Eurovision 2014: Conchita and pride flags

Musical Diplomacy: Beyond the flashing lights and kitsch delights of the Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision Rulebook states that political gestures made in the form of speeches or lyrics are strictly forbidden. But is it so strictly? Eurovision has been used as a platform for "Musical Diplomacy"

As a card-carrying member of the Eurovision Song Contest fandom, you can really only imagine the level of ‘Euphoria’ experienced (pun intended) when Netflix released the latest addition to their menu, the Eurovision Movie: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. The film follows the story of Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit, (Rachel McAdams) two Eurovision hopefuls from the Icelandic town of Húsavík.

In recent days, rumours have suggested that the film’s big ballad named after the aforementioned Icelandic town, could be in the running for an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Although what has been dubbed as Ferrell’s best work since "The Lego Movie" of 2014 will be tossed into the humour category, it uses the platform of film to highlight many political and cultural issues, mirroring the soapbox that the competition itself, has always been.

What lies beneath the surface?

With a legacy of over 60 years, the Eurovision Song Contest is the Longest Running Annual TV Music Competition, as celebrated by the Guinness Book of World Records. It has decorated the likes of Céline Dion (Switzerland 1988), Johnny Logan (Ireland 1980 and 1987), and the iconic ABBA (Sweden 1974), all winners of the contest, with badges of global recognition. Best described using the Marmite cliché, it’s not everyone’s glass of Buck’s Fizz, but nonetheless, the latest statistics have shown that it is watched by approximately 180 million viewers worldwide.

The unprecedented but inevitable cancellation of Eurovision 2020 due to the global pandemic, left fans fighting among themselves for scraps of the replacement concert; fans whom are often subject to mass-mockery for their unwavering fidelity to the cause. But is there more to the ESC than meets the eye? What lies beneath the surface of what the naysayers label as ‘tuneless, geo-political tack’? In their 2019 publication, "Identity and the International Politics of the Eurovision Song Contest" Wellings and Kalman say more fool those who disregard an "object of historical and political enquiry where European politics and the European post are (literally) preformed before a live global audience on an annual basis".

"Musical diplomacy"

The Eurovision Song Contest was first established by the European Broadcasting Union in 1956, in an attempt to reunite the continent of Europe after the hostilities of World War 2.

From that very first competition held in Lugano, Switzerland, the scene of decade’s worth of socio-political musical drama was set, when Walter Andreas Schwarz represented West Germany in the first ever contest. Schwarz was a Jewish man who had spent some time in a concentration camp during World War 2, and was the then poster-boy for German innocence. His song, Im Wartesaal Zum Großen Glück which translates to "In the waiting room for great luck" advised that "people should live for the present rather than get stuck in the past and risk the joys of life passing them by" writes Dean Vuletic in his 2018 publication "Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest" .

It would appear as though this contest was a perfect instrument on which musical diplomacy could be performed, despite the fact that the ESC Rulebook states that political gestures made in the form of speeches or lyrics are strictly forbidden. This saw the disqualification of Georgia’s 2009 entry "We Don’t Wanna Put In" which was a blatant slanderous dig at Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

Political tensions reached a peak in 2017 when Ukraine was hosting the event, having won the 2016 contest with a song, which when translated, tells the story of the artists grandmother who was one of the 190,000 Crimean Tatars deported by Stalin’s Russia, to Central Asia. In 2017, the Russian Eurovision entry, was denied access to Ukraine, having been put on a travel ban for performing in Crimea without the required Visa.

Neighbour voting: Demographical shifts

One of the many elements of the ESC which receives much criticism, is the iconic tele-voting system which can sometimes demonstrate a ‘un service en vaut un autre’ approach by some countries. You could say that there is more evidence to suggest that this is a cultural side-effect, rather than political. For example, one only need cast their mind back to 2011 and 2012 when identical twins, "Jedward" represented Ireland in the contest. They received 12 and 10 points from the UK, respectively. However, this had little or nothing to do with geo-politics, but the fact that Jedward had a large fan-base in the UK, having been baptised into the fame-factory family by the English X-Factor in 2009. Therefore, one can’t dismiss the idea that the pre-Eurovision popularity of the artist/song plays a significant factor in the distribution of the coveted ‘douze points.’ Since 2004, the influx of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants to Ireland has been reflected in the Irish tele-vote for these countries, an expression of the demographical shifts in society, rather than international politics.

Eurovision, politics and LGBTQI

Social issues, particularly sexuality and equality, have found themselves front and centre on this international stage. Israel’s 1998 entry, Dana International (Diva) paved the way for these conversations to be had, as the first transgender artist to win the competition. In 2014, Austria’s Conchita Wurst emulated this success, singing the very Bond-esque Rise like a Phoenix. Both Russia and Belarus called for the transmission of the performance to be cropped due to homophobic anxieties. Much to the delight of the masses, this request was denied by the EBU, and Conchita claimed the trophy. The Eurovision Song Contest has received enormous support from the LGBTQI community for their willingness to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all performers, especially in the earlier days of the contest in an age when acceptance, let alone the celebration of diversity, was merely a dream.

In the aforementioned book, Professor Vuletic of the University of Vienna says "Eurovision really has been a platform for the aspirations of various actors, ranging from dictators to drag queens.”

Beyond the psychotropically intense lighting, impractical costumes and often outrageous props, there is meaning. There are cries for reform. There are minority groups seeking equality. There are important political, social and personal stories that deserve to be told. Through the ESC, Europe is imagined, performed and translated into the universal language of music.

By means of the Eurovision Song Contest, Europe can be felt; the pain, the passion and everything in between.

About the author: Deirdre Barry (Ireland)

Deirdre is a 24 year old from Ireland, with a degree in Primary Education and a diploma in Freelance Journalism. Eurovision was always a highly anticipated event in her household growing up, her earliest memory dating back to Tallinn in 2002. Deirdre’s favourite entry was The Netherlands 2014 song ‘Calm After the Storm.’

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