Eurovision host broadcasters know they’ve done a good job if, after a three-and-a-half hour final full of immersive digital projection, political controversies, elaborate cosplays of characters that don’t exist yet, and a band called Young Georgian Lolitaz (not like that), one of the most talked-about acts is from your own half-time show.
Sweden’s SVT last hosted Eurovision in 2013 and brought a tradition of Sweden’s own Eurovision preselections into the grand final with a self-deprecating musical cabaret number called ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’, performed by the host (comedian Petra Mede) and as many personifications of quirky elements of Swedish national identity (up to and including some dancing meatballs) as would fit in.
The act made Mede a fan-favourite to return as presenter (alongside last year’s winner Mans Zelmerlow) when SVT hosted again. Organisers this year, however – preparing Eurovision at a time of hardening material and symbolic borders within as well as around Europe – were keen to find ways not just to call Eurovision an event where audiences ‘come together’ but to build moments into the contest that viewers could enjoy regardless of their own (geo)political position.
Part of that solution, in the first semi-final, was to acknowledge the refugee crisis through an interpretive dance performance, ‘The Grey People‘, which placed the viewer’s sympathies firmly with the refugees fleeing to Europe rather than with European governments whose immigration policies have made those journeys so deadly. (The BBC chose to opt out from this part of the broadcast, instead showing a comedy sketch about – as it happened – Swedish meatballs.)
The solution was to tell narratives of cultural identity around Eurovision itself – both in the ‘What is Eurovision?‘ number that Mede and Zelmerlow performed at the beginning of the second semi-final and, turning the style of ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’ on to 21st-century Eurovision in particular, the stand-out number from the grand final interval, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’.
‘Love Love Peace Peace’, or Zelmerlow/Mede’s guide to how to win a contemporary Eurovision, picked up on as many famous costumes and visual gimmicks as it could from Eurovision’s recent history – and could live on illustrating an awful lot of Eurovision researchers’ conference talks, including the ones about national identity and folklore, which happens to be where I came in.
My first piece of academic writing on Eurovision was about the strategy of incorporating ‘simulations’ of national folklore (dance, costume, singing etc) into Eurovision entries in ways that positioned a country as primordial and contemporary at the same time – timeless enough to be able to have those symbols yet modern enough to be taking the role of packaging them up for the European gaze.
The classic example here (what would be the Trope Maker if the TV Tropes website had a Eurovision section) is what we can now describe as Ukraine’s first Eurovision winner, Ruslana’s ‘Wild Dances’ from 2004.
(On stage, Ruslana channelled Hutsul folklore and Xena Warrior Princess, which through its theme song had taken some of its aesthetic from Bulgarian world music marketing in the first place; off stage, her materials talked about her music conservatory training in Lviv and her love of Deep Purple, and that was before the Orange Revolution or the Maidan protests even came along.)
This was particularly characteristic of eastern European entries at what turned out to be a very specific historical moment – the exuberant eastward enlargement of the EU and Eurovision, before financial crisis started re-fragmenting both spaces. Countries frequently imagined to be on Europe’s southern and northern peripheries had comparable strategies that played on imaginations of ‘Latinness’ and the Mediterranean, or on a kind of ‘northern exoticism', respectively.
‘Love Love Peace Peace’ is Eurovision telling its own contemporary history to itself – and quite a compendium it is, too:
- ‘Step 1: Get everyone’s attention with a powerful, majestic start. Maybe a battle horn of some kind!’ Or the trembita from ‘Wild Dances’. That’ll do.
- Drums played by shirtless men – as for Ireland 2013 and many more.
- Various shouts of ‘Hey!’ across the backing track. ‘Wild Dances’ is the Trope Maker again here.
- Or going ‘the exact opposite way – and use a grandmother’. Moldova’s Zdob si zdub, in 2005, both sang about and involved one who played the drums.
- ‘Show the viewers your country’s ethnic background by using an old traditional folklore instrument that no-one’s heard of before.’
Diplomatically, they attributed theirs to Sweden and made it up.
- Violinists, up to and including Norway’s 2009 winner Alexander Rybak. (That was really him.)
- In case the above makes the entry feel old-fashioned, ‘this can easily be fixed by adding a DJ who pretends to scratch’. Or, as Bulgaria’s Deep Zone Project and Balthasar said in 2008: ‘DJ, take me away.‘ (What were we saying about using folklore in a way that shows you know how to repackage it for a contemporary gaze?)
- On-stage costume changes. (Croatia, pace-setters for this one in the late 90s, added another but with 2016 production values this year.) Mans is dressed as Russia’s 2008 winner Dima Bilan; Petra as Sweden’s 1999 winner Charlotte Nilsson/Perrelli.
- Songs about love, or peace. Though Mans observes: ‘Abba actually won the competition with a song about war, with “Waterloo”, but this is not something we recommend.’
- Dancers running on stage with flags. (Serbia’s much-loved ‘Beauty Never Lies‘ from last year, among others.)
- The legendary baking grandmothers of Russia 2012’s ‘Party For Everybody‘.
- ‘A man in a hamster wheel.’ Ukraine 2014.
- ‘A burning fake piano.’ Austria’s host entry last year.
- ‘A Russian man on skates.’ Dima Bilan in 2008 again, who had Russian figure-skating champion Evgeni Plushenko and the Hungarian-Ukrainian violinist Edvin Marton with him on stage.
- A suggestively miming milkmaid who, without needing any description, is going to recall Poland’s 2014 ‘We Are Slavic‘ and will do for years to come.
- A blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Loreen.
- A mixed-gender pair of country dancers wearing Swedish blue and yellow.
Much like ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’ turns a tried-and-tested aspect of localised musical comedy into a vehicle for entertaining a transnational audience and, this time, a container for transnational rather than national cultural identity.
(Swedish viewers will be used to this sort of thing – a spoof of Swedish schlager music by Melodifestivalen regulars Markoolio and Linda Bengtzing was one of the country’s biggest hits in 2007.)
Assembling any historical narrative means making choices about what to select in order to tell a particular story, of course: there’s nothing here from the small vein of songs about the European financial crisis, and (surprisingly perhaps) nothing except a lot of pyrotechnics to recall Conchita Wurst.
However, Zelmerlow’s tongue-in-cheek warning that songs about war, when it comes to winning Eurovision, aren’t ‘something we recommend’ went on to be disproved an hour later when Ukraine’s ‘1944’, powerfully performed by Jamala, won Eurovision 2016.
The historical reference its title leads listeners to expect is to Stalin’s deportation of Tatars from Crimea in 1944 – the experience of Jamala’s Tatar grandparents and 200,000 others, and the fate of many other ethnic minorities in sensitive regions of the USSR during the Second World War.
The song was one of several candidates in Ukraine’s Eurovision selection this year that could also be read as a commentary on present-day Russian territorial aspirations towards Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and support for Russian-speaking separatist entity in Eastern Ukraine.
Whether this would break Eurovision’s rule against overtly political messages was a matter for the organisers’ reference group before the contest. (In 2005 they had asked Ukraine to remove lyrics about President Viktor Yushchenko from its host entry, which had originally become famous during the Orange Revolution; in 2009, after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Georgia was asked to withdraw a certain ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In‘).
Only last year, however, organisers had set a precedent for accommodating contentious commemoration when the Armenian entry, a collection of singers from across the Armenian diaspora called Genealogy, commemorated Armenians’ endurance in the face of trauma in the centenary year of the Armenian Genocide.
Armenia’s public diplomacy, campaigning for international recognition of the genocide throughout 2015, involved popular culture not only through Eurovision but also, tapping into another vein of the music/television/celebrity nexus, an official visit from the Kardashian Republic. (Among the delegation: Kim Kardashian’s husband Kanye West.)
The song’s title changed from its original ‘Don’t Deny’ (to ‘Face The Shadow’) but left those lines in its chorus, while staging and whatever commentators might have told viewers about the context behind the entry helped sharpen its connotations.
The difference between ‘Face The Shadow’ and ‘1944’ is less subject matter, more that the state most likely to have objected to ‘Don’t Deny’, Turkey, hasn’t participated in Eurovision since 2012 – whereas the state against which ‘1944’ would most look like it was directed, Russia, remains in Eurovision and invests heavily in its entries.
Several recent Russian entries had faced booing from fans angry at state- and Church-driven homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in Russia, during live feeds that Russia as well as other Eurovision broadcasters would have had to transmit.
(That said, Russia’s likeable 2016 entrant Sergey Lazarev gathered much more goodwill than Russia’s other recent representatives before the contest, including positive comments about gay life in Russia – and a 2014 interview where he said he viewed Crimea as part of Ukraine might have been a strike against him by a Russian newspaper but still helped distance him and the entry from Putin.)
Framing ‘1944’ as a tribute to Jamala’s personal history, as the Ukrainian delegation seemed to be doing before the contest, struck the same balance between narrating family history and national trauma that had been acceptable for Armenia in 2015.
Between the semi-final and the final, however, Jamala explicitly linked the song to Tatar’s situation since the annexation in 2014:
“[If I win] it will mean that modern European people are not indifferent, and are ready to hear about the pain of other people and are ready to sympathise,” Jamala told the Guardian by phone from the Swedish capital.
[…] “Of course it’s about 2014 as well,” she said. “These two years have added so much sadness to my life. Imagine, you’re a creative person, a singer, but you can’t go home for two years. You see your grandfather on Skype who is 90 years old and ill, but you can’t visit him. What am I supposed to do: just sing nice songs and forget about it? Of course I can’t do that.”
The already multifaceted and contested politics of Ukrainian participation in Eurovision – variously depicting the nation as euphoric returners to Europe, participants of a democratic revolution, and the hospitable and multicultural co-hosts of Euro 2012 – take another turn with ‘1944’, but both Ukraine’s Eurovision winners, 2004 and 2016, will show historians just as much about how Ukrainian broadcasters and their delegation chose to represent the nation to Europe at an extremely significant moment in the nation’s contemporary history.
It remains to be seen whether Jamala will take as much of an off-stage role in politics and activism as Ruslana, who enthusiastically supported the Orange and Maidan revolutions and took her public diplomacy international after the Russian invasion of Crimea by lobbying the US senator John McCain.
Ukraine’s winning the right to host Eurovision 2017 nevertheless ensures that Eurovision’s position as a platform for national political narratives and public diplomacy will continue to be in the spotlight just as much next year.
Remember participating broadcasters all show Eurovision live – giving a host broadcaster remarkable control over what images an audience across Europe in general or in certain countries in particular will have presented to them during the live feed.
(Though an enterprising delegation, like the Armenian team who displayed the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh flag during a semi-final also shown in Azerbaijan, can take advantage of liveness too – and organisers are still to sanction Armenian TV over the incident.)
‘1944’ isn’t the first Eurovision winner to be so closely linked to the politics of its present: Toto Cutugno, winning Eurovision 1990 for Italy during a contest (hosted by Yugoslavia) that unfolded in quite a different historical mood, anticipated the supposedly ever-closer union of the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, due to come into effect in two years’ time, when he sang ‘Insieme [Together] 1992‘.
‘1944”s closest precedent in fact dates back as far as 1976, two years after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, when Mariza Koch represented Greece with the song ‘Panagia mou, panagia mou’ (‘My Lady, My Lady’ – that is, the Virgin Mary).
Greece in 1975, like Ukraine in 2015, had skipped its first Eurovision since the beginning of the conflict. Koch’s lyrics were as unambiguous and, by Eurovision standards, graphic as Jamala’s ‘When strangers are coming / they come to your house / they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”‘:
Ki an thite eripia gremismena, oi-oi mana m’
The tha ‘ne ap’ ales, ap’ ales epohes
Apo napalm tha ‘ne kamena, oi-oi mana m’
Tha ‘ne ta miria halasmata tu htes
Ki an thite yi freskoskameni, oi-oi mana m’
The tha ‘ne kabos, ‘ne kabos karperos
Stavri tha ine fitemeni, oi-oi mana m’
Pu tus sapizi, sapizi o keros
And if you see shattered ruins, oh oh my Mother
It’s not from other, from other eras
It is burnt by napalm, oh oh my Mother
Since yesterday, there are countless crumbled rocks
And if you see newly dug land, oh oh my Mother
They’re not fertile fields, fields
There will be crosses planted on them, oh oh my Mother
Which will decompose, decompose through time
Combining the sharpness of ‘Panagia Mou’ and the symbolism of Eurovision victory that hindsight has only intensified around ‘Insieme 1992’ nevertheless makes ‘1944’ a historic, unprecedented moment for Eurovision.
I’d personally expected the simultaneous sympathy and unease around such an emotionally powerful and politically charged song might have cancelled each other out, and anticipated a reasonably high but not first-placed position on the scoreboard.
Is this the very kind of result that Eurovision organisers might have hoped to avoid by communicating such a strong theme of ‘Come Together’ and, for all its tongue-in-cheek-ness, ‘Love Love Peace Peace’?
It’s actually another move by the organisers, the ‘Grey People’ segment of this year’s semi-final, that might have created an environment in which ‘1944’ didn’t seem inappropriate for something as celebratory as the Eurovision Song Contest.
The reflective dance performance – closer to the feel of Akram Khan’s London 2012 performance honouring the victims of 7/7 than to that of most Eurovision intervals – injected a space of contemplation which is rare to find at Eurovision but which might just have set a tone in which ‘1944’ felt appropriate rather than incomprehensible.
Organisers, fans, participating broadcasters and the rest of us will be interested to find out how Ukraine balances national and transnational cultural narratives on its second opportunity as Eurovision hosts to depict Ukraine’s and Europe’s past, present and future.
 This phrase comes from an unpublished paper by the Finnish Eurovision researcher Mari Pajala – which I read during my PhD and which was one of the first things that challenged me to view transnational politics of representation in a context that would be wider than south-east Europe but still grounded in the specifics of particular places. And 10 or so years later here we are…