How to conquer a continent
The Eurovision Song Contest has been won 54 times by 25 different countries since its inauguration in 1956. Of course, the lengths the artists have to go to in order to win have changed dramatically. Back in the day when each nation had a jury of pros who would decide the winner, it was all about the songs – the lyrics, orchestration, and extent of Euro-poppiness (and you HAD to sing in one of your native languages, until the late 1990’s. How v. restrictive!). But now, in the televoting age, winning means having a killer song and performance. Some continent-wide fame doesn’t hinder either (Andrew Lloyd Webber…cough…2009…splutter).
Having analysed the recent winners, I’d like to introduce you to a guide – one that details what you need to be, have and do to become a Eurovision champ (if I could only sing, I would have a go myself). I am using John Kennedy O’Connor’s definitive contest book The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official History as a reference. If you don’t have it, go to Amazon and get it! (Other great Eurovision books include Nul Points by Tim Moore and This Is Sweden Calling by Des Mangan). Here we go (BTW, these are not ranked in order of importance. That tends to vary):
STEP #1 – LANGUAGE
Whilst there is nothing wrong with singing in your own language, it has to be said that in recent years, English has been the most successful language of the winning formula. The fact of the matter is that many Europeans understand English, and songs that translate get votes. However, music is of course a universal language, so go figure.
Also popular is the fusion of English and a native language for songs that do well, such as Turkey in 2009. But only one song in the last ten years has won Eurovision singing wholly in a LOTE. Coincidence? Maybe. For a reason? Most likely.
CASE STUDY: 2008 – Russia’s Dima Bilan is not the best example of a bilingualist, as seen in his post-win press conference and other interviews where an interpreter was required. There’s nothing at all wrong with this. Yet he still elected to wrote/sing a song entirely in English. Hmm, I wonder why?
STEP #2 – THE HOOK
Any musical genre can win, but if a song does not have a catchy hook, it can potentially be monotonous and/or forgettable. These serve to become ‘ear worms’ in the mind and make the voters remember. Often this involves a repeated flash of a unique instrument pertaining to the country’s culture, or to the artist themselves. Alternatively, a singalong bridge or chorus can do the trick – think UK 1997.
CASE STUDY: 2000 – Denmark’s Olsen Brothers used a pan flute to attract attention long before Shakira. The opening notes of ‘Fly On The Wings of Love’ did it for me – I will never forget it (one of my favourite ESC songs ever, by the way), and if you have, I will slap you with a wet fish. Unless you are a Euro newbie.
STEP #3 – GIMMICKS
Having a gimmick is a risk. It will fall into one of two categories – a) The classy, innovative and well-thought out gimmick which appeals to the audience and enhances the performance, or b) The tacky, unoriginal gimmick which distracts from the song and appears as a novelty. But, it is also an integral part of winning the contest, being about the impact of the show once again. It can be choreography, a celebrity cameo, a change of costume, a prop…anything visually exciting. Because let’s face it – in Eurovision you have just three minutes to win over a continent, and very few songs are good enough to win purely on the sound.
CASE STUDY: 1981 – I have to mention Bucks Fizz on this one. The skirt-ripping was perhaps the greatest gimmick ever utilised on the stage, due to its simplicity and unexpectedness. I know, I know, it’s verging on category b). But because it complemented the fun and carefree nature of ‘Making Your Mind Up’, it worked. Very well indeed.
STEP #4 – COSTUMES
According to O’Connor, the colour to be seen in if you want to win (since the contest was first broadcast in colour) is random, white or white and pink. White always seems to be the flavour of the year, and black and white is also popular. At least the principal artist in the last four contests has been wearing predominantly black, white, or a combination of both. Basically, wear something flattering, distinctive, and that won’t play havoc with the camera (poor Lydia).
CASE STUDY: 2007 – Serbia’s Marija Serifovic and her posse sported smart black & white suits for their winning performance, with distinctive touches of red, which was echoed in the choice of stage effects. It was an original selection in the sea of evening gowns and sequins that plagued Helsinki.
STEP #5 – CHARISMA & CONNECTION
You need to use your face as a connection device. Think of it like Bluetooth. You have to radiate charm, modesty and confidence in order to get through to the voters, and have them accept you. Many forget that whilst they are performing for a massive crowd in whatever stadium they are in, most of the people who decide their fate are watching on their TV’s at home. So pay equal attention to the camera, which is the window to the majority of viewers. Connect with us, and we will feel closer to you.
Be sincere in expressing the mood of the song, and always be thankful to be there (or at least look like you are). Smile at the end, and Europe will smile with you.
CASE STUDY: 2009 – Alexander Rybak was cute, and he must have known it. He smiled, shrugged and charmed his way through his performance, speaking to the live audience and the home viewers with his personality. I wanted to take him home with me!
STEP #6 – TALENT
Having the ability to sing/actually play an instrument doesn’t always matter, to my constant irritation. But you will get a lot more respect if you can. Sing in the language that you sing best in – give a quality performance. Those screaming fans did not pay upwards of four hundred dollars to hear what sounds like a mob of angry, recently desexed cats having a brawl.
CASE STUDY: 1991 – Another of my all-time favourites, yet still M.I.A on iTunes, ‘Captured by a Lovestorm’ (the English title) by Carola was quite 80’s for a 90’s entry, but was carried off so spectacularly well by the Swede that this became irrelevant. When she came back for a third go in 2006, Carola didn’t win, but still showed that she has an amazing voice. Love her.