After two years of almost unbearable anticipation, we have just experienced the birth of a new age in the Eurovision Song Contest. Even if with many significant limitations that no amount of clever AR effects can disguise, Rotterdam finally got its shot at hosting the show, one that will certainly stay in our memories as one of the most competitive and nailbiting editions of all time. Cosmic justice, or rather, the televote, finally gathered round Italy to give them their first win since 1990, a trophy that seems to reward Måneskin on Eurovision 2021 as much as it should have the likes of Raphael Gualazzi, Nina Zilli, Mahmood and other Sanremo stars that graced our screens during the last decade.
As the dust settles down and the city bid wars start anew, it is time to take inventory of what we learnt from this edition of the biggest show on earth. Being a eurofan is partially an experience of attempted musical mediumship, but, as always, this year’s Contest left many of our expectations dumbfounded. And for that I am quite thankful, at least in most cases. Since hindsight is always 20/20… or 2021 as it were, here is a personal roundup of a few things I believe we could learn from Rotter-DAMN:
Sure, Philipp Kirkorov and his self-called “Dream Team” might have just pulled another minor miracle with Moldova’s “Sugar” — even if the country’s scores look a bit questionable at first sight —, but this year we essentially witnessed the triumph of the singer-songwriter. Not that they were all rewarded, but look closely into either the televote or the jury’s top ten: Malta’s “Je Me Casse” is the only entry in which the singer or singers do not appear in the credits. Even a hyper-polished package like “Tout l’Univers”, where both the Swedish choreographer and stage director Sacha Jean-Baptiste and Wouter Hardy (of “Arcade” fame) were involved, was still very much Gjon’s Tears’ own work of art.
In contrast, songcamp products like “El Diablo” or “Voices” are nowhere to be seen on the left side of the scoreboard. And after sending three songs to the Contest That Never Was in 2020, Boris Milanov’s songwriting powerhouse Symphonix was left entirely out of the race in this year’s season. Homemade music seems to be on the rise in the ESC.
Very exciting developments, if you ask me.
Listen, we honestly should have seen it coming since KEiiNO’s “Monument” spectacularly lost to “Fallen Angel”, its somewhat underwhelming yet earnest rival in the Norwegian national final. The fandom was sure the band would take the Contest by storm and gather us all under their comforting euro-techno-schlager wings towards the sunset in Oslo 2022. But in the end, they didn’t.
Then Sanremo rolled in and “La genesi del tuo colore” didn’t win. Karetus failed to convince in Portugal’s Festival da Canção, and NEEV was left “Dancing in the Stars” and far from the Netherlands. Dotterdam didn’t happen in Melodifestivalen. Many of us were certain we were heading towards a disappointing year, and lo and behold, not only did we survive, but we absolutely thrived, adrift in a sea of unexpected favourites.
After a year and a half of repeated lockdowns, the European audience did seek some sort of escapism, only not in the guise of camp & glitz, divas with big tunes or Lady Gaga B-sides. These still have their place in the competition, but they are not leading the conversation anymore. And on that note…
The history of “nu metal” takes us back to the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when the US music industry spotted a collective drop in self-esteem, especially among the male youths of the nation. It found in “nu metal” the right recipe to let their repressed angst out, to the expense, of course, of female talent. For instance, we now know that Evanescence would not have had a deal to release “Bring Me To Life” if Amy Lee hadn’t been forced to share the chorus with rapper/rocker Paul McCoy, because the producers felt the band lacked enough “male energy”.
So when Finland’s national final unleashed Blind Channel’s “Dark Side” onto a post-pandemic world, many eurofans were absolutely convinced that this year’s single slot for “stuff other than pop music” was already filled. Italy would have to wait another year for a shot at winning the contest, because surely both rock entries would cancel each other’s chances in the competition?
Turns out that Europe is quite angry, but also unbearably horny and ready for catharsis. Italy won. Finland was the fourth most voted country in the televote. And Ukraine’s Spring ritual-turned-song, “SHUM” (a word that translates to “Noise”), was second in the popular preference, proving there’s more than enough public for all sorts of, errr, “noisy entries” in the Contest. It’s as if the ESC is finally converging with musical tastes from the real world. Mindblowing.
When the jury vote was reintroduced back in ESC Moscow 2009, it was seen as a welcome attempt to rein in the perceived excesses of the previous decade, what with Lordi winning in 2006 and Verka Serduchka almost winning in 2007 — actually, I suspect the main purpose of bringing back the judges was to prevent Eastern Europe from taking over the competition. The newcomers’ creativity and enthusiasm knew no limits when compared to the growing indifference or downright animosity of the Western member broadcasters (case in point: Ireland’s Dustin the Turkey in 2008). The East was obviously bringing something new and appealing to the table, and we just couldn’t have that, now could we?
Sure, the judges helped protect the show from quite a few cheap/expensive tricks, although only partially — “Heroes” won in 2015, but its logical evolution, “You Are The Only One”, did not in 2016. However, by now it is not sure whether their influence has done anything to improve the quality of the show that the natural evolution of tastes and trends couldn’t do. They are as susceptible, if not more, of being corrupted by geographic proximity and other, less licit, manoeuvres. And there’s been more than a few examples in recent years where radio-friendly, Americanised songs were favoured instead of more experimental tunes (“Telemóveis” being one of the most egregious cases in 2019) or even entries inspired by traditional genres, regardless of the country.
Things seem to have evened out somewhat nicely in 2021, but countries like Italy, Ukraine and, frankly, Albania, were still undervalued. Against all stereotypes, the public seemed to be able to recognise the quality of both France’s chanson and Switzerland’s mise en scène in the same evening. What would the Contest look like if we trusted the audience’s vote once more?
And if you’re fine with just hanging around the top ten, you’re also in good company: only half of those entries were sung entirely in English, and the podium was filled with two songs in French and the winner song, of course, in Italian.
Language is always a delicate topic in Eurovision, often reduced to a couple of contending stereotypes: one must sing in English in order to be more accessible to the voters or one must sing in their own language to better represent their home country and culture. In a year when Denmark sent its first entry in Danish since 1997 and Portugal just sent their first song fully in English ever, I think it’s time we had a more nuanced conversation about the matter.
Yes, the music industry, and therefore the general public’s taste, is largely shaped by English-speaking players, and of course you might have a more difficult time getting your message across on Eurovision if you sing in a different language. Your delivery must get straight to the point, or else. Lisbon 2018 showcased both extremes of the spectrum: bringing a song built entirely on top of a linguistic pun but failing to explain what the pun is, like Madame Monsieur’s “Mercy”, versus literally filling the viewers’ screens with translations of the lyrics and calling it a day, like Ermal and Meta did.
But in the end of the day, authenticity is key. The performers have three minutes to get on stage and win Europe’s hearts, and that emotional connection doesn’t need any translation — although the captions on Australia’s SBS feed do come quite handy. So if you have a band and you were always going to write most of your songs in English anyway, like The Black Mamba, then by all means, the euro-stage is yours. But if you believe you must sound and speak like anybody else to succeed in the competition, think again. Salvador Sobral (yes, him of all people) said it best:
Be honest with what you’re doing, honest to the audience and honest with yourself. I think people feel that when you’re honest with your art. — Salvador Sobral, live with The Roop @ https://www.instagram.com/tv/CPJAa5uAMtj
And by “we” I mean both the Contest and the population of the continent itself, which it mirrors. I’m sorry Europe, zero points. On the one hand, we just witnessed the triumph of both Barbara Pravi (whose mother is Iranian) and Gjon Muharremaj (whose parents are from Kosovo and Albania), although their roots were never openly discussed in mainstream media — all the better for their chances in the competition, I guess. On the other hand, contestants like Tusse, Benny Cristo and Jeangu Macrooy were persistently targeted by the hatred of their national press and eurofans alike, even in the so-called “press room” in Rotterdam as they should be focusing on the competition alone. Benny spent the 2020 season remixing his song in hopes of trying to please a crowd that would never take him seriously to start with, and Jeangu’s introduction of some verses in Sranan Tongo in his 2021 entry was received with a meme about cruciferous vegetables. To this we add Destiny Chukunyere’s struggle to dress however she well pleased on stage without being criticised. Fatphobia and racism do have a common root, after all.
It’s been known for a while that the fanbase and much of the queer-led fan media are sorely lacking in the understanding of sexuality and gender identity matters — because there’s nothing like a bit of self-hate, as long as we can keep pinkwashing everything into numbness, right? Acknowledging the fandom’s own racism is the next frontier on the horizon.
We also need the member broadcasters to do their job in actually serving the population in its entirety. Quite a tall order in an age of increasing bigotry, I know, but the Eurovision network is a collective of public-service organisations after all. The organisation of Rotterdam 2021 made some effort in that regard, with a somewhat diverse cast of hosts both on TV and online, and host network AVROTROS even used Jeangu’s song to spark a discussion around diversity in its regular programming. I guess the 2014 merge between AVRO’s somewhat liberal bend with TROS’s “for the common folk” ethos did both broadcasters some good. But this is just the beginning.
The Eurovision Song Contest has often been a tiny push for host countries to work on improving human rights, or at least to start the conversation, even if its fruits take more than a decade to arrive. With Italy’s recent dabblings with electing extremist politicians into power and rejecting much needed bills on queer rights in parliament, what can we expect from the 2022 Contest? As long as we don’t shut up and stay quiet (…here’s your obligatory reference to “Zitti e Buoni”), maybe change is in fact on its way.