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XTRA Debate: Should the free language rule be amended?

One of the best by-products of the Eurovision Song Contest is the celebration of culture. Costume, movement and visual allusions all weave a rich tapestry of a national/transnational identity. Given the nature of the contest, language is the most obvious and intriguing component of identify and diversity. However, as we all know, the majority of Eurovision songs in the modern contest tend to be solely in English. In Junior, songs are required to be in the national tongue, with up to 40% of the song in English. Should the adult contest adopt a similar type of guideline?

Eurovision and language

The rules surrounding language , much like the role of the juries will forever be a moot point of discussion in the fandom. On one hand, the contest should be seen to encourage cultural diversity, so a rule enforcing that would be the easiest means to achieve that goal. However, participating countries and most importantly the acts should not be forced into performing something inauthentically. There are arguments about English being a ‘superior’ language which explains the UK and Ireland struggling since the free language rule in 1999. I’m not convinced by that claim.

Either way – it seems somewhat absurd to essentially force a country to forever sing in language X or Y until another language is considered an official language!

English as export?

However, I think I am in the majority of fans who want to hear more languages in the contest. Since 1999, only a handful of winning songs contain non-English lyrics. Only two: Molitva and Amor Pelos Dois contain no English lyrics. Now of course, an argument could be made that this reflects the wider music industry. Songs sung in English can be found in the charts across the globe. But with the rise of streaming services, having access to songs in a ‘foreign’ language has never been easier! By singing exclusively in English, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy that fuels the idea that you must avoid national tongues. A recent tweet studying language skills across the EU28 is both revealing and shocking.

I don’t know if this study took into account the similarity between languages: Croatian and other Balkan languages, Swedish/Danish to Norwegian, Czech and Slovak etc. Equally, these stats do not overtly outline if dialects and official minority languages count. To say it would be a shame to lose out on our shared knowledge by not promoting language is an understatement.

Practicalities

By ‘similar type of guideline’ I’m not suggesting all songs have to be in a national tongue, save for 40% which may be used for English only. Quite the opposite! Broadcasters should be encouraged to engage with something other than English. We have only heard Azeri once in the adult contest. Not from Azerbaijan, but from Bulgaria?!? The UK is just as bad. In over 60 participations in the contest, Welsh, Scots, Ulter Scots and other dialects/minority languages have never made an appearance.

The current language rule on Eurovision.tv is as follows:

  • Each Participating Broadcaster is free to decide the language in which its Contestant(s) will sing.

Finding a means to temper this freedom will be difficult and no doubt lead to controversy. Should the EBU enforce a percentage a la Junior? Perhaps a 40% of a national tongue over the course of five or ten years? Maybe 40% is too low or high. Either way, songs such as Qele Qele, La Forza and Spirit in the Sky demonstrate how mixing languages can be an interesting means to lead to success!

What do the others think?

Costa: Lost in translation?

I’m personally a massive fan of the current language rule in place at Junior Eurovision. Last year, what I regard to be the strongest Junior Eurovision to date, featured more linguistic diversity than the main contest has in over a decade at this point. This made each entry feel distinct and instantly-identifiable to be from the country it was representing. This in many ways harked back to the origins of the contest, whereby hearing songs in languages not widely spoken in your country was an attraction of Eurovision and integral to the ideology behind the contest. 

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean it would translate (so to speak) well to the main contest. Firstly, the principle of retrospectively reversing the lifting of regulations is not one I endorse in most contexts. Secondly, there are many songwriters who are not native English speakers but primarily write their lyrics in English. To deny them the option of choosing their native tongue over English could arguably impede on the creative process behind the contest.

Theoretical yes

However, the argument of it giving countries who have English as an official language (Australia, Ireland, Malta, United Kingdom) a competitive edge is…flawed. If all other songs are either entirely in native languages or are bilingual, the playing field changes. Having elements of their songs in their native languages didn’t prevent France, Kazakhstan and Poland from being successful in JESC 2018. Above all, the United Kingdom’s efforts will still be subpar and perform terribly even if surrounded by songs not in English.

The bottom line is that I support the reintroduction of the language rule…in theory. I support it because I would love to hear more songs not sung in English at the contest. Imagine a contest where every country sent their own Ktheju Tökës?

However, in practice, it would be unfeasible to expect Sweden to suddenly start sending songs in Swedish again, for example. I’ve said before that the contest needs to remain at least somewhat in tune with the current music industry in order to stay relevant. Unfortunately, the European music industry as it stands is dominated by English language songs, and I don’t see the contest changing that with this rule.

Vincent : Long live English, but death to Globish

What do I think about the perennial debate on languages at Eurovision, and the idea of introducing a new language rule in the contest?

First, I find the introduction of a rule stating a certain proportion of national language far too artificial. What is 40% of a song? 40% of the lyrics? Of the words? The lines? Does each chorus count separately? I do not doubt the Junior Eurovision Song Contest uses detailed guidelines to check its participating songs, but the point still stands: which criteria should the EBU use? This would complicate the creative process of songwriters to a big extent, and it would probably fuel a new phenomenon of “Eurovision-crafted” songs, songs that would never appear otherwise and wouldn’t necessarily survive on any chart (and we know how many Eurovision songs do not survive on (m)any charts).

Secondly, we need to think about the symbols behind the rule. The contest is seen as encouraging diversity and multiculturalism, but how multicultural is it really? It’s become very “global” over the years, and we a fans are at the core of this globalization of Eurovision. We bond with foreign friends and meet them all with English as the main tool of communication between ourselves. The contest is hosted in English and will be hosted in English wherever it ends up (except maybe in France? I fear our chauvinism would make it impossible for France Télévisions to let its viewers watch hosts they know speaking in English with French commentators translating over it). Artists do not need to be from the country they represent: see Viktor Crone.

Swedish Victor Crone singing for Estonia in Tel Aviv. © Andres Putting

Language matters

One issue though is that Eurovision song in English can be… poorly written. On two accounts : they are rarely as deep or at least as refined as songs sung in a national language (and often, when two version exist, the English one is the plainer one), and some are just not written in proper English : “Can I trust in you ?” asked Safura when representing Azerbaijan in 2010. This isn’t English, this is Globish. And it has no place on such a stage. There are enough ways to ensure a song’s proofreading, and not everything can be excused by artistic/poetic licences.

What do you think? Is there anything to encourage the diversity of language? Or would this be in itself a counterproductive measure?

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