Where did it all go wrong? Ireland at Eurovision 2014

A FEATURE by Genevieve Rogersev2014logo

To fail to make the Top 10 in a 15 song semi with the UK voting is nothing short of disastrous and, given the performance we saw last night, it’s frankly embarrassing for a country with the best Eurovision history.

                                     Keith Mills, veteran Irish Eurovision commentator, in a guest  blog 

I hear you, Keith – and so do Eurovisionaries across the vast expanse of Planet Eurovision and beyond. Not good enough, Ireland. Time to take a really long, hard look, RTÉ (Raidió Telefis Éireann, the national broadcaster in Ireland).

Ireland’s entry, ‘Heartbeat’, performed by Can-Linn featuring Kasey Smith, looks and sounds like this:

So, what’s the problem? In this year’s company, just about everything. In Eurovision commentary parlance, this is what’s known as a ‘hot mess’

Who doesn’t love men in kilts, Riverdancing (with free arms – purists, take note!), a bodhran player who turns into a fiddler, Celtic lighting motifs and a statuesque brunette in a gold ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ dress, singing a mid-tempo pop song to which her lower register is unsuited? I know I do – but one at a time please! And I know who doesn’t….Europe doesn’t – and Europe hasn’t for quite some time.

The stage show is a cliché-ridden three minute cringe fest…There seems to be a mentality that, sure, if we throw a few Irish dancers jumping around like Leprechauns won’t they lap it up in Minsk and Vilnius and vote for us. No they won’t.

We tried it in 2005 and it didn’t work. We tried it in 2007 and it didn’t work. We tried it in 2010 and it didn’t work. We even tried it last year and it didn’t work…..

Ireland has tried to play up the whole Celtic thing. Message back from Europe – we don’t like it….

The performance has no place in the Eurovision of 2014. It would barely have made the grade in 2004.

 Brian O’Reilly, Irish Independent,  8 May 2014 

And that’s the heart of the problem. The entry was dated. It referenced Ireland’s glory days at Eurovision (mid-1990s, when it had four wins in five years) and the breakout interval act at the 1994 contest, ‘Riverdance’; it referenced the ‘ethno-pop’ phase of the contest which had more or less burnt itself out by the mid-2000s; and it referenced rigid, self-conscious notions of what a Eurovision song is – all without any apparent idea of how far the modern contest has come from Ireland’s halcyon days.

There is a reservoir of goodwill towards Ireland as the most successful country in the contest, with seven wins in total. Against the politically-charged background of this year’s contest –with Ukraine/Russia tensions spilling over into the arena and the perennial Armenia/Azerbaijan problem – Ireland, with its Troubles largely behind it, was seen as one of the ‘cleanskin’ countries, unlikely to burn any goodwill for political reasons. But, if this stubbornness to adapt to the modern contest persists, what currently looks like a slightly gauche misjudgement may come to be seen as wilful and even disrespectful. And that will burn both goodwill and credibility. Without an obvious voting bloc to rely on at crunch time, Ireland needs two things if it wants to succeed at modern Eurovision – preservation of that goodwill and a good contemporary song and performance, styled for the twenty-first century.

Which brings us to RTÉ.

National broadcasters and the EBU

The national broadcasters of participating countries are members of the European Broadcasting Union which runs the contest. The EBU was founded post-World War 2 to test new technologies, in particular television, and to bring together a war-ravaged continent through communications. The contest provided some content for this undertaking and was touted as a way of uniting disparate European nations through song in the rebuilding years. (During the Cold War era it also helpfully provided a model of Western glamour and progress, a subtle propaganda tool for Western European governments – but that’s a different discussion for another time.)

The breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the re-unification of Germany saw the emergence of many new, smaller, and mostly Eastern nations anxious to join both the EBU and the EU. The Eurovision Song Contest, an existing forum, was eagerly taken up as an opportunity to showcase national identity and to advance other political and economic agendas. Hence, the more recent Easternisation and expansion of the contest. And, many would argue, paradoxically the modernisation of the contest.

Each national broadcaster is responsible for the selection and management of its Eurovision entry. RTÉ as national broadcaster, is the relevant body in Ireland. It is open to RTÉ, if it chooses, not to enter the contest in any given year. In recent years, that has been the route taken by some smaller countries as austerity measures have limited their ability to bear the costs of entering.

As national broadcaster, RTÉ also has a responsibility to account for its expenditure. It follows then that, if RTÉ chooses to send an entry to the contest, its decision to do so must be backed by some level of commitment which makes that expenditure palatable to the people of Ireland, particularly in difficult economic times. Otherwise, why bother? Why not stay home and spend the limited funds on something else?

(For a particularly terse exchange on the costs vs. benefits of entering Eurovision, See ‘Eurovision cost RTÉ €40,000 a point’, Sam Hamilton, Irish Mirror, 22 June, 2013 and the response from www.eurovisionireland.com editor, Garrett Mulhall, ‘RTÉ spend €207,000 on Eurovision 2013’, 23 June 2013)

The incentives for RTÉ to continue are the ratings and revenue generated by local interest in the contest. In 2013, for example, the contest generated 7.5 hours of Prime Time television from the EBU for a cost of €70,000 – absurdly cheap as compared with the costs of producing local television drama. Conversely, if the contest fails to engage Irish televiewers – now a distinct possibility – the ratings and revenues will be hit. That’s the incentive and that’s where the judgement call needs to be made.

In recent years, it has seemed that RTÉ’s heart has not been entirely in the project. Its selection process – a rather pallid mentoring system with a sing-off on The Late Late Show – has been controversial for its apparent cronyism and has, at times, been farcical. (See  Ireland’s Eurosong 2014: You couldn’t make it up! Tintean, 25 April 2014). The acts produced by this process have not succeeded in tapping into the zeitgeist of modern Europe, and results have spiralled from 8th (Jedward 2011), to 19th (Jedward 2012), to 26th (Ryan Dolan 2013) to this year’s failure to qualify from the Semi Finals. The evidence is there and it’s plain to see.

The question that has to be asked is if RTÉ are in this contest to win it, or are they just content at qualification and a seat at the top table. It appears to many people that our national broadcaster has neither the ambition nor insight to bring the contest back to Ireland.

Keith Mills

And further:

A central problem lies in the current selection process: the one-night Eurosong competition in which the public votes on acts crafted by RTÉ -chosen mentors. This has resulted in performances which have not proved appealing to European voters and expert juries. Nor are these acts representative of the wealth and variety of musical talent in Ireland.

Dr Karen Fricker, Eurovision Research Network

And one enterprising young fan went so far as to start a petition to RTÉ to that effect at change.org!

This part of the outcry, at least, has been heard and responded to. The Head of Delegation, Michael Kealy, has confirmed that the mentoring system has been scrapped and intimated that the entire selection process is under review.

Eurovision is a TV event – Looks matter!

From its inception the Eurovision Song Contest has been – and consciously so – a television event. The consequence is that, though billed as a SONG contest, it demands high levels of visual presentation – or it might just as well be run on radio.

Eurovision has become the event of choice for the techies of the world, a place where the very latest in production equipment and trends is showcased. That is a major resource for any country entering in the twenty-first century, as evidenced by the impressive lighting rig and effects at this year’s contest. The contest is cutting-edge in that respect.

So it is not just enough for a broadcaster to choose the right song. The staging and styling of the performance must also be state of the art.

Returning to this particular Irish entry, it is clear that there were numerous problems in regard to staging and styling, all of which were loudly complained about in the blogosphere.

  • It was too busy. The old days of throwing the kitchen sink at an act are gone. The modern contest is more polished than that in general. (There will always be exceptions – but they are just that now).
  • The gold dress. Unfortunately, the eventual winner of the contest, Conchita Wurst, a drag act from Austria with an LGBT agenda, also a brunette with flowing mane, wore a gold dress to which Kasey’s complicated and uncomfortable-looking outfit was compared unfavourably. To some extent, that’s bad luck – but the rather extreme ‘statement’ look is always a risk unless the singer looks and feels comfortable in it, which Kasey did not seem to be.
  • Kasey’s poor camera work. It was clear during the rehearsals that Kasey was having trouble finding the camera onstage. In the Semi Final performance, she seemed a couple of rehearsals short of stage-ready, ill at ease, and unconfident. That was a warning sign which was not heeded.
  • Stagecraft. RTÉ had the opportunity to send the act to either or both of the London and Amsterdam pre-contest concerts, traditionally a testing ground for the performers and an invitation eagerly taken up by many. For some reason RTÉ did not send this act to either event.
  • The dancers. As charming as they were in interviews and press events, the dancers simply should not have been on the stage. They were distracting and added nothing except the sense of outdatedness discussed earlier. Great dancing but poor judgement.

There is a litany of complaints. The responsibility for the staging and styling lies ultimately with RTÉ. The entry should not be hampered by poor choices – and as a television broadcaster RTÉ should be well aware of the visual issues.

What next?

With the mentoring system gone, there is now an opportunity to revisit the Irish selection process. Suggestions for overhaul range from an internal selection (used successfully by a number of countries) to a viewer selection – whether of song or of performer or both – or even of an open national selection format. RTÉ has many models throughout Europe to choose from, and many other small countries struggling with economic recovery which it could and should look to for ideas.

It should also bear in mind that this generation of young Eurovision performers is quite battle-hardened by having cut its teeth on X Factor and Idol-type talent shows. Their obvious experience in television gives RTÉ something to work with which was not available to the same extent in previous eras. That is an advantage if used properly to attain the slick performance standards required by the modern contest. Work with it, and the rewards will be there. They may not win – but they’ll know how to find a camera and ooze confidence. That’s half the battle.

Other small nations, such as Estonia and Latvia, barely emerging from the Soviet era, won Eurovision by observing it, by engaging with it, and by wanting it badly enough. There is really, other than some failure of will, no reason why a nation as rich in musical talent and tradition as Ireland, and with such an illustrious history in the contest, could not win again. It’s really about whether RTÉ is in it to win it, or just happy to be at the table.

Over to you, RTÉ. If you are going to spend the money, at least spend it wisely and well!

GENEVIEVE  ROGERS

Genevieve Rogers is a retired teacher and solicitor, author of Territory Kids A Memoir, and a Eurovision fan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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