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Calm After the Storm
Eurovision seems to have its own rules when it comes to the time and space continuum. The national final season takes forever to arrive and then speeds up and slows down in illogical ways. The gap between that and rehearsals is somehow even longer even though it is shorter on the calendar. The ESC weeks themselves are super quick, and feel like a million years at the same time. And then it’s just a couple of weeks later and I can’t even trust my memories because the whole thing feels like it was so far away.
Geographically speaking, I suppose it is. I got back to San Francisco last weekend, having first had the opportunity to step away from the madness for a little bit. The unexpected advantage of going home for Eurovision is having the time to spend with family, be an aunt, smell the roses and stare into the Mediterranean sunset I always miss so much, even though I have a pretty good collection of sunsets here over the Pacific Ocean.
But once I got back, it all felt so far away that I ended up re-watching the competition and collecting notes on all the thoughts running through my head as I look back on ESC 2019 and my personal experiences. And luckily for me, I happen to have a blog at my disposal where I can share those thoughts and experiences, and an off-season with little else going on. What else would I do but spill out the contents of my brain for you unsuspecting readers?
So here it is: the first of my wrap-up posts from the other side of the pond.
Is it Right or Is it Wrong?
One of the biggest challenges when blogging Eurovision rehearsals is knowing you’re not a prophet. No matter how objective you try to be, you’re just one person with one person’s opinions. It’s easy to own the things you get right – and don’t worry, I will. But it feels more appropriate to start off owning the things I was wrong about. Mea culpa and all that.
So what do we have here? I thought Malta would do better, based both on the early rehearsals in which it seemed like they’d get it right when the time came and just the strength of the song. And even when the rehearsals took a more worrying turn and Malta drew first half and were selected to open the final, with so many strong songs much later in the running order, I didn’t think “Chameleon” would be ignored by the televoters so much.
I had Hungary not only as qualifier, but also as a country that could do well in the final – you know, an ethno ballad in a year with very little in that niche. Here I definitely suffered the press center syndrome of watching rehearsals so many times it was hard to see how things had gotten gradually worse until it was too late. And while I never had Armenia above the bottom third in the final, I did have it as a qualifier, assuming that the modern but more complex song and Srbuk’s fantastic vocals would help her a lot with the juries and that, combined with Armenia’s televote base, that should be enough for “Walking Out” to make it through. However, her performance was so alienating it wasn’t even close.
On the other hand, there were three qualifications I didn’t see coming during rehearsals: Albania, which is even more ironic considering Jonida was great vocally in every rehearsal but terrible in both the jury semi and the live broadcast, and still qualified. Belarus looked so messy throughout that I just couldn’t see it working, but one of the things about seeing the first rehearsals as separate units is it’s harder for you to realize how certain songs will come across in the running order, and doubly so in the sea of crazy that was the first semi.
And then there was Slovenia. I never disliked “Sebi”, but I always found the two performers so painfully boring, and it was actually rather torturous sitting through their rehearsals despite their song always being pleasant background music. I couldn’t see them getting anywhere with their zero lack of effort, but as Ola Melzig wrote in his blog: “Slovenia did pretty much not a thing, but the song was strong enough to carry them through anyway.” In the final they mostly got points from their neighbors, friends and a few Eastern countries, but in a year like this 59 points were enough for 11th place in the televote (last year, France got 59 points in the televote and finished 17th), so apparently they chose the right year to get away with boring.
What for? Only Mr God Knows
Every year when rehearsals start, we remind each other that they’re there precisely for trying things out until it comes together. But while this is generally true, each delegation has its own story arc. And while most countries start at different points, move forward at different paces but ultimately more or less catch up in time for the live shows, it’s not always true.
When you don’t watch the rehearsals, it’s hard to get a sense of which delegations actually had a reverse process. One in which they actually were where they should have been – and then made adjustments that dragged their performance backwards instead of enhancing it. In Hungary’s case, it didn’t hit me until I watched it on the night of the semi and was struck by the difference between how pale it came across compared with how impactful the first rehearsals had been. Then I had the difficult task of looking back at what my brain did and didn’t record, and figuring out what had happened along the way.
Some things were easy to spot: Despite being an experienced professional who has been in Eurovision before, Joci’s pacing throughout rehearsals was wrong, and by the live show he looked and sounded tired and more detached than he normally is – which is one of his biggest selling points.
The other thing that occurred to me is a tricky one we discuss every year. When we feel like an entry has been made worse by some relatively small change – whether a staging choice during the rehearsals or a three-minute Eurovision edit that removes a good part of the song – how do we know whether what’s missing will really be noticed by someone who never knew it was there in the first place? And conversely, are there details that are small enough for you not to realize right away that they have been changed, and yet big enough to actually make a difference? Looking back at Hungary and what made it work for me in its first rehearsals, it turns out the answer is yes.
The camerawork in Joci’s first rehearsals had certain things that really captured my attention. It was complicated but very immersive, using some specific and unique angles that helped the stage tell a story which matched the progress of the song. When re-watching the actual performance, I realized none of those shots were there. Thinking back through the rehearsal process, I realized that, in every run-through, they downgraded their camera shots to things that were less complicated but also less impressive. Perhaps they felt some of those shots were too difficult or risky to get right, I don’t know. In any case, by doing so, they added distance between the performance and the viewer. Throw in Joci’s deflated energy levels and the difference was staggering and, as it turned out, fatal to the song’s changes.
With Austria, it was just one thing that was changed. One detail. Most of Pænda’s run-throughs were in black and white, only changing to color late in the performance. In one of the early run-throughs, though, they tried it in full color a couple of times. I’m really curious to know what made them pick the latter version, because it was obvious to me and the people I watched the rehearsals with that the color version just didn’t work as well. The largely monochrome version had some magic in it that the color version didn’t have, and it transported you into the isolated world of the song much more. And again, much like Joci, when you marry that visual downgrade with an uncomfortable performance – another singer who peaked too early and just couldn’t carry the song on the night the way she had in early run-throughs, where she was so good it really felt like it’d be impossible to ignore her – then the end result was that “Limits” simply crumbled into the depths of the incredibly competitive second semi-final. But for all the disappointment of knowing how it could have been and what it ended up not being, I’m glad I got to see the rehearsals – because even though I was never a fan of the song, it did give me a few surprising run-throughs of magical perfection to enjoy.
While I don’t necessarily understand the choices those delegations made, I can at least respect that they made a judgment call and went with it. It can get much worse than that. Just ask Malta.
They started off with a great song and a delightful concept coupled with an inexperienced young performer – and then they could not make their bloody minds up.
I was really impressed with their first day of run-throughs. They obviously had a complicated staging and a lot still to get right, but the leaps of improvement between takes were so big that not only did things look great by the end, but Michela was even managing to relax and really enjoy herself, which made such a big difference. I had no doubt in my mind that just a few more rehearsals would turn “Chameleon” into something polished and colorfully brilliant on stage.
And then came the second rehearsal day. Evidently, the delegation had spent a lot of the intervening time obsessing about the way the projections were working – or not working – so they decided to remove the props completely and just use the massive LED backdrop. Without the prop, Michela had to get used to a considerably changed choreography, only to have this decision reversed by the time of the dress rehearsals. That would still have been tolerable if they had settled on one version, but no: even then, they had to keep tweaking and adjusting so that every dress rehearsal brought new angles, new effects, changes in the sequences of camera shots and backdrops and different pacing of the backdrop changes. This, in turn, also meant changes in positioning and choreography each time to make sure the performance got captured well on camera. It was Malta that made me roll my eyes at the complaints of a few other delegations about their requests being ignored: the production did so much to accommodate the constant changes to “Chameleon” even really late in the game, so I can only imagine that the requests they turned down were things that just weren’t doable for whatever reason.
But back to the Maltese delegation. The result of their constant tinkering was that the team on stage never got the chance to really feel relaxed and comfortable in what they were doing. Everyone was put under more pressure than necessary. Michela’s overwhelmed emotional reaction when she qualified? That wasn’t just because she was the last to be called. And in perhaps the biggest injustice in this year’s competition, her own delegation kept doing the same thing between rehearsals, all the way to the grand final. This process of constant change would have been hard enough for the most experienced of performers to deal with, let alone a young girl straight out of a talent show. When you come to learn your lessons from this year, PBS, I hope you realize it was you who let her down and not the other way around.
When Spirits are Calling My Name
I had an up-and-down relationship with Norway this season. I loved “Spirit In The Sky” when it was in the national final, and yes, I knew it was unoriginal bordering on trashy, but hey, who cares? We all need guilty pleasures in our lives, and this was catchy and the trio were oh-so-likable, so why the hell not. As more songs got picked, though, it slipped down my rankings and I wasn’t thinking much of it by the time rehearsals arrived. Not even during rehearsals, to be honest, because the performance felt a bit too empty and perhaps taking itself a bit too seriously for the kind of song it was, in what I assumed was a Hail Mary attempt to improve its standing with the juries.
I was therefore taken by surprise when I met up with my sister and brother-in-law – two people I adore and who have completely different musical tastes – after they had attended the Thursday afternoon dress rehearsal. Their unequivocal favorite? Norway. Even in the hall, where they couldn’t see the smiles and joy that came through the TV screen later that night.
While I was always certain it’d do really well with the televote and really badly with the juries – yeah, not a hard one to call, I know – I think it’s fair to say most of us were shocked to realize that Norway had actually won the public vote. In retrospect, I suppose if someone as unlikable as Rasmussen managed to finish where he did with the audience, it’s not that crazy to see a Nordic folklore-inspired Eurovision cliché performed by visibly lovely people doing much, much better.
Do you hear that joiking? That’s Jon Henrik Fjällgren working on his next Melodifestivalen entry. KEiiNO asked for a hero. Ask and you shall receive. It’s either that or Charlotte P. Pick your poison.
All Out of Luck
There are plenty of ways to be unlucky in Eurovision. You can be perfectly nice, like Ireland this year, but be placed in a position in the running order where it’s clearly going to be even harder for your already unmemorable song to be remembered. Or you can be Poland and miss out on qualification by two points because one juror couldn’t follow voting instructions correctly. I would have added Lithuania to the unlucky list too, since they missed the final by just one point, but they were lucky to have enough friends to be in the running for qualification in the first place so they don’t count.
Or you can be Spain. You can pick a super fun party song with a lovely, charismatic performer, be drawn in the second half, be given the pimp slot right at the end of the show, hire one of the most famous Eurovision stage directors and pay him shitloads of money – only for said director to inflict an overly complicated and busy staging on your performance, which will come at the end of a playlist packed with up-tempo songs executed far better, meaning all the viewers will have pretty much picked their favourite by the time they even reach you. Imagine what this song could have done in a year like 2015.
If there are all kinds of ways to be unlucky in Eurovision, there are ways of being very lucky too. Take Duncan Laurence, for all his singing about losing games. Because here’s the thing. The Netherlands did lose. They lost the jury vote. They lost the televote. They actually lost most of the individual country votes with both the juries and the public.
Looking at the four winners since the new voting presentation was introduced, Salvador in 2017 was the most popular across the board – making it into the top three of 31 jury votes and 30 televotes, and of course winning the overall televote and jury vote with ease. The other three years saw the juries and televote disagree when it came to the overall winner. None of the songs in question won the jury vote, and only Netta in 2018 actually won the televote.
But here’s the difference: while all three had similar success with the juries – Jamala was in the top three of 15 different juries in 2016, while Netta and Duncan made it to the top three of 13 juries – the televote was a different story. Ukraine 2016 and Israel 2018 finished in the top three in the televote of 22 and 23 countries respectively. The Netherlands? Twelve. Not even one-third of the participating countries had the Netherlands in their televote top three, which means that more than two-thirds of the participating countries had at least three songs they preferred over the Netherlands.
When you play the game of math, you either win or, well, you don’t. It was an odd side-effect of this being a strong ESC year: everyone had lots to vote for, but some of the big hitters only worked in certain parts of Europe. Russia, unsurprisingly, pretty much swept the eastern side of the continent, while Norway hogged many of the western points and Italy ate into the difference. All three had more countries place them in the televote top three than the Netherlands managed – Russia in 19 countries, Italy in 14 and Norway in 21.
But to win Eurovision, you need to do well enough across the board. We always say this, but it was never truer than in 2019. We’ve never had a winner as far from being anyone’s favorite than the Netherlands this year, but it was liked well enough by everyone, while Europe couldn’t make up its mind about what it liked more.
Turns out there’s a right way to play a losing game.
No Dream Impossible
One of my favorite things to look for when I re-watch Eurovision every year is the small moments that you tend to miss on the night, because the winner celebration in the middle of the screen understandably takes all the focus.
I’ve watched the winner announcement and reprise about seven times now, and each time has had me pretty much as emotional as Duncan all the way through. But it was when I re-watched the entire voting segment, and not just the last minutes, that I noticed another thing happening while the Dutch were deservedly celebrating in the green room. As the final ranking list appeared on screen, you could see, blurred into the background, a celebratory hug of a group of people clad in red. It was the Swiss delegation. Rather than being disappointed at having been considered among the favorites but not making it into the top three, they were celebrating the fact they had just brought Switzerland its best placing in 26 years. Think about it this way: Luca was born a year and a half after Annie Cotton’s third-place finish in 1993, so what he achieved by finishing fourth was nothing less than his country’s best position in his entire life.
Somewhere over the rainbow,
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
All images from eurovision.tv. Stay tuned for the next instalment of the View from San Francisco!
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