This week, I had the pleasure to go to the BBC and meet the UK hopefuls for Tel Aviv. The BBC’s format change of You Decide is a fresh attempt to tackle a poor result. Focusing on showcasing an acts own creativity, musical artistry and authenticity – is this the recipe for success?
2009-2019 the era of recovery?
It’s fair to say that the BBC have had a tricky time when it comes to the Eurovision scoreboard. Over the last decade, the broadcaster has used a range of selection methods, formats each with varying levels of success. Looking back over the last 10 or so years, I think ‘recovery’ and ‘stability’ have been the key objectives from the broadcaster. Resetting the perception of the contest after the bruising string of last place results in 2003, 2008 and 2010 respectively.
Slowly but surely, the contest has become less stigmatised and more of a seasonal part of popular modern culture. If you watch back Graham Norton’s commentary, there was a welcome appreciation for the majority of songs. Lisbon 2018 saw an increase of viewing figures, to a peak of 8.1 million, suggesting the strategy is working.
Despite all of this, facts are facts.
The last time the UK was found in the top 10 was back in 2009 (though it should be noted that we have found ourselves in the top 10 or the jury/televote respectively since). Obviously, there is work to be done on that front. But the BBC are not unaware of this, managing expectations to find a formula that will leave the five-time winning nation on the left-side of the scoreboard.
Comparative format as a refinement process
This year, the BBC are trying something different with the You Decide format. Announced late last year, three songs will be shared between six singers, with each pair taking a different musical style.
Throughout the press event, the different versions of each song played on a loop. Though I suspect this is normal practice, it really allowed everyone in the room to do a comparative approach. Who carries the best narrative? Which version has a more instant hook or angle to grab a national and international audience? The dialogue between journalists and fan sites replicated what the BBC want the audience to do in a few weeks time. Looking towards Tel Aviv, the winning act will already have a set of notes to use through this comparative process in the event of a revamp.
The thinking is to ‘compare and contrast these fantastic songs in a fresh, new way and deliver the United Kingdom the artist it deserves‘. Change naturally lends itself to criticism. Promising two unique takes on three different songs could give the implication of radical stylistic differences. For example:
- Jazz vs Rap
- Folk vs Dance
- Metal vs Latin-infused pop
The above musical styles are radically placed in different sections of the genre spectrum. Yet, these styles are not reflected in the class of 2019. Although this could lead to disappointment for a lack of diversity, I don’t think the emphasis of the new format is on genre per se. Instead the vision of the BBC Creative Director of Entertainment appears to focus on the word ‘artist’, not the ‘song’. Eurovision You Decide 2019, to me at least, seems to hone in on the best representative, rather than just a 3 minute performance.
Humanising a Eurovision Act
For many, our impression or understanding of a prospective Eurovision act is dictated by a few minutes on stage: a national final, pre-party or the Eurovision stage itself. Sure, there are countless interviews an act will have throughout these three stages. However, a large portion of said interviews naturally fixate on the song or its performance – rather than the individual artist themselves. The event gave me a chance, it was fascinating to learn slightly more about the acts beyond the scope of the contest. A long-term career aspiration or a go-to karaoke song!
Despite the metaphoric weight being lifted off their shoulders with the secret being revealed, almost every act indicated a sense of nervousness. It could be the scale of the contest intensity of the Eurovision fandom, or the specificity of the questioning. I doubt any of the acts know the 12 point exchange of the 1994 contest, for example. However, I think the rawness of the public judging an individuals interpretation of a song is a factor.
The two versions of ‘Sweet Lies’ are probably the most distinct from one another. A dance bop vs a RnB inspired ballad. Chatting to Anisa, she mentioned how this is her first song she had no major role in composing/writing. After pressing her a little further, she explained how the new format of creating a “musically different” version to a core song was a vital consideration that led to her accepting the broadcaster’s invitation. Each act has brought their respective interpretation of a song and its lyrics to life using their artistry and craft.
It is this embedding of personality that humanises all of the acts. Audiences are not only watching an act’s performance, but also observing their innate ability of interpretation and storytelling through music. In many respects, it’s a subtle, yet clever move from the BBC to offer a little more to the selection process.
Musical interpretation into emotion and passion were factors that led Jamala and Salvador to victory. Why not integrate it into a national final?
To Tel Aviv and beyond?
Given this paradigm shift, it seems the BBC is taking a thoughtful and intelligent approach to the contest. Although nobody can predict Eurovision results this early, hopefully 2019 (and beyond!) will be the era that the BBC can steer the wider perception of Eurovision in the UK. Both the result in the final and general perception of the contest. Dispelling this toxicity of the latter is not easy and sadly I do not think it will immediately dissipate. Nevertheless, the BBC’s vision and brief has clearly been understood and echoed by acts:
Expertise and experience
There are some fascinating nuggets that may have initially been missed in the buzz of a song to digest and analyse. In using song writing camps, the BBC have attracted songwriters with a strong track record within the Eurovision world. Most have noted the fact that John Lundvik was involved in the songwriting process of ‘Bigger than Us’, but the links don’t stop there. Jonas Thander wrote and produced Donny Montell’s ‘I’ve been waiting for this night’, bringing Lithuania their second-best placing. Laurell Barker co-wrote last year’s Swiss entry. Similarly, this is Barker’s third successive song in the You Decide format, previously penning ‘Legends’ for Asanda and ‘Freedom Hearts’ for Olivia Garcia. Both of these songs were and continue to be fan favourites. Could the third time be the charm?
Meanwhile, the co-writers of ‘Sweet Lies’ includes two Danish success stories. Lise Cabble helped pen ‘Only Teardrops’, while Esben Svane, came 5th in Düsseldorf as part of A Friend in London. Coincidentally, some of the cohort from this year have links to previous Eurovision acts. Jordan is friends with Joe Woolford – half of Joe and Jake fame. Likewise, Blythe from MAID is the understudy for Jasmine in the West End production in Aladdin. The main lead? Jade Ewan.
With each act has a Eurovision connection, the sharing of individual experiences can be an invaluable trait to prepare for the weeks and months ahead.
Until we see the national final play out, it is impossible to say how successful the changes will have long-term. That said, it should be a refreshing take to the national final. Though I’m sure improvements will be made next year and after, the adaptability suggests the BBC are trying to find the best method for success.
Do you think toying with the format and role of the artist has impact beyond a national final? Let us know in the comments or on social media at @ESCXTRA!