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In Defence of: Running Scared by Ell & Nikki

‘Running Scared’ is often described as one of the worst Eurovision winners, but is it really that bad?

Whenever a list of ‘worst ever Eurovision winners’ is published, you can expect to find usual suspects such as Sweden 1984, Yugoslavia 1989 and Estonia 2001. Another entry often placed in this group is Azerbaijan’s winning entry in 2011, ‘Running Scared’ by Eldar Gasimov and Nikki Jamal (Ell & Nikki). But does it deserve to be described as one of the ‘worst winners ever’, and is it a bad song? Here I discuss how ‘Running Scared’ won the 2011 contest, and whether or not it was a worthy winner.

Why did Azerbaijan win 2011?

Ever since their debut in 2008, Azerbaijan quickly positioned themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Eurovision. Their 2009 entry, ‘Always’ by Aysel & Arash, came 3rd with 207 points in a strong and competitive edition, and likely could have won if entered in another year. Similarly, their 2010 entry, ‘Drip Drop’ by Safura was also a pre-contest favourite to win, finishing with a respectable 5th place. Going into 2011 contest, there was a lot of hype about what song and artist Azerbaijan would choose for Eurovision in Dusseldorf. In February 2011, following weeks of Azerbaijan’s mammoth national final ‘Milli Seรงim Turu 2011’, Eldar Gasimov and Nikki Jamal were chosen to represent the Caucasus nation in Eurovision 2011, having originally entered as individual artists then being chosen to compete as a duo. The song selection followed in March, in which ‘Running Scared’ was chosen, a pop ballad written by Swedish and British songwriters.

While Running Scared was generally well-received by fans ahead of the contest, it was not really considered a contender to win. France, Estonia, United Kingdom, Hungary, Sweden and many other countries were high in the betting odds ahead of the contest and considered to be contention to win rather than Azerbaijan.

RankOddsCountryEntry
14/1 FranceAmaury Vassili โ€“ Sognu
213/2 EstoniaGetter Jaani โ€“ Rockefeller Street
37/1 United KingdomBlue โ€“ I Can
48/1 HungaryKati Wolf โ€“ What About My Dreams?
510/1 SwedenEric Saade โ€“ Popular
610/1 Bosnia & HerzegovinaDino Merlin โ€“ Love In Rewind
712/1 AzerbaijanEll & Nikki โ€“ Running Scared
812/1 NorwayStella Mwangi โ€“ Haba Haba
912/1 GermanyLena โ€“ Taken By A Stranger
1020/1 RussiaAlexej Vorobjov โ€“ Get You
Odds from Paddy Power on April 24th, 20 days before the final on May 14th.
Credit: ESCXtra

Fast-forward to the 2011 Eurovision final in Dusseldorf, there was a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances that would lead to a shock winner. The previous favourites seemed to experience various misfortunes: France’s song needed to be performed in a different key to the studio version, which resulted in an underwhelming live performance; United Kingdom supposedly had a poor jury performance, leading to a bottom 5 jury ranking (despite a top 5 televote ranking); other favourites such as Bosnia & Herzegovina, Hungary and Estonia were lumped with early running orders, which likely hindered their chances. In terms of what hindered Sweden’s chances to win, this was probably a mix of an early running order, a somewhat ‘non-jury-friendly’ pop song (only ranking 9th with the juries, compared to 2nd in the televote), and an underwhelming live performance compared to the Melfest performance.

Other countries emerged as somewhat-surprising contenders on the night, but none were able to clinch 1st place. Italy was perhaps the biggest surprise, returning after 14 years with a smooth jazz track that topped the jury vote; however, this only came 11th with the televote. Denmark scored high in the juries but low with the televote, whereas Greece scored high with the televote and low with the juries. The 2011 voting was a bit all over the place, with little alignment between the televote and juries. There were two countries that were able to appeal to both juries and televoters and secure themselves a place in the top 5: Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Both songs from these countries were somewhat generic but pleasant, had impressive stage shows, and were gifted with late running orders. I do think that had Azerbaijan not qualified or participated in Eurovision 2011, Ukraine would have likely won the contest rather than Italy or Sweden, as Ukraine’s song (‘Angel’ – Mika Newton) had a similar appeal to Azerbaijan that year, and probably would have absorbed the majority of points that Azerbaijan’s non-participation would have made available.

So what gave Azerbaijan the edge to win the whole thing over it’s nearest competitors? The most likely answer is the lack of Turkey in the grand final of Eurovision 2011. For the first time since the semi finals, Turkey failed to qualify from the semi finals in the 2011 contest. Turkey has a wide diaspora across Europe, who often turn out to vote for the nation and help boost Turkey’s position in the scoreboard. With Turkey out of the 2011 final, it’s likely that many of the Turkish expats instead voted for the nation’s closest ally and neighbour Azerbaijan, which may explain why Azerbaijan won the televote in 2011.

‘Live It Up’ by Yรผksek Sadakat, Turkey’s first ever Eurovision entry not to qualify for the grand final.
Credit: ESC Insight

Is ‘Running Scared’ really that bad?

Following a ‘perfect storm’ that secured Azerbaijan’s first ever Eurovision win, ‘Running Scared’ suddenly found itself in the ‘Eurovision winners hall of fame’, alongside such classic winners as ‘Waterloo’ by Abba, ‘Nocturne’ by Secret Garden and ‘Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi’ by Celine Dion. When compared to these high quality winners, it’s hard to deny that ‘Running Scared’ pales in comparison. In a collection of 60+ highly revered and impactful winning Eurovision songs, ‘Running Scared’ (along with a few other winners) seems out of place. In fact, ‘Winning Eurovision Songs’ was a category on the TV show Pointless, ‘Running Scared’ would probably be your best bet for a pointless answer. But does this mean it’s a bad song?

In my opinion, ‘Running Scared’ is an enjoyable and pleasant song that was representative of the mainstream pop music scene in the early 2010’s. It is well composed, has a nice melody and builds to a crescendo in the last chorus. The live performance was professional and visually appealing, with perhaps the best ‘pyro curtain’ of the 2011 contest. While it wouldn’t have been my personal choice for winning the 2011 contest, I can see why it performed well with both televoters and juries. In isolation, ‘Running Scared’ is a good song, it is only when compared to it’s Eurovision-winning counterparts that it comes across forgettable and bland; but this could be said about a lot of Eurovision entries. As I mentioned previously, Ukraine had a similar package to Azerbaijan in 2011, and wasn’t far off winning; however, Ukraine’s 2011 entry appears to receive far less criticism in the fandom than Azerbaijan’s entry from the same year. I think this is because Ukraine, which came 4th in Eurovision 2011, is not compared to other Eurovision winners. Whereas Azerbaijan 2011 is inevitably compared to all the winning songs of Eurovision past, present and future.

While taste is subjective, and there will be plenty of people who just don’t like the song, I do think ‘Running Scared’ is held to an unfair standard. I implore fellow fans to consider the circumstances that led to Azerbaijan’s ‘accidental’ win in 2011, and avoid comparing the song to other Eurovision winners, before jumping on the ‘Running Scared-hate’ bandwagon.

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