ESC Insight

ESC Insight

A Story About Mercy

A Story About Mercy

On Saturday night, the studios at France2 were filled with a celebrating audience chanting the name of a child refugee, who wasn’t even there.

In May, in Lisbon, a French/Norwegian couple will be telling the story of the people who flee from conflict over the sea, on a stage that celebrates the sea, in a Contest that will be full of maritime allusions. How did we get here?

The Sea And The Song Contest

Let us start with the refugees. When the multidimensional conflicts in Libya and Syria and Iraq took hold in the 2010s, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes. One of the terrifying routes that displaced people continue to take to escape war is to climb into unsafe, unseaworthy boats and cross the Mediterranean. Every year, thousands die attempting to make the crossing. Even in the best case, where you make the crossing and come out alive, you are fleeing a home that no longer exists and throwing yourself upon the mercy of a Europe that is finding it hard to show the appropriate humanity to the traumatised arrivals.

This is a story about hope and mercy, then.

All sorts of people make the Mediterranean crossing – the old, the young, people in immediate danger, people who can’t take the destruction of their communities any more – people who feel like whatever they’re running to, it must be better than what they’re running from.

In March 2017, one of the people who made the Mediterranean crossing was Taiwo. She was eight and a half months pregnant when she boarded the unsafe vessel that would take her away from Libya. During the voyage, something went wrong and the MSF and SOS Mediteranee vessel Aquarius came to the refugee boat’s aid. On the rescue ship on the way back to Italy, Taiwo realised she was in premature labour. According to SOS Méditeranée, the labour went well and Mercy became the fourth child to have been born on the rescue ship. And here are Taiwo and Mercy, full of hope.

Here she is! Both baby Mercy and proud mama Taiwo are doing amazingly well. May #Europe treat them with the kindness they deserve.

— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) March 21, 2017

Mercy And The Song Contest

Why bring this story to the Eurovision Song Contest? Why not? In fact, it was inevitable that the story of the tragedy on the seas would reach the Eurovision stage. We started back in 2016, when the Stockholm hosting team used the interval of Semi Final 1 to showcase a piece of contemporary dance which enacted the story of the flight of a group of refugees.

The Grey People’ began their performance coated in the thick grey dust of conflict, recalling the striking news images of people being pulled out of the rubble of shelled neighbourhoods in Aleppo, but at the end of their routine where they reached the relative safety of Europe, they were able to wash off the dust. The most striking moment was the very end, where the dancers came into the audience and invited us to raise our hands with them in recognition and solidarity.

In 2017, Salvador Sobral attempted to use his platform at the contest to remind Europe of the daily struggle of refugees to reach safety and be treated humanely when they reach it. His SOS Refugees sweater was a striking visual statement, and led to him speaking in support of refugees in his Semi Final 1 post-qualification press conference. The strong request of the EBU that he stop wearing the sweater, and stop talking about human rights seemed to go against the overall sense of celebration of humanity and togetherness that we experience at Eurovision.

So in 2018, when the news landscape has deteriorated to the point that thousands have already perished in the sea this year without generating more than a murmur on our news, it seems important to remind Europe of the individual human beings that we could be caring for. It’s in this spirit that Madame Monsieur are telling the story of Mercy. They are smuggling one of the most important stories of our times into the world’s biggest entertainment show.

Messages And The Song Contest

But there are still so many questions. How effective is their message? How many people will even notice the lyrics? What does it mean that a white European woman is telling the story of a black refugee child in the first person? Would Mercy be more effective when sung by someone who has experienced the trauma of being displaced from their home? Is it better that we are talking about this story at all, or would it be better if we were listening to refugees themselves?

Luckily, we’ve got months to debate and explore the themes of Mercy in the run-up to Lisbon. It’s the biggest story of our time. It’s what we should be talking about, as an international community of people in favour of togetherness and progress, and I look forward to working through these layers of questions and themes with you all the way to May.

Categories: ESC Insight


Eurovision Insight Podcast: Saturday Night

Eurovision Insight Podcast: Saturday Night

It’s the first National Final weekend of 2018 and we’ll be finding out at least two more songs for Lisbon, and there’s news a-plenty. But can we remember some pretty important dance moves from 23 years ago?

Eurovision Insight Podcast: Saturday Night

It’s National Final season and not one minute can we lose! Let Lisa-Jayne Lewis take you out on Saturday Night to explore the latest reveals and rumours and some well-loved returning faces from around the world of the Eurovision Song Contest.

As the 2018 season builds up momentum, 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.

Categories: ESC Insight


Navigating the Silence of Enslavement

Navigating the Silence of Enslavement

It has taken sixty-one editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, and fifty-three years of Portuguese participation, for any Portuguese city to have the chance to host the annual song competition and show the contest’s reputed 200 million viewers its own interpretation of Europe’s cultural identity.

Portugal’s reputation as one of the longest-running Eurovision entrants never to win meant that the victor’s privilege of hosting the next Contest has never until now fallen on Portugal and its national broadcaster Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP), even as early twenty-first-century Eurovision became famous for more and more first-time winners emerging across a seemingly ever-enlarging Europe.

Indeed, Portugal had spent years not even qualifying for the Eurovision grand final before Salvador Sobral, whose song ‘Amar pelos dois‘ (Love enough for two) harked back to the orchestral European popular music culture of Eurovision’s earliest days, won a surprise victory at the contest in Kiev in 2017.

The wave of new winners in the early 2000s saw Eurovision hosted for much of the decade in cities like Tallinn, Riga, and Kiev—capitals of countries that had not even participated in Eurovision before the end of the Cold War, indeed had only recently become independent. Other host cities, such as Istanbul, Athens, and Helsinki, represented countries often perceived as peripheries of Europe and which had competed for years without a win. The metaphors, symbols, and historical narratives with which these contests’ local producers emphasized how deeply their countries and cities belonged to Europe turned places often imagined to be on Europe’s margins into the continent’s “symbolic centre” for a night.[1]

Eurovision researchers are accustomed now to interpreting entries as literal performances of national identity and European belonging, embodying how a nation appears to have mastered transnational popular culture, national cultural tradition, or contemporary modes of combining the two.[2] Hosting Eurovision, however, takes these identity performances up an extra structural level. Like the Olympic Games, Eurovision allows a broadcaster and city to make a certain narrative of their nation and its relationship to Europe into the frame through which millions of viewers see the whole event, making every contest a fresh exercise in nation (and city) branding.[3]

The historical themes that Lisbon and Portugal might communicate to a transnational audience in 2018 were perceptible as early as last July, when RTP confirmed Lisbon as the host city with a promotional video that proclaimed, “Portugal: 500 years connected to the oceans; Lisbon: city of convergence; Lisbon: a bridge between Europe and the world.” The contest’s slogan, fans found out in November, would be “All Aboard!”

The same myth of maritime heritage and global connectivity underlies the stage design concept revealed by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in December. The narrative behind Lisbon’s first Eurovision, reflecting how important maritime heritage has been in Portugal’s and Lisbon’s myths of identity, will perhaps unsurprisingly be “inspired by navigation, the sea, ships and maps.”

First look! The stage in Lisbon for #ESC2018 is inspired by navigation, the sea, ships and maps! Find out more:

— Eurovision (@Eurovision) December 5, 2017

These four themes, the designer Florian Wieder explained, combined like the four points of a compass to symbolize the history of discovery and exploration that had shaped Portuguese culture and made Lisbon the maritime metropolis it became.

Yet to historians of slavery, sociologists of “race” and postcolonialism, and many people among the world’s African diaspora today, to talk of discovery and exploration—or even to celebrate Europe’s relationship to the sea—is to evoke memories of the mass enslavement of Africans that Portuguese traders and sea-captains began, knowledge of the violence of colonial dispossession that Portugal was among the first European powers to perpetrate, and the legacies of racism and oppression that still permeate European and global societies today.

Reading the planned Eurovision stage’s “four points of inspiration” with a postcolonial eye reveals silence after silence within the historic symbols that have inspired its design.

The voyages of exploration sponsored by Portuguese rulers, including by the country’s most famous prince, Infante Dom Henrique (known in English as Henry the Navigator), were driven not by high-minded curiosity but by the search for new imperial territories and new sources of goods to trade. Portuguese merchants quickly discovered these “goods” could include human beings: it was under Henrique’s direction in the 1440s and 1450s that Portuguese captains first brought back enslaved Africans from raids in Mauritania, then struck deals with local rulers to institutionalize a trade in slaves, while the government regulated this expanded economy of slavery in Portuguese trading-posts and ports. By 1486, the slave trade had grown so large that King John II made the House of Slaves a department of the royal trading house. (The place was destroyed with almost all its records in the earthquake of 1755.)

At first, slave traders’ primary market was Portugal itself, which was already part of the Mediterranean system of slavery (where most of the enslaved were North African Muslims who had been captured at sea). Pope Nicholas V, as the moral ruler of Christendom, sanctioned Portugal’s monopoly of the West African trade and Catholics’ right to enslave non-Christians—including North African Muslims, black Africans, and indigenous people in the Americas—with a papal bull in 1454. As Portuguese merchants began to sell Africans on across the Atlantic, to Portuguese colonies and sugar plantations in Brazil, they created the first routes of the transatlantic slave trade.

Other European imperial powers, plus thousands of Europeans whose nations did not have their own empires, would join Portugal in sustaining a system of domination and brutality without parallel in world history, where the ideologies necessary to justify Europeans’ enslavement and repression of enslaved Africans and their descendants would become the hierarchical modes of classifying human beings by presumed biological descent from “more civilized” or “less civilized” areas of the world that we know today as classifications of “race.” From a postcolonial perspective, the very concept of “Europe” as a symbol of modernity—an idea which celebrations of belonging to or becoming part of Europe almost always take for granted—is inextricable from the history of how modernity (in the shape of “civilization”) and “race” were imagined together during the age of empire and slavery.

If Portuguese navigation and discovery are inseparable from this history, how does such knowledge affect what the symbols inspiring the next Eurovision Song Contest appear to mean? The armillary sphere that distinguishes Portugal’s national flag and will give Lisbon 2018 the “visual key element” of its design is unambiguously, according to its designer, “associated with the Portuguese discoveries during the Age of Exploration.”

“The Portuguese have been masters in crafting ships since the ancient times,” the narrative continues, and “were able to explore the world because of this outstanding skill.” But where did these ships go, and what did their Portuguese crews do in the places they explored? Portugal, after all, was the first European power to conquer territory in India and the first to ship enslaved Africans across the Atlantic.

The sea, whose waves have inspired the sweeping form of the Eurovision stage, supposedly “gives us a sense of freedom and clarity, making it one of the most peaceful places on earth.” Yet how peaceful is the sea to the migrants and refugees who risk capture in North Africa and shipwreck on unsafe rafts to wash up on Mediterranean coastlines because the European Union affords them no legal means to travel?

Even the map, Lisbon 2018’s fourth point of inspiration, is in its modern form an instrument that postcolonial scholars know as a colonial technology. European mapmakers recorded the geographical features that their empires’ traders, soldiers, missionaries, and officials needed to know, and abstracted or erased those they did not. The ethnic or tribal divisions between peoples and territories that European maps of Africa and Asia recorded at the height of the colonial period created lines of demarcation that would later become social and political realities because of how colonial power had translated a more complex demographic reality into metropolitan knowledge.

Narrating Portugal’s history of maritime discovery and exploration without the history of slavery and colonialism leaves—to those who know and do not choose to unknow that silenced history—a yawning gap. The silence resounds throughout Wieder’s explanation of why Portugal’s maritime history is so well suited as the narrative of a Eurovision Song Contest held in Lisbon:

The rich history of the Portuguese as a maritime nation reflects, without any boundaries, all of the values that make the Eurovision Song Contest unique today. Portugal and especially Lisbon are historic melting pots enriched by the impressions of newly discovered cultures that were brought back to the home port. This is mainly due to the Portuguese sailor men, who traveled the seas with courage and outstanding skills of navigation.

We do not hear of how cultures were newly discovered and then subjugated, nor how the people who lived some of those cultures were brought back in chains.


European cities have only recently begun publicly acknowledging their complicity in slavery, and it has taken sustained pressure from their black residents plus committed historians and heritage professionals for them to do so. What historical narratives are privileged or marginalized in the commemorated, what forms of recognition campaigners seek, and how slavery reverberates through a society’s racialized categories of identity all vary from country to country, and even city to city. Nantes became the first European port to officially commemorate its role in the transatlantic slave trade in 1989, and it opened a permanent exhibition on the slave trade there in 1992, whereas Bordeaux, with a similar history, took a decade and a half longer to do so. Among British cities, Liverpool led with an official public apology for the slave trade in 1999, and the city’s International Slavery Museum, which opened in 2007, incorporates Africans’ resistance and agency as well as the legacies of slavery behind contemporary racism into its narrative more integrally than many other such museums.[4]

Projects to make visible the public memory of slavery are intensely local—often, as in Bristol, turning on the microhistory of sites built to honor slave-owners or used in the slave trade—but also transnational.[5] UNESCO launched its own Slave Route project, which aimed to “break the silence” about the heritage of slavery around the world, in 1994. Campaigners and curators often translate parallels from comparable cities abroad into their own local contexts in identifying contentious sites and imagining how slavery could be better remembered there. Since the 1990s, Ana Lucia Araujo has written, a “resurgence of the public memory of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade” has connected sites in Europe, Africa, and Latin America as well as the USA.[6]

Europe’s Atlantic ports would not have become so prosperous without the wealth the slave trade brought them. To make and keep the slave trade and its legacies a part of public memory means making knowledge of these things undeniable, even to white majority publics who would prefer not to know.

To remember and acknowledge that a city’s and nation’s grandeur came from the horrific kidnapping and deportation of millions of people, and the systematic dehumanization of their descendants, does not inspire the pride on which relations of belonging between individuals and nations are supposed to depend. More openly activist forms of commemorating the slave trade, as opposed to the more celebratory, less destabilizing commemorations of its abolition, seek to make remembering necessary. They seek to make it impossible for white inhabitants and visitors, above all, to still be able to contend they did not know.

Lisbon, the historian Yessenia Barragan observed last year, “remains largely silent on its legacy of white terror and black captivity.”[7] No museum or memorial there acknowledges that the transatlantic slave trade and the imperial expansion that accompanied it were constitutive parts of the city’s history. Lisbon has no analog to the Liverpool or Nantes slavery museums, nor to the museums of African diasporic history in São Paulo or Washington, DC. Elsewhere in Portugal, the old customs house once used for slave auctions in Lagos on the Algarve, thought to be the first town where enslaved Africans were brought to Europe, reopened as a slavery museum in 2016. Otherwise, to see Portugal’s role in the transatlantic slave trade commemorated, one must go to Brazil, the place where so many captives enslaved by the Portuguese were sold. As Araujo reminds us, Brazil imported many more enslaved Africans than the United States and now contains a larger population of people of African descent than any other country in the world except Nigeria. The presence of this diaspora and the racial politics of contemporary Brazil are both consequences of the trade established by the Portuguese.[8]

Lisbon, too, has a globally significant black history. A census of Lisbon in 1552 revealed that 10 percent of its population was enslaved, and the historian A. C. Saunders estimated in 1982 (in a book on black slaves and freedmen in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portugal, republished in 2010) that 15,000 mostly black slaves were likely to have lived in the rapidly growing city by 1633.[9] Saunders not only notes that this black population represented “one of the greatest concentrations of black people in any European society before our own time” but points to the Portuguese enslavement of Africans as a key moment in the transition between slavery customs around the Mediterranean and the racialized system of transatlantic deportation and enslavement that Europeans went on to establish.

[T]he form taken by relations between black Africans and white Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was, with some modifications and exceptions, that which was to prevail throughout the Atlantic world until the nineteenth century, and we still suffer from its consequences today. The salient feature of this system of relations were the Atlantic slave-trade and the relegation of black people to servitude or positions of inferior status in countries ruled by whites. The triangular slave-trade was organized by the Portuguese and it was in Portugal that considerable numbers of blacks first came to experience white domination and whites first decided what place blacks should hold in society.[10]

The sixteenth-century Portuguese argument that “enslavement was an effective method of bringing blacks to a knowledge of Christianity” (even though, as the friar Fernão de Oliveira wrote in 1555, few Portuguese slave owners even allowed their slaves to go to church) prefigured the “civilizing mission” with which European powers in the nineteenth century would justify their conquests of most of Africa.[11]

To historians of early modern Iberia and researchers like the historical tour guide Naky Gaglo, whom Barragan credits for many of her insights into Lisbon’s past and present black history, these legacies of enslavement in Lisbon and their connections to racism and inequality in the present are already established knowledge. For outside communities with no professional or personal reasons to know about how enslavement in Lisbon and present-day racism are connected, they are not.

Whether this knowledge is pushed aside or not even consciously considered, they remain absent when navigation and connectivity across the sea are turned into myths detached from Portugal’s and Europe’s implication in colonialism and slavery.

Does any of this matter for making sense of the pan-European party that the Eurovision Song Contest is supposed to be?


The “Europe” that Eurovision maps and celebrates today is geographically larger than the “Europe” of colonial maps, extending as far east as the Caucasus or Russia’s Pacific coast (plus, since 2014, Australia). Its eastern “peripheries” have given twenty-first-century Eurovision much of its energy and symbolic meaning, with broadcasters and even governments investing in Eurovision as a site for realizing their “return to Europe.” On the other hand, their access to the apparent center of Eurovision’s imagined transnational community appears more conditional when commentators in the West begrudge the so-called bloc voting they attribute to the East.[12] Perhaps postsocialist enlargement is one way through which “Europe,” in Eurovision and even outside, might have been redefined.

Or perhaps not. Even before postsocialist assertions of identification with European “civilization” and, implicitly or explicitly, whiteness, the parallels between anti-colonial struggle and east European national liberations that state socialist regimes often drew could still go hand in hand with paternalistic attitudes towards development and with stereotypes of “Africa” and blackness that had originated in Europe’s colonial past.[13]

Even nations without any history of their own as imperial powers, nations that spent centuries ruled by other empires instead, produced individuals who participated in colonialism as a system. There was the Croatian explorer Dragutin Lerman, for instance, who shortly before joining the Stanley Expedition to Congo wrote to a friend, “I am especially happy to represent my dear homeland Croatia in this kind of international expedition.” Lerman mapped large parts of southwestern Congo for the Belgian colonial administration and acted for several years as commissaire-general of Kwango Oriental.[14] Imaginatively, even if not geopolitically, members of central and eastern European peoples—as my forthcoming book Race and the Yugoslav Region argues—have still been able to identify with the “Europe” colonialism made.

Since the collapse of state socialism, this has been ever more the case. The European Union that, during the 1990s, almost all postsocialist countries aspired to join as part of their symbolic “returns to Europe” (another such symbol was participating in Eurovision), was already implementing racialized migration policies that afforded the least legal mobility to migrants from the Global South. Yet many of the reasons the migrants’ countries of origin were so much more insecure and environmentally degraded than the European destinations where they sought to live were results of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

Today’s EU border security project, in which the EU has obliged Southeast European countries to play frontline roles and where the Central European Visegrád Group leads opposition to imposed refugee quotas, rests even more visibly on the logic that the public of member states will not accept Muslim and African migrants settling in their countries in large enough numbers to potentially change national culture. The ideologies on which present-day xenophobias and racisms in the EU depend—which are even sometimes turned, as in Britain, on East European migrants within the EU—stem ultimately from the ideologies of “race” that white Europeans had to internalize to justify their enslavement of Africans and their colonization of indigenous lands. Such continuities between past and present racisms are often not even drawn in the commemoration of slavery and abolition, but they are at the very foundations of what critical race theory “knows.”

The condition of not needing to know about racism or the histories and legacies of race is the privilege of whiteness—or of what the philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance,” the asymmetry of knowledge that enables white supremacy.[15] To live untroubled as a white inhabitant of a society that gained its wealth through colonial exploitation indeed requires displacing the knowledge that your predecessors, whose history supposedly gives you your cultural identity, obtained that wealth by impoverishing and enslaving other human beings. The dominant institutions of society, Mills argues, are structured so that whites do not, need not, and must not ever know.

The memory of slavery and the knowledge that present-day racism is a legacy of colonialism and enslavement are what Araujo describes as “wounded” memory.[16] They are also wounded knowledge—knowledge that is painful for a historically dominant group to absorb. And they are dangerous knowledge—knowledge that threatens to upend the meanings of cherished collective myths and symbols, and change the emotions they arouse.

Eurovision host cities, for a week or a night, are cast temporarily as the “symbolic center of Europe, tying a certain narrative of their own histories into what they imagine as the continent’s heritage. In all its sixty-two years, Eurovision has never come from a city as tied to the history of slavery as Lisbon. The four Contests held in London are probably as close as it has come.

The historical narrative of Portugal, Europe, and the sea that has been designed for the next Eurovision Song Contest is, like many European countries’ public celebrations of their imperial pasts, the product of an exceptionalism that does not want to know that the curves of a masterfully constructed carrack are also the curves of a slave ship.

Categories: ESC Insight


Is Age Just A Number For Eurovision Song Contest Singers?

Is Age Just A Number For Eurovision Song Contest Singers?

Amongst the roster of West End pros and experienced backing singers announced for this year’s National Final in the UK, one artist immediately caught my eye. 16 year old Asanda Jezile was first introduced to reality TV in the 2013 series of Britain’s Got Talent when she was 11 years old. Videos of her performances show a confident girl with a really strong voice, and of course she’s grown and developed as a vocalist between then and now. In fact, I have no doubt that on stage in Brighton (and potentially Lisbon) she’ll be absolutely great. However, we know that there is more to representing your country at the Eurovision Song Contest than just being a great singer.

Asanda, BBC You Decide 2018 (image: BBC/Joel Anderson)

Asanda, BBC You Decide 2018 (image: BBC/Joel Anderson)

Asanda’s song ‘Legends’ has been a subject of low level rumours for some time now. It’s the one which will be undoubtedly going into ‘Eurovision You Decide 2018’ as the favourite, but it’s really still anybody’s game. Now that we’ve all heard ‘Legends,’ it’s fair to say it’s a good song but there’s no knowing how it will be received by the voting public. Hearing the studio version now with Asanda’s vocal confirms that she was the right choice of vocalist for the song, but is the song itself strong enough to win the UK ticket to Portugal?

It’s More Than The Song That Matters

Before we all get too carried away with it all there are a few things to remember. Firstly last year we had another 16 year old with the alleged most favoured song. Olivia Garcia with the song ‘Freedom Hearts’. From the studio versions and the general buzz, I think most of us knew this was the favourite and was expected to win, but on the night Olivia missed out to Lucie Jones.

We don’t have a results breakdown from last year’s ‘Eurovision: You Decide‘, so it’s possible that ‘Freedom Hearts’ was only second by a very small margin. However, it’s also possible that ‘Freedom Hearts’ was on the bottom of the pile and picked up very few points, we simply don’t know. But what we do know is that the perception is the ‘favourite’ song was given to the youngest artist and it didn’t make it through.

Probably the biggest of my concerns for Asanda is how she’ll cope with the blanket negativity from the UK tabloids towards the Eurovision Song Contest and especially the UK representatives. Let’s start with Dan Wootton’s Bizarre column in the The Sun. Just a couple of weeks ago a piece appeared in The Sun leaking the name of one of the singers. The language and style of the reporting is part of the reason I’d be super cautious putting a very young artist in the mix in the UK:

“The BBC once again seems determined to consign the UK to near-certain failure at Euro­vision – by pinning our hopes on more no-marks. Raya, will battle five other nobodies in the Beeb’s You Decide.

“The Beeb’s signing of Rachel comes after it chose six X Factor flops to battle to represent us last year. They’re kidding themselves though if they think unknowns like Rachel represent a nation that has produced talent such as The Beatles, The Spice Girls, Adele, and One Direction.”

Wootton is probably aware that his calls for the BBC to book big name artists are unlikely to be granted while he provides one of the major reasons why established acts can’t take the risk of negative publicity from being associated with the United Kingdom’s Eurovision entry. This is why the BBC turns to less established artists with experience of live stage vocals to compete. At which point Wootton has fulfilled his own prophecy and the loop of expectation, hype and disappointment begins anew.

This kind of hype and outrage cycle is great for selling papers but has very little to do with improving the BBC’s approach to the contest. At the minute, all the Corporation can do is provide a comforting hand through the hostile atmosphere for our hopefuls.

New Media Has Just As Many Flaws

The collective impact of online commentary may also make it difficult for newer, less protected performers in the Eurovision world. The online response to some Song Contest performers has sometimes not only thrown them off their game at the Contest but caused some to leave the entertainment industry all together.

Take the example of Bianca Nicholas from Electro Velvet, who represented the UK in 2015 with ‘Still In Love With You‘ when she was 26. She came back from Vienna and retired from professional performing. Not because of the result, but because of the constant grinding down effect of months of negative media coverage.

In 2017 Belgium’s Walloon broadcaster selected 17 year old Blanche to represent them in Kyiv. Her haunting, modern electro song ‘City Lights’ garnered many fans, and she went into the pre-season parties as a strong contender.  Blanche’s road got decidedly more bumpy when she encountered the full force of social media scorn following a hesitant performance at London Eurovision Party. Her nervousness became visible in everything she did, and it looked like ‘City Lights’ might become one of Eurovision’s great lost masterpieces.

Perhaps the turning point was when her team took Blanche out of the Eurovision bubble to relax by the beach for the weekend… perhaps it was the positive fan experience she had on the EscXtra livestream… or was it the comforting presence of stage manager par excellence Henric von Zweigbergk  just offstage throughout her time in Kyiv. No matter her anchor, her velvety vocals and amazing song got her through the Semi Final and into a triumphant Grand Final performance that earned her an excellent fourth place.

Which delegations are able to coach a very young artist through tremendous and unpredictable ups and downs like this?

Of course, I am not saying that it ought to be taboo to comment on the work of a young artist in case you upset them. Many Eurovision viewers are lucky enough to live in countries where we have freedom of speech, thought and opinion, and without the freedom to like or dislike songs, there’s sort of no point in the whole Eurovision business.

My message is that a delegation needs to do some serious preparation work if they are going to send a very young artist to Eurovision.

This doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding all contact with the press, shielding the artist from their social media or preventing them from performing at preview parties. What it does mean is having the care, support, and backup for the artist built into the team that surrounds them.

A Beautiful Mess Is About Right

Bulgaria in 2017 should be looked at as a good example of how to manage a young artist at the Eurovision Song Contest. Kristian Kostov became the first ever Eurovision artist who was born this side of the year 2000. As a 17 year old, Kris was very much in charge of his own social media, where he would take pictures and share to Instagram and interact with his fans online all the time. Even at 17, he was already in the second decade of his performing career, so BNT knew that they had selected an independent and professional young man. The delegation put complete trust in him, allowinghim to do interviews, and interact with press and fans – but this was balanced by making sure that he had his Mum and Aunt around to give him the support he needed to keep him grounded.

Obviously not all 16 and 17 year olds are the same, because humans vary infinitely. Some young people are equipped to handle the pressures of a career in the entertainment industry and some would not enjoy it at all. Each broadcaster must have a duty-of-care to their artist throughout their time at the Song Contest – from auditions and rehearsals, through National Finals, on to promotion, and getting them home mentally and physically after the Contest is over. Arguably there is a duty to support an artist’s ongoing career, no matter what the result on the big night, but this duty is even more vital when the artist is very young.

To answer my own question, is sixteen too young to be competing at the Eurovision Song Contest? Personally I would say yes. Not because of the stage time, but because of everything that happens around the Song Contest that can impact on an individual.

But the thing is, if I was a sixteen year old being asked that same question, I would be running like a legend towards the big stage.

Eurovision: You Decide will take place on Wednesday 7th Feb at 8pm, broadcast on BBC. Performing for your votes will be be Asanda, Goldstone, Jaz Ellington, Liam Tamne, Raya, and SuRie. You can listen to all six tracks on YouTube.

Categories: ESC Insight


Eurovision Insight Podcast: The Greatest Song Show On Earth

Eurovision Insight Podcast: The Greatest Song Show On Earth

With more songs and performers released by delegations, line-ups and running orders set for National Finals, and the first details of the Semi Final draw coming out, it’s been a busy week for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Eurovision Insight Podcast: The Greatest Song Show On Earth

Another seven days of Eurovision action reported in the weekly Insight News podcast. This week memories of a caption, dreams of Duran Duran, and no Hugh Jackman; plus music from Conchita.

As the 2018 season builds up momentum, 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.

Categories: ESC Insight


Making Sense Of The 2018 Semi Final Pot Allocation

Making Sense Of The 2018 Semi Final Pot Allocation

Germany did it for only the second time. As did Austria. And Portugal did it for the first time ever. Any broadcaster can win the Eurovision Song Contest in the twenty first century, whether it has ‘friends’ or not. And every winner that has qualified out of a semi-final did so with a commandingly high score and a top two finish in its semi-final.

In other words, Eurovision winners do very well in both their Semi Final and Grand Final appearances. No surprise there. But there’s another aspect to the Song Contest: participating and getting a placement that, on some level, corresponds to the calibre of what is sent. Something that did not happen as reliably in the years before a jury component was re-integrated into the scoring system.

This article is not about winning the Eurovision: it’s about qualifying from a Semi Final, and therefore getting a chance to appear on Saturday night. The implications of the possibility of qualifying from a Semi Final are significant. In the early years of the Semi Final system worthwhile entries sometimes struggled to qualify because of public voting patterns favouring friends and neighbours and offering a slight edge. If qualification chances were largely determined before performing, why should unaffiliated countries bother? What was the point?

If voting skews were seen as a problem, the first solution proffered were the pots.

ESC 2014 SF Draw

Friends, Neighbours And Family

Beginning with Belgrade 2008, Semi Final entries have been put in pots based on televote (rather than jury) history, and geographic location. There have been five or six pots per year: in years with five pots, two generally have seven members—otherwise most pots have five or six.

Mostly importantly, there have three pots that have been consistent in terms of their membership, with minor changes year upon year:

  1. Russophone: former Soviet Union republics that do not have any other more obvious neighbourly or shared linguistic support. Hence Moldova, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania often being allocated different pots.
  2. Scandinavia: the traditional Nordic countries, often with Estonia included.
  3. Yugosphere: former Yugoslav republics, often including Albania because of the large Albanian minorities in former Yugoslav republics such as Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

The other pots mostly include pairs of countries that tend to swap votes (Romania/Moldova, Greece/Cyprus, Latvia/Lithuania) and some that perhaps might be expected to swap—but do not consistently do so (Belgium/Netherlands).

Half of the countries in each pot are randomly allocated to the first Semi Final, and the other half to the second (and to the first or second half of said Semi Final) at a random draw in January. As well, the pre-qualified Grand Finalists—The Big 5 members Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, plus whomever is hosting—draw to vote in either Semi Final. With some exceptions…which will be noted below when relevant.

If we have a clear system of pots, why do the pots change, year upon year?

Winners, Débutants, Departed, And Returnees

There are three reasons for the pots having to be adjusted: a non-Big 5 winner that temporarily leaves the pot system, the début of a new participating broadcaster, or the departure or return of a previous participating broadcaster.

When the host broadcaster is not a Big 5 member (the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany or Spain), that means one less Semi Final participant. Aside from the host entry being directly qualified for that year’s Grand Final (and while they will vote in one of the Semi Finals), the hosts are not allocated to a pot. Instead, like the big 5 that year’s hosts draw to vote in one the two Semi Finals—without consideration of how their previous “pot mates” have split across the Semi Finals.  Potentially, that can lead to an extra voting friend in a Semi Final.

Here’s how the host Semi Final votes were allocated over the previous five Contests:

YearHostPrevious potPot vote Semi-Final Split

Austria has never benefited from consistent neighbourly or shared linguistic support: they have always been allocated in one of two “miscellaneous” pots alongside former co-state Hungary.

In 2013 there was no Scandinavia pot since Denmark had requested to appear in the first semi-final and Norway the second. Pot 2 had Finland, Iceland and frequent Scandinavia pot member Estonia. For Copenhagen 2014 it was decided in advance to split Norway and Sweden across the two semi-finals, in order to maximise local fan Semi Final ticket chances. Pot 2 had Finland, Iceland and Estonia. In 2015 the Scandinavian pot included both Estonia and Latvia.

In 2013 Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland all made the Grand Final; similarly, in 2014 Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland did. In 2015 only Norway, Sweden and Estonia qualified. In 2016 only Latvia qualified from the semi-finals: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Estonia all failed to do so.

Ukraine withdrew in 2015 because of war, but they have always been in the Russophone pot, including in 2016. Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Georgia all qualified in 2016: Belarus was the only pot member who failed to.

In 2008 both Azerbaijan and San Marino made their débuts. Both were put in a “miscellaneous” pot, but the Azeris were moved into the Russophone pot the following year. Australia made their début in 2015 as a one-off special guest, but when they returned the following year they were allocated into the miscellaneous pot. It will be interesting to see where future débutants might allocated. The numerous North African (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) and Middle Eastern (Lebanon, Jordan) countries with EBU member broadcasters could lead to the creation of a la Francophonie pot… were enough of them to participate in a given year.

The dynamic that has impacted constitution of the pots most often has been the withdrawal or return of broadcasters to the Eurovision Song Contest. Trying to track all these changes gets rather messy rather quickly. Let’s focus on how the return of a broadcaster has impacted the pots:

YearReturnPrevious potReturn pot















2016Bosnia & Hercegovina


















In other words, those previously allocated to one of the three main pots have been returned to those pots. Those who were not have remained not. Mostly…

The Pots For Lisbon

Here are the pots for 2018. Changes are in bold:

Pot 1Pot 2Pot 3Pot 4Pot 5Pot 6



























Czech Republic


San Marino








In 2018 we have three changes: Ireland, Israel and Estonia have moved pots. Let’s look at each’s televote allocations across the most recent semi-finals to see if we can understand the changes, starting with Estonia, who this year they are in one of the miscellaneous pots.

Year12 points1087654321
2014NetherlandsUkraineHungaryLatviaSwedenRussiaSan MarinoIcelandArmeniaPortugal
2016RussiaAustriaNetherlandsFinlandCyprusHungarySan MarinoIcelandMaltaArmenia

There are arguments for including Estonia into the Scandinavian or Russophone pots. Across the Russophone pot the Estonian public have awarded 51 points. Across the Scandinavian pot they have awarded 40 points. There were 232 points available across these four years (58 points per year), so that works out to 22 and 17 per cent. The Russophone pot is around 15-20% of the participants in a given year; the Scandinavian pot usually 12-14%. So these are not outrageous levels of support. In the Russophone pot, core members tend to consistently give around half their televote points to fellow pot members.  In other words, the Estonian move makes sense.

Here are Israel’s recent semi-final televote allocations:

Year12 points1087654321

There are around 1.5 million Russian speakers living in Israel, representing almost 20 per cent of the population. Across the Russophone pot Israel has awarded a total of 30 televote points, representing 13 per cent of the total points awarded. Hence their shift out of the Russophone pot. Again, this move makes some sense—though there is another option for the Reference Group (see below).

Ireland is the intriguing one. Here are their recent semi-final televotes:

Year12 points1087654321

Ireland has awarded most of its televotes to three countries: Lithuania (46 of 48 points), Poland (32 of 36 points), and Latvia (15 of 24 points). Yet they are moved to the Scandinavian pot for 2018. To whose members they have awarded a total of 27 points: 12 per cent to a pot that represents around 12 per cent of the competitors. This makes little sense. Previously Ireland, Lithuania and Poland were in a pot, with Latvia joining them around half the time.

Let’s take a look at how many points Ireland received from the Scandinavian pot members over this same period:

  • 2014: Norway 4 points, Finland 2 points
  • 2015: Null points
  • 2016 : Denmark 4 points, Norway 2 points
  • 2017: Estonia 7 points, Denmark 5 points, Norway 2 points

These numbers are very low—so getting too much support from this pot’s traditional members cannot explain Ireland joining their pot. With Lithuania, Poland and Latvia in a different pot, there will be at least two and as many as four of Ireland, Lithuania, Poland or Latvia in one semi-final. It is unclear who will benefit from this.

Would less be more

The changes for Estonia and Israel make sense, based on the televote numbers in recent years: the benefit of shifting Ireland in the Scandinavian pot seems less clear. One conclusion to make from these changes is that the Reference Group seems to be avoiding the creation of one or two somewhat larger pots, for the Yugosphere and Russophone networks.

The Russophone pot could include Israel and the Baltics (as former Soviet states) as well—even if none consistently delivers the massive televote scores this pot’s core members often do. There could be as few as four pots:

Yugosphere +Scandinavia +RussophoneMiscellaneous
1.     Albania

2.     Croatia

3.     Macedonia

4.     Montenegro

5.     Serbia

6.     Slovenia

7.     Switzerland

8.     Austria

9.     [Bosnia & Hercegovina, if they return]

10.  Greece

1.     Denmark

2.     Finland

3.     Iceland

4.     Norway

5.     Sweden

6.     Ireland

7.     Australia

8.     Malta

9.     Cyprus

1.     Armenia

2.     Azerbaijan

3.     Belarus

4.     Georgia

5.     Russia

6.     Ukraine

7.     Israel

8.     Estonia

9.     Latvia

10.  Lithuania

11.  Moldova

1.     Bulgaria

2.     Hungary

3.     Romania

4.     Poland

5.     Netherlands

6.     Belgium

7.     Czech Republic

8.     San Marino

Pot one adds Austria (significant ex-Yugoslav minorities), Greece (significant Albanian minority). Pot two adds Australia (shared televote love with Sweden), along with Cyprus and Malta (strong ties to Nordic music industry). Pot 3 includes all former Soviet states plus Israel. Pot 4 is everyone else.

It is worth noting that currently the pot system does not require pairs of countries that vote for each other persistently to be split across the two semi-finals. There’s currently no barrier to Moldova and Romania being in the same semi-final. And pairs of countries swapping douze points has not led to a poor entry qualifying over a strong one.

This Is Why The Pots Are Important

In its current iteration the scoring system weights the televote and jury votes equally. There’s no averages, no combinatorics: the top 10 place entries for both the jury members and public in each country allocates 58 points during a semi-final or Grand Final. The EBU presumes that professional juries might have some biases, but expects jurors as professionals, to judge entries based on merit against the proscribed criteria. Hence the pots being focused on televoting patterns only.

Since the pot system was introduced the qualification records for several countries have improved (Estonia, Belgium, the Netherlands) while others have waned (Macedonia). Only Russia, Ukraine and Romania have maintained perfect qualification records (excluding withdrawals) and every currently participating broadcaster has qualified at least once from a semi-final. It remains a struggle for participants like San Marino and Czechia (who have each qualified once), though perennial also-rans Bulgaria have achieved two top five results in the last two years.

On a fundamental level, strong entries do reasonably well. Significantly because the pot system increases the statistical chance of qualifying for unaligned and smaller countries. It is this somewhat levelling of the playing field that has made it worthwhile for Cypriot, Austrian, Bulgarian, and Dutch broadcasters to aim higher. And it is entirely plausible that our next Lena, Conchita or Salvador will represent San Marino or Czechia.

Categories: ESC Insight

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