It’s been 20 years since the UK last won the Eurovision Song Contest.
During that time we’ve sent a few genuine contenders (Jade Ewen placed fifth in 2009 with It’s My Time), and a few absolute stonkers. Sorry Jemini – we’re looking at your nul points in 2003.
But is there an actual formula to the perfect Eurovision song?
Kit Lovelace is a writer for Popbitch who analyses the music theory behind Eurovision hits and misses, so Gay Times caught with him to discuss the secret ingredients.
Hi Kit! Tell us a bit about yourself and how long you’ve been analysing Eurovision songs.
I’ve been studying Eurovision since 2009. I hadn’t watched it for ages before that and then when I got back into it I was really surprised to see how diverse the music was. I thought it might be interesting to break it down into the musical nuts and bolts to see if there’s anything that works across the borders and if there is a formula for winning.
So I went back to 2000, picked all the winners and the songs that came last, and took them apart to see what key they were in, what tempo they were at, what chord progressions they tended to use, the language of the song, things like that really.
So how did your research pan out in 2009?
Everything was pointing towards the winner being a song in D minor, in English, that had a tempo above 100bpm and it turned out that this fitted the profile of the hot favourite to win, Alexander Rybak’s Fairytale from Norway. And it won with a record-breaking score!
So I thought, maybe there’s something to this, so I did it the next year as well. It’s interesting to see how these things crop up and to try to figure out why they happen. That’s what’s driven me back to Eurovision time and time again, to sort of refine the formula. Now I genuinely love the competition as well.
What is the profile of a textbook Eurovision winner?
The first thing you want to consider is the tonality, it needs to be in a minor key (NOTE: for those unfamiliar with the terms minor and major key, a very simple explainer is that songs in minor keys tend to sound sad and major keys tend to sound happy). Everybody thinks that Eurovision songs should be bright and cheery and happy, and that isn’t strictly true. You’d associate those with major key songs.
I think since 2000 only four major key songs have won, so a minor key is very important. D minor and G minor are the two keys you want to go for. I think the reason is that for songs in those keys, the notes that make up the scale sit in the vocal ranges that audiences find most pleasing.
An infographic from Popbitch’s 2016 Eurovision edition, showing winners and losers and their musical keys.
For tempo, the speed of the song, there’s two speeds you want to avoid. 128 beats per minute, which is sort of the de facto tempo of electronic dance music… it’s just a very basic tempo. It sounds too plain, there’s nothing exciting about 128, and I think audiences somehow respond to that and think ‘well that’s just a banger by numbers’.
85bpm seems to be a bad one too. Since 2000, six songs have come last with 127/128 bpm, and now three have come last with 85bpm
What about a good old-fashioned key change?
It’s a death knell in truth. It’s a really, really bad move. Everyone thinks that the key change is important, and when people try to write the great Eurovision song, they always put a key change in. But none of the winners since 2007 (Marija Šerifović’s Molitva from Serbia) have had one.
I was trying to figure out why that would be, and I think the reason is quite simple. The key change is a very good way to give a song a shot in the arm if it’s starting to lag, to really get through that last 20 seconds. But really, in 3 minutes you should be able to keep the energy up without resorting to an artificial boost like that.
So the key change is the mark of a song that is relying on gimmicks to win and I think the audience sees through that, and the juries certainly do.
Juries of music professionals started voting in 2009, alongside the public vote. Do you think that’s changed the musicality of the songs that are put forward?
That’s interesting. You can see the ones that the juries will hate and the ones that the juries will love. Britain’s public televote gave 12 points to Poland’s 2014 song We are Slavic, but the juries didn’t care for all the busty milkmaids so marked it down.
In 2009 there was a French entry by Patricia Kaas, and it was one of those Eurovision grandee songs where a woman sings a very heartfelt chanson ballad. It was genuinely a lovely song but it was never going to win.
However it got one of the big songwriting awards and the jury votes bumped it up the table so it ended up in the top ten. There is a chin-scratching element to the juries that does help out songs with a more considered musicality.
How is 2017’s crop looking?
This year is looking alright. Quite a slow year, lots paced around 90 bpm, which is a tempo that hasn’t really won or lost. Italy’s song is the hot favourite and does seem to have a good profile as it’s in a minor key and has a decent tempo.
Montenegro is one that I really like, and FYR Macedonia is a bit like a Cardigans or Robyn song. I’m really enjoying the Portuguese song this year too, it has a bit of a Charlie Chaplin Smile old Hollywood vibe to it. Trouble is it’s in F major which is not ideal, but it is in the right range, and it will be catnip to the juries.
What about the UK’s representative, I Will Never Give Up On You by The Ballad of Midsomer County (From Midsomer Murders) hit-maker Lucie Jones?
They’ve done something quite interesting with that song. It’s in 64bpm which is half of 128bpm. The original version had a piano part that was really pushing that quicker count, but they’ve since changed the orchestration to slow it to more of a half speed.
Hopefully that means it will escape that 128bpm death knell. And it’s in D minor which is a good key, so it could do well. It feels like the best chance we’ve had in a while.
What are your all time worst and best Eurovision entries?
From a musical point, there was a Belgian entry in 2000 by Natalie Sorce called Envie de vivre. It came last. It has a key change of 6 semitones which is known as a tritone or diabolus in musica. It is the devil in music. It was essentially outlawed in medieval times because it was considered so unpleasant it was thought of as literally unholy.
That’s actually come around again in San Marino’s entry this year which has a key change of that magnitude. There’s two key changes in that song so it spans seven semitones in total which I think is a record breaker for Eurovision. I don’t think anyone’s had the gall to jump more than half an octave in the duration of one song.
At the better end of the scale I catch myself enjoying Milim by Harel Skaat, an Israeli entrant from 2010. It’s got a bit of a late career Freddie Mercury feel to it but not quite so overblown, and it’s got a nice instrumental break that gets the hairs on the back of my neck.
There are two back to back entries from Montenegro that didn’t qualify from the semi-finals, they’re always the ones I point to when I insist that people watch the semi-finals because there’s so much good, interesting, confusing stuff that doesn’t have a chance for the final but is worth seeing.
There was an intergalactic dubstep rap song called Igranka by a band called Who See. It had two guys dressed in huge astronaut suits, and then out of nowhere a cyborg woman wearing an eyepiece appeared from the ground and started wailing at the top of her voice.
The year before that there was a guy called Rambo Amadeus who’s like an Ian Dury of Montenegro doing a spoken word funk song that was about European Community getting together to fight climate change. It’s those curiosities that I like about Eurovision, and I wouldn’t choose to listen to them myself, but I’m glad that they were given a platform and broadcast to over 200 million people.
You can follow Kit on Twitter at @kitlovelace. The Popbitch 2017 Eurovision Special is out on Monday 8 May.