As Ukraine gets ready to host Eurovision Song Contest for the second time, let’s look back at how the first go-round went.
Song Title: “Razom nas bahato” (Together we are many)
Grand Final: This song finished in 19th place, which is Ukraine’s worst finish to date.
Last year’s entry: “Wild Dances” – Ruslana (Winner!)
Technically speaking, “Razom nas bahato” by the hip hop band GreenJolly is Ukraine’s worst Eurovision entry to date. The song finished tied for 19th in a field of 24 countries, finishing ahead of the Big Four countries. In other words, all the automatic qualifiers1 were at the bottom of the pile. What on Earth happened?
There is a lot to dissect with this entry as to why it was not successful. First of all, there is a lengthy history of hip hop and rap not doing well at the Contest. Going as far back as 2010, there have only been a couple of songs with just elements of hip hop that have advanced to the final, let alone full-on rap songs that have qualified.
Second, Eurovision is not a political contest2, and this song pushed that rule to the limit. “Razom nas bahato” was the unofficial rallying song of the Orange Revolution, which took place following Ukraine’s presidential election in the fall of 2004. The original lyrics to the song included naming actors involved in the protest, which did not fly with the European Broadcasting Union. However, even without the political rule, the oomph of the song is too specific to Ukraine. Much like performances of non-English songs with everyone wearing traditional garb from their native lands, there isn’t much for the casual viewer to latch onto to make them say “ah, I get it.”
This leads to my third issue with this entry: there is A LOT going on in this performance. Despite there being dancers and a band onstage, most of the movement within the staging is accomplished by indecisive camerawork. There isn’t a clear aesthetic linking the members of the band, or the band with the dancers, or the music with the dancing. This is also an entry where you can imagine a countdown clock ticking away for three minutes with the song ending abruptly because time is almost up. Frankly, if Ukraine didn’t automatically qualify for 2005, I’d be concerned that this would not have made the cut.
Despite these shortcomings, I wish more countries would take the risks Ukraine demonstrated with picking “Razom nas bahato.” This was a song that represented what was happening in Ukraine in this particular moment in history, which has more resonance than whatever love song with dubstep elements will capture the pop zeitgeist of the day of a national final. Put another way, this song was viral (even if that virus was contained within one country). The only other example I can think of for an entry that went viral before becoming a Eurovision selection is Poland’s “Slavic Girls” in 2014.
It seems there is also an unspoken agreement that the host country will not set out to win the Contest two years in a row. As a result, there’s a tendency for the host to submit entries that are outside of the Eurovision norm. Sometimes this works well, such as “Taken by a Stranger” (Germany 2011) or “Cliche Love Song” (Denmark 2014), which both had different pop sensibilities than we’re used to seeing. Other times it doesn’t work out, such as Austria’s “I Am Yours” in 2015, which tied for last place with zero points. However, as I remarked in the review for that entry, “the reasons why it wouldn’t succeed demonstrates the strength of the song,” in that it provides contrast to what normally qualifies.
It is interesting that while the specifics of the political unrest in Ukraine have changed, the dynamics of how that may be presented in 2017 probably have not. Rather than hovering near the bottom of the leaderboard with a political-ish song about the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, Kiev won the right to host the Contest. There is an even bigger audience now than there was 12 years ago, and Ukraine has an opportunity to share their side of the story they want to tell.