The Politics of Belonging at the Eurovision Song Contest

This is part of our feature on Poets and Power: Language of Resilience from Central and Eastern Europe

This paper considers how the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) sits at a crossroads of political denial and political intent, seemingly distanced from, but essentially instrumental in, political change. It will consider how this popular media event has used music and the performance of identity as a conduit through which a sense of European identity and belonging has been established and challenged. Furthermore, it asks “how has Eurovision impacted on the social, cultural and political landscape of Europe via a merging of music and politics?”

From the folk protest music of Woody Guthrie in 1930s America, to the present day socially conscious rap music that permeates the globe, popular music has always been a conduit through which songwriters and musicians have opined on the social, cultural, and political climate of the day. The ESC is the world’s longest running annual music competition. It emerged in 1956 as the European Broadcasting Union’s (EBU) catalyst for European unity following the Second World War, deliberately situated outside of nation state politics, and firmly in the oeuvre of television light entertainment—seemingly a distraction from how politics divide us, and asserting how our shared tastes in popular culture (namely music) unite us. Since then, it has brought together competing countries from around Europe (and beyond) to showcase cultural diversity though the comparison of popular music. This highly anticipated media event has kept pace with, and indeed reflected, the social and political changes across the continent. This was particularly evident in the 1990s and 2000s, when the mutable political landscape on the continent of multiple countries (namely former Soviet states, the Balkans, and the Baltic area) was reflected via their inclusion as new participants in the ESC.

Although set against the backdrop of light entertainment, there have always been social, cultural, and political themes and tensions that simmer at the edges of the contest. Therefore, it is always wise to take a step back and appraise the wider impact of this event, because while it is highly entertaining, there are also more serious discussions about identity and belonging that should be considered.

In 2016, this mediated spectacle was seen by more than 200 million viewers. The EBU’s Director General, Ingrid Deltenre, hailed the longevity of the ESC following an increase in viewers in 2016: “Sixty years after the first Eurovision Song Contest took place in Lugano, we couldn’t be prouder that this event still has the power to unite viewers of all ages around the world.”[i]

Such unification is the endorsement of the principles of public service broadcasting (PSB) that are enacted through programming such as the ESC. The principles of diversity, pluralism, and community are clearly linked to cosmopolitanism, and in my earlier work[ii] I discuss how the ESC is cosmopolitanism by stealth. This can be seen through the host themes for recent Contests: Come Together (2016), We Are One (2013), Share The Moment (2010). Indeed, in 2017 we will Celebrate Diversity. Such themes weave a narrative of togetherness and openness, inclusion and belonging.

That said, such effusive tropes of togetherness and inclusivity could be interpreted as the EBU overcompensating the pacifist ideal of the ESC, and that to ignore social and political conflicts outside of the “Eurovision bubble” seems like disconnecting, rather than connecting with Europe. All rather incongruous, it could be argued.

It is hard to escape the barracking that the ESC gets when the EBU assert the non-political nature of the Contest. Much of the politics surrounding the ESC comes from the social, cultural, economic, and political allegiances between countries outside of the Eurovision bubble. This can clearly be seen through the rather blatant bloc voting that is repeated on an annual basis. Regular viewers of the Contest became familiar with the predictable neighborly voting, which made viewers question the integrity of the proceedings, doing little to promote free will, democracy, and citizenship – the cosmopolitan ideals that the ESC and PSB seek to assert. Long time viewers were unsurprised (and increasingly cynical) when Cyprus and Greece traded the maximum “douze points,” in much the same way as Germany and Turkey used to, as much as the UK and Ireland have also done in the past.

Critics of the clearly visible biases in bloc voting point to political alliances outside the ESC being played out in voting patterns; that is, voting for a country rather than the song, based on long held allegiances that are extraneous to musical tastes (though that can be the case via the osmosis of culture, particularly on the European continent, where music flows easily across borders in land-locked territories). Bloc voting can be seen as geographical bias, but then again it could also be based on shared music taste – where music really does bring people together on nothing other than musical reciprocation.

While these alliances and allegiances have continued, in 2016 there seemed to be a thawing of previously held hostilities between countries that had played out through the attribution of points over many years (habitual bias). This was particularly evident in the voting pattern related to Ukraine’s winning song “1944,” performed by Jamala. Each county awards points via a combination of the music industry professionals “jury vote,” and the “popular vote” of the viewing public (televote), which is combined.  Analysis of the voting patterns for 2016 is interesting because by separating the jury votes and public votes a huge disparity between the two is highlighted—as was the case in some countries in the past; some of the professional juries seemed to stick to the script in relation to hostilities regarding (political) non-song contest tensions (perhaps pre-empted by their nation state), and did not reward certain countries for those reasons. The voting record between Azerbaijan and Armenia appears to exemplify this. However, some of the televoting in 2016 revealed that the citizens of Europe are more enlightened and permissive in their consideration of the best song – which is based on individual choice (democracy at work), and not on long held and out-dated prejudices. This was probably most noticeable when there seemed to be Entente Cordiale between the television viewers in Ukraine and Russia: Ukraine gave Russia twelve points, and Russia gave Ukraine ten points. Power to the people, indeed, and signalling that popularity at the ESC doesn’t need to be political.

The EBU assert that the ESC is non-political, that it occupies a space that exists outside of politics. Musically, there are strict guidelines and restrictions on content: “No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the Eurovision Song Contest.”[iii] That said, the 2016 winner of ESC song was political. It is hard to see how it can be seen (and heard) as anything else. No place for politics at the Eurovision? Somehow Ukraine managed to send a song to the Eurovision stage, and win, with a song with an undeniable political subtext/political reading, as these lyrics suggest:

 

When strangers are coming…

They come to your house,

They kill you all

and say,

We’re not guilty

not guilty.

 

Where is your mind?

Humanity cries.

You think you are gods.

But everyone dies.

Don’t swallow my soul.

Our souls.[iv]

 

It seems that the lyrics address the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in the 1940s by the Soviet Union, and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. No politics there, then? The EBU deemed the song as non-political, since it did not make reference to specific individuals or political groups. The singer Jamala also dismissed such claims. While we are being told to not read it as such, how can we fail to make those connections if we think of the politics beyond the contest?

Clearly, the song connected with the viewing public on that level, as well as on the spectacle of the performance (great lighting, staging, and art direction, which aided the storytelling of the song). This victory particularly seemed to capture the fundamental principles of the Eurovision Song Contest: solidarity through song and awareness of our cross-cultural differences, histories, and music. Never before has a winning song felt quite so political. It’s not even a case of reading rather than intent, as the intent is clear, and the dialogue was, in reality, clearly political.

In recent years, the real politics at the ESC, is that of sexuality, particularly in terms of LGBT rights, and how this plays out across a continent where not all participating countries share those cosmopolitan ideals in relation to attitudes on sexuality. The ESC is hugely popular with the gay community, and this can clearly be seen in the television broadcasts, where the camera pans to a noticeably large contingent of gay men in the audience. Indeed, as the host Petra Mede commented back in 2013, there were a lot of “dancing queens” in the audience – to which she received a huge roar from those assembled in the arena. There is much written on the gayness and queer reading of Eurovision.[v]

The ESC has seen a queering of its pitch for many years, in both a musical (not investigated here) and performative way, most notably for the first time in 1998. In that year, transsexual singer Dana International won for Israel with the song “Diva.” At the time, there was a soupçon of outrage from orthodox Jews and conservative groups who struggled in accepting dialogues about differences in gender and sexuality on the Eurovision stage. That a transgender performer won in 1998 is testament to how open-minded the societal attitudes of the voting viewing public were about such things. Peter Rehberg[vi] describes it as “Eurovision coming out.” Indeed, since then the ESC has played out narratives of belonging and acceptance in relation to LGBT performers and their songs. For example, in 2002 drag group Sestre represented Slovenia, while in 2007, despite objections from Ukrainian politicians over what they perceived as the vulgarity of their act, drag queen Verka Serduchka represented her country and gave them one of their best results at that time (second place).

While the ESC is clearly a tolerant space that has welcomed sexual difference, something significant happened when Conchita Wurst won the ESC for Austria in 2014, not least because she was a drag performer with a beard. The victory was significant because on this occasion, the politics of sexuality seemed to be played-out in the contest, and not outside. Conchita’s victory brought together the politics of pop and the politics of belonging (in relation to sexuality and LGBT rights). As Conchita swept to a convincing victory, Europe signalled that it had broad-mindedness and acceptance for a bearded drag queen. However, there was also lingering homophobia.

During the voting sequence, when delivering the votes for Lithuania, their spokesman paused, reached into his blazer pocket, producing a disposable razor which he put to his cheek, and said “and now it’s time to shave.” It was intentionally homophobic and uncomfortable to watch, and the comment was immediately challenged by host Nikolaj Koppel, who retorted by saying “Time to shave? I think not!” And so the politics of permissive/regressive attitudes to sexuality was played out in the broadcast and beyond it. In the UK the Daily Mail[vii] reported that, following the result, Russian men had shaved off their beards in protest. Thankfully, such attitudes represent the minority of Europe, which in itself highlights the progressive characteristic of the ESC and what a tolerant space it is, and the impact it has on wider discussions of identity and belonging beyond the Contest.

Something special happened when Conchita won the ESC in 2014 as it did bring to the forefront some much needed dialogue about tolerance and acceptance within Europe – particularly in relation to LGBT issues and human rights. Clearly, the significance of her victory still resonates in terms of human rights and LGBT issues. In 2015 at a meeting between Conchita and Ban Ki-moon (former Secretary General of the United Nations), he commented that her Eurovision victory really does send a “powerful message” for the promotion of respect for diversity. Indeed, the slogan for 2017 is Celebrate Diversity, which, given the wider political context that the contest is taking place in, it not without its contradictions.

The ESC has, at times, become a site of protest – a sign of political intent. In recent years, the EBU has endorsed the inclusion of the rainbow flag, permitted into the contest arenas as a symbol of diversity, and yet it has been used in the form of protest, particularly during performances from countries with questionable views and treatment of LGBT communities. This has become most noticeable during the Russian entries, such as in 2015 when several rainbow flags were clearly visible at the exact moment the camera panned into the stage towards the Russian singer. This was inescapably a comment on Russia’s human rights questions in relation to their LGBT community.

Despite some cynicism towards the ESC, particularly from mainstream western European media, the contest remains an event that authorities continue to believe in, and countries see value in hosting despite the financial and logistical challenges this poses. In Ukraine, which hosts the competition this year, a visa-free regime was introduced in 2005 for EU citizens in the run-up to their hosting the competition for the first time in the capital Kyiv. To date, this policy remains in place, and is a lasting legacy of the Eurovision Song Contest and can be seen to be “politics emerging from pop.” Paul Jordan[viii] argues in his 2014 book, The Modern Fairytale, that the Eurovision Song Contest has routinely reflected the wider political context of Europe. He argues that by examining the debates that the ESC engenders, the more salient narratives of the nation can also be considered at specific moments in time.

Social reality is never fixed, but constructed and ever changing. The continued success of the Eurovision Song Contest, celebrating its sixtieth edition in 2015, was quite remarkable given that a wider European identity remains a vague construction still in the process of formation. In the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the questions of what constitutes Europe and what holds it together remain as pertinent today as they were following World War II. The global financial crisis has posed serious challenges for national broadcasters and the Eurovision Song Contest, but the event continues to articulate an idealized form of Europeanness, an example being the slogan for the 2013 contest which was held in Sweden; “We Are One.” The financial crisis has demonstrated that Europe is not one, economically, politically, or even socially. Yet the Eurovision Song Contest as a television format continues to endure.

Eurovision exhibits wider socio-political tensions year in and year out, and will continue to do so. As such, it represents a unique form of public diplomacy, in theory, allowing countries to pass judgement without the threat of repercussion. On a more human level, the Eurovision Song Contest is a unique event in the television year, where Europeans really do sit down for one night of the year, in theory, casting aside any political differences the participating countries might have. As television and broadcasting evolves, it is up to the European Broadcasting Union and its members to ensure that the competition remains relevant in the new digital age.

In an ever-changing Europe, meanings and identities are shifting rapidly. An analysis of the Eurovision Song Contest and the debates that it engenders, are just one way of helping us understand key socio-political debates in specific contexts and at specific moments in time.

The true phenomenon of Eurovision is that, despite political divides and culture clashes — as much as differences in music tastes — it has fostered European integration and togetherness. It is also relatively unique in giving the pan-European television audience the opportunity to simultaneously participate in being European and to determine an outcome, collectively, outside of nation state politics. And while the lingering political tensions will endure, this annual popular culture referendum continues to provide a space to belong – and that is clearly worth singing about.

 

With thanks to Paul Jordan.

 

Phil Jackson is Acting Head of Media at Edge Hill University and was previously Associate Head since 2010. Phil has a broad range of experience in media theory, new media theory and popular music. As a lifelong fan of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), Phil has researched a number of Eurovision related areas including Euro-fandom, music and European identity, branding of the ESC and the ESC as a media event. In 2009, he was a founder member of the Eurovision Research Network, an association of academics, broadcasters, journalists, and other individuals and organisations with an interest in sharing ideas, dialogue, and resources around the ESC.

Photo: The winner of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest © Andres Putting (EBU)

References:

[i] Eurovision Song Contest attracts 204 million viewers

< https://www.ebu.ch/news/2016/05/eurovision-song-contest-attracts> accessed 20 February 2016

[ii] Jackson, P. (2014) ‘‘Welcome Europe!’ The Eurovision Song Contest as a Continuum for Cosmopolitanism’. In: Yilmaz, A., Trandafoiu, R. and Mousoutzanis, A (eds.) Media and Cosmopolitanism. Bern: Peter Lang. pp.71-92.

[iii] Eurovison.tv <www.eurovision.tv> accessed 20 February 2016

[iv] Antonyan, Art, Jamala (2016) 1944 Ukraine, UMG

[v] Baker, Catherine (2014) ‘The Gay World Cup’?: the Eurovision Song Contest, LGBT equality and human rights after the Cold War

<https://bakercatherine.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/the-gay-world-cup-the-eurovision-song-contest-lgbt-equality-and-human-rights-after-the-cold-war/> accessed 20 February 2016

[vi] Rehberg. Peter in “Loud and Proud: The Gayness, Or Otherwise, Of The Eurovision Song Contest, And Why It Matters”

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2016/04/20/eurovision-song-contest-2015-gay-culture_n_7374166.html> accessed 20.02.2017

[vii] Daily Mail <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2625866/Winner-whisker-Austrias-bearded-lady-conquers-Eurovision-Russias-rage.html> accessed 20 February 2016

[viii] Jordan, Paul (2014) The modern fairy tale: Nation branding, national identity and the Eurovision song contest in Estonia. University of Tartu Press

 

 

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