XTRA Debate: How to end the Greek tragedy?

When Eurovision fans think about countries at the Eurovision Song Contest, we usually divide them into groups. We don’t expect much from some, some will deliver something solid and then you have a group of powerhouses. Russia, Sweden, Italy and, traditionally, Greece. But their fortunes have turned lately – so how do we put an end to the Greek tragedy that is Eurovision?

A Greek Genesis

First, we need to look at the Eurovision Song Contest history for Greece. They had their long anticipated début in 1974. At the end of their military junta, ERT opened their new Broadcasting House and they selected their first ever entry. Obviously, they weren’t going to take this easy and sent their star Marinella with the definition of what could be classified as Greek: “Krasi, Thalassa Kai T’Agori Mou” – Wine, sea and a boyfriend. Greek life in one line.

However, it’s fair to say that Greece never made much of an impression. They had their own style and they had their fans, but it never really connected with the juries at the Eurovision Song Contest. Up until 1998, the Greeks scored two top five results. Both Kleopatra in 1992 and the super group Paschalis, Marianna, Robert & Bessy in 1977 finished in fifth place – not exactly a powerhouse.

After a forced withdrawal due to the rules in the 1990s, the Greeks sat out 1999 and decided to stay home in 2000 as well. ERT had a rethink about how to approach the new Eurovision Song Contest: no language rule and televoting was new to the scene.

A new philosophy

Together with TRT, who followed a similar train of thought, the Greeks made optimal use of the new rules. Their first act in the new era was Antique. “Die For You”, a combination of Greek sounds with early 00s pop in both English and Greek, immediately brought them their first ever podium finish. Two further attempts at being modern with Michalis Rakintzis and Mando failed, but a tone was set.

Sakis Rouvas was the man to start a wonderful year for Greece. The Summer Olympics were going to come home in August, back to Athens. It was the summer the Greek national football team won the European Championships out of nowhere. 2004 would’ve been the perfect year for a first ever Greek Eurovision victory. It wasn’t meant to be: “Shake It” however finished in a respectable third.

A year later, the 2001 success formula was repeated once more: Helena Paparizou was selected internally for Kyiv. 2005 turned out to be the year for Greece: “My Number One” took the crown. The next sets of results were all pretty phenomenal for a country that hardly impressed before the turn of the century: 9th, 7th, 3rd, 7th, 8th, 7th, 17th and 6th. Eight consecutive top ten finishes, which would’ve been ten had Eleftheria Eleftheriou made it in 2012 – it was a Midas’ touch for ERT as everything they touched turned into gold.

Helena Paparizou - My Number One (Greece) Live - Eurovision Song Contest 2005Helena Paparizou – My Number One (Greece) Live – Eurovision Song Contest 2005

The chaos that followed

I find it hard to determine what exactly happened to the Greeks after 2013. “Alcohol Is Free”, a song looking back at their financial crisis, brought them a great result. Ska group Koza Mostra, together with Agathon Iakovidis, managed to get them a sixth place. It was a turn away from ethnopop, like we were used to with Eleftheria, Kalomira, Sarbel and Sakis.

The next couple of years, Greece decided to skip the ethnopop business. No more mediterranean sounds with attractive dancers, but attempts at different genres.

Let’s be honest: That did not go down well for them. Freaky Fortune qualified and came twentieth. Both Maria Elena Kyriakou and Demy also qualified and finished nineteenth. Their attempts at showcasing authentic Greek music, Argo and Yianna Terzi, ended up in the once so hard to imagine non-qualifications for the Greek broadcaster.

In stronger words: Over the past five years, Greece’s best result is a nineteenth place. Only San Marino (24th) and North Macedonia (11th in the semi) have a worse best result.

Argo - Utopian Land (Greece) Live at Semi Final 1 of the Eurovision Song ContestArgo – Utopian Land (Greece) Live at Semi Final 1 of the Eurovision Song Contest

How to amuse the muses of Eurovision…

Lady Fortuna has not been on Greece’s side lately. That has caused them to make a radical change for 2019. They didn’t pick a star like in 2017 (Demy) or went for an authentically Greek song (Argo or Yianna Terzi). They have decided to once again let go of Greek stereotypes. They’ve selected a singer who has lived in Canada for most of her life: Katerine Duska.

Duska is giving us a good entry, which, as it now seems, is doing quite well with the bookmakers and should secure them another decent result. But how do we get Greece back to being one of the absolute powerhouses?

If we look to what’s closest to Greece, there’s just one nation we can look at: Cyprus. The island nation have managed to do what fans were expecting Greece to do. With Eleni Foureira and Tamta, they’ve selected two of Greece’s biggest pop stars and they’ve given them ethnopop inspired bangers. It has resulted in a second place for “Fuego” last year.

A mercurial disposition

Diagnosing the issues Greece have faced is a complicated matter, but we’re going to try. Greece have dealt with major struggles in real life over the past couple of years. I mean, the year Eleftheria Eleftheriou won their national final, ERT decided to hold it in a shopping mall and Maria Elena Kyriakou’s video took place in a parking lot.

However, the proud and, slightly stubborn, Greeks with their ethnopop efforts suddenly turned away from it. Mind you, that happened as soon as their first score outside the top ten happened with “Aphrodisiac” in 2012. There was a sense of ‘Why not try something else if this stops working?’ that clearly hasn’t worked for them. For the sake of ERT, I’m hoping “Better Love” does what they hope it does – bring them back to the top ten. If that happens, they may have found themselves a new fountain of happiness in the contest.

It all seems to have been a strike of insecurity that caused the Greek ship to change course in Eurovision. They have tried to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place. They just had a minor setback and immediately reacted. Or perhaps overreacted. It shows an almost scary parallel with their political history, as the return of Sakis Rouvas was the last of the perfect ethnopop: 2009, just around the time the Greek financial crisis started to surface for real.

The result of that panic is five years of Eurovision desperation. Katerine Duska’s entry is a territory they’ve not explored yet. However, there’s nothing stopping Greece from doing what Cyprus have been doing recently. The trick seems oh so simple: Find a credible composer to deliver you a tune that will do well in your own country and find the right performer for it.

Now, that’s not necessarily ethnopop. It could be, as Eleni Foureira shows. But Greece has a wonderful music scene with a great variety in acts doing well. That however does not include Freaky Fortune, Argo or Maria Elena Kyriakou. Yianna Terzi is the exception to the rule – that managed to do really well in Greek charts. But going local is, in my eyes, the trick.

When doing that, with an act like Nikos Ganos, ERT can aim to bring back some stability in their results. They will only learn from trial and error, but severe innovation has shown to be their Achilles’ heel. With politics and economics stabilising, with Europe smiling back at Greece after all these years, it’s time for them to bring back their powerhouse identity.

Go back to where you came from: local success. Bring us back to the Greece that scored so well. Innovation is wonderful, but sometimes you need to realise that you were on the right track already.

Oliver – Crisis of identity?

It is no secret that during the first decade of the century, Greece (alongside the likes of Russia, Ukraine and Turkey) was a Eurovision powerhouse. Qualification guaranteed. Catchy song that appeals to the masses. Strong memorable staging. The ultimate recipe for success? Yes and no. It is a somewhat sterile approach, and frankly people get bored of the same thing pretty quick… even if a year has passed!

Nick correctly outlines Sakis as the beneficiary of Greece’s golden age. However, we shouldn’t forget that Sakis’ second attempt was not nearly as successful as his first. ‘This Is Our Night’ was heavily favoured by the bookies going into Moscow, with the odds placing Greece second. The general thinking at the time was the return of an experienced, well-known act with a credible team behind it would be rewarded well. Nevertheless, the flashy pop song with added Greek-flag inspired stapler only came 7th. The hype did not materialise to points. Still a top 10 and still a highly respectable result, of course.

I think this result, which must have been disappointing to the team encouraged the delegation and broadcaster to change tactics. But ethnopop became the musical speciality for the nation.

Crisis of identity?

I think this need to find a new niche has led some hits and misses for Greece. A handful of top 10s, which previously was a piece of cake for the Mediterranean nation, but with a side of two non-qualifications. Where Greece previously stuck to one genre, they have diversified with mixed results: Ska, balladry, rap… ethnopop. It might look bad, but I think it was an absolute necessary means of adjustment. Unlike Nick, I don’t think Greece could have continued with the same musical style and enjoyed a continuous string of top 10 results.

This so called crisis of identity has not been pleasant for Greek fans, but it may well have been essential. The contest is constantly evolving and changing, so as I implied in a previous debate, repetition of the same formula can be a dangerous long-term tactic. Rather than a Greek tragedy, I can’t help but feel we are coming out of a sad scene, a blip, of a wider comedy (with Greeks laughing on top of the scoreboard!). It is unreasonable to expect a country to do well ALL the time, you only need to look at The Netherlands to see a blip – however long – is not binding forever, and usually a pre-curser to a string of strong songs and results!

Aivis – I’d never let you go, Greece

2004 was indeed a great year for Greece – I remember it fondly. I realized so many things about myself when I saw Sakis get on stage. I’ve been shaking it ever since. Watching Greece win the Euro 2004, and then host the most wonderful Olympics truly made me fall in love with the country and its Eurovision heritage.

However, Nick makes a point that I had not really considered in the past…Greece’s Eurovision journey is closely connected with its political cycles. It joined the contest at the same time as it joined the democratic system. It peaked at the time when its economy was peaking. And…when the economy crashed, and the hangover (after all that free alcohol) set in, Greece seemed to change.

I do not, however, think that it is a bad thing. Greece truly fascinates me as it’s efforts in the recent years have mirrored its culture, which is beautiful and resilient and ever changing. I, for one, have really enjoyed their recent entries as they have stood apart. They highlight the side of Greece that exists and is yet undiscovered by the masses.

Eurovision is not about exceptional results every year. It is about showcasing all the differences that we have, yet strengthening the unity that we share through music. Greece has not foregone that belief and consistently delivers diversity (even though the audiences might not appreciate it) and uniqueness.

I do think that Greek attempts recently indeed have shown the changing identity as Oliver points out. It is a healthy thing, because had Greece continued sending the same style of music as it had in the mid-00s, then we, the fans, would complain about that.

Greece has not lost its way. Greece has started to lead us and we should learn a lesson.


Nick van Lith

I'm one of the founding members of ESCXTRA.com. Eleven years after the start, I'm proud to say that I am now the Editor-in-Chief of this wonderful website. When I'm not doing Eurovision stuff, you should be able to find me teaching German to kids... And cheering on everything and everyone Greek, pretty much. Pame Ellada!
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