Editorials & OpinionFeatures

XTRA Debate: Risk-taking at Eurovision, is it worth it?

This week, we're debating the relative merits of sending 'risky' entries to the contest

Eurovision 2019, like any other year, featured a mix of songs of different languages, tempos and genres. Within the contest, however, some songs pushed more boundaries than others. While we always have our standard EDM bangers and power ballads, the contest also featured songs that had less of a mass appeal. In this edition of XTRA Debate, we will be weighing the benefits and drawbacks of sending ‘risky’ entries to Eurovision over ‘safer’ choices.

In this context, the term ‘risk’ is a fluid one. In my view, I define a ‘risky’ entry as something that is challenging, something divisive. This is often linked to the showcasing of national or regional culture, making it less accessible to ‘outsiders’. A risky Eurovision entry is one that no listener or viewer can be neutral on. A risky entry either evokes absolute adoration, or disgust and confusion. The antithesis of a risky entry is a generic song that you would expect to hear on your Discover Weekly. It can also be a dated ballad that you could SWEAR participated in the contest a few years back.

There is no centralised mechanism through which entries are selected. Therefore, there is no means to guarantee neither diversity nor quality among the songs selected. This became apparent at the start of the national final season this year, when pretty much every country was selecting the wrong song. Examples include A Dal’s convoluted format resulting in Joci Papai being ‘the best of the rest’, and Estonia selling out by selecting quite possibly one of the most mediocre songs in the history of recorded sound. Being someone who was initially attracted to the contest through its showcasing of the weird and the wonderful, I grew increasingly agitated watching it all unfold.

The tale of a “flamboyant outsider”

The season took a turn for the better, albeit momentarily, when Conan Osíris won Portugal’s Festival da Canção. Despite being a “flamboyant outsider”, “Telemóveis” had become one of the most-hyped of all national final songs. Prior to this semi final of FdC, the lyric video had already passed two million views, over four-times that of the eventual runners-up. Views aren’t everything, but it is clear that the song had galvanised the Portuguese people (and international fan community) in a way that very few others have. Portugal is typically not among the countries to get excited about the contest, but Conan’s traction had changed something.

I became confident that Telemóveis had top 10 on lock. I figured that despite being ‘strange’ to a wider audience, jurors or at least voters at home would respect it as something new and fresh. Clearly, I was mistaken. Whether it be Nordic preview shows panning it, or British podcasters dismissing Conan under the classic ‘funny foreigner’ trope, people just didn’t seem to ‘get it’.

From bad…to worse

When it came to the dress rehearsal stage, all press were talking about was Conan’s stage outfit, which eventually won the notorious Barbara Dex Award. This turned out to be more of a sign of the song’s fate than the initial hype. A song that energised, excited and inspired me had become a laughing stock, and it made me feel for all of those who also loved the song, and especially those who had helped it get to the contest.

In the semi-final, despite what I deemed to be a solid performance, the song did not quality. It was later revealed that Conan finished 15th in the first semi-final. Further, jurors had ranked him 16th out of 17 entries. In other words, he wasn’t even close, and jurors clearly didn’t respect the song like I hoped supposed ‘experts’ would.

When risks don’t pay off

In Portugal’s case, their ‘risk’ – an attempt to represent their emerging underground music scene on the Eurovision stage – did not pay off on this occasion. But they weren’t the only country to send a more ‘authentic’ package to the contest and fail to quality. Poland’s Tulia showcased ‘white voice’ on the Eurovision stage with “Fire of Love (Pali się)”. In their stage show, the quartet also donned traditional, colourful Polish fashion. Although jarring for some, this for me marked a remarkable upgrade from the generic, low-impact EDM they sent the previous year. It was certainly a risk to send something so radically different. This was a risk that should have been rewarded. Once again, it was the supposed ‘musical experts’ who put them out of contention.

Tulia have their first rehearsal on stage in Tel Aviv. © Andres Putting

Of course, ‘authenticity’ is about more than showcasing underground music or singing in one’s native language using traditional techniques. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Austria’s PÆNDA. “Limits”, a skeletal self-penned electronic ballad, was a risk in a competitive song contest. ORF noted that this was a risky choice for an internal-selection, but were won over by the vulnerability behind the song. The song didn’t have a huge build or a particular pay-off. Instead, Limits relied on audiences to connect with the emotions of the singer and her words. Once again, this risk did not pay off, and the song got 0 televote points in the second semi-final. This begs the question of whether the broadcaster would have been better off picking a ‘safer’ song instead, even if it was less authentic.

When risks DO pay off

Of course, being a debate piece, there must be balance. And there were cases of ‘risks’ being taken elsewhere this year, and these risks paying off. The one that instantly springs to mind was Iceland, country who had been struggling to make an impact in recent years. Having sent a snoozy, generic ballad about love and peace in 2018, they decided to go to the dark side in 2019. Like in Portugal, the Icelandic public got behind their act and saw the importance of being represented on an international stage. Fortunately for them, this risk, perhaps the riskiest of the risky – industrial techno BDSM noise-punk music – paid off. Not only did Iceland appear in the Grand Final for the first time since 2014, but Hatari brought them their first top 10 placement in ten years.

Elsewhere, Slovenia secured another qualification and respectable finish with an intimate, stripped-back electro-ballad sung in Slovene. This approach may not have worked for Austria, but the sincerity and authenticity behind “Sebi” allowed it to stand out from a tough draw in the eyes of both jurors and televoters. You could also deem “Soldi”, this year’s runner-up, as a ‘risky’ song by Eurovision standards. Like Telemóveis, Soldi was something Eurovision hadn’t really seen before. Sending a song that was a fusion of traditional Italian elements with hip-hop, trap-lite beats and lyrics in Arabic was certainly a deviation from what Italy tend to put forward. Note that the song hadn’t proven particularly popular with voters in Sanremo either. And yet, something clicked, and the song has become a commercial success beyond the contest.

Go big or go home?

Although “Arcade”, this year’s winner, wasn’t particularly experimental in any way, recent winners of the contest of late have been. Jamala winning with a dark electronic folk song about ethnic cleansing, Salvador singing a stripped-down Portuguese jazz ballad, Netta clucking – all risks, all could have gone down like lead balloons in a competitive setting, but they didn’t. With that in mind, is it fair to say taking risks at the contest is pointless purely based on this year’s results? Probably not.

However, there is something to be said about other recent additions to the recent winners circle. “Running Scared”, “Only Teardrops” and “Heroes” – three of my least favourite winners – have one thing in common. That one thing is that they bore me. Between these three songs, not one ‘risk’ was taken; not one envelope was pushed, nor any boasts pushed out. I’d go as far as to call those three entries aggressively mediocre. How was said mediocrity rewarded? With a heap of points and a trophy.

More than a contest

Of course, there’s also something to be said about the relative importance of placings and points in the wider scheme of things. Although this is a competitive contest, and scores are kept, none of that matters once the winner is crowned. Irrespective of where they placed (and as much as we love to analyse the numbers), the songs live on regardless. What matters is that the songs exist, and many of them exist in the public domain because the EBU has provided an international platform for art to be shared and enjoyed. The competition element has and will always be secondary to the music.

From this perspective, OF COURSE countries should take risks. OF COURSE broadcasters should be digging to the depths of their countries’ underground scenes in order to find the freshest talent. OF COURSE jurors should encourage creativity and champion songs that are different and challenging. Even though Telemóveis didn’t qualify, Conan got a whole piece in The Guardian discussing why he deserved better and praising his artistry. That article now exists to legitimise and reward the risk Conan took applying for FdC, Portugal took by putting him forward on a global stage.

What the others have to say

Oliver: Defining risk?

Costa has made some great points and I think the idea of placings are somewhat arbitrary when something bigger is showcased in the contest. This could be a genre, style, image, statement, language or act in of itself.

I think there is a nuance, of sorts, with risk-taking.

Do we solely consider it to be a risk that Iceland went from pure cinnamon roll Ari Ólafsson to leather-laden cinnamon rolls Hatari? A song about love and harmony to hatred and the dystopian collapse of society thanks to capitalism is quite the tonal juxtaposition.

In the era of flashing images, pyro, projections and toying with alternate reality – is simply statically standing and singing a subverted risk? In many senses, North Macedonia’s (technical debut?) was in risk of not standing out. Is that in itself a risk? I think the term is deceptively fluid!

Mitigating risk?

Even taking into account some of the more obvious choices from this years batch of songs, Eurovision 2019 was relatively safe. The majority of the songs for good or ill do not shock or strike me as something particularly ‘out there’. However, go back a few years and we have a perfect example of carefully playing with risk and audience expectation management. A winner. Conchita Wurst.

The camerawork of “Rise Like a Phoenix” is frankly, masterful. Zooming in for the first verse, where Conchita’s features are generally obscured. Only a silhouette used to tease audiences. Even when Conchita’s face is revealed by the overhead lighting, the frame stops at a medium shot, before zooming back out as the chorus begins. It takes over a minute for a full face close-up, albeit momentarily, before a soft dissolve back out.

This all sounds lovely, but what is the point of this analysis?

Well, Conchita’s look – back in 2014 at least – was primarily about gender play. Drag queens and performance are not new to the contest, but a biological male presenting as female WITH a beard is somewhat striking. Not something you typically see everyday. Prior to the contest, many fans thought Austria may not even qualify due Conchita’s look. However, any potential risk of exposing the construct of gender through the medium of performance is somewhat averted by focusing on the vocals rather than the visuals.

Risk for risks sake

That said, to me a ‘risky’ choice has to have purpose. Obviously, this is a subjective criteria that is a bit awkward to define. But a risky entry is always worth it so long as there is a degree of authenticity and meaning behind it. I did not like PKN in the slightest, but I am glad the group had their moment to reflect rock (which sadly can be a risk in itself!), but also celebrating diversity.

A big turn-off, for me at least, is flaunting difference to make it seem like a risk. Back in 2006, Treble were selected with the song “Amambanda”, sung in English and an imaginary language. The group did a promo tour in ALL participating countries, with the marketing/selling point of ‘everyone can enjoy the song no matter your language skills’… hm. Someone, somewhere probably had the success of neighbouring Belgium from 2003 in the back of their mind. Yes, a song in an imaginary language is unique and unconventional, so thereby a risk. However, the song, performance and promo tour seemed overly forced? Taking a risk for the sake of it with no real purpose becomes paradoxical. I think it generally comes across as a bit superficial too… which was reflected in a low 20th place.

Safety in numbers?

In some sense of the word, it is a risk repeating past successes to try and make a miraculous comeback. Both for the country, delegation and act.

Back in February, in a previous debate I suggested:

If Eurovision fans fixate too much on the musical precedent and direction of one result, like Lisbon 2018, the contest can suffer. Other genres or styles can be shunned, as the fandom wants/demands Fuego 2.0 with broadcasters eventually taking note.

Xtra Debate: Is there a problem with ‘bops’ in the Eurovision Song Contest?

Now it is unfair to all involved to suggest songs like “Replay” or “She Got Me” are carbon copies of “Fuego” (other examples also available). In the case of Fuego/Replay there are obvious similarities. Sadly, the fantastic result could not be sustained, with Tamta coming a respectable 13th place. Similarly, Switzerland’s entry and staging in particular this year clearly had some inspiration from Eleni. Last year’s risk becomes this year’s norm.

With the jury voting somewhat adjusted last year, safety is arguably punished. One juror who loves a risky or different song and places it highly has much more weight than a juror who places it last. Good!

Risk, when properly and purposefully utilised should be rewarded! It enriches the contest and should be celebrated whenever possible.

What do you think? Is it worth sending ‘risky’ entries to the contest, even when jurors and voters don’t ‘get’ them? Is there merit in playing it safe? Be sure to stay updated by following @ESCXTRA on Twitter@escxtra on Instagram and liking our Facebook page for the latest updates! 

Costa Christou

Ever since I saw Helena Paparizou's triumph at Eurovision in 2005 (at the tender age of 6), I have been crazy about Eurovision. From the regional native language bops and shrieky female-led balladry to the sophisticated avant garde pop songs and chart-friendly EDM, I love everything about this cultural phenomenon. I'm currently working as a Delivery Manager in a software development team.
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