Debrah Scarlett & Mørland, Eurovision Song Contest 2015.

Watch Out For Norway

How the Scandinavian nation’s recent Eurovision run might predict a victory in 2016.

On May 23rd, the incredibly charismatic (and a bit controversial) Måns Zelmerlöw made Eurovision history with the song “Heroes”, making this the second victory for Sweden in the 2010s, and the second time in the 21st Century that any country wins it twice. Zelmerlöw’s track, an instant summer-jam, produced by the team that brought us Fifth Harmony’s “Top Down”, defeated strong competition by Russia’s Polina Gagarina and Italy’s Il Volo (who actually took over the televote, making it the first time since the creation of the split voting system that the jury favorite prevails over the public favorite), and with the help of an impressive visual performance, solidified Sweden’s position as the European leader of Pop Music, and posed a serious threat to Ireland’s ESC record. However, their recent hegemony will not remain unchallenged, as we can argue that there’s another, very powerful pretender to the ESC throne, and it’s already on its way to the top: Norway.

After a disastrous last-place finish in 2012, the norwegian delegation decided that a breath of fresh air was needed, so they brought in the great Vivi Stenberg to be the new musical director, and with slight changes to the selection process (most notably on the quality control), the line-up for 2013's NRK Melodi Grand Prix was nothing short of spectacular, with artists ranging from rockabilly/blues (Vidar Busk), sunny latin-influenced dance pop (Adelén, Sirkus Eliassen) and Alexander Rybak-penned balladry (Annsofi) to Electro-rock superstars (Datarock), Industrial Music veterans (Gothminister) and even an A-M-A-Z-I-N-G Black Metal/Opera mash-up (co-written by Dimmu Borgir’s Silenoz). It was a unique event, and quite possibly, the most interesting national final of any country in the decade so far.

Any of these songs could go to the big stage at Malmö and do quite well, but the winner (by a huge margin, may i add) was “I Feed You My Love” by Margaret Berger. The track, produced by MachoPsycho is quite dark, with an underlying industrial flavour and a strong emphasis on the drum beat, very much in the musical vein of song co-writer Karin Park. The lyrics tell a kinky, almost sadistic love story (“You put a knife against my back, and you dare me to face the attack, you say for cowards there’s no reward, I have the future on my tongue”) and the chorus’ menacing synth line is a bit intimidating on first listen. It was definitely not a typical ESC song, nor it wanted to be, but it eventually captivated both the jury and the public, and with a powerful performance by the pop goddess on Saturday night, it landed a good 4th place, with 191 points. The message was received: Norway is back and it sounds like the future.

Margaret Berger takes the ESC stage in Malmö. eurovision.tv

The next year, and now with a more confident outlook, NRK starts the process again, with a new change; only fifteen songs are presented, and they participate in three smaller semi-finals held in consecutive days (7–9 March). In view of their previous success, going for the “quality over quantity” approach was another genius endeavour by Stenberg, as it was a massive time and resource-saving move for the broadcaster. The Melodi Grand Prix final took place on March 15th at the Oslo Spektrum, and despite a very musically diverse and fiercely contested superfinal, the ticket to Copenhagen went to Carl Espen, with “Silent Storm”.

Once again, the norwegians have gone for the darker side of the spectrum, and once again, they bring in a very unusual song. “Silent Storm” is a ballad, which is a common trope in Eurovision history, but it is also a triumph of subtlety and restraint. From the skeletal piano line at the beginning, to the subdued yet deeply overwrought vocal delivery, the song builds up slowly, and just enough to form a strong chorus. In a contest known for big, campy ballads with often ridiculous melodramatic gestures, the norwegian entry was just pure emotion, and despite the particularly soul-crushing lyrics, and the very simple live performance (which is a usual turn-off for ESC audiences), the song stood out on the Grand Final, and it took home the 8th place, with 88 points. It was Norway’s second top ten finish in a row, a return to form for the great Nordic nation.

Carl Espen at MGP semi-final.

With the year 2015, another wave of changes took place at the MGP. This time there was no semifinal, and the NRK reduced the selection to just 11 songs (but once again, the selection was flawless). The most important change, however, was the re-introduction of the Orchestra, an element that evokes classic Eurovision, and it accompanied every single entry in the final. From the inicial eleven, four were selected to the Gold Final, which included a song about pizza, a duet by a previous Eurovision winner and a very good pop track written by Joy and Linnea Deb, from the Zelmerlöw team.

This final had the closest finish in recent MGP history, but the eventual winner (by only 3,469 votes) was “A Monster Like Me” by Mørland and Debrah Scarlett. This song stood out from everything in the final and everything in any national selection this year. It is, once again, a ballad, and it tells a tragic break-up story, but it’s surrounded by an aura of gloom in both vocals and musical arrangement that is beyond explanation, and the lyrics hide a mystery that made it even more intriguing (what did he do that’s so awful?). However, it is in the musical structure in which the song has its greatest strength, and the orchestral section before the big final chorus is perhaps the most beautiful piece of music in this year’s edition. Norway had chosen the best song, and it reached another top ten result on Saturday night, coming 8th, with 102 points.

“A Monster Like Me” at the ESC Grand Final. Viena, Austria.

A possible win for Norway in 2016?

It is common knowledge among fans that Eurovision success comes in waves; before Azerbaijan finally won the contest in 2011, they became a top ten fixture from their very first ESC appearance (8th place in 2008, with Elnur & Samir’s “Day After Day”), so their victory in Düsseldorf was just the crowning achievement, a product of the broadcaster’s hard work. More recently, when the Danish delegation reached the top five, in 2010, and then again in Germany, it was just a matter of time for a winning act to come along, and in 2013, Emmelie de Forest conquered Europe.

Nevertheless, one does not just win a contest on dedication alone; the greatest strength of the Norwegian delegation is the NRK’s remarkable commitment to quality, which also makes Melodi Grand Prix perhaps the most interesting national selection of the season (despite Sweden’s Melodifestivalen being way more popular). Norway does not follow trends, either: In the year of the ballad, in which several countries, influenced by the quirks in the new voting system, decided to send the safest songs possible, Norway sent a very challenging kind of ballad, with complex lyrics and melodies, instead of the usual silly love song or peace anthem. The year before they had sent an act more suiting to an indie-folk audience than to Europe’s biggest commercial Pop night. One way or another, they always pull it off, and that is a testament to their brilliance.

But the question remains: Will they win in 2016? No one really knows. Eurovision is regularly subject to predictions by the press, the fans and even the betting houses, and still, there is always room for surprise and wonder. However, if we take the recent ESC history into account, Norway is definitely one to watch. You can be pretty sure they’re gonna send something weird and awesome, well produced and definitely well executed. And unless they mess up big-time, it’s gonna do well.