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XTRA Debate: Staging Emotions part 2: Gendered Pain?

Does gender impact how love, loss and pain is staged?

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 second part of Staging Emotions, we will consider how songs of pain, sorrow and loss are implicitly impacted by gender. I hope to touch on the following issues:

  • Are emotions of pain/sorrow/loss more difficult to successfully perform if the singer is male?
  • How might staging be used to remedy the deficit of emotional intelligence?
  • How might changes over the last decade or so indicate a shift in European perceptions/receptions of manhood and masculinity?

You can read Part 1 which considers interiority on the Eurovision stage here.

Armenia and cliché love

Armenia’s second Eurovision entry has faded into obscurity. Somewhat rightfully so, it is not close to their best entry/song despite a top 10 finish.

However, Hayko’s performance is an odd one. For the most part, it is standard ballad procedure. Long takes without any sudden movement, lots of close-ups. This performance has a tree, with bits of paper floating against a gentle wind (a similar technique LIAMOO and Hanna Ferm were praised of in this years Melfest!)

However, every long shot captures the whole LED wall of the Hartwell Arena… which is where the first problems arise. On either side, two hearts being formed from branches of the LED screen. Just a little cringe-worthy…

Even more distressing is the final chorus, which switches from English to Armenian:

Anavart khosqer

Anavart houyser

Artsoukner ou ser

Ou haverzh kez het

Unfinished Words

Pure hopes

Tears and love

And forever with you

Original Armenian and (rough) English translation

Armenian is such a beautiful language but the sweet lamentation of Hayko is ruined by the staging. From around 2:27, a hidden fake blood pack is burst, seeping and staining the singers shirt. Hayko grabs his chest a few moments later, emphasising the use of special effect and how broken his heart is as a result of his beloved…

…Really?

Was this necessary? What benefit has this effect had on the performance, other than turning a relatively dignified performance into a melodramatic cliché? The Armenian lyrics seemingly have nothing to do with a bleeding heart, nor does the English lyrics. What’s worse, the camera spends little time directly showing the effect, focusing instead on a random shot behind the backing performers and tree.

Was Hayko’s performance not enough on its own to portray the emotion of the song, without resorting to parlour tricks? Evidently, the staging team thought not. Even if this was the case, you only need to check the music video to see a more effective version of showing his love. The camera splices between Hayko singing and the back of his beloved, with only a portion of her face visible. Simple, but effective.

However, it sets a strong example of men who are seemingly unable to effectively express their emotions.

Alternate endings of loss – Suus

Unlike Hayko’s attempt at an emotional performance, Rona Nishliu needs very little staging assistance to get her point(s) across. In summary: Rona is alone on stage, with a simple red backdrop, some dry ice and very basic lighting. However, through this simplicity the performance fixes on her facial expressions and interactions to her crimson surroundings.

During the final chorus, Rona gasps before the final word of the song (3:03-07). This sound effect creates an rhythmic interruption of the final line, echoed by the sudden change in camera. Rather than a medium shot that ever so gradually pans right, the sharply camera cuts on cue with the gasp to a close-up of Rona’s face. Behind her, the universally red backdrop is broken by the white spotlights in the background. The gasp – a non-verbal sound – acts as a moment of spillage as the singer desperately clings to some fragment of emotional composure is finally broken. As the final chords of play, Rona proceeds to weep, as the red lighting and the feelings they encompass engulfs her. Despite her attempts at resistance, the performance ends with sorrow (a rarity for the contest?).

Balkan feelings or emotional void?

This is easily one of the most iconic ballads in the modern contest. Zeljko Joksimovic’s first (of many!) performances on the Eurovision stage is atmospheric, haunting and of course, emotional. Nobody can dispute that… or can they? Tentatively, I would suggest that the staging and performance of the song isn’t nearly as emotive as you initially believed…

To start with, we have an instrumental solo for about 30 seconds. Alone on stage, the flautist steps into a darkened stage, while playing the melancholic and sombre introduction. The lighting conceals the features of the musician, which creates a sense of anonymity and ambiguity. This is crucial for carrying the clear message of the song across to a universal audience across the continent. It captures the imagination of the audience – as they are prompted to implicitly ask some of the following questions:

  • Who is this man?
  • What is his story?
  • Why is he seemingly sad?

It is human nature to try and ‘fill in the gaps’ – attempt to create logical and/or reasonable conclusion with limited information. Thankfully, the camerawork contributes to give this performer emotive meaning. The long shots imbue a sense of distance and emptiness to the audience. While a lay viewer will not know the story or context, these simple images signify a simple narrative of loss, sadness and regret: the primal themes of the song. The devices of lighting, camerawork and sound erase any barrier an audience may have for the remaining 150 seconds. Irrespective of language, the outline of Lane Moje‘s narrative has been set.

Emotional transference

Somewhat ironically, the entrance of Zeljko – about 32 seconds into the performance – complicate the dynamics of emotional longing. At 42 seconds, the camera, which has previously been fixed on the flautist slowly zooms out, panning to the singer in a generous long take. The effect of this camera shot is masterful. All the emotion that has been conjured by the instrumental (see above) has been transferred across to the singer, before he has even opened his mouth. Walking towards the centre of the stage, the camera even aligns the two up at around 49 seconds, making a not-so-subtle link of how the two are inextricably linked and connected. The following gif depicts this interchange.

However, what is the relationship between these two men? Are the male members of the Ad Hoc Orchestra that accompanied Zeljko a part of his inner psyche materialised on stage? Or is Zeljko some sort of blank slate for the musicians to project their feelings, through song, to the audience?

The performance does little to resolve this tension.

Emotional conflict: Actions vs. Words

Indeed, the second line of the song Zeljko closes his eyes, which on first glance means little. However, a quick dive into Serbian grammar neatly maps into Zeljko’s seemingly mundane facial movement. As if ashamed of the emotional state he is in.

Bojim se da te opet zavolim.

I’m afraid of loving you again

Lane Moje and English translation

The reflexive nature of ‘Bojim se’ – ‘I’m afraid’ indicates the object of the action – ‘loving you again’. Therefore, it seems that Zeljko may be ashamed of the emotional state he is in. A futile attempt to conceal or consolidate his emotional state, which has already spilled into the awareness of the audience.

This avoidance, or more likely reluctance to truly admit his feelings is once again echoed in the second line of the chorus:

Nije važno bilo s kim

It’s not important, with anyone

Lane Moje and English translation

The panning camera moves towards the singer, who locks eyes with the camera. However, upon stating ‘bilo s kim’ – ‘with anyone’ – his eyes darts away, looking to the distance. It’s subtle, but still somewhat awkward transition. Generally, our body language is a giveaway to our innermost feelings, with our words forming a part of a social facade. Here, however, Zeljko seems to have an inability to confront or directly address the issue with his body language, despite being able to utter them in words.

The cognitive dissonance between his words and actions mimic the complex multiplicity of thoughts, feelings and emotions that you would often find in lyric poetry. Think Shakespeare sonnets or love poetry where the speaker is in limbo: unable to truly break ties with the beloved.

Haunting loss and visual

Jamala’s performance included an incredibly intricate and exceptionally gorgeous LED imagery. After the first chorus (around 1:03) there is a brief overhead shot showing a selection of shapes in bright colours radiate from the singer.

This imagery is then directly challenged in the second verse, as if the the very floor she is standing on has broken. Society itself is fracturing. The following chorus encapsulates this reading, as the floor literally falls apart beneath her. Much like the sentiment of the lyrics, the staging mimics a civilisation that has been torn by socio-political conflict and territorial disputes for generations.

During the bridge Jamala wails while moving her arms as if cradling a child. Given the atrocities and horrors the song aims to depict – this harrowing movement depicts a lost generation. The solemn sounds makes it clear how Jamala mourns not only for the lives lost, but also a future stolen.

Throughout the performance, Jamala is relatively static from her spot on stage. However, it is through staging her narrative really hits home.

Arcade – the modern ‘sadboi’

Interestingly, our latest Eurovision winner suggests a buck to the trend. Unlike male ballad singers before him, Duncan’s success relied on his strong vocals and his evident connection to the song.

The staging relies on a mix of medium shots and long takes, alongside the darkened stage fixes the focus solely on Duncan. No cliché bleeding hearts, no musicians as a sensory emotional substitute. Instead, an intense authenticity of emotions, feelings and contemplation. Like Jamala and Rona before him, Duncan’s staging success relies on subtle simplicity.

Lights, camera, sad!

About halfway into the song, a large ball of light that descends from the lighting rig, a physical embodiment of the spirit of a lost loved one, is the only real prop in the performance. However, unlike the rather cliché and obvious image of a broken or hurt heart, Duncan’s performance relies on metaphor. If you watch this section of the performance without sound, it looks a little odd. However, even without music, Duncan’s facial reaction helps tell the story.

Duncan’s eyes are locked onto the light ball, until the line ‘get me off this rollercoaster’ – where his gaze is no longer rooted in the ball of light. Instead, he focuses on the camera. Unlike PÆNDA, he externalises his feelings directly to the audience to feel.

As the ball rises, a spotlight floods the camera as Duncan becomes his most animated – raising his hands and slamming the piano passionately. While the slams may not seem in keeping with the emotion of the song per se, it creates an anthem-like feel. The camera cuts to behind Duncan, where lasers stream the top of the audience. While it is too dark to make out individual members of the, we know they are there. More poignantly, the lights from phones/cameras alongside the lasers create an arena of loss and reflection: a collective emotional zeitgeist. It’s incredibly simple but executed so well to tap into the feels of audiences and juries alike!

Happy 2000 and whatever

As we enter a new decade, will we see a more convincing emotional male singer? I would strongly suggest yes. In part because broadcasters have a habit of emulating success stories from the prior contest, to try and capitalise on a trend. But more broadly, as a society we have moved on. I think we are slowly moving in the right direction that men being seen to be emotional is just fine! The stigma is slowly lifting and with it we are seeing more complex, nuanced portrayals of masculinity – brilliant.

You only need to see the murmurs of the 2020 national final season to recognise the sadboi is here to stay. In Sweden, Felix Sandman will try his luck in Melfest with ‘Boys With Emotion‘. In Australia, Jack Vidgen’s song ‘I Am King I am Queen‘ riffs off the wonderfully messy interplay of a rigid gender binary.

The year of the sadboi – penned by Ellie from ESC Insight may well be an apt running joke for the 2020 contest?

Does gender impact how emotions of sadness are portrayed? What other examples of emotional staging adds or contradicts my arguments? 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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