Tuesday 25 June 2019

Try not to be cruel and curb the cynicism: Westlife's struggles were our struggles

Boy bands never die, they just wait for fans' hormones to re-emerge in middle age

BOYS TO MEN: Westlife in 2018 mode
BOYS TO MEN: Westlife in 2018 mode
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

On the face of it the Westlife comeback, which was announced this week, is about as welcome as a herpes outbreak or the re-emergence of the housing bubble. For many music fans, the announcement had the whiff of a Halloween scare about it.

Wasn't their final ever farewell concert a mere six years ago? And, anyway, didn't we suffer enough the first time, wondered everyone, including Waterford Whispers ('Westlife never f***ing off') and Nicky Byrne's kids who queried: "Dad, you're not going to be playing the same crap songs this time around?"

And the thing is, you know if they do manage to sell out a stadium or two, it will be just the beginning. If the Take That and Bros comebacks are anything to go by, Westie-themed ad campaigns, chat show appearances by the lads and a musical with all the hits you know will likely follow.

Boy bands never die you see, they just wait until their formerly teenage fans re-enter a more middle-aged hormonal phase and then they ride the nostalgia all the way to the bank.

But is that such a bad thing? While the actual music of Westlife sends a chill down the spine of the average citizen - especially that cover of Uptown Girl where they dressed up like Eddie Rocket's waiters - there are some curiously unbidden warm, fuzzy feelings that a photo of the lads together bring on. They seem, in a way, like the embodiments of all of the terrible stuff we have gone through over the last couple of decades - boom, bust and bad fringes.

It has been fashionable to ask the presidential candidates where they were for the big social movements and moments of the last 15 years but you can be sure the Westies were riding shotgun with us through all of them.

Westlife in their earlier days as a five-piece
Westlife in their earlier days as a five-piece

Every concert ticket they sell, for instance, will be another little step out of the financial nightmare that Shane Filan once found himself in, a terrible fall from grace to which many, albeit on a much smaller scale, can relate.

He is kind of like a poster child of the economic recovery, a symbol of what it means to keep going even when it looks like all is lost.

The marriage referendum, which was a defining moment for so many of us, was presaged by the coming out of some key Irish public figures, among whom was the otherwise shy and retiring Mark Feehily - no easy move for a country boy in a field where a star has to be, in George Michael's words, "every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy."

And in the fragmentation of the band - the self-imposed banishment of Brian (nee Bryan) McFadden - the group seem like an embodiment of all the once-tender friendships of college and early 20s that fall by the wayside as you ascend into the thinner air and thinner hair of middle age. Despite the awful music, Westlife's struggles were our struggles.

It would be wrong to say Westlife's fans were all knicker-throwing teenage girls. A friend of mine, who harboured a long-term crush on Shane Filan, once attended a Westlife concert. He told me that, to save face before the ushers, he had to silently pretend he was one of the parents of the hordes of teenage girls in attendance, "even though they knew and I knew that I wasn't there with them".

It was the dancing, not the music, that most horrified him. The Westie's idea of busting a move was to stand up off their ballad stool to coincide with a key change.

It may well be they've taken heed of Nicky's kids' concerns. It's been reported, for instance, that Ed Sheeran has been recruited for songwriting duties for the forthcoming single, which may mean that we won't have to deal with any new cover versions (always Westlife's weakest link).

And the new photoshoots of the lads, all cocked eyebrows and studio smouldering, show they have lost none of their knack for hilarious Blue Steel posing. They will have no problem with the current disdain for miming - in fairness to them, they always sang live.

The hype is already building. Twitter went spare when Nicky Byrne posted an image of himself in an empty Croke Park this week - they will perform one night there (bookies predict a second) and two nights in Belfast.

Irish boybands have come and gone but none have quite filled their boots. And perhaps with Bono making a record about a dead cat, seeing the Westies back at the top of the charts wouldn't even be the silliest moment in Irish music this year.

Sunday Independent

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