Eurovision: a cause for unity

Patriotism and politics at USyd's Eurovision Forum

Image: Michael Campanella

I’ll be honest: I’ve never been the biggest Eurovision fan (it would steal the SBS slot usually reserved for Mythbusters). But as a young Ukrainian, with all eyes currently fixed on Kyiv, I’ve been inevitably drawn into the excitement. This week, the University’s Eurovision Forum heard from former host Julia Zemiro and Associate Professor Anika Gauja, as they discussed the song contest’s meaning to both themselves and the international community.

The competition emerged at an interesting time in European history: as Gauja explained, it was conceived as a way of bringing a splintered continent together after the ravages of World War Two. It’s unlikely that the founders knew what a glittery, multicoloured phenomenon Eurovision would become, but the communal spirit they envisioned doesn’t seem to have waned. Speaking to a packed theatre, the audience warmly laughed and applauded in-jokes about spangly outfits, off-key choruses, and England’s general incompetence.

Clearly, Eurovision has  evolved into more than a simple competition: it has history and subcultures all of its own. Gauja went on to talk about its hugely intricate set of rules, pushed at every opportunity by countries who’ve invested millions of dollars into their entries. Perhaps it’s strange that the politics of a song and dance contest could carry such weight, but the strength of a country’s entry in many ways reflects the strength of its culture. From my experience in Australia’s Ukrainian community, the symbols and rhythms of the folk songs link the diaspora to their ancestors, connecting us with a long verbal tradition. Indeed, Ruslana’s victory in 2004 is still fresh in the Ukrainian psyche. As the Eurovision producer mentioned in 2016, “it’s a battlefield where you can allow yourself to
be a patriot”.

However, with national pride at stake in Eurovision, it’s easy to see how it becomes infused with power plays and politics. Both Gauja and Zemiro touched on the spread of tactical voting according to political blocs, or the lasting power of the Eurovision performance as a platform for political protests, such as the threatened boycott of the competition in 2009 by the Dutch due to Russia’s homophobic policies. This is especially relevant for Ukraine’s victory last year and resultant hosting. For citizens, it’s a defiant exclamation of Ukraine’s success in the face of Russian hostility, as well as a symbolic move towards greater independence and legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. The controversies have also continued, with Russian artist Yulia Samoilova being banned from entering Ukraine due to apparent violation of travel laws in 2016.

The speakers expressed their fears that people can lose sight of what matters: that political forces distract us from the artists’ efforts and passion, and that commercialisation and omnipresent social media hinder honesty and boldness when performing. As a Eurovision outsider, it’s difficult to comment, but it does strike me that I’ve heard much about over-the-top sets and highly-strung emotions — indeed, Julia Zemiro likened the atmosphere to that of a “news room” before a deadline — and yet very little about the apparent encroach of soulless media. More often than not, fears about the destructive effects of technology on art fail to materialise, and creative people find new ways to subvert forms and connect genuinely with people. And that’s the key: passion and creativity are difficult, if not impossible, to fully stifle.

It seems to me that Eurovision succeeds when, as Zemiro put it, artists “sing a song that they like”; when it’s music competition first, political battleground second. Certainly, it’s a line that isn’t always easy to define. But while the forces of Twitter and global politics may be at play, the auditorium packed with fans enjoying in-jokes and the genuine pride of each country’s communities show that the enthusiasm hasn’t left. As it did fifty years ago, Eurovision still unites Europe. And, apparently, Australia.