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XTRA Debate: Staging Emotions Part 1: Interiority on the Eurovision stage

We all know that staging is a huge part of the modern contest. Be it a slick dance routine, pyro, lighting effects or clever camerawork: staging makes the performance just as much as the song or act. This visual element of performance works to marry up with the song to become a strong overall package. Much like the song itself, effective staging can manipulate our emotions, incentivising us to vote for or against something. However, we rarely take the time to really consider the ways in which staging can dictate our emotional interpretation of a performance. The lyrics of a song certainly make us feel a certain way… Can staging have the same impact?

In the first part of an exciting mini-series – Staging Emotions – we will consider how feelings/emotions are represented on the Eurovision stage. Through this, we will evaluate the ways in which emotions conjured through staging are key to connecting with juries and audiences alike.

In recent years, there has been a move towards Eurovision entries depicting issues of interiority. General introversion, insecurity, anxiety, depression etc. It is fair to say we all have experienced one or more of these emotions and emotive states. Therefore, it makes absolute sense that some songs on the Eurovision stage reflect these states of mind.

However, unlike an upbeat ‘bop‘ which automatically lends itself to slick choreography, songs focusing on internal feelings face a paradoxical dilemna. How do you successfully express an internal emotive state externally on a stage to millions at home?

PÆNDA – Limits

The first and possibly most obvious song that comes to mind is from Austria. PÆNDA’s ballad is heartfelt and tender. Reflecting on the meaning of the song, she explains it is about:

Being aware of the moments where I needed a break was a process for me. It was a long and at times difficult road to learning my own limits.

PÆNDA, Eurovision.tv

Indeed, the first line of the song – ‘Minds got to move but I’m so trapped within me’ – is a poignant reimagining of this experience. Audiences needn’t know the particular circumstance PÆNDA is singing about. Instead, the snapshot of emotions – be it anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, doubt – is enough to convey a sense of relatability.

Staging ‘Limits’

The camerawork used at the contest is fascinating and demands dismantling. The song opens with a medium-long shot, with minimal lighting. Only PÆNDA’s shoulders/silhouette is gently lit with overhead lights, as her head is cast in darkness. Though subtle, this visual introduction creates an indication of a solemn, and deeply intimate performance. Similarly, the LED poles dotted throughout the stage flickers, emphasising the illusion of emptiness, despite the obvious staged setting (and cheering crowd!). Here, the combination of these staging effects invite audiences to the interiority of PÆNDA’s on-screen world.

Notably, her eyes only open at around the 49 second mark. While this obviously is in keeping with the mood of the song, it also creates the potential of jarring incongruity. It’s a slight cliché, but the phrase the ‘eyes are the window of the soul’ comes to mind. Having almost a third of the song without any connection with the camera is a highly risky move in the Eurovision context. It demonstrates the shyness, the introversion, the conditioned shame we feel of being exposed or overwhelmed. However, it also blocks off a means for audiences to empathise or connect with the sentiment of the song.

Similarly, the multiple wide shots do a fantastic job to depict the sense of isolation that comes with mental/emotional exhaustion. The distance a direct correlation to the detachment PÆNDA might be feeling towards the world or society. But does this same detachment create a distance for audiences? I fear it might…

In other words: PÆNDA’s authenticity to the message ironically makes said message harder to successfully implement.

Disruptive lighting and emotions

In previous debates, I have argued that the effect of Benjamin Ingrosso’s staging ‘meant that [audiences] were essentially erased‘. I stand by this.

It is only in the bridge of the song does the lighting really acknowledge the audience. More precisely, after the lyric ‘I’m letting it all come crashing down‘ multiple lights are turned on, but only for a few seconds. I feel this is either too late or too early.

Just enough backlighting to make out flags and arms waving in the audience

The warm hue does create a sense of changing pace, suggesting a resolution to the ‘problem’ or a change of pace. Although the pace of the song doesn’t change, you could interpret the ‘it‘ in the above lyric as PÆNDA’s overwhelmed state. But in my reading of the song, this line is referencing the feeling of being overwhelmed… which feels more in keeping with the purpose of the song. I can’t help but feel the ambiguity created by this lighting choice really undermines the impact of projecting interiority.

Meanwhile, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it overhead shot towards the end of the performance was a huge missed opportunity. This camera technique could have been more effective earlier in the song, perhaps during the line ‘there’s nothing left to bare’? PÆNDA could be sat in the foetal position: a universal image/body language demonstrating vulnerability. This could have clearly honed the point of her internal state without any contradictions.

Kate Miller-Heidke – Zero Gravity

If the contest was solely based on staging, I have no doubt Australia would have probably won with a landslide. This performance concept really was something special. It used elements from the national final and heightened them to new heights (pun intended!). Throughout the contest, Kate was incredibly open about the purpose and meaning of the song:

For me, after the birth of my son, Ernie, I went through a long period of feeling like I’d lost my identity and feeling very sort of foggy and down in a lot of ways, and it took a couple of years after he was born for me to feel like I was regaining my strength and clarity, and motivation, and a sense of who I was as well. And that was just an amazing feeling and so that’s what this song tried to capture.

Kate Miller-Heidke, speaking to SBS

Much like ‘Limits’, ‘Zero Gravity’ is incredibly personal and saturated with emotions. Both songs directly mimic the lived experience of the respective singer. But why would I consider Australia’s staging much more successful to externalise interiority? Sometimes the best answer is the most simple one: spectacle!

Meaning through excess

Kate’s rather literal, yet equally spectacular staging of the ‘weightlessness‘ as she recovered from the struggles of post-natal depression immediately grabs the attention of audiences. However, it is through this spectacle that informs the meaning of the lyrics, which in isolation may not sufficiently convey the specific narrative of KMH:

I’ve been freezing,

On the ground,

You’re so heavy,

I can’t let you keep me down anymore

Zero Gravity

The excessive nature of the staging: the height, the projected globe to shield the platforms, the billowing costume all contributes to this very specific feeling of weightlessness. It is visually arresting, but most importantly provides a clear and engaging means to present a shift within the internal psyche. Notably, there are no obvious shots that include the audience. However, the diversity of camerawork does not give a ‘music video’ feel per se (see above). Instead, the consistently of camerawork keeps audiences on their toes as they enter the cosmic world of KMH. For three minutes, we are privy her very real lived experience. A metaphoric and sensually arresting dimension of the emotions of a mother. It taps into something so much bigger (pun intended) than contest-format.

Kate Miller-Heidke at Eurovision 2019 – Tomodo Photography

Costa – Great staging can still fall flat

Let’s be clear, introspective staging is the most difficult to pull off. You can have beautiful staging with top-quality art direction…and you can still fall completely flat. There are a number of such occurrences from past semi finals. However, Greta’s “Hear Them Calling” is an example that immediately springs to mind. Although striking and technically excellent, there was evidently a disconnect seeing as neither the jurors nor the televoters ranked it highly.

On this, it’s very difficult to determine whether or not staging truly makes or breaks a song, because there is no data collected to verify this. Sorry to get all market researchy here but once a data scientist, always a data scientist. As my lecturers at university always told me at the start of every Statistics lecture, “correlation does not imply causation”. Just because a song underperforms does not mean that the staging was the deal-breaker. There is no way of asking voters and jurors whether the staging is the factor that causes them to pick up the phone/score a song highly or not.

Disagreeing (and agreeing) with Oliver

Now onto Oliver’s points, I think he has selected two excellent examples because I happen to think both songs were staged immaculately. Even as a massive fan of “Limits”, I was never convinced it had a path to qualification. I think the song got the staging it deserved, and it was some of my favourite staging of the 2019 season. The use of lights and monochromatic colour scheme perfectly captured the fragility portrayed in the lyrics. Her vocal delivery was equally fragile…to a fault, since I had definitely heard PÆNDA deliver that song better both in London and Amsterdam. To this day, I cannot think of a better staging concept for that song (and I like to think of myself as a creative soul). Unfortunately, the issue with Limits…was Limits itself, as it was not a competitive entry.

Regarding Zero Gravity, the staging also perfectly captured the song it was visualising. Colourful, vibrant, etherial…slightly bombastic…Australia and Kate nailed it here. Australia finally had an entry that wasn’t middle-of-the-road and decided to turn the volume up further by delivering the most ambitious staging to grace the ESC stage. THAT SAID, winning staging did not make for a winning entry. Why? Because the song was significantly weaker than the staging. I wasn’t in Tel Aviv, but at the [excellent] viewing party I hosted in May, a number of my friends (none of whom had heard the songs prior) made comments along the lines of “this looks AMAZING…shame about the song.”

Bottom line: Winning staging doesn’t make for a winning entry.

Is it possible to stage interiority successfully? If so, what do you think are the most successful staging techniques to externalise internal emotions.? We would love to hear your thoughts! Be sure to stay updated by following @ESCXTRA on Twitter@escxtra on Instagram and liking our Facebook page for the latest updates!

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