Byrnexit: the Eurovision we won’t win
Ireland won’t feature in tonight’s Eurovision final, but don’t blame Nicky Byrne. A week in Stockholm tells us that, to win, you have to take the contest far more seriously than anyone in Ireland is prepared to do
On the plane to Stockholm three women are whisper-singing. “We’ll be standing out in the sun-li-ight!” they quietly croon. They are, rather sweetly, trying not to bother the other passengers. “Do you think they’d put it on through the intercom if we ask?” says one of them.
Nicky Byrne, the RTÉ 2FM presenter and former Westlife singer, is Ireland’s entry to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with his song Sunlight. These young women like Byrne very much and will be devastated when he doesn’t make it through to the final.
At the airport they take photographs of one another holding the Dublin flag. They are Judith Potts from Belfast and Gemma Smedley and Sarah Hardy from England. They met each other at Byrne’s gigs.
“I met Sarah in a queue in Doncaster,” says Smedley.
They call themselves Nicky’s Spice Girls.
“I’m Baby Spice,” says Potts, who does seem young. “And I’m Scary Spice,” says Smedley, who doesn’t seem scary.
I am here to write about the Eurovision. My taxi driver is the only person in Stockholm who doesn’t realise it’s on. “I know nothing about that,” he says grumpily, blind to happy people wielding flags.
In the hotel lobby I greet members of the Irish delegation. “Welcome to the madness,” says Marty Whelan, patting my shoulder.
If Ireland were to put its relationship with the Eurovision into a Facebook status update it would read: “It’s complicated.” Back in 1965, when Butch Moore took sixth place with Walking the Streets in the Rain, we were beside ourselves. We won outright seven times, three times in the 1990s.
Then something happened. We started to take Eurovision for granted. This peaked with our decision to send a satirical in-joke to compete in 2008. (“Are you suggesting they still hold Dustin against us?” says Whelan.)
We’ve attempted to select songs with reality-TV shows, mentorship programmes and public votes. We just can’t win. In the past two years we’ve failed to qualify for the final. This year RTÉ unilaterally selected Nicky Byrne, thinking, I presume, that the Westlife-recognition factor would change our losing streak. It did not.
The Eurovision is big. Outside the Globe Arena, which looks like a giant golfball, people mill about. Some have flags draped over their shoulders like nationalistic superheroes. A swarm of immaculately dressed Russians sing Sergey Lazarov’s You Are the Only One. A man strolls by in pirate clothes.
Hammam from Iraq stops busking Adele songs and smokes a cigarette with a faraway look in his eyes.
“This is all a bit commercial for him,” whispers his Italian friend, Anna.
“I came to Sweden because I’m a fan of heavy metal,” says Hammam, who is heavily tattooed. “Nobody told me about Eurovision.”
A man walks by in a red velvet cape and hood. “Are you dressed as Little Red Riding hood?” I ask.
“More like the little man from Don’t Look Now,” says his Scottish friend, Alan Stewart.
“We’re a queer family,” says another friend, Mike Matthews, who is wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
What’s the appeal of the Eurovision?
“Campness, kitschiness,” says Mark Harriott, the man in the hood.
“Europe, coming together,” says Stewart with a dreamy expression
They all laugh at this, because, like the Irish, the British don’t take Eurovision seriously.
“Wait, what if Brexit happens?” says Stewart. “Will we still be welcome?”
The semi-final begins. In the press centre everyone waves flags and cheers when their nation’s performers appear on screen. A bearded young man with a painted face and a flag draped around him sits down beside me. His name is Tural. He’s from Azerbaijan, and he’s surprisingly softly spoken for a man with a flag painted on his face. He’s writing a master’s thesis about Eurovision.
“I’m basically looking at how it affects European identity,” he says.
A lot of people are interested in this. The Brock University academic and sometime Irish Times reporter Karen Fricker ran a conference, sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union, on this subject on Monday.
During the first semi-final the Moldovan singer dances with a spaceman, and an act from Bosnia-Herzegovina features barbed wire and men wearing silver capes (“Had they finished a marathon?” asks Whelan.)
The Czech Republic’s song, I Stand, was cowritten by a Limerick-born teacher, Aidan O’Connor.
O’Connor, a long-time Eurovision attendee, is thrilled to be through to the final.
“I had to explain to some of my students what the Eurovision even is,” he says. “They weren’t born when Ireland used to win.”
At the semi-final there is also an unusually political dance number highlighting the plight of refugees. More pointed political statements, however, are usually frowned on by the European Broadcasting Union. At a press conference afterwards Sergey Lazerev is asked about Russia’s treatment of gay people, and the Armenian singer Iveta Mukuchyan is asked why she earlier brandished the flag of the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is officially in Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani man stands up to rail against this act of provocation.
Sietse Bakker, the outgoing Eurovision event supervisor, tells me that spats like this are “unfortunate but to be expected” and that it’s a testament to Eurovision’s power that those countries can share a stage at all.
Afterwards, at the metro station, I mingle with a crowd waving less contentious flags. There’s no talk of politics but some discussion of geography. Australian fans tell me that they were as confused as everyone else to find that they were European.
“The Eurovision was always the daggiest thing on television,” says Chris North. “But Australians love kitsch and have this fascination with being connected to the rest of the world.”
State of mind
The next day my hotel is filled with Eurovision performers. “I can hear them practising their lines as they pass my room,” says Byrne’s cowriter, Ronan Hardiman.
I sit with Rachel, a Swedish autograph hunter, who holds a Eurovision brochure filled with fluorescent page markings. We see the UK’s Joe and Jake drinking coffee. The Spanish singer Barei zips by. And I commiserate with San Marino’s outgoing singer, Serhat, whose performance involved him being besieged by young women.
“It’s a competition,” he says stoically.
Rachel shows no interest in any of them. She’s looking for the reclusive Norwegian singer Agnete. Is she a big fan of Eurovision? “Not really,” says Rachel. “But I like music and I like autographs.”
Nicky Byrne is floating around too – today he and his team have badges with “shhh!” on them. He’s on voice rest after a week on a rehearsal and meet-and-greet treadmill.
Over the week his rehearsal moves have become more adventurous, in response to the flashier productions of some other acts. Irish fans are becoming more optimistic. “It’s D-Day,” I hear Byrne say to a well-wisher on the morning of the semi-final.
Marty Whelan strolls over. He spends the broadcasts in a commentary box the size of a wardrobe. There’s space for a microphone and an A4 sheet of paper. He and the assistant head of the Irish delegation, Dympna Clerkin, have to sit so close together that their chair legs interlock. “But it’s the best view you could have,” he says.
Has the Eurovision changed? “The idea originally was that you’d unite Europe under one song,” says Whelan. “Well, that made some sense after the second World War, but we live in different times. There are 42 countries now. It’s an entertainment, but it’s the single biggest television entertainment outside the World Cup.”
Whelan thinks international performers are cottoning on to the power of these events – “Just look at Justin Timberlake. ” (Timberlake is to perform at tonight’s final.) Whelan also tells me that some people have plans for an Asian-Pacific version of the contest.
I get the full Eurovision experience when I attend Wednesday’s jury performance. (Singers must perform once for juries, whose votes carry 50 per cent weight in deciding the semi-final winners, and again 24 hours later, for the broadcast.) At the jury performance I am blinded by lasers, deafened by a man shouting “Denmark!” and worried that I’m going to be decapitated by flying camera rigs. I am overwhelmed by the spectacle, I think all the songs are hits, and I feel patriotic when Byrne sings.
Down in Stockholm’s old town, at the Eurovision village, I meet five members of the Irish fan club. I’m hoping they can explain what I’m feeling. They go to every Eurovision and met each other while attending. Gerard Corless, for example, first met Martin Baker when a Johnny Logan song came on late one night in a Moscow club.
For as long as they can remember the contest has been important to them.
“I remember dancing around my grandparents’ kitchen when Johnny Logan first won,” says Frank Dermody.
Dermody and Jonathan Neville got married while attending the Danish Eurovision two years ago. Ironically, Neville says, the plan was to have a quiet wedding.
Last year they were at the Eurovision during the marriage-equality referendum. They all went home to vote, then returned. Corless organised a viewing of the referendum results in a bar in Vienna before going to the final.
Why is the Eurovision so important to them? “It’s about supporting your country,” says Greg Kemp.
“It was the gay World Cup,” says Corless. “I grew up in an Irish society in the 1980s that was very heteronormative, and gay people did not have visibility, and all of a sudden you had this massively camp, colourful musical thing come on your screens, and it was, like, ‘Whoa, there’s a big world out there.’ ”
There’s a discussion about when people first realised that the Eurovision was such a gay event. Karen Fricker says that some academics consider the 1998 contest, won by the transgender performer Dana International, to be the Eurovision’s “coming out”.
Dermody says that was the first year that the concert expanded; attendance opened up, and so gay fans became more visible.
Baker worries about marginalising straight fans by talking about Eurovision as a “gay event”. For him it’s all about the music. “I can honestly say these songs have been the soundtrack of my life.”
They all think Ireland has messed up the song selection in recent decades because we’re not taking the contest seriously.
“The Eurovision modernised, and the productions became a lot bigger,” says Corless. “The songwriting became professional, and we were sending novelties and people from reality shows.”
“We live in the UK,” says Michael McEllone, a dapper Eurovision fan with a Tricolour on his cheek, whom I meet in the Liffey pub before the second semi-final. “With Brexit everything is so anti-European, and you look at the Eurovision, and the European postcards they do, and it’s the opposite.”
There’s also a sense, partly signified by the attendance of Justin Timberlake, that the event is about to be unambivalently embraced by the US music industry. (“America will be in it next,” jokes Corless. “A closed contest featuring Ivana Trump.”)
Back at the hotel bar after Nicky Byrne’s failure to qualify, Byrne sits with his family: his wife, his children and his children’s grandparents (including Bertie Ahern).
“We did everything we could,” says a disappointed Ronan Hardiman.
At the other end of the room Graham Norton watches members of Timberlake’s band sing songs around a piano. The “spice girls” are also here.
“We gave Nicky a big hug when he came in,” says Gemma Smedley. “It’s so unfair. It’s all political.”
So will Ireland ever win the Eurovision again? In the bar, people discuss voting patterns and selection processes. My view, after a week talking to Eurovision fans, is that tinkering with formulas isn’t going to get us to the final. The countries that make it are hugely invested in this contest. They can feel the pulse of the thing, like the fans I’ve met this week.
Byrne delivered a solid stadium-pop performance against explosively big-voiced divas, pop geopolitics and digital set pieces that non-Eurovision fans struggle to understand. It’s not Byrne’s fault that we won’t win.
The Eurovision is big and getting bigger. Love it, loathe it, mock it, perform in it: just remember, it’s bigger than you.
“My favourite moment is during the live transmission when the assistant director counts down,” says Sietse Bakker. “He counts ‘Five, four, three’; then there’s a silence for two seconds before that famous Eurovision tune. In these two seconds of silence 200 million people are waiting.”
The final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2016 is on RTÉ One at 8pm on Saturday, May 14th