The Non-political Politics of Eurovision

By Michele Affinito | Magazine | May 31, 2022

Cover Illustration: Singer on a stage. Wendy Wei / Pexels

Magazine Reporter Michele Affinito discusses what actually hides behind one of the important tenets of the Eurovision Song Contest, namely its non-political nature. The article thus looks into the politics of music, the “soft power” politics of the Eurovision and several examples pointing to non-political politics of Eurovision. 

Eurovision is everything a European could ask for: pop music from Sweden, heavy metal from Finland, San Marino never ceasing to surprise, occasional quirky songs, ballads, and upbeat love songs. The list could go on forever. It is THE European Music festival, the one that even people from the US want to “steal” from us (even though it will never be as iconic, and my European pride feeds itself on this axiom). Being such an important event for the whole European continent, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) has many rules that states must abide by. However, among the many rules, there is one that is regarded as particularly important for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Rule 2.7, paragraph (i) which starts as follows:

The ESC is a non-political event. 

As straightforward as it sounds, the reality isn’t black and white. One might say music goes beyond politics; it is meant to unite us and help us overcome our differences. This message of hope is however ill-fated. Music is not simply about falling in love while running on a grassy hill but also acts as a vehicle for driving discourse about personal struggles and social battles. Music is about rights and freedom, it is political in its nature. In a song contest that brings Europe together, with all of its differences and conflicts, it would be naïve to think that politics could just wait by the door and not enter the scene with the contestants. It brings back ancient alliances and rivalries. We could call this the “soft power” of politics within Eurovision. Indeed, the political character of the ESC gets more interesting when “hard power” is brought to the table; namely, when contestants and countries get directly involved in controversial actions.

For regular die-hard fans, the politics of Eurovision may easily be spotted in the voting trends of the national juries: nobody gets shocked if Sweden gives its 12 points to one of its Scandinavian neighbors or if Cyprus gives them to Greece or San Marino to Italy (it is more shocking when it does not happen: I see you, 2019 San Marino, I shall never forget the betrayal).

For the purpose and the final analysis of this article, it is instrumental to look at specific countries that are catalysts of political drama: Armenia and Azerbaijan, Israel and – more importantly – Russia and Ukraine.

Armenia and Azerbaijan do not have a good political relationship, the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh a confirmation of this. That is why the contest is filled with geopolitical significance for the two countries, in a constant race towards the highest positions in the final ranking. Israel is even more controversial since its presence in the competition divides fans and it poses a fundamental question: is it really possible to leave politics out of the music contest? With Israel participating since 1973, one cannot turn a blind eye to the controversies around its presence. Many Arab countries refuse to participate in the contest because of Israel (Morocco participated only in 1980, when Israel withdrew, only to refuse to participate again from the next year up until now), there is no doubt that the presence of the country creates some friction.

When Israel’s Eurovision act won in 2018, the Middle Eastern country struggled to keep politics out of the ESC equation. The 2019 ESC hosted by them was certainly not an apolitical event: concealed by the glitter and bright stage lights lay the Israeli government’s political conflicts. From protests by Orthodox Jews (the ESC dates coincided with the Shabbat) to the boycott called upon by Palestinian activists, public opinion was extremely divided. Israeli politicians feared The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign to the point that they passed a bil enforcing a law to prevent activists from  “disturbing” the competition. Moreover, the contest itself was preceded by days of violent fights and airstrikes between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip, with a death toll of four Israelis and 23 Palestinians. After a hurried ceasefire agreement, many accused the country of hiding behind the contest to present a good image of a welcoming and open-minded Israel, betting on the usual queerness of the contest (many even accusing Israel of rainbow washing).

The 2019 ESC left us with one of the most iconic political statements in the history of the contest: no fan can ever forget the image of the Icelandic BDSM-Heavy Metal band Hatari waving the Palestinian flag after the announcement of the votes from the public, leaving the presenters speechless and the theater mixed with admiration and contempt. A truly “non-political event” one can say.

Most recently, if there are two countries that have animated the European arena they are surely Ukraine and Russia. In 2016, two years after Russia’s attack on Crimea, the Ukrainian artist Jamala won the ESC in Stockholm with the song “1944”, an emotional account of a dark moment in Soviet history: the deportation of Crimean Tatars as per Stalin’s orders, considered genocide by many. Jamala is a Crimean Tatar herself, and the victory was controversial and unpredictable. Many were betting on the Russian act, Sergey Lazarev, who placed second despite the many points from the public, and the defeat was not taken lightly. Russians opposed Jamala’s victory as the song carried an explicit political message recounting historical events (many highlighted the similarities between the Tatars’ struggle and the Russian annexation of Crimea). Many other commentators argued over the fact that the song won because of its message rather than the song quality.

To add more salt to Russia’s wound, during the 2017 ESC hosted in Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities refused to allow the Russian act, Julia Samoylova, to enter the country after she reportedly went to Crimea without entering through the Ukrainian borders. These controversial events lead us to the  last decision by the EBU to disqualify Russia from the 2022 ESC in Turin “in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine”, to which “the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute.” It was not unexpected, but the assertion of having an apolitical motivation behind it turns up many people’s noses.

The question remains: is it acceptable for an event centered around music, an event that every year finds uniting and inspiring slogans (“Celebrate diversity”, “Come Together”, “Dare to dream”) to be influenced by politics? More important, in my opinion, is the question of whether it is useful to pretend that politics are not influential. 

“The ESC is a political event, whether we want it to be or not, because it is the cultural mirror of a divided continent, in which different countries share common land and in which music is a powerful economic and ideological weapon to assert their presence, and their worth.”

The ESC is a political event, whether we want it to be or not, because it is the cultural mirror of a divided continent, in which different countries share common land and in which music is a powerful economic and ideological weapon to assert their presence, and their worth. With the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, we are witnessing a renaissance of explicit political stances taken by members of the entertainment industry. Many people criticize the double standards of eurocentrism, stating that wars and armed struggles have even contoured the Eurovision Song Contest many times in the last years. Beyond this is the fact that now more than ever the EBU had to take an important political decision by disqualifying Russia from the 2022 ESC, a decision that despite being taken outside and before the contest, will eventually politically influence the music festival in Turin. 

One might ask: what has really changed for Eurovision from the Russian attack in Crimea? Is one political situation more political than another? There is no “scale of politically acceptable actions” displayed in the ESC website. Simply put, the EBU had to get a reality check. Politics is everywhere around us; culture is interconnected with it. This last decision, aside from being a powerful statement from a union of public media reaching more than one billion people, will change the relationship between the Eurovision Song Contest and politics forever.

Despite having been written months before the ESC 2022 in Turin, the questions posed still resonate days after the victory by the Ukranian rap-folk band Kalush Orchestra. With 631 points, 439 of which came from the public, Ukraine won the hearts of Eurovision fans all over Europe. And as commentators, journalists and Europeans find an explanation to this victory by recurring to the Europeans’ pity towards the Ukranian State, the relationship between the Contest and geopolitical events resurfaces again. 

As comforting as it could seem, the narrative of the armed conflict not only downplays the performance o a group that even before the war was already in the Pantheon of possible winners; it is also a useless uchronian reasoning (perfect for a book of speculative fiction, not so much for the ESC) . Wondering who would have won the ESC if Ukraine had not been invaded by Russia will not change the current reality, which tells us that we will never know if Ukraine won because of the war or regardless of it. Why? Because this demonstrates that politics is not an ingredient that can be taken out of a recipe when someone asks for it. Eurovision is a political event, and it was even before the war in Ukraine.

Looking back at the previous editions of the contest, we can for sure say this: when there is a winner there are many losers, which means that there will be many disappointed fans. So, since there is no recipe for a drama-free Eurovision, every attempt at depoliticizing the Contest is destined to fail. 

Michele Affinito is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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