Photo Credit: EBU: Thomas Hanses, Corinne Cumming, BBC
Eurovision is arguably one of the most popular song contests in the world thanks to the music, the message of unity and peace spread throughout Europe, the musicians who have become worldwide stars thanks to Eurovision, and the fantastic performances that we see year after year.
In this article, we take a trip down memory lane looking at past performances and taking a look at what are some of the key ingredients that make a great Eurovision performance, so let’s dive in!
While there is still debate about whether Eurovision is a song or performance contest in more recent years, amazing vocals are still integral to a great Eurovision performance. Viewers and jurors alike (most of the time!) will respond positively if the act can sing their song very well. Although there have been songs that have done well in the past which haven’t had the best vocals, it’s still a very important thing that juries look for when judging the performance. If an artist can’t sing well on the night, it’s very likely they will finish lower in the rankings.
You can’t talk about amazing vocals in Eurovision without mentioning Celine Dion. The now world-famous pop star took part in Eurovision 1988 representing Switzerland with the song ‘Ne Partez Pas San Moi’, wowing the juries with flawless vocals and managing to win Eurovision in a close contest over the UK. Her distinctive and remarkable voice was rewarded with a massive applause from the crowd. In the years to come she was catapulted into international stardom and she’s now renowned for being one of the greatest and most successful singers in the world.
Elina Nechayeva from Estonia dazzled Europe with her sensational vocals in the operatic pop song ‘La Forza’ in 2018. She performed each of the difficult notes with ease. At the climax of the performance, Elina did the unthinkable and sang even higher. She controlled the notes perfectly, wowing the audience. She was rewarded with 6th place and 245 points.
Mia Martini was no stranger to Eurovision when she represented Italy back in 1977, but it was her 1992 entry which was more memorable. Mia was already a major star in Italy, hoping to add ‘Eurovision winner’ to her list of accolades. She sang ‘Rapsodia‘ which was a tale of two old lovers who meet at a bar and wonder what might have been if things had worked out between them years ago. Her distinctive voice added to the raw emotion of the song and although not many modern day fans think of this performance when thinking of amazing vocals, it was a classy performance which was a ‘wow’ moment in the 1990s. Mia finished in 4th place scoring 111 points. ‘Rapsodia’ was recently voted the 50th best Eurovision song of all time according to the yearly ESC250 vote in 2021.
Staging and Visual Effects
Staging can undoubtedly elevate a song at Eurovision. Even if your song is good, how the song is presented can make or break it, so it’s important to have a great staging as well.
One of the most unique and inventive stagings was recently back in 2019 where Australia’s staging blew everyone away. Kate Miller-Heidke’s song ‘Zero Gravity’ took the song’s title to new heights. To the studio audience, she and her dancers were wheeled onto the stage each swinging from their own giant pole high in the air while she sang her operatic pop song. As she sang the chorus, the LED background behind her revealed planet Earth showing she was floating high in the solar system. As the song progressed, the Earth disappeared revealing the poles. We’ve never had anything like that in Eurovision before and it was mesmerising to watch for members of the audience and viewers at home.
In 2018, the stage in Lisbon didn’t have LEDs meaning some countries had to bring LEDs from home or they had to improvise with the staging they had. Moldova was one of the countries that used this to its advantage. For DoReDos’s performance of ‘My Lucky Day,’ they brought a structure which was mainly three large doors that each had a top, middle, and bottom. Throughout their performance, they opened and closed these nine doors to show the singers, the dancers, and the humorous story of a lady and her two male admirers. The three singers were joined by three other backing singers and dancers who were wearing the same outfits to add to the performance. It was a simple staging but the use of it was very clever and when you see the behind-the-scenes video, you realise just how much of a heavily choreographed routine it actually was. Despite not being favoured among fans or bookmakers before the contest, they finished in 10th place scoring 209 points.
As well as staging, visual effects, whether it be on screen, or something that happens in the performance have been used at Eurovision to varying levels of success. Before the LED stagings we know and love today, countries had to think of other ways to stage their song to make them stand out. Visual effects aren’t just a modern feature of Eurovision – these effects have been used as far back as the 1960s! Take the Danish Eurovision 1963 winner ‘Dansevise’ performed by Grethe and Jørgen Ingmann for example. During their performance, there were swirling shapes that spun around the screen as Grethe sang which added to the dream-like and hypnotic nature of the music. In 1963, in a year where many performers relied on physical props, (which many entries did in the 1950s and 1960s), to help elevate their entries, having these visual effects helped Denmark to stand out from the crowd.
In 2011, Ukraine entrusted sand artist Kseniya Simonova, the winner of Ukraine’s Got Talent to help tell a story through her incredible sand art while Mika Newton performed her song ‘Angel’. She drew drawings of angels, people, and planets which were all projected onto the LED screen and she did this entirely live on air. The viewers were engrossed in the story and by her talent. It was a unique presentation and one that’s been remembered by fans for many years and helped Ukraine achieve a 4th-place result. Kseniya was also brought back to help Moldova in 2019 with a snow art performance but unfortunately, it was not enough to take Anna Odobescu and her song ‘Stay‘ into the final.
A performance that fans and critics look back on praising the use of visuals was the Swedish-winning song ‘Heroes’ by Måns Zelmerlöw in 2015. It looked like he was singing alone with just the spotlight on him. However, behind him was a projection board showing a cartoon of a balloon boy with whom he interacted with throughout the choreographed performance. During the verses, he continued to interact with the graphics and some careful camerawork helping to make some aspects of it look 3D. Then during each chorus, the screen turned off and Måns walked forward highlighting the audience as the staging lit up in pulsating bursts of red, illuminating the stage. It was another performance that at the time, was unique and really captured the viewer’s imagination.
Going back to Lisbon 2018, where not many countries used LEDs, representing Italy, Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro had a powerful way of using visual effects in order for viewers to understand their song ‘Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente’ (You haven’t done anything to me). The lyrics of the song talk about wars that have happened across the world and recent terrorist attacks. The lyrics also referenced different cities such as London and Paris and the song was written not long after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. The song itself was sung completely in Italian, but in order for households across Europe to truly understand what they were singing about, graphical translations of the lyrics were shown throughout the performance in various languages such as English, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian and many more. Although the performance itself was simple, these visual effects were able to connect with so many people. Ermal and Fabrizio were able to communicate their lyrics to millions more people so that they could understand the powerful message of the song. It resonated with many people, and with the televote alone, they scored 249 points helping them secure a Top 5 result.
Another visual gimmick that some countries have used in the past is costume reveals. These are synonymous with Eurovision over the years and many performances have included a surprise reveal to the crowd.
One of the obvious examples of this was back in 1981 for the UK entry. Bucks Fizz won the contest with ‘Making Your Mind Up’, where the group executed their choreographed piece well, but the costume reveal is how the song is best remembered. Midway through the song, members Mike and Bobby G pulled off Cheryl and Jay’s skirts to reveal another skirt underneath. Even 40 years later, the skirt reveal is still remembered by many fans and is one of the defining moments of Eurovision history.
The UK isn’t the only country to win Eurovision with a memorable costume change, Latvia in 2002 didn’t just have one costume reveal but there were many! Marie N sang her song ‘I Wanna’, where she started the song wearing a white hat, suit, and trousers with a black shirt. As the song progressed, she discarded each item one by one to reveal a pink dress. At the end of the song, the dancers tugged at the hem of the dress to show that the “dress” was actually a full-length ball gown. The viewers remembered it and voted for Latvia in huge numbers. To date, this has been Latvia’s only Eurovision victory.
Having a costume reveal doesn’t guarantee Eurovision success and a great performance, however. Austria in 1977 had an interesting way of revealing a costume… if you can call it that! Schmetterlinge performed ‘Boom Boom Boomerang’ that year and the performance featured the lead female singer and four other male singers each wearing a white suit. As the song continued, the four male singers turned around revealing that on the back, they were wearing four painted suits, complete with bow ties and each had a mask on the back of their heads while they still performed their dance routine. It was definitely creative, but it didn’t impress the juries placing them 17th out of 18 scoring 11 points.
One of the more overlooked aspects of a great Eurovision performance is having good camerawork. Whether it be to show the whole stage where there are lots of pyros, or whether it’s close-up shots of the artist, never underestimate the importance of it. The cinematography chosen has to be carefully selected as this is how viewers will best be able to visualise the performance. Even one amazing camera shot can be a really good visual kick to get people to remember your song.
One of the most effective uses of camerawork in modern-day contests was from France in 2021. Barbara Pravi performed ‘Voilà‘ which was an emotional and personal song about self-acceptance. The close-up shots of Barbara transported the viewer into her world and showed off her emotion which helped the audience understand the song more, even if they didn’t know French. If lots of wide shots were used here, it would have felt out of place and the viewer may not have been able to connect with her in the same way. Barbara made a lasting impression on the juries and the televote achieving 2nd place for France, which is their best result since 1991.
A similar example can be said for Cornelia Jakobs for Sweden in 2022. ‘Hold Me Closer’ was another emotional song and the camerawork had a lot of close-up shots as the camera panned around her throughout the song. She maintained eye contact with the camera for the first 20 seconds of the song allowing the viewer to really connect to her and almost feel like Cornelia was singing just to the viewer alone, instantly drawing them into the performance.
While not all songs need choreography to stand out, if you’ve got an up-tempo song which has a good dance beat, then adding choreography can make the performance more special.
It goes without saying, one of the most recent, but best examples of this, is of course Spain in 2022 where Chanel performed ‘Slomo‘. In the national final, Benidorm Fest, she performed a well-polished routine and a dance break which amazed the audience. For Eurovision, this routine was elevated even further when extra moves were added, as well as props. This included a Spanish fan, which she waved after finishing her now iconic dance break, as a pyro curtain descended behind her. As the song was reaching its finale, the already excited crowd went wild as she and her dancers executed the whole routine flawlessly. The pyro then danced in time with the final beats of the song. It was a brilliant performance and it received a huge ovation from the crowd. Chanel helped Spain achieve their first Top 3 finish in nearly 30 years scoring 459 points overall.
Another great example of how choreography can elevate a performance is Greece 2005. Helena Paparizou already had a catchy hit on her hands with ‘My Number One’ but what made it more special was the choreography that went with the song. Throughout her performance, she combined modern choreography with traditional Greek dancing. She interacted with her four backing dancers including using an accessory to one of the dancer’s outfits which stretched like strings and Helena pretended to play it like an instrument. During the final chorus, as she says “my number one”, the four dancers behind her, lay down on the floor forming the shape of a 1. It was a carefully crafted Eurovision routine and while the dancers were lifting her up and danced round the stage, she did all of this without missing a note making her a worthy Eurovision winner.
Back in 2003, the eventual Eurovision winner Turkey wasn’t considered to be a favourite to win the title until the live performance was shown. Sertab Erener’s song ‘Everyway That I Can‘ was a catchy ethnic-pop song but the dancers and choreography elevated the performance massively adding an intricate dance routine which featured a belly dance break.
These three performances in particular, were chosen for their choreography as each one of them also has a link to their country’s identity and cultural influences. For example, Chanel with her matador outfit for Spain, Helena using traditional Greek dancing in her routine, and Sertab having Turkish instruments and belly dancing being incorporated into the performance. Sometimes having cultural elements to your country’s performance adds to the authenticity of the song and performance and more often than not, it can be rewarded by the public and juries.
Something that’s more apparent in great Eurovision performances nowadays is crowd interaction. Back in the early days, Eurovision wasn’t held in arenas like it is today, some were only small venues and it was a more civilised affair. People only clapped at the beginning and end of the performances. As time went on however, this began to change. If the audience are clapping midway through the song and/or singing along to the words, then this is a very good sign. This shows the song has already connected with people before a single vote has been cast, and it can sometimes influence the public.
A good example of this is the 2022 entry from Serbia. Konstrakta performed her song ‘In Corpre Sano‘ and throughout the chorus, as she sings “Biti Zdrava“, she claps her hands. When this was done at the live shows, the whole arena was clapping and singing along with her. Her massive televote score helped her achieve Serbia’s first Top 5 result since 2012.
If you’d like to read more about Konstrakta’s song and the meaning behind it, check out this article that our fellow Phoenix contributor MJ wrote!
Sticking with Serbia, back in 2015, Bojana Stamenov created a moment with her performance of ‘Beauty Never Lies‘. After the second verse of the song, the instrumentation began to build until the whole arena in Vienna became one massive dance party and the crowd went crazy. Many praise the empowering lyrics of the song such as “Finally, I can say, yes I’m different but that’s okay, here I am!” At that brief period of time everyone in the audience was united together waving flags, and it was a real goosebumps moment to anyone watching.
It is good to note that just because the audience in the crowd may love the performance, doesn’t mean the rest of Europe will. For example, the host country’s entry will naturally get a lot of home fans cheering in the crowd, but it doesn’t always mean it guarantees them a great result. Despite this, it still feels special to see those acts get that outpouring of support.
Orchestra and Live Music
While we’ve not heard the Eurovision orchestra since 1998, they were an integral element to Eurovision performances back in the day, and hearing the orchestra perform the song can really make the song come alive. For the overwhelming majority of songs that used the orchestra, they added more to the piece, gave them a bigger sound and it was good for the artists to hear their songs performed in that way.
It is paramount that the orchestra nails it on the night though, and unfortunately for Greece in 1991, this didn’t quite happen. When Sophia Vossou was midway through her performance, the saxophone solo, became memorable for all the wrong reasons. He unfortunately missed notes and it sounded very out of place compared to the remainder of the song. That being said, they still finished in 13th place out of 22 which wasn’t a disastrous result for the nation.
When live music is performed correctly, the finished results can be spectacular. ‘Nocturne‘ by Secret Garden by 1995 for Norway is a perfect example of this. The song was unusual for Eurovision standards due to not having many lyrics. There was a singer who sang at the beginning and end of the three minutes, but the rest was purely music. The instrumentation featured violinist Fionnuala Sherry, a penny whistle, and a nyckelharpa. The music transported Europe to another world and it was a goosebump moment for the audience watching it live. The juries rewarded this new-age piece with 1st place scoring 148 points.
Throughout this exploration, we’ve mentioned a lot about how good it can be to be memorable at Eurovision because at the end of the day, if people don’t remember your performance over 25 other songs, then they won’t vote for you. On the contrary, it is important that a great performance has to be memorable for the right reasons. An artist or band won’t want to be remembered for having terrible live vocals or making a major mistake in their performance.
One example of a performance that was really memorable was in 1997 when Paul Oscar sang ‘Minn Hinsti Dans‘ for Iceland. This was arguably a performance that changed the face of Eurovision forever, even if it didn’t do as well as it could’ve done. The staging was relatively simple, he sat on a white sofa with four women around him wearing black latex clothing. As the song progressed all five of them got off the sofa and started their dance routine. As the ladies got up, you could hear gasps from the audience, mainly due to the revealing outfits the ladies wore. It was clear no-one had seen a Eurovision performance like this before. His song was a modern techno-pop song for it’s day, and the sexually suggestive choreography pushed Eurovision boundaries which has since made it a fan favourite, even 25 years later. While the juries weren’t impressed, the five countries who trialled the televote that year gave it 16 out of their 18 points. In a future year, this song could have done a lot better, perhaps even making the top 5.
The following year also had its fair share of memorable performances, but none were as memorable as the German entry. What can you say about this performance? It has to be seen to be believed. Guildo Horn won the right to represent Germany in 1998 with his song ‘Guildo hat euch lieb‘ (meaning Guildo loves you). He started his performance while sat on the stage singing the gentle opening to the song before getting up discarding his cape and darting across the stage while singing the rest of his anthemic entry. During the second verse, he did what no other performer had done before and jumped off the stage and started singing in the aisles to members of the audience, including one of the guests of honour BBC hostess Katie Boyle. After kissing a man on the head, he proceeded to play cowbells on a table on stage. For the last chorus and key change, he did the unthinkable. Guildo leaped and climbed up to the side of the stage where the scoreboard was present. He then slid on the platform handrails, finishing his song stood on them towering above the stage, much to the audience’s astonishment and excitement. It was wild, it was madness, and it was most certainly memorable. Partially thanks to televoting, Guildo achieved a respectable result for Germany finishing in 7th place with 86 points.
The Wow Factor
When a song or performance can make you go “wow” then you know you’re watching something spectacular.
Last year’s ‘Space Man‘ by Sam Ryder was a moment that gave the juries and Eurovision fans the wow factor. Not only did he have a voice out of this world (sorry, I’ll see myself out!), the staging was mega. Sam performed in the middle of a giant metal structure which was the biggest prop of the contest. During the final chorus this metal structure opened up with Sam taking centre stage. To everyone’s surprise, he brought out an electric guitar and played a guitar solo to an already wild crowd and it brought the house down. It gave the UK their best result in 25 years finishing in 2nd place overall, winning with the juries, and finishing 5th in the televote.
Another amazing Eurovision performer who gave Europe the ‘wow factor’ was Conchita Wurst in 2014. While critics weren’t too sure how well she would do, when it came to the final performance, Europe was wowed and Austria instantly became a favourite to win. ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ was sung with passion and her vocals were top-notch. As she sang the big note at the end of the chorus, with the fire LED wings forming in the background behind her, it was clear why this was hotly tipped to take the Eurovision trophy. Many fans were also taken aback by the empowering message and Conchita explained in her victory speech:
“This victory is to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are, we are unity and we are unstoppable.”
We also can’t mention ‘wow’ performances without mentioning last year’s winners Kalush Orchestra who sang ‘Stefania’ for Ukraine. ‘Stefania‘ was an ode to frontman and rapper Oleh Psiuk’s mother and the lyrics describe how much she has done for him, which already carries an emotional message. The song itself was unique for Eurovision as it combined traditional folk elements of Ukrainian music and modern-day hip-hop and rap, the latter being genres not seen in Eurovision very often.
In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine changing the lives of Ukrainians forever and the song had over time become a wartime anthem for the people of Ukraine.
“After it all started with the war and the hostilities, it took on additional meaning, and many people started seeing it as their mother Ukraine, in the meaning of the country, it has become really close to the hearts of so many people in Ukraine.”
– Frontman Oleh Psiuk talking to the Associated Press
In Turin, the performance was flawless and it felt like a celebration of Ukraine from the traditional costumes to the Ukrainian woodwind instruments used in the song. The dancer threw himself into the routine, the crowd were all singing along, and the rest of the band put on a passionate display of their entry. Despite everything that Ukrainians were going through, seeing Kalush Orchestra throw a party on stage showed how strong and determined this nation of people is, and it was a really special moment on stage. It touched the hearts of the continent scoring an unparalleled 439 out of a possible 468 points with the televote alone. They were truly an undisputed and worthy winner.
Some performances don’t necessarily need a lot to stand out, as we’ve seen with some of the examples already. All you can have is an amazing song and a simple performance and it can really strike a chord with people. You don’t need fireworks, dancers or any big stagings to win Eurovision, even in the modern era.
Salvador Sobral captivated the whole continent with his song ‘Amar Pelos Dois‘ for Portugal in 2017. He stood alone on a stage performing at the front surrounded by the fans in the arena. There were no visual effects, pyro or dancers, it was just him singing in front of a woodland LED background. Everyone who watched was simply mesmerised by his amazing voice and the music. The applause from the crowd was so loud that you couldn’t hear the outro of the song at the end. At the time of writing, Salvador has the highest ever Eurovision score ever with 758 points (382 with the jury and 376 with the televote), therefore proving to have a great Eurovision performance you don’t have to have big stagings, it can just be the song and the voice.
These simple but effective performances have worked for not only the modern era but also older editions. Take 1982, for example. Many songs relied on big choreography that year particularly to stand out to the juries, whereas Nicole from Germany just had herself and her guitar. She was joined by her band accompanied by a woman with a harp, yet she was the main focus. The simple composition of ‘Ein Bisschen Frieden’ (A Little Peace), and the powerful message helped her to stand out and she won the contest easily scoring 161 points.
There have been many performances in Eurovision history that have been simplistic. Another one that stands out, but isn’t as well known to recent fans of the contest, is the Hungarian entry in 1994. Friderika Bayer sang her song ‘Kinek mondjam el vétkeimet?‘ as the debut entry from Hungary. She was joined by a guitarist while she sang the quiet and emotional song and they complimented each other well. Despite there being a wide variety of songs competing that year, her gentle song stood out and when she finished, she received rapturous applause from the crowd. Hungary finished in 4th place scoring 122 points which remains their best-ever placing at Eurovision, as of 2023.
And lastly, I must also bring up Eurovision 2012 winner Loreen from Sweden who sang ‘Euphoria‘. Lots of entries that year took advantage of the LED screens and pyrotechnics in order to create a strong performance whereas Loreen didn’t have any of that, instead she decided to strip it right back. The staging was very dark throughout the whole performance with just the spotlight on Loreen, and the viewer was transfixed on her. She was later joined by a dancer as snow began to fall in the arena as the song built to its anthemic final chorus. There wasn’t a song or performance like it that year, making her the clear stand-out in the lineup.
If you’d like to learn more about the history and legacy of ‘Euphoria‘ check out this article, my fellow Phoenix contributor Liv wrote right here!
Everyone has different opinions on what makes a great Eurovision performance. Although there are probably multiple reasons why songs and performances connect with the public and the juries, sometimes you don’t always know what will do well or not until the final itself.
In this article, I’ve tried to pick a varied mix of some of the best ones. I’m sorry if I haven’t picked your favourite, but there were so many to choose from! Hopefully, you’ll know more about the characteristics of a successful performance and what to look out for in Liverpool 2023. I also hope it’s given you the chance to relive these great performances past and present, or maybe even discover some new ones. I also hope it shows why even after 60 years, Eurovision is still the most popular song contest in the world and it’s constantly evolving.
We can’t wait to see many more of these amazing performances in 2023 and beyond!
What do you think makes a great Eurovision performance? What is your favourite Eurovision performance ever? Comment down below and let us know!
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