Winner’s Analysis: “Superhero”, Viki Gabor

Following the pattern started after Eurovision 2019, we explore the musical aspects of this year’s winning Junior Eurovision song – Poland’s “Superhero”, performed by Viki Gabor – and demonstrate how the stage show and performance complemented the music to create an urgent message relevant to the present state of global affairs.

Table of Contents

  1. Artist Background
  2. “Form, Instrumentation, and Production
    1. Instrumentation in Form
    2. Instrumentation and Production Details by Section
  3. Rhythm and Motifs
  4. Harmonies
  5. Music, the Stage Show, and the Message

Artist Background

Wiktoria “Viki” Gabor was born in Hamburg, Germany to Polish parents with Romani heritage. After settling down in Poland after several moves across Europe, she was able to channel the musical skills nurtured by her musical family to participate in the early 2019 season of The Voice Kids Poland, following the footsteps of her to-be predecessor, 2018 Junior Eurovision winner Roksana “Roxie” Węgiel. Węgiel won the 2018 edition of the show, while Gabor finished as a runner-up in the 2019 season.

The song “Superhero”, which won Junior Eurovision 2019, was previously analyzed in part during the Musical Content in Junior Eurovision series. Further analysis of both musical and visual content will be given here. The musical analysis format will also mirror that of the analyses of Duncan Laurence’s winning Eurovision song, “Arcade”.

Form, Instrumentation, and Production

Instrumentation in Form

The form is as follows (with shorthand explanation and numbering of sections as they appear in the song):

I V1 PC1 C1 PsC1 V2 PC2 C2 C3 PsC O

I = Intro; V = Verse; PC = Pre-Chorus; C = Chorus; PsC = Post-Chorus (Drop); O = Outro

Throughout the entire song, all instruments have a bit of reverb added or inherently present to sound a bit larger and airier. Vocals also have a bit of delay, which also contributes to a sense of the vocals sounding larger. Throughout the song, there are several instances of high-frequency musical additions, including what sounds like a riser during the first chorus, starting around one minute into the music video. Other high-frequency effects include, but are not limited to, the ambient arpeggio starting around 1:32 and the one-note effect at around 1:53.

Music video for Viki Gabor’s “Superhero”

Some of the instruments playing chords in certain verses and pre-choruses are removed to create more dynamic contrast. Using more silence instead of the same musical texture disturbs the inertia built up from the previous chord progression repetitions. It thus emphasizes the parts lacking some instruments: the end of verse 1 and the end of pre-chorus 2. These parts incidentally lead directly into other sections – the first pre-chorus and the second chorus, respectively. The removal of instruments also creates an unresolved expectation that something bigger can and will happen, whether in the form of a drop, the beginning of a new section, or something else. For example, the cut-out of drums at 1:14, 2:24, and 2:59 in The Band Perry’s song “Done” beings and expectation that something in the music may come back with a vengeance and accentuates the frustration at the object of the song’s exasperation.

The Band Perry’s song “Done.”

The choruses and post-choruses have same chords and so flow into each other readily and can be mixed. The drop in what has been labeled as the post-chorus is a common attribute of electronic dance music genres. Unlike the 2016 “pop drop” described by songwriter Charlie Harding of the Switched on Pop podcast, however, the post-choruses here combine an unadulterated vocal call of “na”’s and an instrumental response. Such antiphony is a relatively common occurrence in music and elsewhere, between the pseudo-conversational exchange between the chorus vocals and strings in the Carly Rae Jepsen hit “Call Me Maybe”, as well as the captain and kid dialogue in the theme of SpongeBob Squarepants, to general question and answer structures in human communication. In putting the vocal line as the call to the instrumental response, the music reiterated the lyrical message, perhaps by aurally conceding that “we” can do something about the situation being described.

The final two choruses have both Polish lyrics and the bass, drums, and background pad of the post-chorus sections.

Instrumentation and Production Details by Section

The following instrumentation details and decisions are grouped by relevant section.

IntroVersePre-ChorusChorus 1Post-Chorus / Chorus 2 + 3
– Airy synth higher than backing vox
– A synth sound around the main vocal range is held to the section end
– Last measure: 2 counts of slow LFO tremolo, 2 counts of downward noise sweep (opposite shown in this video) and synth swell
– High vocal choir, na’s
– Electronic drums
– Staccato synth around main vocal range
– Backing vox pattern discussed in the JESC preview
– Reversed crash cymbal sample into PC1
– More open and percussive sound on rhythm synth. Sound might be mixed with drums.
– More percussive variety
– Vocal doubling until final line
– Bass synthesizer
– Second half of PC1, all of PC2: gated piano pulsing quarter notes
– Some form of electric piano
– More activity in percussion
Note repeater for snare drum-like sample; more added percussion.
– Percussion from here comes back halfway through the second pre-chorus.
– A synth bass part with considerable glide
– A synth that replies to the vocal call in post-chorus. String-based and with some delay
– Most prominent percussion sounds: increased bass alongside cymbal usage

Overall, the song gives off a vibe of general larger-than-life but still realistic superhero-like qualities, given the antiphonal command in the post-choruses and later choruses, live vocalization during the drops, overall sound design decisions, and dynamic movement and contrast between sections.

Rhythm and Motifs

Romani Music, Tresillos, and More

While the song strongly emphasizes a four-to-the-floor bass drum pattern, the predominant drum pattern is the tresillo. This Habanera-inspired 3 + 3 + 2 pattern found in many Afro-Latin and African-inspired songs ranging from the Luis Fonsi hit “Despacito” to “Fuego” (Cyprus 2018 ESC), “Chameleon”, “She Got Me”, “Replay”, and “Ktheju tokës” (Malta, Switzerland, Cyprus, and Albania 2019 ESC, respectively), among many other songs. The syncopated rhythms played a role in propelling the song and message forward. Dancy songs with less syncopated rhythms – like Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz”, the late Avicii’s “Levels”, and marches – can be more prone to promote basic regular or regulated movements, like jumping or specific foot patterns. On the other hand, syncopated patterns play a vital role in more upbeat dances that generally have Afro-Latin influences, like salsa, tango, rumba, and so forth. This reflects a cultural shift from using rhythmic patterns in what is regarded as high-culture music (classical) which accent beats 1 and 3 when there are 2 or 4 beats per measure. The increased appropriation of pan-African music, which focuses on beats 2 and 4, has been an ongoing process throughout the 20th century onward in particular, from jazz to rock, R&B and soul to hip-hop.

A compilation of videos discussing rhythmic focus in Eurocentric, in particular Western classical music vs pan-African music

As the music of diaspora ultimately from around northern India, however, Romani music is at times a marked exception to the Western classical sense of rhythm. For example, the Romani who settled in Spain played a large role in the development of flamenco, while Hungarian Romani music and Gypsy jazz, the latter popularized by the famous Django Reinhardt, built upon existing folk traditions. Flamenco, in particular, contains a lot of syncopation, and much Romani music in general contains syncopation. The tresillo, which was used for the Habanera rhythm notated below and derived from Afro-Cuban roots, was combined with the flamenco style originating from the Romani people of Spain and can be found in Rumba flamenca music.

The measure of “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (commonly known as “Habanera” from Carmen) when the singer begins singing. The counting is written with numbers and “+”, pronounced “and” and denoting half a beat. The tresillo pattern is noted in blue; the yellow note is an extra note that emphasizes each beat.

While the rhythm may have found its way into “Superhero” through a more appropriative route, Gabor’s upbringing may have allowed her to naturally embrace its usage and other artistic markers of heritage that may not be visible for outsiders (the author included). The rhythm permeates the entire song, even if it is more pervasive in the instrumental than in the vocal line, perhaps most noticeably at the end of the first pre-chorus at around 0:46, the beginning of the final line of the section. The rhythm of her singing is completely synced with the percussion, which is also playing the rhythm. During the equivalent part in the second pre-chorus, a more complex rhythm appears. Beyond the tresillo rhythm, a five-note group in 2 beats, called a cinquillo, exists in similar Afro-Latin contexts as the tresillo, and the cinquillo appears during the words “is our call, it’s in” in the relevant line, although the “in” is held over to the third beat, at which point the drums come in. Furthermore, the specific grouping of rhythms from the “is” gives rise to a 4-on-3 polyrhythm, similar to what happened in the ending of “True North”, one of the songs Danish choir Vocal Line sang in winning Eurovision Choir this year. In the below representation of that line, each color represents one of the four equal-time groupings over the three beats. The smaller numbers show where each cinquillo note hit begins in the first two beats, and the beats are written in large font directly above the relevant part of the vocal line.

The notation for the final line in the second pre-chorus. Colored groups are equal-time divisions in the span of three beats; smaller numbers above notes show the beginning of each note in the cinquillo pattern, and large notes show the beginning of each beat.

The introduction includes the chorus melody sung with “na” syllables. During the post-chorus/drop, the syllable “na” returns in Gabor’s melody part. The rhythm of the sung portion of the call-and-response also introduces further tresillos, but the response also has an additional syncopation, which may suggest that the original inspiration for the response instrument was folk-inspired. The image below is a transcription of said instrument. Highlighted lines show where the beat falls; the first and fourth beats of the first measure and the second beat of the second measure are silent. Instead of playing where the beat falls, the slight delays spice up the rhythm.

The notation for the response instrument. The highlighted lines show where the beats fall.

During the final post-chorus, Gabor sings a counter-melody, another vocal line that contrasts with the melody of the synthesized instrument shown above. Combining contrasting melodies is the key to counterpoint, a centuries-old practice where different sounds are put together according to certain guidelines to sound independent and good.

Harmonies

There are three different chord progressions – one for each contrasting section. The intro, chorus, post-chorus, and outro all share parts of the progression G♯m C♯m B F♯/A♯ G♯m C♯m B F♯. Combined with the constant G♯ notes in the melody throughout the song, the song strongly suggests that G♯ is the main note; furthermore, as the chord with root (main) note G♯ is a minor chord, we are in G♯ Aeolian – similar to G♯ minor, but as discussed in the “Arcade” article on harmony, the chords do not provide a tonal V-i function but instead work in the Aeolian mode.

Meanwhile, the other sections have these chord progressions (hyphen denoting an equal amount of time as every other chord):

  • Verses: C♯m – G♯m F♯
  • Pre-Choruses: E C♯m G♯m F♯ x3 E C♯m G♯m D♯m

In the verses and pre-choruses, while the melody centers the listener around the note G♯ throughout the song, both verses and pre-choruses start away from a G♯m chord. In the 2019 Eurovision song contest, “Friend of a Friend” (Lake Malawi from the Czech Republic), “Kruna” (Nevena Božović from Serbia), “Too Late for Love” (John Lundvik from Sweden), “Chameleon” (Michela from Malta), “Home” (Kobi Marimi from Israel), and “Bigger than Us” (Michael Rice from the UK) also start the majority of their song sections away from the tonic chord. The off-tonic beginnings, by not starting on the most settled chord in contest, intrinsically gives a song tension and a drive to return to the tonic chord.

The D♯m chord at the end of the first pre-chorus is relatively surprising. In a tonal context, one would expect the chord related to the fifth scale note – D♯ – to be a major chord. Instead, a minor chord is present. However, this can be resolved by examining the relationship between the D♯m and the F♯ chord it replaces in the fourth playthrough of the progression. These two chords share two notes, and they can be thought of as a relative major/minor substitution. When major and minor keys share the same notes, they are called relative keys (the terminology varies between languages; this is the English version). The F♯ major and D♯ minor scales have the same notes, so they are relative keys. The substitution for one of the tonic chords for the other – chords based on the named note, F♯ and D♯, respectively – is what makes a relative major/minor substitution both interesting and effective. The chords that go with those tonic notes are F♯ (major) and D♯m, and this makes the connection between the two different pre-chorus chords “work”. Even though the song is in G♯ minor, the relationships between the two chords transcend the context of the song.

This substitution is a specific version of common tone substitutions, where one chord with specific notes is substituted with another with one or more notes in common. One example is “Lejla”, performed by Hari Mata Hari in 2006. The MIDI piano reduction of the intro after the violin solo can be found here. The fourth measure has a Bm chord, which contains the notes B, D, and F♯. The next chord (in measure 5) is D, containing the notes D, F♯, and A. These also have a relative major/minor relationship between each other and work to smooth the transition between the two chords. Similarly, in “Superhero”, the D♯m chord, while not directly preceded by the F♯ chord, uses the common tones as a point of familiarity so as to not completely throw the listener off while also introducing something new to the palate.

“Lejla” by Hari Mata Hari, performed in Athens at the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest

The outro is essentially the first line of the chorus, and it ends on the F♯/A♯ chord, which according to classical harmony is doubly unstable. Not only does it end away from tonic, but the chord is also in first inversion. The notes inside are the same, but instead of using the root (F♯) as the bass note, which gives most stability, the third, A♯, is used as the bass note instead. The two instabilities combine to form a very unsettling ending despite the pop backdrop, one that is explained and further highlighted through the stage show.

Music, the Stage Show, and the Message

The thematic material is an urgent call to save the world, likely in an environmental fashion. This call to action has been repeated by the youth throughout this year’s contest, as well as by those who participate in strikes for climate change, headed by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, daughter of 2009 Eurovision opera singer Malena Ernman. The message was relayed in three languages: English, Polish, and a form of Sign Language. In addition to the inclusive linguistic messaging, the visuals also reinforced the urgency of the message.

Going into the first and second choruses, the visuals of “bergy bits” (small icebergs), cracking  ice on the stage floor, and water illustrate the effect of climate change on glaciers, permafrost, and sea level rises. Combined with the mirrored suit likely representing ice, the laser countdown timer, the visuals reinforce the time running out to take action on climate issues.

During the second chorus, the bergy bits take the spotlight, as the falling and breaking chunks of glaciers and icebergs echo news of breaking ice shelves, which according to the scientists of AntarcticGlaciers.org could lead to sea level increase, endangering cities such as Florence and New Orleans. The countdown timer, with less than a minute remaining, stays in view, accompanied by additional red lights, highlighting the urgency for the superheroes to take action. The Polish lyrics, found on the Junior Eurovision page, apparently speak of going above mountains and viewing shooting stars in the sky, being free and dancing among the waves, possibly like a bird, but will there be anywhere for humanity to rest should storms come crashing down on humans who reside in such a “valley”?

’While the performers communicate that humanity needs to act upon the pressing environmental issues that are projected to have calamitous effects on the Earth’s future, the clock runs out as the performers stand after no action is taken. A glacier is seen in the background before the visuals fade to black, but the small size and considerable rate of sublimation – the change of ice to water vapor (gas) – leaves a bleak image for a future if humanity does not act decisively in the interests of the planet on which humanity resides.

Conclusions

A song is made up of several parts that come together to form a unit. A good song combines these units coherently and focuses on a performer’s strengths. “Superhero” combined the strengths of each musical element, including Gabor’s voice and cultural references, and combined it with a pressing message echoing the voice of today’s youth, as well as musical and visual details to emphasize the message live. 

Additional Sources

Interview with Viki Gabor, Bartosz Sąder. Onet.pl (in Polish).
Roma and Flamenco: Myth and Reality, Ronald Lee. Kopachi.com.
Bizet’s Carmen: controversy over who wrote “Habanera”, Cynthia Collins. CMuse.org

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