Eurovision and Its Discontents

The flamboyant song contest is not only a Saturnalia of Taste, it is also a Saturnalia of Sovereignty

TURIN, ITALY - MAY 12: Vladana performs on stage during the second semi-final of the 66th Eurovision...
Filippo Alfero/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Ryan Ruby

Since moving to Berlin in 2014, I have become a regular watcher of Eurovision, the televised song-and-dance competition known the world over as the height of frivolity and schlock. Whenever my German friends find this out about me — a person they otherwise consider an unrepentant snob — they think I am mocking them. They are not entirely mistaken. Yet watching Eurovision, to paraphrase the poet Marianne Moore, “with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in / it after all a place for the genuine.” What, you ask, could possibly be considered genuine about a spectacle, which, in recent years, has featured women in peasant costume churning butter, a man running laps in a hamster wheel, and people dressed up as Irish turkeys and characters from the Lord of the Rings? Why, the politics, of course.

Here come the acronyms. Founded in 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is organized by an institution called the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Participation is granted to countries in the European Broadcasting Area (EBA), a territory more extensive than the Eurozone, the European Union (EU), or even the continent of Europe itself. Its core may be defined as the “Big Five” of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom — a self-styled Security Council whose financial backing of the EBU permanently guarantees their nominees a place at the Grand Final, no matter how atrocious they are — plus the remainder of Western Europe and Scandinavia. The semi-periphery extends to Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the South Caucasus, Israel, and Turkey — which has been boycotting the contest since 2012. The periphery includes most of the Middle East, and all of North Africa, whose countries are eligible to participate, but aside from Morocco, never have. Australia, the sole exception to this geographical rule, was granted something like international observer status seven years ago in recognition of an enthusiasm for the contest so unfeigned that people there wake up at 4:30 in the morning to be among the 200 million people around the world who watch it live.

Eurovision looks very different depending on whether it’s viewed from the core outwards or the semi-periphery inwards. From the perspective of the core, the EBA defines a zone of projected influence; from the perspective of the semi-periphery, it reflects an aspiration to join or ambivalence about belonging to that nebulous network of institutions we call “Europe.” If, as the historian Perry Anderson wrote, the EU, the most synecdochic of these, is the “last world-historical achievement of the bourgeoisie,” Eurovision is its purest superstructural expression.

The contest’s official ban on “lyrics, speeches, gestures, of a political or similar nature” may be an unusually forthright statement of bourgeois ideology, but there is a non-sinister rationale for it. The EBU has to administer a stupendous number of axes of potential conflict between its members, including: economic inequality, linguistic identity, tolerance of gender non-conformism, the geopolitical flashpoints of the day, and the long memories of people who have been killing each other off and on for fifteen hundred years. Granted, the chaos that would result from turning Eurovision into a musical forum for political protest would make for a vastly improved spectacle, but the defections it would probably occasion on an annual basis would prove fatal.

Just as the EU has attempted to sublate these serious differences into the formal procedures of a supranational bureaucracy, Eurovision has evolved a kind of “international style,” a fusion of bland musical composition and over-the-top performance aesthetics to neutralize them on a symbolic level. Parodied by Swedish hosts Måns Zelmerlöw and Petra Mede in their Brechtian device-bearing number “Love, Love, Peace, Peace,” the international style is a Frankenstein’s monster of audio-visual cliché — obscure folk instruments and turntables, handkerchief wearing babushkas and ripped shirtless men, half-time pre-choruses and key changes, fake snow and blank flags, etcetera and etcetera —sutured together with unobjectionable pop tropes so universal that they no longer have any purchase on empirical reality. Among the factors that trouble the good conscience of this fragile aesthetic arrangement is the gaze of the outsider to the Eurovision system, especially that of American viewers, whose cultural training has taught them that the only mode of appreciation appropriate to the infra dig is ironically, as camp.

Which is why I hasten to add that Zelmerlöw and Mede overlooked one thing in their otherwise comprehensive account of how to create a winning Eurovision song. “Love” and “peace” are not just nouns without referents; they are English nouns without referents. Since the requirement that contestants perform in the official languages of their country was last lifted in 1999, the overwhelming majority of the winning songs have been written in English, which owes its status as the lingua franca of pop — and much else besides — less to Britain than to the United States. This has had the effect of leveling the playing field — redistributing the power of the major Eurovision traditions of Ireland and the UK, which haven’t won since, to bilingual Sweden, which has won three times, and the smaller nations from the semi-periphery — as well as homogenizing it. Since the Marshall Plan and the founding of NATO, European attempts at cultural federalism, of which the ESC is an instance, have been underwritten by American hegemony, a perhaps unpleasant reminder that sometimes one imperium’s core is another’s semi-periphery.

The obvious objection is that the EBU’s idea of political neutrality is itself a kind of politics. But this too cuts both ways. Eurovision’s one unimpeachable political achievement is being the world’s most important venue for LGBTQ visibility — “the gay Olympics,” in the words of Austria’s 2014 winner Conchita Wurst. In many countries of the core, celebrating non-binary gender expression is no longer regarded as a political matter at all, merely a necessary corollary of a free and equal civil society. A view which, needless to say, is not shared by all the countries of the semi-periphery — like semi-autocratic Hungary and fully-autocratic Russia — for whom, however wrong we think they are, it is very political indeed. It is a matter of debate whether these are cases of the homophobic tail wagging the Eurosceptic dog, or vice versa, but such governments have seen the ESC as a pretext for waging national-populist kulturkampf against liberal values at home and European integration and expansion abroad. Unless, as in the case of the more Europhilic Israel, the ESC is seen as a venue for pinkwashing.

In any event, the ban on political expression is selectively enforced. In the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the EBU demanded changes to the lyrics of Georgia’s entry “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” whose last two words were interpreted as a reference to the Russian President. (Georgia refused.) In the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, however, Ukraine won with “1944,” Jamala’s Anglo-Crimean power ballad about Stalin’s forced deportation of the Tatars. (If we’re being honest, a more pointed exception to Zelmerlöw and Mede’s Love-Peace Axiom than ABBA’s “Waterloo,” the one cited.) Sometimes, political comment passes unnoticed: for instance, in the critique of the music industry’s commodification of female sexuality Serge Gainsbourg snuck, via a series of double entendres, into France Gall’s performance of “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son” or in the critique of the European troika’s austerity policies concealed beneath the spoken word salad of “Euro Nero” by Montenegro’s admirably bizarro prog-rock, lounge jazz semi-finalist Rambo Amadeus. Sometimes it doesn’t: Iceland’s broadcaster was fined 5000 euros to punish the band Hatari for merely acknowledging the existence of Palestine by displaying a banner with the name and flag of the occupied country on it during the 2019 award ceremony in Tel Aviv.

This year, due to its ongoing invasion and occupation of Ukraine, Russia was excluded from the competition in late February, along with dozens of other infinitely more meaningful international organizations. Initially, the EBU, citing the non-political nature of the event, planned to allow Russia to compete, but reversed course after complaints were lodged by a number of national broadcasters, two of which threatened to withdraw from the competition in protest. I mention this not to condemn or endorse the EBU’s ultimate decision — it seems to me the right one — only to observe how quickly things in a European bureaucracy can change when it is faced with organized political pressure from below.

Even the most casual American observers of Eurovision know that nationalist sentiment finds a way into the competition anyway, during the round of televoting, which, alongside the votes of “expert” juries from each national broadcaster, determines the distribution of points. There is some empirical justification for the standard line that voting is motivated more by perceived national alliances and rivalries among the audience than aesthetic judgment. A 2013 study by two Zurich-based systems theorists found that the voting tends to cluster into regional blocs whose members reward their neighbors or the countries with whom they share cultural ties, unless of course geographical and cultural proximity has recently caused them to come into conflict.

German and British viewers in particular like to grumble about this, paranoidly blaming their recent string of poor finishes to discontent over the Eurocrisis or Brexit respectively. But the likelier explanation is that juries and audiences alike recognize that the song selections from these two countries have been phoned in of late. The 2021 German entry, for example, whose smug refrain was “I don’t feel hate, I just feel sorry,” had about as much charm as an advertising jingle for a suburban bank and received three points more than the “nul points” it manifestly deserved (a dubious honor that went to the UK’s James Embers). My own conspiracy theory is that rich countries like Germany and the UK are doing it on purpose: knowing how unreliable a financial proposition hosting the ESC can be, they don’t want to throw good money after bad by actually winning.

Last year, during the Covid-shrunk competition in Rotterdam, this blunder was instead committed by Italy, a nation currently being run by an emergency governo tecnico helmed by Mario Draghi, the former President of the European Central Bank. “Zitti e buoni,” by the Rome-based glam-rock outfit Måneskin, edged out a certifiably misérable chançon by France’s Barbara Pravi, while also besting my own favorite, the delirial “Shum,” by Ukraine’s Go_A. According to my personal criteria, “Zitti e buoni” could be considered an above-average entry: a song in a rare-for-Eurovision genre, with a slick opening riff, performed in the band’s native language, which featured piquant enough lyrics, whatever they were, that they had to be modified for the live broadcast. Shirtless beneath his studded leather jumpsuit, Damiano David, the band’s frontman, strutted the stage with a winningly fluid and louche sexual magnetism, though he hewed too close to an obvious American model, Perry Farrell, for my taste.

Thanks to the efforts of Måneskin and the mayor of Turin, Eurovision 2022 will be held at the Pala Alpitour, an indoor arena located just under an hour’s stroll from the Piazza Carlo Alberti where, as legend has it, a German-speaking tourist with a walrus mustache, a belly full of gelato, and a brain undergoing the effects of Stage-2 syphilis witnessed a peasant beating a horse and promptly went insane. I like to think the author of Beyond Good and Evil would have been pleased by Damiano’s Dionysian affect and — as counter-intuitive as it may at first sound — Eurovision more generally. After all, what is the ESC but Die Meistersinger for the “good Europeans” of the 21st century?

In Turin, all eyes will once again be on Ukraine. After Russia’s invasion, there was some doubt as to whether Ukraine would be able to compete at all, but it was decided that entering the competition would be a good way of shoring up international support for the Ukrainian defense effort, the tip of the iceberg of what has been one of the adroitest influence campaigns in modern history. Instead of Alina Pash’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” the winner of the national nominating contest, which was disqualified after it was alleged that Pash had made an unauthorized visit to occupied Crimea, Ukraine is sending Kalush Orchestra, the runner-up. Although Kalush’s “Stefania,” a rap and electro-folk dirge about the vocalist’s mother(land), is somewhat lackluster, in my view, compared to either “Shum” or Pash’s visionary epic, which finds time to name-drop Dumas, Dante, Picasso, Shakespeare, and the Brothers Grimm, its victory is being treated as a fait accompli. (Last I checked, Ladbrokes was giving Kalush 2/5 odds.) As a barometer of attitudes toward Europe’s most serious geopolitical crisis in a generation, it will be more interesting to see, now that the Russian foil has been successfully ostracized, which countries don’t give their “12 points” to Ukraine. (Serbia, presumably.)

Those who tune in “for the articles,” as it were, will probably have to content themselves with speculating about who will win second place in an unusually weak field whose general lack of mirth is typified by “Die Together” by Greece’s Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord. Will watchers grade the UK on the curve of its recent performances and give points to TikTok novelty-item Sam Ryder, whose “SPACE MAN,” about a lonely astronaut pining for home, might be interpreted as a Remainer apology for Brexit? Will they vote for “Brividi,” their Italian host’s schmaltzy duet or Spain’s “SloMo,” a pop-salsa booty-shaker about making a sex tape? Speaking personally, the only song I can imagine listening to after Saturday is the ’70s folk-country throwback “Með hækkandi sól” by Iceland’s sister-act Systur. But most of my votes will be going to Subwoofer’s gonzo retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, “Give That Wolf a Banana,” even though it’s in English, simply out of gratitude to the Norwegians for injecting some much-needed absurdity into this year’s uncharacteristically dour proceedings.

It is taken for granted that, if Ukraine indeed wins, it will not be in a position to host, so hosting duties would fall on a third-party country for the first time since 1980. The mayor of Stockholm has already offered his city’s services, but most believe the venue will probably be located in a “Big Five” country, that is, somewhere in the core. Publicly, everyone seems on board with this idea. Everyone, that is, but Kalush Orchestra, whose vocalist Oleh Psiuk said at a press conference: “If we win, the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 will take place in Ukraine. It will be a new, integrated, well-developed and flourishing Ukraine.”

One can only hope. It is nonetheless worth recalling what Eurovision fundamentally is. Eurovision is not only a Saturnalia of Taste, it is also a Saturnalia of Sovereignty. Since the current voting system was introduced in 2016, popular will (the televoting) has aligned with or overturned the aesthetic judgment of the technocratic experts (the jury voting). This makes the song contest — and I cannot stress this enough — the single most democratic institution with a foothold in the EU. A more cynical reading, however, suggests that this is a feature, not a bug of the Eurovision system. On this reading, Eurovision functions as a “ritual of rebellion,” a carnival for our hypermediated, neoliberal age, in which even the reversal of power relations enacted through the televoting — by SMS or via the official app — have been monetized. This year, the politics of the core and the semi-periphery are united and popular will and expert opinion seem to have aligned, temporarily displacing this issue, but no one knows how things in Europe will stand in May 2023. Will the continent be in ruins? Or will the status quo ante have reasserted itself? At this point, you might as well flip a Euro.

“The history book on the shelf / keeps repeating itself,” according to the lyrics of the 1974 song that is to the song contest what War and Peace is to the novel. What lesson do Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fåltskog think we, the viewers of Eurovision 2022, should learn from it? “So how could I refuse? / I feel like when I win I lose.” How, indeed. All together now:

Ryan Ruby is a critic based in Berlin.