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.

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