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Lost in music: Belgium's mixed record at the Eurovision Song Contest

10:21 27/11/2016
Belgium has chosen its 2017 Eurovision entry. Thirty years after Sandra Kim claimed the country's solitary Eurovision victory, we look back at three decades of hipster highs and lurex-clad lows

Belgium has won the Eurovision Song Contest only once, and its success in the ensuing 30 years has been limited. While young Laura Tesoro from Antwerp claimed a creditable top-half finish in Stockholm this year, the wait for a follow-up victory continues.

Perhaps Belgium is due a win. After all, it took 30 years of participation for the country to score its first success, courtesy of Sandra Kim. Despite being one of the seven countries to participate in the first contest in 1956, Belgium was continually overlooked – even as neighbouring Luxembourg and the Netherlands racked up victory after victory.

Not only did Belgium not win during the contest’s first 30 years, it didn’t even come close. Its highest result was fourth place with Tonia in 1966. The country has finished last five times, and has twice received the dreaded nul points.

Despite not being very good at it, Belgians have been enthusiastic participants in the contest. Belgium has been absent from the contest only three times, and all three were not by its choosing. In 1994, 1997 and 2001 Belgium could not participate because it scored too low the previous year. This was the system in place before the semi-final rounds were introduced in 2004.

Until 2010, Germany shared Belgium’s ignominious status as a founding country with only one win. But Germany surpassed Belgium’s record when it claimed a second victory with Lena Meyer-Landrut.

Sing it, Sandra

Belgium’s victory in 1986 was almost immediately embroiled in scandal. The diminutive Sandra Kim stole Europe’s hearts with her saccharine-sweet song J’aime la vie (I Love Life). She wore a kitchy bowtie-and-blazer outfit, sporting a very 80s mullet. The song is not remembered as one of the contest’s best winners; indeed, many Eurovision fans refer to this period of time as the contest’s dark ages.

The contest, held that year in Bergen, Norway, was thrown into controversy when it was revealed after the win that Kim had lied about her age. Although she had claimed to be 15 (the minimum age for the contest), she was actually 13. Switzerland, which had come second, lodged a formal complaint. But in the end Kim was allowed to keep her title. The minimum age was subsequently raised to 16, so Kim will remain the youngest winner unless the age is lowered again – an unlikely prospect given that the organisers now also host the Junior Eurovision Contest for children every year.

Kim, Italian by birth, still performs throughout Belgium. Although she released a few albums after her win, none matched the success of J’aime la vie. Her most recent performance in Brussels was at the gay bar Belgica in 2011.

Language divide

That Belgium has been so continually snubbed is strange, given that it had a choice of three languages to sing in. One of them, French, was the most successful language in the early years of the contest. Between them, France, Luxembourg, Monaco and Switzerland have won 13 times with songs in French. In hindsight, it seems especially odd that the Netherlands won three times in those early years with songs in Dutch – perhaps not the most musical language.

Until 1999, Eurovision required all countries to sing in one of their official national languages (a rule insisted on by France). But this rule was dropped after Ireland and the UK won five years in a row. People wanted to hear songs in English. The responsibility of fielding an entry in Belgium has switched between Flemish broadcaster VRT and Francophone broadcaster RTBF. Before 1999, the language also switched between Dutch and French.

After the language restriction was lifted, Belgium got creative. They’ve fielded entries in imaginary languages twice, in 2003 and 2008. The song Sanomi by Urban Trad came second in 2003, just two points behind the winning entry from Turkey. It was the highest Belgium had scored since Kim. The second made-up language attempt was not as successful. O Julissi by Ishtar came in 17th.

Since the language restriction was lifted, Belgium has sung in French twice – in 2000 and 2005. Every entry since 2009 has been in English, with Dutch not heard from since 1996.

Shut that door

Belgium has fielded an already-famous pop star once – Kate Ryan in 2006. Ryan had a string of hits across Europe in the early 2000s, sung in French. Though the title of her Eurovision entry was in French – Je t’adore – the song was in English. And despite having a mostly francophone career, Ryan herself is Flemish.

Her song did poorly and didn’t qualify for the final. However, it can still be heard often on Belgian radio stations. At the time, Belgians joked that the one line of French in the song confused the audience, who thought she was saying ‘shut the door’.

Loic-mania

Belgium’s greatest recent success came in 2015, with Loïc Nottet’s Rhythm Inside, which finished fourth. An excellent music video and creative, hipster-like staging had some bookies putting their money on Belgium to win. Nottet’s youthful good looks were also a factor. But in the end the contest went to the hunkier (and considerably older) Mans Zelmerlow from Sweden.

But Nottet did rack up Belgium’s highest ever points total – 217. Nottet was chosen by RTBF after he came second in the francophone channel’s show The Voice Belgique in 2014. This year, Flemish public broadcaster VRT held a national final for the competition, and the public chose Laura Tesoro with her song What’s the Pressure. A perky performance in Sweden resulted in a solid 10th place – and so the wait goes on.

The young Brussels singer Ellie Delvaux, stage name Blanche, was chosen by the French-speaking public broadcaster RTBF as the best candidate to represent Belgium at the 62nd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest next year in Ukraine.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin Best of Belgium 2016

Written by Dave Keating