High camp and soft power: How Eurovision explains modern Europe—and more

By Erik English | May 8, 2023

On May 9, the first semi-final of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) will be broadcast from Liverpool in the United Kingdom. It is one of the largest non-sporting broadcast events in the world, with more than 160 million viewers expected to tune in. While some less familiar viewers may be tempted to dismiss it as a mere contest of unhinged spectacle and camp, Eurovision is worth watching for its insights into geopolitical alliances and apt social commentary.

In 2022, Ukraine won the contest with its performance of “Stefania,” which has become an anthem for Ukrainian solidarity, but was unable to host because of the ongoing Russian invasion. Instead, the second-place finisher, the United Kingdom, is hosting. This is noteworthy because it’s the first time that Eurovision is being hosted by one nation on behalf of another nation at war. Moreover, this will be the first time that the UK has hosted since leaving the EU, which presents another level of intrigue.

For the uninitiated, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual international music competition where participating countries send a musician or group to perform an original song on live television. Eligibility is based on membership in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), “an alliance of public service media,” rather than geographic location or association with the European Union. This means that several countries outside of the boundaries of Europe have participated, including Australia, Israel, and Morocco. The performances range from straight-laced ballads to monster-clad heavy metal, and offer huge potential boosts to participants’ careers: ABBA and Celine Dion exploded in popularity and went into megastardom after winning the contest.

Despite organizers’ efforts to restrict political expression, Eurovision has become an effective forum for voicing political dissent. As the contest has expanded around the world, the performances, voting patterns, and sensibilities have become a showcase of geopolitical soft power dynamics. Spanning post-World War 2 recovery, the Cold War, and post-Cold War realignment, the contest is consistently at the forefront of the political and cultural battles that have come to define the modern age.

Lys Assia, from Switzerland, won the first Eurovision song contest held in Lugano, Switzerland, in 1956.

National pride and supranational strife. Eurovision traces its origins to the 1950s, emerging alongside, but apart from, other European unification efforts. After the first and second world wars, global powers sought to ameliorate Europe’s history of extreme nationalism and conflict—in particular, between Germany and France. Consequently, in 1951 the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, unveiled a plan to place French and German production of coal and steel under a “High Authority” known as the European Coal and Steel Community, which would ultimately morph into the European Union.

While they are often considered as two sides of the same coin today, the EBU was created largely as a technical project to broadcast television programs across Europe, regardless of nation-states. Dean Vuletic, a historian of contemporary Europe focused on Eurovision, explained to the Bulletin that the EBU has traditionally sought to distinguish itself from the EU in order to attract more Euro-skeptic nations like Switzerland and the United Kingdom. When the EBU introduced the song contest in 1956, the first event took place in Switzerland, which ultimately won the competition.

Over time, the contest has broadened its reach and also come to be associated with the larger efforts of European unification and solidarity, becoming a venue for pan-European artistic expression and evolving alongside the shifting borders of postwar Europe—despite membership from many non-European and non-EU nations.

Ben Wellings and Julie Kalman, a political scientist and a historian at Australia’s Monash University, respectively, described this phenomenon in their essay, Entangled Histories: Identity, Eurovision and European Integration. They argue that “the ESC is a cultural production that sustains and creates a particular form of European identity that links strongly with the idea of postwar Europe as a zone of peace: an idea that has [legitimized] European integration since the end of the Second World War.”

Nicole won the first Eurovision for Germany in 1982.

Blood and glitter. Each country participating in Eurovision is de facto represented by their public broadcaster, who selects the musician or group who will represent them in the competition. According to the Eurovision organizers, performers are generally chosen through a televised competition, an internal committee, or as part of a hybrid selection where the broadcaster appoints an artist and the public chooses the song. The selections have come to be steeped in meaning and vary widely by country.

Participating countries often seek to achieve political aims by selecting performers that confirm or advance their own aims. As Wellings and Kalman point out, “Eurovision matters in contemporary Europe because culture [legitimizes] political structures.” The selections usually have a lot to say about the countries they’re representing.

Germany is an interesting case study in this regard. In 1953, Thomas Mann returned to Europe for the first time since fleeing the Nazis and famously encouraged a group of students in Hamburg to strive “not for a German Europe but a European Germany.” That perspective has seemed to bear itself out in Germany Eurovision selections. In her essay, Germany as Good European: National Atonement and Performing Europeanness in the Eurovision Song Contest, Alison Lewis, a scholar of postwar German culture and society, points out that Germany has historically selected artists that function as a kind of atonement for its historical crimes. While many countries embrace national pride during the contest, Germany has avoided using traditional symbols of Germany culture (lederhosen, dirndls, yodeling, etc.), suggesting a German urge to move away from traditional symbols of “Germanness”—often sending non-nationals to represent it in the contest.

It is noteworthy that Germany’s first victory in the contest in 1982 was with Nicole’s song, “Ein Bißchen Frieden” (A little peace), which was interpreted as a plea for de-escalation after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as the Cold War reached a fever pitch. Even as recently as 2021, Germany’s entry was titled “I don’t feel hate,” as a repudiation of religious, political, and sexual discrimination. Says its author, Jendrik Sigwart: “I don’t feel hate / I just feel sorry.” This year's German entry is a glam rock song titled, "Blood & Glitter."

On the other hand, far-right authoritarian nations have used the popularity of the contest as a means of achieving political and cultural legitimacy. In the 1960s, the right-wing Franco dictatorship in Spain saw Eurovision as an opportunity to legitimize itself in Western Europe. When the Franco regime finally hosted the contest in 1969, Austria withdrew in protest.

Israel to perform at Eurovision. Expect protests, machine guns, and drones

Similarly, Azerbaijan spent a considerable amount of funds to host the contest in its capital city of Baku in 2012 after winning in 2011. According to Vuletic, Eurovision was important for Azerbaijan “to promote itself internationally, to whitewash the negative image of its dictatorship, to present a more positive image of itself as it sought to attract tourists, but also as it sought to attract other big mega events to the country.” It’s an interesting approach because Eurovision also requires that participants must broadcast all performances, even from rival nations. This has been a source of tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Azerbaijan going so far as to interrogate Azerbaijanis who voted for Armenia’s entry in 2009.

Armenia withdrew from the 2012 contest hosted by Azerbaijan and in 2015 used its entry, “Face the Shadow,” to mark the centennial of the Armenian genocide at the end of the Ottoman Empire: “Don’t deny / Ever don’t deny/ Listen don’t deny.” Most of Europe recognizes the genocide, with the notable exceptions of Turkey and Azerbaijan.

In 2016, Ukraine’s entry “1944” was ostensibly about Stalin’s deportation of Tatars to Central Asia, and paralleled Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. “When strangers are coming … They come to your house / They kill you all and say / We’re not guilty, not guilty.”

Muhamed Fazlagic represented Bosnia & Herzegovina at their Eurovision debut in Ireland in 1993 after fleeing Sarajevo in the middle of the night.

Return to Europe and beyond. Prior to the end of the Cold War, Soviet countries were not members of the EBU and not allowed to participate in the competition. The breakup of the Soviet Union (and Yugoslavia) resulted in an expansion of the number of countries joining the contest, with many of the post-Cold War conflicts and realignments playing themselves out at Eurovision on live TV.

Yugoslavia won the competition in 1989 and hosted the contest in Zagreb in 1990. In 1991, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia, prompting war, and withdrew from the contest to select the Yugoslavian Eurovision contestant. The final Yugoslavia performance occurred in 1992.

Formerly Yugoslavian states Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia entered the contest individually in 1993. In order to participate in the 1993 Eurovision contest in Ireland, Bosnian artist Muhamed Fazlagic fled the capital of Sarajevo at night as the city was shelled during the Bosnian War. During the contest, Bosnian judges still called in their votes from the war-torn capital on live TV. According to Tess Megginson, an expert on central and eastern European history, “It was crucial to show Europe and the rest of the world that Bosnia was still holding on, sharing its culture with the rest of Europe while it fought for its independence.” (Along similar lines, two weeks later, Imela Nogic won a beauty pageant in Sarajevo. During her crowning ceremony, she unveiled a banner that read: “Don’t let them kill us.”)

The Federal Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia later entered the contest in 1998, followed by Serbia and Montenegro in 2004; the latter two then entered as independent countries in 2007. In 2001, Estonia was the first post-Soviet country to win the contest—which Paul Jordan, a British Eurovision scholar, called an example of the “return to Europe.” For many of the post-Communist states, the contest was a way to culturally align with Europe, beyond just signing technical economic agreements. They were so successful, in fact, that in 2007 the leaderboard was topped with multiple post-Communist nations, leading BBC commentator Terry Wogan to quip: “We won the Cold War, but we lost Eurovision.”

Not all efforts to return are successful, however. Since declaring its independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo has sought to join Eurovision and other international events to expand its international recognition through cultural diplomacy. According to Vuletic, “Participation in the ESC would additionally be an affirmation of Kosovo’s Europeanist aspirations, as it has also been for Serbia.” Up to this point, Kosovo has failed to achieve sufficient recognition to qualify for membership in the EBU and compete in Eurovision.

Many small nations embrace this vision of the song contest as a form of cultural diplomacy. Vuletic points out that smaller nations without the infrastructure to host other mega events like the World Cup or the Olympics invest heavily in their Eurovision performances. Countries like Iceland, Malta, and San Marino benefit from the contest's more level playing field.

The number of participating nations continues to grow—as have the soft-power implications. This year, there are thirty-seven nations participating in Eurovision, including many countries outside of Europe that have become members of the EBU and consequently eligible to participate in Eurovision. For example, Israel won for the fourth time in 2018 with Netta’s performance, “Toy.” This meant that the Eurovision contest was held in Tel Aviv as recently as 2019. Its continued participation has also meant that Arab countries like Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan have refused to join the contest in protest, despite being eligible members of the EBU.

Israel won the 2018 contest with Netta's performance of "TOY," the fourth time Israel has won Eurovision.

Collusion and regional alliances. Eurovision is effectively the largest election in Europe. The continued growth of the competition has presented unique challenges for voting, causing voting procedures to constantly evolve. The current contest features two nights of semi-final performances, with finalists decided by audience popular vote, and a grand final, with voting split between an expert panel from each country and audience popular vote. Voting for your own country is not allowed.

Over the years, voting patterns in Eurovision have evolved to resemble the geopolitical alliances of multilateral negotiations, making what is ostensibly just a song contest into an interesting arena for exploring “national, regional, European and even global issues,” according to Marcus Pyka, a history professor at Franklin University in Switzerland. A 2006 study of Eurovision voting between 2001 and 2005 conducted by Derek Gatherer, a lecturer at Lancaster University, found that there were five blocs colluding to maximize their votes: The Viking Empire, the Balkan Bloc, the Warsaw Pact, the Partial Benelux, and the Pyrenean Axis.

These alliances are also used to dilute the influence of the “Big 5”—the five countries with the largest financial contribution that skip the semi-finals and move straight to the grand final: France, Italy, Germany, the UK, and Spain. Subsequent voting changes have been introduced to mitigate collusive voting, but some trends remain predictable.

Israel to perform at Eurovision. Expect protests, machine guns, and drones

In 2021, a character in the Netflix film, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” predicted that the UK would receive zero points because nobody likes the UK. This ultimately came true in that year’s Eurovision contest, and was perceived as retribution for Brexit.

This year, a global vote for viewers in non-participating countries is being introduced for the first time, partly to account for another collusive voting scandal in 2022.

Russia and the gay Olympics. The contest has gone to extreme lengths to avoid appearing political—largely unsuccessfully. Over the last several years, contemporary contests have focused on disavowing Russian expansion into Crimea and Ukraine, which has manifested through celebrating and legitimizing LGBTQ+ rights.

This can mostly be traced back to 2013, when Russia passed a so-called gay propaganda law by a margin of 436-0, leading to a rise in anti-gay violence. The following year, Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea while also hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

According to Catherine Baker, a scholar of post-Cold War history, international relations, and cultural studies at the University of Hull, the confluence of those two events led many to predict a new Cold War between Europe and Russia, “with (in)tolerance of LGBTQ+ visibility” serving as a flash point. In 2013, Turkey didn’t broadcast the competition because of a lesbian kiss that occurred during one of the performances.

It was in that context that in the next year’s Eurovision, Conchita Wurst, a gay man and bearded drag queen, won the contest for Austria. Interestingly, jury votes from eastern European countries voiced their disapproval by giving Austria low points, but televoters in those countries awarded Austria high marks—a notable departure from the jury’s establishment perspective. In this way, close study of Eurovision’s public voting patterns can provide insights into changing public attitudes across Europe. Eurovision has a history of supporting the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, the first transgender winner of Eurovision was Dana International, representing Israel in 1998.

As a consequence for the invasion of Ukraine, Russia was banned by the EBU from participation in 2022 and again in 2023. Notably, the last Russian performer to compete in Eurovison sang a song titled “Russian woman” about women’s empowerment. Unfortunately, within Russia, she was the target of abuse because of her Tajik descent and LGBTQ+ activism. According to Vuletic, opposition to Russia will again be a mainstay of the competition in 2023, with multiple countries expressing solidarity for Ukraine in their entries.

One particular example this year is the artist from Croatia, Let 3, who is playing a song called “Mama ŠČ”, a critique of the war in Ukraine that portrays Vladimir Putin in Russia and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus as children who think that the world is their toy. Dressed as former dictators in drag next to fake nuclear weapons, the song goes, “Armageddon granny / that little psychopath / a little vile psychopath.”

Conchita Wurst, a gay man and drag queen, who won Eurovision while representing Austria in 2014.

A campier side of war. The Eurovision Song Contest is unique in its long-running success. It has managed to stay relevant for so long because participation is as much a geopolitical statement as a performance. Attempts to launch an American Song Contest have failed (so far) and the lack of political stakes may have a lot to do with it. In that regard, Eurovision is closer to the Olympics—another venue in which individual competition can take a backseat to political considerations and soft-power dynamics. For those of us in the audience, that means Eurovision is always novel and constantly evolving—sure-fire entertainment draws. Participants have fled war-torn regions to compete, using their performances to defy authoritarians, and appeal for peace. In dark times, maybe camp and spectacle are just what the world needs.

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Keywords: Eurovision
Topics: Analysis, Multimedia


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