Winning team of the Eurovision Song Contest 2012, Laureen, Sweden (Image credits: Vugar Ibadov | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed)

The Melody of Politics: Eurovision’s (A)political Spectacle

Universality, inclusivity, and diversity. These three, quite noble, yet generic-sounding words form the backbone of the Eurovision Song Contest. But is there any actual meaning behind them?

Before diving into what Eurovision stands for, or at least what it is supposed to, let’s have a look at the maestro orchestrating the world’s longest-running international music competition: the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). 

EBU has been on a mission to foster unity in Europe — and later on beyond its borders — ever since establishing the Song Contest in 1956. As the years went on, Eurovision became a hostess of EBU members’ musical talents. In a true telenovela style, more countries joined, then some withdrew just to make a comeback in the following year and later pull back from the Contest again. The Eurovision fanbase can’t complain about the lack of drama. 

As Eurovision 2024 in Malmö approaches, amid the excitement of its comeback to ABBA’s home country, the proclaimed apolitical nature of the competition is reigniting debates across the world. 

Logo of the Eurovision Song Contest 2024 in Malmö (Image credit: European Broadcasting Union | Wikipedia | CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

Since its inception, Eurovision has been draped in the cloak of neutrality — a realm where politics supposedly doesn’t belong. Yet, like a persistent paparazzi, political debates have managed to sneak their way onto the Eurovision stage. 

Among multiple political controversies that have marked the history of the Eurovision Song Contest, one of the latest disputes concerns Israel’s participation in the 2024 edition. 

After having modified the lyrics of its entry – October Rain – the country was admitted into the competition. However, its welcome to the team of participants was far from warm. At the beginning of the year, over 1,000 Swedish artists signed an open letter to the EBU requesting that Israel withdraw from the competition. Other Eurovision contestants from Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark have called for Israel’s suspension due to the conflict in Gaza. Despite their efforts, Israel, which also faces accusations of committing genocide, appears undeterred from performing in Malmö. 

Amidst the public protests and debates over Israel’s involvement, it’s worth revisiting past agitations that have stirred Eurovision’s pot of (not so) quiet international diplomacy. 

Tvorchi (Ukraine) performing the song Heart of Steel at the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 (Image credit: Michael Doherty | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

Cast your mind back to 1982, when the protagonist of 2024’s altercation gave West Germany 12 points for a song entitled A Little Peace. The irony wasn’t lost there, and the query of whether the gesture was a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation is open for interpretation. After her win, the Israeli government invited West Germany’s representative — Nicole — to sing for the soldiers in Tel Aviv. “When I started singing A Little Peace, (…) [t]hey put down their weapons, took each other by the hand and listened to me for three minutes. It was such a great moment.” – the artist herself reminisces

Let’s now fast forward a few years to revisit one of Ukraine’s several politically charged Eurovision entries. In 2005, long before EBU banned Russia from participation and kicked out Belarus, GreenJolly kicked off Ukraine’s first performance as the Contest’s host country with an anthem of the Orange Revolution

Even though Eurovision permits neither political lyrics, speeches, nor gestures, GreenJolly’s drummer wore orange and the frontman had on a T-shirt portraying Che Guevara, a key figure in the Cuban Revolution. Together We Are Many — a song that explicitly expresses support for the anti-Russian president Viktor Yushchenko — needed to undergo a lyric change but was eventually allowed in the competition. 

That was not the case with Georgia’s submission We Don’t Wanna Put In from 2009. After EBU deemed that the song breached Eurovision’s rule of neutrality and ruled for its rejection, Georgia withdrew from the Contest — which was ironically hosted in Russia’s capital that year.

During the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan, fans revelled in performances from both Georgia and Russia. However, a (not-so) unexpected turn of events unfolded on Armenia’s side that year, as the country chose not to participate in the competition held in its neighbour’s capital. The decision to withdraw followed the tragic death of an Armenian soldier on the border between the two countries, which led to calls for a boycott. Even the unifying spirit of Eurovision was unable to bury the hatchet of long-escalating tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Victor Vernicos (Greece) performing the song What They Say at the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 (Image credit: Michael Doherty | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

Shifting from geopolitical tensions to the intricate dynamics of Eurovision voting, the Contest has often served as a stage for courteous gestures among countries with strong linguistic, ethnic, historical, or geographic ties. Soft diplomacy at its finest. 

One such example is the tradition of Greece and Cyprus exchanging 12 points with each other, showcasing a bond beyond the realms of music. However, this tradition was shattered in 2023 when Greece surprisingly awarded Cyprus only 4 points, causing a political stir on the island. 

As we journey through the tape of Eurovision history, it becomes evident that the Contest — despite its alleged apolitical stance — is often entangled in political complexities. While Eurovision strives to maintain an image of neutrality, the European Broadcasting Union faces the daunting task of navigating the fine line between political expression and entertainment.

From Israel’s contested participation in the 2024 edition to the symbolic gestures of solidarity between countries, political undertones are spread throughout Eurovision’s music sheet. Despite this, the EBU continues to claim the spirit of universality, inclusivity, and diversity that underpins the Contest.

By Iza Drogoś

May 1, 2024

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