The Eurovision Song Contest is one of the few remaining examples of event TV – and UK audiences lap it up. With 8.9 million viewers in 2022, Britain formed the largest audience of all Eurovision markets. And this time around, there’s even a bit of hope for those cheering on the home talent.
Although it’s been 26 years since the UK’s last victory, courtesy of Katrina and The Waves in 1997, Sam Ryder’s Space Man marked a return to the runners-up podium last year. The UK has now chalked up a record 16 second-place finishes. But what would it take to go one better and win the whole thing?
In the late 1940s, philosopher Theodor Adorno suggested that popular music was formulaic. Each song, he argued, was the same length, had the same structure and expressed the same lyrical sentiments.
As curmudgeonly as this might sound (and keeping in mind that he died in 1969, before the likes of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa really tore up the pop rule book), his point still rings true. And it’s certainly applicable when it comes to successful Eurovision entries.
For a start, Eurovision songs really are the same length, given the rule that makes the maximum duration three minutes. But there are also notable thematic and structural similarities between songs that fare well in the contest.
Of the last 20 winning songs, 17 have been sung in English, 17 are about relationships, 13 have used the word “love”, 18 have at least one direct address (“I” to “you”) and all 20 have repeated choruses. And it’s this last element that’s the non-negotiable.
If, as sociologist Brian Longhurst says, “the most successful, best music is identified with the most often repeated”, this counts double when it comes to Eurovision. Viewers of the live final only get the one listen and therefore need to bond with a song immediately if they’re to remember it when it comes to the voting.
Psychologist Daniel Levitin says that two of the main elements to making a song memorable are rhyme and cliches. Although the definition of cliche is ultimately subjective (a cliche to me, for example, may be new and exciting to my 12-year-old), research from 2012 and 2009 has done a decent job in outlining the most-used words and phrases in lyrics.
To win Eurovision, then: sing in first-person, direct English about a relationship, using loads of rhymes and cliches and make sure you repeat the chorus.
Rating the UK's 2023 Eurovision chances
What chance, then, of UK entry Mae Muller’s I Wrote a Song winning in Liverpool this year?
With the song currently on 3.6 stars based on 12,000 ratings on the Eurovision World website and a somewhat sniffy three-star review in the Guardian, early indicators aren’t great. But when compared with previous champs, things become a little rosier.
I Wrote a Song is an “I” to “you” song. It’s about a relationship. It’s got a catchy chorus. It’s extremely repetitive both lyrically – with only 29% unique words out of its 308 total (the average from the last 20 winners is 36%) – and musically, with a looped, four-chord structure throughout.
I Wrote a Song sits at about an eight or a nine on the cliche-ometer, relying as it does on common phrases like “you did me wrong”, “cried at home” and “spent the night alone”. And it uses a succession of basic, “perfect” rhymes, such as Benz/friends, song/wrong, home/alone.
It’s also accessible to a mass audience, with its subjects ending a relationship, feeling down about it and eventually finding the courage to move on, among the most common shared human experiences. Muller has said: “I wrote the song … when I was going through a hard time and wanted to feel empowered about relationships.”
Ultimately, Muller’s performance on the night will have a big role in determining how the UK fares.
If a singer is suitably captivating and the song is easy enough to learn, there is an opportunity to get the audience singing along on the night. This interaction leads to more of a connection, making the song more memorable, which may eventually translate into points.
Muller succeeded in getting the crowd singing along to the chorus at LIVE @ Eurovision in Concert in Amsterdam on April 15 (albeit with some coaxing). If she manages to do that in Liverpool, there may yet be a UK winner in the 21st century.