Image: EBU / Thomas Hanses
There’s a phrase in the German language describing the time between Christmas Eve and New Year: “zwischen den Jahren”, which translates to “between the years”. No matter the historical genesis of the phrase, and no matter the religious aspect of Christmas, for most people who “do” Christmas, it basically describes the time between “a very much anticipated day” and the beginning of the new year. So what does this have to do with Eurovision?
For us, it’s absolutely no secret anymore: The final of the Eurovision Song Contest is the highest holiday, the most important night of the year, a “holy” evening, similar to Christmas Eve (at least for many people in the western world). And we, the Eurovision fans, have many high holidays, don’t we. The day from which new Eurovision songs may be released. FiKmas. The day on which all songs are known. The first rehearsal day. The day of the first semi-final. And ultimately, the day of the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest. The difference: Our “ceremonial timeframe” is much shorter. Our “between the years” is much, much longer than 7 days.
So, our highest holiday lays behind us again. The hangovers are overcome. The exaltation receded. The vocal cords healed. The champagne bottles emptied. The scandals discussed. The tissues dried. The most urgent rants posted on the internet. The most emotional and partially embarrassing Instagram stories already expired. We’re now at that point, between the old Eurovision season, and the beginning of a new one. We’re both looking back to the old contest, and forward to the next one.
Time to look back first, then!
For me, we just experienced the best contest since 2015, which was the most recent contest with the old result presentation (and some musical highlights such as “Rhythm Inside”, “Love Injected”, “Goodbye to Yesterday” and many more). While many praise the 2016 contest as a milestone, I don’t. It felt like an attempt to unite Eurovision with the real music business, but it also felt like selling out the contest’s soul, dystopian stage included. 2017 was decent, with a very deserved winner, but the two most recent editions, 2018 and 2019, were a musical wasteland on my map. “Nice” is probably the best attribute that I can award to any song from those two years, and Eurovision as we know it felt eradicated to me. I’ll get back to that later, in my next post. So, 2021, the longest-awaited contest in history, actually had some really good and well-staged songs.
I’ll always remember 2021 as the year of big props, on the good side (Switzerland, Bulgaria) and on the bad side (United Kingdom, Spain). The simple and open stage design probably made it possible. And while such sober stage designs are okay for a year, I don’t want it to become a routine. It felt like Eurovision was happening within two massive iPads. Yes, impressive. Yes, functional. But no, not very characteristic. Only the stage of 2001 felt even less inspiring. The other reason that I presume to be behind the stage designer’s decision: Augmented Reality. Sorry, but this was neither needed, nor stunning, nor totally new. At the time it happened, Ingvild Bryn’s transparent and moving scoreboard was a lot more exciting and fun. That was 1996. It was no Augmented Reality, but the effect was the same: The viewer at home saw something that the viewer in the hall couldn’t see. The use was exceptional. It was a way to demonstrate technical possibilities. Like this year. And like that, I expect Augmented Reality to be just as discardable in the future of Eurovision. OK, you showed us what’s possible, now let’s get back to something more analog again.
And the same applies to prerecorded vocals. It was an acceptable approach, considering the times we live in, to allow delegations to travel to Rotterdam with smaller teams (and of course, many just sent dancers instead). While I think that prerecorded vocals should be acceptable for stylistic elements that aren’t replicable on stage that easily (parts of “Shum” and “Mata Hari”, among others), I hope that actual backing vocals will be required to be sung live again, as soon as the pandemic allows it. Eurovision needs more life (live) on stage, to not become totally unauthentic and not to expose itself even more to disrespect from an artistic point of view. The ban on live instruments is already derided enough from musicianship.
Authenticity is in demand. Take Instagram, for example. We saw a flood of filters a few years ago, highly edited photos, and eventually there was a paradigm shift to more authentic content. I can conceive of a similar turnaround in Eurovision (less digital effects, more live vocals).
One other thing kind of bothered me this year, and it’s already becoming a regular occurrence recently:
For the third consecutive edition, the winner was more or less “known” in advance. With betting odds becoming more and more accurate in predicting the outcome of the contest, the actual competitive part of the show becomes less and less valuable. Eventually, if not already now, odds are so highly diagnostic that they are basically that: Spoilers. Sure, they got it very wrong with Malta. And the vast disparity between hype, odds and juries on the one side – and finally the public vote for Malta on the other side – speaks volumes, and not in favour of the Maltese song’s quality. Bookmakers apparently aren’t immune against the PR machinery of individual delegations – yet. But still, the winner was “known” in advance. Should we never again get a surprise winner? Aren’t these what kept making the contest interesting and exciting?
Speaking of the voting: After five years with the split presentation, maybe it’s time to go back to the roots again. Officially, the split presentation was introduced to keep excitement up until the very last second. Is it really that much more entertaining than in the old times? Does it really add that much more excitement? Isn’t it too close to “just reading out the winner from an envelope”? With the old presentation method, “12 points” meant a lot more. Before 2016, the whole voting with the spokespeople was a lot more meaningful and thus more interesting, more tense. You slowly transitioned from “still clueless how this is shaping up” to “omg it’s so close!”. Or, if you were a fan or citizen of a landslide-victorious country, you had a damn good party with every 8, 10, and finally 12 points, and eventually, you could just relax, watch the rest of the voting, cheer for additional 12 points which you didn’t even need, and that was fun, too. I never experienced the old voting as uninteresting, boring or even unnecessary, even in years when the winner was already known well before the end, Norway 2009 included. The voting was the biggest Eurovision star. It isn’t that anymore in my opinion, now that the odds are so accurate and the voting presentation is split. It lost a bit of both its identity and its meaning. Instead, we now get the exhibition of failures. “Zero points”, said out loud, was an invention of 2016. Under the line: After five years of observations, I came to a conclusion: I am not a big fan of the new split presentation. I pretty much miss the old way, which worked just fine from 1980 to 2015.
Will that ever change, though? And how much will Eurovision in general change?
I can only speculate, but I’m seeing a few signs, if you will.
How I see the future of the Eurovision Song Contest at this point, I will discuss in my follow-up post, the “looking ahead” part of this mini-series.