Right Song, Wrong Contest: Trapped In Your National Final

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.)

Cherry Time

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.

Thanks To…

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.

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