What’s another year? Another disaster is what

Ireland needs to stop treating the Eurovision Song Contest as if it can be reverse-engineered

Sincere: Conchita Wurst. Photograph: Mogens Flindt/Scanpix Denmark/Reuters

Sincere: Conchita Wurst. Photograph: Mogens Flindt/Scanpix Denmark/Reuters

Sat, May 17, 2014, 01:00

It’s a week since Eurovision. The event has packed up its flamethrowers. The Ukranians have pointed their human hamster wheel homewards. The Polish milkmaids have delivered their butter to market. It’s all over for another year. Most of us have moved on.

Except in some corner of RTÉ, where I imagine a grotty glitterball turns slowly, a faded and dog-eared Johnny Logan poster hangs from the wall, and beneath it a handful of people must be replaying 17 years of near-total failure.

They have once again been asked to come up with a new way to choose an entry. It is up to them to try to crack the Eurovision formula. Except they seem not only to have no idea what that formula is but also to have been using ingredients that they have never understood, are out of date and have proven useless before.

Pop music remains the most obvious problem for Ireland. There is no great tradition of it here. There is a tradition of rock, folk and balladry, but so many of the other influences that feed into modern pop music – hip hop, R&B, disco, gospel, soul, jazz – are alien to the country’s musical heritage. Think of all the half-decent pop singers this country has produced. You could count them on the digits of Michael Jackson’s single glittered glove.

Yet because that’s what we thought Europe wanted, that’s what we have given them, in a package that betrays Ireland’s attendant lack of experience in putting on a show. (When Europeans think cabaret, they do not think Tops of the Town.)

It has meant that when Ireland’s Eurovision entries have tried the pop spectacular, they have done so while reading from a list of instructions rather than from the heart. And throwing in a couple of years of Celtic codology, as a suggestion of a native twist, has only emphasised the artificiality of it all – or, worse, the insincerity.

Listen to the recent Eurovision winners and, regardless of what you might think of the songs, you cannot accuse of them of insincerity.

Ireland’s selection process has further compounded the problem. The belief that a talent-show or viewer-vote element will somehow throw up a star means ignoring that genre’s almost unblemished record in doing no such thing. Almost no act of any great note has emerged through Irish TV talent shows.

You could point to Kodaline, but they changed the band’s name first, effectively entering a witness-protection programme for former talent-show contestants.

All the while RTÉ has tried to react to whatever Eurovision trend seems obvious – inevitably adopting it a year or more behind the curve.

Ireland sent a novelty act only to irritate a by-then-jaded Europe. When Jedward came closest to hitting a strong mix of fun and pop they were entered again only to find the joke wasn’t funny any more.

Ireland sent a chorus line of topless dancers just as successful acts used stripped-down staging. And we stuck with badly delivered pop just as great ballads came back in vogue.

The top four acts in last weekend’s competition were performed without backing singers, or dancers. Instead, they veered between simple spotlights and a roaring tsunami of flames. And each was a big song; powerful, well orchestrated, beautifully delivered and timeless.

It was interesting how quickly the view of Conchita Wurst as a novelty act changed. She sang wonderfully, amid staging that was dramatic only when necessary. And her song, Rise Like a Phoenix, was one you could well imagine belting out on a wedding dance floor in the small hours.

A surprise was the runner-up, the Netherland’s Americana effort. Its success must have driven the Irish contingent mad. “Country! You like country music? We can actually do that. Why didn’t you just tell us?”

It was only when we got to the fifth- and sixth-place songs (interpretive dance to lyrics about child abuse; a man running in the giant hamster wheel) that things took a proper turn for the silly. And even then it worked, because, no matter how ridiculous it was, the sincerity was clear. If Eurovision does have a formula, this has to be a key ingredient.

Ireland, though, has delivered mostly artificiality and desperation in swinging between predictable points: going for an unsuccessful stab at pop (Dustin the Turkey’s wasn’t even really a song) before retreating, wounded, to the safety blanket of a 1990s-throwback ballad.

And so RTÉ goes off once again to figure out what it needs to do. Will it work? It won’t be easy, but one thing seems clear: there is no point in approaching Eurovision as a foreign language that you cannot quite understand.

And there is certainly no use in trying to respond in a language you’ve never spoken fluently.

@shanehegarty
shegarty@irishtimes.com

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