On 18 May 2019, Duncan Laurence lifted the Eurovision trophy for the Netherlands. His ballad Arcade gave the Dutch their first win in forty-four years. The EBU (European Broadcasting Union) might have been hoping for a quieter contest in Rotterdam – but it looks set to be anything but.
The EBU is an organisation of dozens of broadcasters from across Europe and beyond. The union’s flagship show is the Eurovision Song Contest. First broadcast in 1956, it is among the world’s most-watched TV shows – and it has a long political history.
Some prime examples include; In Rome in 1991, Israel came third with a thinly-veiled swipe at Iran. In 2009, the contest went to Moscow, where the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan spilt over into the final. In Copenhagen in 2014, the Russian act, the Tolmachevy Sisters, was heavily booed mere weeks after the annexation of Crimea. That conflict reared its head again in Stockholm in 2016, when the contest turned into little more than a showdown between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine’s minimalist ballad about ethnic cleansing won the day. Recent host cities Kyiv and Tel Aviv have also proved controversial.
Once again, the 2021 contest is shaping up to become a de facto political arena. Here are this year’s controversies – and how these are spilling over in the run-up to Rotterdam.
There are not many countries that have been disqualified from Eurovision, but, as of this year, Belarus is one of them. On 9 March 2021, Belarusian broadcaster BTRC announced that the band Galasy ZMesta would represent the country with the Russian-language song I’ll Teach You (Я научу тебя). Almost immediately, anger erupted.
Galasy ZMesta was formed during the pro-democracy protests that swept the country in the summer of 2020 and are outspoken in their support for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Even more incendiary than this were the lyrics of their song: “You will dance to the tune of my flute/I will teach you to obey”, set to a catchy pop tune. This riled the pro-democracy grassroots across the country.
The internet quickly responded. The music video soon became the most disliked video on the Eurovision YouTube channel, while social media put pressure on the EBU to reject the song. Within days, the EBU did just that – BTRC was asked to submit a new entry. The new entry was entitled A Song About Bunnies (Песню про зайся). “Bunnies” is homophobic slur in the Russian language. The new entry was again rejected by the EBU, and Belarus was disqualified.
From political propaganda to religious fervor, the Cypriot entry has managed to rile the Greek Orthodox Church. On 28 February 2021, Greek singer Elena Tsagrinou released the three-minute carnival of camp that is El Diablo – meaning ‘The Devil’ in Spanish. With its thumping chorus and catchy hook, the song looks set to do well in Rotterdam.
It was the lyrics to the chorus, however, “I fell in love/I gave my heart to El Diablo” and “I gave it up/I gave it all/Because he tells me I’m his angel” that led Cypriot conservatives to accuse Tsagrinou of promoting Satanism. One listener even stated that they wanted “to burn down” the HQ of the CyBC – the Cypriot broadcaster. Members of the Orthodox clergy have also called for protest in response to the song.
But the CyBC is standing by Tsagrinou and El Diablo. They have reiterated that she will represent the island nation in Rotterdam. As things stand, Cyprus will be bringing a dark twist to this year’s contest.
Taking a Stand
Like Cyprus, the Netherlands has also managed to anger more conservative factions. Suriname-born singer Jeangu Macrooy’s song Birth of a New Age addresses the Black Lives Matter movement and the conversation it has started the world over.
The Netherlands’ three minute song is a rousing call-to-action, with lyrics like “They burnt your heroes at the stake/But your voice will echo all their names” and “Yu no man broko mi” (“You won’t break me” in Sranan Tongo). However, it has attracted criticism from some quarters.
Across social media, there are those who do not believe that Eurovision is the right platform for this type of song. Macrooy and AVROTROS, the Dutch broadcaster, remain unbothered, however. Birth of a New Age will represent the Netherlands on home soil.
Reopening Old Wounds
The North Macedonian controversy is of a different nature. It comes not from the song itself – the Disneyesque ballad Here I Stand – but the video that accompanies the song.
The original cut of the video, shot in the National Museum of the Republic of North Macedonia in Skopje, featured a piece of art that appeared to resemble the Bulgarian flag. Bulgaria, which has recently vetoed North Macedonia’s EU accession talks, has a long-standing historical dispute with the country.
The furore generated by the video resulted in MRT, the North Macedonian broadcaster, considering withdrawing their entrant Vasil Garvanliev. Garvanliev enjoys widespread support amongst Eurovision fans, leading MRT to settle on a compromise. The video was edited and re-released, with MRT confirming that both Garvanliev and Here I Stand will represent the Balkan nation in Rotterdam.
Defining a Russian Woman
In comparison to Manizha and her entry Russian Woman, the North Macedonian controversy pales. On 8 March 2021, Channel One – the Russian broadcaster – held a national selection, with three songs competing. Tajiki-born Manizha unexpectedly won with the song Russian Woman.
Manizha is a controversial figure in both Russia and her native Tajikistan. She is an outspoken feminist and a strong supporter of LGBT rights. In 2020, she performed at Russia-wide digital Pride event Open. Later that year, she performed at QueerFest, held in St Petersburg. Manizha has also campaigned for greater awareness and understanding surrounding domestic violence after the Duma (the Russian parliament) decriminalised it.
Despite this, she won the right to represent Russia through a public vote. But this has not stopped an almighty backlash. There has been widespread negative reaction to both the song and Manizha on Russian social media, with many accusing her of undermining “Russia’s Christian values”. Many of her critics appear to have latched on to the lyrics “Fighting, fighting/Everyone all around is fighting/But no one is praying” and “A son without a father/A daughter without a father/But a broken family won’t break me”. The controversy has only escalated in the months since her selection.
One Russian TV presenter said that she could not bring herself to “call this singer [Manizha] a Russian woman” as she is of Tajiki birth. Another conservative voice wrote an anonymous piece in which they stated that they hoped that Manizha’s plane “crashed” en route to Rotterdam. The furore has now even reached the Duma.
MP and Deputy Chairperson of the Committee on Culture Yelena Drapeko raised Russian Woman, stating that the Duma should compel Channel One to withdraw from the contest. Drapeko went on to say that Eurovision “offered no cultural value” and had become “too pro-LGBT” since Russia sent its first entry back in 1994.
Channel One has remained noticeably silent throughout this, but has made no moves to withdraw from the contest. As for Manizha and her band, they remain stoic. In fact, in a recent pre-contest event, PrePartyES, Manizha ended her performance of Russian Woman by saying: “Be ready for change because you are the change.”
On 22 May 2021, the Eurovision Song Contest will crown a new winner. Come what may, Rotterdam is shaping up to be a lively contest. If these five controversies are anything to go by, then this year’s contest may well prove to be essential viewing.