Words by: Bonnie Elliott-Johnson (she/her)
2014: Russia begins its annexation of Crimea. At the Eurovision Song Contest, boos sound throughout the crowd as the Russian performers take to the stage. 2019: The colonisation of Palestine by Israel persists. Iceland’s Eurovision act wave the Palestinian flag in protest of the competition being held in Tel Aviv. 2021: Putin declares war on Ukraine. Russia is banned from participating in Eurovision, and Ukraine takes home the trophy. But Eurovision is a non-political event – or so its organisers claim so fervently.
Since its establishment in 1956, Eurovision has maintained an apolitical ethos. Entries, such as Georgia’s 2009 song, “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” have been banned in the past for containing messages perceived to bleed too far into the political. But is it possible for such an event which deals with the relations between countries to be completely protected from all forms of political ideology? In the words of Thomas Mann, “Everything is Politics,” and I would argue that Eurovision is no exception.
Just by looking back at the notable instances of political activism from the past 66 years of Eurovision, it is possible to create a fairly patchy and slightly camp map of European history. Russia/Ukraine and Armenia/Azerbaijan border conflict are ever-present within the competition, and often have a noticeable impact on the score tables – Ukraine’s win this year being a prime example. One can’t help but detect a strong whiff of hypocrisy from Eurovision organisers in their response to these kinds of geopolitical matters. Despite their aversion to politics, the organisers chose to ban Russia from the competition this year, following their invasion of Ukraine. Whilst it is evident that the decision to allow them to perform would have been met with intense backlash, it is unconvincing to maintain this claim of being apolitical after making such an overtly political move. Furthermore, Eurovision has shown no such condemnation of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine, and even held the competition in Tel Aviv despite criticism. The decision to side with the oppressed western Ukraine, but not with the oppressed non-western Palestine is again, a political one.
Politics can even be discerned in the tendency for neighbouring countries to award points to each other. Although it is a long-standing joke that Cyprus and Greece will exchange their twelve points every year, the reason for this comes down to the countries’ relationship, and the diasporic history they share. The same goes for the Scandinavian countries, and many of the Eastern European countries, whose votes can be seen as a display of their amicable relationships. The opposite is also true of countries who, for whatever reason – perhaps an imprudent rejection of the EU – have found themselves in the European sin bin at the time of voting. I, of course, refer to the infamous post-Brexit nil points the UK received (or didn’t receive) in 2021. Although the quality of the song does leave me wondering if politics had an influence on the result at all.
As well as being a platform for political protest, the contest also manifests as an exuberant site of celebration for all things camp, kitsch and LGBTQ+. Eurovision has gained cult status among its LGBTQ+ following, with queer performers, presenters, and themes at its core. The competition has often been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ visibility in Europe, providing queer representation even at times when homosexuality was still considered a criminal offence in many European countries. Eurovision has been a catalyst for debates about gay rights in more conservative European countries. In 1998, Israel’s Dana International became the contest’s first openly trans performer. Despite being met with death threats and extreme backlash, the Eurovision community’s inclusive attitude shone through and she went on to win the competition. It seems Eurovision only defines ‘politics’ as conflict and tension, and overlooks its own overt acceptance of marginalised groups as a political choice.
I guess the liver bird in the room must be addressed. On October 7th, Graham Norton broke my heart by announcing the decision to host next year’s Eurovision in Liverpool. Despite the loss of a Glaswegian Eurovision still being a pretty sore subject for me, I can’t help but contemplate the discourse it would have given rise to. Being staged just a few months prior to Sturgeon’s proposed second Independence Referendum, the union-jack-waving, red-white-and-blue-clad fans may have provoked tension in a union-sceptic Scotland. It’s possible too that this British ‘togetherness’ may have invoked a feeling of unity with the British nations, increasing support for the No vote. Perhaps a pro-independence demonstration would have been staged by Yes voters rejecting the pro-union messaging consequential to the sheer Britishness of it all? Alas, we shall never know.
Of course this is mere speculation, but again, it calls into question the plausibility of Eurovision as a non-political event. The idea that an absence of politics equals peace is severely misguided. Even a utopian democracy must deal with politics in order to be defined as such. To be apolitical is an inherently political choice in itself, one born out of privilege and naivety. With the future of European relations at a critical point, there needs to be a shift away from this notion that it is possible to be ‘above’ or ‘removed from’ politics. Everything is politics. Even Eurovision.