As the Russian invasion of Ukraine approached the three-month mark, almost all of Europe stopped on Saturday to honor one of the continent’s most popular traditions, the Eurovision Song Contest. Conceived as a peaceful way for European countries to compete against each other, the singing competition prides itself on helping to keep peace in Europe. Organized by the European Broadcasting Union, the event is marketed as a place where countries put aside their cultural differences and overcome language barriers through the power of music.
It’s a proxy outlet for international politics bubbling beneath its slick euro-pop surface, one that the home needs more than ever.
But Russia was banned this year, and Ukraine was one of the favorites to win the 2022 Grand Final, both on sympathy and merit. As expected, although the professional juries mainly supported other countries, the popular vote went overwhelming for Ukraine, giving it the win. That may seem against the spirit of the broadcast, but the intrigue is actually what drives Eurovision: it’s a proxy outlet for international politics bubbling beneath the slick europop surface, one that the home needs more than ever.
It is exactly this understated political feeling that draws many people to watch year after year. (The 2021 edition had an audience of 183 million, making it the most watched live non-sporting event in the world.) The singing competition is a cultural juggernaut that has largely escaped American comprehension and attention, except perhaps as the vehicle launched ABBA and Celine Dion. From its decades as a positive gay influence (which is still a point of pride), to the satisfaction of voting for the country “deserving a win”, Eurovision has always been more than just music, and with the war in Ukraine currently raging, Eurovision now feels more relevant than ever.
The opening Saturday was a bit on the nose, with a performance of “Give Peace A Chance”. The politics after that was more subtle, with many performers quietly wearing yellow and blue bands on their wrists or carrying small flags. But a few – like Iceland – had the audacity to break the protocol and call for peace in Ukraine. The hosts had the uneasy task of ignoring everything, or worse, refusing to give it a platform: In an extremely awkward moment, presenter and singer Mika snatched the mic back rather than risking the Ukrainian act doing something political. say during an interview segment.
The continent-wide music competition was launched in 1956 with just a handful of participants and a mantra of inclusivity. Over the ensuing six decades, Eurovision has grown to 52 possible participating countries, although 43 have participated the most. (Any country with a TV channel that pays dues is eligible to have an original song to run. It’s a broad enough eligibility requirement to include non-European countries like Israel and Australia, but not the United States. States.)
Organizers have insisted time and again that the contest is apolitical in nature. It’s billed as escapism, all peace, love, and music, with annual themes like “Come Together” or “We Are One.” (This year it’s “The Sound of Beauty.”) But the show has always been a stand-in for the current climate.
From the fact that Israel was accepted as a member in 1973 to the wave of Eastern European countries that suddenly became eligible in the early 1990s, Eurovision is a show that reflects the times. During the reign of US Imperial power and a stronger UK, song submissions became mostly standard English from 1973, when the contest first relaxed rules imposing national language requirements, and again in 1999 when they were removed completely. But as American influence waned, the trend returned to native-language singing.
Political favoritism has always been visible in the jury vote, with countries seeing it as a tool to use soft power over their neighbors or as a way to silence those with whom they have political differences. But since the introduction of jury and televoting side by side, the show’s political surrogacy has become harder to hide, especially since a rule is that the public can’t vote for singers from their own country. In 2021, after the UK’s final withdrawal from the EU, it got zero points. And since Russia passed its “gay propaganda law” in 2013, his actions have been regularly booed by the public.
Since the Kremlin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, Russian-Ukrainian tensions have been particularly dire. Stalin’s purge of the Crimean Tatars. While her song was technically about a historical event (thus circumventing the show’s rules that songs aren’t about current political events), Russia lamented, drawing attention to the song’s themes and pushing it to win. through the popular vote. (Since 2016, the vote has been split 50-50, with traditional juries awarding their points spread first and then announcing the popular vote totals by country.)
The following year, Ukraine hosted the event and the Russian representative banned entry to the country for its support of the annexation of Crimea in Moscow. Russia withdrew. Two years later, Ukraine ran into trouble with its own act, refusing to sign the contract to represent the country rather than take a political stance. Then it was Ukraine’s turn to withdraw.
This year’s competition has only widened the gap. Although the European Broadcasting Union initially declined to take a position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, complaints from members and viewers reached a point they could not ignore, and it disqualified Russia from the competition. In response, Putin has completely withdrawn from the broadcasting association and it is unclear if and when Russia will return.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian act, the Kalush Orchestra, performed “Stefania”, sung entirely in Ukrainian and with a chorus rooted in the country’s folk music, interspersed with rapped verses, a break dancer and some traditional woodwinds, the sopilka and the telenka. With references to coming home to broken roads and an appreciation for mothers protecting their children, it’s not hard to see why it was a favorite.
Of course, despite the ordinance against politics, Ukraine’s action ended with a message pleading for an end to the war. The (all-male) band is expected to return home immediately after the show to rejoin the military and fight for their country. Most juries didn’t seem to appreciate it, leading their top hits to become the very non-political songs from Spain, Sweden and the UK (although Ukraine did get top votes from neighbors Poland, Moldova, Latvia, Romania and Lithuania.) But the European population at home did not have it, giving Ukraine a staggering total of 439 points as of the televote, for an insurmountable 631 points (the second highest in history) and the victory.
It doesn’t matter who ends up being this year’s breakthrough performers, the politicization of Eurovision will continue. It may not be the proxy for an entire war, but music is indeed a universal language, including that of politics. It will always be Europe’s most entertaining outlet for how people think about the world as a whole and their neighbours.