russophones. Around thirty per cent of Estonians have Russian as their first language, so this isn’t surprising. That all of these artists also speak Estonian isn’t either. For many of the younger generations here, language politics aren’t very interesting. All of the acts either speak English very well or are striving to do so.
Stig speaks! (We think he’s asking for an iron…)
Eesti Laul ten finalist for this year are mostly in English. There is one song in Estonian and another in Italian. Since this iteration of the Estonian national selection began a decade ago (people around town are wearing stylish kümme gear; ten in Estonian), six songs in English and three Estonian have been sent to the Eurovision. All the Estonian language entries have made the Grand Final, only two in English have done so. There does not seem to be much anguish over language: the focus is on picking a strong entry.
Disinclined to stalk artists, I instead positioned myself adjacent to the stand-up zone. After each brief press conference a queue forms with the mainstream media ahead of the fan media.
The calibre of the questions in English between the fan and mainstream media isn’t appreciatively different. Whilst having some consistency in terms of what one asks each artist makes some sense, hearing all then suffer through the same banal questions (‘What is your favourite Estonian poem?’, “Do you realise you look exactly like?’…) is painful. One regional media outlet insisted on interviewing each act in English…then Estonian…then Russian. But this is all something of a bootcamp for whichever act becomes the Estonian representative for Lisbon. Besides, compared to what this year’s Estonian act will face in the Eurovision bubble, it is a good, relatively tame, run-through.
The intense questioning of Evestus
Each of the finalists qualified out of a ten song semi-final. Four from each semi-final qualified based on combined public and jury support; the fifth was chosen through a second televote only round. That means Vajé’s ‘Laura’ and Eliis Pärna & Gerli Padar’s ‘Taevas’ (Sky, or Heaven depending on translation) are already outsiders for victory.
Whilst we have ten entries that each have some pedigree, the wild card in the process is the change of venue. For the semi-finals the performances were pre-recorded and a live broadcast from the ERR studio was built around each clip. How to take what worked in a pre-recorded studio environment and adapt it for an arena with a much larger stage and audience—while making sure the performance works, first and foremost, on the magic box—is not simple. For at least two of the entries, the time constraints of live television will present challenges—though one of them will be performed last.
Saku Suurhall is an excellent venue for a National Final. It’s large enough (around 5,000 seats) to create a positive vibe, the sort that can lift a performance over an intimate TV studio. But it’s also not massive or impersonal. It is clear which artists have a performance pedigree for this sort of venue (and opportunity). Some seem a bit over-awed managing multiple elements (cameras, stage, audience, actual singing); others seem exceedingly comfortable. Rehearsals are for ironing out any kinks: they do not often offer enough bandwidth for unseasoned performers to leverage the opportunity in front of them.
This year’s Eesti Laul features so many different ways of staging an entry. Very little seems cookie cutter. Almost every staging seems to have been designed to showcase each particular artists very well. Not every national final can boast that.
What Matters Most?
If the aspirations are to select something great to represent Estonia, there are multiple options on offer: there is only one act that has struggled in rehearsals. However if the aspiration is a possible second Eurovision crown, I see three grand narratives.
The Eesti Laul Reboot Catalyst Comeback
In 2008, after multiple years of failed semi-final qualifications, the Estonian public selected from the bottom of the metaphorical barrel for Belgrade. What followed was a national debate about participating in the Eurovision: from the nadir of ‘Leto Svet’, came a new approach to selecting an entry. This year that approach, Eesti Laul, celebrates its tenth year. Finishing second to Kreisiraadio in 2008 was a sixteen year old named Iiris Vesik.
Vesik will be on stage tonight, and if ‘Drop that Boogie’ represents Estonia in Lisbon, in symbolic terms it is very appealing. It is also a great tune.
The Kitchen Sink
Evestus’ ‘Welcome to My World’ is over the top—massively so. It took eight minutes for the crew to set it up last night during the first rehearsal. It is so out there—way waaay out there—that it could wrest a surprise victory thanks to a massive televote. Behind the fire and lights is a very catchy chorus. Totally out there. Totally well performed.
From Host To Representative
In 2017 one of the semi-final co-hosts was classically trained singer Elina Nechayeva. The idea of Nechayeva being inspired to enter this year after hosting is seductive…though, in fact, she had already competed in two other ERR music competition shows (‘Eesti otsib superstaari’ and ‘Klassikatähed’):
Whilst this might not be a contemporary song, per sé, it screams “vote for me”.
There’s a lot more on offer too, including a great Stig Rästa ballad and all sorts of world class contemporary pop music (Frankie Animal, Sibyl Vane, Nika). Any of these would be worthy winners, though the extent to which they might find success on the wider Eurovision stage remains to be seen.
What To Watch Out For
The second half of the draw is where the action is, though there are quality entries throughout. What advice might the juries been given, beyond the usual emphasis on quality? Will there be steers towards what will work at Eurovision? For example, will they know there are no LEDs as part of the stage kit in Lisbon?
There is a lot of hype around Elina and her entry. But ‘Drop that Boogie’ is already on the H&M European store playlist. Evestus needs a massive setup–of the sort that the Eurovision production team in recent years have said “no” to—so victory might be a pyrrhic one.
The edgy videos between the entries are a bit of a future trip: what people will look back on about 2018 in thirty years quizzically (the contents are embargoed). If the named interval guest is true, Eurovision fans will be gobsmacked.
Despite our kindly advice, the format tonight remains the same. The top three entries based on a combined jury and televote score will face off in a televote only superfinal. Were that to be Evestus, Elina and Iiris, the result would be remarkable—and unpredictable.
Regardless, tune in for a great show and an exciting result.
I’m full of excitement as I head to Oslo this weekend to attend my very first Norwegian Melodi Grand Prix. I’m doubly excited as I adore one of the entries, that I think could make a big splash at the Eurovision Song Contest is Lisbon. The only trouble is I don’t think it’s going to make it.
Ida Maria’s ‘Scandilove‘ piqued my interest on the very first hearing. It’s a superbly tongue-in-cheek, playful delight that I think would land well with an international audience, getting the humour and slight self-deprecation of Scandinavia taking the proverbial out of itself. But there are other factors in play which I think will scupper its chances of being seen on that international stage in May.
Norway has form here; in ESC Insight’s end of year review for 2016 I lamented the failure of The Hungry Hearts to get ‘Laika‘ to the Song Contest. It was precisely the kind of song that I felt would benefit from an international platform: a quirky subject that would find wider resonance (in ‘Laika’s’ case a gentle swipe at Russia’s treatment of LGBT people; in Ida Maria’s playing up to the supposed adventurousness and stamina of Scandinavian lovemaking) and songs with a unique selling point that would benefit from a window of focussed publicity.
‘Laika’s’ fate will now forever be academic (and we’ll know on Saturday evening whether Ida Maria’s will be the same) but it prompted me to reflect on the factors that impact the chances of a song like this domestically, meaning we never get to see how they would do at the main Contest. Of course, I have to caveat all these suggestions as conjecture, but some themes emerged as I thought this through.
Your Local Hero Will Defeat You
Let’s start with ‘Laika’, which in Norway never even came close.
Social media made the song a hit with some fan groups ahead of Norway’s National Final, but with a performance perhaps too leftfield for the housewives of Gjøvik, Vadsø, or Brønnøysund it was eliminated in the first round of voting. We might assume the attention given to eventual winner Agnete impacted too on all the other competitors. Agnete came to the competition with a Junior Eurovision credit under her belt, as well as a second place in the Adult version of MGP with her group The BlackSheeps. Add to that a recent runner-up slot, plus a win, in popular reality TV shows and you have an enviable advantage with the voting public.
And there we have it. Factor Number One in denying a better song a route to the Eurovision Song Contest – a local artist that’s bigger than their song.
Reality TV and talent shows have enjoyed enormous global success so it’s no surprise that many spawn, or even directly cast, a nation’s Eurovision representative. We can see how such exposure boosts an artist’s popularity when they subsequently enter a National Final.
Once an artist reaches the Song Contest all the benefit of local fame is lost as they’re subjected to judgement from every country except the one in which they are known.. and the one country that can’t vote for the. Germany’s Jamie-Lee in 2016 is a prime example; from winner of The Voice to last in Stockholm.
In the same year in Poland we see this premise in action as again, we saw the power of social media in spreading a song within the international Eurovision fan community. Margaret’s ‘Cool Me Down’ had all the ingredients of global success, even managing to eclipse the much-anticipated return of Poland’s debut performer, Edyta Gorniak. On the night, many international fans were both stunned and dismayed to see former X Factor runner-up Michal Szpak snatch victory denying Margaret her opportunity to shine – although her performance didn’t help make a strong case compared to ‘Color of Your Life‘
Unusual Grassroots Campaigns
You don’t need to be an established artist to swing a local vote, but some kind of momentum helps. Which brings me to Factor Number Two: local campaigns.
Exhibit A here is Spain’s Rodolfo Chikilicuatre, the comedy character championed all the way to the Eurovision Song Contest stage in 2008. Backed by a late-night chat show, supporters were able to maximise their opportunities through the Spanish broadcaster’s embrace of MySpace (kids, look it up on Wikipedia) as a pre-selection platform, mobilising voters to back the character in one of Eurovision’s first online votes for a long-list of entries.
Also hoping to represent Spain that year were La Casa Azul, with their delicious piece of electro pop ‘La Revolucion Sexual‘, the song that finished next highest in the online polling and a song which I still contend is Spain’s ‘lost’ Eurovision winner. To the embarrassment of many Spanish fans, Chikilicuatre’s momentum continued into the televised final and edged him to the Eurovision slot. How different could it have been with La Casa Azul? (And yes, I know there’s that thorny little question of them actually only placing third behind Coral Segovia, but who knows where the winner’s votes would have been otherwise distributed had he not been in the competition?)
Only When It’s Funny
For the more casual audience, factor three’s novelty value can be a major draw. It’s those jaw- dropping moments that make good copy for reviewers, cause a splash on social media, and are commemorated for years to come in lazy clip-reels. Here we see again how local notoriety can boost your chances of getting the ticket but scupper them once you get to your big gig.
Estonian comedy act Kreisiraadio had enjoyed local popularity since the 90s and found themselves on the Eurovision stage in 2008, singing a largely nonsense song. Though it’s difficult to see what obvious choice would have replaced them from their National Final, their massive voting lead in Estonia dwindled to just 8 points from across Europe and a second-to- last finish once it clicked that nobody voting had any idea who they were.
Perhaps almost anything else that year would have been more lucky.
Local cultural factors can blur the definition of ‘novelty’. In 2012 Austria’s Trackshittaz denied Conchita her first attempt to reach the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Woki Mit Deim Popo‘, a track widely regarded as novelty, but as an act with greater cultural relevance in their home country. They ended with the same points as Kreisiraadio, but with a position even lower, whereas many felt Conchita would have caused a greater splash for Austria in Azerbaijahn.
Of course, two years later she was to achieve her, ahem, retribution.
Many fans feel a similar fate befell Dušan Svilar’s ‘Spas’ in Serbia in 2013, also a victim of not one but three artists with greater current profile and a visual gimmick. Moje3 was a scratch grouping of the first, second, and third placed singers of a Voice-style talent show, given a novelty presentation playing a woman flanked by the competing angel and devil of her conscience. These factors combined to bring them a win, but they were unable to repeat such success at Eurovision, where – bizarrely – they then dropped the novelty presentation, rendering the song with no stand-out impact. They failed to qualify for the final, but many believe ‘Spas’ could have built on the successful tradition of Balkan folk-ballads.
Counting Very Carefully
Factor Number Four is the voting system and it has a lot to answer for. With the EBU exerting no direct control over National Selections, broadcasters are free to use many routes. In attempts to keep this fresh we see a parade of innovation, from Spain’s historical use of MySpace to the convoluted, confusing, and movable feast of 2018 in San Marino (the less said, the better).
But even here the old-fashioned involvement of a jury can also toss aside a potential Eurovision hit amid claims of a fix. Slovenia’s Saša Lendero enjoyed huge public success in 2006 with her entry ‘Mandoline‘, topping both the public televote and SMS vote. The jury, however, gave her nothing, backing the eventual winner, Anžej Dežan, whom the public had ranked only fourth.
This vote came on the back of a similar outcome in Slovenia’s 2004 selection, where the public’s overwhelming favourite, Natalia Verboten, had been nixed by the jury failing to give her any points, and sending Platin instead. Again, the chances of ‘Mandoline’ will never be truly known, but when Anžej Dežan failed to qualify many fans were left feeling that ‘Mandoline’ was another to add to the pile of songs that would have fared much better had they got through their National Finals as the public had desired.
Trusting The Televoters
Televoters don’t always get it right, though, which is Factor Five. There’s a risk those engaging in a vote may bring their own bias, perhaps bringing outdated assumptions of what a Eurovision entry ‘should be’ (a claim often levied at the UK’s 2007 entry by Scooch, although personally I loved its silliness) or overlooking an entry that might enjoy the boost of ‘exotic’ appeal to an international ear whilst being more commonplace at home. Here we might look at Yola Denis’s ‘Outra Vez Primavera’ in 2015, which surely would have found more support than the somewhat dreary, non-qualifying song the Portuguese sent.
There’s an argument in that National Final against the voting system too, as the jury included the competing songwriters, who managed to vote out the strongest competition before the vote reverted solely to the public, who to be fair could only then back what was left. Although the arguments can cut both ways; staying with Portugal, Salvador Sobral won consistent jury support, with the public only backing him into third place (in the Semi Final) and second (in the National Final) respectively. How close he came to being another addition to this list…
Little Tiny Groups Of Problems
Several other Factors for why this happens grouped themselves during my research, which for brevity I’ll summarise:
Factor Six: a ‘challenging’ style that would (probably) have found a wider audience internationally. Here I offer Loreen’s 2017 ‘Statements’ as illustration, a dark departure from her 2012 winner ‘Euphoria’, with niche appeal, but sufficient to make it the one for which its admirers think “that’s the one I’m ringing in for!”.
Factor Seven: disqualification, cf. Corinna May’s 1999 ‘Hör Den Kindern Einfach Zu’, a powerful anthem delivered with all the confidence and conviction lacking in her eventual 2002 Eurovision participation, but which – inconveniently – had already been released before.
And Factor Eight: intervention by the artist themselves, where we’re back once more to Germany with Andreas Kümmert’s renouncing the victory which many thought would give his country a great result, and dooming Ann-Sophie to nul points and yet another last place.
Why Would Someone Do Any Better?
Whist I accept my suggestions can never be proven, I can’t examine the factors that make me feel an opportunity was lost without looking at why I think the missed-chancers would have done better. Here we do find some factors to help. Some losing entries go on to bigger commercial success. At Eurovision we don’t have to wait long into its history to see this for a competing song with 1958’s ‘Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu’, and for National Finals songs we have the Netherlands 1982 also-ran ‘Fantasy Island’, a hit as a cover version for UK band Tight Fit or Spain 2000’s Raul with ‘Sueño Su Boca’.
Another measure is longevity, as a song or an artist. Sweden’s Melodifestivalen is littered with so many ‘failures’ that are now ‘evergreens’ that they’ve been given their own compilation CDs, replete with liner notes proclaiming whether or not the right song had won. An artist example is Finnish metal band Nightwish, themselves a victim of a voting system in 2000 which saw them win with the public but lose in a combined vote with the jury to a song neither had placed first. (In fact, as Ida Maria takes to the stage in Norway on March 10th, this band will be two nights in to a nine-month world tour – the artist they lost to finished 18th at Eurovision.)
The popularity of ‘Second Chance’ competitions might also offer us some insight into what might have been. Arguably their results might only ever offer a view of what is popular among small demographics of fandom. This view is perhaps bolstered by a glance at the dominance of ‘fan-favourites’ Sweden in the international fan club OGAE’s long-running second chance vote, with 14 victories.
Second Cherry, a fan event I’ve organised with friends in London, has given consolation prizes to some songs I’ve mentioned above like ‘Mandoline’ and ‘La Revolucion Sexual’, but also brought ‘victories’ for Joanna’s ‘Nott’ for Iceland, Hera Bjork’s ‘Someday’ for Denmark, and Elina Sinyavskaya’s ‘Via Lattea’ for Belarus (and only seen one Swedish win in 10 years of results).
We may have missed out on so many never-to-be moments at Eurovision, but for some artists the news is not all bad. Exposure or a narrow miss at home can help plant you in the public’s psyche and boost your chances should you come back; in recent years Loreen, Conchita, and Russia’s Buranovskiye Babushki have all benefitted from broader support second time round.
So, I end back where I began, heading to Norway with high hopes, but a sense of realism for Ida Maria. I’m prepared to have to add her to my lists, but oh, how I hope she’s Europe’s gain come May. Come on, Norway! I’m relying on you.
In preparing this article I asked Facebook friends for their own examples, with their reasons for why they felt their choices didn’t qualify domestically but would have shone on the Eurovision stage. I received over 200 replies! I’d like to thank them for their suggestions, which helped enormously, and also illustrated the breadth of opinion. But don’t just take my word for it, let us know in the comments below. And if you’re stuck for inspiration this You Tube playlist compiled by UK fan Daniel Tew offers over 50 suggestions as a starting place.
Here we go, now the clock really is running. Once more Juke Box Jury is starting just in time for all eight episodes to finish airing before the ESC Insight team lands in Lisbon to start our coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest 2018. Before then we’ve the small matter of listening to every song that will be at the Song Contest, and answering a simple question. Hit, miss, or maybe?
Eurovision Insight Podcast: Juke Box Jury #1 with Ross Middleton and Boog Biagi
Moldova: My Lucky Day, by DoReDos.
Switzerland: Stones, by Zibbz.
Iceland: Our Choice, by Ari Ólafsson.
Ukraine: Under The Ladder, by Mélovin.
Italy: Non Me Avete Fatto Niente, by Ermal Meta & Fabrizio Moro.
Don’t miss an episode of the Eurovision Insight podcast by subscribing to the RSS feed dedicated to the podcasts. iTunes users can find us in the iTunes Store and get the show automatically downloaded to your computer.
Two weekends of National Finals to go, internal selections waiting for the right time to release a song, and the 2018 Song Contest is slowly coming into focus. It’s an exciting time to be a Eurovision fan.
Eurovision Insight Podcast: A Song For Sheeran
Culling the Despacito clones, paying tribute to Lars Ulrich, and Waylon might have a new album out. Ewan Spence and ESC insight and another week of Eurovision Song Contest news; plus music from One More Time.
As the 2018 National Finals Season enters the final straight, keep listening to the ESC Insight podcast for more Eurovision news, fun, and chat. You’ll find the show in iTunes, and a direct RSS feed is also available. We also have a regular email newsletter which you can sign up to here.
When Netta Barzilai was selected to sing for Israel, the first question that Team Insight had was “Will she be able to use the looper?” We needn’t have worried. Sources close to the Israeli delegation have informed ESC Insight that before the final of ‘The Next Star‘, the EBU confirmed that Barzilai’s looper would be allowed on stage in Lisbon if she won through to represent Israel.
Now that we know that the answer is yes and a live instrument will be returning to the Eurovision Song Contest stage, we can explore the importance of ‘Toy‘ in the evolution of the live vocals rule and what potential rule clarifications could await us in the future.
The First Era: Orchestral Manoeuvres
To begin, let’s take a look at how we got to where we are. Before 1973, back in the first era (the Orchestral Era) of the Song Contest, there was no question about how you would perform your song. You would supply your song arrangement and conductor to the provided orchestra, and you would sing into the provided microphone. I spoke to Gordon Roxburgh, author of Songs For Europe, about the way this was achieved:
The host broadcaster, along with the Musical Director (MD) would send all participants the proposed composition of the orchestra, for example the number of violins, oboes, trumpets, keyboards in the ensemble. This would help the various musical arrangers to score the songs accordingly.
This process would also give the participants an opportunity to request any non-standard instruments they wished to include in their compositions:
The host broadcaster and MD would then come back and say we have a guitarist who can double up on the ‘zither’ you want, (so allow one less guitarist in your score) but we can’t help you with a Tibetan nose flautist. If several participants had come back and requested the Tibetan nose flute, then the host broadcaster had the option of deciding whether it was worth including in the orchestra. But if one participant wanted one unique instrument for 12 seconds in their song, then the host broadcaster may decide that isn’t a viable option.
The Metropole Orchestra, 1970
If a delegation decided that it couldn’t possibly do justice to its song without the Tibetan nose flute, then they could choose to have the instrument played live on stage, using up one of their allotted six performers.
The Second Era: Wired For Sound
From 1973 onwards, pre-recorded backing tracks were allowed by the EBU, with Cliff Richard’s ‘Power To All Our Friends’ being the first song to use a partial backing track.
This added an extra complication to the ‘Tibetan nose flute’ problem. If you wanted to use the instrument on the backing track, then you still had to use an extra performer to represent the backing track on stage. The onstage performer could then play live or mime to a backing track, but according to the Musicians’ Union conventions of the time, the person miming on stage had to be the same person whose performance was captured on the backing track. Gordon Roxburgh:
In practice this wasn’t always the case, and the Contest has a few examples where the person on on stage wasn’t the same musician who performed what the audience were listening to. (But of course they are not going to openly admit it). ”
The rule that specified that non-orchestral instruments used in the backing track must be represented on stage is perhaps the origin of the trope of bringing one of your nation’s traditional instruments on stage, which of course became sufficiently common to be given an affectionate mention in ‘Love Love Peace Peace’.
Below, you can see an example of a non-standard instrument being included. Yugoslavia decided an accordion was needed in its 1983 song ‘Dzuli’ by Daniel, which can be seen to be mic’d up and being actively played.
In order to accommodate the wider repertoire of sounds required as the Song Contest and the popular music represented by it matured, a change in the rules was eventually required. This rule change came when Eurovision tracks began to incorporate significant quantities of programmed synthesisers. It is widely agreed that the challenge to the backing track rule came in 1996 when Gina G was ably supported on stage by two synths and two chunky putty-coloured CRT monitors during the Grammy nominated ‘Ooh Aah Just A Little Bit’, to represent the extensive synth programming of composer Steve Rodway. Gordon Roxburgh adds:
The big transition started in 1996 with the likes of the Gina G song where the boundaries were being blurred, and then by 1999 the orchestra has gone, and then ultimately live instruments were gone altogether.
We’re still trying to pinpoint the very last live instrument to appear on the Eurovision stage, but 1997 certainly marks a sea change in the way that Eurovision presentations are constructed. Let’s call that the end of the second era of Eurovision performance.
The Third Era: Dance Alone
The 3rd era of Eurovision performance from 1997 begins with various changes in quick succession.
From 1999 onwards the orchestra is no longer a compulsory aspect of hosting the Song Contest and it quickly disappears. Televoting pushes the musical selections to more electronic, dance-oriented music; further emphasising the use of dancers instead of on-stage musicians. The audience no longer expects to see instruments represented on stage, except if it adds to the aesthetics of the performance.
However, the key rule remains: no vocal or vocal imitation sounds may be included on the backing track. This rule sensibly bans recorded backing vocals and recorded vocals supporting the main singer, but perhaps less sensibly it bans the use of synthesisers and electronic instruments using choir imitation settings.
In the popular music landscape of 1956 when the Eurovision Song Contest began, it was unimaginable that the exotic new musical instruments that were developing at the intersection of modern classical music, horror film soundtracks and garage electronic tinkering would become a core part of the chart sound. The first UK Number 1 single to feature a synthesiser was ‘Runaway‘ by Del Shannon in 1961, but it wasn’t until the end of the sixties that synthesisers became common stage and studio instruments amongst pop and rock musicians.
The kind of synthesisers that could have caused a philosophical problem for the live vocals rule were things like the Mellotron. Originally developed in the early sixties, it used tape loops of real instruments or vocals that could be triggered by a keyboard to produce infinite but slightly ghostly notes. A Mellotron using the choir setting (demonstrated in the video of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ below) would therefore have second-hand recorded vocals on the backing track and should theoretically have not been allowed.
Analogue synthesisers work by adding simple waveforms together electronically to create complex sounds. It’s possible to make an analogue synth sound that sounds a little bit like a choir singing ‘ah’. With early synths, these noises weren’t convincing enough to fool anyone, but the rule created the philosophical category of ‘vocal imitations’ that would keep the live vocal rule happy for a while longer. You can hear a sample of an analogue vocal synth below.
Every Modern Vocal Is Modified
One thing that has never been in question is whether it is admissible to treat vocals. Almost everyone who sings down a microphone has some reverb applied. It’s really unpleasant to listen to a totally dry vocal, and large amounts of reverb are often used to reduce the impact of a duff vocal. Yes, especially in karaoke.
The degree and method by which you treat vocals can be controversial. When the Olsen Brothers included a little bit of vocoder in ‘Fly On The Wings Of Love’, this was met by protests from the Russian delegation.
There are two different effects that are generally referred to as vocoders – they both involve the mixing of vocal sounds and instrumental sounds to create special effects, but by different means. See Sound on Sound for technical details.
The effect used by the Olsen Brothers to such great effect is a true vocoder – he’s using a regular microphone. If it was a talk box you would expect to see a tube in his mouth. A vocoder mixes the tune of a live vocal with the imprint of a specific set of frequency envelopes, creating the robotic, low resolution vocal effect.
The main way that a talk box could be deemed to be against the spirit of the rules is that you can be much more lax about hitting a note when the note is supplied to you by an external instrument. This overlooks the fact that the combination of singing and playing when using these devices is a skill in itself, and suggests that a talk box could be used to automatically tune a vocal. The original ones using 1970s technology couldn’t, but the story doesn’t stop there.
First released in 1997, Auto-Tune is a music production tool that takes the idea of mixing a vocal input with a supplied note to the next level. It analyses the waveform of a note and then shifts it to the nearest exact semitone. It can do this harshly and noticeably (Believe by Cher) or subtly and almost invisibly (basically every pop record since the millennium) and it can be used both in studios and live to tidy up vocals to meet public expectations. Because vocal capacity is one of the criteria by which the Eurovision juries are supposed to judge entries, auto-tune is clearly not something we would want at the Contest. But would we also want to ban the creative uses of the Cher effect?
The Fourth Era: Grab The Moment
Last year, we may have seen the start of the fourth era of Eurovision Song Contest performance. Whilst representing Norway, JOWST pushed the envelope on both treated vocals and backing track vocals. The chorus of ‘Grab The Moment’ featured a section of Aleksander Walmann’s vocals which had been treated in a way that turned them into a set of synthetic stabs that critically for the rules couldn’t be performed by the human voice alone. This was definitely a vocal-like sound with recognisable lyrics, and sync’d up to an image of a pixellated Aleks singing the same lyrics. But it was appearing on the backing track? What happened?
After the Song Contest, it became clear that because the vox chop stabs weren’t reproducible live on stage by the human, the EBU had cleared JOWST to include the vox chops on the backing track. JOWST says that they did have a backup plan if the decision had gone the other way, but that it wouldn’t have been as effective. But how did the EBU come to the decision that a manipulated vocal track was acceptable on the backing track? Would it have made a difference if the real Aleks was miming to the vox chop? Did the graphic overlay make a difference? Would it have made a difference if it had been another part of the song?
It appears that there has been no formal change in the Eurovision rules to reflect the JOWST precedent. Any country that selects a song with a similar element will have to seek clearance to perform it, running the risk of the Contest being accused of favouritism and lack of transparency in the event of a negative decision.
For Lisbon 2018, Netta has been allowed to use her looper at the Song Contest. This is different again.
The looper isn’t like autotune or like a pre-recorded vox chop. Through using the looper, Netta’s vocals become an instrument that will be played live. She can apply various filters, harmonic and rhythmic changes and accompany her own live vocals. She can add beatboxing. She could in theory do the whole song with no backing track. She can display tremendous amount of technical and compositional skill at the same time as giving a superb vocal.
However, she will also be playing a musical instrument, which is also against the existing form of the rule. If the EBU were to formally relax the rule as demonstrated by the above examples, we would not have been on tenterhooks to hear whether Netta is allowed to use her looper on ‘Toy’ and we would allow further musical diversity and personal expression into the contest.
We should formally acknowledge the start of a new performance era for Eurovision by creating a full ruling on which vocal treatments are allowed on backing tracks, and which technical effects may be produced live …and also a full investigation on why so many people are hiding their backing singers.
As always, the Eurovision Song Contest has to find a way to keep up with technological progress whilst still retaining the live magic that keeps 200 million people tuning in every year.
In the meantime, ESC Insight is very happy that Netta can start up the looper.
At some point we’re going to have to discuss San Marino’s ‘Battle Of The Bands’ setup 1 in 360, but for now, let’s just raise an eyebrow and move on with the rest of the news this week. Four more songs declared, and more line-ups for National Finals are settled. Plus we have Serbia putting on a show like it’s the late twentieth century.
Eurovision Insight Podcast: A Song For Sheeran
Ed Sheeran puts his foot in it, the Balkan Ballad of Ewan’s dreams arrives, and the script calls for ‘a lawyerly voice’. Time for another seven days of Eurovision news from Ewan Spence and ESC Insight; plus music from Slavko.
As the 2018 National Finals Season enters the final run, keep listening to the ESC Insight podcast for more Eurovision news, fun, and chat. You’ll find the show in iTunes, and a direct RSS feed is also available. We also have a regular email newsletter which you can sign up to here.