Why European Politics is NOT Ruining Eurovision!

On a vodka fuelled week in Lanzarote in May 2016 I started thinking about my first contribution to www.helloeurope.eu . I had agreed to contribute my views after visiting Stockholm for the Eurovision Song Contest Final earlier in the year. The creation of a new website and interactive forum for people who love Eurovision and travelling was not my idea, nor was the website name (which I thought sounded like a sequel to the 1980s series “Hi-De-Hi”). With my I-pad in one hand, a PinRob pica Colada in the other and my only knowledge of writing coming from Sex and the City, I started writing my article. I immediately got to wondering how Carrie Bradshaw got away with starting every column with “I got to thinking” and still kept her job – I wondered whether I could get away with doing the same.

During our time in Stockholm many of our discussions revolved around the differences we noticed between our beloved United Kingdom and the host country. Important questions came to mind and were openly asked – “how are the streets so clean?”, “how is public transportation so efficient?” and “why is alcohol so hard to find on a Saturday afternoon to regular law abiding citizens?”. I don’t think we managed to answer any of these questions, so please feel free to enlighten me if you are able to provide any answers. One issue which was highlighted during the 2016 competition and feverously debated was the importance of politics within the music of Eurovision.

The 2016 contest attracted worldwide media interest and controversy when a seemingly political song bypassed the official rules of The Eurovision Song Contest and went on to win the competition. Yes…I’m talking about the Ukrainian entry 1944, written and performed by Jamala, which purports to be about the 1944 invasion of Crimea by the Soviet Army. What is very interesting is how easy it is to draw parallels between 1944 and the present day situation in the area. This issue encouraged numerous, extremely heated (but not so much alcohol fuelled), debates within our group. While I concede that I have no formal qualifications in the area of politics in music and indeed am not all that knowledgeable about the topic – if I have learnt anything from the Twittersphere and Facebook, such trivialities as knowledge and qualifications should not deter us from voicing our opinions to the world.

Rule 1.2.2. h) of the Official Eurovision rulebook [1] states that

“… no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the Eurovision Song Contest.”

This rule has in previous years resulted in individual songs being disqualified from the competition. In 2009, for example, the Georgian entry We Don’t Wanna Put In by Stefane & 3G was withdrawn from the competition after it was rejected by the European Broadcasting Union as it was thought to be an attack on Russia’s foreign policy. The Georgian Public Broadcaster did not deny this and subsequently refused to participate in “a contest organised by a country that violates human rights and international laws”. In 2015 the Armenian delegation was forced to change the title of their song Don’t Deny as it was considered that the song referred to the Armenian genocide in 1915-1916 which to this day is not recognised by states such as Turkey, Azerbaijan and according to the Guardian newspaper, the UK [2].  The rules against political displays have also resulted in the introduction of some very strange policies regarding flags. A rule introduced for the 2016 contest (since repealed) allowed only flags recognised by the UN, the EU flag and the rainbow flag to be permitted inside the arena. There was outrage when a list of banned flags was released which included the Welsh, Scottish and Basque flags (on the same list as the flag of so-called Islamic State). Interestingly, the rules were taken to extremes when the European Broadcasting Union developed guidance regarding how and when to wave flags, after the 2015 contest where rainbow flags were waved gratuitously during the performance of Russia’s Polina Gagarina. This was seen as a protest against Russia’s introduction of laws which are seen by many to promote homophobia. This year the Armenian representative broke the “flag rules” by holding the flag of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh during the first semi-final. The above passage highlights but a few examples of just how politics infiltrates the Eurovision Song Contest and the relative importance attributed to the competition by some states/representatives in making political statements to the rest of Europe.

Whether we are talking about the rights of gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual people, economic issues or tensions between countries; the politics of Eurovision have highlighted some of the issues involved and has brought such matters to the attention of the public. Look at Tatu in 2003 with Ne Ver Ne Boysia and the controversy surrounding the potential lesbian kiss, abandoned by the girls after being threatened with disqualification by the European Broadcasting Union. The success of transgendered performer Dana International in 1998 showed increasing acceptance of individuals who do not fit the binary distinction of gender. Ukraine’s 2007 entry, which achieved runner up status in Helsinki, was surrounded by controversy when the shiny drag queen Verka Serduchka performed Dancing Lasha Tumbai– the words Lasha Tumbai having no meaning whatsoever but having a phonetic resemblance to “Russia Goodbye”. The amazing success of Conchita Wurst in 2014 and the failure of Russia to win in 2015 with A Million Voices and this year with You Are The Only One highlight the acceptance of the “other” and the denouncement of discrimination. There was little controversy regarding Romania’s entry in 2015 with their song All Over Again with overtones relating to economic migration and its effect on Romanian families and their children, however, it is difficult to argue that European politics have not influenced this issue.

Politics in Eurovision is integral to its success. Attempting to remove politics from the competition would not only render it meaningless and inert but is in itself an impossible task. When our neighbours are acting aggressively, unfairly or discriminatory towards minorities within their own countries and still wish to participate in a competition devoted to maintaining peace, it would be hypocritical to continue as if nothing was happening. As Europeans we have a responsibility to make a stand against bullies and to protect each other. The expansion of Eurovision to Australia, America and China enhances our opportunity to express the vision of Europe to an ever growing population. While we in Britain may scoff at Eurovision’s emphasis on liberal values, love, peace and equality, this is our opportunity to deliver our message of tolerance, understanding and humanity to the entirety of Europe and beyond those geopolitical borders to the rest of the world. Like the European Union, the Eurovision Song Contest has helped to frame the Europe in which we live – a common humanity, a common identity and a common desire to eradicate prejudice, discrimination and war from our shores.

Anyway my glass is empty…

[1] http://www.eurovision.tv/upload/press-downloads/2016/2015-10-28_2016_ESC_rules_PUBLIC_EN.pdf

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2015/apr/24/why-uk-government-so-afraid-speak-armenian-genocide

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