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United by music?

Eurovision: Consistently Political, does this year's Contest solidify the trend?


Source: AP Photo/Martin Meissner


Hate it or love it, the Eurovision Song Contest is undeniably a key event on the European calendar, being the second most-watched television event globally, surpassed only by the Olympics. The contest, created by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in 1956, aimed to provide some moment of peace to the continent devastated by two world wars and to provide a captivating music contest uniting Europe in its differences while staying above the politics.


Despite the slogan „United by music” and the event's premise of remaining apolitical, it notoriously fails to do both. Every year, political messages are smuggled into the scene through the lyrics, outfits, or even representatives themselves, often dividing the audience. This year's competition, like no other before, has generated controversies and strong emotions, as an Israeli broadcaster was allowed to participate despite the alarming practices in Gaza.


Controversial as never before

Although organizers tried really hard not to make this year's Eurovision about the Israeli-Hamas war, the topic was nearly impossible to avoid, as the EBU decision to let Eden Golan participate outraged many, which could be seen under every Instagram post mentioning the singer.


The critiques haven’t just limit to the online world, as during the Eurovision week, thousands, including activist Greta Thunberg, have marched in Malmö with Palestinian flags and banners with text such as „Genocide Song Contest.” The outrage was also noticeable during the show itself, as the audience booed every time Israel appeared on the stage and made especially strong expressions during the giving points ceremony, as the crowd was not drowned out by the music. 


The ESC's decision to ban all flags except those of competing countries and the rainbow flag, aimed at preventing the display of Palestinian flags during the contest, did not stop performers from expressing their views. Although Ireland’s representative Babmie Thug was asked to remove phrases „Ceasefire” and „Freedom for Palestine” written in the Gaelic alphabet from their makeup, during Tuesday’s semi-final, some found a way to show their support for Palestinian people. Guest performer Eric Saade appeared wearing a keffiyeh [a scarf associated with the pro-Palestinian movement] on his wrist, while Aboriginal Yidaki player Fred Leone appeared with watermelon, which colors match the Palestinian flag, painted on his body during Australia’s performance.


Despite everything, Israel placed 5th after all, after getting 375 points, including 323 from the public. Israel's ranking so high was predictable, as bookmakers have forecasted Golan's placement in the top 5 for months; the distribution of the votes between the juries and public, however, was not, as usually, the public is more critical of the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza compared to the more cautious media.  


It became a tradition at this point that the jury and public could very strongly disagree about the performances; however, in the heat of the protest and critiques, 323 points from the public vote were surprising. The answer to this nuisance might be that those disgusted by EBU’s decision chose to boycott the contest and did not vote, while simultaneously, the pro-Israeli public made sure to show their support in the similar way that people did in 2022 when voting for Ukraine after the Russian invasion. There might be a simpler explanantion. That is, the majority of people did not care about the political aspects of the performance and cast their vote exclusively based on their preferences. 


The lousy 52 points from the jury, a theoretically more unbiased entity, makes even less sense. Did the performance not satisfy the jury's expectations? It does not seem very believable as songs like „Hurricane” usually catch juries’ attention. So was it, therefore, a way for the majority of the broadcasters to quietly show their concern about what is going on in Gaza? It is not shocking that the song did not get any points from Iceland, as RÚV opposed Israel’s entry from the start or Belgian VRT, which, during the second semi-final, skipped the country’s performance and broadcasted the message condemning the human rights violations of the Israeli state instead. Hence, if the statement is true, it gives us an inside look at what individual, less vocal broadcasters might really think about the union decision.


Cross out, rewrite, hide…

Israel’s preparations, however, did not go as smoothly as the country had hoped. The EBU asked to tailor the first proposition of the Israeli song „October Rain” due to the political context of some of the lyrics like „Writers of the history, stand with me,” „I’m still wet from this October rain,” „There’s no air left to breathe,” or „They were all good children, each one of them,”  which clearly alluded to Hamas’s attack on Israel on the 7th of October, during which Hamas killed 1139 people.


Originally, the Israeli broadcaster, KAN, countered the EBU decision. However, after Israeli President Isaac Herzog's intervention, the broadcaster decided to alter the song. The adjusted version of the song, renamed „Dance Forever,” was rejected again for the same reason as the original version. Finally, the third version, „Hurricane,” with changed lyrics to transform it into a love ballad, but the same melody had been accepted by the organizers.

It’s not the first time that the EBU has asked participating countries to alter their entries because of lyrics, speeches, or gestures of a political or similar nature. In 2008, Russia won the competition with 'Believe,' performed by Dima Bilan, the same year that it backed South Ossetian separatists' attack on Georgia, breaking the 1992 ceasefire agreement. As a form of protest for the 2009 Eurovision in Moscow, Georgia selected the song „We Don’t Want Put In,” performed by the pop group Stephane and 3G. Although the Georgian Public Broadcaster was given the ability to rewrite the lyrics or choose another song, the country decided to withdraw that year.


Although the organizers keep a close eye on the proposed songs, some of the hidden messages in the lyrics have escaped the censors' attention. Ukraine’s entry in 2007, „Dancing Lasha Tumbai,” whose lyrics „I want to see Lasha Tumbai” sound similar enough to „I want to see Russia goodbye. Although the hidden meaning was never confirmed, when you hear the song, you cannot refuse the similarity of the two phrases.



Some have also criticized the 2015 Armenian entry, implying that the song commemorated the victims of the Armenian Genocide, an event denied by Turkey and Azerbaijan. The music video was supposed to confirm the song's hidden meaning, referring to WWI and the title of the song, 'Don’t Deny,' which was also part of the chorus. To quell the accusations, the Armenian broadcaster changed the name to „Face the Shadow” but did not adjust the controversial lyrics.


Despite attempts by organizers to regulate participants by requesting lyric changes or altering performances, those more determined performers or countries can still find creative ways to convey their messages.


The problem at the core

When discussing Eurovision entries, it is important to remember that the broadcasters choose the participants, which is supposed to ensure artistic independence. The EBU rules state that its members should contribute to „enhancing the freedom and pluralism of the media, the free flow of information and ideas, and the free formation of opinions.” However, looking at the list of participants over the years, it is doubtful that some of them could be classified as free media.


Fidesz came to power in Hungary in 2010 and filled the Media Authority as well as the national broadcaster MTVA with people favorable to them by changing the Media Act. With the media being under the strong influence of the governing party, it has raised concerns in the European Parliament, stating a lack of free speech when it triggered Article 7 proceedings against Hungary. Despite the EP intervention, it has not raised concerns in the EBU that the country might be breaking the organization's rules.


Moreover, broadcasters like Belarusian BTRC, Russian RTR, and C1R had evident ties with their respective governments, which were apparent even before the countries were excluded from the broadcasters union in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The disqualification of Belarus from the ESC in 2021 was primarily due to the suppression of free media by the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenka. In the same year, prior to exclusion, the Belarusian Broadcaster proposed the entry of Galasy ZMesta with "Ya nauchu tebya,” an anti-protest song that translates to „I’ll Teach You.” This song choice, referencing the wave of anti-governmental protests following the falsified presidential elections, indicated rather clearly the dependence of BTRC on the government.


Likewise, Russian media have long been under government control. In attempts to soften its harsh image, Russia has sent entrants like Yuliya Samoylova, a disabled singer, to the 2016 contest in Kyiv (although her visa was rejected, she participated a year later), and Tajik refugee Manizha with the catchy, feminist song "Russian Women.”


Based solely on the fact that some members of the EBU are controlled to a significant extent by the governments, which ipso facto breaks one of the main rules of the organization there is no point in persuading the audience that Eurovision is an apolitical event, when it obviously is not.


Can EBU escape politics?

Those outraged by the EBU decision need to understand that the organization is not keen on banning participating countries. According to Eurovision’s executive supervisor Martin Österdahl, the decision to exclude Russia in 2022 was about reassuring core values of democracy and human rights; however, this disqualification was an exceptional case, happening only a day after the invasion of Ukraine. According to ESC representatives, „the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute.” Although there is much truth to this message, there is also a question of why they did not act when Russia attacked Georgia in 2008 or annexation of Crimea in 2014. Paradoxically, Eurovision makes a political statement by both permitting and disqualifying non-independent broadcasters and states accused of wrongdoing; the only difference lies in what the statement will be.


For anyone following the contest, it's no surprise that Eurovision isn't solely about the music. It's a play of soft power among countries, each striving to communicate something about themselves within a mere three-minute performance. Although the quality of the performance is the main determinant when it comes to results, there is no doubt that politics also plays a part, and in some cases, like Ukraine's win in 2022, it may be a key element for success.


While the EBU endeavors to maintain the apolitical nature of Eurovision, it often struggles to do so. This raises the question: Is it even possible for the event to remain apolitical? Probably not, as art is a fundamental form of expressing emotions about war and conflict, and countries given the opportunity will try to tell the story from their perspective. Even the voting patterns over the years reflect the complexities of European relations. The Eurovision was, is, and will continue to be a political event, as every international event gathering pitted against each other countries is, whether it wants it or not.


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