For a competition we once dominated, we make a lot of excuses for our failures. Isn't it time we changed the record?
Time of death: 9:40pm local time on the stage of the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden. Cause of death: terminal blandness. Another year, another failure to get out of the semis and into the grande finale of television’s barmiest spectacle of questionable musical talent, the Eurovision Song Contest.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, made all the worse by the hosts reminding all of the viewers that Ireland still holds the record for the most wins by any country, having racked up seven in the show’s 61-year history, four of those coming in a five-year spell of never-to-be-repeated 90s success. But it’s now 20 years since we took the title in Oslo, and three years since we actually qualified to even compete for the final. The last time we did, we came (admittedly, undeservedly) last. Where did it all go wrong?
Attitude, probably. In a show that is all about spectacle and showy pop music squeezed into 180 seconds, last night’s show treated its viewers to a large number of solo performers. So when Nicky Bryne, the perfectly, harmlessly nice fourth lead singer of a four-piece boyband best known musically for rising from his stool at the key change, took to the stage surrounded by a band, there was the possibility of standing out from the crowd.
Byrne, I truly believe, did his best in Stockholm, but there is absolutely no point in denying he was anywhere close to being a good enough live performer to sell the forgettable song RTÉ had chosen to represent us – and that he had helped to compose. His singing voice, wavering weakly in and out of tune, was matched by a performance style so static, it appeared his left leg was anchored to stage while he wanly moved as if dodging bullets like Neo in The Matrix. When Byrne’s leg finally woke up, he crouched and crab-walked his way across the stage, like Bono stalking his prey.
Look, silence your cries that this is a song contest – the word vision has always been a part of it. Skirts have been ripped off, pyrotechnics have fizzled, viewers with photosensitive epilepsy have been warned. And when it came to staging Sunlight, whoever directed this production clearly had no vision; a would-be anthem about sunshine staged in gloomy black and red lights, pitched somewhere between NASA’s footage of Mercury’s solar transit and two roadies being eaten by Spike and Drusilla in The Bronze.
“Touch who you wanna / Kiss who you gotta,” the song advises in its chorus, presumably an allusion by the songwriters to how they got our national broadcaster to pick it for the contest.
Does being an island nation on the western fringes of the continent really mean we run afoul of bloc voting? Yes, there probably is enough truth in that. Sharing a land border with only one other country in the competition, brand Ireland doesn’t have as much cache in the contest as it did when only 20 countries took part. Now that more than double do, finding their votes is harder than ever. But this is something we’ve known now for at least a decade, and rolling out the same old excuses while rolling out the same insipid and bland songs year in, year out is a vote-winning strategy straight out of the ‘Keep the Recovery Going’ playbook.
Yes, there are countries that are not in Europe in the competition. That’s also been true since 1973, when Israel made its debut with Ilanit, singing cheerily about finding the garden of love while wearing a bulletproof vest on stage out of fear that a sniper hidden in the audience in Luxembourg would shoot her. The definition of Europe has changed a lot since 1956. Australia got through to the final because they sent a better song, not because of novelty.
It’s high time we changed the record, in every way; if we want to win the Eurovision again – and as a child of the 90s who fondly remembers with rose-tinted nostalgia what that was like – we have to have more ambition. We have to stop thinking that a song that finds favour in front of the small sets of RTÉ’s chat shows can fill the voluminous arenas and massive stages on which the Eurovision takes place, let alone the millions of TV screens around the world. We have to send a song with a strong singer, a catchy hook, a dazzling production, and then hope for a bit of luck.
Or to put it another way, if the novelty opening number performed by the two hosts is, in every way imaginable, better than the song we send to compete, has the sun set on Ireland’s Eurovision hopes?