How the Eurovision Song Contest is political

8 minutes to read
Article
Beatrijs de Coninck
10/05/2022

One may hate it, one may love it, but one thing is certain: it is nearly impossible to imagine a world without the yearly held Eurovision Song Contest, also known as the ESC. The first edition of the music contest was held in 1956 and it was originally designed to reunite Europe after the two destructive World Wars which had terrorized almost every continent of our planet (Vuletic, 2018). This connecting character of the ESC is clearly visible in various slogans throughout the years, for example, ‘We Are One’, hosted by Sweden in 2013, and ‘Building Bridges’, hosted by Austria in 2015. Even though it is called the Eurovision, a variety of countries outside the so-called European Broadcasting Union – an alliance of public service media organizations – are also allowed to participate in the contest, such as Australia since 2015 (Henrich-Franke, 2013).

The organization of the Eurovision Song Contest, the earlier mentioned European Broadcasting Union, claims on their website (2021) that the music show is not political in any way using the following statement: "The ESC is a non-political event. All participating Broadcasters (…) shall ensure (…) in order to make sure that the ESC shall in no case be politicized and/or instrumentalized". In the history of the Eurovision, it only ever happened two times that a music act was banned from the show due to political reasons: Georgia in 2009, hosted by Russia, because of the song ‘We don’t wanna put in’ which criticized Russian leader Putin, and Belarus in 2021, hosted by The Netherlands, because of the song ‘Ya Nauchu Tebya (meaning: I’ll teach you)’, which openly supported the dubious regime of the Belarusian president Lukashenko (NOS op 3, 2021). Even though the organization of the Eurovision tries to keep its non-political promise, the ESC seems to be getting more political every year in many different ways. This essay will focus on how this Eurovision can be seen as a political, intermedial piece of art, and how the music contest, besides entertainment, is used as political influence worldwide.

Eurovision as an intermedial event

Before taking a look at the political aspects of the Eurovision Song Contest, it is important to understand why the music show can be seen as an intermedial concept. Synthetic intermediality is a term used for multiple forms of media that all combined create a new concept of a medium product (Schröter, 2011). At first sight, the ESC may be seen as ‘just’ a music contest, but that is definitely not the case. First and foremost, the Eurovision is a celebration of human diversity and the LHBTQI+ community (Kostelijk, 2015). This is not only confirmed in the show’s slogan "Unity in Diversion", but also celebrated with freedom of speech, gender, age, race and not to mention many rainbow flags and glitter. The Eurovision contest is in this way used as a transcendent, gender-political event where equality and respect dominate, unfortunately unlike in some of the participating countries.

The Eurovision Song Contest can be followed through various different media platforms: the live show can be followed through television and radio, there are a number of television shows and YouTube clips around the theme and the event, and there is also a special Eurovision app which can be used for voting (European Broadcasting Union, 2021). This adds another layer to the intermedial character of the Eurovision Song Contest: the highly stimulated involvement of the viewers. In this way, the viewers create the show (Schröter, 2011). Without them, Eurovision would be a completely different concept. Next to the fact that the current voting system is the revenue model of the event, this system also creates a close community among the millions of viewers across all countries.

The most important aspect of intermediality is the political influence that Eurovision – maybe even unconsciously – offers its contestants and audience

This does not mean the system has always worked. Due to cultural similarities and shared history amongst countries, there have been years of the so-called ‘voting blocs’ and the resulting nepotism during the Eurovision (Charon, 2013). Two often mentioned examples of the voting blocs are the ‘Balkan bloc’, with countries like former Yugoslavia, Greece, Cyprus, and Romania and the ‘North European bloc’, with countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark merely voting for each other (Stockemer et al., 2018). To prevent this from happening, the organization of the Eurovision decided to create semifinals, where these voting blocs already have to compete with one another. Next to this, the professional jury was brought back in 2009. Their judgment now holds 50% of the eventual outcome of the music contest. Even though this sounds quite fair, it does not prevent the voters of Cyprus to give Greece 12 points. Every year.

Lastly, the most important aspect of intermediality is the political influence that Eurovision – maybe even unconsciously – offers its contestants and audience. A remarkable example is the Ukrainian submission of 2016, the song '1944' by the female vocalist Jamala. This song tells the public about the deportation of 240.000 Crimean Tatars – an East European Turkic ethnic group – in 1944 to Central Asia under the command of the Soviet Union dictator Stalin (NOS, 2016). It is not a coincidence that Jamala performed this song: her grandmother was one of those 240.000 deported people. Even though the song is called 1944, the lyrics can also be interpreted in another way. In 2014, the Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Russia under the command of Russian president Vladimir Putin, which also marked the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War. It may not come as a surprise that Russia tried to stop the Ukrainian submission, but the ESC decided there were no political lyrics included. As Jamala sings in 1944: ‘Where is your heart? Humanity rise. You think you are gods, but everyone dies.’ Maybe not explicitly political, but she definitely gave the public of the Eurovision something to seriously think about. The song was not only very impressive but also won that year. The Ukrainian singer even got the second-highest score from the Russian televoters. Just a really good song, or a way for countries – including the Russian population – to send the Russian regime a clear message, using the music contest?

The role of politics in Eurovision

Another significant example of a political song is the Lithuanian submission of 2010, the song Eastern European Funk, performed by the music group InCulto. The title of the song directly tells the audience what the song is about. After the Second World War, the so-called Iron Curtain divided Europe into two different areas: the West and the East of Europe. The Westside of Europe was known for its capitalism and was under great influence of countries like the United States of America and Great Britain. The East of Europe, however, was a completely different area. This side was known for its communism and was under great influence of the Soviet Union, better known as the USSR. Between those two areas was a lot of tension, as the Cold War was created in the second half of the 20th century (McMahon, 2003). Although the Iron Curtain was abolished in 1989, the ‘eastside’ and ‘westside’ of Europe still is an often-mentioned concept all over the world.

The song Eastern European Funk may seem like an innocent song about dancing and singing to good music, but there is actually a deeper, political meaning to it. Over the past few decades, a lot of immigrants from Eastern Europe moved to the West, hoping to find jobs and build a future there (Rovny, 2014). The video clip of the song shows an image of the stereotypical Eastern immigrant in Western Europe: six men, living in a tiny house, drinking vodka, and singing their song. The lyrics in the background tell us "Yes sir, we are legal we are, though we are not as legal as you. No sir, we’re not equal no, though we are both from the EU. We build your homes and wash your dishes, keep you your hands all soft and clean. But one of these days you’ll realize Eastern Europe is in your genes", which makes the real intention of the song practically undeniable. The music group InCulto shows its public through their lyrics the inequality and discrimination between two parts of Europe, even though it is supposed to be one equal and cooperating union. Another political problem to think about.

The participating countries and their contestants create the music and the messages, and the viewers eventually create the – political – meaning of the event

The songs and the voting are not the only way for the contestants and the audience to create political messages. Madrid hosted the ESC in 1969, during the time when Franco was the dictator of Spain. Austria decided not to participate, because of the reason that they were not able to find a suitable candidate. However, it is believed that Austria did not participate because of the strict and conservative regime in Spain (NOS op 3, 2021). This is quite similar to the current situation of Turkey, which has not participated since 2013, and Hungary, which has not participated since 2019. These two countries are, just like Spain was, led by a conservative regime with dictators Erdoğan and Orbán at the helm. There has never been an official statement made, but in these cases, it is also believed that the two countries do not participate anymore because of the progressive character of the ESC (AD, 2019).

Another controversial country in the political history of the music contest is Israel. This country has been terrorized by war for many years, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1978, only a decade after the Six-Day War, Israel won the contest. Jordan decided not to broadcast the ESC anymore when it was clear that Israel was going to win. The national television union cut the television show and later pretended that Belgium had won. This was only possible in times when there were no social media yet (Eurovision, 2021). Israel still is a controversial country in the world of the Eurovision. Two years ago, in 2019, the Eurovision was hosted by Tel Aviv in Israel. The contestants of Iceland, the band Hatari, showed a flag with ‘Free Palestine’ when the votes were announced, which led to a lot of ‘booing’ among the present, mainly Israeli audience.

Eurovision is more than 'just' a song contest

All these different affordances show that Eurovision is a lot more than ‘just’ a song contest. The ESC is a multimodal event, using different media to spread its transcendent messages all around the world. Even more important than that, the Eurovision Song Contest is based on the involvement of its viewers. The event is broadcasted all over the world, with 200 million viewers worldwide. The numerous political messages hiding inside the event, are widely spread through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and probably many other social media platforms, making it the most viewed and talked about music contest worldwide. The participating countries and their contestants create the music and the messages, and the viewers eventually create the – political – meaning of the event. Unconsciously, the EBU created a critical, gender-political, and inclusive Gesamtkunstwerk with a clear voice through music and participation for everyone involved with this event. 

References

AD. (2019, November 28). Hongarije stopt met het Songfestival omdat het te gay is. 

Charron, N. (2013). Impartiality, friendship-networks and voting behavior: Evidence from voting patterns in the Eurovision Song Contest. Social Networks, 35(3), 484-497.

European Broadcasting Union. (2021). History by year.

European Broadcasting Union. (2021). Rules. 

Henrich-Franke, C. (2013). Creating transnationality through an international organization? The European Broadcasting Union’s (EBU) television program activities. London: Routledge.

Kostelijk, J. (2015). Nation branding en politiek op het Eurovisie Songfestival (Masterthesis). European Studies, Faculty of Humanties, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam.

McMahon, R. (2003). The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: University Press.

NOS. (2016, May 13). Lied van Jamala is duidelijk een politiek statement.

NOS op 3. (2021, May 22). Hoe (vriendjes)politiek is het Songfestival? [Videoclip]. 

Rovny, J. (2014). The other ‘other’: Party responses to immigration in eastern Europe. Comparative european politics, 12(6), 637-662.

Schröter, J. (2011). Discourses and Models of Intermediality. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 13(3), 1-7.

Stockemer, D., Blais, A., Kostelka, F., & Chhim, C. (2018). Voting in the Eurovision song contest. Politics, 38(4), 428-442.

Vuletic, D. (2018). Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. Camden: Bloomsbury Publishing.