Review: 2017 – Eurovision’s Turning Point
The Eurovision Song Contest, by its very title, claims to be about ‘song’. In this music-only, apolitical review, we’re going to test that claim.
We’re also going to look at why the 2017 event may turn out to be especially significant, potentially as Eurovision’s turning point. And we’ll suggest where the BBC might change policy, so that the UK can start to do better, both for its audience and for the British music industry.
Encamped (in more than one sense) in his Kyiv studio, the BBC’s Graham Norton urged us to download the show score sheet and make our own reckoning of the forthcoming presentations. There, the song is only a third of the story, with ‘performance’ and ‘staging’ being two other qualifications. Ironically, the winning song, ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ sung by Portugal’s Salvador Sobral (pictured), achieved its end with no staging whatsoever – just the man and a mic.
This was just one of several indications that here was a night when the music biz did not have it all its own way. There is a gap between what they too often want to deliver – cheaply-written, formulaic pap – and what we want to hear, namely well-composed songs. Sobral appears to feel the same way, referring in an uncomplimentary fashion to the “fast food music” so common in recent times.
According to eurovisionworld.com, the competition is the world biggest music show. Broadcast on five continents, it might be reasonable to expect that it would attract the finest songwriters wanting to showcase their best compositions to the ultimate music audience. We’ll look later at whether that’s really the case. But it’s not even as simple as that.
Artist & Repertoire
A few years ago, this writer saw at first hand the real nature of Eurovision, when asking the BBC, who submit the UK’s entry, how one might offer a song. Only to be told that it is not the song that interests the show’s UK producers, but the provision of an act to perform it. Yep, at least in the UK, as in the deservedly derided X-Factor, the Eurovision ‘Song’ contest is no such thing – it is just another A&R show. ‘A&R’ stands for ‘Artist and Repertoire’, and is in effect the music industry’s means of finding and signing performers.
In the UK, Eurovision is often treated as a joke, especially by the BBC who tend to send presenters with a reputation not for music, but for comedy. The message is that it is not to be taken at all seriously. The requisite gags were duly delivered with gusto by Graham Norton, Matt Edmondson, and Mel Giedroyc, who took their various opportunities to sling more smart-alec barbs than a porcupine in a standup spot at Jongleurs.
It’s safe to say that to some extent, the contest has in the past brought this negative view upon itself. Instead of showcasing the works of the world’s finest songwriters, there is much reliance on lazy and cliché songwriting techniques. After all, the need for attractive artists is a given – and the show scores by performance and staging, as well as the strength of the song.
Of the 26 songs in the final this year, 19 were simply tunes strung around a chord riff rather than actual compositions. The UK was also one of the guilty here. Elsewhere, much use was made of non-lyrical vocalizations, ohs, ees and ahs instead of lyrics.
Portugal’s entry was a true exception. It seemed to be the only song that had genuinely been subjected to the rigours of real composition. One song, among what should be the best contemporary compositions the continents of Europe and Australia can produce. Most of the others had about them the feel of make-it-up-as-you-go-along. That simply is not good enough.
On planet Eurovision, gimmickry can sometimes rescue a poor song. Romania’s yodel mixed with rap finished in 7th place. Moldova’s repetitive entry seemed to focus less on the song and more on a man almost appearing to play a saxophone while dancing, yet it achieved 3rd place. Italy was predicted to do well, and much mention was made of a dancer in a gorilla suit, while the vocalist trotted out one blithe musical cliché after another. It wasn’t clear whether it was the song or the gimmick that had the pundits expecting a winner, and it somehow made 6th of the 26.
What is to be celebrated is the success of Portugal’s little slice of slickly composed and poetic jazz in a sea of otherwise garish mediocrity and trite lyrics.
Points Make Prizes
Points are awarded from two sources. First is a poll of music-industry judges from all participating countries, including from those who didn’t make it to the final. Next come the results from the ‘televote’, being submissions from the public by phone, text, and app.
The gap between Portugal and almost everyone else was astonishing. It gathered 758 points, followed by Bulgaria’s 615, then a huge drop to Moldova’s 364; and of course it’s all downhill from there.
The UK scraped 111 points – a seventh of the points of the winner – and 99 of those came from the music-industry judges. The public televote gave the UK only 12 points, compared to the 376 it gave to Portugal.
Judges Versus Public
The judges and public agreed on the top two places, Portugal and Bulgaria, and almost on the bottom two, finally occupied by Germany and Spain. Toward the middle of the pack however, the televote seemed to be giving the industry something of a message. This was particularly stark in the case of Australia’s disappointingly derivative and dull offering ‘Don’t Come Easy’. The judges placed it 4th – surely not just to encourage it to invest again next year? But everybody else gave it a deserved 25th, telling it at least that if it should return, to do so with a better song.
Is this part of the mass-ranks backlash that is all over the Zeitgeist? The mainstream have been rocked by Brexit, the Trump Presidency, and now, the demand for decent songs at Eurovision. Or maybe not. But one thing appears certain – that the public appreciate a good tune and when one appears, they carry it aloft, above all others by some considerable margin.
Eurovision’s Turning Point?
The music industry should pay heed. Eurovision 2017 would appear to echo what this blog champions. The masses concur there is a lot more money to be made out of well-crafted songs than there is out of committee-mashed, derivative, copycat, lazy, riff-based cop-outs. Pay attention to them – and do better next time.
The 2017 event was significant. Eurovision seems to have completed a gradual transition from all-out jokefest to a more mature, demanding production. All the acts this year were musicians. Gone were the pantomime get-ups, gothic metal bands, and variety performers of previous contests. The winner was a real song – perhaps the only one in the competition. It doesn’t get clearer than that.
The inclusion of the public vote is important, as it acts as a check on the politics of previous years. It also introduces a new dimension of musical taste, capable of declaring what it wants. But of course it may also add a different flavour of politics – was the televote score of only 2 for Australia, placing it second from last, a plate of cold shoulder from the citizens of the European continent?
How the UK Can Do Better at Eurovision
Being in control of the UK’s presence at Eurovision, the BBC has much to answer for. So, BBC, this means you in particular. Stop blasting out your view that Eurovision is not deserving of your respect, a cultural waste of time. You do this at present by sending the show a stream of musical me-too dullness and mediocrity, backed up by presenter sarcasm. Insist instead that you be offered intricate songs composed with craft and skill. Stop making-do with the musical equivalent of a bottom-shelf supermarket microwave lasagne, with which you normally seem content.
It seems the BBC has been warned of this before, not least by a Eurovision producer along with ex-winner Sandie Shaw. We’ll add our voice to those and suggest that the BBC lose the Norton ego from Eurovision and replace it with somebody who is more music than costume. OK, Eurovision is a circus, and that’s fine. So treat the competition with not too much, but at least a little more respect. Then maybe it will respect you back. Maybe then it will acknowledge that at least you’re trying, instead of returning your insults by humiliating the poor cannon fodder you put before it.