Saturday, May 12 is the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest, a live talent show that airs either in part or in full across nearly 50 countries. Started in 1956 with contestants from seven countries, the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes it as the longest running annual TV music competition. (Wait, did you think “American Idol” was original?)
Eurovision's original dream was to bring the European continent together through music. More than 60 years later, Eurovision works hard to preserve its image as an apolitical entertainment event. But while it is certainly entertaining, to pretend that Eurovision has ever been anything but a political phenomenon is to miss half the point.
Eurovision works hard to preserve its image as an apolitical entertainment event. But to pretend that Eurovision has ever been anything but a political phenomenon is to miss half the point.
When Eurovision started, it was based on the idealistic notion that a new technology called television could bring the world together. (Decades later, this same idealism would be used to describe the potential of the World Wide Web.) Indeed, in early shows the power of telecommunication was on display as much as performances were; the entire second half of the broadcast was dedicated to the production making long distance phone calls to each of the competing countries live on-screen to receive the scores from the officially appointed juries. (A more democratic system was introduced later.)
Eurovision represented “joining hands around Europe” decades before the European Union was born, promoting the idea of one world together. Along the way, it produced hit artists too, from ABBA to Celine Dion.
Today, the EU is more fragile than at any point since its founding in 1993, and yet Eurovision is still one of the highest rated global events of the year, beating out more U.S.-centric events like the Oscars and the Super Bowl handily. Eurovision encourages songs to stay “universal” in their messaging. (There was even a send-up of the stereotypical Eurovision song called “Love, Love, Peace, Peace” in 2016.) But most that perform are chosen by country-wide “Idol” style contests, and the winning songs often betray their fans’ more political preferences.
The show’s producers have gone back and forth on whether it should be mandatory for entry songs to be performed in the competitor’s native tongue, but since 1999 the “free language” rule has relaxed this policy. For a while singing in English was the trend, with many convinced performing in a common language gave them an advantage. But since Brexit and Trump, the tide has turned. The last two winners have sung in their native languages, and this year over a third of the entries have at least some non-English lyrics.
For a while singing in English was the trend, with many convinced performing in a common language gave them an advantage. But since Brexit and Trump, the tide has turned.
Though the show started out with jury-based selection, the advent of mobile technology has brought true democracy (and a two-pronged voting system) to Eurovision. The addition of a popular vote seems also to have made the show even more political. In 2016, for example, the Eurovision jury selected Australia’s not-very-controversial number, “Sounds of Silence,” as the winning entry. But when the popular vote was counted, Australia fell to third place. (After all, they’re not Europeans!) Instead, Ukraine’s explicitly anti-Russian anthem inspired by the Crimean War took home the top prize (and the job of hosting the next year).
This set up 2017 to become a proxy war between the two literally warring countries, with Ukraine banning Russia’s contestant Yulia Samoylova because she had entered Crimea to give a concert to the Russian troops without a visa. Russia, in retaliation, withdrew from the competition, taking their viewing households with them. This year, to make a point of it, Russia sent the same contestant, with Putin’s public blessing (though armed with a brand new song), only to see her roundly snubbed. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s piano-on-fire performance not only had the prime final performance slot in the second semi-final round, but is through to the Grand Final. Russia is headed home.
Russia’s glaring absence last year was not mentioned during the broadcast, as Eurovision’s powers that be attempted in vain to maintain its love and peace façade. Likewise, Eurovision announcers are unlikely to mention the UK’s Brexit struggles this year, even though British performer SuRie’s song “Storm” speaks of “holding hands together” and “weathering” it as one. Whatever could SuRie be talking about?
Indeed, unlike in pop music, Eurovision songs live or die based on their lyrics. Ireland made the Grande Final for the first time in nearly a decade not because its song was any better than last year’s, but because their message is. Finland is making a go of it this year with a song including every participant country’s language. Italy’s song, “Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente,” is inspired by the 2015 Paris bombing. France’s song, “Mercy,” is about the refugee crisis.
Interestingly, the latter two aren’t favored to win. Known as the “Big Five,” Italy, France, the UK, Germany and Spain do not compete in the semi-final rounds but rather pass directly to the Grand Final (along with the host country) because they collectively pay the bulk of Eurovision’s expenses. It sounds cushy, but anyone who’s watched enough of “Idol” or “The Voice” will tell you a lack of TV time ahead of the final is actually a detriment, both in terms of practice and audience investment.
Meanwhile, the juggernaut that is Eurovision keeps growing. This year, the show has 43 participant countries, matching its highest number since 2008. And the admission of Australia after a fabulous guest turn in 2015 suggests the contest might be open to expanding its reach to one day become a true worldwide contest. (Australia is not the first non-European country to be allowed in. Israel has been regularly competing since 1973, and its entry this year is a song that includes clucking like a chicken. Oh by the way, did I also mention Eurovision is hilarious?)
While acknowledging in big or small ways the global turbulence of the last few years, nearly all of this year’s entrants sound notes of unity and hope in their numbers. After six decades, perhaps the secret to Eurovision's success is that people still want to believe music can bring us together. That’s not an apolitical message, but it is a surprisingly hopeful one. And despite everything that’s going on, it’s reassuring that hope is still one thing people want to believe in.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.