Eurovision – as we are frequently reminded – is about music, not politics. Well, that’s the theory. But in reality is it ever truly possible to totally separate the performers onstage from the implications of their nationality? Or is it inevitable that the political situation in a given country always has the potential to in some way colour your perception of their entries? John Lucas asks the question, and ESC Insight answers….
In principle, I like the idea that the Eurovision Song Contest is somehow above politics. The sense of community and shared appreciation among the artists can be a beautiful thing to behold, and I’ve always loved the idea of all the diverse cultures of our continent putting aside their differences for one night of fun and unity.
And yet… we all know that in the real world, nothing is ever quite so simple. Whether it’s Azerbaijan and Armenia’s on-going feud, Greek resentment over the identity politics of Macedonia, anti-Russia protests, or the United Kingdom deciding that if it wasn’t for the war in Iraq Jemini would have swept to victory, politics does creep into the Song Contest from all directions. The question is, as a fan and pundit, can – and should – you rise above it?
To use the events of Vienna 2015 as an obvious example, part of me felt terribly sorry for Polina Gagarina when she seemed to receive such a hostile reaction from the audience in the Stadthalle. She seemed like a nice, sincere young woman who didn’t deserve to carry the weight of anti-Putin feeling on her shoulders that night. However, as the Grand Final votes rolled in another part of me was anxiously hoping that she wouldn’t win – and I can’t pretend it was purely for musical reasons.
As an LGBT person, the idea that Russia would have an opportunity to host again didn’t just concern me from a personal safety perspective; it also left a sour taste in my mouth. Holding the Contest in your home country can be eye-wateringly expensive, but it’s also a fabulous PR opportunity – and one I’d much rather see given to a generally liberal and progressive country like Sweden than a country that seems to be actively rolling back human rights and threatening the territorial sovereignty of at least one if not several neighbour nations.
And yet, isn’t it a fundamental principle of Eurovision that the best song should win above all else? As it happens, I do think ‘Heroes’ was a stronger, better winner for entirely valid musical reasons. But if ‘A Million Voices’ had been the entry for, say, Iceland, would I still have planted my flag as firmly on team Måns? Given Russia’s form in recent years, I suspect I’ll be forced to come to terms with this internal conflict sooner rather than later.
The answer for me is not if a country or its politics influence what I think of a song, but can I acknowledge those biases while covering the Eurovision Song Contest?
There are two ways of approaching the idea of bias in covering not just the Song Contest, but in any event. The first is to decide on a strictly neutral stance, relaying just the facts, and not being drawn to support or oppose either side. If you are the team running eurovision.tv, then it’s obvious that this is the path for the official website to take.
It’s a different matter with ESC Insight (and various other community websites as well, but let’s talk about ourselves for a moment). I think it’s very clear that individual writers have bias, and anyone who has listened to Juke Box Jury will know that we’re far from neutral in our viewpoint here on ESC Insight.
What’s important is that those biases are acknowledged. John’s point on the love (or not) for ‘A Million Voices’ is a clear example. In the Viennese press room, as Gagarina pushed ahead, the cold hand of the Russian Visa application process sneaking up on the press was punctured by the United Kingdom’s Nigella Lawson handing Sweden the lead. Måns never looked back. Not that you could make out anything over the almost animalistic roar of pleasure that accompanied the douze points. It’s impossible to say that there is no bias covering the Contest after hearing that.
Those with a longer history in the press room will remember not just the cold hand but the Lovecraftian trepidation as ‘Running Scared’ edged away from the pack to take victory and send the European Singing Circus to the coast of the Caspian Sea. Everyone looked around with the same phrase on our lips and trauma in our eyes, “We’re off to Azerbaijan!”
You can’t bring up Azerbaijan, Ewan, without inducing a slight pang of PTSD for me. Yes, once I got there, I found the city fascinating, the people warm and welcoming, and the food incredible (seriously, put a lamb kebab and pomegranate-flavored anything in front of me and I’m a happy girl). But getting there was significantly more than half the battle. Some readers may remember that the EBU kindly convinced the Azeri government to loosen their visa restrictions for tourists coming in from Eurovision-participating nations. Sadly, this did not apply to folks coming in from outside, and I nearly had to start an international incident to get my passport back from the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington, which was only returned to me three hours before my first of four flights.
Needless to say, if I ever hear the Embassy’s “hold” music again, I may start foaming at the mouth.
As Polina racked up the points, I felt my heart sink just a touch – not because the song, its singer, and the performance as a whole weren’t incredible – but because I didn’t know if I’d be put through the wringer again just to get my diplomatic papers in order. It’s not right, and it’s not fair, but in the heat of the moment, when the points roll in, logic gives way to our baser emotions.
So I’ve talked about Azerbaijan, and I’ve mentioned Russia, but it’s my relationship with that third Visa-requiring nation that is maybe the most complicated. Belarus and the United States have arguably even dicier relations than the US and Russia do (at the very least, there’s a fully-staffed US Embassy in Moscow, something that we lack in Minsk). Belarus was the first nation to withdraw the Future Leaders Exchange program, a high-school student exchange that brings teens from former CIS nations to the US for a year to study (Uzbekistan and Russia have since pulled out). Needless to say, we’re not the best of buddies.
Which makes me, as an American with some Belarusian roots, feel more than a bit awkward. I was named for my great-grandmother Selma, a woman who I never got to know, who was born in a tiny village south of Mogilev that could have passed for the set of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. She met my great-grandfather, a shopkeeper from Gomel, on the boat to America. While I can also trace my family tree back to a few other nations, for some reason I am fascinated by a place that I can’t just up and visit. Maybe it’s the sense of “forbidden fruit” that keeps me interested?
But all I know is that when I hear allegations of voting scandals, rigged juries, and other inconsistencies year after year, whether they’re true or not, I’m not amused; I’m disappointed. Even when they tried to remedy a situation where corruption was caught (Alyona Lanskaya’s ‘win’ at Eurofest 2012 being vacated by President Lukashenko in favor of actual winners Litesound), the play was eventually bungled by forcing the band to rearrange their song, providing almost no promotional material to the press, and throwing a number of hurdles at the band when they returned home from Baku.
While many other fans look at switched songs, oddly-slanted National Final results, jingoistic lyrics, or over-the-top gift bags as ‘Belarus just being Belarus,’ I can’t help but think “come on, guys, you can do better than that”, as if they were the black-sheep cousin at an awkward Thanksgiving dinner. The last two years (with ‘Cheesecake’ and ‘Time‘) have shown a tightened-up process, with no swaps, scandals, or overt hints of malfeasance, but it’s tough to shake the demons of the recent past.
I love Belarus. I’ve got it deep inside. And that’s the problem.
I understand people’s readiness to judge a group based on a single experience, though I think it completely unfair to. Such a bad experience getting an Azerbaijani visa should in no way reflect on the country itself, especially since there’s really no way of knowing what caused the problem. When I moved to Japan to teach (which had visa issues of its own), I heard racist remarks from friends who couldn’t be bothered to learn the difference between Asian nations. The first time I went to China, I landed in a city that defied the norm of “safe” Asian cities and warned me to stay safe from kidnapping, armed robbery, and murder simply because I was a western traveler and people assumed I had money. I’ve been to over a dozen cities in China and not once have I had a bad experience with any of them, so to hear people like Trump accuse the Chinese of being sneaky and malicious smacks of willful ignorance.
It’s easy to fall into the “us vs. them” mentality and think of ourselves as the hero and disregard our exact same transgressions we accuse our enemies of committing. It’s no more Polina’s fault that LGBT rights are nonexistent under Putin than it’s my fault politicians are fighting for the exact same thing in the US, but it’s hard to explain that to someone who doesn’t know me. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel and befriend people from various nations and cultures. When I first came upon the Eurovision Song Contest, I saw a variety of songs in a row, the politics of each came later as did my innate desire to see certain countries win and others not. My first comment upon seeing ‘A Million Voices’ was, “It’s a good song, but I’m just too cynical to buy any of it”. I should be smarter than that; I should be the better person.
As easy as it is to to react to a surly French security guard and think the French rude, that getting cut off by a Skoda on the highway makes the Czechs bad drivers, or getting sick from eating pasta means Italians are poisonous, it’s hard to see a nationality as a collection of individuals unless we make the effort to go there. I imagine if we were heading to Russia, my vision of them would change dramatically. Yes, Eurovision is supposed to be above politics, and, logically, it’s hard to really accuse Russia of anything in ESC since they seem laser-focused on putting out a quality entry and getting points.
Conversely, acts such as Stephane & 3G (‘We Don’t Wanna Put In‘) and Genealogy (‘Don’t Deny’) are so politically charged it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the lyrics, however cryptic, and lose sight of the music and staging. If we are going to get upset over political implications, we need to look at those with good intentions up as well. Is it okay for Iceland to sing about ending prejudice (‘No Prejudice’) or Finland about saving the Earth (‘Da Da Dam’)? How about Israel’s friendly flag show during ‘Sameyakh’? The same-sex kisses during Lithuania’s 2015 and Finland’s 2013 performancees? I’m happy they were willing to address these issues, but if we are going to pick and choose, it’s going to get uncomfortable very quickly.
When it comes to that all important time of declaring who I’d like to see win, I agree with Ewan – I like to think that for me, that the best song and performance on the night should win. But that unfortunately is not the question that is usually posed to me; it’s normally “Sharleen, what country do you want to visit next May?”.
Whilst I wasn’t in Vienna for the 2015 Song Contest, I will put out there publicly and honestly that I would have had no issue finding myself in Sochi for 2016. This is because I felt that Polina’s performance deserved to be where it finished, or even above. I can separate the feelings I have towards a regime, a war, a whole nation and an entertainment show. Additionally I have been to Russia, I know the procedures for visas, and having visited the country twice before with no issues (including Moscow 2009), I at least feel safe to return again. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have minded it over Stockholm, just for the fact it would have perhaps been a new destination, a new adventure.
But sometimes, there are some places I don’t want to adventure to, or to adventure again. It’s about safety. Nowhere for me was this more obvious than in Baku.
Like Sam, I too dealt with the burden and pain of having to secure a visa for Azerbaijan, having to send my passport by courier to Malaysia as we have no representation in Australia. And maybe that should have made me question my attendance more than it did; because if something happened in Baku, where would I go, who would I see without an Embassy? The issue crossed my mind as I was pulled aside at the airport and questioned over my Armenian stamp from Junior Eurovision the year before; when I was stopped and held by security at the venue in a location that only 10 minutes prior was accessible; and then when I alone was later surrounded by a group of bullying security guards for supposedly destroying property in the press centre as our table had removed the ethernet cables from the provided laptops which were now neatly stacked at the end of the desks.
Whilst I met wonderful people, ate some marvellous food, saw a fabulous show there, I never felt truly safe and comfortable, and I wouldn’t return. I can happily cheer on an Azeri delegation, appreciate the talent and performance, if they come with a great song that rightly deserves and honestly wins – fantastic! But I won’t go back. Safety is important, and I utterly understand my brethren when they let it cloud their views.
We do have to remind ourselves that issues go beyond the LGBT interest group alone. Human rights violations occur in many places, and in many ways – from the treatment of women, to the discrimination of other races and religions, the marginalisation of the poor. If a host country cannot guarantee the safety, freedom and comfort of all, not just us who fly in and out, then perhaps we shouldn’t be there.
No one wins the Eurovision Song Contest just because they have best song. They never have. Regardless of voting system, winning the Eurovision requires creating a moment. We could, perhaps, rename it the “Eurovision Moment Contest”, but it wouldn’t have the same ring, would it? Few are convinced that “Heroes” was the best song in 2015; certainly the public didn’t think so. Måns Zelmerlöw is the winner because Sweden scored the most points under the current system.
In the last 15 years we’ve had winners from all sorts of constituencies, the Big 5, several voting blocs, and a few outsiders, too. Whether any were the “best” song, entry or performance is a subjective, personal thing.
So is voting at the Song Contest; it’s very personal for most fans. Most who objected did so based on Russia’s treatment of queers; no one said the song, the singer or the staging was unworthy. Even if you don’t like the genre, you can’t fault the performance. Polina Gagarina has that rare combination of an amazing voice and the ability to channel vulnerability to create power. Talent and authenticity are a stunning combination. Just ask Conchita.
Yes the queers (including me) love the Contest, but not all queers do and not all queers do for the same reasons. Equally importantly, while Russia seems to have more than its share of homophobic theocrats, not all Russians are homophobic or theocratic. I’m rather confident that Polina Gagarina isn’t, after watching her very closely, both in Vienna and subsequently. Armed with a charged up prepaid sim, Vienna was also my first chance to vote (in Istanbul I wasn’t nearly organised enough). About half my money went to ‘A Million Voices.’
There is a pernicious, vile homophobia in Russia. Absolutely. I get that. There are also a lot of queer Eurovision fans there. I understand why a queer person wouldn’t vote for any Russian entry. I don’t understand why, if queer rights are the litmus test for being vote-worthy, that principle isn’t extended with respect to Azeri or Belarusian or Polish or Moldovan or Latvian or Lithuanian or Maltese entries. Each of these countries’ governments have either brought in homophobic laws or blocked ones that would grant queer rights. Is it because Russian homophobia is embraced by russosphere media?
Italy has zero recognition for same-sex partnerships; I guess not all Grande Amores are equal. Vaidas and Monika’s integration of same-sex kisses in their performances in Vienna were to a certain extent pandering. But for anyone hoping to establish a career in Lithuania, making such a high profile pro-queer rights stance twice isn’t something you do to become a regular on LRT. Queers should have been as assertive in their appreciation for ‘This Time’ and its statement.
We could limit our queer votes to the thirteen countries currently (or soon to have) marriage equality among Eurovision participants. But why should queer rights, rather than other minority rights, inform for whom we vote? Roma are treated much worse in the “Eurovision zone” than queers are. Other cultural and linguistic minorities are marginalised in France, Greece, Romania and Estonia, despite EU requirements. Surely these are as distressing – or moreso – as queer rights?
How about the rights of the disabled?
In Vienna, while most people were upset about Russia, I was upset about Poland’s Monika Kuszyńska experienced the repeated indignity of having to be hand lifted–dangerously so –up 15 entirely inaccessible steps from both the stage and the green room. We knew she was coming to Vienna two months before her arrival: surely that is enough time to ensure there’s a ramp available. More importantly, the EBU should have made site accessibility a requirement to host the Contest years ago. Yes she seemed to be gracious about it. So what. She should not have had to be. It is simply not good enough.
No, I don’t want my Eurovision spoiled by politics: no, I also don’t want my Eurovision to happen in a vacuum, ignorant of politics. I hope the winners transcend politics, if that’s possible. My votes for Russia were as much votes for that sort of Contest as they were for Polina Gagarina. Whom I still think she was robbed: had she sung for Ukraine she would have romped to victory. Different, yet still the same.
Let’s get this Russian thing out of the way first. Personally I found ‘A Million Voices’ relatively bland and saved by a great performance and title hook, and I don’t expect people to rave about the Russian entry in five years time as they would ‘Calm After The Storm’ in terms of those so close yet so far. However yes, I was coloured by it’s politics, but maybe from a different direction than the others here. Who in Russian TV thought that for the third year running the appropriate thing to do was to submit some Swedish-written peace ballad with lyrics flirting the non-political boundary a little too closely? ‘Living on the edge, closer to the crime, cross the line a step at a time’ puts a lump in your 2014 throat when you realise the Swedish for Crimea is Krim…pronounced close as damn it to crime.
Couldn’t Russia just play a…straight bat and give us somebody producing the best of Russian music? Instead we had the saga of Eurovision journalists not just coloured but passionate about Russia’s political stance trying to eeek out contradictory quotes from whatever artist was representing them. Didn’t the broadcaster realise using sweet innocent female singers as a puppet-on-a-string was actually a negative rather than a positive for showing a tolerant, modern image of Russia? Some duty of care, especially to the young Tolmachevy Sisters, was missing and my feeling about ‘A Million Voices’ was that it simply should never have graced the Eurovision stage for better or worse. The Song Contest itself deserves more respect.
However it’s not only the negatives that colour a political situation. As a British person who loves sport, one always cheers on the passionate underdogs. No country loves Eurovision more than Iceland and I am looking at Icelandic entries each year trying to find any redeeming feature that can make me adore it. Malta opened their doors for Junior Eurovision so welcomingly, and the entire country would party all night if they managed to bring the logistical problem of hosting Eurovision back to the sunshine island. My cheer for San Marino qualifying was more because the micronation made it and somehow done the impossible, not for the quality of ‘Maybe’.
However much I do this though, rarely are these countries my favourites in the Song Contest, in fact this year far from it. The problem is that anything that brings in countries gives a bigger bias to not liking an entry than liking it. Traditionally Eurovision wouldn’t notice this that much, but our voting system means it is possible to show displeasure as well as pleasure, as each jury member ranks all the entries from first place to last place. This data is at everybody’s fingertips as well directly after the final. It creates uneasiness and fires the political discussions all over again, two Lithuanian jurors putting their line in the sand having ‘A Million Voices’ in last place and firing up the Russian media against them.
I’ve said before how the voting system we have means that the more safe, more mainstream and the least offensive entries are likely to do better as they get no negative drag. The same applies to the competing countries. Not deliberately, but just by having the country names there Western jurors will think twice about giving high scores to Russia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. They are easy cannon fodder to have at the bottom. In fact I argue this voting system of negative drag means the countries with politically friendly global agendas will perform very well. Only one country has been in the top three of the jury rankings in each of the three years this system has been in place and that same country had not a single juror rank it lower than 20th place this year.
This era of Swedish dominance in the Eurovision Song Contest is far from over people, and we would all be too naive to say SVT’s success is purely because of the music.
Dimitri De Groodt
On paper the Eurovision Song Contest ideology of letting the music prevail three out of 365 nights a year and leave politics at the door sounds encouraging, but any committee staging any sort of international event, has to admit at some point, the geographical location and its current climate of politics, values or set of ideas within its borders always has the possibility to overshadow the music. The same thing counts for the participating nations.
Is it possible to overcome that obstacle? I believe it is, but I’m a firm believer, the perception we come to have on the artist, depends on the type of songs that are ultimately chosen to compete in the contest. Yes, songs with political messages are not allowed in the contest, but aren’t the ‘Wars for Nothing’, ‘There Must Be Another Way’ and the ‘Million Voices’ all dealing with a set of ideas, which are very closely linked to politics and therefore inviting viewers and listeners to hold it against the political background of the nation? The rule needs tweaking; if politics were genuinely to be not invited at Eurovision, the unity and world peace theme, should equally be a no-go.
Having said that, a lot depends on the artist too; Polina from Russia this year is the perfect example of how to turn perception around. I think it’s safe to say we were all nervous for her, especially after the treatment her predecessors, undeservedly, received in 2014. But here you had a humble, talented young lady, who’s speaking her mind in impeccable English, and proved during the press conference and interviews she did, that the current situation in Russia and its relation with Europe, emotionally affect her. I hope a lot of future Eurovision participants, should they head to Stockholm with a song, inviting viewers to question the political situation in their countries, to be open about it and don’t shy away from its political aspect… or simply don’t submit something politically-linked.
In Conclusion, John Lucas
I think what we’ve hit on here is that the impact of ‘politics’ in the Eurovision Song Contest is a very tricky beast, and near impossible to clearly define, let alone totally separate from the music.
I think Derek and Dimitri have hit on some interesting points about the more socially acceptable forms of politicising. Conchita’s song may not have contained any overt political messages, but the overall impact of her appearance, performance and victory certainly carried huge political connotations. Her very existence was a challenge to what certain participating broadcasters were willing to accept – remember the (ultimately inaccurate) rumours that Belarusian TV would edit her out of the semi final? Performers like Conchita – or even the likes of Krista Siegfrids or Monika & Vaidas – put the EBU in a Catch-22 situation. These performances are inherently provocative, but to ban them would also be an expressly political act. It seems to me that when they say the Song Contest is not a political contest, they’re actually defining it as a contest that wishes to divorce itself from hate speech and more overt forms of provocation such as ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In‘.
I think Monika & Vaidas this year are an interesting example. To pick up John’s point about Lithuania not necessarily being Europe’s most advanced country in forms of LGBT rights, the fact remains that the duo was able to stage that performance without being censured by their broadcaster. I was in a couple of press conferences with them, and Vaidas spoke passionately about how important it was to him to send out the message that Lithuania is a welcoming and progressive country. Their government may not have caught up yet, but it seems to me that his views reflect a significant demographic of urbane young Lithuanians who do embrace a more open-minded outlook.
Many citizens of the Baltic countries bristle against the term ‘Eastern European’ as applied to their region, as they see themselves much more as part of the west in terms of their culture and outlook. Not to continue to pour cold water on poor Polina, but I was very struck by the difference between Monika & Vaidas frank and open acknowledgement of their own political views, and the obviously short leash Ms Gagarina was being kept on – speaking exclusively through a translator despite clearly having a good grasp of English, measuring her words very, very carefully so as not to incriminate herself etc. I don’t hold any of that against her, but I do think it speaks volumes about the different political situations in modern Lithuania and Russia at the moment, and how that’s reflected in their approach to the Eurovision Song Contest.
And now one to you. How do you feel about politics at the Song Contest? Can there ever be a Contest with no political influence? Does there need to be a better definition of what is political? The comments are yours.