Archive for May 2015
The 60th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest has probably seen more academic involvement in real time around Eurovision than any other contest – including a live-streamed conference sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union last month which put researchers and broadcasters in dialogue with each other (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to go and listen to because of a full day of teaching here at Hull – but the recording of the event is still online, and I hope there’ll be publications based on some of the talks in future).
There’s been a Eurovision Research Network since 2009, and indeed academics with interests in cultural studies, European identities and the politics of representation were already networking around Eurovision before that – the first full conference on Eurovision I remember took place in Volos in 2008 (I was there talking about what participating in Eurovision had used to mean in Croatia), and before that in 2006 I’d contributed to a panel on Eurovision at an International Communications Association conference with what I thought was a sideline (on ‘ethno-pop’ and simulated folklore at Eurovision) from my PhD research but which would end up as my most-cited publication by some way.
More recently, universities in Eurovision host cities or countries have organised conferences during or very close to the contest itself (beginning with a conference in Oslo in 2010) – including the conference last year in Copenhagen which invited me as one of their keynote speakers and gave me an opportunity to reassess my own frameworks for thinking about the cultural politics of what turned out to be a very specific European historical moment in the mid-2000s before the global financial crisis of 2008.
I haven’t been involved in media commentary on the same scale as the people who have really developed Eurovision research as a visible field in the last 5-6 years (Paul Jordan, who’s researched nation-branding and Eurovision in Estonia and Ukraine, has even become part of BBC Eurovision semi-final coverage – as in this extract from a semi-final interval last year where he and Tijana Dapcevic are giving the BBC’s Scott Mills a crash course in Macedonian pronounciation), but this year I did find myself talking to journalists about Eurovision much more than usual – and if it’s the one time of year that you can get the British (or French or Australian) public interested in the politics of popular culture in former Yugoslavia or how that has fitted into wider processes of narrating collective identities in Europe since the end of the Cold War, why not?
This year I was also coordinating a special issue of an academic journal on Eurovision, so one way or another it’s been something I’ve been much more involved with as a researcher – and a good opportunity to try and become more confident as an interviewee than I have been.
For the sake of rounding everything up, this is what I’ve contributed to this year:
- ABC’s Rear Vision radio documentary on the history of Eurovision (which the Rear Vision team wrote up here)
- A France 24 feature on Eurovision and gay rights (also in English here)
- A Buzzfeed report on the prospects for Kosovo joining Eurovision
- The first live radio interview I’ve ever done – on Phil White’s daytime show for BBC Radio Humberside (at 40 minutes in)
- And a video interview for Contemporary Southeastern Europe to accompany my introduction to our Eurovision special issue – which we were able to publish online (as a set of open access papers) on the day of the second semi-final
Eurovision focuses public attention on a lot of issues that are part of my wider research, so for some years I’ve also been using it as an opportunity to communicate that on social media at a time when people are maybe more likely than usual to be open to thinking about them. Since 2011, every year before Eurovision I try to write up a long blog post on the politics of Eurovision from one angle or another – in previous years these have covered discourses about ‘eastern European bloc voting’, the impossibility of keeping Eurovision non-political, national promotion and the European financial crisis, and this year looking at some narratives of multiculturalism. Last year, building on a talk I’d originally given for LGBT History Month at Hull) I blogged about Eurovision and narratives of LGBT equality a few weeks before Eurovision happened to be won by Conchita Wurst – in a year when the major geopolitical framework viewers and journalists were projecting on to Eurovision was the relationship between Europe and Russia and the place of LGBT rights within it. (Which meant quickly writing up a second, just as extensive blog post.)
The LGBT/Conchita posts have probably been one of the reasons there’s been wider interest in my Eurovision-related work than usual. They’ve been popping up in academic citations already as well, and they continue to bring new readers to this blog – even outside the peak period of interest in Eurovision, most weeks WordPress shows me a handful of search results like ‘eurovision gay audience’, ‘eurovision history queer’, or the current front-runner in the list of search terms this month, ‘why is eurovision so gay’. (There are also a few more left-field ones: ‘eurovision presenter with one breast lower than the other’ is currently the most baffling one this year; and I don’t know the background to why someone was searching for ‘syldavian language eurovision’, but don’t blame me if that’s the next Belgian entry – after all, Belgium has sung in an imaginary language before…)
The other thing I’ve been doing with social media and Eurovision is livetweeting during the broadcasts (which I’ve also done during some opening ceremonies for international sports competitions, including London 2012 and Sochi/Glasgow 2014). That makes me plus what can feel like almost everyone else on Twitter, then (and in fact it’s even been suggested that the ‘second-screen experience’ of being able to tweet along with Eurovision is one of the reasons Eurovision viewing figures have been so healthy in recent years); but enjoying the contest and thinking about how to understand it blurs together (as it so often does – if you research popular culture, in some ways you never really stop being at work). I collected up my Eurovision tweets this morning while I was writing this blog post up and am a little bit alarmed that Storify has chosen a header image of the rainbow flags seen in the audience during Russia’s semi-final performance all on its own.
The main Eurovision-related things I’ve been thinking about since the final – both of which have something to do with digital media themselves – are the narratives around a potential Russian win this year and the question of how or whether Eurovision might start admitting Kosovo – which will probably win the race to be the next Eurovision debutant within Europe, assuming Radio Television of Kosovo stays interested and (the bigger question) whether the European Broadcasting Union wants Kosovo to be represented as a participating state.
First of all, the first half of the Eurovision voting – where Russia’s Polina Gagarina seemed to be building up a lead before points suddenly started flowing towards Sweden.
(Look out for the rainbow flags in these crowd shots from the semi-final – which in the final (with different people probably sitting in the seats) were various national flags instead)
The spectacle of participating countries reading out their votes is part of the ritual of Eurovision, and the source of most of Eurovision’s symbolic phrases, such as ‘douze points‘, which we hear every time the presenters read back votes in French; ‘nul points‘, which is equally part of viewers’ common knowledge about Eurovision although it’s never actually heard; not to mention ‘Hello, [City], can we have your votes please?‘, and the expectation that at least one satellite link will go completely wrong (this year, there were three). Voting is also where spontaneous moments are most likely to break into the ritual, and supposedly this part of the show can even have higher viewing figures than the songs.
Since 2011, the EBU has accelerated the tension of the voting by basing the voting order on an algorithm ‘to try and make the voting as exciting as possible’ – where feasible, arranging the order to delay the announcement of the winner until as close to the end as they can. (The juries who now award 50% of a country’s points total have already voted during a live dress rehearsal or ‘jury final’ the night before, meaning organisers can calculate the voting order for the televised final overnight.)
During the first third of the voting, the highest points tended to be going to Gagarina – a sign, pre-algorithm, that she’d have a good chance of hanging on to her lead throughout. One of the things the Eurovision structure of a competition between nations does is invites viewers to construct geopolitical narratives around what they see and hear, and indeed usually that’s one of the pleasures of watching it. Over this quarter of an hour, however, the prospect of Russia winning Eurovision 2015 and therefore hosting Eurovision 2016 was also provoking reactions ranging from apprehension to outrage on social media – and also in the live audience, where the crowd was booing loudly enough for the presenters to intervene but sound engineers replaced the sound with cheers.
The editing of the crowd reaction has been controversial enough, but another point worth making is that the emotional reactions produced by this concentration of Gagarina’s highest scores into a short space of time were a result of the organisers’ narrative intervention in the voting order – and wouldn’t necessarily have happened in a randomly allocated order where Gagarina, Sweden’s Mans Zelmerlow (the winner) and Italy’s Il Volo (who came third) might have been exchanging a lead more gradually or Zelmerlow leading throughout.
Of all the format changes that Eurovision organisers have made since 1998-2000, when the development of Eurovision into a contemporary arena spectacle began, this is the one that most deeply alters their role from the arbiters of a competition to the authorial position of guiding audience’s expectations in a particular direction. (Eurovision producers can now also exercise control over the running order of songs on stage, which has been more controversial among fans, but arguably doesn’t have the same concentrated impact as narrative intervention in the voting order.)
The algorithm has existed in previous years too, but never produced an outcome that’s played on audience emotions to the same extent, in the light of everything that’s currently at stake around perceptions of Russia and around the experience of those whom Putin’s policies have put at risk. This year, at least, felt as if the algorithm had placed Eurovision producers more in the role of a pro wrestling promoter than a sports referee – deliberately crafting a narrative that will mobilise the audience’s emotional investment in the fate of a hero or villain before turning the outcome around at a climactic point. Perhaps this was the inevitable result of the algorithm – we don’t know enough about it to say whether it could have arranged the points given in any other order, given what it’s been programmed to do – but the spectacle of Eurovision voting, as viewers in future years will need to remember, is something much more scripted than it used to be.
(And let’s not forget that the homophobic/biphobic/transphobic Russian right wing itself actually wants Russia to leave Eurovision – Vitaly Milonov, the architect of the Russian ‘anti-homopropaganda’ legislation, is also one of the loudest voices calling for Russia to withdraw.)
Hello, Priština, can we have your votes please?
The second thing to pick up is whether, or when, Kosovo is going to make its Eurovision debut – a question that was already being asked even before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. This year, representatives of Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) were apparently in Vienna during Eurovision week, and Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, suggested while he was livetweeting the Eurovision final that Kosovo might participate next year:
The obstacle, so far, has been that Kosovo’s independence still isn’t recognised by the United Nations or a number of states inside and outside Europe (including Serbia and Russia, but also for instance Spain). It isn’t a member state of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and, as such, RTK doesn’t count as the public broadcaster of a country in the European Broadcasting Area – the criterion for Active Membership of the European Broadcasting Union, which until very recently used to be a prerequisite for participating in the Eurovision Song Contest.
This year, however, Eurovision saw its first entry by an ‘Associate Member’ broadcaster – Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service, ostensibly as a one-off to celebrate the 60th edition of Eurovision and the long-standing interest in Eurovision among Australian viewers. The Australian entry, Guy Sebastian’s ‘Tonight Again’, came fifth – an excellent result for a new participant, but not the victory Australia would have needed to return next year (when, even then, Australia wouldn’t have been allowed to host).
Relaxing the link between Eurovision participation and active membership of the EBU suggests that, even if RTK can’t become an EBU active member for some time, there could be a way for Eurovision to include an entry from Kosovo – in the event that its organisers wanted to include Kosovo as a participant, which politically is the most important question. Could RTK be admitted either as an associate member of the EBU (although this is a category for public broadcasters of ITU member states outside the European Broadcasting Area), or in the EBU’s third category of ‘approved participant’ (defined as containing ‘[o]rganisations from an ITU country with an activity in the field of broadcasting which for any reason do not qualify for active or associate membership but whose participation in certain EBU activities is considered useful for the Union’ – in practice it contains some broadcasters based in particular countries, some transnational television networks such as Arte and Euronews, and a telecoms infrastructure firm)?
In the meantime, Kosovo will already have participated at the Rio Olympics after being recognised by the International Olympic Committee in 2014 – itself potentially a triumph for Selimi’s strategy of ‘digital diplomacy‘. After starting to be admitted into the ‘world of nations’ that international sports events make up, could the objective of Eurovision recognition be next?
Celebrating a multicultural Europe?: stories and silences of multiculturalism in the Eurovision Song Contest
The Europe celebrated in today’s Eurovision Song Contest is a multicultural Europe. And so it seemed when the three Austrian presenters of this year’s contest stood next to each other for the first time in the broadcast of the semi-final: Alice Tumler, whose mother is from Martinique, Mirjam Weichselbraun, whose parents are white, and Arabella Kiesbauer, whose father is from Ghana, are all well-known light-entertainment presenters in Austria. Together, they also help to personify an Austria and a Europe which, a narrative of multiculturalism would suggest, has incorporated the 20th century’s migrants of colour and their descendants into what it means to be Austrian or European in the early 21st century.
Eurovision researchers tend to agree that Eurovision is an event where performers, broadcasters and viewers all use and express ideas about the cultural identity of Europe, and ideas about how a particular nation might relate to Europe. Sometimes, what happens in Eurovision might even feed into how people think about the meaning of Europe in a wider sense.
As well as thinking about Eurovision from the point of view of lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality, or of the idea of European ‘enlargement’ after the Cold War, both of which I’ve tried to do before, another question that researchers of Eurovision have started to explore is: how well has Eurovision reflected the multicultural reshaping of national and European identities that took place in the late 20th and early 21st century, and is Eurovision – or Europe – always as inclusive as even that tale of progress might suggest?
When I put these questions to a European Studies class at the University of Cincinnati who I spoke to over Skype a few months ago (with thanks to their teacher, Sunnie Rucker-Chang, for inviting me to talk to her students), I didn’t begin by talking about something that had happened in Eurovision, but about one of many reactions to a Eurovision performance – indeed, as extreme a reaction against multiculturalism in Europe as it would be possible to find.
Norway from 2011 to 2012
The 1,500-page manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011, not only explained his ideology – a fantasy of defending Norway and Europe from Islamification, which targeted the Left because he believed that contemporary Europe’s accommodation of feminism and multiculturalism had left Europe vulnerable to an Islamic takeover from within – but also contained a day-by-day account of his preparation for the attacks.
On one day in May 2011, Breivik commented on that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, where Norway was represented by the Kenyan-Norwegian singer Stella Mwangi. Mwangi’s song Haba haba told the story of the life lessons she had learned from her Kenyan grandmother, with lyrics in English and Swahili – the first time any East African language had been heard on stage at Eurovision.
Breivik filled his commentary with racist slurs against Mwangi and the complaint that ‘my country has a crap, politically correct contribution’. Elsewhere, meanwhile, he wrote about the music that he himself intended to listen to as he motivated himself for the attacks: particularly songs by the Swedish far-right singer Saga; the epic soundtrack composition ‘Requiem for a Tower’; and a song from the Age of Conan video game soundtrack by another Norwegian vocalist, Helene Bøksle. Bøksle is white, fair-haired, and usually performs in Norwegian, her vocals well-matched with the epic style of music that Breivik admired. Coincidentally, Bøksle had also competed to represent Norway at Eurovision in 2011, with the song Vardlokk (Calling the soul).
The divergent way that Breivik’s extremist ideology made sense of two musicians, Mwangi and Bøksle, who were both deeply embedded in contemporary Norwegian culture shouldn’t suggest that there’s a simplistic binary tension between tradition and multiculturalism – and indeed, the fact that Breivik operated with a binary like that is itself a good reason to oppose one.
Rather, it illustrates an observation that can also be made about Eurovision in much more mundane ways: performances in Eurovision, and discussions about Eurovision, take place within a wide field of narratives about the idea of Europe, the cultural values Europe might have, and the relationship that any nation or person might have with those.
These narratives are always political; they are affected by politics, and they shape politics. And because Eurovision is set up as a competition between countries (just think how much you see the countries’ names on screen during Eurovision, compared to the performers’ or broadcasters’ names, after all), it invites its audiences to make sense of what they see and hear with reference to what they know about national and European identities.
The year after the Oslo and Utøya attacks, Norway’s participation again gives us an illustration of how Eurovision invites viewers to ‘narrativise’ what they see even if the narratives aren’t made explicit. The Norwegian contestant in 2012, Tooji, is an Iranian-Norwegian singer and trained social worker who has worked with young refugees (and his song, like many Eurovision entries since the early 2000s from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Azerbaijan, worked ‘eastern’-sounding instrumental flourishes into its pop-R&B arrangement).
A Norwegian expression of defiance against Breivik’s racist, exclusionary concept of Norway and Europe and the terror he had planned to sow in Norwegian society? It was certainly there for a viewer to read if they wanted to, as was a demonstration of Norway as being fully up-to-date with contemporary transnational pop trends – although the song (while qualifying for the final night) still ended up coming last in the Eurovision final.
Watching any Eurovision Song Contest in recent years would demonstrate that the contemporary contest represents European multiculturalism and does so through a narrative of progress – that European nations, and Europe, have been successful in becoming multicultural, and that multiculturalism is one of Europe’s values.
Yet this has taken time: although Eurovision began in the very period when the largest scale of postcolonial migration into western Europe was taking place, it took many years for Eurovision to reflect this social change in any substantial way.
Danse, balance sur le white and black blues
Until 1964, Eurovision remained in the words of the Dutch musicologist and cultural historian Lutgard Mutsaers, ‘an all-white environment’ (2007: 164) – a monoracial track record first interrupted when the Netherlands selected an Indonesian-Dutch singer, Anneke Gronloh. Two years later, another Dutch representative, Milly Scott, became the first black musician to sing at Eurovision when she performed Fernando en Filippo (Fernando And Filippo) in 1966.
Yet, including Scott, there would be only five black participants in Eurovision between 1967 (when Eduardo Nascimento represented Portugal) and 1990, when Joelle Ursull (a former member of the trio Zouk Machine) represented France with the song White and Black Blues (based on Afro-Caribbean percussion and dance, though written by a white composer, Serge Gainsbourg).
France, indeed, stood out in early-1990s Eurovision for entries that represented France first as a multicultural nation and later as a nation of diverse regions (with songs in the mid-1990s reflecting Corsica and Brittany). The next French entrant after Ursull, Amina Annabi, was French-Tunisian, sang with North African vocal ornamentation, and very nearly won; France’s singer in 1992, Kali, was Haitian and sang in French and Antillean Creole.
In her book on Corsican choirs and the ‘world music’ market, Transported by Song, the musicologist Caroline Bithell connects this run of French entries to the policy of the 1988-93 French culture minister, Jack Lang. Lang wanted to reshape French national identity around the image of a ‘champion of cultural diversity’, evident in state support for ‘world music’ production but also in how the French national broadcaster represented France at Eurovision.
(Redirected towards the French regions, something of Lang’s diversity strategy remained after 1993, when French Eurovision entries tended to reflect the linguistic diversity of regions including Corsica and Brittany.)
Ursull was the first of 14 black singers who would perform in Eurovision during the 1990s, especially for France, the Netherlands and Portugal but also for Austria, Britain, Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina (where Béatrice Poulot, from Réunion, joined Dino Merlin’s multilingual Bosnian entry in 1999). France and the Netherlands especially might have the potential to go down in Eurovision history as multicultural pioneers; though Mutsaers also points out that, as of 2007 when she wrote her book chapter, no Dutch Eurovision representative had had Moroccan or Turkish heritage even though these were the two largest immigrant communities in the Netherlands. (The Moroccan-Dutch singer Hind Laroussi subsequently represented the Netherlands in 2008.)
Come on everybody, let’s sing along and feel the power of a song
Eurovision’s first – and still its only – black winner, Dave Benton, competed alongside Tanel Padar in 2001 as part of an interracial duo representing a country not widely thought of as racially diverse: Estonia. When Estonia won Eurovision and hosted the contest in 2002, as Paul Jordan argued in his research on nation-branding in Estonia and Ukraine, the Estonian government acquired an even larger platform for its strategy to promote Estonia as a prosperous, technologically advanced democracy than it could ever have imagined when it first launched the so-called ‘Brand Estonia’ campaign. Through Benton’s participation, ‘Brand Estonia’ also became the image of an Estonia at the multicultural forefront of Europe.
Benton, who had moved to Estonian from Aruba in 1997, could be celebrated nationally for winning and could help to show that Estonia was multicultural. At the same time, he represented integration into the nation through language, the same expectation that the Estonian political elite had towards Estonian Russians (the background, incidentally or not, of Benton and Padar’s backing vocalists in 2001).
Jordan’s interviews with elites and the Estonian public about Eurovision and Estonian national identity found that politicians were very keen to talk about the successes Benton exemplified, and indeed Benton himself saw his own story as a success of integration; yet members of the public were also liable to point out evidence of everyday racism that the elite narratives did not contain.
(Some of Jordan’s research about his other case study, Ukraine, will appear in our forthcoming Eurovision issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe, including attitudes to the participation of Gaitana, a mixed-race Ukrainian singer, in Eurovision 2012 when Ukraine was about to co-host the European football championships. The articles are still a day or two from going online, but this Time article from 2012 describes some of the cultural politics in the meantime, including the reaction of Svoboda’s Yuriy Syrotyuk, who stated that Gaitana was ‘not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture’ and would lead Europeans to think that Ukraine was ‘a country of a different continent’.)
This disconnect, and many others, reminds us that understanding multiculturalism, European identities and Eurovision needs us to do more than simply enumerate who’s been represented when (which this post hasn’t set out to do) and describe what narratives of multicultural progress can tell us; beyond that, we need to be aware of what stories of successful inclusivity might actually conceal.
People of colour are still underrepresented at Eurovision, and even more so in the backstage organisation of the contest than on stage – in other words, in the areas where the most power to shape the structure and direction of the contest is to be had. Even on stage, the performance scholar Ioana Szeman reminds us that Roma, ‘the largest transnational [ethnic] minority in Europe’ (2013: 126), have rarely been present on the Eurovision stage with Romani music or language, even as music that audiences interpret as ‘Romani’ or ‘Gypsy’ became fashionable during the pop-folk wave of the 2000s.
Exceptions, notably the Romani hip-hop group Gipsy.cz (who represented the Czech Republic in 2009), Sofi Marinova (whose song for Bulgaria in 2012 contained lines in 10 languages including Romani) and Esma Redzepova (part of the Macedonian entry in 2013), have failed to qualify through the semi-finals.
Commenting on Romania’s entry in 2012 (Zaleilah, which was performed by a group of Romanian and Afro-Cuban musicians called Mandinga and written by the Romanian pop-folk producer Costi Ioniţă), Szeman suggests that a simplified multiculturalism has emerged at Eurovision that smooths over the complexity of racism (in Romania or elsewhere) in practice. Gipsy.cz might have been able to reclaim stereotypes of the Roma musician and, in the context of Eurovision, suggest that Czech national identity could accommodate Romani ethnicity and language when this had been a matter of xenophobic dispute at home – yet the problem of whether (as Aniko Imre writes), in order to succeed, Roma musicians must ‘sell back to the […] majority’ an ‘exoticising, touristic vision’ of themselves which that majority had produced in the first place (Imre 2008: 336) is even more salient in Eurovision, with its extra pressures towards self-exoticism, than in the marketing of Romani hip-hop scenes in general which Imre was originally discussing.
The politics of exoticism, indeed, are an important corrective to any narrative about multiculturalism which is based solely on counting representation; we also need to account for what kinds of representation have more or less capacity to be seen and heard.
Come on closer and tell me what you don’t find here
Exoticification – depicting a place or people as attractive because they are different, reducing them to a handful of simplified characteristics ascribed to ideas about gender, ethnicity and race – depends on ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ in order to be intelligible – and is always dependent on some kind of unequal power relations. Indeed, it helps legitimise unequal power relations, as Edward Said’s Orientalism or Ella Shohat and Jack Stam’s Unthinking Eurocentrism demonstrated for many kinds of Western representations of the Middle East (including visual art, travel and historical writing, and popular film).
Eurovision, as a platform for representing nations and cultures while aiming to win votes from an international European audience you want to vote for you, has ended up lending itself to strategies of exotification very well – all the more so since the public, rather than expert juries, became responsible for Eurovision voting from 2000 onwards (and solely responsible for Eurovision voting in almost all countries between 1998 and 2008). The classic example – for the producers of many Eurovision entries in the mid-2000s, as well as for viewers and researchers – is Sertab Erener’s Every Way That I Can, which won Eurovision for Turkey in 2003.
By performing in Eurovision, and by winning and hosting Eurovision, Turkey could position itself as part of Europe (at a time when the Turkish government was interested in pursuing the objective of EU accession) and contest the discourse from many European states that Turkey should not belong to Europe at all. Yet the song did so by appealing to precisely the tropes through which orientalising representations have constructed the Balkans and the Middle East as opposites of ‘Europe’, combining up-to-date musical production with musical connotations of ‘easternness’ (itself fashionable in Western pop and hip-hop at the time) and the supreme orientalised stereotype of the harem.
(As far as its staging went, Every Way That I Can was firmly up-to-date in the early 2000s and indeed still wouldn’t look out of place in an MTV Music Awards-type setting today. Except the chances are it would belong to Katy Perry and, well, would bring with that a whole extra set of problems.)
‘World music’ production, cinema and literature are all subject to similar pressures, and indeed the marketing of these other cultural genres helps to shape the taste cultures that viewers might bring to Eurovision. Writing about tropes of war and ethnic violence in a range of 1990s films from south-east Europe, the film scholar Dina Iordanova described the position that cultural creators from the region often found themselves in as ‘self-exoticism’, and raised a valid concern: what kinds of representations are we less likely to see and hear when commercial pressures towards self-exoticism are so great?
Similar issues emerge from approaching the history of German-language Schlager music (one of Eurovision’s foundational pop genres, which has influenced Eurovision entries beyond Germany, Austria and Switzerland) in a postcolonial context. The German literature scholar Sunka Simon argues that Schlager lyrics ever since the 1950s have consistently expressed a fascination with an imaginary East and a hot South. This, for Simon, is colonialist imagery, abstracted from the places it purports to be about, sexualised and racialised.
Milly Scott’s Fernando en Filippo, indeed, was itself an example of abstracting names, music and symbols into a more abstract, exotic-but-different-from-here, exotic-because-different space: the ponchos and guitars of Scott’s backing vocalists suggested the song referred to Mexico, the geography in the lyrics might place the action in Chile, and ‘Filippo’ (unless he had Italian-speaking heritage as well) would have been more likely to be called ‘Felipe’ in either case.
Problems like these lead Katrin Sieg to the critique of ‘performing race in neo-liberal Europe’ that she develops on the basis of the Eurovision 2010 interval act, a collection of flashmob dances in European cities leading into a live performance of Glow by the Afro-Norwegian duo Madcon.
The image of a pan-European party with black African immigrant communities successfully integrated into the centre of the show and European citizens of colour (sometimes) dotted throughout the city crowds created a compelling picture of technologically-enhanced ‘unity in diversity’ yet, Sieg suggests, would fail to communicate how racialised structures of oppression in the past and present have created structural inequalities in Europe (or even the full scope of who has been affected by social hierarchies based on concepts of race):
It positions black Europeans as engines of the creative economy, but elides ever more urgent questions about race as a social formation governing social exclusions, exploitative divisions of labour and resource distribution. […] While the situation of indigenous or immigrant minorities that remain largely invisible at the ESC is often made more precarious by their lack of citizenship, the high cultural visibility that Afro-European entertainers enjoy compared to other minorities does not ensure stronger political representation, nor does citizenship status eliminate other (cultural, economic or social) forms of racialization, as the situation of Afro-German citizens demonstrates. (Sieg 2013: 28)
A narrative of perfect multicultural integration, then, would fall into the same kinds of silences that Alana Lentin and Sara Ahmed both point out exist in celebrations of a ‘post-racial’ Europe or a post-racial world – the idea that a world where a mixed-race man can be elected US President, or a Europe where a black man from Aruba can be part of the winning Eurovision entry from a post-socialist country, has overcome racism and that ‘race’ as a category of oppression no longer matters.
A narrative of inclusivity?
The contemporary Eurovision Song Contest displays a narrative of inclusivity which may be something to aim for – and far preferable, certainly, to the xenophobic alternative concepts of European identity that a Breivik or Syrotyuk would offer – but has dangers when seen as a self-congratulatory statement of simply how Europe is. One way to test the limits of Eurovision’s progress narrative might be to ask what aspects of multiculturalism or expressions of multiculturalism Eurovision could, or could not, incorporate easily.
What scope, if any, might there ever be for staging the kind of critique that queer and trans people of colour in Europe have made of contemporary sexually-diverse nationalisms that, while incorporating gays and lesbians into the nation, put immigrants and Muslims under collective suspicion of not sharing the new national values – the kind of challenge to contemporary narratives of national identity that Jin Haritaworn and Fatima El-Tayeb have made?
Could a Eurovision entry – in a contest where the space of ‘Europe’, based on the International Telecommunications Union’s European Broadcasting Area, extends around the Mediterranean’s whole coastline, north and south – ever be used to oppose the fortification and militarisation of the EU’s external borders (including those at sea) in the same way that previous entries have advocated for environmental justice, nuclear disarmament or international peace?
And what obstacles might stand in the way of such critiques reaching a Eurovision stage?