A Feature by Tintean’s Eurovision Correspondent, Genevieve Rogers
Well, yes and no. And possibly only maybe…
In Lisbon in May, after five years in the non-qualification desert, Ireland returned to the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest. And not before time either for the nation which currently holds the all-time record for wins. As Sweden inches ever closer to Ireland’s record, four NQs in a row were raising questions about both RTE’s commitment and Ireland’s Eurovision talent pool.
Kasey Smith, Molly Sterling, Nicky Byrne and Brendan Murray – all had fallen short between 2014 and 2017, with Ryan Dolan the last Irish qualifier in 2013. Both Molly and Brendan were fresh faces, while Kasey and Nicky brought some experience from group careers. None conquered the Big Stage of The Biggest Song Contest with its audience of 200 million Europeans, Honorary Europeans and Australians.
Typically, at this point in my review, I would list what went wrong in tedious detail (see my last review), so it is quite a pleasure to be able to list what went right this time round.
Ryan O’Shaughnessy, nephew of Gary O’Shaughnessy (Eurovision 2001 performer), came to the task with considerable professional experience as both child actor/actor (‘Fair City’) and singer/songwriter. Pre-contest, he made some well-chosen public remarks which indicated that he understood the Contest and had some regard for its history and conventions.
A good start, as he set about writing and performing a song very clearly grounded in Ireland’s previous winning tradition, the romantic ballad, but lifted into the modern Contest mainstream by referencing the end of a gay romance. Though not gay himself, Ryan channelled Ireland’s lightning fast conversion to liberal progressivism to an audience inherently primed for the message. Smart move, Ireland – or was it?
After taking flak in recent years for under-commitment, RTE came to the party with a more serious approach, holding a song writing camp and generally showing elevated levels of interest.
The Portuguese ban on LED screens had the general effect of requiring stage designers to use more imaginative approaches than in recent years, to the overall benefit of the 2018 show. The Irish entry positively bloomed in the new conditions. A simple concept – the singer with a guitar at the mic, accompanied by a female pianist – came to life with the entry of the two male dancers (whose appearance was rewarded with wild enthusiasm at each performance.) The whole effect was restrained, with just the right amount of colour and movement. And a strategic touch of atmospheric snow for effect. Sometimes less is more.
In the modern Contest all of the above are – or ought to be – unsurprising. As record labels increasingly monitor Eurovision performances for new talent, slick production standards are the norm: only those national broadcasters that seriously do not wish to win send undercooked acts to this now hi-tech fest. Ireland and UK have been slower than most to engage with this trend, leaving the field to Continental pacesetters to capitalise on the opportunity presented by a television audience of 200 million. This disengagement has been partly a product of music snobbery from an Anglophone industry with bigger fish to fry; and partly of a sort of wilful blindness on the part of the national broadcasters to the implications of globalised entertainment. The internet has completely changed the face of Eurovision – and there is no longer any place to hide for publicly-funded broadcasters with an attitude problem. It’s go big, or go home – and a half-hearted entry is now a national embarrassment.
That said, Ireland was not especially fancied as rehearsals in Lisbon got underway. As in each year, the Eurovision press was largely preoccupied with the more controversial entries and obvious frontrunners. In a field of 42 the subtler entries struggle to catch their attention – and the bookies reflect the activity around them in a feedback loop that is hard to disrupt. Ireland remained unappreciated in the bottom third of the pre-Contest rank order. Until the Semi-Final.
Every year – and this is one of the delights of the Contest – underrated entries, polished in rehearsal and favoured by a good draw in the running order, emerge from the pack and touch a nerve with audiences. So it was with Ireland and ‘Together’. With the first hurdle, qualification to the Final, out of the way a very strange thing happened. Ireland, which had languished at No.30, went overnight to No.3 with the bookies – and a school of thought developed that Ireland could win if the two frontrunners, Israel and Cyprus, split the vote at the top of the board!
It was not to be – but the mere possibility would have been unthinkable in recent years. In the event, Ireland finished 16thin the Final, a respectable showing but strangely out of synch with the upward trajectory in the betting markets. So what happened?
Eurovision delivered, as it always does, a lesson in the state of the zeitgeist, for those who wish to learn it. The Contest has long been a sympathetic environment for Europe’s gay communities, being at least a generation ahead of governments in acceptance. It has long been known as Gay Christmas. Only the Eastern bloc countries have resisted, with annual outbursts from public figures, especially from Russia, about degeneracy and other ills of civilisation as gay performers have starred.
So the choice of the two gay dancers was inspired. Nothing in the lyrics adverted to the sexual orientation of the couple leaving the visuals to do the work, reminding the audience that Ireland had joined the ranks of countries which had legalised same sex marriage. It was the live audience in the arena, with its gay communities from dozens of countries represented, that gave the dancers such a huge reception. They were cheering the dancers certainly – but they were also very clearly cheering Ireland.
The enthusiasm of the arena audience may have led to an extrapolation of that response into the betting odds. Suddenly, Ireland had serious competitive cred for the Final.
But again, Eurovision delivered – this time a lesson in realpolitik. Had only Western countries voted in the Final the outcome might have matched the odds, but the Contest now embraces the former Eastern bloc in significant numbers. Although 2018 was the year in which the Eastern bloc itself was wiped out in the Semi-Finals, those countries nevertheless vote in the Final. And when the votes were counted they sent Ireland and the West a message: not happy!
An interesting side note: When Ireland first released the song and video in the months ahead of the Contest, a rumour – regarded rather cynically as a publicity stunt – circulated that Russia would refuse to screen the Irish entry because of the gay theme in the staging. (This is no trite matter as countries are required by the EBU rules to screen the entire show or suffer heavy penalties which may include expulsion.) In the event, Russia did no such thing – but Mango TV China duly obliged.
Mango TV China is not a participant in Eurovision but was in talks with the EBU for future prospects of joining. At Semi-Final stage, both Albania (tattoos) and Ireland (gays) were cut from the broadcast and a rainbow flag in the arena was blurred from the arena coverage. That was, as they say, the end of that. Mango TV was denied further broadcasts and the discussions were terminated. Immediately.
Mojo – or not?
So, has Ireland got its Eurovision mojo back? Or was this return to the Final an interesting fluke? Or both, or neither?
I think it was a case of strange convergences. The song was delicate; the vocals were adequate (though better in the Semi- Final than the Final); the staging was both superbly targeted and perfectly restrained; and the arena audience lifted the performance with its genuine embrace of the message. Everything was right on the night!
But a note of caution: Eurovision is so far ahead of governments on the gay rights issue that gay references have become almost cliched at the Contest. In the last few years gratuitous additions of rainbows to the visuals (Italy and Croatia 2017) have struck almost a patronising note – as if the gay communities of Europe, East and West, will vote for any entry simply because it displays the flag. The gay community is the most sophisticated communal consumer of this particular cultural product, and it would be a mistake to assume that there is an unlimited appetite for rainbow flags and gay dancers. Just this once, fine. But this was the ‘Welcome to the Club’ reception. If I were RTE I would be judicious about these choices in the future.
On balance, I think Ireland has gone a long way towards getting its mojo back but I want to see this year’s success replicated before passing final judgement. This was a good entry – but maybe also a lucky one. Let’s see what RTE can do next year, and perhaps the year after that, before we can be definitive. The signs are all there that RTE is trying, and success may breed success. With Sweden closing in on the record, luck, even Irish luck, will not be enough.
Genevieve Rogers, Eurovisionary, is Tintean’s Special Eurovision Correspondent.