Eurovision Song Contest: Is It Time For Ireland To Take A Break?

A Post-Mortem by Genevieve Rogers, Tinteán‘s Special Eurovision Correspondent.

The Problem:

For the fourth consecutive year, Ireland has failed to qualify for the Final of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Now that’s a problem on many levels, not least of which is that, like all public broadcasters involved, RTÉ spends significant amounts of money on it. (Last year, €300,000 plus.) But money aside, it’s also a problem because the failure is a very public spectacle, in an arena which is increasingly credible as a platform for nation-branding.

Except, of course, in the Anglophone Eurovision world. In that increasingly isolated rump, viz United Kingdom and Ireland, old habits die hard. While other countries, to varying degrees, seize the opportunities offered by participation in a televised, Pan-European event with a viewing reach of 180-200 million, the Anglophone countries are mired in a confusion largely of their own making…

No sooner had I typed the preceding paragraph than RTÉ Eurovision presenter, Marty Whelan, helpfully saved me a considerable amount of explanatory work by sharing the following with The Independent (3rd June 2017):

We need to be in the final so we’re just going to see if we can come up with another formula…We’re doing the best we can. There’s nothing wrong with it (emphasis added)…Normally it’s pyrotechnics and dancers and miniskirts and shouting and roaring. It wasn’t that this year, it was different…So you just try and send the best you can.

That’s the problem. Right there. There is so much wrong with that statement that I barely know where to start. But let’s go to first things first.

Brendan Murray

Ireland’s 2017 entry, Dying To Try, was sung by 20 year old boyband alumnus, Brendan Murray, from Tuam, Galway. Thanks to the splendours of the internet it is now possible, from far-flung corners, to observe the participants closely as they do the rounds of the pre-Contest fan concerts, press conferences, meet-and greets, vlog interviews, civic receptions and every other conceivable form of public event. And to form a view of the contestant as he/she responds to the challenges of this kind of exposure. It is safe to say, then, that Ireland could not have had a better ambassador than Brendan Murray on the ground in Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine. For charm, grace, personality and respect for the Contest and its demands, he would be hard to beat. Mr Congeniality.

It is also possible to watch every rehearsal of every entry from the first tentative run-through to the finished product, and to observe its evolution in the hi-tech environment which is the core business of the Contest. To his great personal credit, Brendan Murray delivered consistently on the stage and carried that consistency through to his performance in Semi Final 2. He also sang every note of his song – a strange thing to commend, you might think – unlike some performers who, lacking that ability, relied on unseen backing singers to take high notes beyond their reach. (All perfectly within the rules, but not as impressive as a singer who carries the full load, live, before a massive viewership.)

So, well done, Brendan Murray. He was not the issue.

The entry

Ireland’s entry was not without its problems – but neither was it without its supporters.

As soon as the song was released it ran into a storm of criticism. Murray’s voice has a unique, high-pitched quality which is polarising. The song itself is a ballad, a plodder, with a stand-out key change (in Eurovision parlance, a Truckdriver’s Gear Change) which, while it increased the musical range, felt clichéd. The song would have been quite a home at Eurovision in the 1990s.

Which brings us to the distinction between ‘timeless’ (2017 winner, Portugal) and ‘dated’ (2017 Ireland, and, for company, Malta.) While many of us might struggle to define where that line is, most of us will be able to recognise it when we hear it. And that is precisely what happened at Eurovision 2017. ‘Dated’. Songs. Failed. (RTÉ, please note.)

Some positives emerged around the Irish entry. The withdrawal of Russia in a diplomatic spat with the Ukraine authorities meant that, instead of a field of 19 in Semi Final 2, Ireland had only 8 to beat to qualify. Theoretically, this improved its chances. Additionally, the show’s producers gave Ireland a prime slot in the running order – No. 9, the lowest spot in the first half of the draw, right in the middle of the show – also theoretically improving its chances. And an internationally respected stage designer devised the staging.

The blogosphere was divided but there was, at least, a general consensus that Ireland was a borderline qualifier, in the range of ninth-twelfth. The Top 10 entries, as voted by a combination of juries and televotes, proceed to the Final. So Ireland was considered to be within striking distance in what was considered the weaker Semi Final. In the event, it placed thirteenth, with 86 points.

The potential was there to tweak this entry over the line – but mistakes were made. Having flown the ‘gospel choir’ singers to Kiev, the delegation chose not to put them onstage. Instead, their impressive vocals were heard but they were not seen. (2017 was remarkable as the Year of the Disappearing Backing Singers with many delegations choosing to hide them.) The stage performance was static – Murray barely moved throughout – so that, as a visual element, the choir might have added texture and movement. The coloured hot air balloon on a dark landscape was striking – but nothing was done to it or with it to link it to the lyrics of the song. And so on…

Even with those or other tweaks, this entry was still borderline. And is there any other international competitive event to which Ireland would send an entry which was clearly just ‘borderline’?

The World Cup For People Who Don’t Like Football

Or, The Olympics For People Who Don’t Like Sport. That’s Modern Eurovision. (RTÉ, please note). Every year without fail since 1956, the European Broadcasting Union has staged the Eurovision Song Contest. Every. Single. Year. That in itself is impressive – given the vicissitudes of post-War Europe, the language and cultural divides, wealth and infrastructure differences between host nations and any number of political and diplomatic crosswinds. Not every four years, like the World Cup or the Olympics. Every year!

Since the breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the expansion of ‘Europe’, the number of competing countries has grown to 42 and the scale of the Eurovision project has increased to reflect that. The event is now, to borrow a Trumpism, ‘yuge’.

Both Nicky Byrne and Brendan Murray, on returning to Ireland post-Contest have remarked on that, and a certain disconnect between the reality of the scale and the perception of it in Ireland. It is no longer – nor has it been for two decades – an event that could be staged in Millstreet.

Nor is it just a bigger version of Millstreet: it is almost a completely different beast. Technological advances – which are, after all, the core business of the EBU – have changed the Contest itself; record companies have discovered a previously untapped market; and obscure countries wishing to attract tourism and investment have recognised its potential as a showcase.

The Eurovision Song Contest has become a Juggernaut of agendas, technological peacockry and cultural intermingling. It is big ideas and big business – with a big public relations payoff for countries that invest time and energy into it.  A case in point: Ukraine, 2017, which has won high levels of European acceptance in polls conducted after this Contest. And, to boot, won the propaganda war in the diplomatic stoush with Russia. Not a bad outcome for hosting a song contest!

So, why would any country send a ‘borderline’ entry which would have sat well in Millstreet in 1993 to Kiev in 2017 – and then complain about the outcome?

What to do

I offer the following in constructive spirit as someone who has, prior to Australia’s involvement, used Ireland as my point of tribal engagement with Eurovision for decades.

Tery Wogan Eurovision commentator for the BBC 1997-2008

(1) Irish media and commentators: Take a Vow of Silence in regard to Ireland’s past winning record until Ireland achieves a Top 10 result. Those wins are no longer useful reference points, being from a different century and before mass televoting. Also, abandon the words ‘kitsch’, ‘camp’, ‘tacky’ and ‘trashy’ as general descriptors and use them only selectively, where they actually apply. If you change your tone, your listeners, readers and viewers will have a fighting chance of understanding what is actually going on.

(2) Abandon Woganism: With the greatest respect to the late Sir Terry Wogan, it has been apparent for many years that his self-proclaimed ‘laughing at foreigners’ approach to Eurovision caused both United Kingdom and Ireland to lose touch with the Contest. While his frustration with the voting patterns of certain periods is understandable, it is a poor launching pad for a view of the modern Contest. As much as his acerbic take on the sillier excesses of some periods (all explicable but for another discussion) was amusing and fashionable, it also normalised the idea that Eurovision was beneath ‘real’ musical taste.

(3) Study the Modern Contest: Stop making and watching compilation shows which selectively highlight only extreme entries from the past, having only a ‘confirmation bias’ effect. If you don’t understand it and you keep caricaturing, misreading and disrespecting it, Eurovision will continue to send your entries packing while it gets on with evolving. Study the post-2010 Contests. These are relevant to the modern show: anything prior to that lacks the technological complexity of the contemporary.

(4) Take advice from appropriate sources:  Other small countries have achieved Eurovision success. Ask them how they did it. Take advice from the Academic Research Network, a multi-disciplinary project which has developed around the Contest, analysing and interpreting every aspect from voting to language to musical trends. Talk to music industry professionals in Europe who know the target audience i.e. Europe in 21st century.

(5) Study the blogosphere: A vast body of Eurovision journalism has developed as the net and social media have become involved. Watch it, read it, engage with its language, insights and interpretation. That’s where the fans are expressing themselves. The fans who also happen to be voters.

I could go on, but these steps would be a useful start – and might perhaps enlighten Marty Whelan and anyone else who shares his view that all is not right and well in Ireland’s Eurovision project.

The results tell the story. And Europe is taking note. Case in point: the Norwegian juror who publicly announced that the Irish had ‘completely lost their way’ with Eurovision – and was promptly sacked, as he made these remarks on Norwegian television before a single note was sung at this year’s Contest. The incident gained unfortunate publicity from Ireland’s point of view because, although fans agreed that his bias was showing and unacceptable, the spotlight went onto the content. And many people agreed with him.

Maybe Ireland Needs A Break From Eurovision

The Eurovision Song Contest attempts to achieve three sometimes conflicting goals at once:

(i)   It is primarily a television spectacular – so looks matter!

(ii) Concurrently, it is an arena show for approx.10,000 fans who stand for hours to experience it in  person and travel from all over the world  – something which is often at odds with the requirements of television:

(iii) It is also a competition – that’s the point!

That makes Eurovision a unique musical universe. It takes a rather exceptional entry to survive those competing pressures and capture something in the European zeitgeist at the same time – and yet every year someone returns home with the Glass Microphone and the promise of hosting the next competition. Every year someone works out how to do it. Why shouldn’t that be Ireland?

It certainly won’t be Ireland if attitudes do not change. If the media continue their tired clichéd approach, talking down the Contest, practically daring ‘real’ musicians to stay away, and infecting the Irish public with their outdated sanctimony, there will be no change in Ireland’s fortunes at Eurovision. It will take time to re-educate the Irish public about the Contest, given the spectacular success of the negative narrative to date.

Maybe RTE should take some of that time, and follow the examples of both Ukraine and Portugal in recent years. Both took a year out – and won the Contest on return in 2106 and 2017 respectively. Maybe a circuit-breaker is needed, a complete step away from the annual pressures of resourcing an entry. At the moment all the signs are that a break would be a blessed relief for all concerned. It can hardly be worse than the current situation, with more reputational damage to come if no one bothers to do some homework on the modern Contest.

For everyone’s sake, take that break, RTE!

Genevieve Rogers

Genevieve Rogers, Eurovisionary, is Tintean’s Special Eurovision Correspondent.

3 thoughts on “Eurovision Song Contest: Is It Time For Ireland To Take A Break?

  1. It’s a strange and interesting world – Brendan Murray’s song has gone to No 1 in the charts in Armenia since the Contest. Armenia, in the South Caucasas….

    • Maybe this phenomenon has changed your mind about the need for Ireland to take a holiday from the contest? Good to think that Brendan’s song got a run outside the competition.

      • No. I haven’t changed my mind. Post-contest sales are a music industry matter. Quite quirky. In-contest success is the business of the national broadcasters. That’s where RTE needs to focus – even if it takes a year or two of reflection.
        I agree about Brendan though.

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