What do a turkey puppet in a shopping cart, a bearded and sequined cross-dresser and Swedish icons Abba have in common? For the 300 million viewers who tune in to the annual Eurovision contest, the answer is easy: All represented their nations in the international song contest.
But it’s more than just a smaltzy made-for-television event featuring instantly forgettable tunes in foreign languages — without subtitles. It’s one of the rare instances where pop and politics clash, a gaudy gladiatorial glitz-fest where xenophobism thrives, musical taste dies and every European from Iceland to Ireland Britain and the Baltics, and Albania to Australia can be unabashedly patriotic.
Yes, Australia — as far away from Europe as you can get — but as far as the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), who organise the annual song contest are concerned, it’s an associate member, so too is Israel, and eligible to participate. Indeed, what used to be a three-hour spectacle occurring annually on the second Saturday in May has grown so large now — 45 nations entered this year’s event — that it now requires two semi-final shows to determine the final run-off finale. What makes the contest remarkable are the unremarkable entries, and where representing your nation is as good — or bad — as it gets.
Traditionally, the juries who have judged the songs are made up of small panels of television viewers who are closeted away at secret locations in the territory of each national broadcaster. They are supposed to listen to each song and judge it on the merits of its musical appeal. That’s all well in theory, but place a dozen French viewers in a room and have they judge Latvian lyrics, Romanian rap, Polish pop and Albanian, and the results are skewed and screwed. Old political biases come to the fore.
This year, given the anti-British sentiment across the European Union (EU) for its decision to vote in favour of Brexit, you can pretty much be assured that if the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Oasis all re-united to sing the United Kingdom’s entry, it still could not, nor would not win! So even though Lucie Jones is performing Never Give Up On You for the UK, the rest of the nations and their voters have given upon her — long before the orchestra tunes up.
In a television interview in London on Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May reassured voters that the UK would still be able to enter the Eurovision post Brexit.
If political neutrality counts on something in the undiplomatic corridors of the Eurovision song contest world, then it likely explains why Sweden and Ireland, two neutral and unaligned nations, have the best winning records since the competition began in 1956. If you like trivia, there have been 60 winners, but four contestants tied the 1969 contest, which provided a real conundrum to the organisers. Traditionally, the winning nation gets to host the event the following May.
Incidentally, there’s only one singer who has won the contest more than once — Ireland’s Johnny Logan. And given the state of the finances at Ireland’s national broadcaster, Radio Telefis Eirann when he won in 1980 and 1987, the executives there briefly considered asked the government for a hike in the annual television license fee to cover the costs. But for all of the fun in listening to the chairman of the national juries announcing in mispronounced English or French the scores — “Grand Britagne, nil points; Irland, dix points,” — it all makes national hearts flutter and bookies pocket a small fortune.
While 45 nations entered the 2017 edition of the competition, only 43 participated. Boznia and Herzegovina pulled out for financial reasons, while Russia withdrew in a snit over the decidedly unfriendly turn this year’s Eurovision has taken — one that is out of tune with the song contest’s character. The “big five nations of the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are guaranteed a place in Saturday night’s final — and so too is the host nation, Ukraine.
Ever since Russia annexed the former Ukrainian territory of Crimea in the spring of 2014, relations between the former Soviet Union comrade nations have been out of sync. With the Eurovision being broadcast from Kiev, pro-Russian separatists in the eastern portion of the nation are unimpressed. On a more sombre note, fighting there in the past 30 months between pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and the self-proclaimed Republic of Don Bass against Ukrainian government forces have claimed 10,000 lives. A shaky ceasefire agreement brokered between the sides is fragile at best.
The row erupted when the government in Ukraine had banned Julia Samoilova, the Russian contestant, from travelling to Ukraine. The reason? It emerged Samoilova had visited Crimea after its annexation and had given a concert there. And in retaliation, Russia said it would not be broadcasting the song contest.
“We strongly condemn the Ukrainian authorities’ decision to impose a travel ban on Julia Samoilova as we believe it thoroughly undermines the integrity and non-political nature of the Eurovision song contest and its mission to bring all nations together in friendly competition,” Frank Dieter Freiling, the chairman of the Eurovision song contest reference group, the event’s steering committee, said in a statement. “However, preparations continue apace for the Eurovision song contest in the host city Kiev. Our top priority remains to produce a spectacular Eurovision song contest.”
It is the first time any host state has banned an entrant.
But not all is at it appears. Russia had only put forward Samilova as its nominee in the minutes before the deadline for entries expired.
“They chose a wheelchair-bound contestant who had made pro-Russian statements about Crimea on social media. She was never going to be allowed in Ukraine, but they chose her anyway,” one Eurovision expert said. “And now Russia is very publicly saying: ‘How can Ukraine let this poor sweet girl in a wheelchair be the victim of your laws?’ It seems clearly all part of the Russia PR machine.”
Russia had been involved in a similar incident in 2009, when it was hosting the contest. It came a year after a military conflict between Russia and Georgia. Then, Georgia withdrew after organisers told it to change the lyrics and title of its song We Don’t Wanna Put In because it was seen as a pointed criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Similarly, Armenia chose not to go to the contest when it was held in Azerbaijan because of their ongoing territorial dispute, while last year, the Armenian contestant was reprimanded after she waved the flag for the territory the two countries claimed.