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What Is Eurovision, A Song Contest Or A Political Stage

By Peter Miljak

Now I know what you’re about to say. It’s called EUROvision for a reason. Australia is not in Europe. And I get it, that’s a fact, but to me, that is exactly what Eurovision is about. Inclusion, diversity, building bridges of cooperation between nations, and personally, I think that Australia has sent really good entries to the contest. But maybe I’m just being patriotic.

And this was exactly what I thought last year in May when I (along with 180 million people worldwide) tuned in to the 64th annual Eurovision Song Contest hosted in Tel Aviv, Israel (yes, I know technically Israel isn’t in Europe either). As someone who doesn’t watch much sport, I could really get behind a European song Olympics full of campy performances, over-the-top staging and songs from a variety of songs from all genres which range from cringy, to creative masterpieces. I mean they even had Madonna doing a special guest performance at the grand-final.

What could stop a diversity promoting song contest, that has been acknowledged for championing LGBTIQ artists, raising awareness for the MeToo movement and that featured the queen of pop herself?

Icelandic band Hatari during the dress rehearsal for semi-final 1 of the Eurovision Song Contest 2019. Photo by Martin Fjellanger, Eurovision Norway, EuroVisionary / CC BY-SA


Eurovision 2019 was marred by controversy surrounding the Israel Palestine conflict, with a vocal online presence calling for performers and fans to boycott the event altogether. During the results segment of the live show however, The Icelandic band Hatari were met with mass booing from the crowd when they solemnly held a Palestinian flag in front of the camera. This in turn was met with heavy backlash from Israeli media and ultimately resulted in Iceland’s public broadcaster being fined 5000 Euros by the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), although Hatari finished in a respectable 10th place.

It was unfortunate that such a small display of solidarity with an oppressed minority group caused so much upheaval at the contest, as well as the lack of willingness from Israeli organisers to use the song contest as a way to promote positive communication between Israel and Palestine.

But this isn’t entirely the fault of the Israeli broadcasters, or the performers, or the fans. The design of the contest comes into play here too, mainly in its pursuit of political neutrality. The EBU mandates strict rules that require performance to be a-political, but in the last 20 years at least, participants have bent the rules, displaying political statements that are just covert enough, leaving them with no more but a slap on the wrist.

The only time in recent history when the EBU actually made an entry withdraw for being too political was in the leadup to the 2009 contest in Moscow. Stephane & 3G from Georgia were set to perform ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’. And yes, ‘put in’ was pronounced exactly like Putin, the Russian president. A spokesperson for the EBU stated, "No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted.". For Georgia there were two options, change the lyrics or withdraw. This all occurred just 9 months after conflict between Georgia and Russia over two disputed border territories.

Jamala representing Ukraine with the song "1944" during a rehearsal before the second semi final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2016 Stockholm. Photo by Albin Olsson / CC BY-SA

And in a time where anti-Putin sentiment is felt throughout Europe, what would happen if a song referencing Russia was allowed in the contest?

Well, that was exactly what happened in 2016 when it won. Many Australian Eurovision fans would remember this as the year we were robbed. Dami Im came in at second place behind Jamala from Ukraine, who performed ‘1944’; a song about Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars in the Crimean peninsula during soviet times.

It just so happened that Russia had annexed Crimea just a year and a half ago, and as a result, Jamala dominated the live public televote scores. To add to the ensuing crisis, Russia’s entrant Sergey Lazarev, who was a fan favourite as well finished in third place, meaning that Australia was the only thing standing between the two warring nations!

We can’t prevent artists from making songs about issues that are important to them. If anything, Eurovision shows us that music is simply an expression of social, political and cultural perspectives. It is important that we continue to give artists a platform such as Eurovision to raise public awareness for social or political issues.

When considering this, I hope that future editions of Eurovision can put more focus on the artists and songs themselves, rather than on their home country’s geopolitical stance. But still, part of me does wonder what kind of power-plays between nations will be on display to the world this year in Rotterdam. As a matter of fact, I can’t wait to find out.

Ultimately, you can’t stop political controversy from occurring in a part-song , part-popularity contest, but the question is do you relish the added drama, or fear for the safety of your country (I did the latter of the two).

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.

**Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


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