“This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are – we are unity and we are unstoppable.” These were not the words of a newly-elected politician or a triumphant activist, but those of Conchita Wurst (also known as Tom Neuwirth), the Austrian drag artist and winner of the 59th Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen. Is Eurovision becoming more political or has it in fact always been more than simply a song contest?
At first glance, nothing could appear less political than Eurovision. It began as a project of the European Broadcasting Union intended to test the capabilities of live television broadcast technology and its first entrants were established entertainers often accompanied by a live orchestra. It was an uncontroversial and inoffensive hit which established itself so well that it grew into the phenomenon that still exists today almost sixty years later, where performers vie for the affections of the nations of Europe.
Of course, little in life is rarely so uncomplicated and Eurovision is no different. It was born into the midst of the Cold War and five years after the first contest, two historic events befell Europe. Firstly, the Berlin Wall was erected, cementing the division of Europe; and secondly, the inaugural Intervision Song Contest took place in the Polish shipyards of Gdansk. The success and popularity of Eurovision was evident even behind the Iron Curtain and the Intervision was established by the USSR to compete with and outshine the West’s song contest. Much like the former Soviet Union, Intervision is today no more and many ex-Communist countries have become part of a united Europe – and a broadened Eurovision Song Contest.
Eurovision has had political overtones beyond those of the 20th century struggle between communism and capitalism, however. The debate over whether participants had to sing in one of their national languages raged for over half the lifetime of the competition to date, before finally all participants were allowed to sing however they wanted from 1999. In the struggle between a political vision of the contest as a multilingual exhibition of European culture and another vision of a contest where songs are worth singing regardless of the language they are sung in, the depoliticising faction has clearly won out.
While almost half of all Eurovision winners have sung in English and an increasing number of victorious entries in recent years make use of the language, the largest English-speaking country the United Kingdom has found success hard to come by. It is an observation commonly made in Britain that the contest’s voting is an outrage. Despite sending our best and brightest, we inevitably get our hopes up only to have them dashed as Greece and Cyprus or Norway and Denmark or what seems like the entirety of Eastern Europe and Russia exchange copious points as we’re left thanking Malta and Albania for the handful we presume we were accidentally allocated due to a technical error. Bedfellows as diverse as Terry Wogan and Nigel Farage have commented on this annual travesty and it poses the question of whether this can be attributed to an unconscious Euroscepticism (even when it comes to cheesy music) or whether there is actually politics at play.
In short, it’s a bit of both. Britain needs to get over the fact that countries with similar tastes, that is, countries which speak similar languages and have similar music markets, may be more inclined to give each other points. However, this year in particular has demonstrated the effect that politics can have on the contest and its outcome. Where 27 voting countries gave Russia points in 2013, only 13 did in 2014 with a significant number of those, notably Ukraine, reducing their award. This follows several years of Russian entries standing certain to place well with a consistent number of countries prepared to offer their points. Additionally, Russia’s entrants were booed during their qualification for the final and the awarding of points to their entry. While they weren’t great, they weren’t alone bad enough to merit that – the strength of feeling against Russia the nation (as opposed to simply Russia the entry) was palpable.
Finally and most crucially, this palpable feeling saw an act regarded as a flash in the pan be crowned Queen of Europe. Conchita’s entry was regarded as musically quite good but it was undoubtedly propelled to beat the Netherlands’ musically excellent entry into second place by two significant political factors – opposition to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and solidarity with the communities persecuted by Russia’s draconian laws on gender and sexuality.
Eurovision has always been more than merely a song contest. As it celebrates its 60th birthday in a city that has been a centre of European and global diplomacy for centuries, it seems likely we will see its political character celebrated as well.