The Eurovision Song Contest: A Non-Political Song Contest Filled With Politics

By Leyre Castro

The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is an international song competition organized annually since 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The idea behind this contest was to unite European countries following the end of World War II. Now, it is the longest-running annual international televised music competition as well as the most popular song-contest in the world. 

After the contest being cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, next Saturday, 22nd of May, 2021, the 65th edition of the ESC will be held in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. 

Why is Eurovision so popular? It is obviously a night full of glitter, fireworks, great spectacles and a lot of emotions, but this contest does not just keep Eurovision fans glued to their television, it also attracts those interested in politics, history or linguistics. What is the essence of Eurovision that makes it so addictive? 

It is undeniable that the show itself can be very attractive as it compiles some of the weirdest and most bizarre moments in televised music shows. Who could forget Ukraine’s 2007 entry “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” by the artist Verka Serduchka? Or Finland’s winning song “Hard Rock Hallelujah” by the band Lordi, who interpreted their song dressed as monsters with latex masks. 

According to the Eurovision’s set of rules, “the ESC is a non-political event,” and as such, “all Participating Broadcasters, including the Host Broadcaster, shall ensure that no organization, institutions, political cause or other cause, company, brand, product or service shall be promoted, featured or mentioned directly or indirectly during the Event. (…) The lyrics and/or performance of the songs shall not bring the Shows, the ESC as such or the EBU into disrepute. No lyrics, speeches, gestures or a political commercial or similar nature shall be permitted during the ESC.”

However, is the ESC really a non-political event? As a devoted fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, I would dare to say no. Many political moments have been spotted during past editions throughout the years. The most obvious example comes to the voting system; it cannot be denied that Eurovision’s is more based on geopolitics than on the quality of the music. 

Just to mention some, I will list some examples of when Eurovision got very political. Let’s go back to 2016, when Ukraine won the ESC in 2016 with Jamala’s “1944” song. Even if the rules explicitly forbid “lyrics, speeches, gestures or a political commercial,” Jamala’s song obviously talked about the deportation of Tatars by Stalin, with lyrics such as “fighting for our dreams and independence, as well as our country.” This could be considered a political speech, especially given that Russia is part of the competition as well. 

Another example of Eurovision being used as a soft-power tool by countries is for example when Spain, back in the 60s while it was under Franco’s regime, put a lot of effort into winning the ESC as “a way of affirming its belonging to Western Europe at a time when Western European governments were still keeping distance from this right-wing dictatorship.” Many countries in fact use the Eurovision Song Contest as a soft-power tool.

Armenia is another country that has also used ESC as a political platform more than once. For example, in 2015 the country sent the song “Face the Shadows” by Genealogy which chorus “Don’t deny, ever don’t deny, listen, don’t deny” could be seen as containing political message looking for recognition of the centennial of the Armenian genocide which was not welcome by its neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey.

It is worth highlighting that the last ESC edition, held in Tel Aviv last 2019, was full of controversies and allusions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not missing. For example, the Icelandic band Hatari, which represented the country with the song “Hatrið mun sigra” (“Hate will prevail”) showed a Palestinian flag when the camera pointed them in the Green Room. The EBU decided to impose a 5,000 euro fine to the Icelandic TV broadcaster RÚV as a consequence of the band’s action as they broke the rule of staying non-political. 

Madonna, who was a guest artist at the Eurovision Song Contest did not lose her chance to position herself either, with a rather political show as the whole audience could see how two of her dancers walked together, holding each other, one of them with an Israeli flag and the other one with the Palestinian flag stitched on their backs. EBU did not take long to respond to the incident and stated that it was not aware of the imagery used by the artist as that element of the performance was not part of the rehearsals. 

Last example of how politics are very related to 2019’s Eurovision contest was the case of Ukraine’s 2019 entry. After winning the publics’ vote, the singer Maruv was meant to represent the country with “Siren Song.” However, she refused as political tensions involving neighboring Russia were made evident when she was asked to sign a contract that would not allow her to play concerts in Russia.

So what can we expect from this year’s ESC? Allusions to the Covid-19 health crisis, which forced the contest to be cancelled for the first time in history can be expected. Some controversies could also be found already in some of this edition’s countries’ entries.

A clear example of this is Belarus, since the  ongoing political crisis in the country spread to its entry in the 2021 ESC edition. As a consequence, the Belarusian band Galasy ZMesta has been disqualified from this year’s song contest, due to its controversial song, “Я научу тебя” (“I’ll Teach You”). 

The reason for the disqualification of the song is its controversial lyrics, such as “I’ll teach you to toe the line” and “I’ll teach you to swallow the bait.” Supporters of the entry say that the lyrics allude to a “playful BDSM relationship.” However, the band was already known for mocking and making fun of the protests going on in the country against President Alexander Lukashenka.

They also ridiculed  symbols of these protests such as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was targeted in their song “A Wife’s Song”, and opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova in their song  “Flutist.” But Galasy ZMesta does not just make fun of the opposition movement against Lukashenka, previously they have also mocked Western lifestyle in general, homosexual couples and vegetarians. 

Whether you are a music enthusiast, interested in the geopolitics behind the ESC or simply enjoy a good show, I encourage you all to watch the ESC 2021 this Saturday, 22nd of May, when the Grand Final will be held. A good show is guaranteed. 


Picture Credits: Suvan Chowdhury, Pexels.

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