Editorials & Opinion

XTRA Debate: Staging Emotions Part 3 – Performing Anger

How does anger operate in Eurovision?

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 final part of Staging Emotions, we will consider how anger and/or aggression operates on the Eurovision stage.

Is anger an emotion doomed to fail on the Eurovision stage? Or are there ways in which anger can be successfully staged? Considering the role of staging internal emotions, as well as how gender may impact staging choices – how does anger work with Eurovision?

Anger’s role

Eurovision is often depicted as a happy-go-lucky song competition with bubblegum pop, ‘bops’ and cheesy utopian happiness. Anger, therefore, is the complete antithesis of what the contest is stereotyped as. However, given how anger is such a common emotion, it seems absurd to have it absent from the contest. Be it a breakup, loss, social upheaval/politics – anger is increasingly dominating the European and global zeitgeist. Indeed, some fans are still salty that Song X/Y/Z didn’t win or even qualify.

Verona-stans, anyone… or more fittingly Me Tana fans who may or may not (still) be furious at the recent Fikmas result.

I think it would be fair to say if you were to associate anger to any musical genre – some form of rock would probably come to mind. Powerful guitar riffs, blaring drums, with the potential for shouting and/or screaming. However, as this debate will suggest, anger is not genre-specific. Much like the universal nature of the emotion, anger permeates every genre and soundscape.

Anger and heartbreak

Two songs from the 2007 immediately come to mind: Hungary’s ‘Unsubstantial Blues’ and host nation Finland’s ‘Leave Me Alone’. Blues and dark pop-rock. Due to obvious difference in sound, most people wouldn’t pair the two for comparison. However, when thinking about ideas of anger, it becomes increasingly obvious how similar the two songs are. Both address the breakdown of a relationship due to some form of affair/cheating.

However, one song came in a respectable 9th. The other? 17th. Of course, there are many reasons for why this could be. But I want to suggest that the successful storytelling of anger via staging helped explain the result.

Let me start by saying I love both songs and performances.

Leave Me Alone – the danger of darkness…

In an interview with Scansat days before the final, the singer said:

It’s not a typical Eurovision song… It’s darker and… it’s not that happy song. But I think its representing a lot of what I am and what kind of music I have and I think that’s important.

Hanna Pakarinen, speaking to Scansat

Well, Hanna was certainly telling the truth with the adjective ‘darker’.

The backing vocalists are all wearing suits. Due to the dark lighting, it is almost impossible to make out the details of their faces… made even harder with the hats they all seem to be wearing. I’m still toying if this helps of hinders the performance. In one sense, the anonymity creates a sense of musical authenticity of a band on stage, without detracting from Hanna’s performance. Of course, either reading is met with the somewhat obvious irony that despite her vocal plea to be left alone… the band stay on stage throughout the performance.

Notably, unlike Hungary’s entry – the breakup hasn’t yet happened. Audiences are given a snapshot to the run-up of the relationship ending:

I have to leave, but you are still sleeping,

There’s nothing to say, our time has ran out,

You took me to bed, that’s what you were seeking

But you don’t even care what I am about

Leave Me Alone

To stage this moment of mental turmoil effectively is so incredibly difficult – as per my thoughts in the first part of this trilogy (Interiority on the Eurovision stage). Throughout the performance Hanna rocks back and forth – a simple but effective indication of her discontent, anxiety and stability of her relationship fracturing.

Resentment and the camera

One of the biggest issues with this performance is something that so easily could’ve been fixed in rehearsals: camera work! Hanna offers so much in terms of physical performance: facial reactions and gestures. However, there are SO many wide/odd shots in this performance you miss the power of her movement. Given the angle of the Hartwall Arena, a wide shot (capturing the majority of the audience) creates a feeling of isolation. This can work in the songs favour given the message of the song, but still should have been used more sparingly to not saturate this feeling. Similarly, the cascade of Finnish flags add a wonderful anthemic crowd-effect.

The first verse includes some much needed closeups of Hanna looking less than pleased.

Esc GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Incoming: Glares of fury!

The second verse starts with a sweeping shot, but it seems a touch too fast? This seems pedantic – but in songs like these the verse is the source of character development. Without knowing and feeling the intricate details of the failed relationship, the claims made in the chorus come across as somewhat juvenile. A rushed shot hurries the storytelling and reduces the overall impact. Equally, it makes it more difficult to decipher the LED graphics. The medium face on shots that follow are better but still fail to capture the emotive appeal of the song. Basing the camera shots on close-ups, like that of around 1:33-37 and 1:43-47 respectively, creates a sense of dignified rage and therefore a more convincing performance. There are a handful of overhead shots that sadly do little to enhance the emotive state Hanna finds herself in.

Subject and object

I also wonder – who is Hanna addressing here? The lyrics refer to the singular third person pronoun ‘you’… is that us – the audience? Probably not, but the few instances Hanna seems to avoid directly looking at the camera suggest a sense of hostility towards us. Unlike a more *positive* love song where the singer is trying to woo a beloved which is represented on stage via metaphor, prop or performers on stage (see Hayko from the same year or Zeljko’s ‘Lane Moje’): anger seems to require a more precise target. Again, the anonymity of her band/backing vocalists obscure the clarity of who Hanna addressing.

The final chorus starts with a colour change – swapping the dark blue and grey with orange and hints of red. It was all the rage in 2007 to swap colour palette for the bridge/final chorus so this isn’t particularly unique. It gives a sense of change and/or resolution. However, would anger have been more successfully projected if the colours were swapped? In orange everything is clearer on the eye. While we are at it… I’ve always felt the lyrical transition in the chorus from ‘I feel like dying’ to ‘I feel like crying’ in the final chorus is somewhat awkward. Perhaps the initial shock of the affair is over and Hanna is rationalising matters. However, apart from the word swap and colour difference nothing else in the song changes. The staging does not seem to reflect the nuance of anger from outraged hatred to vexation.

Eurovision 2007 GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Unsubstantial blues – Hell hath no fury…

By comparison, Magdi Rúzsa’s performance lacks the pyro rage-filled energy of Hanna’s. The musicians that accompany her are visible, not shielded by dark lighting or hats. A super simple backdrop through the long LED: a road. Alongside her band, a prop stating ‘BUS STOP’. Walking on stage wearing casual clothing, the singer immediately starts an audience connection as she comes across as a relatable, average person. Barefoot and holding a suitcase, the tone and meaning of the song becomes clearer. The staging is fixed in realism. Audiences don’t witness the conflict, or even necessarily the resolution. Instead, we are privy to a snapshot of lamentation, rage and upset as the singer tries to compose herself from an argument.

Apart from the initial close-up of the bus stop prop, the vast majority of the performance is shot in close and medium shots. The few wide shots that are embedded within the performance are generally dedicated to powerful belts. This combination ensures the focus is on the emotive appeal of Magdi’s performance. Similarly, it also demonstrates her solitude in the world – recontextualising the empty road and captivated audience.

Throughout the performance, fixed orange spotlights fill the Hartwell arena with a warm, yet somewhat ominous glow. During the final chorus, orange leaves descend from the LED ‘wings’ that envelop the stage. A nice touch. Much like the foliage that fades and falls during autumn in preparation for winter – the relationship Magdi sings about is fading. Irreversibly broken, it is now broken. The performance in Helsinki is an excellent and nuanced adaptation of the official music video, which more explicitly details the nature of relationship breakdown.

Anger and melodrama

Viszlát Nyár is certainly a song of rage, anger and fury and was an obvious choice for this debate. However, if you take away the song, the staging is actually somewhat standard for a rock gig. The only major thing I would like to comment on is the pyro. Ah, the pyro. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

EBU: Would you need any pryo for your performance in Lisbon?

AWS/MTVA: Yes.

This is an angry song and as such doesn’t need to overdo it. To use techniques from other songs mentioned in the debate would make the performance seem melodramatic and therefore inauthentic. Sometimes relative simplicity is best.

Meanwhile, Emma’s La Mia Città is not necessarily an ‘angry’ song a la AWS. It’s meant to be feisty and fiery – a rejection of the crazed lifestyle cityscapes plagued by modernity. Although the song is great, most commentators agree the performance was subpar… messy, in fact. This proves how important it is to get staging right. It is all too easy to unintentionally muddy the emotional waters with with the wrong visuals/techniques to fatal consequences. Audiences leave the performance confused – due to the mish-mash of visuals clashing with a lyrical and/or musical narrative.

Socio-political disdain

I once said in a previous debate that ‘Hatrið mun sigra is not for everyone. It is a divisive song, with incredibly pointed lyrics and even more pointed performance.’ There are a lot of things that could put people off. The overt, yet wonderfully trivialised sense of sexual energy: harnesses, cages, latex. The contact lenses. Matthías’ vocal shout juxtaposed against Klemens’ falsetto. At a first glance the performance can come across as an angry, shouty, scandalous, warped, and well… pretty darksided three minutes.

While the group do indeed display a malaise of the status quo which is toxifying the discourse of reality, the ‘anger’ isn’t at the audience. Instead, the performance exposes a number of socio-political systems. It isn’t meant to be a necessarily comfortable or happy viewing. The spectrum of emotions displayed by the group are primal, authentic and importantly emotive. Everybody felt something after watching Hatari perform. Anger, or a frustration becomes the catalyst for the group to creatively channel their message.

The fight lives on… in Portugal!

Luta É Alegria is a big contrast to the above songs. There is no overt aggression, no pyro, no distraught expressions. Instead, Homens Da Luta (trans. Men of Struggle) represent a more subtle anger. An inner disquiet of fury about a system that seemingly no longer seems works for the 99%. This anger is timely. 2011 saw the rise of the ‘Occupy Movement’ – a progressive alliance demanding radical reform in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. People protested globally about austerity measures, alleged corruption within governments and major financial institutions.

Não falta quem te deixe ressabiado.

Não falta quem te venda o próprio ar.

Many are those that manage to make you insecure.

Many are those that would even sell the air they breathe.

Luta É Alegria and English translation

Their songs act as a parody of the statements, songs and performances after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, with the retro costume of the group act as caricatures of revolutionary singers during the period of the military coup. While the group are essentially an improvised comedy act, their message rings true to 2011 and, sadly, today in 2020.

We often think of Eurovision and politics and go straight to 1944 or banned Georgian entry ‘We Don’t Wanna Put in‘. However, this non-qualifying Portuguese entry is, retrospectively, one of the most political songs to grace the contest stage. Political anger is just as potent as the fury from heartbreak.

De pouco vale um ar sempre carregado.

De pouco vale a raiva para te ajudar

Not much worth is the constant air of depression/tension.

Not much worth is the anger to help you through.

Luta É Alegria and English translation

Each member holds at least one sign – each in different languages. Although the words may be different, the sentiment is the same: ‘The Struggle is Joy’! The backdrop is that of green and red flowers – an obvious nod to the Portuguese flag. However, the interaction between those two colours… namely colour blocking suggest a building tension between the people of Portugal: the ‘elite’ against the ‘common’ people. Coincidentally, the backdrop works on another level. The most common form of colour-blindness is distinguishing between red and green. Although certain hues/tones are easier to identify, the idea of being unable to tell the difference between the two directly plays into the message of the group.

Is it possible to stage anger successfully? If so, what do you think are the most successful staging techniques to showcase anger? 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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