“I figured if I’m not going to win, come in last. Everyone remembers who came in first and last. Nobody remembers the middle people. So if you can’t win it, be the worst.”
– Shane Nickerson, “Alhambra,” Tabletop
No country will brag more about its Eurovision history than Norway. Obviously, Italy can boast that without the Sanremo Music Festival, Eurovision wouldn’t exist. Sure, Ireland has notched the most wins and has the only artist to win the Song Contest three times. Of course, Sweden’s Melodifestivalen has influenced the way the Song Contest is now structured. But Norway has finished last eleven times, the most out of any participating country, and they are proud of that.
Lest you think I am kidding around, when Norway hosted Eurovision in 2010, co-host Nadia Hasnaoui casually mentioned that fact during the first semifinal. In the second semifinal, she and Erik Solbakken paid tribute to all the songs that finished towards the bottom of the table. Solbakken closed the clip package by saying, “Well obviously, somebody has to end up last, but here in Norway, we celebrate them!”
I appreciate that sentiment, so I decided to mine all of Norway’s last place finishes to see if I could find some diamonds in the rough. It’s easy to judge a song in isolation, so to put them into context, I compared them to the songs that won each year to get a sense of what juries and, later, the public were responding to each time.
1963: Anita Thallaug- “Solhverv”
“Solhverv” is a lovely ballad and Anita sings it well. It’s all very nice. The only problem I have with “Solhverv” is that it meanders through its sub-3:00 running time. There’s no melody that really stands out: it’s all lush strings and pleasant vocals with no hooks. Compare it to the winning song, Grethe & Jørgen Ingmann’s “Dansevise,” and you should see what I mean. I can’t speak Danish, but I can easily hum along with “Dansevise.” I can’t do that with “Solhverv.”
To be fair, of the 16 songs that competed in 1963, a quarter of them received nul points from the juries, so it’s not like “Solhverv” was alone in last place. But it is a good example of a song that languishes merely because it doesn’t make a strong enough impression.
1969: Kirsti Sparboe – “Oj, oj, oj, så glad jeg skal bli”
I am of two minds about “Oj, oj, oj, så glad jeg skal bli.” On the one hand, I adore the vibrant, bouncy orchestration. I also think Kirsti’s Norwegian-flag inspired outfit is fabulous. And there are some cool side journeys plotted out in the arrangement. But the constant “oj, oj, oj” grates on me so much that I struggle to find joy when listening to the song.
Comparing it to what won in 1969…. Well, what didn’t win in 1969? That was the year four countries tied for first and shared the trophy. But I am going with Lulu’s “Boom-Bang-a-Bang” because it does what Kirsti was doing with “Oj, oj, oj, så glad jeg skal bli,” only so much better. Both songs are about how attracted the singers are with the object of their affection. While Kirsti is posh and giddy, Lulu is coy and playful. Even if her facial expressions are a bit hammy, Lulu’s vocals are an effervescent expression of joy. Kirsti sounds like she’s singing a show tune, while Lulu sounds like she’s singing a pop song. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s one that leaves a visceral impression.
1974: Anne-Karine Strøm & Bendik Singers- “The First Day of Love”
I’ve always had a soft spot for “The First Day of Love.” It’s a fun song with an entertaining 1970s-era orchestration. Anne-Karine sings it well and (spoiler alert) shows only the merest of glimpses into the hamminess that would hurt her later Eurovision effort. It’s classy but, from the singing to the costuming, it is also a bit bland. It’s by no means a disaster, but it doesn’t have the oomph to stand out in what was a strong competition.
Now, very little measures up to 1974’s winner, “Waterloo.” However, the gulf between ABBA’s song and “The First Day of Love” is particularly wide. Both songs are very much of their time, but “Waterloo” set a template for pop music in the 1970s while “The First Day of Love” follows a pre-existing template. No contest here.
1976: Anne-Karine Strøm – “Mata Hari”
Anne-Karine Strøm returned to Eurovision two years after “The First Day of Love” with the more, ahem, memorable entry “Mata Hari.” It’s a song that Eurovision flop collectors like me treasure, because there is so much that doesn’t work that it ends up working.
Anne-Karine’s costume is very glam, but it’s made garish by the odd headband and the tacky sunglasses. Moreover, she is stuck holding the sunglasses whenever she takes them off, which somehow hinders her movement. She sings “Mata Hari” with her eyes open wide and she never seems to blink.
The United Kingdom won in 1976 with “Save Your Kisses for Me,” one of the most memorable Eurovision winners. To this day, it’s an utterly adorable song. Brotherhood of Man are not the flashiest singing group you ever saw, but their performance is playful while still being professional. The choreography is simple yet memorable, and it elevates the group’s performance even more. As with 1974, Anne-Karine never stood a chance.
1978: Jahn Teigen – “Mil etter mil”
“Mil etter mil” is another notable Norwegian flop entry. Jahn is wearing tacky sunglasses, because apparently Norway didn’t learn anything from “Mata Hari.” He is also wearing suspenders, which he constantly pulls on as the song goes along. This seems more like a nervous tick than a performance choice.
“Mil etter mil” is a pretty catchy song, and I can appreciate its subtlety in the recorded version. It goes off the rails live because Jahn suddenly decides to sing in a faux operatic voice. He starts off hammy and somehow finds new levels of emoting on top of that. The random big yelping note seems to exist only to show up camp highlight reels. Granted, he was very theatrical in the Melodi Grand Prix final too, so I think part of the problem is that he felt the need to overcompensate for the full orchestra arrangement. But at least his stage outfit was good at Melodi Grand Prix.
Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta won Eurovision that year with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” The song is a lot like “Save Your Kisses for Me” in its simplicity. Izhar and the Alphabeta singers are doing some straightforward choreography while performing their disco-inflected dance pop song. While “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” sounds quite dated to me now, I love how well it worked with an orchestra. “Mil etter mil” was hampered by the orchestra, and Jahn’s attempts to make it work only made it suffer.
1981: Finn Kalvik – “Aldri i livet”
Is it me or does Norway have the knack to finish last in years that the United Kingdom delivers iconic performances? I’ve never particularly cared for “Making Your Mind Up” as a song, but I can’t deny that Bucks Fizz delivers a visually pleasing performance. The outfits are rad, the costume change is clever (though slightly creepy when seen through a modern lens), and the dance moves are fun in their intricacy. That their vocals suffer a bit is almost immaterial because the whole package is bright and fun.
Meanwhile, I spent a good minute of Finn’s performance trying to figure out why he was wearing a powder blue hockey jersey with a white scarf. What a weird costume choice. Finn’s singing style is folksy, which suits the song itself. However, he is saddled with pop backing singers. Finn’s clipped vocals clash with the more elongated vocal melodies behind him, which makes the chorus sound clattered. “Aldri i livet” would have sounded better with just Finn and slightly less strings. Lots of Eurovision fans still argue for bringing back the live orchestra, but in this case, I would argue that the live orchestra actually does Finn’s song a disservice.
1990: Ketil Stokkan – “Brandenburger Tor”
The 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb was the first one held after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Optimism about the future of Europe was at a high point and Ketil Stokkan leaned into that feeling with “Brandenburger Tor.”
Ketil and his backing singers sing “Brandenburger Tor” 19 times in their song, which means 18% of the song’s lyrics are “Brandenburger Tor.” It’s not as annoying to me as “oj, oj, oj,” but it does make me wish Ketil pushed himself as a lyricist a bit more.
The song’s arrangement screams late ‘80s, from its clunky synths to its strident guitar licks. Looking past that, though, it’s a pretty good tune with some cool chord changes, especially in the bridge. I even like the slightly cheesy, vaguely Christmassy flourishes at the end. Ketil has a pleasant, slightly nasal vocal tone, and he sings “Brandenburger Tor” well.
The real problem Norway had in 1990, though, was that Italy also tapped into the optimism of a united Europe with “Insieme: 1992.” It’s pretty much the same song, except for two key differences. One: Toto Cutugno works the English phrase “unite, unite, Europe” into the song, which conveys the message of his song succinctly. Two: that message looks more to the future than “Brandenburger Tor.” Ketil’s song is marking what happened in the recent past, while Toto’s song is about what is to come.
Granted, that idealism would soon give way to the horrific civil war that engulfed 1990’s host nation Yugoslavia. Irony is frequently cruel.
1997: Tor Endresen – “San Francisco”
Once again, Norway finished last in a year when the United Kingdom won. Katrina and the Waves’ “Love Shine a Light” is such a classic Eurovision entry that it became the centerpiece of the Eurovision: Europe Shine a Light show that replaced the COVID-19-canceled 2020 competition. There is something to be said for a song that can bring everyone together during a global pandemic.
Tor Endresen’s “San Francisco,” like “Brandenburger Tor,” looks backward to find optimism going forward. It’s a list song about good things that happened in the late 1960s in the United States: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Woodstock, the Beach Boys, the moon landing. That the song seems to say that all of this happened in San Francisco makes me feel better when people on American quiz shows screw up European history. “San Francisco” also has the embarrassing, anachronistic lyric “ingen gevær, no war, no disco,” which unintentionally gives the song an unfortunate undertone.
The arrangement for “San Francisco” is really, really hokey, particularly with the brass flourishes. About all it has going for it is Tor Endresen’s vocal tone. I really like him as a singer and a performer, but unfortunately, his song sounds like something you would hear on a cruise ship revue show.
2001: Haldor Lægreid – “On My Own”
I have a lot of affection for the 2001 Song Contest. It was the first Eurovision CD I owned, and it features some really fun entries. “On My Own” is not one of them. Instead, it features the most basic template for pop ballad writing. No cliché was left unused, from the orchestration to the vocal arrangement to the painful lyrics. “The winding road that led me there was life?” *gag*
Haldor gives such a measured and deliberate performance that I think he is almost robotic. At no point do I feel like he really has struggled on the road of life because his vocal is so unemotional. That said, while I don’t think he quite nails the big notes at the end, I’m happy to hear them because he is at least showing some flair and some range that was missing during the rest of the song.
While I will admit the 2001 winner “Everybody” is a bit cheesy, I also will admit it brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. Tanel Padar and Dave Benton bring warmth and camaraderie to their performance, and the backing vocalists/dancers 2XL add to the party atmosphere Estonia was creating. “Everybody” feels loose and rambunctious, with an irresistible playfulness that stands out live and on the official Eurovision CD. Their joie de vivre makes Haldor’s performance all the more icy.
2004: Knut Anders Sørum – “High”
I firmly believe that Ruslana’s “Wild Dances” is the most uncompromisingly odd song to ever take home the Eurovision trophy. (Yes, I do realize that “Hard Rock Hallelujah” is also a Song Contest winner.) “Wild Dance” lives up to its title with an almost uncontrolled energy. There is so much shouting and jumping and flailing and hair-tossing. It is all over the place.
Yet I can’t help but admire its gusto. I still don’t quite get why it beat out Željko Joksimović’s “Lane Moje” or Sakis Rouvas’ “Shake It,” but I at least understand why people would respond to it. “Wild Dances” is strangely compelling.
“High” is also strangely compelling, but for very different reasons. Poor Knut Anders sounds a bit like a stalker when he sings lyrics like “I have tried every way to get to the heart of your soul” and “I want to heal every wound in you.” He doesn’t help his cause by giving a blank-eyed, stiff performance. He seems to have choreography, but he doesn’t so much hit his marks as he wafts into them. I feel like he is concentrating so hard to do his moves that he can’t really emote when he sings. “High” demands someone with charm, charisma, and confidence to make it sound… well, less creepy.
2012: Tooji – “Stay”
Is it me or does Norway have the knack to finish last in years that Sweden delivers iconic performances? “Euphoria” is one of the few Song Contest winners that seems to bring Eurovision’s disparate fan bases together in near unison. From Loreen’s understatedly emotional vocal to the “makes sense in context” dancing to the really gorgeous lighting, “Euphoria” is deservedly beloved. I’ll be honest, I still get chills when backing dancer Ausben Jordan shows up as Loreen brings her song home. It’s really wonderful, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
“Euphoria” was co-written by Peter Boström, who found himself at both the top and the bottom of the table at the 2012 Song Contest. Tooji’s “Stay” is one of my favorite Eurovision flops, up there with Twin-Twin’s 2014 effort “Moustache.” (I could probably write 1,000 words on that one.) The song is really, really good, and the opening image of Tooji with his hood up approaching the camera through all the stage fog is just sexy as hell.
But the singing was rough. (Although not as rough as it was in the semifinal.) Tooji could not vocally keep up with what the rest of his body was physically doing. Thus, the more intricate the dancing became, the more he lost control of his voice. On top of that, his performance was very smiley when it should have been sultry. “Stay” is one horny song, but Norway’s staging neuters its passion. Dancing is not a metaphor for sex here, it’s just dancing.
So What Have We Learned?
Why does Norway find itself in the bottom so often? Part of it is bad luck: they frequently flopped in years that Eurovision was either won by a transcendent winner or by a song that presented the same ideas Norway had, but better. The songs just didn’t measure up to the competition. They also often made some key staging mistakes that sealed their own fates. In particular, I chalk up their bad run in the 1970s and the early 1980s to a lack of vision and seemingly a lack of resources.
In short, they have had a knack for just messing it up.
To be fair, though, Norway has only failed to qualify for the Grand Final three times since the semifinal system was introduced in 2004. They’ve notched top 10 finishes eight times in that span as well. They have an iconic winner of their own with Alexander Rybak’s “Fairytale.” And they have contributed some of the more interesting and innovative entries at Eurovision in the past decade. Norway has done quite all right for itself lately.
The real joy of going through all of these entries is gaining a new perspective on songs that are often taken out of context in clip packages. Even if I didn’t really discover any lost gems, I still appreciate the journey the songs took me on.