Cammino di Sanremo: can the naked ape dance to Eurovision victory?

We’ve only had 10 of 2017’s Eurovision entries identified. Few seemed at all noteworthy until the song festival that inspired the Eurovision ran last week in Italy. Francesco Gabbani won the 67th Sanremo Festival with Occidentali’s Karma, defeating several established artists in the process. Gabbani’s win was an historic one: no one has returned to the festival the year after winning the newcomers section (Giovani) and won the overall (or main) section (Campioni). At the winner’s press conference many were thrilled when Francesco indicated he would bring his song to Kyiv.

This is the third consecutive Italian Eurovision entry that competed in the overall section, two of which have been Sanremo winners:

  • 2015 – Il Volo –  Grande amore (winner)
  • 2016 – Francesca Michielin – No Degree of Separation/Nessun grado di separazione (runner-up)
  • 2017 – Francesco Gabbani – Occidentali’s Karma (winner)

Since Italy’s return to the Eurovision in 2011 Sanremo has featured all but one of Italy’s Eurovision selections. In 2011 the winner of the newcomers section, Raphael Gualazzi, finished second in Baku with Madness of Love.

In 2012 one of the artists from the main competition (Nina Zillli) was selected, but the song (L’Amore è femmina/Out of Love) was not from Sanremo. 2013 was the first time the winning entry was Italy’s Eurovision entry: Marco Mengoni’s L’Essenziale finished seventh in Stockholm. In 2014, RAI went for an internal selection, though Emma Marrone also has quite the Sanremo pedigree, having won the festival in 2012: she chose La mia città, a track from her most recent album (she finished 21st in Copenhagen).

That leaves 2015 and 2016. Our curiosity about Gabbani’s potential path from campione del campioni to Eurovision victory—his cammino di Sanremo—might be informed by these two other recent Sanremo laureates’ Eurovision results.

So we’ve crunched some numbers. Shall we?

Il Volo’s grande successo

Of the numerous 2015 entrants in Sanremo’s main section, Il Volo had the highest international profile. In fact, their career outside of Italy was arguably much stronger than in their domestic music market. Il Volo had signed with an American label (Geffen) and whilst their music was released in Italy, the American and Latin American markets were clearly the label’s focus. Their appearance at San Remo raised more than a few eyebrows.

Grande amore débuted on the second night of Sanremo 2015. Over the course of three nights, Il Volo performed as follows:

Night Journalists Televotes Total Rank
Two 8.73% 44.56% 26.64% 1
Three 20;18% 62.96% 41.57% 2*

*Night three is “covers” night where competing acts sing an evergreen Italian song

Sanremo changes its voting system during the campioni. For the fourth and fifth nights scores were as follows:

Night Popular Jury Expert Jury Televotes Total Rank
Four 11.33% 6.25% 33.39% 16.54% 1
Five 13.38% 8.75% 38.73% 22.13% 1
Five (super final*) 32.33% 22.92% 56.19% 30.37% 2

*top 3 from night five

Across all four competing nights, Il Volo was carried by televoters. Journalists  and experts had them no higher than fourth.

At the Eurovision, something similar happened. Italy won the televote by 80 points (366) over second place Sweden. The juries, however, put Il Volo in sixth place—160 points below than Sweden. Under the 2015 system of integrating the televote and jury votes, Grande amore finished third.

Francesca’s slow burn

Francesca Michielin came to the attention of the Italian public after winning the 2012 edition of X Factor (Italy) title: you might have seen her audition with Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love.  Francesca’s winner’s single, Distratto (Distracted) topped the Italian charts and earned her a platinum disc.

The accompanying album didn’t sell terribly well, and she largely fell off the radar of the Italian public. However late in 2015 she released L’amour esiste as the first single from her follow-up album di20, landing in the top 10. Shortly thereafter she was announced as one of the campioni participants in the 2016 Sanremo festival. Her participation in Sanremo also commenced on the second night. Here are her scores:

Night Journalists Televotes Total Rank
Two 13.74% 7.92% 10.83% 4
Three 33.47% 22.84% 28.16% 9*

*Night three is “covers” night where competing acts sing an evergreen Italian song

Initially the journalists’ ranked Francesca equal second elevated her; her televote ranking was only sixth. On covers night they placed her fourth—the public had her ninth.

Night Demoscopic Jury Expert Jury Televotes Total Rank
Four 8.22% 10.63% 6.01% 8.06% 3
Five 9.72% 6.88% 8.17% 8.25% 2
Five super 34.72% 27.08% 29.58% 30.37% 2

Across all four competing nights it was the juries that lifted Nessun grado di separazione. It held enough support to progress throughout, but never garnered massive public support. Which is something of a paradox: many assumed Francesca was relying on her existing voting constituency from X Factor to keep her in the competition.

After winners Stadio declined to bring Un giorno mi dirai to Stockholm, Michielin leapt at the opportunity. Initially there was little buzz around Italy’s choice for Stockholm…until this clip started ratcheting up hits:

Now with English

One of the challenges for Sanremo songs is how to convert something up to 4 minutes long to a 3 minute entry without gutting it. The ESC version of No Degrees of Separation showed the song worked extremely well when shortened and adapted to the international audience—particularly with the last chorus in English. Many ESC fans presumed the juries would love this classic Italian pop song: the extent to which it could swing a strong televote score was less certain.

Death by gimmick?

At Eurovision Italy finished 16th overall—a disappointing result. Nessun grado di separazione was ranked only 13th with juries: 90 points in total from 13 countries, including 12s from France and Norway. Televoters had Francesca 18th: a mere 34 points from eight countries, including 10 from Albania (who seem to love Italian music) and 7 each from Malta and Switzerland (where there are many fluent Italian speakers. Shame she couldn’t’ve used the piano version: by that time, the ESC versions of entries were already in lock down.

Francesco’s cammino

Like Il Volo and Francesca Michielin, Francesco Gabbani made his campioni début on the second night. Here’s his results from Sanremo 2017:

Night Journalists Televotes Total Rank
Two 22.84% 11.30% 17.07% 1
Three 3.8% 7.48% 5.64% 8*

*Night three is “covers” night where competing acts sing an evergreen Italian song

Gabbani won the journalist votes on night two; Occidentali’s Karma was narrowly fourth with the public. For the fourth and fifth nights scores are as follows:

Night Opinion Polls Press Jury Televotes Total Rank
Four 8.65% 6.87% 7.38% 7.61% 3
Five 9.38% 11.88% 14.37% 12.13% 2
Five super 33.50% 29.17%* 43.69% 36.27% 1

*Expert jury

Across all four competing nights, Gabbani ranked inconsistently: first to start, then as low as 8th, then back slowly to first when it mattered. In the last televote, Francesco nearly garnered half the votes on offer. But he was also ranked second in both the Opinion and Expert scores.

In other words, Francesco Gabbani’s cammino to Sanremo victor was uneven. Like Francesca Michielin, his support increased over time, but at times he lacked the broad public support Il Volo netted. And this might be the naked ape’s challenge.

The challenge

Francesco Gabbani is trying to do someone only achieved once previously. In 1964 Gigliola Cinquetti’s Non ho l’éta won both Sanremo and the Eurovision. Italy’s other Eurovision winner—Insieme 1992 by Toto Cutugno—was internally selected by RAI.

The 2017 and 1964 Eurovisions are wholly different beasts. In 1964 there was no public vote and songs had to be sung in national languages: only the UK sang in English and Italy and Switzerland both sent Italian language entries (there were four French entries). In Kyiv nearly all entries will be sung in English and both an international televote and almost 200 jurors will decide who is champion. A much more complex gauntlet towards victory. Can he do it?

Francesco Gabbani – Occidentali’s Karma… by taniafontana

The subtitles help. A lot.

Short answer: yes. An obvious strategic move would seem to be to introduce some English to the entry (which also needs to lose 40 seconds to meet the three minute rule). Except the Italian entry that won a Grand Final televote was sung entirely in Italian. The Italian lyric of Occidentali’s Karma is brilliant: it’s a sardonic, warm critique of modernity and the fetishism of “oriental” spirituality. The gorilla dance reflects a line in the chorus “La scimmia nuda balla”: the naked ape is dancing. Without understanding the lyric, the gorilla seems a cheap gimmick. Which it is not.

RAI and Francesco Gabbani have a contender, but it might not be the obvious, instant vote grabber. However, a campaign in the run up to Kyiv can be successfully mounted. The focus should be on getting people intrigued prior to Saturday night. Create a buzz, so that when you appear in the Grand Final the viewers are thinking “this is the entry everyone’s talking about”.

Just ask Jamala and Conchita.