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.