On 11th February, after a five night musical marathon, Francesco Gabbani was confirmed winner of Sanremo 2017. Within a few hours both he and Italian broadcaster RAI confirmed that as winner he would accept the invitation bestowed on him to represent Italy at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Since then it would seem that it’s a foregone conclusion that with the help of his Gorilla friend ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ will win and take the Contest back to Italy next year. He has been the bookmaker’s favourite since he was chosen and now he’s as low as even money; the official video for the song now has a hundred billion million trillion gazillion views and…he has a gorilla! Wow! There are, however, some doubts in my mind that I feel need to be addressed. This is why Italy won’t win the Eurovision Song Contest.
Songs that aren’t written in English don’t win Eurovision. Not since Marija Šerifović in 2007 have we seen a song entirely in a different language take the top spot. This is in fact the only song entirely in another language to be crowned winner since the language rules were relaxed in 1999. That’s a hit rate of 1 in 18. I am, of course, ignoring last year when it comes to these stats. Jamala’s ‘1944’ was only partly in English but also very importantly in Crimean Tatar a language spoken by significantly fewer than even Serbian, never mind English. So we have seen in very recent memory that the language barrier can be overcome but what about this particular song? 1944 was a song about something very specific, it required explanation. It required press coverage. Which is exactly what it got. The media picked up the anti-Russia controversy in the song at exactly the right point for Ukraine. 1944 gained momentum in the final week that allowed them to leap to the top. Italy have the story, they can use the Youtube views & their take on cultural appropriation to their advantage in the lead up to the Contest. If it gets the coverage it deserves each country’s commentators (even Graham Norton) will grant the due time to properly introduce the song. Like 1944 it will need it. The Italian team already know this, why else would they have put subtitles on the official video? Without explanation the concept could be lost on the casual televoter. I’m glad they’ve resisted the temptation to concede any part of the song to English. However, they need press and TV commentators to convey this song’s meaning to the 41 countries that will decide its fate. I am not as concerned with the juries in this respect as it should be assumed these music professionals have done their homework. We also assumed they could rank 1-26 correctly last year so perhaps I’m being a bit generous.
This is one aspect of the song that needs some kind of explanation behind it. For all those of us who’ve followed Sanremo, who’ve read translations and watched lyric videos we know that the presence of Francesco’s simian friend is a reference to Desmond Morris’ ‘The Naked Ape’. It’s not going to be immediately apparent for the Saturday night viewer why this is happening and it could be construed as ‘gimmicky’. It’s been proven in the past having one very memorable image can help strike a chord in the mind of the viewer. It could well be a beard on a beautiful woman or it could be a fist bump with an animated stickman. But using these kind of unique visual performance tools need to have justification within the song. You can’t just have a man in a hamster wheel or light up costumes for the sake of it.
This all comes down to communication, if through the visuals used on stage they can explain the additional presence it’ll be fine but if not it might just look a bit weird. It has to be memorable for the right reason.
This really wasn’t that much of a factor until about a fortnight ago. Let’s just take a look at those closest to Francesco in the odds. Bulgaria is running second favourite before rehearsals start. This to me seems generous as it’s a decent song but surely not winner. The polished perfectionism of Sweden next, no doubt in my mind it’ll be finishing highly but’s not hitting the heights of ‘Euphoria’ or ‘Heroes’. Slightly further down the list you’ve got countries like Australia & Belgium, neither of whom are really 100% sure of qualification. There is one challenger, there is one metaphorical Iberian spanner in the Italian works. There is one singer and song both so unique & memorable that Italy could be stopped in it’s tracks. Step up Portugal.
Who’d have thought three or four months ago that someone could create a legitimate argument for Portugal winning. A country that has been competing for decades never even bothering the top five could actually steal the whole thing. In these next two weeks Italy needs the continent’s press to get behind their story after we all forget the Russian/Ukrainian nonsense. However, Salvador’s story is one that will surely be irresistible to the mainstream media outlets covering the Contest. If Portugal are savvy and can use these unfortunate circumstances to the best of their ability then Salvador could become THE story and Italy could take a back seat.
If the Portuguese were sending a standard pop song or a run of the mill ballad then this could possibly gain them a few places but thanks to their song being so unique it will likely be just as memorable as Francesco and the gorilla. Whilst Occidentali’s Karma will stand out for it’s quality it doesn’t stand out in terms of it’s genre. ‘Amar Pelos Dios’ does exactly that, it will tug at the heartstrings of millions who will no doubt make an emotional connection to both singer and song. If Portugal are lucky enough to be drawn second half then it’s feasible we’ll see it close the whole show and from there it could easily displace Gabbani as the favourite in the minds of the televoters.
When you put all this together, when you look at all possible variables for Italy’s chances they’re probably still going to win. Occidentali’s Karma has just got too much going in it’s favour. I think there is doubt, I don’t think it’s a forgone conclusion or that it’ll do a Rybak and just run away with it but in reality it is still incredibly likely to win. This would be no bad thing: upbeat song, charismatic winner and everyone gets to go to Italy next year. I have my doubts though…I wouldn’t mind Lisbon either.