The Eurovision Song Contest is one of the longest-running television programmes, and something of an iconic European cultural phenomenon – so much so that in 2020, Netflix even released a satirical feature length film about it. It’s far from mere entertainment though: Eurovision has long been seen as a social and political barometer, and whilst overtly political songs are technically banned, plenty of controversial lyrics and acts have slipped through the net.
Nor is it just the content which reflects the times: voting has a reputation for being politically influenced – the dreaded ‘nul points’ has become synonymous with the UK’s entries over the year. But where did Eurovision come from? Why is it so political?
Eurovision’s origins date back to the 1950s and the founding of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which aimed to promote inter-European co-operation through cross-border television broadcasting. The EBU agreed to organise a song contest in October 1955: the first competition was held in Switzerland in 1956.
Countries must be part of the EBU to participate – hence why in recent years, countries like Israel, Azerbaijan, Turkey and even Australia have participated, despite not being members of the EU or even technically in Europe (Australia secured an invitation to participate, despite not being part of the EBU).
The first contest only had 7 countries participating – by the 1960s, this had over doubled, and by the 1970s, countries from Western Asia and North Africa also began participating in the competition. In 2018, the competition hosted entrants from over 43 countries.
In the modern world, the so-called ‘Big Five’ – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom – receive an automatic place in the Eurovision final as they are the top financial contributors to the competition. Other countries must take part in the semi-finals – the top 10 highest scoring countries from each of the 2 semi-finals are then invited to compete in the final itself.
Ostensibly, Eurovision’s biggest draw has always been the music – with songs in a variety of languages and genres, often accompanied by performances from the sublime to the ridiculous, there have been some undeniable classics at Eurovision.
However, beyond simply a catchy song and extravagant set, lyrics, topics and language have proved to be an ongoing controversy. English language songs frequently dominate the competition, despite the fact that English is not the first language of the majority of countries entering. Spain has previously garnered criticism for entering with English language songs, despite Spanish language music arguably having more of a global reach, and being a huge money-maker.
Lyrics are technically examined by a committee before making it to the live shows: some songs have been censored in the past for being too explicitly political – in 2009, Georgia withdrew from the competition after being told they could not perform their song – ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In‘ – which was seen as a direct reference to the 2009 Russo-Georgian armed conflict. In 2021, Belarus also decided to withdraw from the competition following backlash over their song choice, which referenced the disputed presidential election.
However, in 2016 Ukraine won the competition with their entry, 1944, which referenced Stalin‘s deportation of Crimean Tatars, despite many considering it to be a thinly veiled reference to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.
In a more positive turn, Eurovision has also been used as a platform to champion LGBTIQ rights, with Dana International, a transgender woman, winning the competition for Israel in 1998, and Conchita Wurst, an Austrian drag queen, winning the competition in 2014.
Similarly, after the break-up of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s, the competition was seen as a way for newly independent countries to express their individual identity and cultures on a European stage.
Countries are also unafraid to boycott Eurovision as a form of protest. Traditionally, the country of the winning entrant hosts the subsequent Eurovision: Azerbaijan hosted the competition in 2012, building the 23,000 seater ‘Baku Crystal Hall’, evicting thousands of people in the process and using labourers under questionable conditions in order to complete the glittering project. Many human rights activists called for a boycott on the competition as a result.
Russia threatened to boycott the Ukrainian-hosted Eurovision, Greece boycotted the 1975 Eurovision following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Austria boycotted the 1969 Madrid Eurovision as a protest against the Franco regime in Spain, and ongoing conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia have led to regular boycotts. The competition may be for fun, but the politics of the hosting nation has had a significant impact on participation.
The UK is notorious for receiving ‘nul points’ from her European neighbours – it came as no surprise when the UK finished last in 2019, in the midst of protracted Brexit negotiations. Voting has long been political and controversial in Eurovision, and major reforms to the system in 2009 and 2016 respectively aimed to eradicate the idea of ‘bloc’ voting. Turkey left the competition in 2012, citing ‘voting bias’ as one of their key reasons for leaving, although many remain sceptical that this was simply a convenient excuse.
Analysis of voting data suggests that whilst there is no by means any certainty in the process, roughly, blocs can be identified as Northern Europe, North Balkans, South Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Countries with high immigrant populations from other European countries also often tend to vote in each other’s favour.
By no means does voting always align with these blocs, but it became enough of a problem that in 2009, a jury was introduced to balance out the popular vote. The scores from public voting and the jury were equally weighted and combined to form a final total.
It’s also apparent that current affairs – particularly political relationships – do have an impact on voting. One academic likened it to a ‘barometer of public opinion’ about regimes and nations. Eastern Europe tends to award a relatively high number of votes to Russia, but Western Europe rarely dishes out maximum points for Russia. Likewise, the UK often fares badly – perhaps due to its refusal to take the competition seriously, but also due to an increasingly fractious relationship with her European neighbours.
Whilst Eurovision’s origins may be intended to reflect international cooperation and harmony, the reality is anything but. On the surface, it may be a frivolous competition, with countries outdoing themselves to provide extravagant sets, memorable acts and a night to remember, but Europe’s history and politics remains quietly bubbling under the surface, influencing song choices, votes and participation.