We’ve been skirting around the edges of this for the best part of a decade now, trying to explain from the sidelines exactly why the UK keeps getting things so badly wrong at Eurovision. But after another last place finish, we’ve decided to fully map out the Popbitch Eurovision manifesto once and for all…

Here’s a little story about the Eurovision wilderness.

Between 2005 and 2012, The Netherlands failed to qualify for the Eurovision grand final every single year. Eight years on the bounce, the Dutch entry found itself wiped out in the semis, managing to only scrabble together a few dozen points each time – placing 14th, 20th, 21st in their heats. They couldn’t have been further from success.

During this time, the people of the Netherlands became utterly convinced that they would never win again. Pundits and public alike started complaining that all the new Eastern European countries who joined in 2003/4 had stitched the contest up. They were acting like a racket, just voting for their neighbours and friends. The countries of the West would never be allowed to lift the trophy again as long as they were involved. (Or so they said.)

In short, they felt that the contest had become too politicised and that everyone had it in for the Dutch.

Sound familiar?

The idea that their string of bad luck might somehow be connected to the fact that they were sending songs like this in the Year Of Our Lord 2009 clearly didn’t occur to them.

But in 2013, something changed. Instead of getting the public to vote on a song, the Netherlands decided to hand-select a popular artist and let her try something different.

The result was Birds – a peculiar song with harmonically challenging verses, a lush cinematic chorus and performed by an assured artist with a distinct voice. It sailed through its semi-final and finally finished in the Top Ten to rapturous applause.

In 2014, they entered something pretty different again. The Common Linnets’ Calm After The Storm sounded like the sort of country-tinged ballad that indie darlings Rilo Kiley might have written in a Nashville bar. A sweet song, with simple but stylish staging, it blitzed its semi-final and came second in the grand final (only nipped to the top by Conchita).

This year, after nearly 35 years of trying, the Netherlands won Eurovision again. Even though all those same Eastern European countries are still participating (the ones that the Dutch swore were conspiring against them), the political obstacles and geographic setbacks somehow all melted. Duncan Laurence lifted the trophy in a clear victory.

They did it.

The UK is currently suffering from a similar sort of malaise. Though it’s only been a relatively short 22 years since we last won the contest (in 1997), we are in a similar rut of thinking that Europe has singled us out to scorn and disparage. Every year, the same old suspects in the British press piss their pants as the results come in, saying that the show is rigged, that Europe will never vote for the Brits, that we could send Radiohead and the former Soviet Union would reunite in response, just to shut us out.

We aren’t the only country thinking this though. Spain – who are just as reliable at finishing bottom of the table as us – also thinks that there is a pointed anti-Spanish bias against them. Germany – who came dead last twice back to back (2015/16) and then came 24th this year – are also convinced that Europe only invites them to pay for their big party, but never give them any votes.

This paranoid delusion can’t apply to everyone, yet it seems to be a widely applied excuse. But as Portugal and The Netherlands have recently proved, even countries who have had abysmal track records at Eurovision can clinch a win if the record is right.

What can we learn from the Dutch then? Plenty – so let’s get started.

1/ The Song

One of the most common criticisms of Eurovision is that it isn’t really a song contest these days. That it’s all about “the show”, not about “the music”.

Admittedly, it’s not an outlandish conclusion to draw when acts like a monster-mask metal band and a bearded lady have taken the crown in recent memory. But if you listen to Lordi and Conchita’s respective entries (Hard Rock Hallelujah and Rise Like A Phoenix) you’d be hard pressed to claim that they aren’t properly crafted compositions.

It’s also true that some extremely flimsy songs have made it to the top (Ell And Nikki’s Running ScaredΒ in 2011, for example) but the argument that ‘real music’ doesn’t get rewarded at Eurovision is getting increasingly hard to make.

Loreen’s Euphoria in 2012 seems to have been the benchmark moment. Since then, winning entries have become much more interesting and inventive. 2016 saw a moody trip-hop song about historic war crimes (sung partly in Crimean Tatar, using traditional Ukranian folk scales) win.

2017 saw success for a Portuguese fado jazz ballad, composed like the soundtrack to an old Hollywood movie, featuring complex chord voicings with flattened 5ths, 9ths and 13ths.

This year’s winner (Duncan Laurence’s Arcade) had its verses in 6/4 and made extensive use of the Lydian mode.Β It’s hard to know what the ‘real music’ brigade could possibly be after if sextuple meter and rare scales don’t do it for them.

Yet while the standard Eurovision winner is getting more experimental, what did the UK bring to the party? A standard Sam Smithy belt-along that featured for its big finale… get this – a key change!

The general consensus seems to be that Michael Rice did a good job of performing on the night but that the song struggled to stand out. We wouldn’t disagree with that assessment – but it’s a little vague. What exactly was it that nobbled our song?

It probably didn’t help matters that we got lodged in between Norway’s Aqua-esque scandi-banger and Iceland’s dystopian electro sex show screamer, acting as a palate cleanser for two mad Nordic courses, but breaking Bigger Than Us down into its constituent parts might help.

The song was in C Major. It worked its way around the standard four chords of C, F, G and Am and was paced at about 82bpm. How does that sort of song traditionally fare?

As we say every year, songs in major keys have generally performed pretty poorly at Eurovision in the 21st century. 15 of the last 20 contests have been won by minor keys, while major keys have come dead last almost twice as frequently as their minor counterparts.

Why does this matter? It’s hard to overstate how much the sound of the competition has changed since the turn of the century. In part, this is because of that influx of smaller Eastern European countries that the Dutch were so worried about in 2005. Their musical cultures have a much richer tradition of using minor and other (non-major) keys, and they all have 12 points to give countries whose entries delight them. As we can see, those sorts of entries are rarely major.

This is a consistent problem of ours. Four of our last five entries have been in major keys. They have all ended in either 24th or 26th position. The one time we entered a song in D minor (2017’s Never Give Up On You) we managed to claw our way up to 15th. Not a roaring victory, granted – but progress of sorts.

Then there’s the key change. Something that we Brits still tediously think do big business at Eurovision, despite glaring evidence to the contrary.


The last time a winner used a key change? 2007. 12 years ago.

The last time a loser used a key change? 2019. It was us. We need to stop.

And what about that tempo? Germany got back to back losses in 2015/16 with songs at 85bpm. Spain got one in 2017 with it. And now we’re going to have to put one right next to it with 82bpm when we revise this graphic for next year.

How does any of this prove that we’re musically stuck in the past? Bigger Than Us shares a lot of musical DNA with Katrina And The Waves’ Love Shine A Light – our last winner in 1997. The two can basically be mashed together without any visible joins as Katrina’s song is also in C Major, generally works with the same four chords and is paced at 84bpm.

In an era where James Blake-y wailers, Portuguese fado jazz and Ukranian political trip-hop are all sailing home to victory, sending standard gospel-lite pop just won’t cut it any more.

Of course, we don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t anyone at the BBC who doesn’t know this already. We happen to know for a fact that they do. However, they often find that their hands are a little bit tied – and the British public are the ones helping to tie the knot.

2/ The Selection

With a couple of exceptions, there are generally two tried and tested formats for any individual country’s Eurovision national selection process.

One way is for the national delegation (or broadcaster) to select the artist and song they want and then announce it. The ‘Like It Or Lump It’ approach. This was the UK way for years and is what brought us such classics as Bonnie Tyler (19th), Electro Velvet (24th) and Engelbert Humperdinck (25th).

The other way is to draw up a shortlist of entries and then put the final decision up to TV viewers, who select their favourite in a televised voting show. The UK process is currently focused around this sort of model (Eurovision: You Decide) but we’re not quite getting it right.

The gold standard for national selection shows is Melodifestivalen, the Swedish edition.

For several weeks on a Saturday night, dozens of Swedish artists battle it out on primetime TV to win the prestigious chance to represent Sweden – the country that has won twice, come third twice, and finished Top Five three times in the last ten years.

The Melodifestivalen set-up gives the country a number of advantages. First, by spreading it out over a series of weeks turns out a winner that is polished and reliable enough to consistently succeed in front of big live audiences (as well as giving them plenty of practice in figuring out how to play to a TV audience at home through the camera, without neglecting the venue).

Then, as well as having TV viewers selecting, Sweden has a specifically selected international jury, so that they can get a sense of what might have appeal beyond its country’s own borders.

To top if off, by making it a fixture of primetime Saturday night TV means that they drive a huge loyal viewership, which gives them a much broader sense of what is playing well with the public at large.

For the last four years, the UK selection process has been a sort of anaemic version of this. We have a single show tucked away on one of the BBC’s secondary channels where we rattle through the songs once and then get the public to vote – but this process doesn’t really reflect the amount of work that’s gone in behind the scenes.

In the previous six months, what will have happened is this: A music industry executive will have been brought in by the BBC specifically to find good Eurovision songs. Huge amounts of work is then done setting up songwriter camps across Europe, reaching out to successful, renowned pop writing teams, developing better relationships with the UK music industry and media, refining and rewriting hooks and choruses until they’ve got dozens of potential hits.

Over the course of many months, these then get whittled down to a shortlist (and, full disclosure, there have been years where our opinions were heeded on what should make this shortlist). Every year, the shortlist has featured at least one song that has sounded like it could do well in the wider competition – but this is where everything goes pearshaped.

Part of the problem is that the British public – who have the final say in this – don’t seem to know what will work well in the modern contest. As we described above, their musical sense of what Eurovision “sounds like” is at least 20 years out of date – so they plump for the sorts of songs that sound like the one that won for us last in 1997.

But that’s not the only problem.

The way our selection process is set up means that it favours people who’ve tried (but failed) on TV talent shows. Anyone with a bit of name recognition really skews the vote. It’s not a coincidence that Joe And Jake, Lucie Jones and Michael Rice were all on TV talent shows before appearing on Eurovision: You Decide, while their non-famous counterparts sunk without trace. The public already knew them from The Voice, from The X Factor, from All Together Now and they voted for them – rather than the song they’re singing.

It’s a double-edged sword too because, as a result of this talent show bias, there aren’t many managers or publicists in the industry who are willing to take a chance on putting forward any new, credible acts that they’re properly invested in – as they can’t guarantee their act will be chosen against a better-known reality star. Losing at Eurovision isn’t great, but losing the UK’s selection process? That’s a career hurdle that’s very tricky to recover from.

Bianca’s Shine A Little Light in 2016 was perfectly tailored to the musical model of songs that do well, but we gave the honour to Joe And Jake instead – with a song in B Major, a key change and paced at the killer tempo of 128bpm. Because the public knew the boys from The Voice, heard their song once and thought it sounded “Eurovision”. We came 24th.

There’s also a bit of a problem with BBC guidelines. A couple of years back they found this decent pop song called Weapons which, as a demo, sounded great. Although it was written about love and relationships the BBC wouldn’t allow it in case it was seen as “political” or “inciting violence” so it was re-written, re-titled and given to someone unknown who really overperformed it on the night. So it sank without trace.

No matter how good the song is, its chances solely depend how well it’s done on the selection show and the BBC is underinvesting in that show. Despite Eurovision’s 180-200 global million viewing figures (which makes it a massive deal compared with other TV music shows like The X Factor and The Voice) the selection show is tiny. They debut the songs on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show (and, all due respect to Ken, it’s hardly the cutting edge of creativity in UK music). Last year’s show was filmed in a Salford studio for a one-off BBC2 show and given very little publicity, so our songs are unknown and unheralded.

We miss out on some of the best songs and songwriters in Europe because of our selection process.

Last year, Austrian entrant Cesar came through the UK selection process with Nobody But You, but he ended up taking it to Austria instead because they offered to make him their entry right there and then, rather than run the risk of losing in our slapdash selection show. It won the jury vote and Austria came third overall. We had that song, and we lost it.

JOWST, who came Top Ten for Norway in 2017, put a song into the UK process last year too but didn’t even get picked for the shortlist.

This year John Lundvik who repped for Sweden (finishing fifth) also wrote the UK song – but took the better one for himself and we got the rejected B-side. People weren’t going to vote for two identical sounding songs, so even though ours wasn’t the worst thing in the full contest, it was always going to be overlooked in favour of the Swedish one. It’s not political. It’s just poor tactics.

Finding six good songs is a really hard task. Six good songs and artists who can sing them is even harder. The BBC puts in a lot of work, effort and enthusiasm to put that list together. And then they sadly squander it by rushing out a quick Friday night show for BBC2.

3/ The Allegiances

So, real talk. Who do you need to be friends with to win this thing? Which voting blocs do we need to grease up with? Which juries need €20,000 in used, unmarked notes left in their hotel pigeon holes? Who needs reminding that there’s more to dear old Blighty than Brexit, the Iraq invasion and Daz Sampson?


Interesting and illuminating though the voting process is – and obvious though some 12-point vote exchanges are (Greece and Cyprus…) – the truth of it is that everyone is fully prepared to vote for the United Kingdom. Don’t believe us? Still think Johnny Foriegner has got it in for us?

In the last decade, every single country that has performed in the Eurovision Song Contest in that time has given the UK at least one point (apart from the sporadically involved Bosnia & Herzegovina). The same cannot be said of plenty of other countries.

NB: We did get points in 2015 (five of them to be precise); they were just from countries who have given us points again more recently – Malta, San Marino and Ireland.

If you think the Brexit vote in 2016 has torpedoed any hope of that ever happening again, you’ll maybe note that 30 of the 41 countries competing this year have given us points in the three years since.

And it’s not just the Australias and Armenias doing that. Of the EU27, 19 of them have given us points since the referendum vote. Only eight hold outs and Slovakia and Luxembourg have been missing from the contest for ages.

The idea that Europe only votes for its mates, regardless of songs, is getting very hard to justify. You only need to look at other countries’ fates to see what nonsense it all is.

Why did the powerful voting blocs leave Portugal sat on the shelf for so long – watching them embarrass themselves, year after year after year, for decades – without a single point, only to decide to get behind them en masse in 2017 with a massive victory? Then why did they just as quickly forsake them, letting them come dead last in 2018, then refuse to help them qualify in 2019? What sort of friends would do that?

It couldn’t possibly be that in 2017, Portugal entered an accomplished, crafted ballad performed beautifully by some oddball kid whose sister had written the entry for him?

This is not an isolated example. Winning the contest, only to flame out the following year is something of a Eurovision tradition.
– Austria won in 2014 with contest favourite Rise Like A Phoenix. In 2015, they got nul points.
– Ukraine won in 2016. In 2017, they came 24th.
– Last year, Israel won. This year, they came 24th.

People always like to joke that that’s because no-one ever wants to host the contest twice because of the expense (again, a joke that’s at least 20+ years old) but it absolutely tears a hole through the idea that there’s some anointed favourites that have the contest all sewn up. The briefest look at the leaderboards over the last five years shows otherwise.

Another argument is that the other countries are resentful of the Big Five (the countries who pay their way into the final) just strong-arming their way to the Saturday – but how does that account for Italy consistently coming Top Five or Top Ten over the last decade?

The simple truth is that Europe knows that the UK is a musical powerhouse. They love our acts. We have one of the biggest pop music markets and economies in the world. Europe knows this. So when we send a half-arsed song over to them – the type that Simon Cowell wouldn’t even give to one of his latter-day X Factor winners to fulfil minimum contractual requirements – Europe notices. And they feel like we’re taking the piss.

Which we are.

We can do better. It wouldn’t even take that much effort. We just need to try. So roll on 2020.

Photo credit: Thomas Hanses
Stats thanks to: Eurovision Deepthroat