Eurovision’s Unwritten Rulebook… And The Winners Who Broke Them

There was a certain frisson around ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ when it was revealed (along with the other entries) for RTP’s Festival do Cançao (FdC) 2017. That frisson built through Salvador Sobral’s appearance in its semi-final (where it ranked second): by the time Sobral performed in the FdC final, there was a genuine buzz: Portugal had something special on offer, though it perhaps seemed too Portuguese for the Eurovision Song Contest.

It is worth remembering that ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ did not win the televote in either its FdC semi-final or grand final. In other words an audience where everyone would have understood the song’s message, public support was extensive rather than overwhelming. Rather quickly the buzz around ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ got very loud within the Eurovision fan bubble.

And yet…many a Eurovision obsessive made observations like “it’s wonderful, but it’s not the sort of song that inspires a massive televote”, “I love it, but he’s too quirky for a mainstream audience” or “I think this is timeless, but I suspect a lot of jurors will see it as dated.” In other a quality entry, but not expected to do particularly well in Kyiv.

Well that turned out differently.

In 2017 we had a winner that shattered some of the unwritten rules—or, if you prefer, the conventional wisdom—in terms of winning the modern, aggregate-public-and-jury scored Eurovision Song Contest. Portugal is not part of a reliable voting bloc. Its diaspora might help an entry get out of its semi-final, in a flat scoring year.  Aside from some regions of Spain, there is nowhere else in the Eurovision voting area where Portuguese is a regional or official language. And then there’s Salvador himself, whose style might best be described as idiosyncratic. RTP’s decision to eschew the surfeit of LEDs or other special effects in favour of classically stripped down staging.

‘Amar Pelos Dois’ had so many things going against, in terms of convention. It still won.  Which got us thinking: why don’t we unpack some of the unwritten rules of the (Eurovision) game? And which winners have flouted them?

Rules Versus Rules

In discuss rules, we are not referring to the actual rules for the 2018 Contest. Year upon year these are more often tweaked a bit rather than being wholly rewritten. Even the shifts in the scoring system (from jury to public to public with a bit of jury to blended public/jury to the current aggregate public jury system) have been incremental over two decades. The fundamental rules have been consistent. Of course participating broadcasters can add their own rules about language, nationality of artists and songwriters, among others. But we’re not interested in those broadcaster specific rules either.

We’re focused on those unwritten rules, which fans and delegations discuss from time to time, often in consideration of an entry’s potential to do well.  The sorts of things that work or do not work at the Eurovision.

Such as…

Play To The TV, Not The Crowd

Many a dream about winning the Eurovision ended when an artist comfortable playing arena gigs steps onto a Grand Final stage. In addition to being huge, a Eurovision audience is super passionate. Many artists get hit with that rush of Eurofan love and proceeds to give an epic performance to the crowd. For everyone in the arena something amazing has been shared.

However it often comes across really disconnected to the much larger audience watching on telly. There are a few thousand votes available in the arena: there are millions for the taking behind the camera. Many seasoned musicians, who have cultivated their performance ethos over years, have fallen into this trap and not got the result they had hoped.

Unless you’re The Olsen Brothers. If you were two middle-aged Danish brothers who’ve been trying to represent your country at the Contest for a couple of decades and finally got the ticket. You’ve already lived the arechtypal rock and roll lifestyle (and all its excesses). You walk out on stage, look at each and decide “Let’s just have a blast!” You missed the camera? No worries, there another one (and you point to it each time you find it)! The crowd’s clapping along? AWESOME! When you’re nothing singing, you’re laughing.

The Olsen Brothers – ‘Fly On the Wings of Love’ (Source: YouTube/Olsenbrother Music)

The Olsen Brother were just so damned cool! And it came across brilliantly on telly.

Comebacks Don’t Win Eurovision… Or Make Great Comebacks.

Blue tried it. Ditto No Angels, Dana International, and Bonnie Tyler. Each of them tried to leverage participating in the Eurovision to rekindle their career. Some did OK (Blue were 5th in the public vote in 2011) while others…didn’t.

A Eurovision enabled comeback is probably still a risk worth taking…if you’ve got a strong entry. If you do reasonably well, you will probably gain some new fans, perhaps even a record deal (or retain one about to be lost). Many have tried to win the Eurovision as a career reboot strategy. It doesn’t usually work out as well as hoped.

Then there’s Katrina and the Waves, whose career had stalled by the mid 1990s. After a global smash with Walking on Sunshine, they released a series of CDs and singles, none of which generated anywhere near the sales as their big hit. But one night in Dublin that changed, when the Waves—led by 37 year old vocalist Katrina Leskanich—scored one of the biggest Eurovision victories of all time.

Katrina and the Waves – ‘Love Shine the Light’(Source: YouTube/escLIVEmusic1)

‘Love Shine the Light’ became the band’s biggest ever hit. Which still couldn’t prevent the band from collapsing a year or two later. The comeback thing also sort of worked out OK for Johnny Logan.

You Can’t ‘Just Sing’

In the golden era of the Contest, viewers were treated to legions of singers standing at their mark and singing. The high tech stage setup that is the 21st century Song Contest offers a lot of options for entries. Aside from all the high tech kit, many countries’ top designers are happy to contribute a frock or outfit for an extra fabulous look. Dancing or some form of choreography is good too. Whatever you do, you don’t want your performance to seem to be too static.

The 2010 Eurovision season had a handful of entries favoured in the betting odds. The Azeribaijan entry, ‘Drip Drop’ would be performed by the ingénue Safura. Denmark’s Chanée & Evergreen had the more schlager ‘In a Moment Like This’. And then there was Germany’s entry:

Lena Meyer-Landrut – ‘Satellite’ (Source:YouTube/Eurovision Song Contest)

Stefan Raab was the man driving that years German selection, the man who brought ‘Guildo hat euch lieb’ (7th in 1998) and ‘Wadde hadde dude da?’ (5th in 2000) to the Eurovision stage. Raab also co-wrote those ‘Can’t Wait Until Tonight’ (8th in 2004). That’s three entries, with top 10 results. Handing the reigns to Raab savvy rather than risky.

At the end of a multi-week selection there were two shortlisted singers, each of whom recorded the two short listed songs. Lena Meyer-Landrut’s version of ‘Satellite’ topped the German charts almost immediately. When it entered the Austrian and Swiss charts Eurovision fans started to take notice. In the quiescence after the mid-March Reference Group, Lena seemed to fall off the radar a bit.

When the rehearsals started in Oslo, Lena rocked up in a little black dress and just sang the song. Many wrote off her chances—except perhaps Raab and Lena. She sounded great, she looked great, she looked comfortable and she clearly was having fun. And Europe decided to join her!

Buzz Kill ≠ Victory

Many Eurovision entries have been built around an important social message, which is laudable: art is sometimes uniquely positioned to illuminate the need for change in our world. Over six decades  of Eurovision Song Contests war, family violence, terrorism, and racism have been the subject of really strong entries (including several in 2018 too). While many of us appreciate it when the Song Contest is used as a platform for such aims, it does not often result in a finish near the top of the leader board.

Therefore on paper a song about Stalin’s purge of Crimean Tatars during World War Two (the Great Patriot War) would seem an obvious party killer. Unless you’re Jamala.

The magic was in the music, but the path to victory was in the maths, according to Jamala’s scientist husband Bekir Suleimanov. After the car crash that was the 2011 Ukrainian national selection, no one could blame Jamala for never again having any interest in the Ukrainian Eurovision selection. But Bekir persisted: with her talent, and a great song—one that suited her as an artist—along with strong levels of support across the public and jurors, Jamala could win the Eurovision. With something strong.

Jamala – ‘1944’ (Source:  (Source: YouTube/Eurovision Song Contest)

“When strangers are coming, they come to your house, they kill you all and say ‘we’re not guilty, not guilty.’”

Not the sort of lyrics that gets the party started. ‘1944’ is neither a banger nor a ballad. It’s sort of jazz-infused, trip-hoppish song that Jamala’s catalogue has featured for years. It is contemporary; it’s just not mainstream pop. But everything—the melody, the arrangement, the vocal and the staging—were pure class. Both jurors and the public got solidly behind ‘1944’: being second favourite with both, under a new aggregate scoring system, brought Ukraine their second Eurovision victory.

Don’t Be Too Queer

When ORF announced Conchita Wurst had been internally selected as the Austrian entry for Copenhagen, many fans viewed it as a “nothing else works, why not just send…” moment. The preview video revealed a very good song, but it was very camp—and could she deliver it live? How would it be staged? Ostensibly ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ should have been staged rather conservatively.

Then there’s Conchita herself, Austria wasn’t known for being the most socially progressive member of the European Union in 2014, particularly around LGBTQ+ rights. And then there were all the central and eastern European participant broadcasters (including former Soviet states further East) from countries for overt hostility towards gender and sexual orientation diversity. There were so many ways ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ could have gone off the rails.

Conchita Wurst – ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ (Source: YouTube/Eurovision Song Contest)

Except it didn’t. Styled and coiffed beautifully, staged magnificently, and performed epically, from the first rehearsal it was clear Conchita was a contender.  And that the public in “western” Europe would love her.  As did the public in Hungary, Lithuania and Georgia (10 points each), Ukraine and Romania (8 points), and Moldova (7 points). Austria’s third place in the Russian televote only earned Conchita 5 points because Russian juror Dominik Joker slated Conchita by putting her 21st: the others had Austria 7th, 9th or 10th (she ended up 11th with the Russian jury as a result. It didn’t matter. Conchita won. On her own terms.


The Golden Rule

These rules have all been broken. There is one, however, that trumps both the unwritten and written rule books: artist self-belief. Every one of these artists believed in themselves, their song, and how to present it. It is very difficult to win a 40+ entry song contest. But if you don’t believe in yourself and your entry, if you don’t walk out on that stage supremely confident (all four times), it is so much harder to convince jurors or the public to put their confidence in you.

These entries all appeared on the Eurovision stage on their own terms. They were presented in ways that allowed them to be confident, and thus were able to deliver great performances when it mattered. As the rehearsals start this week it will be readily apparent who isn’t comfortable and confident. That can improve over the fortnight—Blanche’s ‘City Lights’ in 2017 comes to mind—but we haven’t recently seen that lead to actual victory.

Class of 2018

Sending something amazing is better than sending something safe, if you want to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Most years. We thought it would be fun to consider who might be this year’s rule breaking winner. In the end we have four.

  • Georgia’s Iriao, which combines polyphonic singing with jazz on ‘For You’. A group of middle-aged guys singing in a language no one else understands.
  • The Netherlands’ Waylon, who has gone full-on country with ‘Outlaw in ‘Em’. He finished second as half of the Common Linnets with ‘Calm After the Storm’ in 2014, so it is something of a comeback too.
  • Hungary’s AWS, who have aspirations to be the first metal and post-hardcore Eurovision winner with Viszlát nyár. Performing a song about a father’s dying words to his son.
  • Portugal’s Cláudia Pascoal, who aspires to make Portugal the first Eurovision host to complete the double since 1994, with the airy, chilled and moving ‘O Jardim’.

Mind, we aren’t predicting any of these will win. Yet. Let the rehearsals begin!

  • Eurovision’s Unwritten Rulebook… And The Winners Who Broke Them

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