Why is Eurovision so political?
Eurovision has often been called “the politics of music”, and, as the contest of nations has always been political, the show may be a living proof that art and politics are a match made in heaven. As a famous line states: isn’t all art political?
On Saturday, the final of the Eurovision song contest took place in Turin, Italy, and, as expected, Ukraine won by an overwhelming popular vote. The grand final began with a rendition of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, setting the stage for the omnipresent political messaging, that would be showcased throughout the show.
The result was a surprise to few.
The Eastern-European country was invaded by Russia at the end of February and since then, an outpour of support has been shown to the country, in all its forms. Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has become a war leader overnight, with a reputation so big and powerful, the likes of which the world has not seen since the days of Winston Churchill, during World War II.
Since the invasion of the country, Ukraine has been leading the headlines for months now and, whenever possible, has made good use of its visibility to press nations for international aid and support, through various means, including cultural diplomacy.
This year, Kalush Orchestra, a Ukrainian hip-hop band that combines ethnic motifs with modern sounds using different folk instruments, made up of five men, who were given special permission to leave the war-torn country to participate in the contest, won in Turin on Saturday night.
The winning song, “Stefania”, was originally written as a tribute to frontman Oleh Psiuk’s mother, but it has been re-purposed as a rallying cry for Ukraine amidst the Russian invasion, writes the BBC over the weekend. After their performance, the lead singer said: “Please help Ukraine, help Mariupol, help Azovstal right now”, and, upon receiving the trophy, the band declared: Thank you for supporting Ukraine. This victory is for every Ukrainian. Slava Ukraini”.
However, it is not the first time that the winning country at Eurovision has followed the political currents of the time. The musical show, oftentimes an explosion of humorous and absurd songs, bands and lyrics, has always been a reflection of the political landscape in the region – in terms of friendships, partnerships and, even foes.
In February, one day after Russian president, Vladimir Putin, invaded Ukraine, the country was banned by Eurovision from competing in the contest. Russia’s first Eurovision entry was in 1994 and the song contest began in 1956.
As far as Ukraine goes, the country, which started competing in the show long after the Soviet Union fell, in 2003, has won three times – in 2004, in 2016 and this year.
Ruslana, the 2004 winner, is not only the country’s most successful solo artist internationally, she was also a Member of Parliament in the Our Ukraine Party, a pro-European political party, who supported former president, Viktor Yushchenko.
In 2004, Ruslana actively supported the democratic processes in Ukraine, known as the Orange Revolution, to which her song “Wild Dances” was devoted. She was also one of the leading figures of the Euromaidan protests, sparked in Kyiv in 2013, after the Ukrainian government decided not to sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement, opting instead for closer ties to Russia.
In 2016, two years after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the winning song at Eurovision was “1944”, performed by Jamala. The song is in reference to the deportation of Crimean Tatars, made by the Soviet Union at the hands of Joseph Stalin in 1944, because of allegations that they had collaborated with the Nazis. Jamala’s great-grandmother had been deported to Central Asia, when she was in her 20s, along with her five children, one of whom did not survive the journey.
Amid renewed repression of Crimean Tatars following the Russian annexation of Crimea, given that Tatars refuse the annexation, Jamala’s entry was particularly powerful, another depiction of how the contest mirrors the political developments outside the stage. In response to Ukraine’s entry, Russia threatened to boycott the song contest.
“If politics infiltrated Eurovision, a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson wrote on her Facebook wall, the next winner could well be the ongoing war in Syria—a country that doesn’t participate in Eurovision, but that was accused of benefiting from Russian aid in its attacks on its citizens. Sardonically, the spokesperson suggested lyrics to the song: ‘Assad blood, Assad worst. Give me prize, that we can host’”, writes Quartz, in an analysis of how present the Russian-Ukrainian disputes have been on the Eurovision stage, over the years.
Eurovision claims to be apolitical. Its rules state that “the Eurovision Song Contest shall in no case be politicised and/or instrumentalised and/or otherwise brought into disrepute in any way”, there is a difference that should be made here been state politics and values politics.
For example, Belarus was excluded last year for lyrics perceived to be mocking protesters of the Lukashenko government (they were ultimately ejected entirely from the European Broadcasting Union – Eurovision’s organising body – for suppressing journalists’ freedom of speech) and Georgia withdrew in 2009, when the EBU rejected its entry, “We Don’t Wanna Put In”, which contained obvious references to the then Russian prime minister.
However, when it comes to universally appreciated values, like love, tolerance, acceptance, – this is what the identity of the show thrives on and aims to promote, even though this has not always been the case.
“In 2017 (in Kyiv, no less), the EBU censured Portuguese artist (and eventual winner) Salvador Sobral for wearing a sweatshirt reading SOS Refugees to his press conferences. Sobral emphasised that it was ‘not a political message – it is a humanitarian and essentially human message’”, writes The Conversation.
Photo source: Eurovision World