Why did the Ukrainian entry “1944” receive such attention as a “political” song at the Eurovision Song Contest? Yes, of course Eurovision is political – and well beyond the lyrics of this song, or even the voting in country blocks. The song contest, with its strongly proclaimed apolitical mission, serves as the showcase of Europe as a political game. It’s what it says on the tin: a vision of Europe, and certainly a contested one.
How can such an event attempt to be apolitical? Eurovision is obviously not a competition for the best song based on purely musical terms. Why would contestants each represent a nation-state, why would the rules on the use of flags be so explicit in that case?
Eurovision started as a festival in Italy in the early 1950s; it is thus a child of the post-war spirit of European unification. Its whole idea, on a more abstract level, is the peaceful competition of states. They use music as the “universal language” to build bridges between people. The voting process is designed as a celebration of democratic participation, and as an acknowledgement of achievements across borders. Its rules reflect the desire to keep any disruption of “peace peace love love” far away from the television screens.
This year’s motto “Come Together” underlined that the Eurovision is, and has always been, a political event invented to make Europeans “come together” and celebrate their European-ness. At a time when Brexit is as much a debated topic as the resurrection of borders, the motto was clearly supposed to remind Europe of this post-war spirit of integration. Eurovision stays true to its foundations – as a vision of Europe.
Apart from this political fundamental, the contest also provides a stage for international relations and soft power: voting in Eurovision tends to follow patterns of political and cultural closeness. The Eastern European countries award each other the highest points, and Germany and Great Britain usually blame their lack of success on unpopular policies.
While this trend has been closely analysed by bigger media outlets and twitter users, the demonstration of national pride and international partnership was further apparent in the use of language. The majority of all singers sang in English, despite it being the first language of the smallest minority of the contestants. Here, English asserts its hegemony as the most learned language on the continent, with artists believing their songs would score higher if more voters could understand them. This trend continues among the spokespersons presenting the jury votes from 42 countries: The French presenter was the only one communicating the “douze points” in French, while the Israeli presenter did a remarkable job in the host country’s language and everyone else spoke English.
This entire performance communicated in political terms: We all make an effort to understand each other, we all make an effort to speak the same language of music, peace and fair democratic competition. That idea has, with no opposition, expanded beyond the boundaries of what counts as “Europe” in other contexts.
That is not to say that every country enters the contest with this vision in mind. This year’s winner drew attention to the fact that Eurovision participants are not all best friends: The song “1944” by Jamala, the Ukrainian entry for this year’s Eurovision, attracted considerable attention with all commentators stressing its “political” nature. In fact, the rules explicitly state that “no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted”. Jamala’s song was admitted as an exception since it refers to the deportation and abuse of the Crimean Tatars perpetrated by Stalinist Russia. The lyrics clearly remind us of the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the continued violence in Jamala’s home country. Russia was obviously not amused and threatened to boycott next year’s contest. The fact that the organisers allowed this song to be the winner clearly shows they want to send a message to Russia – they want to condemn Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine. And overall, Europe’s fear of Russian expansionism.
Radical political scientists might interpret the contest in terms of “panem et circenses”: the Romans knew long ago that a population could be kept happy with current political structures if only bread and games were provided. Is it too far-fetched to see the song contest as entertainment designed to make the vision of a united Europe appealing to the masses?
To everyone dismissing Eurovision as “it’s all just politics” – yes, it is. That is the reason of existence for the Eurovision Song Contest. It is what it says on the tin.