Our UK-based editor Joe B dispels his first thoughts about the UK’s entry and what it means for a country with a tricky relationship with the Contest.
You can listen to Sam Ryder’s song, “Space Man”, here:
When, in May 2021, the UK did the unthinkable even for a country used to bad Eurovision results for the last 20 years, scoring a doughnut from both the public and the juries, virtually every British Eurofan screamed in unison that the BBC and the British mindset at large were still not learning the lessons of Jemini way back in 2003. I proposed that the UK needed an “Anouk moment”, recalling the Netherlands’ decline and rise to Eurovision triumph following a change in public and broadcaster opinion when Anouk, their highly-successful crooner, came 8th in Malmö in 2013, before they went on to win for the first time in 44 years in Tel Aviv 6 years later. I guess you could also refer to Switzerland’s “Hänni moment” in the same vein, there are many examples of this turnaround.
Unfortunately, this prospect seems to have its own challenges when trying to replicate it for a UK audience, who pile unimaginable scorn, pressures and challenges onto its Eurovision entrants in a way I can’t think any other country regularly would. Every time the UK does badly at Eurovision, like clockwork, legions of outrage-mongers will take to the Twitley-Ditleys and proclaim the fallacy: “Oh, but we could send Adele and we’d still come last! Everyone hates us!!!!1!11!” For the average British viewer, Eurovision is a one-night-only extravaganza, an excuse to laugh at foreigners and then somehow feel indignation when our middling entries, performed by that year’s fairly competent X Factor reject, pail in comparison to the Italian pop-chart destroyers and the literal reincarnation of Edith Piaf. Outside factors, be it Brexit, Covid vaccines, national stereotypes or just “politics”, are often go-to explanations. And the worst part is that, to some extent, the BBC has bought into this pervading mythos.
Last year, I explained that, actually, despite me not agreeing that Adele was the solution to all our Eurovision problems, she would probably do very well. I gave three reasons why: 1) she has a huge Europe-wide fanbase, 2) it would show the UK is taking the Contest seriously, and 3) she is incapable of writing and performing a bad song (and now 30 has backed me up even more on this point). This was precisely everything we got wrong with James Newman last year, and, dare I say it, not all of it was his fault. He seemed to have a lot of passion about the song, and we can’t forget that when the studio version was first released, it sounded quite good, and it did find a significant UK following who were unironically applauding it. Unfortunately, you can’t win Eurovision with a Love Island soundtrack.
The main problems were: despite the dynasty he belongs in, Newman was a relatively unknown, untested performer at that scale, the staging was terrible and the giant trumpets looked like a veiled brassy piss-slap at the idea of Eurovision, pyro was only added after much pressure from the fans and fan media, and even that didn’t help the fact that the song, live, wasn’t very good. It had no natural progression, and no “wow” moment on-stage. It was the same instrumental chorus every time. If Newman had wrapped his mouth around one of the trumpets before going full-Mnozil Brass on an equally-giant trombone, maybe that would’ve earned us some whackadoodle points, a la Alf Poier. Not that I want to give the BBC any ideas, of course.
So, finally, we come to 2022, and the worst-kept secret in the business. Sam Ryder, a 30-something singer, performer and TikToker from Chelmsford, will be flying the Union Flag in Turin. The signs were all there: his song, Space Man, was made “Tune Of The Week” on Radio 1, little Scott Mills awoke from his Eurovision slumber three months too late to tell us to “get behind” the thing to Chris Stark, who could not have cared less when there’s Gaitan and Calum Scott to talk about (I literally just googled “UK charts” and wrote down the first two names I saw – I assume they’re very good, they’re near the top), and Ryder himself was posting hints to his 3.5 million Instagram followers. Alas, Brooke’s hushed, dreamy rumours about London Grammar from a few weeks ago are now confirmed to be totally untrue, but in Ryder, we have some talking points to cover.
Ryder has never set foot on a TV talent show stage, already a rarity by recent UK form. His career is entirely online, and for the online community. His stardom first rose when he was noticed by the likes of Justin Bieber, Sia and Alicia Keys for his TikTok snippets, making him the most viewed British artist of the first Covid lockdown. Indeed, the man has chops. I was particularly impressed by his rendition of Wicked’s “Defying Gravity”, which is currently doing the rounds all over social media as an example of the range and vocal prowess this lad is capable of. While Newman had 33,000 TikTok followers at the start of his Eurovision journey, Ryder has over 12 million. With Eurovision audiences skewing younger every year, this can only be good news.
⭐ STAGEY SMILE OF THE DAY ⭐
Here’s Sam Ryder, the UK’s newly announced Eurovision 2022 entry, slaying Defying Gravity from Wicked ✨
You’re welcome 💚 lol X x x pic.twitter.com/rEuUk1myts
— Theatre Fan (@ShaunTossell) March 10, 2022
So, we have a vocally-competent artist who’s very popular with the kids, including many in Europe, and off the back of the new deal with TaP Music, who’ve so far proven that they’re not “all-mouth-no-trousers” following their endorsement from the likes of Dua Lipa and Sir Elton John, there is a whiff that the UK is taking the Contest seriously. That’s two of the Adele ticks. Now for the third – the song. And for me, that’s where part of the danger lies.
Space Man is a good song. And I know, we’re now in that phase where British Twitterites will only ever say “it’s a WINNER!” or “it’s RUBBISH!”, and I know I was closer to the wrong side of that ridiculous binary last year, but I do think there are reasons to be optimistic about the song. While it’s not the sort I’d listen to personally, that’s a matter of taste. I’m not keen on the music of Lewis Capaldi, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man and any British act that likes to shout a bit. For me, it’s a 7 out of 10 at best. But it has an audience, and a big one. It reflects the current British music scene in a way Embers only ironically did. The reaction online has been overwhelmingly positive, both inside and outside the British Isles. For now, you don’t have to scroll down to see “United Kingdom” sitting proud near the top of MyEurovisionScoreboard.com (which, as is well-known, contributes to 50% of the voting).
The structure of the song is fairly competent, and I can see potential for a “wow” moment. The hook is memorable, and not in a cheesy way. And there is care put into it: the fact that it was released to great public adulation before the announcement, people know the song and expect it to do well in the charts, something your average Brit doesn’t usually acknowledge the existence of outside Christmas but still a time-honoured litmus test in the music industry itself for the staying power of a track. It also already has two heavily-produced music videos, one with a nostalgic trip back to the BBC’s Ceefax service on old analogue television, and one, released today, that features Ryder flying in an armchair above a fairly avant-garde London, Mac Tonight-style. As the old adage goes: if you build it, they will come. And come they have. The UK is currently 5th in the odds. Suddenly, what I referred to last year as “the dizzying heights of the left-hand-side of the board”, which the UK has not reached since 2011, might not seem so outlandish.
So…are we heading for an Anouk moment? In spite of all of this, somehow, I still doubt it. The fear may be down to the fact that I have experienced exactly one decent UK result since I started watching in 2005, so something has to go wrong somewhere. It’s science. That fear will either exacerbated or put to rest by the staging, and past experience is not pointing in a great direction. Such highlights from the BBC’s delegation that have totally messed up even remote competition chances have included Blue’s “body doubles”, Newman’s “polystyrene brass”, Josh Dubovie’s “IKEA packing crates”, Electro Velvet’s “neon goodness” and several incidences of just…floor. What is a highly classy, current and well-liked song could easily be turned into a gimmicky mess. Woe betide any fool who puts our boy Sammy in a spacesuit with a Union flag on the breast plate, a la Igranka.
We know Ryder has it in him to perform live in his kitchen-diner and living room. But on a Eurovision stage, totally non-competitive songs can suddenly come to life, and vice versa. Ryder’s chops will (hopefully) be eaten up by the juries with a side of mash and greens, but that’s never been the weakness of the UK. Where Lucie Jones and Jade Ewen wowed the audience with their vocal and performance ability, they came up short with the public, either due to bland staging or the fact that their songs were outshone by whackier, more unique ones. In Lucie’s case, dramatically short, claiming just 12 points from the televote in 2017. That’s why the “wow” moment is so important. It doesn’t have to be a gimmick, but it has to be there. Of course, amazing vocals have been enough in the past, in the case of Salvador Sobral and Duncan Laurence, but in those cases, the songs were so wildly different to anything else in the Contest that that was part of the appeal. Ryder may need extra help in a year full of hairy men singing about their feelings to strings.
As for an “Anouk moment” that changes public opinion, well, good luck with that. Another worry, pointed out by our very own Joe S, could be a British fan’s paradox, which goes that, if the efforts to make the song a hit in the UK pay off, yet Ryder falls short at Eurovision, this could make the “everyone hates us” myth even more pervasive, to the point where even Eurofans themselves get sucked in, and there’s no going back from that. It’s fair to say the experts are perhaps not as optimistic as the casual fans and non-fans. We’re just lucky that it will be the latter two groups who’ll mostly be deciding Ryder’s fate come May.
What do you think of Ryder’s song? Do you think it’s a ‘Boom Bang-a-Bang’-er, or just a ‘Cry Baby’? Let us know in the comments and on social media!