Eurovision’s ‘bubble’ of musical distraction pops up on the general public’s radar for no more than a few hours per year, and has, for many years, weathered criticism of being out of touch with the continent’s modern music tastes. Yet in 2014, the Eurovision Song Contest has managed to linger longer in the spotlight, thanks in particular to the winner and runners up, whose performances and impacts could not be more contrasting. Conchita Wurst’s victory was a celebratory moment for much of the contest’s traditional fan-base; those who know Eurovision as a season-long party. The Common Linnet’s runner-up position took the Eurovision world off guard, and left The Netherlands’ entry just one place shy of bursting the Eurovision bubble.
The Eurovision Song Contest straddles two spheres. One, as its name suggests, as a contest of song. The other, more and more dominantly it seems, as a TV show. 2014 proved to bring a wide variety of song and characters that brought enough hype to increase rating in diverse parts of Europe. But it also made a stride towards mainstream musical credibility, thanks to the success on stage and in the charts of The Common Linnets.
Eurovision’s song contest sphere can seem to take a shadow role at times, despite the four jury criteria (vocal capacity; performance on stage; composition and originality of the song; overall impression by the act) being a significant factor in the final scoring. Songs high on the scoreboard can often be those that impress as a TV show performance, rather than the song which strictly meets the jurors’ criteria most highly. Yet the spheres of TV show and musical contest need not be mutually exclusive, as winning should not be considered the be-all-and-end-all of success. In 2014 more than any other year, a range of songs, beyond the winner, have forced their way into sales charts across the continent. Last weekend the UK saw four Eurovision songs in the Official Chart Top 40 for the first time ever. Both “Rise like a phoenix” and “Calm after the storm” have charted in the top 10 of nine European nations at the time of writing. Moreover, The Common Linnets have sneaked into the top 20 album sales in Germany, top 40 in the UK, 45 in Ireland in addition to their chart-topping back home. Such chart success is surely the holy grail for the Eurovision brand.
Bit by bit, songs seem to be breaking out of the bubble, but the structures around the contest can put barriers up to this. For this two week jamboree, returning artists, composers, choreographers and other delegates give a comfortable familiarity to the returning fans and returning press, but can leave the contest playing musical catch up. Eurovision exists disjointedly to the contemporary music scene of most of its participating countries. It only truly exists for a short time each year, with musical evolution stalled between each reincarnation of the bubble. It’s an inevitable if inadvertent consequence of this bubble of familiarity that many of those captured within it aim to create their next Eurovision entry in light of what has worked before rather than what is contemporary in chart or ‘new’ music.
In late March, with all Eurovision songs presented, no betting outfit was predicting The Common Linnets to gain anything higher than twenty-third place, and they had good evidence on which to base their long odds. The Netherlands has had one of the worst track records in recent years, with only Dutch superstar Anouk able to qualify to the final since 2004, the intermediate songs not coming close. The Netherlands cannot rely on a diaspora, significant neighbourly or social-cultural friendly voting. Ilse de Lange may have had considerable solo success for over a decade in her home country, but was barely known outside of the Flemish-speaking world. “Calm after the storm” does not fit any preconceived idea of what makes a good Eurovision song. It’s a non-European genre, and previous attempts at country songs in Eurovision have been rare and have never met with great success. The song is technically extremely simple, doesn’t have much of a hook (despite linking and respecting it, I’ll confess to branding it “chorusless” before the contest) and is without any gimmick in its presentation. Essentially, every vote registered for The Netherlands was a vote for the song itself.
In contrast, winner Conchita Wurst’s persona, act and song are as though ever-destined for the contest, and with the Austrian working the Eurovision media with more savvy and more energy than any other entrant during the many weeks of Eurovision season, her bubble-approved act had a message which viewers across the continent were keen to show their support. This ranged from maximum televote scores from eight nations (the most easterly of which being Slovenia and Sweden), but also top three placings according to televote in traditionally more conservative nations such as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Israel, Romania, and Ireland. Interestingly, more juries gave Conchita the maximum 12 than did the public, nine nations compared to eight. Contrastingly, the Netherlands garnered more top votes from public than jury, five (Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Lithuania) to four (Hungary, Latvia, Norway, Poland).
Conchita Wurst’s victory promotes the view of the Eurovision Song Contest as a TV show and a piece of entertainment, albeit one of value that reflects welcome and vital social trends. The Austrian song was by no means a novelty – it gained points from my personal jury, and was a very strong performance of a very well written song. However, many people in the general public won’t stop to listen to the song behind the artist. This situation was evident in the winner’s press conference, where not a single question to Conchita was actually about the song or the music. Had the Netherlands won, the focus would have been on the victory of a song for almost solely it’s musical value. I say almost; I’ll give a fair amount of credit for The Common Linnets’ strong result to two other factors; Ilse and Waylon’s on-screen chemistry, and some inspired use of the steady cam.
The Eurovision brand has been thrust into the media spotlight around Europe for many different reasons by Conchita’s win and The Common Linnets’ second place finish. Different opportunities would have arisen for Eurovision had there been a Dutch win, but either way, things are looking positive.
If singers, composers, TV companies and record labels take note of The Common Linnets’ chart success, gained whilst maintaining musical integrity and without even a victory in the contest, perhaps Eurovision will be the ultimate winner, as more contemporary and varied musical acts will enter the fray in 2015. Time will tell.