The Allure of Eurovision

17/05/2013  -  10.24

Steve Cooper, Senior Lecturer in Popular Music

‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ - The Allure of Eurovision

The arrival of May offers us many national treasures such as the FA Cup Final and the Chelsea Flower Show, but few can argue with the longevity and passion aroused by Eurovision, the music competition to outlast all other music TV events.

X-Who?

The contest is firmly implanted in British consciousness not only thanks to much-loved winners like Sandi, Lulu and Bucks Fizz, but also because it holds a special place in our hearts as a once-a-year TV event that brings together an audience who are not all that interested in the music, but love the spectacle.

In that sense it mirrors the Grand National. You don't have to follow horse racing to enjoy it, and you might even put a few quid on one particular nag to win because you like the name or the colours, rather than the jockey or the trainer. Ditto Eurovision. 

Picking a winner in Eurovision is fraught with danger but you'd think by now there was a magic formula to composing a winning song, wouldn’t you? Songwriters spend countless hours refining their craft by poring over lyrics, song forms, hooks, melodies, chords and then set all those elements off simultaneously for 3 minutes (a Eurovision song never breaks that rule) in the hope of capturing a feeling with which a worldwide audience of 125 Million or so can easily identify.

Simple?

Far from it. The drama of the show is watching the fallers as well as those galloping off in front. 

Despite the shows detractors, the success of ABBA nearly forty years ago remains the carrot that songwriters and performers are still tempted by, and though winning it once is great, proving you can repeat the feat is quite another matter.

Indeed, a number of countries turn to established artists when looking for a repeat success. The UK has struggled in recent years and in an effort to recapture former glories we have enlisted an illustrious US songwriter, Desmond Child, for our 2013 entry. Surely we should use the skills of a British songwriter you cry? An Ed Sheeran, a Chris Martin? Think again. Just as the CVs of Sven and Fabio turned the heads of the FA for England manager, Child has form, and plenty of it.

He wrote 'Living on a Prayer’ and 'You Give Love a Bad Name' for Bon Jovi, not to mention a load of hits for Aerosmith and Cher. It is little wonder then he called the song 'Believe In Me'! We do Desmond, we do; now if only we can get a great rock singer to sing it. Enter Bonnie Tyler. 

Bonnie Tyler is no stranger to a worldwide audience of course, 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' is one of the 1980s power ballads and Child has written for her before. So, will the UK triumph this year? I don't think so. It's technically a perfectly good song, and it suits Tyler, but this is no 'Dude (Looks Like A Lady)' or 'Just Like Jesse James' but a sort of forgettable mid tempo country tinged ballad, reliant on a predictable four-chord loop in Ab Major for both verse and chorus (I V ii IV, for the record).

The song turns nicely to the flattened seventh, Gb, at the bridge, coinciding neatly with the lyric "What ya gonna do when the ship is sinking" but the answer to that appears to be - do not pass go, do not change key and return to chorus.  The song is a solid effort, but one that sadly that doesn't feel quite urgent or modern enough to win Eurovision. 

Denmark’s entry, ‘Only Teardrops’, is one of the early favourites this year and it sounds like a Rihanna-esque track but with a definite Eurovision feel. Here we have the same number of chords as the UK’s entry, four, but this time in minor key (Am) and with the kind of pummeling semi-quaver drum pattern in the chorus that just screams big production.

That's the beauty of Eurovision; it's not just the song but the artist, the performance and the staging too. This is a TV event after all, so it is probably best to simply enjoy the show, pick your favourite tune and hope it doesn't fall at the first. My tip? Russia's entry, 'What If'. This song has it all; two chord loops starting in a minor key in the verse and moving to the relative major key in the chorus, together with an uplifting message and a nice lyric.

You know where it's going, but then that's why we love Katy Perry, and there are similarities here. The final key change, up a minor third from A to C, signals the rousing finale before we get a harmonically beautiful cadence (Ab – Bb – C) to close the show. Yes, you've heard that before, at the end of 'With A Little Help From My Friends', no less. Seems fitting; Eurovision is certainly best enjoyed with friends and perhaps a small sweepstake. 

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