XTRA Debate: Should a song be staged like a music video?

What wins in the battle between technology and live authenticity?

Over the years, the Eurovision Song Contest has undergone a multitude of changes. Voting and language, to name a view. However, the most radical change – by far – is the role of performance.

Performance is now key to both a memorable and successful 3 minutes on stage. So much so, it is one of the four components national juries use to base their votes on! In recent years we’ve seen a staging trend in both national finals and the contest itself. The aim seems to move less towards a visual typical of a live performance and more like a music video. Is this a successful tactic?

Technological feats

There are many examples that lend itself to be picked for this topic. The first that immediately came to mind takes us to Estonia. Back in 2016, Cartoon showcased the technological feats that could be achieved live. In the wake of Sweden’s victory in Vienna, the performance of Immortality was a visual feast. Fusing multiple styles of animation, audiences are guided through an abstract narrative as the song develops. It is truly a spectacle. Just under a minute in, we are even shown a mock stage, also animated. I think the purpose of this very precise (and no doubt expensive?) staging is obvious.

The group manage to warp reality to project a narrative to audiences that would not be possible with a standard prop or LED backdrop. If you look at the performance from the Eesti Laul final, it is much less impressive. Several shots are taken ‘behind the scenes’ revealing how the staging is achieved. I think it sadly loses most of the visual appeal, looking a bit confused and disjointed. Nevertheless, the main visual effort is still impressive, and incentivises an audience to vote to see the fantastical visual spectacle once more. Cartoon came third in the Super Final!

CARTOON - "Immortality"CARTOON – “Immortality”

Visuals of strength and detachment

One of the biggest shocks of the 2018 final was the result of Sweden. A favourite to win going into the contest, and coming second with the jury vote, many fans thought it was not out of the realm of possibility that it could be Stockholm. Alas, none of us expected a meager 21 points from the televote. 7th place is still incredibly respectable, but what happened? Ironically, I think one of the best strengths of Sweden 2018’s package was its ultimate hamartia. The performance was slick with precise camera cuts as the delegation brought a mini-stage on stage. It should probably be noted the light-show was much more effective in Melfest, where I believe a camera filter was used to enhance the strength of the lighting glow? Someone correct me if I am wrong!

Benjamin Ingrosso - Dance You Off - Sweden - LIVE - Second Semi-Final - Eurovision 2018Benjamin Ingrosso – Dance You Off – Sweden – LIVE – Second Semi-Final – Eurovision 2018

The staging looked great, sure. But knowingly, or unknowingly, the effect of the visuals meant that the audience were essentially erased. It didn’t look like Benjamin was in a music contest or look entirely like a ‘live’ performance. It isn’t until around 2:39 that the stage lights up with a wide shot, allowing viewers at home to recontextualise themselves with the space of the Altice arena. The momentary flash reveals the audience, but not for long. You only need to skim through our previous debate on the implicit role of the audience to recognise this was a fatal error. The absence of an audience acts as an emotive free-fall. Without a slight guide of how we should be feeling, the dazzling visuals falls short.

Lessons learnt?

Most recently, it seems Margaret also fell pray to this. Using both LED and green screens respectively, Tempo took audiences outside of the Malmö arena and into a vibrant pink universe with dancers seemingly jumping out of nothingness. Despite a slick choreo, and vibrant blue dress which deliberately contrasts and draws attention to the songstress the song failed to advance. Watching the performance over, there is a valid argument to be made that viewing this is more exhausting than enjoyable. A lot of time is trying to work out what is going on, as Margaret grows and shrinks in size. Although I think Tempo should have at least made it to AC it seems to me that a her shocking departure indicates a firm rejection to this staging style, a lesson that sadly seems not to have been learnt…

Margaret – TempoMargaret – Tempo

Melding universes… staging gone right?

Unlike the other performances I’ve mentioned, Robin Bengtsson situates himself in a happy medium. I doubt anyone in the Kyiv audience could see him directly for the first 50 or so seconds he spends off stage. This technique is exclusively used to grab the attention of the viewers at home (and the audience in the arena with a clean line of sight to a screen!). Though subtle, the mise-en-scene actually works in Robin’s favour to project the message across. The soft backlit lighting while he walks up against a slightly raised ramp portrays an insatiable passion that borders on lust which is only reinforced by the repetition of the song’s title.

The universe of the song is built off-stage, yet works with the context of a live music contest, rather than against it. Audiences don’t feel alienated or disorientated by technological feats, but instead engaged. If anything, the ‘spell’ of infatuation is broken as soon as one of the backing dancer/singer enters the frame of the camera. If you watch reaction videos to the performance, the majority of people demonstrate a sense of shock or surprise by a random hand coming into shot. That is the key. The choreography acts as a break to the off-stage world, detaching us just enough to alert us to what and why we are watching the performance.

Robin Bengtsson - I Can't Go On (Sweden) LIVE at the Grand Final of the 2017 Eurovision Song ContestRobin Bengtsson – I Can’t Go On (Sweden) LIVE at the Grand Final of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest

Nick: If you do it, do it well

Like with so many things in life, one could say: If you do it, do it well, otherwise don’t bother. That is especially true for Eurovision stagings. If you try to stage your entry like a music video, you at least need to do it properly.

I’m taking you back to… well, this weekend. Carousel won the Latvian national final, Supernova. Their performance was highly cinematic. The wide lens, combined with the black & white made sure it was an interesting concept to look at. They staged it like a music video and did it really well. This was the only way they could highlight the intimacy of the song.

Carousel - That Night - Latvia 🇱🇻 - Official Video - Eurovision 2019Carousel – That Night – Latvia 🇱🇻 – Official Video – Eurovision 2019

Now, the point to stage something like a music video would, for me, be that you don’t get the idea it’s a stage performance. When you want to impress, that can surely be a good idea. Just look at The Common Linnets in 2014. With the road as their backdrop, the camera angles and connection between the two singers, it looked like a music video and it was that performance which lifted them to becoming a favourite of that contest in Copenhagen.

Undoing the visual on stage

Controversially, I’d also like to highlight an act that didn’t do as well in making it look like a proper music video. That act is Sergey Lazarev. A good part of his performance looked like a music video, with him climbing that wall and the brilliant visual effects on it, but as a viewer from home, it bugged me. The camera angles led to the full wall being visible. You couldn’t quite ignore the fact that they were trying to give us a music video, but instead they gave us a stage performance that almost looked like a music video. As I said: Do it well or don’t do it at all.

I really liked the Russian entry back in 2016, but watching it got me highly frustrated. The moment Sergey steps away from his wall and we, as viewers, actually saw a wall standing there took away nearly all of its magic. Seeing the wall made us all go ‘Oh, so that’s how he does it’. Had they zoomed in enough with the cameras, we would all have been left in the dark as to how it worked. It just made it look, dare I say, amateuristic.

LIVE - Sergey Lazarev - You Are The Only One (Russia) at the Grand FinalLIVE – Sergey Lazarev – You Are The Only One (Russia) at the Grand Final

If the Russian stage director couldn’t quite get the camera angles to make sure it didn’t look like an amateur did it, they should’ve scrapped the wall. Sergey could’ve won Eurovision with a simple choreo and a good vocal. Instead, we had him on a half music video on a wall of which we all knew it was a gimmick. And yes, I am still frustrated.

Aivis: keep the two separate

The main difference between a video and a Eurovision performance, is that the latter is really there for one night only. The 3 minutes on the grand stage have to captivate votes from almost 200 million viewers. That’s why the performance has to be special, memorable, and captivating. A video, on the other hand, can act as a way to broaden the appeal of the song beyond Eurovision, which is also important to the artist. 

I am definitely leaning to argue that a music video should not be replicated on the stage. I enjoyed watching the performance of Immorality. However, I immediately thought that they were overcompensating for a weak song and vocals. It distracts the attention from the performer and the song, and tries to make the song have that added value that can be easily forgotten. While is it commendable that an artist is trying to create a whole package for the song and keep it “on-brand”. However, for most viewers the live performance will be the only one that they know of.

The songs that really grab attention in the finals are the ones that manage to create an atmosphere on stage in a live audience. This is much more difficult to do that in a video. A close personal example would be Latvia 2018. I have been a fan of Triana Park for many years and have been to gigs prior to winning the ticket Kyiv. They were great in working with the audience. However, their performance in Kyiv was based on their music video to some extent, and that magic was definitely lost on screen.

Filmic authenticity

Another example I can think of is Netherlands 2014. As Nick rightly points out, The Common Linnets were incredible at creating an atmosphere on the grand Eurovision stage. So much so, their live performance has itself become an iconic pseudo-music video in itself! The simplistic staging created a filmic moment. In the midst of pyro curtains and flashing imagery, this moment allowed the lyrics of the song to breathe. Undoubtedly, the staging was a key part of the success story of The Netherlands that year. Working with, not against the stage that already exists.

In short, a video can be played whenever, and it can work. In a way, it’s a studio version that can appeal to people beyond Eurovision. However, when you are performing to 200 million people, a connection has to be made that a video is unable to deliver. It would be far more valuable for the artist to focus on coming across authentically and relatable on the stage for those 3 minutes and work with the target audience rather than reaching beyond the walls of Eurovision. Because on the night, the audience is Eurovision and not the global market.Likewise, regardless of how you do on the night, you should ensure there is a sleek and relevant music video when you win or do well – then make sure that you’ve got a sleek video so that people not familiar with Eurovision can also enjoy your track.

What are your thoughts? Should songs be staged like a music video, or should delegations and acts attempt to create a unique visual package on the Eurovision Stage? Let us know in the comments or on social media @ESCXTRA!

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