Forty-two countries participated in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv. And while the artists speak dozens of languages — Croatian, Armenian, Maltese, Georgian, and Norwegian, to name a few — only seven artists chose to include lyrics that weren’t in English. English is essential to winning hearts and minds across borders, right?
Maybe not. This year’s winner — Portugal’s Salvador Sobral — sang his number “Amar pelos dois“ entirely in Portuguese. Owing to its soft tones and nasal sounds, Portuguese is a language that works well with themes of nostalgia and melancholy. And surely singing in his mother tongue helped Sobral feel every word even more than if he had chosen English.
His victory came as a pleasant surprise in an era of globalisation, where pop music has become yet another commodity, and one that rushes toward homogeny across markets. It’s the so-called “fast food music” phenomenon that Sobral controversially spoke of after his win. Looking back, his jazz-influence ballad is without question one of the most deserving winners on a thematic level: Celebrate Diversity was the official slogan of this year’s contest.
Sobral won with a song sung entirely in a non-English language exactly ten years after Marija Serifovic won for Serbia with “Molitva” — the last non-English language song to win.
Portuguese may be spoken only in Portugal, but the music — and his performance — were enough to help music professionals and everyday folks relate to it. It’s important to note that he won both the jury vote and the televote.
The simple conclusion is that a song doesn’t have to be sung in English, the lingua franca of pop, in order to win Eurovision. But that is perhaps too much of a reduction.
It might be fairer to say English is necessary for the win if you’re singing a pop song. But neither “Amar pelos dois” nor “Molitva” could be considered contemporary pop. Both have a strong ethnic identity — the most obvious being their chosen language — and both were performed with an emotion and clarity not normally associated with the frequently disposable tracks that clutter Spotify and, if we’re being brutally honest, Eurovision.
To win Eurovision you need a good song with shape and musicality. But you also need that indescribable X Factor that might just come through singing in one’s native tongue, which helps the artist connect to the song on a more visceral level. “Authenticity” is a buzz word these days and singing in a foreign language can feel decidedly inauthentic.
Jamala, who sang of the painful deportation that her great grandmother faced under Stalin, has frequently re-iterated that her Eurovision winning song “1944” was deeply personal. That it contained significant portions in Crimean Tatar may have helped her reach that dark, stirring place that helped her secure victory.
Back in 2008, a year after Marija Serifovic had won, 22 out of 43 countries sang at least partially in a language that was not English, including twelve out of twenty-five finalists. That’s nearly half. The trophy, however, went to Russia’s Dima Bilan and his English-language entry “Believe“. The next seven winners were all sung entirely in English.
Other languages made a brief return in 2012, when eighteen out of forty-two songs were performed at least partially in a language other than English, including ten out of twenty-six finalists — seven of which made it to the top ten.
Of the non-English-language songs in the Top 10, all but one — Nina Zilli’s “”L’amore è femmina” — were ballads. When people are oozing pain (Albania’s “Suus”) or pleading for a lover to stay (Spain’s “Quedate Conmigo”) Europe doesn’t mind not understanding all the words.
However, neither 2008 nor 2012 inspired a long-lasting trend. In 2016 just three countries sang entirely in a non-English language. This year the number was seven and included Portugal, Hungary, Croatia, Belarus, Italy, Spain and France.
But, as in 2012, we see that a high percentage of these songs did rather well. In fact, five of the seven managed to make the televote top 10.
The ever-changing language rule
When Eurovision was first established back in 1956, there were not strict rules regarding the languages in which the songs could be sung. Ten years later, in 1966, organisers decided that artists had to perform in their country’s language, after Sweden’s Ingvar Wixell had performed his 1965 entry “Absent Friend” in English.
Then, in 1973, that rule was dropped. Artists could perform in whatever language they wanted. ABBA famously used that rule to perform their 1974 winning entry “Waterloo” in English, helping lay the foundation for their global career. The rule that each country had to perform in their own language returned in 1977, but then reversed again in 1999. That year Charlotte Perrelli won with “Take Me To Your Heaven” — the English-language version of “Tusen och en natt” (which she sang to win Melodifestivalen that year).
Winners by language
So far, there have been sixty-five winners of the Eurovision Song Contest (as four countries won in 1969). They have performed in thirteen languages. English leads the list with thirty-one wins.
It should be noted that both of Ukraine’s winning entries, in 2004 and 2016, although sung mostly in English, also contained parts in Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar, respectively.
• English: 31**
• Last winner: “1944” (Ukraine 2016)
* “Wild Dances” (Ukraine 2004) contained parts in Ukrainian.
* “1994” (Ukraine 2016) contained parts in Crimean Tatar.
• French: 14
• Last winner: “Ne partez pas sans moi” (Switzerland 1988)
• Dutch: 3
• Last winner: “De troubadour” (The Netherlands 1969)
• Hebrew: 3
• Last winner: “Diva” (Israel 1998)
• German: 2
• Last winner: “Ein bißchen Frieden” (Germany 1982)
• Spanish: 2
• Last winner: “Vivo cantando” (Spain 1969)
• Italian: 2
• Last winner: “Insieme: 1992” (Italy 1990)
• Swedish: 2
• Last winner: “Fångad av en stormvind” (Sweden 1991)
• Norwegian: 2
• Last winner: “Nocturne” (Norway 1995)
• Danish: 1
• Last winner: “Dansevise” (Denmark 1963)
• Croatian: 1*
• Last winner: “Rock Me Baby” (SFR Yugoslavia 1989)
* The language Riva performed in was called Serbo-Croatian in 1989.
• Serbian: 1
• Last winner: “Molitva” (Serbia 2007)
• Portuguese: 1
• Last winner: “Amar pelos dois” (Portugal 2017)
ANYWAY, where do you stand on language at Eurovision? Do non-English language songs work particularly well in ballads and in non-pop songs? Let us know your thoughts in the comments box below.