Eurovision 2018: The Successes and Failures of the Big 5

It has been less than a month since Eurovision ended, and as much as I have been distracting myself from Post Eurovision Depression with a binge rewatch session of previous editions, it’s time to focus back on the latest edition of Eurovision to face the music – quite literally.

This year we saw a lot of different qualifiers from the semi-finals, but today I want to focus on the Big 5. They don’t always have the best of luck when it comes to Eurovision (although perhaps it’s an issue much larger than just luck), but in recent years we have seen some changes in their approach to the contest.

To give a bit of context for those who are still new to Eurovision, The Big 5 are a group of nations who automatically qualify to the final each year, regardless of their results in previous years. This was introduced in 2000, and originally included just four countries, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom, as they are the biggest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union. Upon Italy’s return to Eurovision in 2011, they were included in this group, hence the Big 5.

Since the introduction of this rule, Germany is the only nation of the Big 5 to win the contest, and Italy is the only nation not to finish last in the final whilst in the Big 5, but as a general observation, it’s clear to see that these nations often don’t find success within the contest, and it’s not unlikely to see the majority of the Big 5 at the bottom of the table.

We can speculate on the reason for their lack of success over previous years, but today the focus will be on the results of the Big 5 in this year’s contest (with some added context), and what they did right, or wrong in the lead up to the contest.

France

We can start with one of the most positive stories of this year, and that’s the success of France. You may be thinking, can we call a 13th place a success? Although their result is perhaps lower than many expected, France is definitely on the right track to build upon their last few years of improved results, and it may not be too much longer until we see a French hosted Eurovision.

France scored their best result in recent years back in 2016 with Amir and his bilingual entry J’ai Cherché, and this seemed to have kicked off a stronger and more focused direction for France. The following year also saw an internal selection, but once again the broadcaster and delegation decided upon a young artist but with a fresh and contemporary sound, and once again featuring both English and French.

This year was different, however. For the first time in a while, the broadcaster organised a national selection called Destination Eurovision, which turned out to be arguably one of the best national selections of the 2018 season. The music quality was extremely high, and France could have easily stayed off the bottom of the table with a number of the national final songs.

We have heard that there are plans to keep the national selection running for the 2019 contest, and this is the best outcome for France. Although we can credit its success to the strength of the entries, it’s also notable that the jury had a very strong influence (in fact, total influence) on who would be in the final of Destination Eurovision. This seems like a controlled method which allows the best entries to be showcased in the final, and looking at the results, the jury was definitely on the same level as the public, with the two top qualifiers from the two semi-finals were placed in 1st and 2nd in the final. Everyone is on the same page, so provided that we continue to get contemporary entries, Destination Eurovision will continue to be a strong format to choose their representatives.

Back to their 13th place finish… Yes, we expected a higher finish for France, but in the scheme of things, this is a success. It builds on the work completed by the previous two representatives, now with all three finishing in the top half of the table.

Germany

This year the highest place getter from the Big 5 was Germany, which was a nice change considering we often see them towards the bottom, if not the bottom of the table. Germany finished in 4th place, and much like France, I suspected that we could be seeing Germany top the table with Michael Schulte’s entry. What got in the way of a German win? The staging and performance was good, but perhaps the song was a bit too early in the running order, and clearly Europe wanted an upbeat winner this year. In the scheme of things, I don’t think Germany did anything wrong whilst in Lisbon.

Although Germany can be proud of a 4th place at Eurovision this year, I still think the nation has a bit further to go to maintain a consistent run of good results. Over the years their national final has been changed and modified, and the broadcaster often looks to replicate the success of their good results, but to some degree the focus has been taken off the actual songs they choose to send.

Last year, the format was to feature five artists who would perform two pre-written songs, and the best song-artist combination would win. This perhaps was one of the lowest points for Germany in the sense that it completely took away the artists’ identity by handing them two songs and making them sing songs that they had no investment in, other than the fact that they could be the songs they presented at Eurovision.  The result? 25th place, and to be honest, that was totally justified.

This year, thankfully they placed more focus on the artist and their own process of song writing. With a song writing camp held with the artists and song writers, we ended up with songs that were more organic and relevant to the artists which performed them. This was definitely a step up, and that’s clear in the Eurovision results, but I still don’t know that this is the right format for them. Time will tell, and with the 2019 format not yet clear, it will be interesting to see if they continue on the same path, or whether they change things up again. Come Eurovision 2019, we will know whether they are on track to success, or whether Michael Schulte’s impressive result was more of a one-off for Germany.

Italy

Out of the Big 5, Italy is certainly the most consistent of nations. It was mentioned above that Italy is yet to fall into last place since their 2011 return, and it’s a position that I don’t see them receiving based on how they select their artists, and their previous results.

To give some context, Italy holds their own prestigious song contest, the Sanremo Song Festival, which is the contest that inspired Eurovision back in the 1950’s. It’s still a cultural staple, and although music styles have changed throughout the lengthy history of the contest, the common factor is that the music remains authentic.

Strictly speaking, they have strayed from using the Sanremo winner as the Eurovision representative a few times, but the nation still sent some of their top stars, for example Marco Mengoni and Emma. This year, the nation chose Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro through Sanremo, and this continued the run of authentic entries from Italy. At no point since their return has an artist strayed dramatically from their own genre of music, and I think in the case of Eurovision, this is a positive thing.

Ultimately, it also helped that both Ermal and Fabrizio had, and then developed a strong fan base both in and outside of Italy (clear through the results of the televote), but authenticity proves to be key for Italy. Perhaps we will be seeing an Italian hosted Eurovision in the near future…

Spain

Spain is in a similar category to Germany in the sense that success seems to be one-off, and recently, inconsistent. Last year’s national selection was yet another controversial one, and as we know well, Eurodrama and Spain go together like bread and butter.

Both Pastora Soler and Ruth Lorenzo served up solid entries and good vocals, and they were rewarded with 10th place finishes, however otherwise we often find Spain somewhere in the 20’s. This year followed in that pattern, despite their revived selection Operación Triunfo.

So where did it go wrong for Spain’s loved-up duo of Alfred and Amaia? In this case I believe there were various factors which led to their 23rd place finish. I think we do have to credit their place in the running order as a huge factor, and as we know, 2nd place in the running order in the final is hugely unlucky. Beyond that, the song was beautiful, but lacked that contemporary edge.

In a way, it felt like Spain were trying to replicate the success of Salvador Sobral in the style of song, but Spain need to create their own identity within Eurovision. With Latin style music and Spanish language within music hugely popular in the mainstream now, it’s surprising to see that Spain haven’t been able to capture this essence. Looking back at all their options for Eurovision, the songs feel contrived, and I would argue that they would have struggled with any of their options, yes, even Lo Malo.

Now, I think Spain should stick with Operación Triunfo since it seemed to gain the interest of the Spanish audience more than the regular selection, plus it was less dramatic and/or controversial. I don’t think they are choosing the wrong style of artists, but perhaps the song and artist combination is still not refined enough. At least Operación Triunfo gives the artists some opportunity to write songs, but judging by the 2018 competition, there needs to be more interaction between the artist and the songwriter.

United Kingdom

Where do we begin with the United Kingdom… There are so many factors to why the United Kingdom rarely find success at the contest, but it’s not irreversible. In previous years, they have often chosen to select artists who have come to fame through television singing programs, which is not a problem – when you think about it, SO many of the more current Eurovision artists come from shows like X Factor or The Voice, but to some degree there is a difference between picking a winner of these competitions compared to picking someone who only made it to the first stage of the competition. This isn’t to say they are less talented, however it has to do with their profile and perception within the UK.

What the United Kingdom need at Eurovision is a current, successful artist who doesn’t compromise on their artistic style. We have seen the nation choose some incredibly successful artists in the form of Blue, Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler, but by the time they were selected for Eurovision, realistically their peak of success had passed.

I think it is positive of the UK to hold a national final and give the public a say in who they select, but if you don’t have a strong range of songs to select from, they are always going to fall to the same fate. In that sense, I think their best form of selection has been in 2014, where they looked at choosing an up and coming artist and seemingly gave a bit more artistic freedom. We know they selected Molly, and although she was expected to reach a higher position, she finished in 17th place, which in the scheme of things is one of their highest results in recent years. I don’t think they should have swayed from this process, because as we know, the following year we got Electro Velvet – no explanation needed.

Regardless of how the UK have been selecting, it’s safe to say that what they are producing feels incredibly undercooked. I think they need to take a very hard look at how they are selecting the songs, as often they are wasting decent voices on sub-par songs. I also think that featuring the same songwriters on all the competing national final entries is never a good thing, because if one song is undercooked, chances are that all will be undercooked, and that’s what I’ve personally found with the national final format of You Decide, which has been used for the last three years.

The other core issue with the UK is that no matter what they select, the public doesn’t seem to completely get on board. This might not be relevant to the artists themselves, but with Eurovision as a whole, so the United Kingdom have the added challenge of promoting the contest in a positive light. I do think that these two factors are dependent on one another, so when good results come in (as a result of a more focused selection), the public support will follow.

In that sense, I think the UK have the biggest challenge ahead of them, but great results are possible. Think of all the incredible artists and songwriters that come out of the United Kingdom – all it will take is one great artist, and one great songwriter to come together and create some magic.

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