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XTRA Debate: Politics – the elephant in the Eurovision bubble

‘Politics’ and ‘Eurovision. Two words that theoretically should not be put together, yet year after year they seem to be inseparable. Political voting, political entries, suspect political messages in songs – I could go on. While the modern Eurovision Song Contest has vastly evolved since its initial conception, the link to a wider political narrative has not faltered. However, are there ways in which ‘politics’ and ‘Eurovision’ can, and should be mixed? 

Peace will come

The simplest answer is no. Perhaps it is even the easiest answer. In keeping the contest  apolitical, the EBU can remain an objective body. Ensuing the contest is not hijacked for political means, prevents disputes – be it fans, audiences at home or wider international relations. The core purpose of the contest is to bring together nations, not create further divisions. Eurovision should not be used as a platform to cause conflict. 

The rules of the contest have consistently included a clause or two about this issue, ensuring there is a significant distance to a political agenda: 

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 of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the ESC. No swearing or other unacceptable language shall be allowed in the lyrics or in the performances of the songs. No messages promoting any organization, institution, political cause or other, company, brand, products or services shall be allowed in the Shows and within any official ESC premises (i.e. at the venue, during the Opening Ceremony, the Eurovision village, the Press Centre, etc.).

Eurovision rules, 2018

We Don’t Wanna Put In 

The EBU outlines that a breach of this rule may result in disqualification. Georgia 2009 immediately springs to mind. Had it been allowed to perform, the song could very easily be interpreted as a jab against Russia’s Prime Minister, in Moscow. Coming from the backdrop of a Russian-Georgian conflict in South Ossetia the year before, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’ is quite clearly not ideal for peace and harmony! 

Call it a hunch, but I can’t help but feel the reaction in the Olympic stadium would have been slightly more dramatic than the infamously controversial victory for No Name for Serbia & Montenegro in 2006… 

Love is blind

However, despite all of the legitimate and valid reasons above, to say the contest has and should always retain an apolitical perspective is somewhat naive. Even the act of participation is an act of political maneuvering. Behind the Iron Curtain, the Intervision Song Contest acted as a rival to Eurovision between 1977-1980. As the Soviet Union was not a member of the EBU (which for the most part was headed by Western Europe), they could not participate. The contest marks a poignant example of how divided our continent once was, with music being used to construct another border. The BBC beautifully sets up this dichotomy: 

The Western allies had Nato; the Eastern bloc had the Warsaw Pact.
The West had the Common Market; the East had Comecon.
We had the Eurovision Song Contest; they had… the Intervision Song Contest.

Steve Rosenberg, BBC

By participating in one contest, you are implicitly aligning with its respective regime. Go back to 1993 and the debut of Bosnia and Herzegovina was met with Irish and European solidarity. A standing ovation from the audience and even praise from the late Terry Wogan, somberly recognizing the struggle to get to Millstreet. Again, the Beeb has an honest, upfront and harrowing account of Fazla’s Eurovision experience. .  

‘Good to see them here, they will receive a special round of applause […] This does have a message for the world, and Bosnia. 

Terry Wogan

Similarly, seemingly innocent elements of the contest can be unintentionally politically heated. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the below postcard inflamed an age-old land dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Clearly, the contest is embedded with political narratives that would be pretty hard to ignore. This is not just exclusive to Europe either, with Eurovision Asia being put on an indefinite pause for being ‘too geo-politically difficult’.

Lost and found (in translation)?

Jumping towards this decade (and century!), there appears to be a trend towards entries using contemporary, pan-European/global issues as the basis of their song. Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France and Italy have all recently addressed the threat to political harmony. These songs obviously address issues such as migration, terrorism, loss, integration and the futility of conflict. All of these songs are prominently in their respective national tongue. This year, I personally found ‘Mercy’ much more chilling than Italy’s impassioned effort. I initially thought the subtitles, though neat, was a bit of a cheap tactic to get audiences to understand the message. I was wrong. The subtitles allowed the Europe to understand a universal narrative without taking away the authenticity of the song itself. Coming third in the televote, Meta and Moro emulated the political solidarity achieved by Fazla.

However, for me, I wished the performance of Madame Monsiour had gone further, to mimic some of the elements of the music video. Though effortlessly cool and vocally on point, the poignant lyrics became lost in translation. I would have included more cuts to the audience where dancers wearing life-jackets and foil coats were planted. The audience coated in a blue light to reflect the sea itself. Just before the song finishes, the camera shots are repeated, with only the coats and jackets remaining. The final minute of the song once becomes a grand moment of European solidarity against political conflict.

Flexible rules…

Ultimately, politics is the great elephant in the Eurovision bubble. Each year, the majority of songs can be read or interpreted to have a political slant or agenda. However, some songs with a clear political agenda have performed on stage. It seems to me that context is key. Though the rules do ban political speech, it appears to be only if that speech is used to provoke a fissure between nations. Politics and Eurovision can and possibly should mix, but only to help promote the goal of building bridges.  

What place do you think politics should have in Eurovision – if at all? Is it truly possible for a contest of this magnitude be apolitical? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or @ESCXTRA

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