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Denmark's bumpy ride

Courtney TenzMay 8, 2014

The 2014 Eurovision host, Denmark, has had a bumpy ride through the contest's past, but has been on an up-swing in recent years. In the international pop scene, it still lags behind some of its Scandinavian neighbors.

Fans with Danish flags cheering on Emmelie de Forest
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

At the Eurovision Song Contest, quirks and costumes have a way of trumping musicality. The funky hairdos, revealing costumes and embarrassing dance moves suggest many contestants know that focusing on voice lessons may not be the path to the most votes.

Nonetheless, the ESC, held each spring, often predicts the hits broadcast all around the continent in the summer, when people are lounging outside, drinks in hand. As a writer for the "New Yorker" magazine wrote after attending the 2010 awards show in Norway, the event is best served with a healthy dose of alcohol.

Beneath the comical gimmicks and displaced patriotism - viewers are prevented from voting for their home countries' entries - are a number of authentic musical talents. Last year's winner, Emmelie de Forest of Denmark, won audience members over with her rousing delivery of "Only Teardrops" with no unusual get-up necessary.

Reason for optimism

This year, a catchy ballad may just surpass goofy accordion antics in the finale. At least, that's what many Danes seem to believe as they prepare to host the competition in May. In Basim, the young Moroccan-born singer chosen to fly the Dannebrog flag with his "Cliché Love Song," Denmark has found a soulful but playful candidate to vie for the victor's title, which would be the nation's fourth.

ESC contestant Conchita Wurst in a bath of roses
2014 ESC competitor Conchita Wurst turns heads with a gender-bending lookImage: ORF/Thomas Ramstorfer

The Danes have grounds for optimism, given their good track record in recent Eurovision history. Since the introduction of the semi-finals round in 2004, the country has qualified for the finale nine times. That beats the poor reception Denmark faced in the 1990s, when bad results removed them from participation twice. The country's first win came in 1963 with "Dansevise," performed by Grethe & Jorgen Ingmann, but a last place finish in 1966 prompted Denmark to bow out of the contest for over a decade.

Much has changed since the ESC's early days - including Denmark's role in the music industry. Annual festivals like the rock-heavy Roskilde Festival and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival have made the country a must-stop by traveling performers and fans.

Scandinavians behind the scenes

With a strong emphasis on language and music education, Denmark has also become a fertile breeding ground for musicians. The state-run Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen accepts only several hundred students at a time with the goal of producing some of the world's most qualified musicians in both classical and contemporary sounds.

Pop songwriters and producers from the country are responsible for a number of the hits heard on the radio not only in Europe but also in the US and the UK. After her appearance on the David Letterman show in 2010, Oh Land may have become the face of Danish pop in the United States, but behind the scenes, there are many more Danes running the show.

The audience at the Roskilde Festival
The Roskilde Festival has become a major draw for international music fansImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Australian band Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," was not only written by a Dane, it was the most played song in Denmark in 2012. Pop acts such as Destiny's Child, Wanted and Faithless have all used songs written by Danes. Two of the songwriters behind Denmark's Eurovision entry this year, Kim Nowak-Zorde and Daniel Fält, have previously written for UK boy band Take That. And the winning Eurovision song from 2010, "Satellite," performed by Germany's Lena Meyer-Landrut, was produced by Dane John Gordon.

Still, the country's musicians haven't seen as much success on the Billboard charts as producers and songwriters from their Scandinavian neighbors have. Last year's Eurovision host country, Sweden, has been well-known as a musical incubator for decades, with Swedes the brains behind hits by the likes of Pitbull, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry. Meanwhile, Norwegian production duo Stargate have created such a name for themselves that pop and hip-hop stars the world over are begging to work with them.

Denmark's contributions to the international pop market, though substantial, seem limited in comparison.

A higher language barrier

That could be due, in part, to many musicians' choice to sing in their native tongue. While every Eurovision entry from the country since 1999 has been written and sung in English, it wasn't until 2005 that candidates vying in the Dansk Melodi Grand Prix for the right to represent Denmark at the ESC could compete in a language other than Danish.

Danish singer Medina on stage
Danish star Medina has broken into international chartsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One of the biggest Danish stars in the music scene today, Medina, gained popularity by originally singing in Danish - something she continues to do today. Despite having produced more than 10 hits in the Top 10 in Denmark, the singer didn't get her big break internationally until 2009, when her hit "Kun for Mig" was released in English as "You and I" and became an instant favorite in the UK. Since then, Medina's music has often been put out in both languages, with the initial release in Danish. Her single "Forever" topped Germany's dance charts for nearly a year after its release in 2012 - one year after it had already hit the airwaves in Denmark as "For Altid."

"Of course if I want to make an international hit, it has to be in English," said Danish songwriter Engelina Andrina, who co-wrote “Forever” with Medina and has worked with a number of other Danish pop stars, including Infernal and Electric Lady Lab, in producing songs sung in English. Her credits also include tracks performed by Kylie Minogue and Busta Rhymes. Still, she says, beyond language, there's little difference in the music she writes for an international audience than for a Danish one.

"The melodies, the hooks, the writing process - it's all the same. Denmark has a very international sound. Unfortunately, there seems to be a distrust among Danes of anything 'too commercial' sounding," Andrina said. For musicians, commercialization is where the money is, so songwriters must think twice about working in Danish.

Looking ahead, Andrina is confident, saying, "There's a lot of talent here. Denmark has so much potential. There's no reason we can't be as big as Sweden. We just don't have the big names - yet."