The Eurovision Song Contest is more than a pop music contest – it is a reflection of Europe’s evolving political values, cultural values and attitudes. And this year, the contest feels more political than ever.
This year’s Eurovision Song Contest – an annual celebration of pop music in which nations compete for votes from judges and the public – takes place on May 14 in Turin, Italy. And Ukraine is overwhelmingly the favorite to win.
While the latest ratings above all reflect widespread sympathy across Europe for beleaguered Ukraine, it certainly helps that Ukrainian entry, Kalush Orchestra’s ‘Stefania’, hits the right notes when it comes to Eurovision . Combining traditional folk sounds with modern hip-hop, the song is both sentimental and upbeat.
Originally written as an ode to the lead singer’s mother, “Stefania” has since become an anthem for the nation at war.
Sung entirely in Ukrainian, it features historical costumes and traditional instruments in a firm stamp of Ukrainian identity, while effectively fusing a melodic refrain with global hip-hop beats. Overall, the song reflects something of Ukraine’s resilient attitude in the face of Russian aggression as well as its pro-Western cultural leanings. Indeed, a member of the Kalush Orchestra said: “Our country will not only win the war, but also win Eurovision.
Russia also intended to compete this year. In February, however, the European Broadcasting Union, the organization behind Eurovision, banned Russia from competing, under mounting pressure from other participating countries following the invasion of Ukraine.
I have long studied Eurovision as a cultural and political event. If Ukraine wins, I think it will continue Eurovision’s continued legacy of marking the boundaries of the liberal West. Despite the popular and ephemeral nature of its songs, the event has, since its inception, reflected the political, cultural and geopolitical realities of Europe.
They had a dream
Founded in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union, the Eurovision Song Contest is the world’s oldest televised international music competition, with a huge audience of around 200 million people. Will Farrell’s Eurovision 2020 parody “Story of Fire Saga” and a recent NBC spin-off of the actual event, the American Song Contest, hosted by Snoop Dogg and Kelly Clarkson, have sparked interest in the United States
Over the years, Eurovision has grown from a small group of six Western European countries to more than 40 competitors from across Europe, as well as Israel and Australia.
It has grown roughly in tandem with other European and European-oriented organizations, such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Like these economic and strategic blocs, Eurovision expanded to the Mediterranean in the 1960s and 1970s, and to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Over the decades, the contest pushed back and readjusted the borders of “Europe”. both geographically and ideologically.
Knowing me, knowing the EU
Eurovision’s definition of the geographical boundaries of Europe may not be intuitive for many viewers. The European Broadcasting Union follows the 1932 Madrid Conference of the International Radiotelegraph Union, which fixed the eastern and southern limits of the “European region” at the 40th meridian east and the 30th parallel north, “so as to include the western part of the USSR and the territories bordering the Mediterranean.
Israel and indeed all countries bordering the Mediterranean are thus eligible to participate. Adjustments were made in 2007 to these borders to allow Caucasian nations to participate.
Australia’s inclusion is another matter, dating back to 2015 when the European Broadcasting Union invited the country, based on its exceptionally strong fan base, to join in a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the competition. The Australians arrived with such energy and enthusiasm that they have stayed ever since.
The ever-increasing number of participating countries has broadened and extended the understanding of the countries that belong to Europe as a cultural entity.
More complex and nuanced is the ideological and political meaning of “Europe”. The “core values” declared by the European Broadcasting Union include democracy, pluralism, diversity, inclusion and freedom of expression.
But these values have sometimes clashed with the political realities of countries within the geographical borders of Europe.
When Spain hosted the contest in 1969, Austria boycotted because of the fascist policies of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco. Spain hosted because they had won the previous year with Massiel’s “La La La”; the winning nation has generally hosted the following year’s competition since 1958.
Give me ! Give me ! Give me ! a song without politics
The European Broadcasting Union tries to stick to the ideal of a purely musical competition without political overtones, but some countries have tried to insert sly political criticism into their entries.
In 2009, Georgia attempted to protest Russia’s 2008 invasion of its country with the song “We Don’t Want to Put In” – a play on the name of the then Russian Prime Minister . But organizers dismissed the song as too overtly political.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the European Broadcasting Union rejected Belarus’ 2021 entry, Galasy ZMesta’s “Ya Nauchu Tebya (I’ll Teach You)” for its open condemnation of pro- democracy in this country.
In recent years, the pageant’s strong association with the LGBTQ community has drawn a backlash from conservative governments. Turkey’s departure from the contest in 2013 came as its interest in joining the European Union faded. While Turkey had multiple reasons to leave, the Turkish broadcaster chief specifically objected to the prominence of queer artists like Austrian Conchita Wurst, who won in 2014 with ‘Rise like a Phoenix’ as that bearded gay drag queen. In 2020, Hungary also withdrew from the competition; Andras Benscik, a commentator for a pro-government television channel, compared the contest to a “gay flotilla”.
The winner takes it all
Eurovision Song Contest success has often come as countries move towards Europe’s liberal, inclusive, pluralistic and democratic ideals. Spain’s victories in the late 1960s, for example, predated the relative loosening of societal restrictions in the final years of the Franco era. Turkey’s victory in 2003 came at the height of that country’s campaign to join the European Union.
Most notably, Eastern European countries, which began competing in the 1990s, embraced the pageant as a symbol of Western freedom. After Estonia became the first former Soviet republic to win in 2001, Prime Minister Mart Laar announced: “We are no longer knocking on Europe’s door. We go through it singing.
Ukraine fits perfectly into this pattern. Entered the competition in 2003, he won the following year in 2004 with Ruslana’s fiery leather performances of “Wild Dances”. In 2005, Ukraine sent GreenJolly, who performed “Razom Nas Bahato (Together We Are Many)”, a celebration of the Orange Revolution. More recently, Ukraine clinched victory in 2016 with Jamala’s “1944,” an elegiac meditation on the forced withdrawal of Crimean Tatars by former Russian dictator Josef Stalin.
The historical reference allowed Ukraine to circumvent the European Union’s policy ban on broadcasting by pretending to investigate and commemorate an event from the past, while obviously protesting against the invasion and annexation of Crimea by the Russia in 2014.
Facing Russian aggression again, it looks like Ukraine has a good chance of winning Eurovision in 2022. According to bettors, as of May 13, 2022, they have a 60% chance of winning.
Assuming Ukraine succeeds or even wins, the song contest will reconfirm and re-establish the boundaries of liberal Western Europe.
Robert Deam Tobin is the Henry J. Leir Professor of Language, Literature, and Culture at Clark University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.