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26 May 2019 12:53
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  •   Home > News > International

    Eurovision was meant to be apolitical. It's been anything but

    Protesters disrupting Eurovision in Tel Aviv have been accused of defying the spirit of the song contest, but behind all the kitsch and glitz, it's always been political.

    This year's Eurovision, being held in Israel, has sparked protests and calls for a boycott over the country's treatment of Palestinians.

    Some have decried the protesters, claiming they go against the uniting spirit of a competition that has long touted itself as apolitical.

    But politics has been part of Eurovision since its inception.

    Behind the kitsch lyrics and camp costuming is a song contest that mirrors post war Europe's myriad fractures and crises — from Cold War tensions to cultural shifts.

    "Certainly, the origins of the Eurovision Song Contest are apolitical — initially it was about putting on a simultaneous television program across Europe," history professor Dean Vuletic, an expert in the politics of the contest, told RN's Sunday Extra.

    "But from its very inception the contest has been a stage for governments and contestants to signal rivalries, make statements and send messages."

    The first broadcast

    During the mid-1950s, in the reconstructive spirit of post-war Europe, the European Broadcasting Union began searching for a way to bring its member countries together through the exciting new platform of television.

    The resulting contest, then coined the Eurovision Grand Prix, saw seven participating countries gather in Switzerland for a singing competition that fit the brief of a "light entertainment program".

    But the light entertainment attracted some heavy politics.

    Germany, still coming to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust, was represented by a Jew.

    "With Walter Andreas Schwarz, already there was a statement on Germany's history in the first ever Eurovision," Professor Vuletic says.

    The Dutch submission, the Birds of Holland, used the contest to promote the nation's identity and culture — now a Eurovision trope.

    "The Dutch entry talks about how faithful Dutch woman are and how beautiful the country is, so from the get-go people saw an opportunity to use Eurovision to advance their agenda," Professor Vuletic says.

    From that first competition, Eurovision became an accidental vehicle for expressing the rapidly changing political and cultural landscape of the post-war period.

    In the 1960s and 70s the event's organisers became increasingly permissive of political songs in an attempt to make the songs more in tune with the times.

    The late 60s saw a French song, La Source, exploring the taboo topic of rape, and Yugoslavian peace anthem All the Flowers of the World became the first of many anti-war entries.

    "In the late 1950s and the 1960s, there were a lot of social messages being sent through Eurovision — all rather socially provocative," Professor Vuletic says.

    "In the 1970s we really have a wave of entries that are about peace themes, the environment, and that are also still talking about sex."

    Turkey's 1974 invasion of Cyprus, a move which famously struck anxieties in Greece, saw Eurovision's first step into the realm of geopolitics.

    Greece withdrew its entry in the 1975 contest in protest over Turkey's inclusion and the following year Turkish TV returned the favour by refusing to broadcast the Greek performance.

    It was the first time that a boycott would be deployed to make a statement out of the supposedly unifying competition, but it certainly wouldn't be the last.

    After the Cold War

    The break-up of the Soviet Union saw the dawning of a whole new political era for Europe — and a host of new nations to participate in Eurovision.

    "Eurovision has often been used as a platform for post-Soviet nations to promote their identities as new independent states — their first acts of cultural diplomacy," Professor Vuletic says.

    "Estonia and Latvia, particularly used the competition to show their credentials as European nations — differentiating themselves from the Soviet bloc."

    When Estonia won Eurovision in 2001, the first post-Soviet nation to do so, it also seized the opportunity to revamp its image as a nation with a racially diverse performance troupe.

    The country's citizens were familiar with Eurovision because they could capture Finnish TV signals and had been hungry for success since they started participating in 1994.

    In 2009 the Georgian delegation was disqualified from the contest when their song Put In Disco took a thinly veiled strike at Russia's invasion of their country the previous year.

    It included the phrase "we don't wanna put in," shading the polemical "we don't want Putin" — which came before a reference to a "negative move" that was "killing the groove".

    In 2016, it was Ukraine's turn to brush up against its former Soviet occupant with a song about the deportation of Crimean Tartars in 1944, often considered an act of ethnic cleansing.

    Unlike Georgia, however, the Ukrainians not only managed to stay in the competition with their anti-Stalinist historical reflection but, much to the chagrin of the Kremlin, win it.


    Today the LGBTIQ community is often championed by and represented at Eurovision.

    But according to Professor Vuletic, this is a relatively recent tradition — gay themes were barely present in the submissions of the previous century.

    "If you read it in a certain way the closest outwardly gay song came in 1961 when Luxembourg entered We, the Lovers — but it certainly wasn't referred to as gay at the time," he says.

    In 1997 Iceland's Paul Oscar — with white leather couches, latex fetish outfits, and masturbatory motions — became the first openly gay performer.

    The following year, Israeli transgender woman Dana International won with a song about female strength, despite heavy opposition from inside and beyond Israel.

    "Dana International's performance really confirmed Eurovision as an event with a large gay following," Professor Vuletic says.

    And in 2014 bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst won the contest with a throttling performance of Rise Like a Phoenix.

    The decidedly non-political track still caused controversy by stoking the homophobic anxieties of Russia and Belarus, both of which called for the song's transmission to be cut short.

    This tension, says Professor Vuletic, shows the true political weight of Eurovision as a competition that attracts as much attention from dictators as it does LGBTIQ groups.

    "Eurovision really has been a platform for the aspirations of various actors, ranging from dictators to drag queens," he says.

    "There are different actors of different political shades for a contest that has a lot of different political meanings — Israel in 2019 is just continuation of a historical tradition."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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