Eurovision comebacks

The 2016 Eurovision Song Contest will feature 43 participants, including several countries returning after taking one or more years off. We also know at least two former participant coming back next May. What are the records of countries and artists making a comeback to the Eurovision?

And so it begins. The first tranche of tickets has been released (and largely sold), most national finals are timetabled, and every few weeks we get a bit more info about preparations for Stockholm. In five months, in fact, we’ll have a new champion.

As well, with the EBU having released the official list of participating countries for Stockholm 2016, the countdown to Friends Arena kicks off properly. There are a few surprises: many who were in Vienna feared the Czech would disappear again if they didn’t qualify (they didn’t, but they still coming back). A bit of buzz about a reappearance by Turkey proved false (they ostensibly don’t like the televote/jury mélange since it meant starting with less than 48 points). And to be blunt, no one expected Luxembourg or Monaco or Morocco to return. And they’re not. But 43 is a fulsome Contest.

Happily, a few countries that have very much seemed at the heart of the world’s favourite song contest in the new millennium are coming back. Ukraine wasn’t a complete surprise: their break was necessitated by war. Many saw Sofia hosting some other contest as a pre-cursor to Bulgaria coming back for the proper one. Bosnia and Herzegovina is an interesting case: they have appeared on preliminary lists before, only to drop out in the absence of (non-broadcaster) money: this year they seem to have found the cash. The biggest surprise is perhaps Croatia making its return: however; a very welcome surprise.

This means the 2016 Contest will feature the full complement of ex-Yugoslav countries. In previous, all televote years, we could count on approximately all but one or two of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia to qualify from the semi-finals. As well, when there was an obvious best entry from the Yugosphere, it tended to do really well—top five or better—thanks to a surfeit of huit, dix, et douze points. Adding in Bulgaria, we once again have a full Balkan contingent.

Among the ex-Yugos we also have two artists confirmed, both with some previous Contest pedigree. Kaliopi will be singing for Macedonia (though as a Vlach, her mother tongue is, interestingly, a dialect of Romanian), as she did in 2012. And one third of Bosnia’s entry is Deen, whose gumby-like limbs and impressive vocals boogied its way into the top 10 in 2004. Kaliopi is one of the Yugosphere’s biggest stars: perhaps MKTV won’t hamper her efforts by letting her sing in English (much much more accessible than Macedonian) or at least Serbian (more accessible than Macedonian).

For 2016, in other words, there will be comebacks galore. These aren’t the first countries to return to the Eurovision after taking a break, nor are Deen and Kaliopi the first acts to have another kick at the can—or, rather, the trophy. But what can we ascertain from previous comebacks, national and and artist-wise?

To keep things simple, our focus will be (as usual) on the era since televoting became a significant component of the scoring system: 1997. And rather than look quantitatively (i.e. raw scores) we will focus on two qualitative elements of performance: qualifying from semi-finals and doing really well in the Grand Final (top 10). Let’s take a look.

Countries Coming Back

This year we have four countries returning after a gap of one or more years:

  • Ukraine (absent one year)
  • Bulgaria (two years)
  • Croatia (two years)
  • Bosnia and Hercegovina (three years)

Of these, the longest term participants are Croatia and Bosnia, who both made their débuts in 1993 in Millstreet. Our other returning countries are still relatively new to the Eurovision. Ukraine made its début in Riga in 2003; Bulgaria a year later in Istanbul in 2004.

Ukraine has the strongest record of the four: one win, runner up twice, and top ten another four times. Having participated twelve times, they have had a top 10 result 58% of the time. Of the other six entries, all have qualified from their semi-final when attempted. Prior to skipping Vienna, our Ukrainian friends have been one of the standout nations of the millennium: we almost always saw the yellow and blue on the left side of the leaderboard.

Back in the 1990s, most Eurovision fans expected Croatia to be the first “eastern” country to win the Contest. Most of the Yugoslavian entries that did well were from Croatia, including Riva’s 1989 winner Rock Me. In the 90s, nearly every Croatian entry finished in the top 10, though only two cracked the top 5. Qualifying from semi-finals wasn’t difficult for Croatia either…when there was a full complement of ex-Yugo constituent republics and a televote only voting system. However, it seems that every withdrawal from the Yugosphere led to one less ex-Yugo qualification from the semi-finals. After languishing in the semi-finals for two consecutive years, HRT withdrew.

Bosnia’s trajectory has been, in some ways, the opposite of Croatia’s. 1999 was the first time a Bosnian entry cracked the top 10, a feat not repeated until 2004 (more on that entry shortly). Since 2004 Bosnia qualified repeatedly for Grand Finals, often with a top 10 result. Interestingly, Bosnia’s also relied mostly on internal selections: Regina, Laka, Hari Mata Hari, and Dino Merlin, all made the top 10. In fact, in ever year they tried, Bosnia qualified from their semi-final, even with fewer ex-Yugos to support them. In terms of qualifications, Bosnia has the best record in the Yugosphere.

And then there’s Bulgaria. They have tried internal selections, national finals, juries only, televotes only, perhaps even black magic. Precisely one Bulgarian entry has made the Grand Final, where it did very well (more on that entry later). Otherwise, our Bulgarian friends have had little impact at the Eurovision. Sometimes undeservedly so. But they’re back—and every Contest is something of a reset button: everyone starts with zero, everyone earns every televote and jury vote from what they do this year.

So we have four countries, three of which have had some degree of success, with Bulgaria’s the outlier. But it’s worth remembering that Austria struggled to qualify out of the semi-finals until she who is called Conchita slew all before her in 2014. Stranger things have happened than Bulgarian winning the Eurovision. Let’s take a look at which countries have made memorable comebacks.

In the 1970s Malta made a few appearances in the Eurovision. Singing (mostly) in Maltese did not help what was arguably pedestrian schlager stand out to jury members. When Malta decided to return in 1991, few anticipated their sixth place for Could it Be by Georgina and Paul Giordimaina. Someone probably suggested sending something a bit more contemporary in English (since Malta was one of only three countries who have English as an official language) a go. Throughout the 90s Malta clocked up eight top 10 results; since 1997 they have finished second twice—including 2005, when many “Western” countries thought it impossible to do well in a massive televote with the support of a voting bloc.

Since 1997 we have had only a handful of countries who, upon making a re-appearance at the Contest did very well. In 2002 Latvia had been relegated, but the withdrawal of Portugal gave them a late spot in Tallinn. Marie N won with I Wanna, going from (near) relegation to victory.

However the comeback champion in the televoting era is Italy. After 13 years away, Italia came back in 2009, when Rafael Gualazzi’s Madness of Love finished second, thanks to a massive boost from the jury component of the scoring system. In fact, Italy has cracked the top 10 nearly every year since it’s return. Rather paradoxical, if 2015 had been decided by televote alone, Il Volo’s Grande Amore would have brought Italy its third victory.

Looking at countries’ comebacks is rather straightforward; the artist picture is a bit more muddled.

Artists

Prior to the televoting era we had a number of artists who did nearly as well, as well or better when they returned to the Contest. Artists like Anne-Marie David, Cliff Richard, Linda Martin, and Katja Ebstein achieved success in two (or more) different years; Ebstein finished in the top three all three times she appeared for West Germany. Johnny Logan, of course, won twice as artist (and once more as songwriter). With the introduction of televoting—where you need to convince thousands (or millions) that your entry is worth their support (versus few hundred jurors)—comebacks have had mixed results. In 1996 Estonia was represented by Maarja-Lis Ilus and Ivo Linna, who achieved an entirely respectable 6th place with Kaelakee Hääl. A year later, armed with an international recording contract, Maarja’s Keelatud Maa ended up 8th.

So far we have two confirmed acts for Stockholm, two of which are comebacks:

  • Kaliopi (Macedonia)
  • Deen (Bosnia)

That two of the smaller (in terms of population) participating countries recycle artists shouldn’t be surprising.

This will be Kaliopi’s second appearance in the live Contest. In 2012 she delivered Macedonia’s best equal best ever ranking when Crno I Belo finished in 12th place. In fact, 2016 might have been Kaliopi’s third appearance. In 1996 she was entered as the first ever Macedonia entry. However, with many more entries than could be accommodated in Dublin, a pre-selection eliminated several entries, including hers. Indications are that the song has already been recorded; it will be officially launched in February.

Deen’s In the Disco earned its spot in Istanbul through a national final; he boogied his way into 9th place in the 2004 Grand Final. This year he’s one third of Bosnia’s act; he’ll be joined by singer Dalal Midhat-Talakic and cellist Ana Rucner. In recent years he’s been based in Italy. Like Kaliopi, indications are the song is ready to go: it too will be launched in February.

Don’t be surprised if there are other returning artists this year. Poli Genova, who nearly qualified for the Grand Final with Na Inat in 2012 (and who hosted that other song contest that just happened) is rumoured to be the Bulgarian entry for Stockholm. We already see returning artists in the national finals of Iceland and Malta, so there’s quite a bit more scope for a bit more recycling.

Dino Merlin’s two entries for Bosnia did about as well as each other: 7th place in 1999 (Putnici); 6th place in 2011 (Love in Rewind). Charlotte Nilsson Perelli did a bit better in her comeback: she scraped out of her semi-final with Hero in 2008 (thanks to a jury save) and finished 18th. Quite the come-down for the 1999 winner. 1993’s champ Niamh Kavanagh surprised many when came back in 2010 with It’s For You. Unlike most Irish entries in the new millennium, she did qualify for the final, only to finish 23rd.

But in the televoting era, comebacks often have hard landings: the more often you come back, the less well you seem to do. Carola finished third in 1983, first in 1991 but only fifth in 2005. Chiara finished third in 1998, second in 2005, but only 18th in 2009. Fabrizio Faniello finished 9th in 2001 and 24th in 2006. Ich Troje were 7th in 2002, but did not qualify out of their semi-final in 2007. Iceland’s Selma took All Out of Luck to 2nd place in 1999, only to get stuck in the 2005 semi-final. Voda by Elitsa Todorova and Stoyan Yankoulov soared to fifth place in 2007: it remains the only Bulgarian entry to qualify from a semi-final and therefore their only top 10 result. When the duo came back with Samo Shampioni in 2013 and didn’t qualify, that seemed to be the final straw. The most glaring comeback failure would be Dana International, who won in 1998 with Diva, then failed to qualify from the semi-final in 2011 with Ding Dong.

Here are a few other retreads comebacks:

  • Cyprus’ Evridiki finished 11th twice (1992 Teriazume and 1994 Ime anthropos ki ego); for her 2007 comeback she DNQ with Comme çi comme ça
  • Cyprus’ Constantinos Christoforou 9th in 1996 (Mono yia mas), 6th as part of ONE in 2002 (GIMME) and 18th in 2005 (Ela ela)
  • Macedonia’s Karolina Goceva 2002 (Od nas zavisi) and 2007 (Mojo svet), 19th and 14th
  • Armenia’s Inga, who as half of Inga and Anush (Jan Jan) finished 10th in 2009 and 16th as part of Genealogy singing Face the Shadows in 2015.
  • Paula Selling and Ovi Romania Playing with Fire (third in 2010) and Miracle (12th in 2015) for Romania
  • Jedward in 2011 8th (Lipstick) and 2012 19th (Waterline) for Ireland
  • Feminem Bosnia 2005; 14th (Call Me) and ; Croatia 2010 DNQ (Lako je sve).

Karolina seems to have made someone at MKRTV rather unhappy: she wanted to sing in English, but her request was denied—when most other entries in surrounding years were sung in English.

Our comeback king in the televote era, however, has represented two different countries. As the débutant entry for Serbia and Montenegro in 2004, Lane Moje finished a close second and became a bigger hit than eventual winner from Ukraine. A few years later, Zeljko Joksomovic represented Serbia in 2012, bringing Nije Ljubav Stvar to third place—behind the juggernaut that was Euphoria and the kitsch charm of Party for Everybody.

Our comeback queen was one half of the hot favourites for the 2001 Contest. In the end Antique finished third with Die for You, by far Greece’s best ever result. Fast forward to 2005 and Helena Paparizou took My Number One to victory as a solo artist. However her attempt to represent her native Sweden in 2014 didn’t work out as well: Survivor managed to scrape into the Melodifestivalen final via Andra Chansen, finishing a respectable 4th place.

Conclusion

In the televote era, no act or country has managed to win the Eurovision in a comeback appearance. A few have done about as well in their second attempt; almost none have finished in the top 10 on a third attempt. In other words, comebacks seem to have diminishing returns after a second appearance. For artists and countries.

These data have one significant limitation: we did not include the plethora of artists who competed in previous (often multiple) national finals before finally making it to the Eurovision stage. In addition to Contest winners like the Olsen Brothers, Marie N, Conchita Wurst and Sertab Erener, there are the Eric Saades and Sanna Nielsens who, while they didn’t win the Contest still did very well.

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