As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears the three-month mark, nearly all of Europe came to a standstill on Saturday to honor one of the continent’s most popular traditions, the Eurovision Song Contest. Designed as a quiet way for European countries to compete against each other, the singing competition boasts of having helped keep the peace in Europe. Organized by the European Broadcasting Union, the event is marketed as a place where countries put aside their cultural differences and overcome language barriers through the power of music.
It’s a vicarious outlet for international politics bubbling beneath its smooth surface of europop, which those at home need more than ever.
But Russia was banned this year, and Ukraine’s entry was one of the favorites to win the 2022 Grand Final as much out of sympathy as merit. As expected, although the professional juries mainly supported other countries, the popular vote went overwhelmingly in favor of Ukraine, giving it victory. It may seem like it’s against the spirit of the show, but the plot is actually what makes Eurovision tick: it’s an indirect outlet for the international politics bubbling beneath its smooth surface of europop, which those at home need more than ever.
It is precisely this subsumed political sentiment that keeps crowds watching year after year. (The 2021 edition drew 183 million viewers, making it the most-watched live non-sporting event in the world.) The singing competition is a cultural juggernaut that has mostly escaped comprehension and recognition. American attention, except perhaps as a vehicle that launched ABBA and Celine Dion. From its decades of positive gay influence (which is always a point of pride) to the satisfaction of voting for the country “deserving a win”, Eurovision has always been about more than music, and with the war in Ukraine currently raging, Eurovision seems more relevant than ever.
Saturday’s opening was a bit on the nose, with a performance of “Give Peace A Chance.” The policy was then more subtle, with many artists discreetly sporting yellow and blue bands on their wrists or carrying small flags. But a few – like Iceland – had the nerve to break protocol and call for peace in Ukraine. The hosts had the uncomfortable task of trying to ignore it all, or worse, refusing to give him a platform: In an extremely awkward moment, host and singer Mika took over the mic rather than risk the Ukrainian act says something political during an interview segment. .
The continent-wide music competition was launched in 1956 with just a handful of entrants and a mantra of inclusivity. Over the next six decades, Eurovision has grown to include as many as 52 possible participating countries, although the largest number to compete was 43 songs to perform. This is an eligibility criterion broad enough to include non-European countries like Israel and Australia, but not the United States.)
Organizers have repeatedly insisted on the fact that the competition is apolitical in nature. It’s presented as escapism, peace, love and music, with annual themes like “Come Together” or “We Are One”. (This year it’s “The Sound of Beauty.”) But the show has always been a stand-in for the current climate.
From Israel’s acceptance as a member in 1973 to the wave of Eastern European countries suddenly becoming eligible in the early 1990s, Eurovision is a spectacle that reflects the times. During the reign of the US imperial power and a stronger United Kingdom, bids songs from 1973 were mostly in English, when the competition was first relaxed the rules requiring the national language requirements, and again in 1999 when they were completely removed. But as the American influence faded, the trend returned to singing in her native tongue.
Political patronage has always been visible from the jury vote, countries seeing it as a tool to use soft power over their neighbors or as a way to snub those with whom they have political disagreements. But since the introduction of jury and televoting side by side, the political surrogacy the issue was more difficult to hide – especially as a rule is that the public can not vote for singers his own country. In 2021, after the final withdrawal of the UK from the EU, it has finally got no points. And since Russia adopted its law on “gay propaganda” in 2013, his actions were regularly booed by the audience.
Russian-Ukrainian tensions are particularly acute since the invasion of the Crimea by the Kremlin in 2014. In 2016, the Ukrainian singer Jamala sang “1944”, a song inspired by the experience of her grandmother to have was expelled from the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s purge of the Crimean Tatars. Although technically the song was about a historical event (and thus circumventing the rules of the show as the songs which did not relate to current political events), Russia complained, calling attention to the themes of the song and propelling win via popular vote. (Since 2016, the vote is split 50-50, the traditional juries initially assigning point spread and total popular votes revealed by country.)
The following year, Ukraine hosted the event and banned Russia’s representative from entering the country because of its support for the annexation of Crimea from Moscow. Russia withdrew. Two years later, Ukraine ran into trouble with its own act, which refused to sign the contract to represent the country rather than take a political stand. This time it was the turn of Ukraine to withdraw.
This year’s competition only deepened the gap. Although the European Broadcasting Union initially refused to take a position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, complaints from members and viewers reached a point they could not ignore and disqualified Russia from the competition. In response, Putin has completely withdrawn from the broadcasting union, and it is unclear if and when Russia will return.
Meanwhile, the law of Ukraine, Kalush Orchestra, directed “Stefania,” sung entirely in Ukrainian and with a chorus rooted in the folk music of the country interspersed words verse struck a breakdancer and a pair of traditional wooden instruments, the sopilka and telenka. With references to coming home on rough roads and appreciating mothers protecting their children, it’s not hard to see why this was a favorite.
Despite the ordinance against the policy, Ukraine’s act of course ended with a message demanding an end to the war. The (all-male) group is expected to return home directly after the show to join the military and fight for their country. Most juries did not seem to appreciate, making their best points songs very apolitical Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom (although Ukraine has voted best of its neighbors Poland, Moldova, Latvia, Romania and Lithuania.) But the European population at home do not have, giving Ukraine an amazing total of 439 points for the televised vote for an insurmountable 631 points (the second highest in history) and victory.
No matter who ends up becoming this year’s performers, the politicization of Eurovision will remain. It may not be the proxy for an entire war, but music is indeed a universal language, including that of politics. It will always be Europe’s most entertaining outlet for what its people think of the world at large and its neighbours.