Slava Ukraini: Ukraine beyond the numbers

What is happening in Ukraine is horrible–and the West needs to do more. Thinking this will stop at Ukraine is naive, at best.

Barring Russia from the Eurovision Song Contest in 2022 was an obviously appropriate tack to take. It’s also important to remember that the despotic, kleptocratic, violent Russian and Belarussian governments are the aggressors in Ukraine. The Russian or Belarussian peoples are not.

In light of these horrors, we I wanted to take some time to celebrate Ukraine’s epic, at times controversial, contributions to the Eurovision.

(Source: YouTube/Eurovision Song Contest)

Glory

Any number of data sources show that Ukraine performs very well at the Eurovision:

  • Ukraine is the only country with a 100% qualification record from Eurovision semi-finals.
  • Nine Ukrainian entries have been top ten results since 2003 (56 per cent), including two wins and three other top 5 results. 
  • They’ve only been in the bottom five of a Grand Final once (2005; both their host entries struggled, in fact).

How have they done this? We’ve analyzed the data (quantitative and qualitative) and we have our theories. One thing we can exclude is their selection methods—because they’ve had so many!

A Whisper. And Then a Howl.

In the beginning broadcaster NTU relied on internal selections, which are often a resource-efficient selection method if budgets are constrained. In 2002 their approach was to shoulder tap a successful songwriter—sometimes a good idea: Svika Pik who had written Diva for Dana International. But Hasta La Vista is no Diva,  and Oleksandr no Dana International. Oleksandr finished 14th, which isn’t a terrible début.

For 2004 NTU also went with an internal selection. Ruslana Lyzhychko had a massive hit with her Dyki Tantsi (Wild Dances) album the year before, but the song she submitted to NTU was a new track, mostly in English. Ruslana had performed a different song, Dyki Tantsi, during her tour, which caused some Ukrainian fans to think it would be her Eurovision entry:

(Source: YouTube/Ruslana Tube)

Ukrainian fans were equally convinced this would have been a winner (it would have almost certainly have been disqualified, having been performed publicly numerous times before September 2003). Regardless, Wild Dances was a bookies’ favourite before arriving in Istanbul, which was also my first in-person Eurovision.

Unlike Riga, NTU arrived on the ground with a complete campaign. There was a multi-track CD. There was SWAG. Ruslana was everywhere, it seemed, and she was clearly clever: so clever, in fact, that she had the presence of mind to not sing during two of the three dress rehearsals for the Grand Final (while running through the choreography, perfectly, each time). As a result her demanding vocal was perfect on the four occasions it needed to be.

Ukraine topped the Grand Final in 2004, despite only finishing second in the single, midweek Semi-Final. The 2004  Contest featured the same pan-European vote for both the Semi-Final and Grand Final.

Between Thursday and Saturday nights, Ruslana increased her points incrementally, from 256 to 280; Semi-Final winner Serbia and Montenegro scored 263 points on both Thursday and Saturday. Ukraine needed 7 additional points to tie Serbia and Montenegro—and got 14 points. Tidy. Nice.

That meant the 2005 Eurovision would be in Ukraine, Kyiv precisely. Fantastic—except Ukraine would experience shudders of political instability between Ruslana’s victory and hosting the following year. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution brought in a new, Western-gazing government—inclined to make wildly ambitious and precise promises that would inevitably be broken. In early 2005 point  moving the event out of Ukraine seemed likely. But the new government managed to address most of the EBU’s concerns. And Kyiv 2005 was a success.

Ukraine, it turns out, was only getting started…

Let’s Speak Dance

In 2007 a very grainy, poor quality video announced that a song called Dancing had won the Ukrainian national selection: the artist, Verka Serduchka, had profile throughout the russosphere. Some Ukrainian fans were unhappy: words like “terrible”, “embarrassed” and “angry” appeared in online forums. Here’s that clip:

(Source: YouTube/Comunidad LGBT)

For years I assumed that a major glow-up happened after the national final and before Verka got to Helsinki—but clearly much of the staging was the same. Yet again NTU arrived on the ground with a full campaign, including  a promotional CD with a range of versions of Dancing Lasha Tambai: pub, club, balalaika and remixed versions, which were all trumped by the lullaby version:

(Source: YouTube/EuroFreaks)

One way to see if a song is quality, is see how it holds up when it’s tweaked for other genres.

As in Istanbul, the battle for victory had been between Ukraine (who had pre-qualified for the Grand Final) and Serbia’s début entry, Molitva by Marija Šerifoviç. Despite scoring 30 fewer points on Saturday night, Serbia still outscored Ukraine 268 to 235. In fact, whilst five countries blanked Serbia. Verka got points from every country except Albania.  I still contend that if Verka had included the Hamlet soliloquy in the bridge:

To dance, or not to dance, this is not our question. Don’t live to dance. Dance to live. I love you.

We would have been headed back to Ukraine instead of Serbia.

Across subsequent years, Ukraine proved to be a consistently strong performer, thanks to their national final system. Or, rather, make that systems, since the rules and protocols seemed to change, year upon year.

And sometimes it was not pretty.

2011 – the car crash

In 2011 NTU ran an ambitious, Melfest-esque selection, with five heats, where progression was possible via jury or public score, or getting a jury wildcard. Even after the heats—and three semi-finals—a total of 19 songs made the actual final, where Angel (Mika Newton) finished first, followed by The Kukushka (Zlata Ognevich) and Smile (Jamala).

(Source: YouTube/M1 music)

When allegations of voting irregularities surfaced, things got rather heated rather quickly. A decision was taken to hold a subsequent “run off” national final with the top three entries. However, after both Zlata and Jamala withdrew, Angel went to Dusseldorf, placing fourth: an excellent result.

Of course both Zlata and Jamala still had aspirations to represent Ukraine at the Eurovision. In 2013, Zlata brought Gravity to Malmö and finished third (one better than Angel). In 2015, Jamala brought 1944 to Stockholm—and won. The image of Zlata and Jamala at some point gleefully toasting Mika Newton’s 2011 fourth place warms my heart.

Even drama doesn’t seem to impede Ukraine from succeeding at the Eurovision!

Why successful

Ukraine has found success through labyrinthine national finals, televote only finals, internal selections, and different sorts of scoring system. Yet they do very, often very well regardless. Why?

We have a few theories:

  1. Honor: the Ukrainian national selection attracts artists who see representing Ukraine as an honor.
  2. Exposure: Ukrainian artists also see the Eurovision as amazing opportunity to reach a large, global audience.
  3. UU: Every top 10 Ukrainian entry has been, in some way, Uniquely Ukrainian™.
  4. Talent: Ukraine only sends strong singers and performers, and build their staging around the artist.
  5. Staging: Hutsul horns and bull whips. Breaking chains of bondage. Hell machine. Hamster wheel. Disco balls. Friendly giant. Sand art. Mirror boxes. Piano stairs. Chernobyl forest. Ukraine manages to make their entries memorable, which is important a 26 song Grand Final.

Ukraine gave us the first turbofolk ethnobanger champion (Wild Dances). They have used an affectionate send up of trad music to create one of the most iconic entries ever (Dancing Lasha Tambai). They have mashed up EDM and hip hop with trad music. There are aspects of Ukrainian culture that have been used subtlety (Angel and the sand sculpture), or massively (Shum and the Chernobyl forest).

Most importantly, the Ukrainian public that seems to always gets it right in a (proper) televote. Ukrainian broadcasters tend to trust the public: if there’s a tie, whomever got more televote points gets the ticket. 1944, don’t forget, was ranked second by the juries, but first by the public.  

As well, Europe seems to love Ukrainian Eurovision entries. Ukraine have received douze points at least once from Belarus, Slovakia Estonia, Iceland, Lithuania, Portugal, Andorra, Czechia, Latvia, Poland, Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, Cyprus, Italy, Moldova, Montenegro, Slovenia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Bosnia, Denmark, Israel, North Macedonia, San Marino, Serbia, France, Finland, Hungary, Australia, Romania, and, indeed, Russia. In other words, only Austria, Monaco, Ireland, Germany, the UK, Malta, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Greece have never given a 12 to Ukraine.

Not yet, anyway.

Slava Ukraini

What is happening today in Ukraine is more important that any song contest. But for many of us, we have developed an affinity, affection and a connection—of some sort—to Ukraine through their participation in the Eurovision Song Contest. We have so much love for Ukrainians and their culture—and how they have brought so much to the Contest.

We wish Ukraine nothing less than peace and freedom, including EU and NATO memberships. We stand with Ukraine, always.

And thank you Schlager Lucas for this wonderful recap of all of Ukraine’s entries

(Source: YouTube/Schlager Lucas)

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