Friday, 6 May 2016

English has taken over Eurovision

Only three out of the 42 entries in this year's Eurovision Song Contest will not be sung in English - a new record. And maybe that's not a bad thing.

When the Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956, organisers had not thought to specify any policy for what language the acts could sing in. It was just assumed that each country would sing in their own language.

That changed in 1965, when Sweden showed up to the contest with an entry in English. France was not amused. They convinced the Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union, which runs the contest, to impose a rule requiring each country's entry to be in an official language of that country. Otherwise, they argued, English would erode the contest's cultural legitimacy.

That language restriction lasted until 1973, when a convenient absence of the French representative at an EBU meeting enabled Sweden to convince the others to nix the rule. That resulted in a string of English-language winners, including Abba's Waterloo from Sweden in 1974. By 1978 France had had enough, and the EBU was convinced to re-impose the language restriction. And so it remained, until 1999.

What finally convinced France to give in and drop its opposition to countries singing in a language of their choosing? An almost uninterrupted series of wins from Ireland and the UK from 1992 to 1997.

Sweden, which had for three decades been wishing to sing in English, was finally vindicated. In 1999, they won the first free-language song contest with 'Take Me to Your Heaven'

Since then, only one non-English song has won the contest - Serbia's 'Molitva' in 2006. Countries have seen the writing on the wall. A higher and higher proportion of entries has been in English over the past 16 years. But this year is a new record. 

93% English in 2016

This year the contest is again being hosted by Sweden, taking place in Stockholm on 14 May. So perhaps it is not surprising that Sweden will set a new record - hosting the highest number of English-language songs in the contest's history.

Only two of the 42 countries participating in this year's contest have chosen to sing entirely in their native language, rather than English. Even the old hold-outs have given in this year. France and Italy have fielded songs with the choruses in English. Spain has fielded a song entirely in English. Portugal has just thrown in the towel and dropped out of the contest this year.

The two countries singing in their own languages are Bosnia and Macedonia. They will probably make it past the semi-final round because of the strong Balkan voting bloc, but both look cringe-inducingly old-fashioned and provincial.

The other song with no English comes from Austria, but it is not in German. It is, for some reason I don't understand, entirely in French. (Side note: I would be very appreciative if some Austrian person could explain to me how this came to be).

Good or bad?

So, how should we feel about all this? I hear a lot of complaints from people about how all the English-language songs are ruining the song contest. There’s a feeling that the songs no longer have any cultural connection to the country which fielded them. 

A lot of the singers are not even from the countries concerned and don’t even speak the native language. For instance Belarus has been continually fielding American singers, although this year they’ve offered us a real Belarusian.

While I do think that the singers should actually be from the country concerned (this, incidentally, has never been a rule, hence Celine Dion winning for Switzerland in 1988), I don't agree that linguistic diversity automatically equals cultural diversity.

This isn’t a folk music contest, it’s a pop music contest. So it makes sense for the entries to be in the international language of pop culture – English. That's just the reality in which we live.

The countries are not being made to sing in English, they are choosing to. Because they can see what happens to songs that are not in English - they score low. There are exceptions. For instance Italy came in third with a song in Italian last year. But the song really has to be exceptional to score high without English lyrics.

There is an understanding that the international audience wants to be able to understand the songs they’re listening to, and more than half of all Europeans can understand English. They are used to hearing songs in English on the radio, but they are not used to hearing songs in French or Italian.

English is the language of international pop. For the song contest to deny that fact, or to try to shield the contest from what is globally popular, would lead to its demise. Eurovision is currently the most-watched non-sports live television event in the world. More people watch Eurovision than the Oscars or the Grammys. 

Ratings increased exponentially after the EBU ditched the native languages and the live orchestra in 1999. Re-impose that language restriction and you can expect ratings to plummet.

Don't go back to the dark ages

The problem in the 80s and 90s was that the song contest seemed completely disconnected to actual popular culture of the times. Yes, you can see that these days a lot of the acts are pale imitations of popular artists. This year we have someone trying to be Ellie Goulding, someone trying to be La Roux, and someone trying to be Justin Bieber. But three decades ago, nobody seemed to be trying to be anything popular. The contest seemed to be happening in a bubble shielded from the outside world.

The only thing ‘culturally connected’ about the songs during the language restriction era was that they were in native languages (which most of the viewers could not understand).

Since the contest’s founding in 1956, the content of the songs has not really had much of a cultural connection to the submitting country. Someone, please explain to me how ‘l’Oiseau er l’enfant’ is very French, or ‘Fangad av en Stormvind’ is very Swedish, other than being in the language concerned. Just because the songs are in an international language doesn’t mean they don’t say something about why the country chose to field that particular song. 

As an American, I only discovered Eurovision when I moved to this continent in 2006. Looking at those old contests from the 80s and 90s, I don’t think I would have gotten into the it back then. If we re-imposed the language restriction, we’d be back in those Eurovision dark ages.

The Serbian example

Let's face it, nobody is seriously suggesting re-imposing the language restriction. So I'm not sure what all the moaning about the predominance of English is meant to accomplish. Can more countries be convinced to sing in their native languages? If they really do want to, they need to look at the one example of it working - Serbia's Molitva. 

In 2008, the year after Serbia won, half of the contest's entries were not in English. That's because the broadcasters could see that English wasn't necessary to win. But the problem is that not singing in English gives you a huge hurdle to overcome, because most of the voters will not be able to understand the lyrics.


If the song is very emotionally powerful, and manages to convey something that doesn't rely on the words, then it can break through. Molitva is a very intense, dramatic song. So was Italy's operatic Grande Amore last year.

With a lot of the non-English songs that are fielded these days, you get the impression that the country doesn't give a toss about winning (that's certainly been the case with the French entries over the past years). If that's the case, then sure, go for it. But then, you're not really participating in the contest are you?

If you're confident you have a very moving song, which is good enough to stand on its own melody without being understood by the audience, by all means go for it. But it's a rare song that can pull that off. Thinking of the winning entries of the past few years, I don't think any of them would have won if they weren't in English.

I'm sure this year we will see the same old bitching about the preponderance of English in the show. My attitude is: get over it. It's an international song contest, sung mostly in the language of international popular culture. Hopefully every once in a while we'll get a powerful song that can shatter the linguistic glass ceiling. 

But to expect these countries to field entries they know won't stand a chance, just to fulfil some kind of linguistic diversity fantasy, is just naive.

12 comments:

Adolfo Costa Rica said...

In my opinion it is a bad thing. The contest is an opportunity for the countries to showcase their musical culture, that including their language. Instead, they are thinking if it as a pop contest to win. I hope Spain, Germany and France at least stick to their languages. They should be singing for their nationals and for once a year have everyone else in Europe hear their music in their language.

Charles said...

It could be argued that the main reason that English-language songs often win is that there are so many of them that it is statistically unlikely for anything else to happen.

Since 1999, 82% of all songs ending up in last place in the final have also been in English. What does that show?

I would conclude that singing in English doesn't in itself make you more likely to win, but the received wisdom that it does makes more countries sing in English, thereby 'artificially' increasing the chances of an English-language song winning.

It's a chicken-and-egg self-fulfilling prophecy thing.

(PS I support the free-language rule as I think language choice is just as much an artistic choice as the staging, choreography, etc. I just wish countries would use the rule more imaginatively, like Austria this year.)

Claudio said...

I'll tell you a secret. Some of the contestants usually sing in English even in their respective countries. The so hated/loved Russian singer has recorded most of his hits in Russian and in English. The truth is: English is the most fashionable language in the music industry. As much as it was French in the 1800 literature.

Daniel said...

Some undeniable truths in this article but, since you asked, to me the song Fångad av en stormvind is extremely Swedish. Even in English, it is a textbook example of a Swedish schlager. High energy, verse, chorus, repeat, bridge, key-change, chorus. Add wind machine, running in at the start and that dance routine. You could recognise it a mile off. Similarly with L'oiseau et l'enfant I would contend that it is a quite typical "French ballad" kind of song that you would hear on a radio station such as Nostalgie: written in a minor key, descending chromatic melody, five backing singers providing harmony and then singing the melody while the singer provides a "descant". You may have got further with other examples, but the two you chose were undoubtedly products of their country. As someone who was a much more obsessive fan of the contest in the 80s and 90s, I agree with you that the contest was in a kind of bubble - a genre of its own. But more often than not that bubble included songs which were a hybrid of national culture mixed with "international" pop. It has all but disappeared now, but to deny its existence is difficult.

Daniel said...

And as for why Austria sing in French, my bet is quite simply that it sounds nice. It's reminiscent of the hugely successful Alizée (who had a hit right across Europe with "Moi Lolita") and stands out in a field of US-stylee radio pop. (No judgement! wink emoticon Given Austria's recent history of trying something "different" (Conchita, Trackshittaz), it doesn't seem all that surprising.

Klaus said...

Austrian attempt to explain: Zoe, the singer attended the lycee francais in the french bubble of vienna. her dad being a singer-songwriter for decades (papermoon), so i guess she really likes chansons-style stuff. apart from that she will painfully remind france of how hot BB looked back then in the old french days

Daniel said...

One last point (at the risk of winning the green-ink award), I think that if you wanted to have a country-of-origin rule, it would be better to stipulate that the *songwriters* should be from the country concerned rather than the singers. Technically it's the songwriters who are competing (and who win the prize), and that would stop Azerbaijan for example basically just buying in a knock-off from Sweden's Melodifestivalen. Their winning entry "Running Scared" was written by Swedes and even had Swedish backing singers. Its link to Azerbaijan was tenuous to say the least.

Sólrún said...

All of my french vocabulary comes from Eurovision; Vivre, Nez partes passon moi... , loin d'ici - wouldn't understand any of it it'd all been in english wink emoticon

Adam said...

The simple solution is to ban the speaking of English except in countries where it is an official language. Then we can reinstate the Eurovision language rules, arrest the erosion of cultural and linguistic diversity and we'll all live happily ever after

Stephen said...

I would agree in part, but 'sentiment' is no longer is 'eurovision' ?? More relevant, more commercial , more current is the way to go. Otherwise vote for Estinonia, B&H and Greece !! Lol

Michael said...

What's the pressure, Daniel? All lyrics in English make perfect sense. I read the article and I think it does come from a very Anglocentric place. I agree that growing up I never heard any song in another language. But this is a uniquely British phenomenon. In other countries you heard your own language and probably English and French/Italian/German (in the middle bits of Europe). In Finland Eros and Laura were big (in their own languages). I would have loved to have been influenced from a much early age. As for "L'oiseau et l'enfant", it works well in French because it is poetic, ephemeral and plays on unexpected rhymes. "Fångad av en stormvind" is a typical Swedish schlager, a cultural phenomenon with its own background. You can sing it in English, as she did in her reprise, sorry repeat, but the UK at the time was doing very different things. Just because songs nowadays are in English doesn't mean they work. Especially when the English is nonsensical. When listening to a lot of non-native written songs I'm surprised at the lack of innovation. You can normally predict what the rhyming word will be before you hear it. A lot of the lyrics are stale and tired. This tends not to happen when you're writing in your own language, and certainly wasn't the case in 1977 for France or Finland, who sang "Lapponia" with the classic line "That girl is a witch, she creates with the power of destiny", not something that would work in anything other than Finnish. All I can say is vive la différence.

Petri said...

Well, I do hope that our Grand Prix won't become more international, but rather cosmopolitan. In order to understand why people have such strong emotions about the topic one needs to go back in the history of the contest all the way back to the golden age, 60s and 70s. Some history books might also enlighten the role of the French language in Europe.
Anyway, apart from the lyrics far more important, is the overall impression: the show on the stage and how it corresponds to our personal image of the country in question. An example: Spain has chosen a great entry this year, however, for me it doesn't represent Spain on any level and therefore I would not give my vote to it notwithstanding the musical merits. On the contrary, even if you'd sing L'Oiseau et l'Enfant in English it stays very French. It's all very political and context-dependent, or what would you say about Ein bißchen Frieden in 1982...