How Armenia lost its Eurovision mojo – or the fickle appeal of singing in your own language

Nearly 20 years ago, a rule change allowed countries to compete in English. But this year has seen a huge rise in contestants singing in their native tongue.

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Don’t get me wrong, Armenia is great at a lot of things. Playing chess. Producing superstar business dynasties. Stuffing vine leaves. Squeezing pomegranates. All the skills. But nowhere is it more revered in popular culture (aside from all Kardashian content) than Eurovision.

Although it’s never won the thing, it has a cult status among Eurovision fans for always doing fairly well with memorable refrains, catchy beats and exotic concepts.

My personal favourite was 2010’s “Apricot Stone”, a complicated mid-tempo lament about childhood, sorrow and fruit. Key lyric: “I began to cry a lot/So she gave me apricot.” Which says all you need to know about Armenian parenting.

It’s been in the top ten seven times since its 2006 debut, and has reached the top five twice – its undisputed best banger “Qélé, Qélé” (which means, “Come on, Come on”) coming in at fourth place in 2008, winning the highest number of 12-point scores in the whole contest.

But this year, it seems to have lost its mojo. It failed to get through in the first semi-final (something that’s only happened to it once before, in 2011), and was competing with quite an uninspiring one-man ballad called “Qami” (“Wind”).

If a hirsute man in a glossy black six-pack tabard hollering about his “WIIIIIIND” on a darkly lit stage doesn’t quite do it for you, you’re not alone – because the singer Sevak Khanagyan, despite his popularity in Ukraine and Russia and fame as an X Factor Ukraine winner and coach on the Armenian Voice, didn’t take his country through.

When they were selecting their contestant in February, Armenians thought he’d be a shoo-in, according to William Lee Adams, editor of the wildly popular Eurovision news site Wiwibloggs. Adams was part of the primetime TV shows selecting the Armenian contestant because of his site’s enormous Armenian following.

“He is a huge star, and he was having his moment,” Adams tells me over the phone from Lisbon, where he’s covering the contest. “We did think he was going through, I think everyone did – because of Armenia’s historical strength. But yeah, the performance was just a bit too austere. At times I felt like he was singing in a mausoleum.”

Adams points out that this is the first time Armenia has entered a song that is 100 per cent in the national language – part of a pattern this year, which has seen the highest number of non-English language entries in five years.

It’s a reverse of a trend that began after 1999, when the European Broadcasting Union changed the rules to allow countries to choose any language (from 1977-98, it was compulsory to sing in your national language).

This year, 13 entries have chosen a non-English language. It’s a huge change. Last year, only four entries sang in a language other than English.

The shift could be because last year’s winner was a Portuguese ballad. “There tends to be a trend where the previous year’s winner will inspire the next year’s competing entries,” Adams notes. This could be the reason behind usually exuberant Armenia’s choice of a ballad too.

But this isn’t foolproof. Audiences have fickle reactions to national language songs. “Sometimes when you send a traditional song, a spiritual song in a non-English language, you struggle to get through,” says Adams.

In Armenia’s case, as I’m sure is similar with many of the smaller countries in the contest, the idea of singing in your national language (which it did partially in its second-ever entry, and a few years after that) is to showcase your culture to an international audience.

“The thing is to remember with Armenian songs is that Armenian Eurovision is all about connecting the diaspora as much as it is about winning,” says Adams, who has been covering the contest closely since 2009. “For them, it’s as much about what they're telling Armenians as what they’re telling the world.” Although the population of Armenia itself is less than three million, when the diaspora is included, the population is estimated to be closer to 10 million.

Indeed, Armenia’s 2015 entry was sung by a supergroup called Genealogy of Armenian singers from across the diaspora (including France, Ethiopia, Japan and Australia).

As countries continue to ditch English, it will be worth watching how the results are affected – and working out not only what this means for the perfect Eurovision song formula, but for Britain’s ever-declining global status.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.