How to do Eurovision in the 21st century

Okay, so I’ve been fairly outspoken about my dislike of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Apparently, I surprised some of my friends and acquaintances with that, with those who like heavy music asking “well, what did you expect?” and those who don’t asking “what do you expect?”. Let me try and explain with some examples of the last ten years. Mind you, this is not a “How to win Eurovision” guide, because I think the composition and production teams have a fairly good idea of how to do that. I just want to give examples of what this year was lacking to be enjoyable. Largely in chronological order, unless it helps my point if I let that go.

Finland 2006: Lordi – Hard Rock Hallelujah

Much had been said about the Gwar-inspired costumes of Hard Rock monsters Lordi, with some feeling it mocked the overdressed Eurovision candidates. It probably did, but let’s admit it: the Finns shook the system in more ways than that. First of all, it was a departure from the sweeping, syrupy ballads and upbeat Eurodance numbers that the Contest was chock-full of. As a result, people that normally felt excluded watched the show and possibly even voted. Also, I don’t think the EBU complained about the extra viewers. And most importantly: ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ is a pretty damn catchy, Kiss-like song with amazing backing vocal arrangements in the chorus. Lordi puts up a good show without sacrificing the music. And it awoke Eurovision quite hard.

What can we learn? Shake the system!

Turkey 2008: Mor ve Ötesi – Deli

Mor ve Ötesi is one of the most beloved Rock bands in Turkey and it’s quite easy to understand why: they’re amazing. After Turkey decided to send more of their most successful Pop and Rock artists, they’ve had quite some Eurovision success both commercially and artistically. They won in 2003 with ‘Every Way That I Can’ by the always amazing Sertab Erener, but the biggest musical triumph is probably this strong, melodic Rock song in 2008. It combines powerful guitar riffs with a big chorus and disctinctly Middle Eastern vocal melodies. The Turkish lyrics are sort of a plus for me as well, because I love the soft sound of the language. Songs like these always have a longer life than just the Eurovision season, as the crowd response to this song continues to prove.

What can we learn? Turkey always delivers.

Finland 2008: Teräsbetoni – Missä Miehet Ratsastaa

Two years after winning Eurovision with a powerful Hard Rock tune, Finland again went against the grain and sent a full-on Heavy Metal song in Teräsbetoni’s ‘Missä Miehet Ratsastaa’. And while it definitely underperformed, scoring only 35 points in the final, the fiarly obvious Manowar fans did show the European audience that there’s more to Heavy Metal than guttural vocals and rhythms that sound like the drummer is falling down the stairs. In fact, ‘Missä Miehet Ratsastaa’ is melodic and catchy, while its galloping rhythms and triumphant feel make my Heavy Metal heart pound faster. Bonus points for the Finnish lyrics. Just for diversity’s sake, I think it’s good to include one or two songs like this in the Contest every year.

What can we learn? Heavy Metal rules!

Moldova 2009: Nelly Ciobanu – Hora Din Moldova

Gimmicky acts like the elderly Russians in Buranovskiye Babuski notwithstanding, women in Eurovision are typecast more than anyone. They’re all young. They’re pretty, but not allowed to be too sexy if they’re singing a power ballad. And not too threatening to traditional role patterns. Moldova’s Nelly Ciobanu was different. She wasn’t particularly old when she competed in her mid-thirties, but definitely older than the girls in their late teens and early twenties that are common now. And while I find her attractive, she’s not the standard cute, shy Eurovision girl. No, this woman is a powerhouse, a much more forceful presence than the men she’s performing with. Also, I loved ‘Hora Din Moldova’; what the chorus lacks in melodic quality, it more than makes up for in energy!

What can we learn? Women don’t have to be cute and shy to rule!

Turkey 2010: maNga – We Could Be The Same

Sadly, Turkey’s Eurovision reign sort of came to an end earlier this decade. Allegedly, differences about the way the Contest is organized are the cause of this, but I suspect that there’s a strong financial undertone to the whole conflict. Whatever the case, it’s really a shame that Turkey doesn’t take part anymore, because there’s always songs like the almost symphonic Rock of ‘We Could Be The Same’ by the immensely popular alternative Rock band maNga. Coming in second place, the song was even the biggest Eurovision success for Turkey after Sertab Erener won in 2003. It still can count on a lot of support from all over Europe which comes to prove what I’ve stated before: Turkish entries tend to outlast the Eurovision season by quite a stretch. And rightfully so.

What can we learn? Turkey ALWAYS delivers.

Switzerland 2011: Anna Rossinelli – In Love For A While

Although it finished dead last, one of the very few songs that stood out for me in the 2011 contest was Anna Rossinelli’s ‘In Love For A While’. While the song itself is a little lightweight, I still liked it. Rossinelli herself is a charming presence both vocally and in terms of charisma, while the song itself reminded me a little of Room Eleven’s less Jazzy work. It was in fact this lightweight approach that made it stand out; in a Contest dominated by massively produced power ballads and mind-numbing dance tracks, this lovely little song is a celebration of songwriting craftsmanship and has a busking atmosphere which gives it something very pure. It may not have performed well in terms of votes, but I do still remember it fondly all those years alter because it’s really, really good.

What can we learn? Dare to be different!

Germany 2011: Lena – Taken By A Stranger

Lena Meyer-Landrut was playing in front of a home audience back in 2011, because her performance of ‘Satellite’, a very decent upbeat Pop song, won the Contest a year prior. I have a strong suspicion that powers behind the scenes are working their magic to prevent that the same country wins twice in a row and apparently, so does Germany. Why else would they send the same singer with this much of a dark, brooding and highly inaccessible Electropop song? Don’t get me wrong, I love it! While all of the choruses in the last couple of years seem to be some sort of emotional explosion, ‘Taken By A Stranger’ constantly seems to suggest climaxes that never come. I think it’s brilliant. Also, Lena may very well have delivered the sexiest Eurovision performance ever here.

What can we learn? Hosting? Why not try something weird?

The Netherlands 2013: Anouk – Birds

This one is specifically aimed at my own country: send better artists. Why is Anouk’s ‘Birds’ so much better than any other song that The Netherlands submitted  recently – including, with all respect to the great band The Common Linnets and their number two entry with ‘Calm After The Storm’ a year later? That’s easy: because Anouk isn’t afraid to kick a few people in the shins. Almost litterally. The problem with bland, inoffensive music in general is that it attracts relatively little hate, but not much love either. Anouk is our prime Rock chick and was therefore frowned upon when selected, but she blew everyone away with a beautiful orchestral song and an amazing vocal performance. Let’s give De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig a shot. Or Within Temptation.

What can we learn? The Netherlands need to send more unconventional artists!

Greece 2013: Koza Mostra & Agathon Iakovidis – Alcohol Is Free

You know the drill: the Eurodance songs are love songs and the big power ballads are about world peace and harmony. But what if you’re an artist who is just in the game to give audiences – and presumably yourself – a good time? Then just compete! Seriously, Greece’s highly infectious, Ska and Greek Folk infused party anthem ‘Alcohol Is Free’ – ironically released in the middle of their humongous economic crisis – was so fun and free of pretense that it was one of the absolute highlights of the evening. The exuberant performance by Koza Mostra may have contributed to that as well. And it’s not just me: Greece ranked sixth in 2013. As a teetotaller, I would like to point out that I’m usually off cheaper than my friends who do drink, but don’t let that take away the fun.

What can we learn? It doesn’t always have to be profound.

Italy 2014: Emma – La Mia Città

Not unlike Nelly Ciobanu, Italy’s Emma Marrone broke with the “cute girls singing power ballads” tradition by channeling her inner Rock goddess. Her slightly hoarse voice undoubtedly cost her points, but I personally loved it. And look at her performance: it is one huge, overwhelming chunk of passionate energy. Though the composition of ‘La Mia Città’ isn’t too dissimilar from what is generally heard on Italian radio, it was by far the best entry by any of the “big five” in a long time. While some of the girls singing more danceable tracks also have a tendency to appear more forward, none of them are quite as strong a presence as Emma Marrone. She may have scared the traditional crowd though, because she astonishingly only got 33 points for this awesome track.

What can we learn? We need more ladies that can rock!

Austria 2014: Conchita Wurst – Rise Like A Phoenix

Just like the song that you don’t realize is not in English until halfway through, a controversial artist is standard fare for the Eurovision Song Contest. Two years ago, that artist was the “woman with the beard” – I still think he’s rather a guy in a dress – Conchita Wurst. And he won, by quite a margin, I might add. You know why? Because he had the amazing song and the unbelievable vocal quality to back it up. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ was a classic orchestral Eurovision ballad and an anthem for the LGBT community, that – let’s be honest here – makes up quite a large portion of the Eurovision demographic. Sure, the controversy and press before the ESC has been a lot of free publicity for Conchita, but that could just as well have backfired on him if his performance was poor.

What can we learn? Controversy works, but only with a good song.

Spain 2015: Edurne – Amanecer

And just when I thought ‘La Mia Città’ was a fluke for the “big five”, Spain presented itself with a song that was breathtaking in composition, production and performance. The cinematic scope of the song as well as Edurne’s powerful, moving vocal performance caught me completely by surprise. In addition, I have a lot of respect for artists that still sing in their native tongue, even though that is no longer required. To this day, I don’t get why this amazing piece of art – that goes for the song, the performance, the production, but also the visuals – didn’t get more than a meager 15 points in the whole voting process. Then again, Germany and host country Austria received no points at all, so it could be worse. Is there any movie that would like this song on its sountrack? It fits!

What can we learn? Nothing in particular, I just really like the song.

Georgia 2015: Nina Sublatti – Warrior

Remember that I said that women are supposed to come across shy and subdued in Eurovision? Enter Nina Sublatti, the woman who enchanted me so last year. Not only is she such a strong presence herself, her song ‘Warrior’ is a female empowerment anthem along the lines of the Destiny’s Child song ‘Survivor’, that it vaguely reminded me of – albeit it with a darker vibe reminiscent of Jim Steinman’s productions for The Sisters Of Mercy. There’s a lot of boiling aggression underneath the surface of the song and while that was unthinkable in the ESC in general a few decades ago, it still more or less frowned upon for female contestants. Every year, at least one woman who despises that and takes a stand against it should enter the finals an blow me away like Nina did.

What can we learn? Female empowerment anthems should be more common.

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