Communicating through mega-events: why Eurovision has always been political

In my last post on the Eurovision Song Contest I explored the idea that our appreciation of songs is supposed to be aesthetic rather than political, which leads western European viewers to perceive ‘neighbourly’ voting patterns as a violation of the norm.

The structure of Eurovision is unusual and potentially compelling because it transfers two principles – competition through amassing scores and competition between countries – from a domain where objectively quantifying performance makes some sense (sport) to a domain where quantification is much more difficult (music).

Many sporting performances are quantifiable: they can be measured. Either Jessica Ennis’s jump was 1.95 m high, or it wasn’t. Not all sports are quite so measurable: performances in diving, gymnastics, ice dance and so on have to be interpreted by judges and translated into numbers using a complicated mark scheme, to be able to evaluate who’s won. This is already harder to reconcile with the idea of one clear, objective result. In fact, research on the most aesthetic sports suggests that judges’ and spectators’ subjective beliefs about criteria that don’t appear on the mark sheet, such as gender or nationality,  do affect how successful they evaluate a performance to be.

Song contests, on the other hand, are all aesthetic; there isn’t any mark scheme. The more subjective our judgement has to be, the more room there is for our wider knowledge to flesh out what we perceive in the performance we’ve just seen. Could we ever interpret Eurovision songs without politics being present at some level, especially when every song is deliberately put up to be the representative of a country and a nation? To do so, we’d have to consciously bracket off the common-sense knowledge that helps us make snap judgements about the world. Pulling apart the aesthetic and political, then, may be a false separation.

But what about the deliberate politicisation of music, which occurs when musicians, broadcasters and/or contest organisers consciously use a song to communicate a political message? Eurovision rules (PDF) state that ‘no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the ESC’. (They also state that ‘no swearing or other unacceptable language shall be allowed in the lyrics or in the performances of the songs’, which didn’t prevent the most recent Austrian entrants being named ‘Trackshittaz’.)

Often, this is used as evidence that Eurovision’s organisers intend it to be apolitical (though Karen Fricker, interviewed in this CNN report on the politics of Eurovision, would not agree). Yet Eurovision itself came into being as one outcome of a wide-ranging political project to reshape (western) Europe in the 1950s by forging and institutionalising a common European culture to strengthen the emerging free-trade organisations that became the contemporary EU. The European Broadcasting Union, a confederation of public-service broadcasters, was founded in 1950. It launched its best-known activity, the Eurovision Song Contest, in 1956.

The concept of Eurovision was politicised from the outset. Since well before Eurovision’s enlargement, numerous individual entries have reflected the politics of  their countries and/or their times, as collated in a 2011 documentary, The Secret History of  Eurovision (where I feature briefly as a talking head in sections on former Yugoslavia). Portugal’s entry in 1975 celebrated the 1974 revolution. Greece’s entry in 1976 protested the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Almost every song in 1990 made some reference to peace, liberty, or falling walls; three years later, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina both lamented the effects of war in their first entries as independent states, while sanctions banned what would become Serbia-Montenegro from participating.

As the scale of Eurovision has expanded, we can also see a growing politicisation of hosting. Contemporary Eurovisions approach the scale of a ‘mega-event’, a term coined by Maurice Roche (PDF) for international spectacles that are broadcast well beyond the host country’s borders and attract visitors from many countries. The classic mega-events are sporting occasions such as the Olympics or the World Cup, and much research has been done on how host countries and cities use them to communicate desirable messages about themselves. Visit us! Invest in us! And buy a mascot!

One of the criticisms being made against Baku’s hosting of Eurovision – similar to the reaction against the Beijing Olympics or the Qatar World Cup – is that Azerbaijan has used it to showcase the Aliyev regime while masking violations of human rights. The principle of political communication through hosting a Eurovision mega-event, however, isn’t new – as Paul Jordan (or ‘Dr Eurovision’, now of BBC3 semi-final interval fame) has shown in his research on ‘nation-branding’ in Estonia and Ukraine.

Kiev’s hosting of Eurovision 2005 and its rehearsal fortnight – like Baku and all Eurovisions in between, an event that dominated the central public space of its host city as well as leading up to a television show – also very explicitly showed off a regime, in this case the renewed Ukraine that Viktor Yushchenko had promised to deliver after the Orange Revolution of 2004. The EBU intervened to prevent Ukraine’s entry directly referencing Yushchenko, but the staging of the event still referenced recent political events in many ways (PDF). At least in the eyes of organisations such as Amnesty or the BBC, this was far less problematic than Baku; and Ukraine was supposed to be moving away from clientelism towards democracy and transparency, after all.

Yet these extravaganzas might be a thing on the past. At a press conference in Baku on Wednesday, the executive supervisor of Eurovision, Jon Ola Sand, stated that it was ‘possible that future contests might be on a smaller scale and there may be possible changes to rehearsal schedules to economise on time and financial costs’. In retrospect, there’s a case for viewing the kind of exuberant nation-branding performances I wrote about in 2008 as evidence of a particular moment in Europe’s economic history, which may now have come to an end.

Eurovision: why bloc voting doesn’t exist, and why ‘we’ think ‘they’ do it

One of the more predictable outcomes of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, in any event other than a western European victory: recurring complaints from audiences and commentators this side of the former Iron Curtain that bloc voting on the part of eastern countries has become so powerful that it determines the outcome of the contest.

Four years ago, in what proved to be his last Eurovision commentary, the BBC commentator Terry Wogan spent much of the voting in frustration that ‘neighbourly’ voting in Eastern Europe was leading to an inevitable Russian victory:

When Ukraine awarded Russia the maximum 12 points, Wogan commented: “Ukraine want to be absolutely sure that the electricity and the oil flows through.” As Latvia did the same he said it knew which side its bread was buttered on. Over the closing titles he said it could be “goodnight western Europe”. (The Guardian, 26 May 2008)

Wogan’s Network-style on-air meltdown, tinged with the pessimism of Sir Edward Grey (‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our time,’ spoken by the British foreign minister on the eve of the First World War) has fed into the dominant perception of contemporary Eurovision in the UK. Other western European audiences, such as the Dutch, appear to share the unease.

Statistically, it’s clear that certain geographical concentrations of countries tend to give high points to each other. But thinking in terms of a bloc of states voting, deliberately and politically, for each other stops us seeing something more complex going on.

1. Do we expect that other countries’ musical tastes should be as different from each others’ as ours are from theirs? It’s common sense to assume that every country has its own distinctive musical culture, just like it has its own distinctive language; we often have simplified expectations of what ‘French’ or ‘Italian’ or ‘Spanish’ music ought to be like. Many Western European countries have been fixed and consolidated entities for centuries, even if their borders have moved around, and we tend to use them as our model for making sense of the rest of the world.

We need to unlearn that if we’re going to understand the whole of the continent we live in. (And please excuse, or overthink if you prefer, my decision in this post to use a collective British ‘we’.)

Every nationalist movement in Europe aims to define a national culture and prove that that nation has continuously inhabited whatever territory they identify as their national homeland. But there’s persuasive historical research arguing that national identity in much of Europe was much more wobbly until the late 19th or early 20th century: Czech, German, Italian and Slovene nationalist movements in imperial Austria, for instance, met surprising levels of national indifference among the bilingual populations they tried to mobilise (and even France may have taken longer to integrate nationally than one might think).

Even when territory has been divided into nation-states, there can be long-standing reasons for musical cultures to be similar across borders. The musical practices of the Ottoman Empire, in which most of south-east Europe spent at least some time, have left legacies throughout the region even though it’s now politically composed of entities that are imagined as nation-states with distinctive national languages and histories. Pop-folk from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Turkey (and yes, sometimes even from Croatia and Slovenia) has a lot in common. Transnational cover versions are common, and so, these days, are transnational duets; there’s even a satellite TV channel devoted to covering the whole of what the ethnomusicologist Donna Buchanan called the ‘Ottoman ecumene‘ (PDF review).

Audiences in many other countries may well not perceive foreign entries as being as foreign as we do.

2. The disintegrating federation problem. Since the break-ups of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the USSR, the map of Europe simply contains more states than it used to thirty years ago. The disintegration of Yugoslavia put six states on the map instead of one (and Kosovo may yet provide a seventh); the former Soviet Union now accounts for fifteen, of which ten are now regular Eurovision participants.

Many of these used not to participate in Eurovision: before the transnational collapse of Communism, Yugoslavia – which hadn’t been part of the Soviet bloc since 1948 – was the only state-socialist country to participate. We can’t tell what Eastern European voting patterns before the 1990s would have been like, even if we might have suspicions.

Like the EU and NATO, Eurovision went through its own gradual enlargement, between 1993 and 2008. Most of the Yugoslav successor states, and some central European ones, began to participate in 1993. By 2000, the rest of central Europe and the Baltic states were on board; Russia first participated in 1994; in 2003-08, post-socialist south-east Europe, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the post-Soviet Caucasus started to join in as well.

So there are more competing states; and we also see more of them than we used to. Until 2004, Eurovision operated a relegation principle where low-scoring countries had to sit out a year. Introducing semi-finals in 2004 meant that every participating country would be visible in the final every year, as a voter even if not as a contestant.

3. Another disintegrating federation problem. The multi-national federations that broke up in 1989-92 had had flourishing popular music industries since the 1950s-60s (with apologies for simplifying their cultural histories and skipping over the question of whether you can have a music ‘industry’ in a socialist society). These connections, as I’ve found with former Yugoslavia (PDF), didn’t simply disappear when the federal republics became states. Yes, there were nationalistic attempts to separate new countries’ music from their ‘former neighbours’; yes, certain musicians or types of music became unwelcome across certain new borders; yes, there could be problems with performing live in a ‘former neighbour’ or with new national-language quotas on TV and radio.  Without expecting it to lead to any political reintegration, we can still talk about a shared popular culture in former Yugoslavia today, or what Tim Judah has called a ‘Yugosphere’ (PDF).

Likewise with the former Soviet Union. There’s a shared entertainment culture here, assisted by widespread knowledge of Russian – and significant Russian-speaking minorities – in the other Soviet successor states. Many contestants from a Yugoslav or Soviet successor country will already be well known in the rest of their former federation. Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka is so well known in Russia that (according to a presentation I heard at the ASEEES convention in 2010) several people in Russia have been arrested for holding concerts pretending to be her. Russia gave 8 points to Verka in 2007, even though her song title was frequently interpreted as a coded way to say ‘Russia, goodbye’.

Imagine that after some constitutional cataclysm there are six states on the territory of the UK. The musicians from each state all used to be in what were ‘our’ national charts, together. We remember who they are. The musical vocabulary they use is something we hear year-round. It would be more surprising if we didn’t vote for them. Whereas a viewer who’d never been part of that shared cultural space would be entitled to go: ‘Is Wessex really voting for Northumbria again?’

In fact, we can already illustrate that right now. Which of this year’s Eurovision contestants only became working musicians because they’d appeared on a talent show in a neighbouring country? Jedward. That one is our fault.

4. Bloc voting on its own won’t win. Some Eurovision entries make perfect sense within their linguistic and cultural area while their appeal doesn’t translate further. For instance, many former Yugoslav entries – Croatia’s Severina, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Laka or Serbia’s Milan Stankovic, and quite likely Montenegro’s Rambo Amadeus – are part of an internal conversation within the ‘Yugosphere’, with complicated local allusions that score highly from other ‘insiders’ but get hardly anything from outside.

These have a knack of ending up 13th, which is where 5 sets of 8-12 points will get you. To actually win, a song needs votes from outside its own bloc – and this is where the Western taste for Eastern exoticism often comes in.

What’s more, the Eurovision record of some states that ‘ought’ to be part of the bloc – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – is shocking, to the extent that some have almost given up. The ‘blocs’ we’re perceiving are, effectively, the legacies of the ‘Ottoman ecumene’ and the Yugoslav and Soviet federations.

5. Is it because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? This myth dates back to 2003 when, two months after the invasion of Iraq, the British entrants Jemini received nul points. Perhaps it’s inflected by memories of 1982, when Britain hosted Eurovision during the Falklands War and Spain sent an Argentinian tango.

The difficulty here is showing causality. More European countries are involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than the British public may realise. Besides the NATO members, candidates and participants in the Partnership for Peace programme have also sent (usually small and specialised contingents) to both wars, though this of course isn’t evidence of public support.

Without ethnographic observation of voter behaviour, we can’t know how far a country’s participation in the conflicts affects voter behaviour (has there been a significant drop in votes for Denmark, say, since it began sending combat troops to Helmand Province?), whether or not voters particularly punish the UK, or whether indeed they punish the UK in lieu of being able to punish the US. My own, unproven, feeling is that more personal negative experiences of a country (if a voter has them) would weigh more heavily on most.

6. Is voting inherently political? Sometimes, we know it is. A BBC Panorama report on human rights in Azerbaijan contained an interview with an Azeri who said that in 2009 he had voted for Armenia (involved in a territorial dispute with Azerbaijan) on principle, without even hearing the song.

But it’s not always the case. In 2004, Croatia gave 12 points to Serbia-Montenegro, which was appearing for the first time (or the first time since 1992). The vote made headlines in both countries, at a time when Croatian/Serbian musical contacts had been steadily increasing after the fall of both countries’ nationalist leaders in 1999/2000. Croatian audiences now routinely give 8, 10 or 12 points to Serbia; is every televoting call a conscious political decision? Again, we’d need rigorous studies of voter behaviour to be sure.

Anyone’s decision not to vote for a country will also depend on a complex mix of existing tastes and biases – not to mention unpredictable factors such as a poor sound mix on the night of a performance or whether the contest organisers have inexplicably chosen to broadcast a dance-pop favourite with an alienating greyscale colour filter again. But this isn’t restricted to the members of the ‘bloc’. Perhaps it may be that some viewers who saw or heard about the BBC/Channel 4 news reports from Azerbaijan choose not to vote for the Azeri entry and potentially contribute to Baku hosting a second Eurovision. If voting can be influenced by politics, this holds for all European audiences, not just a subset.

7. What else we think about when we think about a ‘bloc’. To be able to complain about ‘bloc voting’ depends on some assumptions about who’s doing it and who isn’t. At some level, ‘we’ feel offended because ‘they’ are voting in a different way from what we believe the competition ought to judge. There ‘they’ are, ganging up on ‘us’, with their politically motivated behaviour and their unknowability and their sand painters and Olympic figure skaters.

We’re assuming that ‘they’ will make decisions about a piece of creative work based on political bias, whereas ‘we’ don’t do that and are therefore able to assess the works objectively.

There’s a problem here when we divide Europe into an irrational ‘them’ and a rational ‘us’. The problem is that this form of separation has a long history in western European thought. Our cultural narratives about ‘the Balkans’ and the people who live there as being untrustworthy and irrational go back to 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century literature and travel writing: Alberto Fortis’s barbarous Morlachs, Anthony Hope’s duplicitous Ruritanians, Agatha Christie’s murderous Herzoslovakians or Hergé’s maddening Syldavians, all needing a firm and rational western European hand to come in and set them to order. (Some critics would argue that contemporary peacebuilding projects depend on a vestige of the same logic.)

‘They’ would do that, wouldn’t they? Not like us. Except of course when we do.

That doesn’t mean that everyone who believes in bloc voting wants to colonise the East. It does mean they/we are tapping into a reservoir of common sense that dates back to a time when western Europeans believed that exercise of power was natural and when they used to act on it.

Not many people like examining how they’re positioned in these kinds of narratives, especially when they’re on the privileged side. It’s still important we try to be aware of them. Our perceptions of Europe aren’t determined by what a novelist or traveller wrote a hundred years ago, but their ideas and constructs have still provided much of the cultural common sense that we may fall back on to interpret what we observe.

8. The take-away message. Many European countries’ musical cultures are much more tightly connected, in various ways, than Britain’s is connected to any of theirs – except to Ireland’s and, perhaps, to Sweden. Audiences are used to hearing hits in foreign languages throughout the year. Very often, that foreign language is ours; but there are also flows of popular music between continental European countries from which the UK market is largely isolated (or from which it’s been cut off since the days of Sandie Shaw and Matt Monro). If not for those flows, the idea of starting a Eurovision Song Contest in 1956 wouldn’t have made sense.

Ironically, the closest thing in this year’s Eurovision to that mid-20th-century European ‘schlager’ scene is none other than the British entry.

If Engelbert Humperdinck does the business at Eurovision 2012, he’ll have achieved it by tapping into precisely that transnational European light-entertainment culture that British audiences profess not to understand.

‘Ethnic banter’: or, when revision and critical pedagogy collide

Like many teachers, I feel I’ve achieved most in the classroom when students’ learning goes outside the classroom – when what we do in class retains some meaning even after the assessments are over and even in contexts of non-learning/non-work. Teaching across institutions and disciplines this year, I’ve been lucky to observe this happen, or help to make it happen, in several ways: seeing students who have travelled to study in London reflect on their own countries’ national identities or security narratives; hearing undergraduates shift independently from a seminar discussion on whether the public in Milosevic’s Serbia had to agree with the messages of turbo-folk lyrics to take pleasure in the music, into a discussion of whether one can appreciate Chris Brown’s songs without condoning his misogynistic and violent behaviour.

This week, I’ve been holding revision classes for the two modules I teach at Southampton (my own module on the post-Yugoslav conflicts, and a second-year module on Music and Resistance, where I’m filling in for the module designer Shirli Gilbert). In both modules, we’ve been going over past exam papers and students have been modelling potential essay plans in groups: partly to reassure them that yes, they do understand the content, and partly to share strategies through which they can show their understanding effectively in the artificial environment of an exam (before the clock stops, or their writing hands drop off). (A hat-tip goes out to my History A-level teachers here: I found their advice so useful in my own studies that, appropriately scaled up, I’ve been passing it on ever since.)

What makes me hesitate is introducing new knowledge at this point. By the last week, students have formed their interpretive frameworks; if they should already have some instinctive feeling of where they stand on the main questions that underpin a module (let’s say ‘does commercialisation destroy the ability of music to function as resistance?’ or ‘where do historians consider responsibility for the Yugoslav wars should lie?’), revision classes are about confirming their knowledge, clearing up confusion and reassuring students that if they’ve prepared properly they’re ready for the task ahead. Challenge and disruption, as important as they are in the intellectual process, might not be the most useful things to introduce.

This means there are things I’d do in a seminar that I wouldn’t do in a revision class. But am I taking the right position in doing so?

I started thinking about this after this week’s Yugoslav wars revision class. A group who were modelling essay plans for the question of (more or less) which political leader should be considered most responsible for the break-up of Yugoslavia were reporting back on arguments about Milosevic and mentioned, as one factor in favour of his responsibility, his use of ‘ethnic banter’ during his rise to power in the late 1980s.

They’re thinking here of research by people like Ivan Colovic or Christina Morus on Milosevic’s political communication. This viewpoint argues that Milosevic used ethno-historical references and deliberately folksy turns of phrase to identify himself as the only imaginable leader of the Serbs:

From his first appearance in Kosovo in 1987, Milosevic’s mythic allusions helped to animate Serbian identity in the present through a collective past, making present cultural values seem timeless and immutable. He inserted the Serb people into this historical narrative as politically charged characters fated to fulfill the predestined story of Serb history. In so doing, Milosevic situated himself within the narrative, like the hero of Kosovo who had come to redeem the Serbian people. (Morus 2007: 3 (£)).

‘Ethnic banter’ is an unusual formation, not a concept taken up from the existing literature. The term might have emerged during a Twitter feud between Wiley and Jay Sean in 2011, when Wiley excused comments about Jay Sean’s Sikh heritage as ‘ethnic banter’ and not racism. This year, ‘banter’ in general has been a controversial topic in student life: the website Unilad defended an article on rape as banter, although the feminist blogosphere was unconvinced. Of course, I can’t tell how much of this the student who spoke the words had followed or what standpoints he would take; the general laughter at the mention of ‘ethnic banter’ still suggested it resonated with some wider context of which the class, composed mainly of 18- or 19-year-old British undergraduates, was aware.

A few weeks previously, we’d had a class on gender and nationalism in the Yugoslav wars, including readings by feminist authors from the region such as Maja Korac (who has written on women’s anti-war activism) and Sasha Milicevic (who has studied draft-dodging in Milosevic’s Serbia – and some of these men, of course, would have been these undergraduates’ age when they hid from the authorities to avoid conscription). In an ordinary seminar, the ‘ethnic banter’ moment would have been my cue to embrace the tangent and invite the group to apply their existing knowledge by asking ‘What would Maja Korac (or Sasha Milicevic) say?’

I let it pass, but now I don’t think I should have. There were two reasons why: not being able to remember which text I’d assigned as key rather than recommended reading, Korac or Milicevic (this time it was the Korac – sorry, Sasha!); and the risk of sacrificing the general aim of the revision class for the sake of exploring this point.

Nonetheless, these students who are aware of the research on Milosevic’s use of language were, at some level, connecting that with the ‘banter’ controversy in British student life. If I’ve recognised that, my teaching philosophy suggests that surely I should encourage them to notice points of comparison between public discourse in the case study they’re learning about and in their own lives. If you ask students to unpick the public discourse of another society, may that give them tools to look more deeply at their own?

In my case, it did. I was studying the break-up of Yugoslavia during the first George W Bush presidency; reading Colovic’s critique of Milosevic’s discourse made me able to think more critically about the similarly folksy language used by Bush or, with less electoral success, by Sarah Palin; reading about war commemoration and national identity in south-east Europe made me able to recognise how much British public discourse relies on the same hinge. But then, I’m a professional overthinker. Maybe it’s just me.

Or maybe not? In the same class, another student referred to a module on Henry V, where they’d read a historian arguing that: who controls the memory of the battle is more important than who won the battle. That reading had been focused on Agincourt, but it applies equally to the Battle of Kosovo, where historians can’t even precisely say who won.

In one of his articles on critical pedagogy, Henry A Giroux observes:

A radical pedagogy points to the connections between conception and practice, and it honors students’ experiences by connecting what goes on in classrooms to their everyday lives. Within such an approach, theoretical rigor is connected to social relevance, knowledge is subjected to critical scrutiny and engagement, and pedagogy is seen as a moral and political practice crucial to the production of capacities and skills necessary for students to both shape and participate in public life. (Giroux 2003: 11 (£)).

And I would agree. But can I still put it into practice three weeks before the exam?