For many people, at least in my home county the United Kingdom, the Eurovision Song Contest is viewed as a bit of a joke. Eurovision might have grown into a sleek and impressive global phenomenon over the last decade or so, but while it’s cheesy, kitsch and camp features have been somewhat toned down, they persevere. However, Eurovision is the world’s biggest live music event, and therefore is the most widely accessible public venue where “struggles over European identities and its boundaries” can be played out. The importance of Eurovision can be seen in the attempts at political hijacking that take place surrounding the competition every year.
Eurovision is particularly popular with young people, with figures released by the competition organisers suggesting that in 42 markets, the contest was four times more popular with people aged between 15 and 24 than the average show. This is especially remarkable, because the event is one of the few television events which is watched live in a society that increasingly relies on catch-up television and on streaming services like Netflix. The acts performing in the competition are often also young, this year most acts were under the age of 30, with Switzerland’s Luca Hanni, aged 24, joking that he feels “old” at the event. This is important, because in the words of the 23-year-old competitor from Spain, Miki Nunez, young people “have a lot of things to say about society”, so the competition is a “good opportunity for us to express ourselves”.
Although political statements have only been explicitly banned since 2000, throughout the years, Eurovision has always portrayed itself as apolitical. According to the official Eurovision rules, “no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the Eurovision Song Contest”. However, because the competition promotes themes such as identity, culture, and national pride, the reality is often very different, and acts often have political elements. As such, Jayde Adams, the co-host of the BBC’s Eurovision Calling podcast has argued that “Eurovision is not just about a singing competition … it’s about the world and how people fit in it”.
This year the competition encouraged a particularly large amount of political comments because it was held in Tel Aviv. Due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there were early calls from both members of the public and public figures for the contest to be moved away from Israel, while later protesters called for contestants, hosts and performers to pull out of the competition. The artist representing Greece, Katerine Duska, countered this criticism with the claim that she “performs for people, not governments”. However, some of the other acts engaged more thoroughly in the political debate, with this year’s act from Iceland, the punk rock band Hatari, claiming that they entered the competition because they wanted to shed light on political aspects of Israel and challenge the choice to hold a competition “founded in the spirit of peace and unity” in “a country marred by conflict and disunity”. Although before the competition they insisted that they would stick to the Eurovision rules and not make any political statements, the band held scarves showing Palestinian flags during the announcements of the results. The statement was met by boos and gasps from the chorus, and the broadcaster rapidly cut away from the contestants and back to the hosts.
The popstar Madonna also defied calls from activists to cancel her appearance at the competition. Her decision to perform was publicly criticised by Bobby Gillespoe, from the Scottish rock band Primal Scream, who called Madonna a “total prostitute” who would “do anything for money” over her decision to perform, because he claimed the contest was “set up to normalise the State of Israel and its disgraceful treatment of the Palestinian people”. However, in response to criticism of her decision to perform at this year’s contest, Madonna said that she will “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda” but would also be “speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be”. In a move which was not approved by the competition organisers, two of her dancers – one wearing an Israeli flag and one wearing a Palestinian flag – walked arm in arm during her performance. While some criticised her decision to break the Eurovision rules or because they felt she was not doing enough to protest the competition’s hosting country, others praised her for using the platform to make a point.
While many people may find Eurovision a bit silly, it is actually clear that the allegedly apolitical event provides a unique opportunity for people – and particularly young people – to engage with politics and to explore their cultural identities, while enjoying a musical event. Through Eurovision, the public are able to explore their thoughts on issues that are otherwise less accessible, and therefore this often joked-about event is incredibly valuable, especially for Europe's young population.