In 1956, Europe’s best and brightest in the new phenomenon of television broadcasting created a live singing competition to try and unify their war-torn continent. 65 years later, the Eurovision Song Contest has a volatile and farcical reputation, often lambasted as nothing other than additional airtime for Cheryl Baker. Whether you love or hate it (in its true marmite fashion), cultural and political significance cannot be denied. In the wake of Europe’s collective pandemic fatigue and civil unrest, can Eurovision be the socially binding glue to fix the growing cracks?
Eurovision’s pop-culture and political underpinnings are no longer separate entities that can be neatly framed or compartmentalised. The skeletal bones that the contest was built on still exist; strict rules of six performers, live singing requirements, annual themed marketing slogans of togetherness that serve little to no purpose besides performative inclusion. From this foundation came the building blocks of politicised activity, with self-appointed top dogs financing the ‘big five’, ensuring themselves as permanent entertainment fixtures. In the years since, political scorching and scandals are chaotic but commonplace in nature, rarely taking the form of a trivial wardrobe malfunction or rogue fall. With the essence of a school playground, a Eurovision final provides an environment for geo-political alliance, petty revenge and public scolding of unwanted behaviour. A lot to digest when tuning in for a kitschy pop song or two.
Like the wider scope of the political world, social feelings towards others is something Eurovision cannot avoid. The door of wrongdoings doesn’t shut if the UK’s act deserves more than 12 points, leading to musical mockery and inflated national ego. There’s nothing the great British public loves more than a chance to be swaddled in the bubble of political correctness. Israel is Eurovision politics’ prized pupil, with conspiracy surrounding the nature of their multiple wins and a sensitive history that overshadows pioneering transgender contestants and genuinely catchy disco beats. Netta’s 2018 winning bop Toy was the first Eurovision Youtube video to receive more dislikes than likes since the channel’s creation, meaning that political nature and musical contempt have become impossible to distinguish. European tensions have continued to manifest for the majority of the contest’s existence yet continue to hurtle towards a socio-political oblivion we may no longer have the capacity to tolerate.
From allegiant point-scoring to blatant calling-out of social wrongdoing, Eurovision based politics co-habit in a nuanced range. The question of leaving the politics to focus on the culture is one that’s often asked but is never able to purchase clarity. The contest fan base has evolved to stoke the flames of the fire, with social media hashtags ablaze with cutting, protruding opinions. The nature of modern social connection is perhaps another cause of the entanglement politics finds itself in; fact checking deep-dives uncovering performer beliefs, social history or broader political perspective. Sometimes, this coupling serves as a blessing in disguise. In 2013, Finland used their few minutes of fame to criticise their government’s attitude to same-sex marriage, assisting legislation to pass in late 2014. Eurovision provides a largely seen, neutral stage in which frustrated musicians can voice concern for change: an environment we certainly cannot afford to diminish.
The forgotten year of 2020 also provides insight into the path the contest is taking, alongside the shaping of this year’s resurrected redo. Two globally viral favourites found themselves on extremely opposing edges of the political framework. The conversative mystery Russia submitted the unexpectedly camp UNO, momentarily freeing themselves from social myth and the booing soundtrack of Eurovision audiences from the last 13 years (at least). The unproblematic, wholesome and politically neutral Iceland were responsible for the TikTok sensation Think About Things, amassing an extended following amidst content that no one could hold to reason. Both were still highly favoured to win this year. Putting politics to one side, two accomplished and diverse songs are being hugely enjoyed by a European audience. With the Eurovision lens, this highlights a social divide running deeper than any televised competition could effectively keep at bay.
Aside from flitting dramas, results and potential scandals, discourse for Palestinian support was largely expected at the 2021 final, just as it touched fleeting moments of 2019’s broadcast. Beaten down by a pandemic that’s propelled social conversations and accountability, there has to be a place for politics in Europe and Eurovision. With a chance to reinvent itself, the contest must find a balance for pop-culture and political interests to work in harmony, previous low-level point scoring capped to make way for a platform to prosper a coalition for positive change. Missing this opportunity could throw a broken Europe into further disarray it cannot withstand.
Words by Jasmine Valentine
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