It’s early April and British singer Sam Ryder has just run across a stage in Amsterdam. He’s about to perform in front of 5,000 screaming fans at Eurovision in Concert, a major promo event featuring nearly 30 of this year’s competitors, who have travelled from places including Albania, Armenia and even Ukraine. Wearing a black t-shirt, a baggy denim jacket and oversized trousers, the 32-year-old doesn’t give away that he’s repped by Parlophone, the same label behind David Guetta and Coldplay. He looks more like he’s popping out for some milk or a pack of fags.
It’s this casual, everyman ease that has helped him amass more than 12 million TikTok followers during the pandemic – including Justin Bieber and Sia. It’s serving him well here. Singing “SPACE MAN”, his emotive ballad for Eurovision 2022 (not be confused with the Babylon Zoo song of the same name), he spins in place and sprints towards his guitarist, locks bouncing. His voice glides across varied terrain – from deep and gritty flourishes to a glorious falsetto. In the final minute of the song, the audience wave their arms in unison, everyone bathed in a golden light.
Okay, so – as a longtime Eurovision mega fan, I might be biased (you can read about how I dedicated my life to the song contest here). But it's a well-known fact that we very rarely win Eurovision. We last won in 1997, for the fifth time, with Katrina and the Waves’ “Love Shine a Light.” That was a quarter of a century ago. In the past two contests, the UK has come dead last – an impressive achievement for a nation known across the world for their pop music exports.
Technically, anyone – from an unknown pub singer to an international megastar – can sing at Eurovision, so long as they have an original song. Despite this, the BBC has fielded a lot of wet lettuce. Acts have at times been so bland and out-of-sync with pop music trends that it’s felt like they were filming a mockumentary.
In 2012, the powers-that-be chose Engelbert Humperdinck, then 75 and on the downward slope of his career. In 2015, the honour went to a hastily thrown together duo featuring a Mick Jagger tribute artist performing electro-swing. Poor results have led to more negative coverage, making it more difficult to attract top talent – on both the songwriting and performance side.
A few days later I’m back in London, with “SPACE MAN” looping on my iPhone. At this point, Sam Ryder is sitting firmly in the Top 5 in the betting odds to win. Could it be that the UK finally has another Eurovision winner on its hand? Maybe all it takes is one song that isn't completely crap? But my friends in the murky world of Eurovision betting – yes, this is a thing – caution against unbridled optimism.
“The betting market has reacted positively to Sam's live outings on the pre-Eurovision concert circuit. People find him endearing and there is grounds for optimism in terms of jury appeal for the song,” says Rob Furber, founder and editor-in-chief of entertainmentodds.com.
“But I'm not sure Sam's falsetto is as secure as people think and, at times, his vocal appears strained. There is a good chance the UK hype will continue, but a Top 10 placement is looking more realistic as of now compared to Top 5.”
Patrick Flynn, a Smarkets Politics Analyst and Eurovision betting expert, has read the tea leaves and says a win “is out of the question”.
“The UK gets overrated by betting markets year after year – more than any other country – which is understandable when you consider that most traders on the exchanges are UK-based. The markets tend to go into overdrive at any prospect of the UK doing well, with many people trading based on wish fulfilment rather than objective reality.”
Generally, people tend to think that the UK does poorly because everyone hates us. This might be true for certain people, but British artists like Adele, Dua Lipa and Ed Sheeran regularly slay the charts on the continent. Besides, 14-year-old girls in Bulgaria and Romania watching Eurovision at slumber parties probably don’t think about Brexit’s effects on EU fishing rights when casting their votes. Israel, a country with significantly more prickly international relations than the UK, has won the contest twice since our last victory, and as recently as 2018. The less sexy, but more reasoned, explanation for UK failure is that our entries simply haven’t been up to scratch.
Greig Watts, a music publisher, used to lead the BBC’s search for artists and singers for its national selection contest, which aired between 2016 and 2018. He tells me that negative press surrounding Eurovision over the years has had a knock-on effect on the talent who enters. Artists simply don’t think it’s a look or a vibe.
“It was so difficult to find people due to the negative press about Eurovision,” he says. “I think a lot of media are still judging Eurovision as if it were the 90s or 00s, when it was all gimmicky.” They think of the likes of Katie Price, who entered the UK contest in 2005 dressed as, in her words, “a pink condom” with a “rubbish” song.
We need only glance at other countries in Europe to see how it can be done right. In Sweden and Italy – two of the powerhouses of the song contest – record labels have long understood the power of Eurovision. Every year they push their top and up-and-coming artists into their country’s respective domestic competitions, with an eye on exposure and coin. The month after winning Eurovision in 2021, Måneskin, the youthful and androgynous Italian rockers, wound up with two songs in the Top 10 of the UK charts: “I Wanna Be Your Slave” and a cover of “Beggin’”.
To break the cycle and hopefully inch up the scoreboard this year, the UK have taken cues from Europe by getting a music company involved. The BBC partnered with TAP Music – the company behind Lana Del Rey, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Ellie Goulding and, until recently, Dua Lipa. They worked their contacts – and roster of talent – before landing on Sam and his song “SPACE MAN”. At the same time, they tried to neutralise the toxins floating around the UK Euro-space by having big names – like Dua Lipa and Elton John – big up Eurovision for once. Spice Girl Mel C tweeted: “The Brits make fantastic pop music. Not only that, we invented it! Isn’t it about time we started showing the rest of Europe what we can do and put our best foot forward when it comes to Eurovision?”
This year, more than ever it seems, the Brits are flirting with positivity and optimism. I wonder what Sam Ryder makes of it. How has he melted the cold, bitter hearts of British Eurovision fans hardened by years of disappointment?
“I have no idea,” he says. “But I’ll be singing with the same intention that I have been singing with for years when there was no one else in the room, in empty pubs and clubs and the corner of my shed during lockdown. I always have the same intention – finding joy through music.”
Releasing “SPACE MAN” before it was publicly confirmed as the British entry has also given the public longer than usual to get properly acquainted with the song. As Watts says: “The song was popular already and hadn’t been tagged as ‘a Eurovision song’.” That – along with its millions of streams on Spotify – greased the wheels for BBC producers to add it to the Radio 1 and Radio 2 playlists.
By early May I’m in Turin, host city for this year’s contest, watching rehearsals. I’m partial to “Hold Me Closer” – a folk-pop offering from the Swedish singer Cornelia Jakobs, whose warble and rasp have an intoxicating chain-smoker quality. And then there’s “SloMo” – the reggaeton entry from Spain that comes with a Hollywood-ready stage show. The Cuban-born singer Chanel can lift her leg above her head while singing lyrics like “booty hypnotic” and “I sweeten your face in mango juice”.
Perhaps born of patriotism for my adopted country and the dream of a better day for UK Eurovision fans, I still can’t help but root for Sam. When I see his rehearsal, my jaw drops. He stands in the middle of three giant structures – each made of metal beams and lights – that conjure the Crystal Maze. He wears a black jumpsuit with pearls that form planets and the stars. When the camera pans out, the stage resembles a sci-fi fantasy. During the bridge, Sam pulls out a hidden guitar for an epic riff. The lights flash orange and sparkle.
He tells me he’s limiting his time on the internet to avoid “going down any Eurovision rabbit holes”. That said, he’s still gotten a whiff of the hype surrounding his rehearsals. Ahead of the grand final on the 14th of May, most betting agencies now have him as second favourite to win.
“I’m grateful because it means there’s a wave of positivity at home, and that’s so important to know as an artist,” he says. “To go away and know you’ve got the support of your countrymen and women is so cool.” In the UK, where Eurovision has more recently triggered embarrassment and shame, surely that counts as a win already.
William is the founder and editor of Wiwibloggs — a Eurovision blog and YouTube channel. His forthcoming book ‘Wild Dances: A memoir of love, loss and the Eurovision Song Contest’ will be published by Astra House in Spring 2023.