Eurovision 2017 was remarkable for its lack of politics

This post originally appeared at the LSE European Politics and Policy blog on 15 May 2017.

Eurovision 2017 was a contest with politics much further in the background than many viewers would have expected at the end of last year’s show: the 2016 contest saw Jamala win Ukraine the right to host the following Eurovision with a song that commemorated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.

Russia’s last-minute selection of a contestant, Yuliya Samoilova, who had visited Crimea in 2015 without crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border and would therefore be ineligible for entry under Ukrainian law, generated almost a month-long stand-off before Russian television decided in mid-April not to accept any compromise solution or broadcast the show. This meant the greatest reverberations of the Russia–Ukraine conflict for Kyiv 2017 had subsided before they could preoccupy the bubble of journalists, bloggers and fans that generates many of the framing narratives for every Eurovision during a fortnight of rehearsals in the host city.

While visitors to Kyiv were surrounded by architectural and visual reminders of Ukraine’s increasing cultural separation from Russia and the memory of coexistence in the USSR, Ukrainian nationhood in the broadcasts themselves came across largely through citations of folk tradition. There was no equivalent of the moment in Eurovision 2005 where President Viktor Yushchenko, presenting the winner’s trophy, reminded viewers that the Orange Revolution had only ended four months before. Even the Ukrainian entry by rock band O.Torvald had abandoned the ticking countdowns, flame and rubble concept of its early performances – calling to mind iconic photographs of the Euromaidan – for an abstract, utilitarian design.

The European Broadcasting Union, for its part, contributed to the politics-free atmosphere by preventing Portugal’s Salvador Sobral, who had been urging European governments throughout the week to accept more refugees, from wearing an ‘SOS Refugees’ sweatshirt in his last press conferences on the grounds that it broke Eurovision rules against ‘political or commercial’ messages. This was despite the fact that last year’s Eurovision had contained a segment, the acclaimed ‘Grey People’, which was no more and no less political in its depiction of the dangers refugees subject themselves to in order to reach the very ‘Europe’ that Eurovision viewers are celebrating.

The nature of live television nevertheless creates occasional ruptures in this increasingly tightly regulated ideological space. Israel’s spokesperson Ofer Nachshon’s farewell to Eurovision from the soon-to-be-closed Israel Broadcasting Authority left many viewers wondering if he was also announcing the departure of Israel itself. Perhaps the most alarming moment I can remember on a Eurovision screen occurred during the interval, when a man wearing an Australian flag climbed on stage and dropped his trousers in front of Jamala as she performed her new single, ‘I Believe In U’.

While no-one was readier than the internet’s Australians to take self-deprecating credit for the display, the man was a Ukrainian ‘prankster’, Vitalii Sediuk, with a long track record of confronting and assaulting mostly female celebrities in public. With Ukraine in direct conflict with another country where opposition politicians and journalists are liable to become targets of attacks in the street – and with tennis fans in the Yugoslav region especially likely to remember a spectator’s attack on Monica Seles in Hamburg 24 years ago – the fact that a member of the public could get this close to any performer on stage, let alone as politically symbolic a figure as Jamala, overshadowed a contest where in many respects the politics remained off screen.

Under the rainbow arch: hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision

In May 2007, just before Helsinki was about to host its first ever Eurovision Song Contest, a group of media and performance researchers gathered at the University of Helsinki for a symposium on ‘Queer Eurovision!’, later written up as a special issue of the Finnish queer studies journal SQS.

The aim of the symposium, wrote its co-organiser, Mikko Tuhkanen, was to take stock of the ten years since the ‘open secret’ of gay and queer presence at Eurovision had moved from a private subtext behind the show to an inescapable part of the text, starting with the first performance by an out gay man (Páll Óskar from Iceland) in 1997 and written into Eurovision history when Dana International won in 1998.

Many young, and some older, trans viewers of Eurovision were able to see in Dana International’s confidence and glamour the first aspirational representation of trans femininity that film and television had ever offered them. To Eurovision’s much larger number of cis viewers, meanwhile, her identity as a trans woman and her roots in the Tel Aviv’s gay nightlife – at a historical moment where LGBT activists were starting to win limited but important victories by lobbying European institutions – seemed to confirm: yes, Eurovision was gay.

Or as Tuhkanen wrote: ‘With Dana International, the disclosure was complete.’

A few days later, Marija Šerifović would win Eurovision 2007 for Serbia with a performance that the symposium’s other co-organiser, Annamari Vänskä, would persuasively read as an example of ‘lesbian camp‘. Šerifović’s victory took Eurovision 2008 to a country where the government’s failure to provide sufficient security for Belgrade Pride marches to take place had become a symbol, both at home and in European politics, of how far ‘European values’ were or were not embedded in Serbia.

Eurovision 2008 would open up a new chapter of the international politics of queerness and LGBT rights at Eurovision – one where queer people’s equality and security in host states would be heavily scrutinised when the contest took place in postsocialist, eastern European countries (but taken for granted during contests that were held in ‘the West’), and one where sexual orientation and gender identity were becoming matters of foreign policy for many countries in the global North and some (like Brazil and Argentina) in the South.

Šerifović’s victory, in other words, marked the start of another new phase in the queer politics and history of Eurovision – one where, increasingly outside Eurovision as well as inside, tolerance and respect for LGBT rights were about to become a new symbolic boundary in the imaginative geography of ‘East/West’ divisions of Europe that dated back even further than the Cold War.

Of all the contributions to ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the one most often cited in the subfield of ‘Eurovision research’ that itself started growing like a snowball after around 2007 and 2008 is Peter Rehberg’s article ‘Winning failure: queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest‘. Rehberg had noticed that the celebrations of queer (above all, gay) identities at Eurovision were an almost unparalleled occasion where fans and viewers did not have to choose between their queerness and their nationhood in order to experience belonging – a rare thing when nationalism, as an ideology, had historically been so hostile to homosexuality and transgressions of traditional gender roles.

(That past tense matters: by the mid-2000s, ‘LGBT-friendliness’ was itself becoming a symbolic value in some accounts of national identity, helping to define nations such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Britain in terms of cultural differences from supposedly ‘more homophobic’ parts of the world – a new way of expressing Europe’s imaginary east/west divide, and sometimes even of creating a troubling, simplistic hierarchy setting ‘the West’ above ‘Islam’ or ‘Africa’.)

Rather than fans celebrating their membership of a transnational gay or queer community instead of nationhood, Rehberg argued that Eurovision allowed them to celebrate as people with queer identities and as members of nations – ‘a rare occasion,’ in his most-quoted line, ‘for simultaneously celebrating both queerness and national identity’ (p. 60).

Ten years on from ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the song contest and queer geopolitics have become even more tied together.

As I’ve written here before, the years between 2008 and 2014 enmeshed Eurovision in the same political struggles over international events, LGBT rights and human rights that are most familiar from controversies over the Beijing and Sochi Olympics (which themselves book-end 2008 and 2014): Belgrade’s hosting of Eurovision in 2008 followed by Moscow in 2009, where the mayor of Moscow sent in police to break up a ‘Slavic Pride’ march on Eurovision final afternoon; the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, again accused of complicity with a repressive and homophobic regime when Baku hosted in 2012; London’s attempt to distance itself from Beijing through how it performed national identity at the 2012 Olympics echoed at Eurovision by Malmö 2013’s self-presentation as the antithesis of Baku 2012, with equal marriage among the many symbols of Swedishness celebrated in the interval; moments of celebrity activism like Krista Siegfrids’s on-stage kiss with another woman, beamed out across Europe while sending a more specific message to Finns before a parliamentary vote on an equal marriage referendum; and, after the Russian parliament criminalised the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s in June 2013, the cycle of Europe-versus-Russia representations around that symbolic boundary of LGBT rights that ran organically from the human rights campaigns before the Sochi Olympics into the meanings of ‘Europe’ and Eurovision when Conchita Wurst took part.

The hinge between queerness and nationhood that Rehberg found at Eurovision would widen in some countries, at least conditionally, with expansions of marriage and family rights and even – after much more struggle – tentative improvements in mechanisms for trans people’s gender recognition: provisions that add up to a greater sense of ‘citizenship’, or the ability to actually exercise the same rights as other citizens, for queer people, or at least those queer people whose race, ethnicity, nationality or religion don’t remove them from that sense of citizenship in other ways.

And yet frictions between the celebration of queerness and the sovereignty of nationhood would persist at Eurovision itself. In 2016, the EBU embroiled itself in unnecessarily awkward dialogues with LGBT fans over whether or not rainbow flags would be allowed in the Eurovision arena (if they were being used in a ‘political’ way, leaked instructions to security staff at the arena suggested, they shouldn’t be allowed – and yet the rainbow flag’s origins in political protest are still, for many but not all LGBT people, inseparable from its meanings in the present), and expected the more specific identities symbolised by the wider family of pride flags (like the bi and trans flags) to be accommodated in the all-encompassing rainbow.

Meanwhile, it had to be aware both that its Russian member broadcasters were under LGBT-phobic pressure to withdraw from Eurovision – so that Russian families wouldn’t have to watch examples of ‘Western decadence’ like Conchita Wurst – and that the very celebrations of queerness many viewers would expect from Eurovision, indeed be disappointed if the contest didn’t show, might now be ruled illegal to broadcast in Russia under the laws that a coalition of neo-traditional politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church had steered through parliament with Putin’s approval in 2013.

Since 2007, in other words, that hinge between queerness and national belonging that Rehberg had found one expression of at Eurovision had acquired three new dimensions: its vulnerability to being instrumentalised as a way of constructing tolerant and progressive Western and European national identities against backward cultural ‘others’; the hardening of a symbolic boundary between ‘Europe’ and ‘Russia’; and the realisation, as Russian queers saw in 2013 and Western queers themselves have had to come to terms with after seeing the Obama presidency’s steps towards LGBT equality reversed in a matter of weeks, that the greater sense of national citizenship and belonging that some LGBT people have been able to win can always be assaulted and lost again.

Come into me from within, we can be as one in the sin

The vagaries of Eurovision qualification – where almost 40 entries will take part in two semi-finals and only 20 go through to the grand final on Saturday – mean that this year’s most interesting example of how queerness and nationhood can combine at Eurovision, Slavko Kalezić’s ‘Space’, has already gone out of contention. Hidden away in the Tuesday semi-final, the 2017 entry most conscious of, and most adapted to, the homoerotic male gaze of gay spectatorship didn’t come from any self-imagined north-west European stronghold of gay rights, but from Montenegro – and depended on specifically post-Yugoslav ways of reinventing masculinity rather than any denationalised model of the ‘global gay’.

The presentation of Kalezić’s preview video for ‘Space’ in March left no doubt this was a song and performance aimed at the gay and bisexual male viewer in the sense that their likely pleasures are more embedded in the song than any other. Entering through a neon galaxy (with echoes perhaps of Lady Gaga’s ‘Mother Monster’ phase), the camera takes viewers to a dark disco and a dramatic rocky landscape where Kalezić is dancing shirtless, often singing directly to the viewer in extreme close up, as we hear lines like ‘Wet dreams, wild nightmares, I surrender / Come into me from within / We can be as one in the sin’.

The rest of the lyrics are filled with callouts to ejaculation and orgasm, mixed with a fluidity of gender roles (‘I’m Venus and Mars of the hour’), and fans were quick to interpret a line about ‘I’ve got my suit on, no need to worry’ – ostensibly, of course, about a space suit – as standing for using a condom during safe sex.

Even as Eurovision entries go, ‘Space’ is remarkable in its commitment to the codes of double entendre. Moreover, the lyrics put Kalezić in a receptive role, the riskier and queerer position for a man who has sex with men to take in many binaries of male sexuality that view receiving penetration, as opposed to giving penetration, as a much more threatening act for masculinity (thus feminising and stigmatising passive sexual role): it’s the thought that men can enjoy being penetrated that really unsettles many homophobes.

While Kalezić’s unabashed enthusiasm for male/male sexuality has rough Western equivalents – a Frankie Goes To Hollywood or, especially, a George Michael – ‘Space’ is far from an import of Western gay aesthetics – and that needs saying all the more loudly when so much public and state homophobia, the ideology behind the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ laws or the far-right and Church mobilisation against LGBT activism and Pride marches in Serbia, Ukraine, and many other countries, is grounded in imagining that the authentic masculinity of the nation can never accommodate being gay or taking pleasure in sexual acts performed by other men.

Throughout the introduction of LGBT-phobic legislation in Russia, the current persecution of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, or the ongoing harassment and violence of LGBT activist movements and Pride campaigns, discourses of nationalism and sexuality hold that – supposedly – it’s against the authentic morals of the nation for men to behave like this. Opposing moves to recognise LGBT rights as human rights as the United Nations, the Russian government has argued that the West has sought to impose LGBT equality on Russia in the face of Russia’s authority to determine its own moral code: in the Russian nation as Putin imagines it, ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations should stay out of sight.

The hostile comments Kalezić received from Montenegrin social media users after his video was published similarly included references to ‘Western decadence’ or the remark that ‘Njegoš would be ashamed.’ The epics of Njegoš, the 19th-century prince-bishop and national poet of Montenegro who wrote (with graphic violence) about the heroism of Montenegrin highland clans fighting the Ottoman Turks, are at the core of Montenegrin myths of national masculinity.

In response, Kalezić told the Montenegrin web portal CDM: ‘if Njegoš were alive, he’d actually support me. Those of you who are mentioning him, if you’ve read The Mountain Wreath or A Night Worth A Century [his two major works] should know that in fact he was an exceptional thinker and empath. Full of symbolic energy and the energy of life.’

Beyond queering Eurovision or queering the nation, Kalezić was doing something even more threatening to Montenegrin heteronormativity: queering Njegoš.

Moreover, the way Kalezić – in his video more than his Eurovision performance – embodies genderfluidity and male/male sexual desire reflects a tension for queer people across most of the globe: how to find modes of sexual difference and gender non-conformity that don’t require total separation from national tradition, that is, how to situate oneself in the linguistic and cultural material of a nation to which one should be able to belong.

The questions are the very stuff of global queer politics – including in Montenegro, where (as Danijel Kalezić writes in his contribution to Bojan Bilić’s recent volume on post-Yugoslav LGBT activism) non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people question whether their activism and organisation necessarily needs to follow the Western European and North American model of Pride, why anyone should expect queer identities to develop with the same categories or timescale they have in the West, and where there might be Montenegrin queer histories to reclaim.

‘Space’, on video, contains visual nods to Byzantine iconography and also, in the whirling of Kalezić’s robe and hair, something of Sufi tradition: a reference which, at least to me as a spectator, brings to mind another gender-non-conforming post-Yugoslav singer from Bosnia, Božo Vrećo.

Vrećo, seen here in his own enrobed whirling through a dramatic landscape, has succeeded in what Tea Hadžiristić described in an article for Balkanist as ‘queering sevdah’. In singing and writing this form of traditional Bosnian folk music, Vrećo speaks both as a woman and as a man. His gender expression, both in and out of performance, actively reuses Bosnian traditions across gender boundaries: among his tattoos, for instance, are symbols on his hands that Bosnian Catholic women used to tattoo as protective bridal charms. Vrećo neither uses nor needs Western or Anglophone categories of sexual and gender variance to present himself. As a result, Hadžiristić writes:

Vrećo eschews ascribing Western-style identity categories to himself that allows him to be celebrated by Bosnians as a star and emblem of Bosnian talent, while at the same time enacting his own brand of queer gender presentation. Outside of a context where LGBT rights are seen as part of a modernization package leading to EU accession, his queerness is accepted because it is seen as Bosnian rather than a threat coming from the ‘outside’. In itself, this has radical potential because it demonstrates that queerness is not a Western import and that it can and does exist naturally in Bosnia and jive with ‘Bosnianness’. A Bosnian queer is possible.

So, Kalezić shows, is a Montenegrin queer. So is a Serbian queer: Marija Šerifović, Serbia’s Eurovision winner in 2007, came out in 2013 (after years of public speculation about her sexuality during which she was only photographed with one boyfriend, Slavko Kalezić), and in gender expression is indistinguishable from male stars in the same field of Serbian pop – though doesn’t subvert dominant ideologies of Serbian nationhood in other ways (after all, Serbian women, or women anywhere else, are not necessarily left-wing committed anti-nationalists just because they’re queer).

The aesthetic codes that ‘Space’ as a video depend on are already well-established in Belgrade-based popular music production for the post-Yugoslav linguistic and cultural area: in fact, its director, Dejan Milićević, is none other than the foremost video director for Serbian pop-folk music or what’s still sometimes called ‘turbofolk’.

Milićević’s videos employ what Balkanist‘s pop blogger Eurovicious (in his ‘Queer as Turbofolk’ series) calls a ‘tricky balancing act’ in which ‘the queer subtext must be subtle enough to pass over the heads of the straight audience, but explicit enough to maintain the interest of the gay male audience’. This example, for a Danijel Djokić video in 2012, is as good as any:

Milićević’s signature devices of lingering on the exposed male body and visualising the male singer’s inviting gaze back at the viewer – all filtered through the conventions of fashion photography – are an established aesthetic in post-Yugoslav music. For Marko Dumančić and Krešimir Krolo, in fact, they help to suggest that the Belgrade school of pop-folk music has produced a – however commodified and objectified masculinity that differs importantly from how the same music used to celebrate the masculinities of paramilitarism and organised crime.

The Milićević aesthetic taken into Eurovision sees a localised homoerotics, in which queer men in and around Serbia and Montenegro are already taking pleasure, meshing with other queer, and straight, gazes situated elsewhere. Indeed, Macedonia’s preview video for Tijana Dapčević’s entry in 2014 relied on the same presentation of the male body and the same scopic pleasure of looking at the male body even though it was directed by a different director, Mert Arslani:

For better or worse, the Macedonian team didn’t bring the video’s homoerotics of the Macedonian Air Force into the live performance (or even get Tijana to wear the white glasses that she’d showed to every journalist who met her during Eurovision week) – and Eurovision viewers didn’t get to see half as Montenegrin a setting for ‘Space’ as Kalezić’s preview had been able to conjure.

The braid stays, but the robe is off within less than fifty seconds (Kalezić is wearing sparkly jeans underneath), and the high-resolution video backdrop is showing galactic patterns or blow-ups of Kalezić’s body rather than the mountain landscapes that Montenegro’s preview videos can be guaranteed to show off: I do wonder whether the more localised elements from the video (even if many viewers elsewhere in Europe would just view them as ‘more Balkan’) might have helped the song stand out better in a semi-final that contained at least one other south-east European pop song based on astrophysics and the return of Moldova’s Epic Sax Guy.

Once the EBU releases the semi-final results and the breakdown of how expert juries and the public voted in each country, it’ll be interesting to see whether Kalezić’s points were simply relatively low all round or whether he encountered the obstacle that made even Conchita Wurst’s scores not as high as they might have been: that five music professionals per country have more influence than a member of the public, by a magnitude of thousands, over whether a performance that plays on queerness as much as Kalezić or Conchita is going to get any points. Both homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on the part of a juror, or pressure from the broadcaster or elsewhere, can have a disproportionately high impact on the votes a jury gives.

Indeed, this isn’t just a problem of the 2010s: Páll Óskar’s ‘Minn hinsti dans’, in 1997, scored only 18 points and came 20th out of 25th – but 16 of the 18 points came from countries that were experimenting for the first time with a public televote, Austria, Sweden and the UK.

Conchita, in 2014, didn’t suffer a mass rejection among public voters even in Russia, but expert juries ranked her noticeably lower than the public, leading to eastern Europe countries appearing to have given her relatively fewer points than the West.

With Kalezić out of the running for the grand final, however, the most significant hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision 2017 are likely to be behind the scenes rather than on stage.

Repainting the rainbow arch

Ukraine’s public diplomacy, since 2014, has striven not only to inform the world that Ukraine still has sovereignty over Crimea and eastern Ukraine but also to show that Ukraine belongs to a different, European community of values than Putin’s Russia – a political and cultural separation not unlike the move with which Croatia in 1990-5, before and during its war of independence, sought to separate itself (sometimes coercively) from Yugoslavia.

One of several important differences between the Croatian case and Ukraine’s, however, is that there was no incentive for the 1990s Croatian regime not to double down on homophobia in its political compact with the Catholic Church. For Ukraine, on the other hand, being able to demonstrate progress on what diplomats take as the benchmarks of LGBT rights (such as whether Pride marches are being held safely) could – at least when LGBT rights were the foreign policy issue that they were under Obama and still are to some governments – help to create a clear moral boundary in Western eyes between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.

If Russia had not withdrawn from Eurovision after Ukrainian security services banned the Russian contestant Yuliya Samoilova from entering the country (in 2015 she had visited Crimea without first legally entering Ukraine), public awareness of the organised disappearances, torture and killing of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya could well have elicited more hostile reactions from viewers than Russian competitors faced even in 2014, the first Eurovision since the ‘gay propaganda’ law went into force, or 2015 – perhaps not even a contestant able to win as much goodwill from fans as Sergey Lazarev would have been able to do much to hold it off.

The potential diplomatic value of publicly performing support for LGBT equality sits uneasily with the patriarchal homophobia of the Ukrainian far right and paramilitary movement – a potential insurgent force that continues to overshadow the Ukrainian government.

The impasse was symbolised by the outcome of an initiative to repaint the Arch of the Friendship of Peoples, a Soviet monument built in a large Kyiv park in 1982. The Arch is among the monuments that the Ukrainian government now plans to remove under a ‘decommunisation’ law introduced in May 2016 (bringing Ukraine, two and a half decades after the collapse of the USSR, closer to the memory politics of early post-Yugoslav Croatia).

First, however, Kyiv city council decided to repaint it in rainbow colours as a temporary Arch of Diversity in time for Eurovision and Kyiv Pride – as if taking up the street-art aesthetic that since 2011 has regularly been seeing Sofia’s Monument to the Soviet Army repainted so that the soldiers are wearing American superhero costumes, bright pink uniforms or even Ukrainian flags.

The rainbow symbol, and ‘diversity’ itself, contain a non-specificity and deniability which often frustrates queer and LGBT people who want their identities and experiences to be named as such; ‘Celebrate Diversity’, the slogan of Eurovision 2017, is so broad it could be celebrating nothing at all (while performing a celebration of diversity, as Sara Ahmed writes, is so often a substitute for institutions actually making the difficult structural changes necessary for their workforce to be meaningfully diverse). That very slipperiness, however, also creates the space of manoeuvre in which the painting of the Arch of Diversity could take place without the city council having to openly name the rainbow as queer.

archofdiversity
Painting the Arch of Diversity in Kyiv, April 2017

The arch was in a half-painted state last week when members of far-right groups including Right Sector and Svoboda threatened municipal workers and ordered the painting to stop – calling the rainbow ‘gay propaganda’, in the same terms as LGBT-phobia in Russia. On 4 May the mayor of Kyiv, Vitaliy Klitschko, announced, in what was widely seen as a symbolic concession, that the rest of the arch would be filled in with ‘a Ukrainian decorative pattern.’

The bands of orange, yellow, green, blue and purple that currently rise from the base of the arch, leaving blunt interruptions of grey metal near the top, could as an aesthetic choice have captured the viewer’s gaze and forced them to think about why the progress was incomplete, better than the full rainbow would have done: in that sense, designing such a rupture into the arch might have expressed the contingency of queer politics better.

Enforcing the rupture from outside, however, means that the unpainted metal of the present arch and the traditional national pattern of its future – likely based on the same handicrafts that have given Eurovision 2017 much of its visual identity – also represent the material power that the far right in Ukraine can exert over what degree of LGBT equality, visibility or public presence they are prepared to allow.

The half-rainbowed arch under which many Eurovision fans, of different genders and sexualities, are photographing themselves this weekend in Kyiv is not only, therefore, a symbol of transnational ‘rainbow’ politics or an instrument of national public diplomacy. It is a sign of the contingency and insecurity of queer existence: the knowledge, as immediate or distant as it seems, that even official commitments towards equality can still be met with violence and still bargained away.

The idea that time’s imaginary arrow can go backwards – that even if you can belong more to your nation than you used to do, the time may still come when the nation and its state turns on you again – is not just an experience of queerness in Russia or Ukraine: it is one that queer people in the West are also confronting, after only a few years where it started to feel possible to forget.

There’s a moment, or many moments, in Belgium’s performance at Eurovision this year where, even though the singer Blanche as far as anyone knows isn’t queer, the song captures a mood of insecurity and doubt that queer, and feminist, politics in 2017 knows very well.

In a voice so uncomfortable that a lot of viewers – including myself the first time – initially heard it as stage fright, yet selling the song to enough voters for it to qualify from the semi-final, Blanche keeps returning to the same refrain: ‘All alone in the danger zone / are you ready to take my hand? / All alone in a flame of doubt / are we going to lose it all?’

Rather than fulfilling the same storytelling momentum that recent Eurovision winners have increasingly been able to convey through digital staging that sometimes seems to tell an almost mythological story of command over nature or technology, ‘City Lights’ is caught in indecision. It doesn’t offer the climax of the young-adult dystopian narratives it seems to draw from, where we know that sooner or later the young heroes will make their break, escape the city and join hands; instead, it cycles back to hesitation.

Its last seconds, where Blanche repeats the same line three times before the lights and music suddenly drop out as she crosses her arms, would be an even bleaker winner’s reprise than the end of Jamala’s ‘1944’ – and yet, for some viewers, the words are already on their minds:

‘Are we going to lose it all?’

Yugoslavia’s last summer dance: did Serbia and Montenegro really break up over Eurovision?

This post originally appeared at Balkanist on 8 May 2017.

Two and a half months before Montenegrins were due to vote in a referendum on independence from Serbia that would bring the union of the last two Yugoslav republics to an end, Montenegrin and Serbian television viewers in March 2006 had a different kind of vote to cast: choosing what might be Serbia–Montenegro’s last entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.

The outcome of the national selection at the Sava Centar in Belgrade – with the Montenegrin delegation outraged that spectators had jeered and thrown bottles at the winning Montenegrin band, the Belgrade audience and the Serbian press accusing the Montenegrin jurors of ganging up to make sure a song from Montenegro won, and Serbia–Montenegro ultimately unable to send a song to Eurovision that year at all – seemed to symbolise a breakdown in relations that would have to make separation inevitable: if Serbia and Montenegro couldn’t co-operate on picking a song for Eurovision, how could they be expected to co-operate on anything else?

If Evropesma 2006 hadn’t happened, one or other of the smart young post-Yugoslav directors on the mid-2000s film-festival circuit would have had to make it up: a portmanteau of political contradictions and historical legacies crashing into each other in a setting tailor-made for pop-culture nostalgia, with cameos from a world-weary Sarajevan and a sex symbol from Split, all circling round a competition where the question of who got to take credit for the Eurovision entries of a disintegrating state had rumbled on ever since the Yugoslav federation fell apart.

Yugoslavia had been telling stories about its place in the world through Eurovision since 1961, when joining in the annual contest as the only state socialist country ever to take part helped to symbolise the proud geopolitical position ‘between east and west’ – unattached either to Soviet communism or American capitalism – that Tito’s Yugoslavia claimed as the host, later that year, of the First Non-Aligned Conference in Belgrade.

Out of the string of songs that TV Zagreb guided through Yugoslavia’s inter-republic Eurovision selection festival, Jugovizija, in an unbroken streak between 1986 and 1990, the most successful had been the jaunty slice of zabavna (light-entertainment) music called ‘Rock me baby,’ with which the Zadar band Riva narrowly won Eurovision in 1989 – entitling Yugoslavia to host Eurovision 1990.

 

By May 1990, the Berlin Wall had fallen, most of the 22 Eurovision contestants that year had come equipped with something about freedom, walls or Europe in their lyrics, and moving the symbolic centre of Europe for an evening to a state socialist country adapting to multi-party democracy told an even more powerful story about ‘Europe’ than viewers in 1989 would have anticipated there would be.

Within Yugoslavia, of course, 1989–90 had been a time of increasing political tensions between republics, spurred on by Slobodan Milošević’s populist agitation about the ‘minority’ position of Serbs in the federation, the anti-democratic steps he took to build his personal power on the federal presidency, his suppression of Albanians’ civil rights in Kosovo, and the reactions this climate provoked in Slovenia and Croatia.

Rivalries between TV Zagreb and the umbrella federal broadcaster Yugoslav Radio-Television (JRT) dogged the organisation of the contest, and the TV Zagreb that hosted Eurovision in May 1990 was very soon to become Croatian Television (HTV), a state broadcaster with a declared nation-building mission – to reshape Croatian public consciousness around the public’s sense of themselves as Croats, away from affinity with Yugoslavia or even memory that Croats and Serbs had once sought a political future together.

Indeed, Croatia’s first multi-party elections – which voted the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) into power on a ticket of freedom, independence and closeness to Europe but alarmed Serbs who saw in HDZ a disturbing ambivalence towards the legacy of the 1941–5 Independent State of Croatia and its genocidal persecution of Serbs – had their second and last round the day after Eurovision 1990.

‘Rock me baby’, as Croatian viewers are annually reminded, is the star turn in Croatia’s national history of Eurovision – a victory in the name of Yugoslavia but, along the contours of post-Yugoslav Croatian cultural identity, unambiguously made in Croatia.

It was also, of course, a Yugoslav victory – something which in the cultural politics of ‘brotherhood and unity’ belonged to the whole country, regardless of the republic that had produced it. Milošević, unlike the 1990s Croatian president Franjo Tuđman, did not sever Serbian cultural identity from ‘Yugoslav’ culture even as he gave orders in wars that would destroy the Yugoslav idea in practice. On Serbian television, Riva’s Eurovision win in 1989 is just as much ‘ours’ as it is in Croatia.

After Eurovision 1990, when Croatian teen idol Tajči performed another standard of late Yugoslav zabavna music, the fifties-retro ‘Hajde da ludujemo’ (‘Let’s go crazy’) – not at all to be confused with newly-composed folk music star Lepa Brena’s 1987–9 musical trilogy Hajde da se volimo (Let’s fall in love) – no Croatian participant would even come close to representing Yugoslavia.

 

The state of relations between Tuđman’s Croatia and the federal institutions Milošević successfully dominated was such, by March 1991, that none of the Croatian singers who travelled to Sarajevo for the last ‘Jugovizija’ to involve all six republics are likely to have believed they had a serious chance of winning – least of all Tedi Spalato, who chose to perform his song ‘Gospode moj’ (‘O, my lord’), one of many overtly Catholic songs now allowed to be shown on HTV, dressed as a friar.

TV Belgrade’s entry, to nobody’s surprise, won the next Jugovizija in 1991, with Milošević exerting enough control over institutions in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro to pressure their JRT ‘studios’ to vote the same way as Belgrade. TV Belgrade and TV Priština gave no points to Spalato the leading Croatian contender, Danijel Popović – a Montenegrin born in Podgorica who would relaunch his pop career then in 2005 – whose song followed in Tajči’s retro footsteps with the Americanising title of ‘Daj, obuci levisice’ (‘Come on, put your Levis on’).

The winner, Bebi Dol with ‘Brazil’, reached 68 points on the basis of votes from the Belgrade, Priština, Novi Sad and Montenegro studios – and nowhere else.

 

One last Jugovizija, with entries from the Sarajevo, Novi Sad, Priština, Belgrade and Montenegro studios but no Slovenian, Croatian or Macedonian participation, took place on 28 March 1992 – the same day that the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegović, would withdraw his assent to the Lisbon Agreement and its suggested division of Bosnia-Herzegovina. TV Belgrade’s Extra Nena performed at Eurovision 1992 in Malmö a few weeks before United Nations sanctions against the Milošević regime came into force and prevented what had become the ‘Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ (FRY) – that is, Serbia and Montenegro – from competing in Eurovision for the rest of the 1990s.

Taking part in Eurovision became a possibility again after Milošević fell from power in October 2000. A year after FRY converted into a looser State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, meeting the pro-independence ambitions of the Montenegrin prime minister Milo Đukanović halfway, the Association of Public Broadcasters of Serbia and Montenegro (UJRT) returned to Eurovision in 2004 in almost as dramatic a way as possible: by selecting an expertly assembled repackaging of musical and cultural traditions, Željko Joksimović’s ‘Lane moje’ (‘My faun’) that came second, behind Ukraine’s Ruslana, and set the format for many of the Yugoslav region’s most successful Eurovision songs over the next decade, often written by Joksimović himself.

 

Joksimović’s performance, as Serbian anthropologists including Vesna Mikić and Marijana Mitrović have written, aimed to communicate a gentle, non-threatening image of Serbian masculinity a world away from the pictures of gangsters, paramilitaries and war-criminal leaders that had dominated Western perceptions of Serbia since the Yugoslav wars. Hitting all the buttons of the mode of ‘consenting self-exoticisation’ that had spread from the ‘world music’ circuit to Eurovision by 2004, Joksimović performed a knowing familiarity with the exoticising gaze of Western viewers that aimed to reposition himself and the nation as paradoxically modern, able to step away from tradition at the same time as playing with it.

Joksimović had got to Eurovision through a sixteen-song final in Belgrade, Evropesma, with eight songs from Serbia and eight from Montenegro. Four of the Serbian songs had themselves come through the 28-song Beovizija festival, held the night before – perhaps as a way to include popular pop-folk acts in the spectacle with minimal risk of one actually going to Eurovision (even pop-folk superstar Jelena Karleuša, in her only attempt to take part in Eurovision so far, had only scraped an undistinguished 13 points).

Montenegrin viewers who complained that the Serbian jurors and audience hadn’t voted for any of the Montenegrin songs in Evropesma 2004 – quite likely because Montenegrin television hadn’t booked any singers with an established audience outside Montenegro – had much more to celebrate a year later, when ‘Zauvijek moja’ (‘Forever mine’) by the new Montenegrin boyband No Name won Evropesma 2005.

‘Zauvijek moja’ was the Joksimović formula applied to Montenegro’s striking landscapes and old coastal towns, with lyrics doing the typical geographical move of many post/Yugoslav patriotic songs by knitting a diverse landscape of shorelines, rivers and mountains into one national whole – representing both countries, but quite clearly coded with its use of the ijekavian language variant (rather then Serbia’s ekavian) and its emphasis on hills, not to mention its video, as Montenegro.

 

Serbia–Montenegro at Eurovision could have carried on, formally or informally, in this post-Yugoslav version of an ‘ethnic key’ for some time (responsibility for Belgium’s Eurovision entries, after all, rotates between the French- and Flemish-speaking broadcasters every year).

Instead, Evropesma 2006, at the Sava Centar in Belgrade, proved to be the last joint selection in which the two republics would ever take part – and one of the last media events to involve both republics before Montenegrins voted for independence in a referendum which, it was declared on 2 March 2006, was going to take place only a day after the 2006 Eurovision final.

Evropesma 2006, as in 2005, combined the top-scoring songs from separate festivals in Serbia and Montenegro (Beovizija and Montevizija) into one final contest in Belgrade. Montenegrin grievances before Evropesma in 2005, when Serbian television had apparently promoted its own songs (including a Joksimović-written entry for Jelena Tomašević) more heavily than Montenegro’s, had been somewhat alleviated by No Name’s result, though the surprisingly few points Serbian jurors gave No Name and the no points at all that Montenegrin jurors gave Tomašević suggested that their relations at Evropesma were beginning to echo the increasing political separation of the republics.

If you could have tracked Yugoslavia’s disintegration in 1989–92 through the process of its Eurovision song selection breaking down, was the same about to happen for Serbia and Montenegro?

Radio-Television Serbia (RTS) arrived at Evropesma with a slate of big names and productions including Ana Nikolić – whose pan-Balkan ‘Romale romali’, rumour held later, was supposedly going to be re-recorded in English by none other than Kylie Minogue – Ivana Jordan’s etno-trance ‘Lazarica’, and Tijana Dapčević’s tightly-choreographed ‘Greh’, which stopped short in its fifteen-second instrumental break for the Macedonian-born, Belgrade-based singer (whose married surname came from her Montenegrin husband) to mime playing the cello live on stage.

Beovizija runners-up Flamingosi, joined by the etno-jazz singer Ljubiša Stojanović Louis, had only been formed the previous year but gathered more and more momentum before Evropesma as TV and radio replayed their comic take on twenties dance crazes, ‘Ludi letnji ples’ (‘Crazy summer dance’). The duo of TV presenter Ognjen Amidžić, born in Šabac, and actor Marinko Madžgalj, who had been born in Belgrade but grew up in Kotor, Montenegro, crammed the names of seventeen European capital cities into what the beginning of the song already announced as ‘the winning song of the Eurovision Song Contest 2006’.

Ironically, in light of the result, ‘Ludi letnji ples’ would have been more representative of the Serbia–Montenegro state union than almost any other entry from Serbia – with Amidžić singing in the ekavian language variant and Madžgalj singing in his own ijekavian, a small linguistic detail with big symbolic weight. (Montenegrin, like Croatian, uses the ijekavian variant as standard – and the two versions of the vowel mark language as ‘in Serbian’ or ‘not in Serbian’ in much post-Yugoslav language politics today.)

 

Radio-Television Montenegro (RTCG), for its part, brought the winner of Montevizija, Stevan Faddy’s ‘Cipele’ – an uptempo ballad in the style of Danijel Popović, the Montenegrin singer who had performed another of TV Zagreb’s classic Eurovision entries in the eighties – and the top half of the Montevizija scoreboard. Serbian viewers would have recognised few of the acts except No Name, seeking a second consecutive Eurovision performance.

Their song ‘Moja ljubavi’, with traditional zurla pipes mixed into the soundtrack, involved essentially the same drums and harmonies as ‘Zauvijek moja’, set itself between the sea and mountains, and addressed a ‘you’ who might as well have been a woman or the nation.

 

The confrontation between Evropesma’s live audience and the Montenegrin jurors – who were uniformly choosing not to vote either for Flamingosi or Ana Nikolić – did not just bring back to mind the gradual collapse of Jugovizija and Yugoslavia because of how it juxtaposed Serbian perceptions of Montenegrin obstructionism with the determination of Montenegro’s political leadership to obtain independence: it also took place in the presence of two Croatian and Bosnian pop stars with widespread appeal across the post-Yugoslav region who had been invited to perform in the Evropesma interval, each of whom brought their own associations with the cultural politics of wider Yugoslavia.

Hari Mata Hari, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s contestant in 2006, was set to win Bosnia’s best ever Eurovision result – third place – with his song ‘Lejla’, co-written by Joksimović in what was now the recognisable Eurovision genre of the ‘Balkan ethnic ballad’.

 

Bosnian TV’s invitation to Joksimović had been controversial among Bosniak nationalists who believed that inviting a Serbian composer to write the Bosnian entry was unfair to Bosnian songwriters and an insult to the memory of victims of war crimes committed by Serbs.

The cooperation between Hari Mata Hari and Joksimović, however, was characteristic of the tentative re-establishment of connections between Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian music industries that had started to take place at the end of the 1990s and was becoming, if not yet routine, at least a regular practice by 2006.

While Bosnian–Croatian collaborations were the least politically sensitive and most common, the most sensitive material and symbolic boundary in post-Yugoslav cultural politics during the mid-2000s was between Croatia and Serbia – and this was the line that Evropesma’s other special guest, the Croatian star Severina, had crossed in choosing to collaborate for her Eurovision entry with the Sarajevo-born, Belgrade-based composer Goran Bregović.

 

The elements of folk song, dance and costume from the Dalmatian hinterland that Severina had incorporated into her own example of Eurovision ethnopop, ‘Moja štikla’ (‘My stiletto’) – written for her by Croatia’s Eurovision representative in 2005, Boris Novković – had been the subject of a moral panic in Croatia for weeks before it had even won Croatia’s own marathon Eurovision selection, ‘Dora’. When Croatian national identity was supposed to depend on the nation being European and not Balkan – therefore not Serbian, Yugoslav, or ‘eastern’-sounding either – the Dinaric chants and gusle lines of ‘Moja štikla’ sounded far too much like what many Croats thought of as Serbian ‘turbofolk’ to represent Croatia in a competition with a hundred million Europeans looking on.

Insisting that the song’s component parts were authentically Croatian, as Severina and her team went through all sorts of strategies to do, just reminded people of the uncomfortable truth that traditions understood as ‘Balkan’ were inseparably part of Croatia’s own cultural identity. Traditionalists objected to Severina’s racy past – in 2004 she had been one of the first celebrities from any country to have a sex tape leaked on to the internet – and the song’s interjections of ‘s-s-s-sex’.

In short, Severina had tapped into almost every cultural anxiety in mid-2000s Croatia even before it was confirmed that the song had been composed by Goran Bregović – the Sarajevo rocker turned world music entrepreneur who the Croatian press could easily describe as Serbian himself after his choice to live between Paris and Belgrade during the Yugoslav wars, and who was famous for incorporating Serbian folk music and – often uncredited – Romani music into his songs.

Bregović’s old band, Bijelo dugme, had reunited in 2005 for three large concerts in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb, the first time corporate sponsors – especially in Croatia – had stood behind the nostalgia for Yugoslav popular culture that had sustained some remnant of a pan-Yugoslav cultural space despite the violence with which inter-ethnic coexistence in the region had been torn apart.

Evropesma 2006, with Yugoslavia’s last two republics pulling away from each other and the memory of a larger Yugoslavia haunting the Sava Centar in the shape of two Croatian and Bosnian stars with their own complex relationships to whatever ‘Yugoslavia’ might mean fifteen years after the Yugoslav wars began, would have unfolded in the shadow of the ‘former state’ even without the news that began to filter through to the Serbian public that Saturday afternoon: that Slobodan Milošević had been found dead in The Hague.

Milošević’s death in custody at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), cutting short his trial and the longest case the ICTY’s prosecutors had ever worked, came only a week after the first president of the Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK), Milan Babić, had also been found dead in the ICTY detention unit. Babić had been convicted of crimes against humanity for his part in the RSK’s occupation of Croatian territory and displacement of Croats from the area that Milošević had planned to annex into Serbia; serving his sentence in an undisclosed location, he had returned briefly to the ICTY to testify against Milan Martić, the second president of the RSK.

Babić had committed suicide, while Milošević suffered from a chronic heart condition that had already delayed his trial on several occasions; Serbs who found conspiracy theories persuasive still suspected the deaths had not been accidents. Even if only unconsciously, the script of ‘conspiracies against Serbs’ would have been in at least some audience members’ minds as the Evropesma voting ritual broke down.

 

The Sava Centar audience began booing Montenegro’s first juror, music producer Predrag Kalezić, as soon as he awarded his top two sets of points, 10 and 12, to the top two Montenegrin favourites ‘Cipele’ and ‘Moja ljubavi’ – the same pattern as the Montenegrin votes in Evropesma 2005. The second Montenegrin juror, journalist Milica Belević, was booed as soon as she walked on stage. In contrast, the crowd cheered RTS music editor Zoran Tašić as he walked on stage, even before he said ‘We’re going to try and be a bit more correct about our voting’ – to more applause – and gave 12 points to ‘Ludi letnji ples’. Spectators were already booing even the small number of points that Tašić and other Serbian jurors gave Montenegrin songs.

As the pattern continued, more Serbian jurors began their votes with comments on the Montenegrins’ behaviour, and a few audience members began to walk out – from the same complex where members of the Slovenian and Croatian branches of the League of Communists had walked out of the last all­-Yugoslav Party congress in January 1990 in protest at Milošević, triggering the announcement of multi-party elections in their two republics and then in every other over the course of that year.

The Serbian tabloid Svet would indeed write, on 16 March:

In the same Sava Centar hall where, exactly 16 years ago, the fall of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began at the 14th Congress of the League of Communists, what little remained of that country finally fell apart too! The irony of history: on the day of Milošević’s death, Severina with her Likans and Dalmatians received ovations, and the Montenegrins were chased off stage with bottles and whistles!

When No Name were declared the winners over Flamingosi by 64 points to 60, more than half the remaining audience started putting on their coats – while the presenters carried on trying to award No Name their winners’ trophy.

Instead, another Serbian juror, Milan Đurđević from the rock band Neverne bebe, came on stage to tell the audience ‘in the name of the people who did their job honestly – those are the people from the Serbian jury […] that we came here honestly and honourably, and […] didn’t vote using any kind of “key”,’ calling on the producers to reopen the result.

With the audience milling around in the aisles, No Name finally came on stage – only for the camera to cut away and No Name to walk back off after, it would turn out, bottles had been thrown at the band.

‘This is Wonderland!’ (‘Ovo je zemlja čuda!’) said one of the presenters, shaking his head, as Flamingosi came out instead to perform what turned into – itself the kind of hedonism–resignation–confusion one often found in post-Yugoslav Serbian film – an impromptu conga around the Sava Centar as the credits rolled.

During the next week, Serbian media kept up pressure on RTS and UJRT to re-run the final, declare Flamingosi the winners, or do anything other than send No Name to Eurovision, while RTCG contacted the European Broadcasting Union (the organisers of Eurovision) directly to ask them to recognise No Name.

This international recognition crisis, unlike Slovenia’s and Croatia’s, only lasted a few days: when RTS and RTCG failed to come to an agreement as the EBU had insisted they do, Serbia–Montenegro withdrew from Eurovision 2006 on 20 March, freeing up the automatic spot in that year’s final that Serbia–Montenegro would have had on the basis of No Name’s top-ten finish at Eurovision 2005.

By one more of the many quirks in the Evropesma story, the 11th place that Boris Novković had won for Croatia when he took part in 2005 meant that Serbia–Montenegro’s irreconcilable entry put Severina and ‘Moja štikla’ – the most controversially ‘Balkan’ song in Croatia’s Eurovision history – straight into the 2006 final.

Or as another Serbian tabloid, Blic, wrote on 20 March: ‘Only Severina is representing us in Athens.’

Hari Mata Hari, rather than Severina, would turn out the more successful bearer of the shifting Serbian/Yugoslav domestic ‘we’: ‘Lejla’ came third and cemented Joksimović’s reputation as a Eurovision entrepreneur, while ‘Moja štikla’ came a relatively disappointing twelfth, its weeks of controversy ensuring that no Croatian entry since has ever taken a similar cultural risk. (The Croatian entrant in 2017, Jacques Houdek, may risk ridicule for a song that requires him to sing in both pop and opera voices – but at least the cultural origins of the music he is mocked for will be unambiguously seen as bourgeois and European.)

Flamingosi recorded a second version of ‘Ludi letnji ples’ for domestic – as in Serbian and Montenegrin – consumption, with the names of Serbian and Montenegrin towns replacing European capitals, and the introduction changed to ‘Good evening, everybody, you’re listening to almost the winning song of the Eurovision Song Contest 2006.’

 

Serbia itself would return to Eurovision in the most successful way possible in 2007, when Marija Šerifović’s ‘Molitva’ won the contest, enabled Belgrade to host Eurovision the following year, and put a symbolic value of the so-called ‘second Serbia’ – tolerance for LGBT rights – in front of more than a hundred million Eurovision viewers.

Montenegro would fail to qualify through the Eurovision semi-finals in 2007–9, skip 2010–11, return with a pair of what most Eurovision viewers thought of as novelty songs in 2012–13 (2012’s being a satire of the Eurozone financial crisis by none other than the perpetually choleric Rambo Amadeus) and hit top-ten form in 2014–15 with songs by the calibre of Montenegrin star that Evropesma viewers in 2004–6 might have expected to see in the first place, Sergej Ćetković and Knez. Montenegro’s representative in 2017, Slavko Kalezić, offers one of the most unambiguous depictions of male/male sexual desire even for Eurovision, with an aesthetic straight from the pop-folk videos of Dejan Milićević.

 

What had happened, behind the scenes, to bring the fiasco of Evropesma 2006 about? The politics of nation-building through state media in Đukanović’s Montenegro strongly suggest that RTCG intended to ensure a Montenegrin entry would win Evropesma. No Name’s participation was widely rumoured to have been supported by Milo Đukanović’s brother Aco, while the Montenegrin jury president at Evropesma in 2006, Bojan Bajramović, would later tell Monitor’s Željko Milović that:

All the Yugoslav republics have used Eurovision to promote the new states, and that’s completely legitimate. Of course it’s legitimate to call your country ‘my love’, by association. And it was all according to the rules, so whoever thought those rules up – that’s their business. We had the right to give all the Montenegrins high points, and the favourites from Serbia nothing. That was, therefore a legitimate politicisation of Eurovision, because we didn’t break even a single rule. Let’s not hide it, that night in the Sava Centar we started the referendum campaign, and many of us weren’t even conscious of that.

Indeed, Bajramović even suggested that the RTCG delegation would have displayed a Montenegrin flag during the live broadcast of the Eurovision final if No Name had won – an unproblematic gesture today, with Montenegro and RTCG fully recognised by the UN and EBU, but at the time could well have been viewed by the EBU as an unacceptably political display.

Ironically, the collapse of Evropesma prevented the entry from Serbia that had done most to accommodate Montenegro from going to Eurovision – but that too might not have been a bad thing for an independence campaign.

Did the breakdown of Evropesma 2006 and the resultant anti-Montenegrin invective in Serbia’s press really make Montenegrins more likely to conclude that Montenegro could not function in the same state as Serbia and vote for independence? It’s unlikely – even though the referendum took place the day after the Eurovision final.

Montenegro’s political and institutional drive towards independence was already well advanced by the time RTCG began selecting Montenegrin finalists for the national selection, let alone Evropesma itself. Moreover, only 55.5% of voters opted for independence, not very much higher than the 55% threshold on which the European Union had insisted before it would recognise the results: Evropesma did not harden the public mood in Montenegro in the way that acts of violence such as the Plitvice Lakes confrontation at Easter 1991 and, above all, the Borovo Selo massacre in May hardened the mood among wavering Croatians that independence was the only option for preserving Croatian liberties.

What the Evropesma events expose instead is something much more technical, but still significant for the cultural politics of inter-regional and international events: the capacity for a small number of jurors in a Eurovision-like competition to magnify a politicised stance into an international incident. Despite what moves towards jury transparency the EBU has tried to make, half the points available to any competitor at Eurovision – in a competition where the privilege of hosting an event worth millions to national and international subcontractors is at stake – depend on the choices of five jurors per country in a room, who can reach or be persuaded to reach a politicised consensus much more easily than hundreds of thousands of people in the viewing public.

The outcome of an independence referendum might not be on the line – and wasn’t at Evropesma 2006 – but the saga still shows on how few people these symbolic competitions can depend.

‘I think you should change it!’: the Spice Girls guide to calling out racism

One of the essay questions that students on my music and politics module have been able to make their own, several times over, is one that columnists and gender studies academics were already debating in the late 1990s, when most current undergraduates were born: were the Spice Girls feminists?

I owe this one to a young woman called Emma who proposed it the first year I taught this module at Hull, who wasn’t sure something so recent and everyday and feminine and from her own experience was suitable for a history essay, even one where you have to choose your own topic like this; and of course it was, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that thinking like a historian can illuminate, so I added it to the list of ‘Past essay titles on this module have included’ in our handbook the next year, to give a signal that yes, the 1990s and childhood and girlhood and pop music are all part of History.

Other students since then have framed the Spice Girls idea their own way and, more than once, turned it into first-class work. I like to think getting the chance to find out how formative moments from your childhood were actually part of gender history is one of those transformative experiences that university teaching can create when teachers trust students to be independent and support them to do more with their knowledge than worry if they’ve got the answer ‘right’.

I won’t pre-empt future students working out how their childhood fits into the history of feminism, consumerism and any other context we might fit the Spice Girls into, but I will mention something I’d started to forget about them since they became, like the other nineties girlbands, commercial reunion fodder: the authenticity of their friendship and solidarity in the early years that still shone through the multinational industry they quickly became, the emotion behind what so many fans wanted to watch, be and buy.

This clip from a Dutch children’s TV show in 1998, which coincidentally resurfaced just as the Internet was getting ready to commemorate 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another artefact of 1990s popular culture in which so many women were able to recognise themselves, then talk about it through the nascent mass internet – shows the group of friends you wanted them to be, standing up for their best mate when the presenter confronts them with the blackface carnival character Zwarte Piet, but also shows how in their early twenties they’d already grasped something it takes a lot of white women, including me, much longer to learn – what you can do in the heat of the moment when someone does something racist.

Before we go any further, Zwarte Piet is a character from Dutch Christmas tradition, a sprite or demon who accompanies Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) to bring presents to children. He’s dressed as a servant from the Golden Age Netherlands, when Amsterdam was at its height as a colonial metropole, and traditionally is always played by a white person in blackface. Which is where the problem lies.

People of colour and their white allies have been protesting against the racism of Zwarte Piet for years, and some Dutch public institutions have very recently started to compromise by dressing their Zwarte Piets in a light dusting of soot (though that doesn’t change the character’s origins in the caricature of a black slave).

Many white Dutch people contend that since the Netherlands was a more benign imperial ruler than those slave-trading Brits, Dutch people can’t be racist and neither can Zwarte Piet; read Flavia Dzodan on how present-day Dutch racism makes that so unconvincing, or see Gloria Wekker’s excellent White Innocence for a book-length explanation of how Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ hides how long and how intimately race and whiteness have formed part of Dutch national identity.

In mainstream Dutch public opinion, all the more so in the late nineties, bringing out Zwarte Piet a few weeks before Christmas is no more controversial than – is the equivalent of – a British kids’ TV show bringing out Santa, so that’s exactly what the Paul De Leeuw show did in the middle of an interview with its star guests, the Spice Girls, late in 1998.

This fifty-second clip, unearthed by a Spice Girls fan site, says as much as many feminist blog posts about calling out racism and how you often get treated when you do.

Mel B, the only woman of colour in the Spice Girls, is the first to realise that De Leeuw and his producers are about to put her in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to perform the emotional labour of appearing as a star and role-model for children while surrounded by five gurning, waving characters in infantile blackface, knowing that hardly anyone is even going to realise why that might make her upset.

Calling out – which isn’t not in character – ‘I don’t like them! They’re not very good!’, she’s backed up at once by (it sounds like) Geri and Mel C, shouting ‘No!’ and not letting the interview stay business as usual. As white women and allies, they can use their whiteness as well as their membership of the same world-famous band to say: this isn’t how just one person feels because she’s black, this is something none of us find acceptable. ‘We don’t like them!’, as it becomes, is an even stronger, unified message.

Rather than making themselves the centre of attention as the woke white girls (in the nineties, we’d have said ‘right-on’) who know Zwarte Piet isn’t OK, however, they give Mel B the space and the reassurance to say what she wants to say: ‘I think they shouldn’t paint their faces! You should get proper black people to do it. You shouldn’t paint their faces. I don’t think that’s very good.’

De Leeuw’s reaction is also a classic example of derailing a conversation about racism – along the same lines as hundreds of Zwarte Piet conversations, and their equivalents in other countries, online and offline.

First he falls back on the argument that Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’; then he turns the exchange into a joke that only reveals how far Zwarte Piet does depend on aggregated racist stereotypes as Africa by calling one of the Piets ‘Winnie Mandela’.

‘I think you should change it!’ says Mel B. ‘You shouldn’t have their faces painted… this is the nineties!’

Late nineties Britain, even as society liked to tell itself it had overcome the open racism of the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by many forms of systemic racism, including an alarmingly high number of black people dying in police custody; the specific expression of racism the Spice Girls were encountering here, blackface on television, had gone off air in 1978 with the end of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

‘Yeah, but that’s culture!’ says De Leeuw.

‘Update your culture!’ says Geri – sadly not in tight enough focus for a gif – and Mel B is able to restate her point about blackface: ‘You should get proper ones! Proper black people!’

Another version of the clip, with a few extra seconds, shows De Leeuw doing something that anyone who’s called attention to racism, sexism or harassment will recognise: turning the person who pointed out the problem into the problem and making them feel responsible for spoiling the atmosphere.

(No-one in contemporary feminism writes about this more vividly or poetically than Sara Ahmed, who’s given a generation of feminists – many of whom grew up with the Spice Girls as icons – the words to understand that it really isn’t just them.)

When De Leeuw says, ‘I warn you, you mustn’t spoil a children’s party… don’t spoil a children’s party,’ he both reiterates the narrative that Zwarte Piet is an innocent children’s tradition, nothing to do with racism, and throws the responsibility back on Mel B for ruining the children’s Christmas treat.

The Spice Girls don’t march off altogether, as their ‘Wannabe’ personas might have suggested and as some stars would; other clips show them carrying on the interview. It’s still clear that the white women in the band are letting Mel B take the lead and using their own stardom and whiteness to have her back as best they can.

I wonder what impression this show might have had on a young Dutch fan of the Spice Girls, who might have been seeing for the very first time that idols she looked up to had a dramatically different view of a tradition that her parents, her school and wider Dutch society had always treated as normal and everyday.

Whether or not you think that the Spice Girls, as a phenomenon, were feminists, in the middle of a Dutch TV show at the end of 1998 they still managed to do something it’s taken many white feminists much longer to learn.

When what we see isn’t what we’re meant to hear: you can lead an audience to Eurovision but can you make it think?

Early in the year for a Eurovision post, but February is when most participating broadcasters are busy choosing their entries (although the keenest, like Albania’s RTSH, wrap theirs up well before Christmas) and it’s when some of the most interesting examples of what an entry might do are going around.

The latest national selection to get underway is Slovenia’s EMA, halfway through cutting sixteen songs down to eight before a final next weekend and still nowhere near the size of a media-event behemoth like Sweden’s six-week Melodifestivalen.

This rather spectacular production by EMA standards stood out from the others in Friday’s semi-final:

Working around Eurovision’s performance rules (no pre-recorded vocals; no more than six people on stage), which were supposed to put poorer and richer broadcasters on level playing fields but haven’t kept up with the digital backdrop technology that has transformed Eurovision staging since the mid-2000s, the pop-opera group Tosca Beat put on a three-minute provocation about media manipulation which resembled a whole vein of utilitarian young-adult dystopias in recent Hollywood cinema, and definitely – we can tell from the group’s promotion before EMA – meant to reference George Orwell’s 1984.

toscabeatorwell

Serendipitously helped by the huge girders that EMA’s producers decided to decorate the stage with this year, it even used some of the same visual codes as a musical/artistic project which started out as shock-value provocateurs in late socialist Yugoslavia and became edgy cultural heritage for an independent Slovenia: Laibach, the industrial band named after the German translation of ‘Ljubljana’ that pushed past Kraftwerk to mobilise totalitarian and fascist aesthetics to such a degree since forming in a Slovenian mining town in 1980 that listening to or watching their music is a continual process of trying to work out whether they actually mean it after all, and whether what you’re enjoying is really the wit of the parody or maybe the pull of what they supposedly subvert.

(And yes, that’s what happens when you translate the ‘One Vision’ of ‘Radio Gaga’-era Queen into German – where the sound of lyrics like ‘one man, one goal, one vision’ evokes a very different kind of charismatic relationship between leader and crowd than the supposed inspiration for Queen’s original, Martin Luther King.)

Or that’s how it came across to Eurovision blogger and punk rock singer Roy Delaney, who hadn’t expected ‘a post-industrial Laibach tribute act’ in an EMA semi-final but found one anyway:

Surely this can’t be an accident? Militaristic outfits, megaphones, situationist statements, stompy marching music and a deeper-than-mines voice croaking out between the high pitched choruses. It’s Slovenia’s biggest ever international musical export, toned down and made (slightly more) palatable for the Friday evening TV crowd.

It’s the brown blouse and crossed-over belts of the middle soprano Urška Kastelic, in front of the stark video backdrop, that do most to evoke the ambiguity of Laibach (who added their own uniformed female vocalist, Mina Špiler, in 2004) and make the viewer wonder should they really be doing that?

What resolves it for Tosca Beat, or ought to, is the white-uniformed megaphonist and keyboard player pulling on a set of angel wings (in a move that takes about ten seconds – this all goes much more quickly in the Hunger Games) and intoning what seems to be a warning about the seductive power of totalitarianism:

The rush for victory will be present at all times… The race for defeating a helpless enemy will become our number one priority… Don’t let it happen. It depends on us.

If the first two and a half minutes are having the viewer join in the pleasure of an aesthetic – a way of sensing things and feeling emotions through them – that comes to them first through the horrors of 20th-century European history and then through the inherently ambiguous (many, like Susan Sontag in her essay on ‘Fascinating Fascism’, would say too ambiguous) conventions of late 20th century provocative art, the ‘Don’t let it happen’ potentially reaches out to show how easily it does happen, while the spectatorship is still going on.

The politics of irony, memory and nostalgia in post-Yugoslav Slovenia, from the ‘Neue Slowenische Kunst’ (‘New Slovenian Art’ in German) art collective that emerged from the same alternative milieu as Laibach in the 1980s to parody the kitsch iconography of authoritarianism and state power, to the ‘nostalgic culture‘ around Communist and Partisan symbols among young Slovenes who did not even grow up in Yugoslavia, make acts like this crop up in Slovenian pop music from time to time – one of the stalwarts of Slovenian military bricolage, Rock Partyzani, even took part in EMA in 2011.

‘Free World’ hasn’t even gone on to make next week’s national final, meaning the audience for this dystopian intervention – or whatever it was – will likely be no larger than the 200,000-300,000 Slovenian viewers who might watch an EMA heat and the several thousand Eurovision fans who keep up with EMA live or on YouTube.

One song that will be on stage in Kiev and faces a similar challenge, however, is the winner of Italy’s Sanremo festival – Francesco Gabbani’s ‘Occidentali’s Karma’.

Even as the poetic conventions of Italian pop music go, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ – which has been seen more than 18 million times on YouTube in ten days, plus another 1 million views for Gabbani’s performance in the Sanremo final – is an ambitious philosophy essay.

The title – ‘Westerners’ karma’, or il karma degli occidentali transposed into the possessive syntax of an English apostrophe-s – is already asking the listener to play a linguistic game which at the very least needs an anglophone to work out who are the occidentali anyway, then – if they’re going to understand what the lyricist wants them to – to work out what Gabbani might mean about their karma or the search for it or whether they can even access it or not.

The rest of the lyrics take a glossary to explain – something which the 40+ television commentators who have to introduce this song to Eurovision viewers in May won’t have the luxury of – and according to Gabbani’s fellow songwriter Fabio Ilacqua are supposed to critique the shallowness of modern life in the West and the way that Westerners have appropriated ‘Eastern’ spiritual practices to help them cope:

It describes the situation of Westerners, their models and their way of seeking refuge in the Oriental rituals for comfort. It’s a pretext to observe how are we as modern humans. Westerners are turning to oriental cultures like tourists who go into a holiday village. Oriental cultures are seen as an escape from the stress, but they were not born for this. It’s the trivialisation of something profound.

What the viewer first sees, unless the staging is very careful, is a white man dressing up in orange robes going namaste.

On stage at Sanremo, a line in the song’s lyrics citing the anthropologist Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape inspired its producer to bring a man in a gorilla suit on stage halfway:

‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is now, to the overlapping Italian and transnational communities of Eurovision fans, the early favourite to win the contest and/or that song that needs to come with an entire bibliography, and, to many more internet users, the viral video with the dancing man in the gorilla suit.

Within the lyrics, the line ‘the naked ape is dancing, occidentali’s karma’ (‘la scimmia nuda balla, occidentali’s karma’) is saying something about a search for meaning that Gabbani sings has weighed on human minds on levels from the high art of Hamlet to the Neolithic.

Outside the lyrics – to a viewer who doesn’t understand the language, or doesn’t grasp in the middle of a televised song festival what the hell is supposed to be going on – it’s a dancing gorilla, in a song about karma and nirvana.

Which when the gorilla was and is a symbol of African primitivity in so many European racisms (think how often the racist abuse hurled at black footballers involves gorilla chants), working so deep down in white imaginations as to be imperceptible to persuade white people to fear physically imposing black men, and when the superiority of Europe in biological and cultural racism is so much about civilisation and modernity – is not what Ilacqua says he means the song to be about.

The long history of stereotypes of Africa and primitivism in Western arts and culture (which have outlasted the overseas empires that European countries like Italy and Britain actually had, and permeated across Europe to countries that didn’t have them at all), and the colonial overtones to contemporary Western appropriations of ‘Oriental’ spirituality, are a huge structure of thought and feeling that could prevent some viewers grasping the song’s critical intent, leave others recognising the racialised meanings of the gorilla and interpreting the performance as one that just reproduces the same dynamics it set out to critique, because the immediate aesthetic impact of what the viewer sees comes more quickly and viscerally than the intellectual effect of what the viewer (if they can catch it) hears.

(I’d switch the gorilla out for a Flintstones caveman for the Eurovision final. Yes, it loses the ‘naked ape’ reference. ‘Neolithic man’ is in the lyrics as well. You get three minutes.)

Tosca Beat and Gabbani are at very different steps of the Eurovision pyramid, but both have tried to use the aesthetics of performance to ask the viewer to recognise something else underneath what looks like their visual presentation – and occupy an ambiguous relationship towards the visual culture of European fascism or colonialism as they do so.

Can a Eurovision performance engage an audience in the kind of spectatorial move that both these videos make? It can try – but the sources they reassemble still have such power in European and Western imaginations that there’s no guarantee it can succeed.

‘Love Love Peace Peace’: so how did a song about mass violence and national trauma win Eurovision 2016?

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'[1], 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.’
    lovelovepeacepeaceinstrument
    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.
  • Lordi.
  • 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‘.

Other entries, like ‘Face The Shadow’ but also Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 1993 ‘Sva bol svijeta’ (‘All the World’s Pain‘) have also commemorated a nation’s experience of mass violence.

‘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.

[1] 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…

What does ‘political’ mean at Eurovision, and can the contest ever steer clear of it?

This post originally appeared at The Conversation on 11 May 2016.

The ticket agency for Eurovision 2016 caused alarm at the end of April when it published its first “flag policy”. It restricted regional flags, sounded ambivalent about EU and rainbow flags, and even compared eight very different territories to Islamic State – all to protect Eurovision’s “non-political nature”.

Organisers relaxed the flags policy a week later, but the question remains: can a contest where countries compete against each other ever be non-political?

Strictly speaking, broadcasters, not countries, compete in Eurovision. Its organiser is the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of public service broadcasters founded in 1950 to relay radio and television signals across Europe.

But more people imagine what “Europe” might mean through watching Eurovision than might ever take part in EU public outreach. (How Australia features in this imagination is debatable.) And Eurovision certainly produces the impression of a competition between countries. Joe Woolford and Jake Shakeshaft are billed on screen as representing “the United Kingdom”, not “the BBC” – and Eurovision voting is famously divided up by country too.

Eurovision shorthand always mentions “countries” doing things, even though these are actions by specific organisations and people, not whole nations. This makes Eurovision a platform where states can promote narratives about national identity to more than 100m viewers – whether it’s showing off a national language, displaying a distinctive national music style, or tying in with national tourism campaigns.

But what if participants comment on politics?

A political ban

Although Eurovision rules ban “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature”, someone still has to determine what “political” means. At its strictest, there would be no songs about war or peace, history, the environment or nuclear disarmament – to say nothing of Eurovision 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where almost everything referenced freedom, eastern Europe, walls or peace. This obviously isn’t the case. But bans do occur.

In the 2000s the EBU twice objected to references to active political leaders. Ukraine’s host entry in 2005 had to remove lyrics naming the post-Orange Revolution president, and Georgia withdrew its 2009 entry (after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war) when organisers challenged the double meaning of “We Don’t Wanna Put In”.

Other cases were more ambiguous: was it accidental that Ukrainian Verka Serduchka’s “Dancing, Lasha Tumbai” sounded like “Russia, goodbye”? Was it non-political for a Portuguese group during the financial crisis to pastiche ideological music from Portugal’s revolutionary mid-1970s? Where does satire end and politics begin?

And at a time of European centenaries, there’s commemoration. All commemorations involve political choices. What gets remembered, and what if dominant interpretations of events clash between nations – or if commemorating the past also implies commentary on the present?

In 2015, Armenia’s centenary genocide recognition campaign, which extended to Eurovision, did not have to contend with Turkish state refusal to recognise the genocide (Turkey has not participated in Eurovision since 2012 over issues with the voting system). The song’s title did change from “Don’t Deny” – but the performance still communicated Armenian national resilience and continuity. (Meanwhile, the 2015 French entry used digital backdrops to depict the devastation of World War I.)

This year sees the first Ukrainian entry chosen since Russia annexed Crimea. The song, “1944”, commemorates Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia during World War II. Beyond individual songs, the whole Eurovision project involves representing the meanings and boundaries of “Europe”. These are political ideas.

Come together?

Choosing the 2016 slogan “Come Together”, producers acknowledged the sensitivities of “throw[ing] Europe’s biggest party, while the togetherness you celebrate is being put to the test”. Thousands of refugees have died en route to Europe as border controls intensify.

Producers acknowledged the refugee crisis in the first semi-final through a dance performance honouring the struggles of refugees’ journeys. Refugees face the risks they do because of migration policies that have political origins, but clearly the producers considered this performance a social or humanitarian gesture rather than a “political” one.

Meanwhile, Eurovision’s history of LGBT fandom and visibility makes it a focus of international LGBT politics – with western European media as well as homophobic Russian politicians framing a moral struggle between “Europe” and “Russia” over LGBT rights. This was only amplified by Conchita Wurst winning in 2014 so soon after Russia hosted the Winter Olympics.

In these wider contexts, it becomes clear that Eurovision can hardly steer clear of politics. Eurovision is in a similar position to cult TV shows with vibrant fandoms (such as The 100, which dismayed fans by dramatically ending a relationship between two queer women). Producers plan what to depict; fans create their own celebrations within the space the show or Eurovision arena gives them. But producers depend on fans’ enthusiasm and creative practices (online or live) to drive interest in the show.

The “flag policy” controversy showed this tension at work. The first “flag policy” had stated “rainbow flags and the European Union flag will be tolerated” as long as they were not going to be used as a “tool to make a political statement”. An updated policy published that weekend removed this ambivalent language, but still seemed to exclude regional flags or the wider range of pride flags. Organisers implied that national flags or the rainbow flags still covered these identities, but many fans do not want these identities subsumed into a larger category.

Welsh and Sami fans had active media outlets following up the flag story, and were pleased to see the EBU later relax its policy. It also proposed “a more tolerant approach to other flags as long as the audience respects the non-political nature” of the show. But without any well-equipped organisation pushing the EBU on pride flags, Eurovision organisers haven’t as yet offered trans or bisexual flags recognition.

Eurovision’s priorities, “non-political” or not, are evidently those of countries and governments, not social movements outside the state. But fans, media and viewers often understand “politics” more widely. Eurovision’s organisers would be wise to embrace this.