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XTRA Debate: The fandom and the law of average

There are two kinds of countries competing in Eurovision – countries aiming just to qualify to the final (or if they’re in Big 5, aiming to make it to the left side of the scoreboard) and countries determined to win. The latter are often very drastic (almost obscene) in the methods and the amount of budget they’re willing to spend to lift that crystal microphone in May and bring the contest the following year to their countries. That often brings lots of outrage in the (presumably online) fandom, which then starts searching for other favourites just so that they get an underdog winning. The mission of this piece, is to present some examples from the contest’s recent history and to present our opinions on the matter.

The Balkan beast called Bulgaria 

In the 2000s and at the beginning of the 2010s, Bulgaria was one of those unlucky countries without clear vision and with scandals dominating their selections every year. In 2013, they withdrew just to make a comeback in 2014 Junior Eurovision, where they placed second and then hosted the contest the following year. That gave them a confidence boost rarely seen in the contest and their results in Eurovision – fourth and second – showed that the eternal losers now meant business. For 2018 contest they came up with a strategy that hasn’t been seen before – they let fans be involved with their internal selection process and were not shy to admit that they were in it to win it. They were so determined that they were the favourites with the bookies without even revealing their song. After some sarcastic tweets, they revealed Equinox and “Bones” as their entry. The reaction – and the disappointment – with the fandom was real. Despite members of Equinox seemingly getting on well in the interviews and despite their strong live vocals, the fandom started suspecting that the selection of Equinox was a cynical move and there were even accusations of BNT and Bulgarian delegation manipulating the betting odds. During the rehearsals, the fandom was generally dissatisfied with Bulgaria’s staging and the gloating that followed Equinox’ underwhelming result in the final was prominent. Shame for such likeable performers and for a good song, that was perhaps just too much of a “grower” for the general public to connect with immediately.  

The beasts from the East 

When one looks for determined countries, it’s usually Russia that first comes up. The former Soviet country has been determined and hungry for good results ever since their second place in 2000 and their entries have been often spectacular pop songs with big, over the top performances. Their victory in 2008 is a result of their determination and that drives many fans mad. “Believe” is likely to top fan polls (or come close) of the worst winners of all time and Dima Bilan is often disliked by the fandom both as an artist and as a person. In 2016, Russia sent Sergey Lazarev to Stockholm and were once again the favourites to win. That caused concern and panic among the fandom as they thought Russia’s determination was a cynical propaganda tool. Most fans refuse to travel to Russia because of their controversial anti-LGBT laws and a contest organised in Russia was (and still is) no-go for the majority of the fandom, who then started looking for underdogs which could win over Russia – France was mentioned, Australia was receiving rave reviews by the expert critics and of course Ukraine and their thinly veiled political electronica song “1944”. The latter ended up winning the contest and fans were relieved not having to experience the contest in Russia just yet. But Russia, having won the televote, was outraged and claimed the result to be a fix. After sending Yulia Samoylova twice in a row (being banned from Ukraine in one of them) and not qualifying to the final in 2018, it’s likely for Russia to go for the win in 2019. Whether it will be successful this time, remains to be seen.

Another beast from the east is Azerbaijan. After their debut and top 10 result in 2008, they came to Moscow with a Swedish-Iranian pop star Arash with the young Azeri singer Aysel and the song “Always” and it was then, when they made it clear that they weren’t in the contest just to compete, they had a clear aim to win. Finishing third in Moscow, the year that followed was an even more lavish affair. As “Drip Drop” by Safura (written and produced by the Swedish songwriters) had a choreography made by JaQuel Knight (who had previously worked with Beyonce) and the music video directed by a famous English director Rupert Wainwright. Safura eventually finished fifth, with Lena from Germany (who had no special effects and was mostly alone on stage) eventually winning. In 2011, after 3 years of immense efforts, Azerbaijan finally won, with “Running Scared” by Ell & Nikki and finished fourth and second in the years that followed. However, soon after 2013 contest, evidence was brought up that Azerbaijan had manipulated the televoting and had made jury deals with embassies in smaller countries. After that, the efforts of Azerbaijan were lesser and the results worsened drastically. 

The Nordic beast called Sweden 

Sweden, Sweden, Sweden. One of the most divisive countries in the fandom. One simply cannot be neutral and indifferent when Sweden in Eurovision is concerned. After the drop in their results in the 2000s and the shock non-qualification in 2010, Sweden came back in 2011. And they came back big time. 3rd, win, 14th, 3rd, win, 5th, 5th, 7th is the statistics of the Swedish results over the 2010s. Their national selection, Melodifestivalen is often labelled as the “poster child of Eurovision selections” and praised both by the fan media and by the mainstream press. The both times that Sweden hosted the contest this decade, there was a big critical acclaim for their production and for their choice of hosts, in particular Petra Mede. Everything that Sweden (or SVT) touches turns to gold. And as there’s a big group of admirers for Swedish entries and for Melodifestivalen, there’s a big group of haters as well. The cheer in the arena and in the press centre for 2018 entrant Benjamin Ingrosso’s low televoting score was quite telling. But do fans who dislike or even hate Sweden’s success in Eurovision – do they really hate the songs or do they hate someone else? Christer Björkman and his involvement with the contest and with the contest’s rule changes is not resonating well with everyone and therefore the anger with his influence is often taken to the actual Swedish entries instead. After Salvador Sobral’s winning speech in 2017, many fans reckon Sweden represents the disposable “fast food” pop music with flashy stagings and with little substance. But is the criticism justified? Does Sweden have to start doing badly in the contest again in order to gain fan sympathies? 

I think many times, there is indeed a certain law of average with the fandom. Which is kind of ironic, considering how the same fans often want for their countries to make more effort in the contest. Of course, the musical merits of the songs of “determined” countries is a matter of taste, but to bring these countries down for simply trying often makes no sense. I think each country should try and give their maximum in order to succeed in the contest. Yes, when there is a clear evidence of cheating and buying votes, it is of course never OK as it gives an impression that one can simply buy a good result in the contest. But if countries want to win, we should let them. It may work, it may not, but I don’t think fans’ gloating over bad results of countries who make an effort will do much good to anyone. Just ignore their entries and listen to the ones you like instead.

Now off to my colleagues’ opinion. What do they think – should countries (pretend to) be low key in order to resonate well with the fandom or should they keep on trying hard and perhaps pissing parts of the fandom off? 

Lisa

There’s a British construct to this build them up to tear them down attitude that has grown in the fandom. Part of our nature is that we love to cheer an underdog, but British politeness and internalised shyness means we don’t like a show off. Especially if they become too confident and successful. However I very much go against the grain of this dynamic. If you’ve put in the effort to select a great song and find a good act, then why not invest the same into the stage production?

Hate towards Sweden is trendy in recent years, but it can’t be denied that they work hard to maintain the level expected when their national final is one of the most watched shows of the year. Always delivering memorable staging regardless of your own opinion of the songs. Bulgaria have gone from makeweights to potential Eurovision powerhouse and it’s been interesting to follow that transition. There was a lot of feedback about the public nature of the focus group, but it’s that extra care and level of detail to choose a song that resonates with me.

Personally I would donate organs for the BBC to have just a fraction of that passion and fan engagement to want to see us succeed again. Similarly our Irish neighbours would not have been popular during their 90s triumphs if social media existed back then!

Riccardo

Disclaimer: I have a well-established tendency to be one of the those fans who seems to dislike fan favourites. Toy was in my bottom, You Are The Only One was in my bottom, Grande Amore was in my bottom. It also took me a long time to appreciate songs like Euphoria or Amar Pelos Dois. That said, Eurovision is a competition and I think it’s completely normal, even necessary, that countries enter with a desire to win. I think it’s admirable that a country like Bulgaria, that was a forgotten one for a long time, came back with a strong desire to win and give us some of their finest artists. I admit I was disappointed with Bones, I was expecting more from all the excitement they gave us but it was still a quality song.

My issue is when countries try to win with staging over song. As much as I dislike You Are The Only One, I can’t possibly deny the staging was the most spectacular of the evening and arguably one of the best ever. But the song, was extremely generic and dated and, in my opinion, not deserving of a victory. But the staging was so distracting that the song became less important. The same goes for Hold Me, Azerbaijan 2013, dull song but exceptional staging. I agree that Eurovision is a package and staging is crucial. However, the song needs to come first. So I hope countries will continue to take our beloved contest seriously and aim to win it but not forgetting it is a song contest after all. 

Nathan P

I think the main issue with this is humility. If someone is doing well and is humble about the privileged position they are in then I think the fandom and the general community warms to them. The issue comes when the fandom sense a certain level of aloofness and arrogance towards the privileged position they find themselves in.

Take Ukraine for instance, they are one of the most successful modern Eurovision nations. But there is always a slight angle of humbleness to them and the acts seem to be approachable (Ruslana, Tina Karol, Verka Seduchka, Ani Lorak, Svetlana Loboda, Mariya Yaremchuk, Zlata Ognevic, Jamala and Melovin) all are very approachable and the Ukrainian selection process has an air of a low key event. So the fandom doesn’t feel the need to be threatened by them and generally the Ukrainian delegation (from the view of the fandom) seem to just get on with things.

Greece a nation that used to be seen to be like Ukraine but ever since their standard slipped starting with “One Last Breathe” in 2015 followed by 3 very tame efforts “Utopian Land” (resulting in their first ever NQ), “This is Love” and “Oneiro Mou” (their second NQ) it is like a wounded animal in a field of predators, the fandom smell the blood of a wounded Eurovision nation and want to attack them further like when anyone has a “fall from grace” everyone wants to throw their opinion and critisise.

But you get the opposite where the fandom see a clear potential that is missed year after year. Take the United Kingdom for instance. The anger is not because the BBC and the UK are too successful and aloof it is because they are not successful ENOUGH. The fandom and the people in the UK know how amazing a British hosted contest will be and the venue potential is massive (larger than Sweden’s if you ask me) the fandom wants to see success from nations that should be successful and have every opportunity to be so. 

Nick

The past few years have seen the Eurovision fandom change enormously. For me, this starts with two victories: Loreen and Conchita Wurst. In those instances, fans got their way. I know, I’m overgeneralising the fandom here, but you know what I mean. After that, fans became spoilt, in my eyes. Some of the fans’ favourite songs of the years, if not ever, somehow lost out in the past few years. They often did so against well sold packages.

Italian trio Il Volo couldn’t keep up with the entire stylished and choreographed performance Måns Zelmerlöw delivered, Dami Im and Sergey Lazarev didn’t do enough to break through Jamala’s story and Eleni Foureira fell short in the hype surrounding Netta Barzilai. It has given victories at Eurovision a bitter taste for some fans.

Somehow, Eurovision is seen as a happy playground by certain groups of fans. A nice little event where countries try to send the best they have on offer. However, when you openly say you want to be the best of Europe, it comes back to haunt you.

The Germans have a lovely word for it: Schadenfreude. Eurovision fans enjoy the failure of those who strive to be the best. Kristian Kostov is the most prolific victim of this madness. When a nation, a broadcaster, puts so much faith in a teenage boy, he can do nothing but keep up with the expectations. He was there to bring Bulgaria success. When the pressure got to him after the show, laughter was seen throughout the fandom. A painful sight, if you ask me.

In short, the general feeling is that Eurovision fans want to see happy Eurovision artists who bond together like a group of friends. Have we lost the sense of competition? It seems we have, because as Katja suggested, a desire to win is not received well in our little fandom.

What do YOU think? Do you like when countries put in effort in their participation? Discuss below or follow us on @ESCXTRA. 

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