Are we one?: the Eurovision Song Contest, national promotion and the European financial crisis

It may not seem this way once the first few pyrotechnic effects have gone off, but this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has been significantly reduced in scale. Since the early 2000s, a competition that used to take place in a theatre as a one-off on a Saturday night has become an event that showcases a host city and country for up to a fortnight, with a calendar of rehearsals and receptions filling up the time between the three live broadcasts – two semi-finals and a final over the course of a week – that make up the televised competition.

The feel of recent Eurovisions, including the contest in Athens that I visited in 2006, has had more and more in common with international sports tournaments. Indeed, both kinds of event are now sharing the same infrastructure: since 2000, when Eurovision was held at Globen in Stockholm, Eurovision has become an arena- rather than a theatre-based show, with obvious implications for the size of the audience, the amount of technical equipment needed to deliver a satisfying experience in person, and the scale of performance often thought to be necessary to get a strong reaction from the crowd. Athens 2006 took place in the Olympic basketball arena; the Baku Crystal Hall, built by Azerbaijan as the venue for the 2012 contest, would form part of the Olympic complex if a future hosting bid by Baku were to succeed.

Sociologists call these internationally-broadcast, nation-spotlighting moments ‘mega-events’. They’re opportunities for governments to engage in ‘nation-branding’ strategies: two classic cases, as Paul Jordan argues, being Estonia, which used its hosting of Eurovision in 2002 to reinforce its desired brand as a forward-thinking, democratic, European, technologically accomplished state, and Ukraine, where the theme for Kiev 2005 (‘Awakening’) evoked the narrative of the new Yushchenko government. The possible underside of international celebratory events – forced evictions and repressive policing of protest – has also come into play: notably, Moscow police broke up a Pride demonstration on the day of the Eurovision final in 2009, and several hundred households in Baku were reportedly forcibly evicted from the site where authorities planned to build the Crystal Hall.

Branding the nation for a fortnight, however, comes at a cost, and so does even sending and equipping a delegation to participate and compete in an event of the size that Eurovision has become. It’s a cost that broadcasters and cities find increasingly hard to justify. With public spending on essential services being cut so harshly and quickly that citizens are left in misery, can sending a song to represent the nation at a Europe-wide party really be justified?

Three regularly participating countries – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Portugal and Turkey – as well as the more intermittent Slovakia declined to enter a song in this year’s contest, and for some time the participation of Greece and Cyprus was also in understandable doubt. This year, the visual production costs incurred by the organisers have been cut in half, with hope that it will also reduce costs to future hosts. The multi-national promotional tours that serious Eurovision contenders have felt the need to engage in since Ruslana’s pre-victory campaign in 2004 (after all, why design a warrior princess extravaganza if you’re not going to tell anyone?) are meanwhile becoming a thing of the past, replaced with one-0ff appearances at strategically-chosen preview events such as this year’s promotional concert in Amsterdam.

Baku 2012 may go on to appear like an unmatchable peak – financed by an Azerbaijani government with oil wealth at hand, insulated from the financial crisis that has affected so many other national broadcasters and municipal authorities since 2008, and with an aggressive strategy to promote its capital as a world city.

Butterflies in the stomach?

With Eurovision leaking participants, and the idea of Europe as a political community becoming ever more battered in the aftermath of bailouts of southern European banks, it might seem ironic that the design of this year’s contest in Malmo foregrounds an image of European unity, based on the slogan ‘We Are One’.

Any risk of a fragmenting Europe is far away from what this branding asks the viewer to imagine. Instead, as the designers explain, the Malmo butterfly stands for unity in diversity:

Eurovision Song Contest is a shared project. It unites millions of people. In the East, West, North and South. Be­yond all the glitter, there is a big idea. It’s about togetherness, diversity and happiness. […] Butterflies have one common name, but exist in thousands of different shapes and colours. Just like the Eurovision Song Contest, one strong identity with a rich national diversities. Work­ing together, we can achieve anything. – We are one.

Neither is it primarily putting Sweden in the spotlight. On the face of it, that couldn’t be further from the concept: the executive producer of this year’s contest, Martin Österdahl from the Swedish broadcaster SVT, has explicitly presented his approach to Malmo as a deliberate attempt to move away from the ‘nation-branding’ emphases of recent years. For Österdahl, quoted in a feature on the Eurovision website last October, using Eurovision to promote the nation in the way that has almost become customary appears to be no less than an undermining of the contest’s authentic values:

When Sweden hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, broadcaster SVT wants to direct a large part of the attention at the participating artists and countries. “Making Eurovision into something that just shows off Sweden doesn’t feel right, nor is it in line with the original idea of Eurovision”, says executive producer Martin Österdahl.

The Swedish organisational group aims to renew the Eurovision Song Contest and go back to the competition’s founding values: to bridge over cultural differences and emanate a message that all people are equal.

Martin Österdahl believes that there are a number of ways to put the core values into practice.

“To start off with, you can turn the focus away from using the program to market your own country at any cost, instead highlighting the diversity and wealth of all nationalities and cultures”, he says.

“We are going to be in Sweden and of course we need to explain this and show ourselves off. But it should not just be about our country, and we should not pat ourselves on the back and say that Sweden is best. We need to focus on all the countries taking part”.

Setting a precedent for lowering the costs to participating delegations, through measures such as reducing the length of the rehearsal period (thus cutting down delegations’ accommodation costs), supports SVT’s approach to Eurovision by ensuring that as many countries as possible are able to take part. Uniquely among mega-events – not even a one-off event like the UEFA Champions’ League final goes to last year’s victor – Eurovision presents the winner with not only an honour but a liability, since the right to host is automatically awarded to the previous winner rather than being awarded through a bidding process.

Apocryphal stories of broadcasters deliberately trying not to win so as not to have to bear the costs of hosting are common (and, after Ireland’s three victories in a row in the mid-1990s, provided the plot engine for one of the best-known episodes of Father Ted). As financial constraints on public broadcasters have increased yet the number of broadcasters interested in participation has grown, Eurovision organisers are increasingly facing a stark choice: a premium contest with few entrants, or a cheaper contest with more? It’s a decision that needs to be consciously made if the Eurovision concept isn’t to fall apart.

There are strong practical reasons, then, for Österdahl’s reorientation of the purpose. Yet at the same time, rejecting the emphasis on promoting the nation itself gives a certain impression of the nation: that it’s a country where overt, state-stimulated nation-branding isn’t necessary. In short, perhaps, that Sweden isn’t Russia, or (another potential headache for the Eurovision organisers) Belarus. Or Azerbaijan. Especially not that.

The importance of not being Azerbaijan

In 2012, when Sweden won Eurovision in Azerbaijan, it would have been hard to find two more opposed approaches to the relationship between the media, the state and the public within the Eurovision area. The Swedish representative, Loreen, was the only Eurovision contestant to have visited human rights activists in Baku during the rehearsal period, and commented: ‘These are people who have been through a lot and they should get to tell their stories […] It will be the other side of the front that is being shown. It is a strong front, it is as beautiful as anything, but what happens in the cracks?’

İctimai Televiziya’s staging of the contest in Baku was about magnificence, the conspicuous consumption of energy and space. For a brief moment during the final, however, SVT managed to subvert the grandeur by having the Swedish votes read out by Sarah Dawn Finer’s comedy character Lynda Woodruff – a stereotypical ‘little Englander’ who has somehow become a European Broadcasting Union official despite not wanting to know anything about Europe, least of all (as the presenters would find out) how to pronounce ‘Azerbaijan’.

Distancing SVT’s organisation of Eurovision from the self-promotion of an authoritarian regime is perhaps only to be expected. Several moments in the run-up to this year’s contest would have been highly unlikely , to say the least, last year in Baku: the local police explicitly informing visiting delegations that Sweden permits the right to demonstrate, or the moderator of an official press conference challenging the representative from Belarus about her home government’s attitude to freedom of expression.

Yet the very lack of overt branding around one central narrative is a branding statement, and one that Sweden is uniquely skilled at putting across. Democracy and plurality are core values in Sweden’s highly successful strategy of promoting the nation through social media, where since 2011 an assortment of Swedish residents have been adding their perspectives to a multi-layered depiction of Sweden through the world’s most-followed ‘rotation curation’ Twitter account. The @sweden phenomenon presents the nation as the sum of many individualistic and often contradictory voices; its organisers have kept faith even when curators have taken the account into what many communications officers would regard as high-risk territory, such as commenting on Sweden’s attempts to extradite Julian Assange (different curators have spoken both for and against) or Sonja Abrahamsson’s decidedly off-message comments about Jews.

A recent study by Christian Christensen (£) suggests there are limits to the image of diversity that @sweden puts forward. Curators must already have access to the internet, be active Twitter users and be able to post in English; they must then be nominated by a third party and approved by the Curators of Sweden panel. A copy of the @sweden guidelines Christensen has obtained suggest to him that the project encourages – even if it does not always get – ‘polite, nonaggressive, nonpolitical, uncontroversial views which help to give a certain image of Sweden’ (p. 42). For Christensen, @sweden is in fact ‘an illuminating example of the carefully planned and managed promotion and nation-branding of Sweden, presented under the guise of a “transparent” and “democratic” selection and editorial processes’ (p. 31). Nation-branding, then, would not be so absent from Swedish values after all, even though in comparison to Azerbaijan, Russia or Belarus it would be manifested in a very different way.

Crisis? What crisis?

Malmo 2013’s proclamation that ‘we are one’ addresses a continent where the concept of Europe as a ‘shared project’ reaching ‘millions of people’ appears even more tattered than it did twelve months ago when Sweden won the right to host. Reactions in the German media to the southern European bank bailouts have re-activated stereotypes of Mediterranean ‘laziness’ and ‘indolence’; the mid-2000s utopianism of EU enlargement – which reached its high point in 2004, the same year that Eurovision added a semi-final to accommodate all interested participants, including the growing number from eastern Europe – has stalled and is at risk of being rolled back; the idea of leaving the EU has accelerated into mainstream public discourse in the UK so quickly that resident EU citizens now sense rights they had taken for granted coming under attack. Eurovision as a technical organisation is distinct from the EU as a political institution, but has drawn from a common reservoir of language about unity and integration in order to make its flagship annual event make sense.

Altering the scale of the Eurovision Song Contest to celebrate diversity on the grounds that ‘we are one’ might seem like an attempt to ‘invent’ a tradition in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense – that new traditions are invented to ‘establish continuity with a suitable historic past’, when in fact there has been severe rupture between then and now. At the same time, however, Eurovision has been living with the political and economic impact of the financial crisis on Europe for some years, and what television viewers see represented during the songs themselves may not be all too different from previous years: while I was writing this post, a photo caption posted by the BBC Eurovision page on Facebook promised that tonight’s semi-final would contain ‘[a] real life giant, glitterball spaceships, topless bodhrán-wielding drummers and a dress that bursts into flames’ (this last does so at approximately two minutes into the song by Aliona Moon, with unfortunate overtones of one of Katniss Everdeen’s entrances during The Hunger Games).

Whether next year’s Eurovision develops the Malmo approach, repeats the Baku model or hovers somewhere in between will depend on which country’s entry wins on Saturday, the political relationship of its broadcaster with the state, the priorities of its government, and the amount of money the broadcaster, host city and country is prepared to commit or borrow in order to realise its plan – a level of uncertainty which is ironed out of any other mega-event where hosting rights are awarded years in advance. For the European Broadcasting Union, and for millions of viewers, the chief concern is likely to be continuity: does anything more need to be changed to ensure the sustainability of Eurovision, year on year?

It’s a wonder that nobody so far has been discussing legacy

This is my third in an occasional series of Eurovision posts – with earlier posts on ‘bloc voting’ and the pressure to keep Eurovision apolitical.