Reynir Þór Eggertsson has a PhD in Icelandic and Danish literary history, he teaches Icelandic and Danish at the high school Menntaskólinn í Kópavogi—and he has a strong passion for Eurovision. “I’ve always been interested in languages, and when I was growing up, Eurovision was one of the few times a year one could hear all those beautiful languages, both spoken and sung,” he explains. “Also, I’m kind of a statistics nerd, so the voting system was an added bonus. Plus I do like music and glitter. And I’m gay.” Since 2008, he has been predicting Eurovision winners on an Icelandic TV show called “Alla Leið” (“All The Way”). We dropped him a line to see if he could break this craze down for us…
How did you come to be one of the country’s foremost Eurovision enthusiasts, maybe second only to pop-star Páll Óskar?
I guess it’s all Páll Óskar’s fault, really. We’ve been friends for 22 years and he’s always known about my obsession with the contest. In 1996 we were on the Icelandic jury together, and when he was preparing for Dublin in 1997, we worked a lot together to get the online Eurovision Song Contest community to notice him. He made some journalists aware of me and it basically took off from there. Then I participated in some TV gigs and people saw something in me they liked, so I’ve been invited back on TV again and again. I think it’s mainly because Icelanders, most of us really love this contest—I mean even hipsters participate in the televoting—and I guess people respect me for being so open about my love for it.
How would you explain Eurovision and its mass appeal to people like Americans who generally have no idea what this competition is all about?
It’s a competition where each country sends one three-minute song, performed in whatever language people want. The viewers at home phone in their votes, and each country also has a jury. The public votes and the jury votes are combined and the top 10 from each country gets awarded points in the system 12-1, with the number one song getting the 12 points. No country can vote for its own song. By giving each country equal number of points to deal out, and not allowing them to vote for themselves, it’s not the population of any one country that can determine the outcome of the contest. This means that every single country represented at the Eurovision can in fact win it with the right song.
Eurovision has been going on since 1956. It was founded to increase brotherhood amongst Europeans after the horrors of WWII. During the Cold War, it was a beacon of hope for the downtrodden citizens of some Eastern European countries, which have embraced it after the Iron Curtain was torn down in the ‘90s. It’s a place to show your fellow Europeans that you’re one of them. It’s also a place where you see who your “real” friends are—who will vote for you, even when you send your worst entries.
Can you give me any examples of that, a song that none of our ‘friends’ voted for, which left Icelanders feeling offended?
This can really be seen every year, in various ways. When we end up mid-table, it’s basically the same few countries that give us votes: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Finland, Malta, Israel, Spain and Latvia. One example is “Angel” in 2001, when our only points were two from Denmark and one from Norway—probably the Icelandic diaspora in the two countries—putting us in last place with Norway. The worst case was in 1999 with our entry “All Out Of Luck,” when none of the ex-Yugoslav countries gave us any points and France gave us just a single point. It really cost us the victory.
Are people who dismiss Eurovision as some kind of eurotrash competition full of lousy music missing the point? Do fans acknowledge that it’s a bit hokey? Is it supposed to be camp? Is that an aesthetic that you embrace?
We all have different tastes in music and entertainment, but I do think that many people who dismiss the contest still think the contest is like it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. That was a really bad period when hardly any songs made the charts. The increased profile of the contest in the last 15–20 years has changed that, and we’ve seen all sorts of songs go on to do very well. Obviously, the three-minute format demands that performers stick it out, and that can often lead to disastrous results, aesthetically. So of course fans know that 80% of the contest is pure fluff, but entertaining fluff. And it’s the occasional gems that you find, such as the Dutch song this year, that really makes it all worth it!
Are Icelanders bigger fans than other nations? Why do Icelanders always think they’re going to win, even when chances are slim? Is this competition revealing of the Icelandic character?
I think the contest is bigger here than in most other countries, apart from perhaps Malta. I think one of the reasons is that RÚV has managed to make the whole pre-selection so successful that people feel personally connected to the entry. And it’s one of a few contests where our size or population does not really affect our chances of winning. We’ve obviously always chosen our best song, so why should others not love it as well? I do think it’s a healthy positivity. Why spend millions of krónur to enter a competition that you’re certain you won’t win? And, yes, I do believe that it says a lot about our national character, that we don’t do things with only half an effort. We will always give it our everything, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but we can’t be accused of not trying!
Some people say that this is as much a fun, maybe ironic, song contest as it is about politics and showing country allegiances. Can you explain this aspect of Eurovision?
Well, we Icelanders are really supportive of our Scandinavian friends. I think it’s mostly connected to which country you, as a voting nation, are aware of, which country you will look (or listen) out for? We surely keep our ears open to Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland, UK, France, Portugal and Hungary. I think it’s no coincidence that Iceland managed second place in 2009, following the banking collapse. It increased our profile and made more people around Europe notice the song.
You have been predicting Eurovision results on an Icelandic show on RÚV called “Alla Leið” (“All The Way”) for years now, is there something formulaic about making a winning Eurovision song? What does a good Eurovision song need to have?
No real formula has been perfected, but it’s easy to say that it needs to be catchy. It needs to stick in your mind through loads of other songs and performances, until the telephone lines open. You need a gimmick—and here the problem is that you can easily overshoot the goal. The gimmick needs to enhance the song and atmosphere—not overpower it. I usually use two pieces of criteria when predicting a winner: 1) Do I want to listen to the song right away again? (like with Azerbaijan 2011) and 2) Do I remember the chorus long after having heard the song only once before?
What are the chances that our entry this year “Ég á líf” makes it all the way?
I have not been very optimistic about our chances this year, predicting it not to qualify for the final. I do believe that “Ég á líf” is very catchy, and I can certainly remember the chorus, but to me it’s too repetitive, it feels like it goes on for too long. It’s very well performed though, and I did hear it performed live (not on TV) for the first time yesterday, and it was better than I’ve thought before, so who knows? I don’t. We’ll see what happens in Malmö!