Monday, 15 May 2017

In Eurovision, as in politics, the people wanted an outsider

At a time when the public is voting for political leaders who say they are from 'outside the system', Portugal's surprise Eurovision win shows entertainment is not immune to this trend.

When Salvador Sobral took the microphone to accept his victory in the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev on Saturday night, it went a little differently than people might have expected.

Such speeches are usually filled with breathless platitudes, with artists thanking the fans and talking about how great the song contest is. But Sobral is not your usual Eurovision winner. He used the occasion to rail against "disposable" pop music in general - taking a few cryptic swipes at the song contest he had just won. His was "a victory for music and for people who make music that actually means something."

Given the political events of the past year, it all gave me a sense of deja vu.

I was there in the arena and had been watching the results come in backstage. I wasn't surprised that the predicted favorite, Italy, had not won. The song's appeal relied heavily on people being able to understand the lyrics, and the Italy had chosen to keep the song in Italian. But I was surprised by Sobral's win for Portugal.

Portugal's song is also not in English, and so has become only the second non-English song to win the contest since the requirement for every country to sing in its national language was ended in 1999. The previous winner was Serbia's 'Molitva' in 2007. Like 'Molitva', Sobral's 'Amar Pelos Dois' has an appeal driven mainly by the melody. The public enjoyed the feel and tone of the song, and understanding the lyrics was not essential for that enjoyment.

When Sobral's win became clear, I ran back into the hall to take my seat in the arena. I could see floods of people leaving as I went in - something I've never witnessed before an acceptance speech. They had unimpressed expressions on their faces. People in the hall liked the song, but I didn't meet anyone this week who said it was their favorite. There seemed to be a feeling among the hardcore group of Eurovision fans who travel to the event every year that Sobral wasn't 'one of them'.

Shaking the system

Sobral's acceptance speech seemed slightly hostile toward the contest itself, and he doubled down on this in his press conference after the show. He made cryptic references to Eurovision being bought and paid for, and told a story about how he was not allowed to wear a sweatshirt with a supportive message for refugees. 
Sobral seemed to be very aware that his song was not the typical Eurovision winner - at least not typical to what the song contest has become over the past 20 years. His performance had no gimmicks - no backup dancers or pyrotechnics. It was just him on stage, singing quietly. It was such a huge difference in volume to the other songs that the people in the arena had to be told to be quiet before his performance so that people viewing at home could hear it.

Sobral's performance sounds much more like the Eurovisions of old - before the contest became the glitter-strewn, politics-heavy extravaganza it is today. As I wrote in Berlin Policy Journal last week, the emergence of the heavy theatrics, and the heavy politics, is largely due to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the accession of post-Communist countries in the 1990s.

This weekend's vote could be interpreted as a rejection by the public of this 'new Eurovision' - or at least a momentary exhaustion with it. The contest has become so huge over the past 20 years (it's now the most-watched non-sporting event in the world and increases its ratings every year) that it's become a sort of industry. Indeed, there is some orthodoxy in what people view as a 'Eurovision song' in this new regime. And that definition bears little resemblance to what a 'winning song' would have been 30 years ago.
Maybe Sobral will change that. "I hope things are changing, not just for the Eurovision Song Contest but for pop music in general," Sobral told journalists.

As I stood in that press conference and listened to Sobral speak, it seemed to fit in with the times. Sobral is the outsider the people have voted for to shake things up. He is the Trump (or the Macron, or the Brexit) of Eurovision.

Fed up with politics

So what is it that the public were fed up with? For one, they may be tired of gimmicks and large stage shows - which seem to grow more grand every year. For another, they may be sick to death of the politics that has been infused into the contest. 

Last year's winner was a song about the 1944 genocide of Crimean tartars by the Soviets - a thinly-veiled reference to Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014. The previous year's winner had an anti-bullying message. And before that, a bearded drag queen won with a song about overcoming homophobia (a win that may have been driven by anti-Russian feeling, since some Russian politicians were attacking her before the show). 

Sobral's song has no grand message. It's just a simple love story - a lovely distraction from a world gone mad. His lack of theatrics, and lack of politics (Portugal is decidedly free of any tension with Russia) may be what drew people to his song.

Now, like with so many of the political leaders people have voted for in the past year, the big question is how Sobral will behave as the new face of a system he has derided. It will be an interesting Eurovision 2018 in Portugal.


Daniel said...

The Portuguese song was one of my favourites and I would have voted for it had I been able. It also scored very highly in the various fan club ratings if I remember rightly. I don't really buy this whole "people wanted an outsider" argument. His is not the first song to be sung in recent years at the Eurovision with no flashy graphics and no pyro. There are often a couple of pared-down ballads hoping to stand out amongst all the fireworks.

What grates with me is Salvador's rather pompous claim about this being a victory against disposable music. Many Eurovision songs have stood the test of time and have musical merit. In reality his was a Eurovision act just like any other, just that his "thing" was to do away with the gimmicks and the graphics. (Which became a gimmick in itself).

His is a good, effective, simple, soulful ballad and he has a beautiful, honeyed voice and the song sounds lovely in Portuguese. But really, this is just the next in a long tradition of Eurovision winners being the act that stood out from the rest in some way. Like the refreshing simplicity of Lena's "Satellite" for example. (Albeit a much more commercial song).

Salvador is behaving like the worst kind of snobby hipster by looking down his nose at what he calls disposable music, presumably referring to the rest of the contestants. His disrespect extends to airily admitting that he "didn't understand" the voting - the implication being "of course not, I wouldn't normally watch this crap".

But I digress. I think people (and the juries) voted for Portugal as it was a hugely enjoyable three minutes and it sounded like a nice, simple, soulful piece of music. I wouldn't read too much more into it than that, to be honest.

A rejection of a politicised Eurovision? Jamala's song was politically highly charged, but Måns's Heroes? That's a bit of a stretch in order to establish a trend if you ask me.

Anyway, I'm sure all of the glitz and glamour will be back next year. There will be a slew of songs jumping on what will probably be next year's trend for "authenticity", and some will probably be quite good. And there'll be lots of other songs which are more commercial, and some of them will be quite good as well.

Luís said...

People voted for a great song, not just an outsider. It's the only way to explain the fact that we had such a high score. Not surprisingly, when the song was chosen in the Portuguese contest, way too many people protested. Said the song was lame, had no vibe, he looked like a homeless junkie. We would come last once again.
Still so much work to do about our collective self-esteem.