On Tradition and Transition: ‘Performing the New Europe’

The great challenge in writing critically and objectively about the Eurovision Song Contest is that everyone who has been part of its vast international audience will have a difference experience of it, depending upon where and when they have watched it. From my own British perspective, it has never been something to take seriously. This is no doubt informed at least in part by the wry observations of Terry Wogan, who provided commentary for the British broadcasts of the contest between 1971 and 2008.

Yet the contest is more than a joke in many countries, for whom it serves as a means of portraying themselves to the wider Europe. Confident in its culture and strength, Britain has had no need to use Eurovision in this way.

This collection uses Eurovision as a device for examining how the idea of Europe and European identity has changed since the contest’s inception in 1956. The contest has grown from seven contestants to 39 in the most recent event, but the format has remained essentially the same. The songs entered by each participant are performed during a live TV broadcast, and each country then casts votes to determine the winner. The winning country’s reward is the chance to host the next year’s contest.

Europe has changed significantly since 1956, and this has been reflected in the song contest, not least in its expansion. Countries from outside what are traditionally regarded as the frontiers of Europe have joined the contest, with Israel and Azerbaijan both having played host. However, attitudes towards some entrants have served to highlight the fact that many countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe, have been regarded as not quite European in their culture or status.

Wogan’s cynicism, as Karen Fricker points out in her essay on the changing British attitude to the song contest, is founded on an entrenched belief in Western superiority, and a frustration that the position of Britain within Europe has changed. Wogan’s view seemed to be that the British performance should automatically be better than those from Eastern Europe, and that if this is not reflected in the results, then the other countries involved have poor judgement or are voting for political reasons. Indeed, Wogan eventually resigned from his role as commentator after becoming frustrated by what he considered political voting within Eastern Europe.

The relationship between East and West within Eurovision is something that is returned to often in this collection. Wogan’s claims of corruption in Eastern Europe is not the only example of the West feeling a need to reassert its power over the East. For example, Peter Rehberg argues that there has been “a projection of the ‘queer’ onto Eastern Europe’ by Germany as a means of reasserting the position of Germany within Western Europe.

Meanwhile, Ioana Szeman’s essay on the presentation of Romani music in Eurovision reveals that for countries with large Roma populations, such as Romania, this is an aspect of their culture that is “perceived as inadequate for the international stage” of the contest. In each case, we find European nations vying to present themselves in the most favourable way possible through the means of Eurovision.

Indeed, Europe has changed economically as well as politically since 1956, and cost has become an important consideration for participants. Russia and Azerbaijan have both had the wealth to stage spectacular events in 2009 and 2012 respectively, with the former using 30 percent of the world’s LED screens in their stage set and the latter building a new 23,000 seat arena. However, Portugal and Poland did not participate in the 2013 contest, fearing that they would be unable to finance hosting the next year’s event, should they win.

A panel discussion between Eurovision broadcasters provides an illuminating centrepiece to the book, and it’s here that Mariana Rusen from Romania’s public broadcaster, TVR, raises the point that winning the contest might in fact be undesirable due to the possibility that Romania may be unable to afford to host. This raises the question of whether the song contest should be subsided by other nations if necessary, and from here it’s not too much of a leap to propose a more socialist means of financing the contest, though this might not sit too well with a Europe that has striven to put the Cold War era firmly behind it.

It’s remarkable how little Eurovision has changed since it began 57 years ago, especially when the substantial changes to Europe are considered. While the longstanding tradition of the contest might indicate that it’s unlikely to evolve significantly, it’s clear that the participating countries may need to alter their perceptions of the contest and of their co-contestants if they are to succeed not just as Eurovision participants, but as Europeans.

RATING 6 / 10
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists