As May arrives, like every year, so does Eurovision. The music contest, now on its 66th edition, will be held in Turin between the 10th and the 14th after last year’s edition in Rotterdam was won by the Italian act Måneskin.
First aired on May 24th, 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest – originally The Eurovision Grand Prix – was born out of the strong reconstructive spirit typical of Europe in the post-war era with the intent of bringing together the continent.
Throughout the years the competition built itself a strong reputation, if not in terms of musical quality, at least in terms of spectacle. By many it’s still considered a niche affair for aficionados of the genre: a stage for campy costumes and numbers which, despite the pan-European involvement and the large number of spectators, does not have on people quite the same grasp as pretty much any international sporting event.
Despite this perception, the contest has produced many hits and brought to fame acts like ABBA and Celine Dion, without forgetting Måneskin, who shot to international success just last year. The exposure granted by the competition is not only a big deal to competitors as individuals but is also the reason why the contest has been an instrument of soft politics for the participating countries since its very inception.
This year, with Russia being excluded from the competition, people got back to talking about the supposedly apolitical nature of the contest and about its actual role in European international dynamics.
“The ESC is a non-political event”…
Two fundamental points we must remember when considering the dynamics behind the contest are that (1) it represents a huge platform and spotlight for pretty much every European country, but especially for the smaller ones, and (2) the competition is between artists competing in the name of the states.
“Even though it’s broadcasters who put them forward, they compete as states. That was amended in the 1960s because viewers didn’t associate so well with the song titles, so now it’s all about the countries,” says historian and professor Dean Vuletic, expert in Eurovision history and politics. “It’s why governments now see Eurovision as a tool of cultural diplomacy.” The same reasons are, however, are also why the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) got more and more wary of overtly political messages being brought on stage to reach millions of spectators.
In the 1990s, moreover, as the EBU, faced rising costs, they thought making the contest less political would help its appeal to sponsors and advertisers. After the Ukrainian entry in 2005 became the unofficial anthem of the anti-Russian Orange Revolution of the previous year, the EBU made the rule explicit.
The official 2022 ESC rulebook states in section 2.7 that the competition is supposed to be a non-political event:
“The ESC is a non-political event. All Participating Broadcasters, including the Host Broadcaster, shall be responsible to ensure that all necessary measures are undertaken within in their respective Delegations and teams to safeguard the interests and the integrity of the ESC and to make sure that the ESC shall in no case be politicized and/or instrumentalized and/or otherwise brought into disrepute in any way.”
…but not really
“Certainly, the origins of the Eurovision Song Contest are apolitical – initially it was about putting on a simultaneous television program across Europe,” Vuletic told RN’s Sunday Extra in 2019, “but there have also been political messages sent through Eurovision entries ever since its beginning.”
From the very first edition the contest has represented the perfect stage for countries to show off an optimistic and embellished version of themselves while celebrating their national quirks and coming together as a community. As the years went by the competition became more and more of a safe space and platform for activism. The main issues brought on the stage are usually related to social equality, minority rights and environmental causes.
In 1961 Luxemburg brought what could be considered the first gay anthem “Nous Les Amoureux”, although the lyrics were purposefully ambiguous so that the general public would not perceive it as such. In 1997 the Icelandic act, Páll Óskar was the first openly gay participant. The next edition was won by Dana International, an Israeli transgender woman, who brought “Diva”, a piece about female strength, and won the public over despite heavy opposition from her own home country. In a very similar way, in 2014 Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst won with huge support from the public despite campaigns against her participation were driven by Russia, Poland, and Belarus.
Despite the nice track record of happy endings for human rights and representation, the contest and the single countries have been accused several times of pink washing. For example, in 2003 Russia was represented by t.A.T.u. in an attempt to contrast the strict conservative image of the country.
The Douze as an instrument of soft-politics:
One of the best thermometers of how European people view each other is actually the voting process. The establishing of semi-finals and juries has partially tamed the bloc voting phenomenon, but it’s still one of the most apparent demonstrations of allyship (or not) in the competition.
The dynamics are usually the same every year: Scandinavian countries consistently back up one another, and the same can be said for the Balkan ones. Cyprus and Greece (with the only exception of 2015, when they both voted for Italy) give without fail their “douze” points to each other, and Ireland is generally well liked almost as much as the UK is generally not.
This has also taken a more drastic turn in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, historically enemies, when in 2009 the police in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, called several people in for questioning after they allegedly voted for Armenia. The 43 people who voted were accused of being unpatriotic and defined as “national security threats”. Useless to say, the two countries can be expected to always give each other 0 points.
Following this line of thought, it does not seem weird that the UK got a grand total of 0 points the first year the country was officially out of the EU, and in an analogous way it’s not at all surprising that Ukraine is the favorite for the win this edition.
Essentially, regardless of the rule, the Eurovision stage has always been a place for music and politics to meet mirror the geopolitical and social situation in Europe, be it through boycotting, badly concealed digs in lyrics or bloc-voting.
Geopolitics brought on stage
Although this year’s case is a more striking one, frictions on the Eurovision stage have always followed military conflicts and political tensions.
Eurovision entered geopolitical territory for the first time in the 70s. One year after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Greece recalled their 1975 Eurovision entry in protest. In turn, the following year, Turkey withdrew from the competition as the Greek entry “Panagia mou, Panagia mou” was about the invasion.
But a more blatant case is probably the 2009 Georgian entry. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war over the independency of South Ossetia, in 2009 the contest was taking place in Moscow. Georgia planned on sending as their entry Stephane & 3G with the song “We Don’t Wanna Put In”. In this case the dig was so blatant that, after Georgians refused to change the lyrics, the song was declared out of the competition.
Russia and Ukraine over the years
Just like the conflict exploding in February is actually the result of an ongoing crisis started years ago, it’s not the first time Ukraine and Russia go head-to-head during the competition.
- May 2016:
In 2014, following the Ukrainian revolution which culminated in the impeachment of the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia sponsored a rebellion in the region of Donbass and sent troops to annex the Crimean Peninsula as a response to Ukraine’s signals of movement towards Western Europe.
Two years later, in 2016, Ukraine’s entry was Jamala’s “1944”. The song was about the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars during WWII by the hand of Stalin. Jamala’s great-grandmother was among those deported. “In the chorus, I literally sing about my great-grandmother, who was so young with children in her arms. It was personal.” she says. “This is not about politics, this is about a terrible page in the history of the Crimean Tatar people and my own family.”
But in that tense political climate, Jamala’s song can clearly be read as a thinly veiled criticism of Russia over its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Regardless of the clear parallelism, the EBU deemed the song appropriate, and Ukraine went on to win the edition.
- May 2017:
When the following year the contest was held in Kyiv, Russia sent Julia Samoylova as their representative. Ukraine did not to allow her to participate, as two years earlier she had performed in Crimea, against Ukraine rules not to travel there while the region is under Russian control.
Russia’s choice was not casual, the singer, a wheelchair user, was supposed to bring diversity and representation once again on the stage of the competition. When Kyiv banned Samoylova and Russia decided not to take part in the competition, despite people recognizing the role Russia played in forcing Ukraine in an uncomfortable position, the second was condemned for “undermining the integrity and non-political nature of the contest”.
- May 2022:
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, that same day, the chairman of Ukraine’s state broadcaster, Mykola Chernotytsky, issued an open letter to the EBU, urging them to take a position against Russia by suspending their membership to the union and banning them from the competition.
“Since the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, EBU broadcasters from the Russian Federation […] have been the Kremlin’s mouthpiece and key instrument of Russian-funded political propaganda. Instead of following the values of the EBU, these broadcasters constantly and systematically spread misinformation, violate journalistic standards, spread hostility, and are a leading element of the Russian government’s information war against Ukraine and the rest of the civilized world.”,the letter said, “We would like to emphasise that the Eurovision Song Contest was created after the Second World War to unite Europe […] In view of this, Russia’s participation as an aggressor and violator of international law in this year’s Eurovision undermines the very idea of the competition.”
At first the EBU responded by reiterating the apolitical nature of the contest: “The Eurovision Song Contest is a non-political cultural event which unites nations and celebrates diversity through music. […] we are currently planning to welcome artists from both countries to perform in May. We of course will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
The choice was immediately criticized, and several EBU members, publicly condemned the union. However, already on the next day, the EBU released a second statement excluding the Russian act from the competition, following advice from the Reference Group based on their commitment to upholding the values of public service.
“The decision reflects concern that, in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute,” they added, “We remain dedicated to protecting the values of a cultural competition which promotes international exchange and understanding, brings audiences together, celebrates diversity through music, and unites Europe on one stage.”
It’s likely that if Russia was not excluded, the public would’ve taken it upon themselves to ostracize them from the competition, perhaps with a result similar to the UK’s last year, or with reactions like those of 2014, when the Russian act, two 17-year-old twin sisters were booed by the public in Copenhagen following Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
Although it’s not a first for the contest to be involved in political issues, and ESC is accompanied by the series of sporting events that have taken similar position, this decision still felt like a big one, and not an entirely expected one. It is clearly a signal of how the current situation feels a lot more meaningful and closer for everyone.
We do live in a world that is increasingly political, be it because of how we’re constantly reminded of everything that is going on everywhere or because we’re more aware of the problematics surrounding most matters. And although we don’t seem to learn from our past from a practical point of view, it does seem we’re much more determined on trying to be “on the right side of history”. This surely played a part in why the EBU decided to take this action against Russia this year.
After all, in a society in which everything is political, Eurovision can hardly be expected to dodge such matters altogether. One may even argue that that the pursuing of peace and unity through the contest in the after-war period is itself political.
In the last few years many have brought up how being able to declare oneself to be uninterested in politics often comes from the privilege of someone who does not necessarily have to worry about their role in society. But how can one be totally estranged from politics, especially in a competition in which individuals are supposed to represent entire countries, and especially when dealing with human and civil rights, how can one separate the person from politics when one’s identity is so strongly affected by the second?
Of course, while opening the competition up to politics completely would likely end up in a festival of protest songs, on the other hand Eurovision’s control can feel to some extent like a form of censorship of artistic freedom. It’s also true that as long as the rule is implemented the way it’s been up till now, the main focus of the event remains on the countries coming together, celebrating diversity and cultures.
In the end it’s a way to pursue harmony through the competition. In this case, though, I have to say, it feels good to see the EBU taking a stance, although one that hopefully won’t be needed for long.