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Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

The Eurovision Song Contest: As Useful a Barometer of Europe as Any

By Christopher Davis

TUESDAY JUNE 04, 2013

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Photo: quirischa
Eurovision 2013 in Malmö, Sweden.

One could be forgiven for writing off Denmark’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest on May 18th as something of an irrelevance, given the more newsworthy occurrences affecting the continent at present. But while the European project – at the behest of the EU – is currently being undertaken overwhelmingly on an economic footing, the annual Eurovision carnival again proved its worth as the pan-European cultural event par excellence. In the process it illuminated the sorts of continental trends that simply cannot be expressed in the crude terms of institutional European politics.
 
Denmark’s victory (with a song by artist Emmelie de Forest) will not gain the same accolades outside the almost folkloric Eurovision bubble, as it will within it; nor will the Danes’ musical heritage or national reputation be drastically enhanced by the win. Yet, despite the unashamed competitiveness of some nations taking part (and there are a number of remarkable examples), the old saying that “it’s not the winning but the taking part” is especially true of Eurovision, which does indeed facilitate conditions for bringing Europeans together as equals in a way that EU policymakers have arguably never come close to.   
 
It is worth noting that the very origins of the competition are steeped in unifying objectives: Eurovision, the 1950s birth child of the European Broadcasting Union, was in part an exercise of inter-nation rebuilding after the ravages of World War II. And its foundations are theoretically democratic: the reputation of, say, the United Kingdom’s musical pedigree counts for little against the less universally well-known styles of many of the eastern nations when it comes to public vote.
 
Eurovision has the uniqueness of an event at once superficial and profound. Artistically speaking, even its most ardent followers would admit that it is pure kitsch; indeed, that is part of the draw. Conceptually, though, its utopianism provides a hugely useful – but perhaps not easily emulated – blueprint for fostering European identity.
 
More than just a music contest: Eastern Europe
 
Allegations that the contest is “too political” are frequent and not necessarily unfounded. It is an oft-voiced argument among the British public, for example, who have long lamented apparent strategic voting, particularly between the former Soviet and Balkan states. By and large, though, the more politically powerful western nations are at relative liberty to take or leave the contest at their will. In any case, at the heart of any British derision would appear not to be Eastern European voting patterns, but the feeling that the UK does not stand a chance of winning.

Countries with less (or less favorable) international renown, by contrast, are more inclined to treat Eurovision more seriously – more politically. Dave Goodman, radio presenter and Eurovision enthusiast, cites the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the 2009 event in Moscow, and last year’s contest in Azerbaijan where, in Goodman’s words, “the Azeri government were so heavily involved it was bordering on the corrupt.”
 
“It was really seen as a nation building exercise,” he notes.
 
By all accounts, this is not an overstatement. Paul Jordan, also known by the moniker Dr. Eurovision, is poised to publish a book concerning Estonia and Ukraine’s engagement with the contest as a platform for creating a national discourse. The ruling that one year’s Eurovision winner becomes the next year’s host meant that, after Estonia and Ukraine’s victories in 2001 and 2004 respectively, both former Soviet countries have now staged the event.
 
Jordan notes how, somewhat reminiscent of Putin, Ukranian president Viktor Yuschenko wished to make a forty-minute speech at the 2005 Kiev contest – this was in the immediate aftermath of the so-called “Orange Revolution,” the political demonstrations which occurred in Ukraine following the widely unpopular results of the run-off election for the Ukrainian presidency in 2004, resulting in a revote and Yuschenko’s election. He also comments how that year’s song was “essentially a mouthpiece of the Orange government” and that, two year’s prior, Ukraine’s maiden Eurovision foray was actually the idea of a PR firm who approached the government seeing the contest as a chance to “improve their image.” Of the Estonian example he cites the politicization of the event when, after news stories spread across the continent suggesting that the country could not afford to stage the competition in 2002, heavy governmental involvement (and funding) turned the contest into a nation branding campaign.
 
Asked why Eurovision creates such an effective platform for nation building, Jordan notes that, not only is the competition a chance for a nation to make its mark – “to get its flag on screen” – it is also an opportunity, particularly for more politically turbulent nations, to “appear like a normal country when everything is up in the air.”
 
The Eurovision stage is a platform on which to quite literally perform a chosen narrative – be it ethnic, national, regional, European or otherwise.
 
Eurovision as a contest
 
Eurovision voting is conducted using the Borda count system: combining a public telephone poll and a musical jury decision (the latter was reintroduced in 2009 to help combat any so-called logrolling) each nation awards scores ranked by preference – twelve points for their favorite, ten for their second favorite and so on.
 
That there exist voting patterns is largely unavoidable. Nor are those regional patterns particular to eastern pockets of the continent. The UK’s highest single points score this year, for instance, came from Ireland, Sweden’s highest from neighbors Norway, Greece’s from Cyprus, and Germany’s from Austria. Whether common musical taste is the cause or simply a sense of neighborliness is debatable, and perhaps irrelevant anyway: regional alliances and enmities are always likely to come to the fore.
 
Recovering Agnostic, a blogger last week writing about Eurovision’s “myth of political voting,” pointed to viewers’ tendency to try and uncover voting patterns as if to substantiate a notion of the contest’s inequity. “We remember the times when Croatia gave their top vote to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s folk-style nose flutes,” he writes, “but not when Sweden surprisingly awarded 12 points to Malta, because one fits the pattern and the other doesn’t. It’s classic confirmation bias.”
 
Indeed, one need only look to Denmark’s winning entry on Saturday to see that, in fact, votes came quite literally from all corners of the continent. Maximum points were awarded by Macedonia, Ireland, Iceland and Italy, among others, proving that while politics does play a part, it cannot negate the contest’s democratic voting system. In other words, there has not been an Eastern European monopoly on Eurovision winners, as some may have feared would happen.  
 
Inasmuch, the contest reveals less about Europe’s political biases than it does simply about Europeans’ perception of their own place within the continent, and perhaps about citizens’ respective engagement with notions of pan-European culture.
 
At a political level, any unsporting or over-serious behavior is not necessarily reflective of any desperation for musical success, but of a ploy adopted by smaller nations to use the medium as a platform for gaining international recognition.
 
The music: lost amidst the spectacle?
 
Amidst the perceived politicing and theories of regional back scratching, it is easy to forget that Eurovision is above all else a music competition. By and large, there is no way of devising a Eurovision winner, nor a way of predicting any nation’s particular song; entrees fluctuate from country to country and from year to year between distinctly national stereotypes (Spanish castanets and Bulgarian tambouras) and absurd offerings (dancing Russian grannies last year and a Finnish monster rock band in 2006).

The organizers’ regulations on Eurovision entries are notably relaxed, so that a song need not be performed in a country’s national language, nor are artists or songwriters required to hail from the nation they are representing. In recent years, a number of nations have procured the services of Swedish songwriters to pen their entries – the Swedes, after all, have something of a Eurovision pedigree having had success most famously with Abba. The Swedes have long popularized “the melodic pop song – one of the few genres that crosses boundaries and communicates to lots of different countries,” notes Goodman.
 
Songs, then, can either completely reinforce national stereotypes or suspend them in favor of something completely different. There has historically been a trend among the Eastern countries towards songs that, according to Catherine Baker, lecturer of 20th history at the University of Hull, “present something exotic and distinctive in an attractively modernized package.” But that has not stopped an equal turn towards songs from the Swedish mold, which sound, in Goodman’s words, “almost cultureless, nationless." Similarly, there is nothing to prevent cultural borrowing: Denmark’s winning entry on Saturday began with a tin whistle solo that might seem more at home in an Irish song. Indeed, Goodman jokes that the Danes “out-Irished the Irish."
 
The fact that there is no formula for a Eurovision winner – this year’s German entry sounded remarkably like last year’s Swedish winner and received few points – is perhaps testament to the genuine diversity of European musical tastes. It may also support the idea that on a fundamental level the contest works as a truly cross-continental event.
 
Therefore, where official attempts to foster a sense of European identity have actually threatened to border on the imposition of commonality, Eurovision brings national identities together – musical identities, of course, but also wider cultural identities – and, in Goodman’s terms, “it creates new identities altogether through shared musical competition."
 
An event like no other
 
Arguably, the most beneficial consequences of the song contest have arisen organically; such as the cult following the contest has created as a result of its design – including a large homosexual contingent. The cosmopolitanism that Eurovision encourages, whereby observers are actively able to make contact with other cultures, contributes to what Robert Miller, of Euroidentities, terms “the tolerance of difference” – something that does much to explain the contest’s gay fan base in particular.
 
Miller notes the way in which the most fruitful engagement with ideas of European identity is unanticipated. It is unquantifiable. He cites anecdotal, day-to-day inter-European exchanges that encourage a common continental identity: a Northern Irishman meets an Italian while studying in a French university, marries her, settles down with children. An Irish woman enters a Spanish supermarket and can equate the prices with those back home in Ireland because of the common currency.
 
“What really causes the average person to feel European comes from everyday contacts,” Miller comments.
 
Eurovision actively facilitates such exchanges, both at the event (thousands of fans from across Europe now attend what is often a week-long Eurovision party) and at home. In contrast to the top-down approach to articulating European citizenship, often measured in crude quantitative terms – such as the EU have often favored – Eurovision encourages a more bottom-up engagement whereby one can enter into the spirit of unity from one’s armchair.
 
It is in many ways, then, the ultimate democratic European experience, where an Armenian and an Austrian can unite in their appreciation of Finns dressed as monsters, a Danish song can sound more traditionally Irish than the Irish entry, and where last year’s most popular song becomes this year’s twenty-first. To be sure, Eurovision is both more (and somehow less) than just a song contest, and in ways does more to celebrate difference than more purposeful European attempts could possible achieve.
 
Therefore, no, the UK did not pick up votes from Azerbaijan this year, nor did they from Albania or Armenia – and some will forever deride the contest as unwinnable. But the simple fact that these countries could have voted for Britain is where the real victory lies.

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