Tix and James Newman made me do it.
It probably sounds like the beginning of a cable movie no one wants to see, but nevertheless, it’s true. Tix was the one to start it all, with his national final performance of “Fallen Angel”. As I struggled with my review of it – because seriously, where do you even begin – I realized that what bothered me was that if I just heard the song, I’d never picture it with that performance, and if I just saw the performance, I’d never guess that this was the song that accompanied it.
I thought about this when I saw the first images of the United Kingdom rehearsal. When I said I want to be able to mute the sound and still be able to imagine the song, I wasn’t being literal! It made me wonder whether they understood the purpose of staging in Eurovision.
There’s more than one way of approaching it, but think of it like this: Eurovision is a big show made of smaller units that have a beginning, an end, and three minutes in between to leave am impression. All of those units have things like words, music costumes, characters, setting, lighting and props, and each of those items is a layer of the performance, and all layers need to work well together for the performance to successfully convey the song to us.
The Czech Republic, for example, didn’t get the memo. They have all the elements, but together they form a checklist, not a story. The choreography tells me nothing about the song, the lights and colors don’t set a mood – not even one that doesn’t suit the song. It might be an uptempo song with a fun dance routine, and yet all its elements are static: they don’t change or develop throughout. It’s there for three minutes, and it’s gone without a trace.
So, how should all the various elements fit together? I always think about it in the same way I think about movies, where the story isn’t just told by the words, it’s told through the expressions, the costumes and the setting. If we’re watching period film about the 18th century, but the characters are dressed in 16th century garb, the costumes are telling the wrong story. If we watch a swordfight in a fantasy film, and instead of hearing an appropriately dramatic soundtrack we get “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, the scene doesn’t work. It needs both the sword choreography and the fight music to tell the story well.
Sometimes, it’s very straightforward. Exhibit #1: Italy. We don’t even need video footage of this to get this. One photo with the instruments, the styling, the colors and expressions, and we get a pretty good idea of the type of song, performance and mood.
More often than not, though, it’s anything but straightforward – and a big part of making an effective staging is creating references to ideas, sensations and experiences the audience recognizes and using that to drive our emotional connection to it.
With a title like “10 Years”, the Icelandic entry already makes us think about the passage of time. When we hear the song, we also learn the specifics: it’s been 10 years since the beginning of Daði ‘s personal love story until this point of time. But the staging of it isn’t literal. There isn’t a couple gazing into each other’s eyes lovingly, and the backdrop doesn’t document the years 2011 to 2021.
What we do have is a series of details, disco lights and vintage keyboard (which also fit the musical arrangement), pajamas, old computer games, and even a throwback to the videoclip of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t pick up on a specific reference, because entire purpose is to make this song feel familiar. It’s meant to feel a bit nostalgic and sweet. And it’s meant to evoke memories – your memories, not Daði‘s – of your own happy place.
The other side of the happy couple coin is the breakup song – a cornerstone of modern music. As a text, Austria’s “Amen” is less personal than Iceland’s song, and actually rather dark, but the composition and staging create an emotional journey that is bigger than just the lyrics.
The words are sad, angry, frustrated, and lost, but the lyrics and their emotional gravity are pieces in a bigger puzzle, and it’s one that any human being who experienced any sort of heartbreak or loss will recognize. We can lose ourselves to the hurt and pain for a while, and we can get lost inside our own heads and thoughts, but we also keep looking for that tunnel exit, the one where the light is, even if we don’t see it yet.
This is what this staging does so well. It shows us the pain and the anger – it’s in the words and in his expressions. The lights and camerawork create an isolated space, and it takes the viewers into Vincent’s personal experience as he wanders there alone, going through the motions as he tries to reach that point where he’s not as angry or sad or lost. The camera pulling in and out in sweeping motions give a somewhat visual representation of the personal journey and the inner turmoil. Lyrically, his story doesn’t get resolved by the end, and he still hasn’t made it to the other side, but this story is open-ended. Both the musical composition itself, which is a lot less angry than the lyrics would suggest, and the spotlights that continually break through the darkness remind us that just like Pandora’s box, after all the evils and darkness have been released, the one thing that always remains is hope – and even if today is still not a good day, we will get there eventually.