What’s Happening In France
The culmination of France’s Eurovision selection, Destination Eurovision, takes place on Saturday February 26th. 8 songs have qualified from two Semi Finals.
France is bouncing back from one of the biggest slumps in Eurovision Song Contest history. 7 years out of 11 in a window from 2005 to 2015 France was outside the top 20 despite automatic qualification to the Grand Final. World star Patricia Kass scored France’s highest position, a very distant 9th place.
Change came with a new team and new youthful direction. ’J’ai Cherché’ arrived in Stockholm as a fan favourite and recorded France’s best result since 2002. Another top half leaderboard position in 2017 had given the Eurovision Song Contest much needed credibility again in France. France Télévisions ran a succcessful National Final in 2018 and again was riding high in pre-contest polling with the emotive ’Mercy’. The 13th place finish was ultimately a dissapointment after all the hype. However for 13th place to be a dissapointment showed the progress France’s Eurovision team had made.
The French return to Junior Eurovision in Minsk last November is evidence to this, a 2nd place finish after 14 years away from that competition.
That short history takes us to today’s show, and the name dominating the headlines is likely a name new to even the most devoted of French Eurovision fans.
Bilal Hassani, love or hate, is the name on everybody’s lips.
Who Is Bilal Hassani?
Bilal Hassani first hit the public eye through the French version of The Voice Kids. As a 15-year-old performer singing Conchita Wurst’s ’Rise Like A Phoenix’, his vocal was solid albeit far away from setting the world on fire.
The Bilal of today though, at age 19, is radically different from that bespectacled youth with checked shirts. My impression of Bilal reminds me in many ways to how I described the character of Conchita Wurst. Gender stereotypes are thrown out the window, with the heavily-dyed bob a startling contrast to Bilal’s eyebrows. His outfit for Destination Eurovision’s Semi Final is decidedly agendered, with the cut of Bilal’s white jacket toying with strong shoulder pads and fitted waists.
How does a 19 year old start creating such a character for themselves? On YouTube. Three years ago he started off on his YouTuber journey, and each thumbnail image documents his transformation into this new personality. His output is partly music, but also filled with the typical daft and silly vlogs that make up 21st century entertainment.
The loyal support means he now has a whopping 776,000 subscribers, a number that will likely continue to rise meteorically. Young Bilal found a niche online, a place where Bilal could experiment with what direction Bilal could take going forward. The growing ways of love and support from Bilal’s fanbase have slowly helped in building confience to become the performer he is today.
However there is only so long you can just stay growing up in your little online bubble. Destination Eurovision has brought Bilal out into the open with success. Qualifying comfortably to the final, the lyric video to ’Roi’, his self-empowerment flavoured Eurovision entry, is now Bilal’s most viewed video with over 5 million views. That’s more than all the other performers in the competition combined.
A Hard To Reach Audience
The viewing figures for the Semi Finals of Destination Eurovision show the Bilal Hassani effect. 30% of the viewers from Bilal’s Semi Final One dropped off for the 2nd Semi Final one week later. Artists bigger than the competition are rare and hard to find.
The problem for France Télévisions is to try and get these viewers to stick around for the rest of their broadcasting. Young people in Europe may be consuming more media now than ever before, but less of that is from TV and radio – more of it is online through their own networks and subsciptions. The next generation are used to only watching who and what they want, of skipping forward and backwards through videos for the best bits at ease, of being swayed by their recommended algorithms far more than the TV guide.
Other countries are following suit, most notably with Sweden. Vlad Reiser competes in Melodifestivalen this year with 400,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel full of ’vlogs, pranks, challenges and gaming’. He’s a name hot on the list of 12 year olds across the country, but perhaps few others. However there’s little doubt that his inclusion might drag a few pre-teens out of the bedrooms and onto the living room sofa to watch his performance. Similarly much hype surrounds Instagram star Bishara – who has made himself famous from performing short clips online.
These are risky moves by SVT in terms of the getting the best quality performers. As Bilal’s nervy Semi Final performance showed, many of these young people are far less experienced in surviving on the big stage. The cameras they are used to performing infront of are attached to their computer screen rather than a huge swinging crane. No longer are you just performing for your loyal fans, but for the entire country.
That said including new talent like this is exactly the direction every country should be taking. While there are huge question marks about their performances in Melodifestivalen, Bishara and Vlad Reiser will have some of the most hotly anticipated. YouTube and Instagram are going to become one of the biggest breeding grounds for new talent perfect for the competitive stage, Eurovision or otherwise. Those stars are likely to have that thing that TV now fails to find; the X Factor. While the TV show with the said name now relies on selecting artists with previous careers or fresh innocent faces, YouTubers have full creative licence to truly create something unique. It’s a tough environment, and the internet can be incredibly cold and cruel, but the rewards are great and are only going to continue to grow.
A few years ago, we were looking at artists like Lena, Loreen and Alexander Rybak as successful output from TV talent shows as great Eurovision successes. And they were. TV Talent shows give a great platform for all these artists to learn the know-how to play to camera, to tweak their artistry to appeal to the masses.
The last few winners of the Eurovision Song Contest however have been increasely divisive. Since Conchita’s 2014 victory there’s been one common theme with the winners. They have all had some unique character on stage. Be it a Måns Zelmerlöw as a buff superhero or Salvador Sobral’s introvert or Netta’s clucking-chicken – each winner has managed something well away from the norm. Eurovision winning songs are brave, bold and individual – Netta is the only artist I can think of who would sell ’Toy’ enough to win. The same goes for all the others.
Some countries are still using the TV talent show breeding ground approach to success. The modern audience is looking for diversity, courageousness and empowerment from their songs and performers. Our Eurovision winners are less likely to look like ’Running Scared’ or ’Only Teardrops’ any time soon, these are now a generation out of date. Modern Eurovision winners need a strong character and personality far more than ever before. You can be Mr or Miss X Factor Idol Voice Got Talent Alumni 2591…or you can be…you – and successful because you have already carved out a niche. I know which one gets me more excited.
Conclusions For Saturday Night
From reading this you may believe that Bilal Hassani is the hot favourite to win the French ticket to Eurovision 2019. It appears not so simple. Seemone’s achingly French ballad ’Tous Les Doux’ is running neck-and-neck in many predictions after a perfect jury score in the other Semi Final. It’s a simple yet touching tune, with a story so sentimental it pours emotion from every line. Songs like these don’t grow on trees or get created in songwriting camps – they come from the heart.
The expectation is that Bilal is likely to be a diverse option for the jury – his character should create the same love/hate jury relationship that also saw recent performers like Conchita, Sergey Lazarev and Jamala score terribly low with some jurors when they competed. There’s evidence for this, his YouTube stats has the most likes and views, but also the highest dislikes/likes ratio. But that is part of the risk. Not every off-beat character is going to do well, and Bilal might not be making the trip to Tel Aviv this May. Nevertheless though the Eurovision Song Contest will be filled with more Bilal’s and less Joe Bloggs’ in the future, and the list of winners even more so.
The YouTube generation isn’t to be dismissed any more.