Eurovision 2020: Staging Political Identity
Eurovision contestants subvert the events' apolitical ethos simply with their identity, which is then subverted by performer and audience subjectivity. So who, ultimately, wins?
Flared parachute pants, multi-coloured pyrotechnics and shirtless men who are probably too covered in grease to be safely standing near an open flame -- this is the annual spectacle of Eurovision. Whether you follow the contest religiously or begrudgingly groove to a favorite of Eurovision fans -- ABBA's "Waterloo" -- in between eye rolls, it's impossible to feign ignorance when it comes to this annual exercise in glittering spectacle. Like many events during the COVID-19 lockdown, Eurovision has been cancelled for the first time in 60 years. Sure, there's still a Spotify Playlist filled with the synthesised ballads of this year's contestants, but something is missing -- and it's not just the cancelled event.
I had my first dalliance with Eurovision in 2015, when Guy Sebastian premiered his distinctly Australian twang to an audience momentarily lulled into thinking Australia was part of Europe. In a crowded room of sparkling Queer people, I found myself struck by two overwhelming feelings: acute patriotism, and a feeling of having been wrenched out of a closet I had spent 21 years hiding in. I watched it in a small, nondescript bar in Sydney, but at that moment it became a space filled to overflowing with an enlivening sense of shared identities – both national and queer.
Unfortunately, Sebastian lost that year. But the feeling I encountered that night stuck with me. Since then, I've found my way to various dive bars and kerb-side viewings every year, drawn by the allure of a ceremony that glitters with something that will be sorely missed this year.
But what does Eurovision offer, other than two songs you won't be able to get out of your head for three days? During 2016's Eurovison contest, hosts Petra Mede and Mans Zelmerlow offered a summary of Eurovision's unique contribution to the world with their tongue-in-cheek: 'Love, Love, Peace, Peace… and a burning piano'. While an hilarious parody, the song implicitly acknowledges important questions that have always circled the competition: has it given us anything other than a burning piano singing of Love and Peace? What purpose can, and does, Eurovision serve?
Eurovision raises these kinds of questions: what's the value of its style of performance, the purpose of spectacle entertainment? – and simultaneously places them, and their answers, on a teetering edge. The political, economic, and cultural repercussions of any ceremony immediately adopts a curious mobility once it stands on the Eurovision stage. Amid soaring high notes and flashing LEDs the contest can place itself between two seemingly opposing camps while committing to neither. It can appear politically engaged, culturally progressive, or reductive while still maintaining a non-committal impression of apoliticism that answers any question of value with simply louder speakers.
If Eurovision is subject to political critique, then it can reply – backed, no doubt, by a synthesised beat – that 'It's just harmless entertainment', and therefore unrestricted by a specific class of 'meaning something' of greater importance. Since its inception, Eurovision has capitalised on the binary between art with a political agenda and entertainment for entertainment's sake. Written in the Eurovision rulebook, which yes does exist, the governing committee is quite explicit (here, I quote from the book – which I read cover to cover):
All Participating Broadcasters, including the Host Broadcaster, shall ensure that no organization, institution, political cause or other cause, company, brand, product or service shall be promoted, featured or mentioned directly or indirectly during the Event. No messages promoting any organization, institution, political cause or other, company, brand, products or services shall be allowed in the Shows.'
No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political, commercial or similar nature shall be permitted.
If the rules come as a surprise to some, well, you're not alone. For as long as there have been restrictions on Eurovision's political affiliations, there have been people dodging those restrictions. Just as, when nations were restricted to submitting songs in their native tongue, there was a sudden influx of songs that appealed to, or at least accommodated, an English sensibility and universality. Who can forget classics like Massiel's 'La La La' in 1968 and, the memorable and the Herrey's 'Diggi-Loo Diggi-ley' in 1984?
On the other hand, if Eurovision takes what appears to be an overt political stance (albeit, a veiled one, as per the rules), then any opposition to this stance will be resolved by employing a similar refrain. Namely, that 'it's just harmless entertainment' and therefore, this political stance is not doing 'anything', really.
Indeed, the competition's camp exterior carries with it a pretty explicit implication of apoliticism. We saw this interplay most recently with the 2016 winner, Jamala who won with the song '1944', a performance that made explicit reference to the extradition of Crimean Tatars by Stalin during 1944.
In response to their submission, the Russian Government explicitly accused Ukraine of politicising the contest and attempting to further a distinctly political agenda. In order to resolve such a seemingly justified critique, Jamala pivoted the discussion of her song to be focused on more universally palatable issues and experiences; including, oppression, bigotry, injustice, and as she said in her acceptance speech: the need for "peace and love".
Perhaps 'Love Love, Peace Peace' and a burning piano?
Of course, within the apolitical bounds of the contest's commitment to camp, there are exceptions. There are performances like Jamala that are either overtly political or subject to geopolitical tensions that play out in the background. However, Eurovision maintains its teetering balancing act even within these exceptions. More often than not, political performances on the Eurovision stage are anchored to an appeal to 'identity politics'. It seems that Eurovision can navigate being both an apolitical camp extravaganza with little substance and a valuable political platform when it chooses to highlight, and at times even universalise, a subjective experience; an experience that often touches on distinctly Left-leaning ideas – and specifically LGBTQI+ issues – usually veiled by a more unifying focus on general human experience.
If we look to Conchita Wurst, one of the most famous winners to take home the crown in 2014, we find just one of many examples of Eurovision's self-posturing. In her prize-winning song, 'Rise Like a Phoenix', Conchita stands in a figure-hugging dress with a beautifully quaffed beard. Dry ice covers the stage in ambient mist. An assemblage of thin spotlights refract in radiant sparkles from her dress. The light touch of a fan machine keeps her hair dancing, while lyrics like 'You know I will rise', 'What 'you' did to me', 'Retribution, 'you' were warned' tell the story of her pain, her heartache, and finally, her healing.
But these lyrics are not political, at least in no obvious sense of the word. The feelings described in Wurst's song, are feelings we can all relate to, at least to an extent. The political weight of her song – and the critical reception to it – stems from the fact that she is the one singing it. In other words, it's because Conchita stands on the stage in a dress and with a beard, thus making her place within the Queer community explicit. Her political 'being' cannot be cleaved from her physical being (her presence on stage as a man wearing a dress). Moreover, it's the spectacle of the competition itself that draws on, and even highlights, these aspects by way of incredible production quality and visual prowess. While it's a distinctly subjective experience she sings about, it's made both universally relevant and specifically political for the Queer community.
If we return to Jamala's winning '1944', we see a different version of this same formula play out. Jamala's great grandmother was in fact one of 240,000 people deported from the peninsula in 1944. If her song is political, it's a politicism that cannot, just like Conchita, be separated from Jamala's subjective experience, and thus her presence on the stage. For Jamala, her identity is inseparable from her cultural history. Thus, by way of simply existing, she inhabits this cultural history, and brings it onto the Eurovision stage.
With this subjective framework instilled, Eurovision can accept distinctly political performances like Conchita's and Jamala's without completely compromising its commitment to being apolitical. Any politicism read into the competition rests squarely on the shoulders of the subjective experiences of its contestants. Moreover, it also rests on our subjective experience as viewers.
When I stood in that seedy bar in the centre of Sydney' central business district, I felt my subjective experience played out on screen. In fact, I was buoyed by it; screaming, laughing, feeling a sense of belonging predicated on a sense of sharing national and sexual identities with my glitter-clad peers. It was a distinct experience, one that combined the sense of community achieved by watching any kind of competitive sport, with the even more overt sense of community fostered by sudden patriotism and the shared identity of the LGBTQI+ community. It was a subjective experience but it became communal, shared with that unexplainable joy of feeling a sense of belonging.
There are some great lyrics for a Eurovision song in that paragraph.
When Eurovision was first created in 1956, it was described as an attempt to unify Europe in the wake of World War II. A socialist radio network at the time, Radio Liberte, even went as far as to describe the contest as a "new weapon" perfect 'for psychological warfare [and] aimed at uniting Europe".
Since then, Europe has changed, evolved, devolved, and expanded. There are new tensions, and new problems, but there are some constants. Our place in our respective communities – perhaps of nation, of identity, of cultural history – remain our own. These are subjective things and experiences, but they are not, as a result, inherently opposed to being universal. As we contend more and more with the impossibility of existing, just as bodies moving across the earth, outside of politics, we are also forced to consider the ways in which our political being can connect us to others.
If Eurovision is able to imbue these subjective experiences with a sense – both political and communal – of a diverse number of communities, then perhaps it's worth being the subject of an essay. Perhaps, it's worth missing this year.
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