Ukraine’s Vidbir: Five Lessons For Other Countries

Ukraine has won Eurovision three times in the last two decades. No other selection process – not even Sweden’s famed Melodifestivalen – has proven so successful during those years. Between 2003 and 2022, only Italy has averaged a higher final placing than Ukraine (7.1 v. 8.4), while only Sweden has tallied more overall points (3,570 v. 3,380), but neither has won three times!

Additionally, Vidbir (“Selection” in English) and the Ukrainian national finals that proceeded it are the only that exist to have never produced a non-qualifying entry to a Eurovision Grand Final (ignoring Serbia & Montenegro’s one and only Semi Final entry).

Ironically, Ukraine’s worst results came when they hosted Eurovision. GreenJolly only managed 19th place in 2005 and O.Torvald were dangerously close to the bottom of the scoreboard in 2017, garnering only 36 points – good enough to place 24th.

So, what lessons can Ukraine’s success teach those countries who are struggling to do well at the Eurovision Song Contest?

Lesson 1: Don’t shy away from your history

Ukraine’s history has shaped the nation it is today. This is a theme that Ukraine has shown the world repeatedly at Eurovision.

Amid massive political corruption, voter intimidation, and electoral fraud, many Ukrainians took to the streets in protest from November 2004 until January 2005 in what became known as the Orange Revolution.

In an attempt to find the perfect song to represent Ukraine on home soil, broadcaster Suspilne organized Evrobachennya 2005 – Natsionalyni vidbir as its national final with fifteen (yes, 15) Semi Finals!

GreenJolly won the televote in the Grand Final (and thus the competition) with the hip-hop song “Razom nas bahato” (Together we are many). The song made specific references to presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, and had the chorus “Together we are many, we cannot be defeated.” Unsurprisingly, the song went on to become the unofficial anthem of the Orange Revolution. Despite the loud cheers in the arena, the lyrics were lost on the European-wide viewers, who placed it 19th overall at Eurovision in Kiev.

The lyrics of Jamala’s heartfelt power ballad “1944” are set in the backdrop of World War II. In May 1944 under Stalin’s orders, at least 191,000 Crimean Tatars were deported from Crimea in an attempt at ethic cleansing and cultural genocide. Jamala sings “Where is your mind? Humanity cries. You think you are gods,” in reference to the Soviet high command that carried out Stalin’s orders.

Alyosha’s 2010 entry “Sweet People” also delves into Ukraine’s Soviet past. The song looks critically at environmental issues. She was born just two weeks after the Chernobyl disaster affected Soviet Ukraine in 1986. Alyosha filmed a special video for “Sweet People” in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and it easy to visualize Chernobyl in her lyrics like, “Tell me what is happening? For all that we’ve built tumbles and is gone.”

Vidbir 2023 is also ripe with political entries like those by Krutь who will sing about a baby at wartime and Moisei whose song deals with the mental angush he experienced during air raids in a bomb shelter.

Lesson 2: Expect the unexpected

If one were asked to summarize what kind of performances each country sends to Eurovision, Ukraine just might be the hardest country to define. From one year to the next, we have seen vastly different genres, artists, costumes, and stagings.

For instance, rap music at Eurovision has never gone over very well. Until this year, a song with rap had never won. Kalush Orchestra presented “Stefania” – an alternative hip hop and folk song, featuring rap – at the Contest in Turin this May. A Ukrainian artist hadn’t tried rap since 2005 and since then, Ukraine has sent everything from pop to ballads to rock.

Mika Newton sent one of Ukraine’s more memorable stagings in 2011. I would venture a guess that most fans remember the projected sand drawings by Kseniya Simonova, rather than the lyrics to “Angel”. Simonova won Ukraine’s Got Talent 2009 by impressing the judges with her sand art, and Newton used Simonova’s creative gift to tell a story on stage during her performance. The sand showed a little girl that lost her mom, only for an angel to come and save her. This creative staging was thought up after the national final, as her performance at Evrobachennya 2011 – Natsionalyni vidbir looked very different:

In 2018, Ukraine sent what is perhaps the antithesis of Mika Newton’s performance. Mélovin won Vidbir 2018 and brought his vampire accoutrements and burning piano to Eurovision in Lisbon. Flames leapt from the stage throughout the performance after Mélovin emerged from his piano, while the stairs leading up to Mélovin’s piano were set ablaze near the end of the song.

There is a joke among some Eurofans that goes something like this: “I say Ukraine at Eurovision, you say … HAMSTER WHEEL!” Of the hundreds of props brought on stage over the years at Eurovision, the hamster wheel remains one of the most unique and eyebrow raising of them all!

Ukraine has used the hamster wheel twice, something parodied in the 2016 Interval Act by Petra Mede and Måns Zelmerlöw, as well as in the 2020 film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. At the Moscow 2009 Contest, Svetlana Loboda’s staging included three giant cogs that had been altered to have spinning interiors. While neither Svetlana nor her dancers ran in circles inside the cogs, they sure did look like exercise equipment for three giant rodents.

Just five years later in 2014 Mariya Yaremchuk wasn’t leaving anything to interpretation when her only prop on stage was one gigantic hamster wheel. This time, the dancer did use the wheel as it was intended, and spent part of the performance running inside of it! The staging came out of nowhere, after a very different stage performance at the national final:

Lesson 3: Taking risks can work

For this lesson, Verka Serduchka’s 2007 “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” immediately comes to mind. In the most ‘eurovisiony’ of all Eurovision performances, Ukraine threw the kitchen sink at this performance – and it worked marvelously!

Made up gibberish words, counting in German, sequins, sparkles, fireworks, disco balls, smacks on the bum, and a performer in drag – what else could Verka have added to this performance in the three minutes she had to work with? On paper, this should have been thrown in the trash heap of history. Yet when one adds Verka’s infectious good attitude to the catchy ‘earworm’ that “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” is, and the result is one of the biggest Eurovision songs that never actually won the whole thing!

While the quality of this video isn’t great, it’s clear that Ukraine knew exactly what it was sending to Eurovision. The national final performance was simply ‘elevated’ for the Eurovision stage two months later:

Next, I have to admit that when Go_A won Vidbir 2020, I was baffled. I couldn’t stand “Solovey,” and then when they were internally selected to represent Ukraine at Rotterdam in 2021, “Shum” sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me. It wasn’t until I saw the full performance on TV during the Semi Finals that I finally got it. Formed in 2012, Go_A entered Vidbir 2020 with the electro-folksy “Solovey” and easily won both the televote and jury.

Their look and sound was something that Ukraine had never sent to Eurovision before, and it’s hard to compare them to any other act in Eurovision’s nearly 70-year history. While we’ll never know how “Solovey” would have done in 2020, watching Kateryna get emotional during the televote is one of the lasting images in my mind from the 2021 contest. “Shum” got 267 points from the public, good enough for second best.

Lesson 4: Never give up!

Good things come to those who wait! Between 2003 and 2022, the Ukrainian selections have seen a total of 316 songs compete. From this list, 27 artists have tried in two different years (Vidbir 2023 will add three more artists to this list. See below.). Five of them won on their second try and represented Ukraine at Eurovision: Ani Lorak (2005, 2008), Zlata Ognevich (2011, 2013), Mariya Yaremchuk (2013, 2014), Jamala (2011, 2016), and Mélovin (2017, 2018). At Eurovision, these five artists achieved one win, one second place, one third place, a Top 10, and a Top 20 result!

Additionally, four artists have participated in national finals on three occasions: Anastasia Prikhodko (2009, 2011, 2016), Illaria (2014, 2017, 2018), Laud (2018, 2019, 2022), and Marietta (2012-2014). None has won the national final.

Lastly, Eduard Romanyuta has to be the king of Ukrainian selections, having participated on four occasions (2009, 2011-2013)! After a non-qualification in 2009, he returned in 2011 and got 7th place with “Berega”. He came back with a 5th place finish the next year with “I’ll Never Let Go”. Eduard’s final participation was in 2013, and was his best result. He took 3rd place with his pop song “Get Real With My Heart”. While he hasn’t competed in a Ukrainian final since, he did try out for – and won – O Melodie Pentru Europa 2015! He thus got to the Eurovision stage for Moldova, but failed to make the Grand Final.

This year, there are seven artists debuting, while three are back with their second entries to win Vidbir 2023. Interestingly, all three last participated in 2020: Krutь (“99”) in 3rd place, Tvorchi (“Bonfire”) in 4th place, and Jerry Heil (“Vegan”) who came in 6th (last) place.

Lesson 5: Drama isn’t always a bad thing

Almost every year that Ukraine has held a national final there have been allegations of wrongdoing, vote tampering, political accusations, or some other form of controversy. These are issues that might make another country to take a pause, or change the way it chooses its entry. Yet Ukraine has managed to stay in Eurovision all these years, and obtain some amazing results in the end! Here is a quick summary of what has transpired over the years, and the result at each Eurovision:

2005

19th place

Ani Lorak’s producer said “the political situation won instead of music”, referring to the four final wildcards (one of them being GreenJolly) that were added just a week before the show by Ukraine’s government. Ani Lorak finished in second place in her Natsionalyni vidbir debut, just behind GreenJolly.
2006

7th place

Accusations of bias were directed at the broadcaster’s decision to allow an established act (specifically Tina Karol) to compete against amateur singers. After the final, “I Am Your Queen” had to be retitled and revamped as “Show Me Your Love” for Eurovision. A new arrangement with new lyrics were necessary because the original sounded too much like 2005’s Eurovision winner “My Number One” by Helena Paparizou.
2007

2nd place

Verka Serduchka’s drag performance was fiercely criticized within Ukraine by several media and politicians of different parties, as well as the nonsensical lyrics “Lasha Tumbai” sounding very similar to “Russia, Goodbye”. It should be noted here that since the Ukraine-Russia War began, Verka no longer sings the song with the lyrics “Lasha Tumbai”, in favor of “Russia, Goodbye”.
2009

12th place

Anastasia Prikhodko and her manager claimed that neither the broadcaster nor the jury had used trustworthy methods to choose the finalists from the Semi Final – a controversy made worse when jury member Roman Nedzelskyi admitted that they did not select Prikhodko for the final as a Russian version of her song “Za tebe znov” had already been performed
2010

10th place

Allegations were made that Alyosha’s winning song “To Be Free” was plagiarized and had been released two years earlier. The broadcaster’s investigation led to the replacement entry “Sweet People” after the EBBU extended the deadline for Ukraine’s submission.
2011

4th place

Allegations were brought forward that multiple votes could be entered from a single phone number, and thus violating the voting rules. Broadcaster NTU agreed to a new final with the Top 3, but Jamala (Ukraine 2016) and Zlata Ognevich (Ukraine 2013) both declined, claiming the votes would once again be rigged in Mika Newton’s favor.
2014

6th place

More vote tampering allegations. Nothing was proven in the end, and Natsionalyni vidbir winner Maria Yaremchuk went on to represent Ukraine in Copenhagen.
2016

1st place

More allegations against the Ukrainian entry, this time about the lyrics of “1944” being political in nature, and thus violating the EBU’s rule that “no lyrics, speeches, gestures of political or similar nature shall be permitted [at Eurovision].” Jamala maintained that the song was about her grandmother’s experience growing up in Crimea and that the song was not meant to be a political dig at Russia (who had annexed Crimea two years prior). In the end, the EBU agreed and “1944” was allowed to compete (and win) with no changes to the original lyrics.
2019

DNP

Ukraine was forced to withdraw from Eurovision entirely after a scandal from Vidbir grew out of control. During the final, a random announcement alerted viewers to the fact that the broadcaster had the right to change the jury or televote results after the final. Maruv was crowned the winner at the end of Vidbir 2019. She was asked to sign a contract forbidding her to perform in Russia and comply with other clauses that, if broken, would see her fined approximately €67,000. When she refused to sign, runners up Jazz announced they would refuse to represent Ukraine, and then third-place finisher Kazka did the same. Shortly after, UA:PBC announced that Ukraine would not send a delegation to Tel Aviv for Eurovision and withdrew from the Contest.
2022

1st place

During the live show, the points from the voting results were displayed incorrectly on the scoreboard. This resulted in the host reading the results from a piece of paper. Televote winners Kalush Orchestra accused the broadcaster of falsifying the results, and they would contest the result in court. Meanwhile other allegations emerged after Vidbir that winner Alina Pash had performed in Russian-occupied Crimea, having entered via Russia – something that would disqualify her from winning Vidbir, and thus representing Ukraine at Eurovision in Turin. Alina could not prove that she entered Crimea from Ukraine and was later disqualified from Vidbir, allowing Kalush Orchestra (as televote winners) to represent Ukraine instead.

 

Will there be drama resulting from Vidbir 2023? We’ll find out soon! Follow along with our live blog starting at 16:00 CET on Saturday! You can also let us know who you think will win below in the comments or at our socials @escbubble!

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