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Opinion: In ESC and JESC, rules don’t matter anymore

In recent years, delegations have gotten away with almost anything.

Update: The original version incorrectly stated that the 1994 ESC was held in Millstreet, Ireland, instead of in Dublin. The article has thus been edited and corrected.

Ask any devout Eurovision fan and they will almost always say that the most important element of Eurovision (and its variants) is the music itself. Music is what brings the Eurovision community together, and without the music, the contest would not exist. 

At the same time, an important facet of ESC is not just the “S” part, but the “C” part as well. Eurovision is a competition at the end of the day, and as such, there needs to be rules. The European Broadcasting Union has the responsibility to make the rules of the contest and enforce them.

However, in the past few years, the EBU has disregarded various rules that they are expected to enforce. Some violations occur more than others, and some violations are more egregious than others. Regardless, the EBU has done a poor job at following the rules.

These upcoming five rules vary in severity and the amount of times the EBU has allowed the rules to be broken, but collectively, they show the incompetence of the EBU to enforce its own rules.

Exhibit A: Use of Commercial References

A commonly referenced rule in Eurovision is the rule regarding references to commercial brands, trademarks, etc. It is prohibited by the EBU for songs to display commercial messages in their song lyrics.

Two instances where songs were in violation of the rule and the rule was enforced are Sweden’s entry in 1987 and San Marino’s in 2012. “Boogaloo,” Sweden’s song in 1987, was originally titled “Fyra Bugg och en Coca Cola, with references to the popular cola brand. The EBU forced Sweden to omit all references to the soda, eventually creating the song “Boogaloo.” “The Social Network Song,” San Marino’s entry in 2012, came to be after the original version, “Facebook Uh Oh Oh,” was deemed in violation for its reference to the social media site, Facebook. As a result, the EBU forced the lyrics to be changed.

Original version of San Marino’s song in 2012. It was forced to be changed due to commercial messaging.

Since 2012, multiple breaches of this rule have occurred, with little to no response from the EBU. In 2016, the Australian entry, “Sound of Silence,” makes reference to FaceTime, a key fixture of Apple devices. Despite outcry from some factions of the Eurovision community, no actions were taken to force the Australian delegation to make changes.

In 2018, two Eurovision songs were in violation of this rule as well. Once again, San Marino was caught referencing another social networking site, this time referencing Twitter. No actions were taken by the EBU. At the same time, 2018’s winning entry, “Toy” from Israel, also makes multiple commercial references, including Barbie, a Mattel product; Simon, a Milton Bradley game; Pikachu, a character from the Pokemon franchise; as well as the character Wonder Woman. Despite these repeated commercial messages, the EBU did nothing.

This is also a problem in Junior Eurovision. In 2017, Portugal’s entry, “Youtuber,” makes references to the video streaming platform YouTube, owned by Google. This year, Albania’s entry, “Barbie,” also makes references to the classic children’s toy. In both cases, no penalty has been given by the EBU.

Portugal’s 2017 JESC entry, “Youtuber.”

Exhibit B: Use of Foul Language

This is less of an example of a rule being ignored entirely, but more an example of the EBU enforcing the rule inconsistently. Also, this is different in that this has been happening for decades. Songs are typically censored by the time they reach the contest (like the censorship of the f-bomb in “I Can’t Go On”), but in some cases, vulgarities make it through.

As far back as 1994, France’s entry, “Je Suis Un Vrai Garçon,” notably features a French term for the f-bomb, putain. Shocking for the time, the song was never asked to be censored by the EBU, and thus, the swear stayed in the song and was present in Dublin.

In 2007, Russian pop band Serebro sent “Song #1” to Helsinki, which featured the lyrical line, “I’ve got my bitches standing up next to me.” This obscenity isn’t even the only vulgar word in the song. Nevertheless, the EBU did not require Serebro to censor their song.

Russia’s 2007 ESC entry “Song #1,” which was not forced to censor any vulgarities.

In 2018, the Czech Republic’s entry, “Lie To Me,” was riddled with vulgarity in its original version. While the EBU did require Mikolas Josef, the Czech singer, to remove all of the f-words from his song. However, the censorship was incomplete, allowing Josef to sing other swears like “god damn.”

Exhibit C: The September 1st Deadline

The Eurovision fan community celebrates September 1st as the start of the Euroivision season, as any song released after September 1st is eligible to be used as a Eurovision song. This comes from the rule where a song is prohibited from competing in Eurovision if it is publicly released before the 1st of September.

Most of the time, songs released before this date are disqualified during national finals. For example, TAYANNA’s original Vidbir entry this year, “Kvitka,” was deemed ineligible by the Ukrainian broadcaster as it had been publicly performed before September 1st. However, after that point, little is done regarding songs that were performed before this date.

This year, Ukrainian singer ALEKSEEV entered the Belarusian national final with the song, “Forever.” Before the selection show, it was revealed that before this deadline, ALEKSEEV had been performing a longer version of the song in Russian in his 2017 Ukrainian tour. Despite pressure from the public and from the other competitors to get the broadcaster to disqualify the Ukrainian, ALEKSEEV competed anyway, winning the national final. Afterwards, the song was changed multiple times, but not at the request of the EBU.

In 2016, performances of a prototypic version of the winning song, “1944” by Jamala, were found on YouTube that had been uploaded before September 1st, 2015. The song, already divisive within the Eurovision sphere, caused outrage from various Eurovision fans. However, the EBU did not penalize Ukraine, citing the small audience at the performance in question and the small amount of views on the video as reasons to not impose a consequence.

A recording of a prototype of 1944 called “Our Crimea.” It was published on YouTube in May of 2015.

Exhibit D: Use of Pre-Recorded Vocals

Over the years, the use of backing tracks has become more and more prevalent in Eurovision, from the beginning of their use in the 80s to the outright prohibition of live instrumentation. However, one of the cornerstones of Eurovision is that all vocals need to be live.

In 1999, the first year to go tracks only, a country was caught using prerecorded vocals. Croatia’s entry, “Marija Magdalena,” had used a synthesizer to artificially produce backing vocals on the track (which was kinda obvious when you could hear male voices and only one female backup singer was on stage). The Norwegian delegation, led by then director and current head supervisor of the EBU, Jon Ola Sand, filed a complaint, asking for a point deduction in the final results. The EBU would not fulfill this request. They did deduct a third of the points from the entry in the process for determining relegation, which was based on past placings in the contest. Croatia, a powerhouse in the contest at the time, was not affected by this and was never relegated.

Live performance of “Marija Magdalena,” with backing vocals on the instrumental track.

Ironically, Norway and Jon Ola Sand would be involved in another case of pre-recorded vocals, but in a different position. In 2017, JOWST, one half of the Norwegian entry, “Grab the Moment,” showed public disagreement with the rule and requested to use vocals on their backing track, citing the difficulty of cutting the vocals on a looper live. In response, EBU supervisor Jon Ola Sand, the same man who filed the complaint against Croatia and Doris Dragovic 18 years prior, allowed his home country to use vocals on the track with no negative repercussions.

Live performance of “Grab the Moment,” with pre-recorded backing vocals.

Exhibit E: The Use of Covers

Perhaps the most important rule in Eurovision is that all songs in the contest must be original work. No plagiarism, no samples, no covers. Every year, there seems to be at least one plagiarism claim that circulates the Eurovision sphere: Croatia in 2018, Germany in 2017, Ukraine in 2016, the list goes on. However, it seemed to be the case that if an entry was ever truly found to violate this rule, that it would be disqualified immediately.

Fast forward to this month, when KAN, the Israeli broadcaster, revealed their 2018 Junior Eurovision entry, “Children Like These” by Noam Dadon. In their announcement, KAN openly admitted that Dadon’s song is a cover of the song “Yeladim Kaele,” a song released in May by Eden Hason that has already amassed over 16 million views at the time of reporting.

Noam Dadon’s JESC entry “Children Like These.”

It is possible that KAN called Hason’s rendition a demo of the song, similar to the demo released by the songwriters of “Youtuber” a year ago. The problem is that the demo of “Youtuber” was released only weeks ahead of the national final, and was not released commercially. Hason’s version was released over four months ahead of the national final and two months before it was even announced that Israel would even compete in Minsk this year. His version also comes with a fully produced music video and is commercially available on iTunes and Spotify. Not only has KAN openly declared that the song is a cover (a clear breach in the rules), the EBU has given Israel the green light to compete with the cover.

Eden Hason’s original version, “Yeladim Kaele.”

Conclusion: Why does it matter?

Some of these violations may seem trivial, but that does not make them any less of a violation of the rules. The rules of the contest are put in place to make sure the competition is fair to all competitors and is a quality show for the viewing public. I will admit that not all of the rules of Eurovision are necessary, but if they’re rules, they need to be enforced.

These unpunished violations are dangerous. Any delegation who is charged with breaking these rules can now cite these occurrences as an excuse to let the rule slide again. It sets a dangerous precedent. The EBU’s lax enforcement of the rules only limits their own ability to govern the national broadcasters and enforce the rules of the competition.

Jon Ola Sand and the EBU need to step up to the plate and enforce their own rules. It shouldn’t have to be the job of the national broadcaster to self-administer punishments for rule violations, and it shouldn’t be the job of ordinary people like me to tell the EBU that what they’re doing is wrong.

But for now, delegations, if the state of affairs don’t change, you can throw the rulebook out the window. Wanna send a song that is impossible to perform live and ask to use backing vocals instead of sending a feasible song in the first place? Go ahead. You wanna say every swear word in the dictionary? Do it. You wanna get that sponsorship with your Eurovision song that’s just an Aldi ad? Go for it. You wanna ignore just about any other rule of the Eurovision Song Contest? Knock yourself out. It’s not like anyone is gonna stop you. 

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5 Comments

  1. 1. It’s all about the context. All of the mentioned songs featured lyrics containing brand names, yes, but they were clearly used as cultural references. None of these songs, including Valentina Monetta’s, used them for commercial reasons, none of them were ads. None of these songs should have been censored.

    2. The Foul Language Rule is outdated and should be axed. We are not in the 1950s anymore, and we’re not the USA. Even children are used to much more harmful language these days. None of the mentioned songs should have been censored. But even if one thinks an angel dies everytime somebodys says “fuck” out loud: to brand “god damn” as obscene is simply ridicolous. Lighten up, Sister.

    3. As far as I know, both Alekseevs and Jamalas cases have been discussed and probed by the EBU, both have not found guilty of violation. Case closed.

    4. This is a tricky one, but IMHO ongoing technical progress has to be taken into account to keep the music fresh and current. Reverb (echo) and delay have always been allowed, so I do believe live looping should be allowed, too. Pre-recorded vocals should also be allowed if they are necessary for a certain artistic effect, a sound effect that can’t be recreated live, but should remain forbidden as a background chorus.

    5. I’m sick and tired of the fruitless plagiarisim discussion. And I don’t give a toss about JESC.

    1. For point 2, it is often the UK that limits what can and can’t be said/sung at Eurovision, I’m afraid – it starts before 9pm here and therefore would restrict anything Robin and Mikolas had sung at their NFs. There is no way that a song with ‘fuck’ or ‘motherfucker’ in it would be broadcast on tv or radio here – as another example, even using the word ‘ho’ might be borderline, despite its wide use in hip hop.

      I’m a radio broadcaster as well as a Eurovision blogger and this will give you an idea of what words I need to avoid during my shows (https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2016/attitudes-to-offensive-language), not that the Contest would cause me to say them. The research it is based on was very enlightening – I thought that I had a broad vocabulary but I was wrong! (https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/91624/OfcomOffensiveLanguage.pdf)

  2. I actually agree on certain points here. Especially Exhibit D. I have always been mad when there are songs in a national final that have, say, vocal chops in them. Not only do they never sound good (they are always slightly off-key (either too sharp or flat), or at least for someone with perfect pitch), but it also defeats the purpose. Having the vocal duties performed live (including choir) is something that was set in stone already from the get-go, and should remain so.

    “JOWST, one half of the Norwegian entry, “Grab the Moment,” showed public disagreement with the rule and requested to use vocals on their backing track, citing the difficulty of cutting the vocals on a looper live”. Well, simply put, DON’T HAVE A VOCAL LOOPER ON THE SONG. It never sounds good.

  3. Junior Eurovision has been going in a bad direction. The 2017 Malta entry (Dawra Tond) was a complete copy of the Armenia 2014 entry (People of the Sun) and the EBU allowed it with not a peep out of anyone. 2017 also introduced online voting where people were even allowed to vote for their own country. The people who run both adult and Junior Eurovisions need to be more vigilant against plagiarism and not introduce things like online voting into the contest which are liable to abuse.

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