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Come Together: communities and divisions at Eurovision 2016

This week, the 61st Eurovision Song Contest, more affectionately Eurovision, will be broadcast to a global audience (including for the first-time a live telecast in the United States) with 42 countries competing in a series of semi-finals before the final, live show on 14 May. Established in 1956 as part of the then-fledgling European Broadcast Union, the contest has continued to grow in popularity and some would argue in cultural significance (Eurovision is the object of numerous scholarly works on spectacle, European identity, the nation-state, globalization – you name it). The contest has been rife with controversy in many years, often of a political nature, so much so that voting rules for this year’s contest has changed to reduce the influence of national “alliances” in favor of juries. Even with these changes, there are still some looming events that hang over this year’s broadcast, whose theme – “Come Together” – emphasizes the need for community.

Certainly, the attacks in Paris and Brussels, especially the former’s primary location being a concert, brought a sense of global solidarity in their wake and reinforced the notion of cultural solidarity in the face of terrorism. This year’s French entry – Amir’s “J’ai Cherche” – speaks to this notion of solidarity, as Amir himself grew up in the infamous French suburb Sarcelles in a Tunisian-Moroccan Jewish family. His song is a combination of French and English, the two official languages of the contest, and the words of this love song speak to the healing power of togetherness. Amir’s story and song symbolize the unity that Eurovision represents in many ways, and France is one of the favorites to win this year, which would be its first win since 1977, perhaps bolstered by sentiment.

France’s stiffest competition comes from Russia, which has excelled at the contest in recent years, including a victory in 2008. In the past few years, however, the contest has become a method of critiquing Russian domestic and foreign policies, most notably in 2014 when the Tolmachevy Sisters were booed. The Russian entry for 2016, Sergey, is currently another favorite to win Eurovision, but attention is being drawn to Ukraine’s entry, Jamala’s “1944.” The song chronicles the deportation of the Crimean Tartars during the Second World War and draws further attention to Russia’s recent Crimean adventure. Despite some critiques from Russian and Crimean politicians about the song, Eurovision asserted that the song does not constitute political speech and is within competition rules. Predictions have Jamala as a top-ten finisher but reception of the song will likely reflect to the continued contention concerning politics in the contest and how Eurovision attempts to define pop songs in a distinctive, commercial way.

Lastly, the British referendum on 23 June that will allow Britons to vote on whether to leave the European Union and the political and economic anxieties that the potential “Brexit” has engendered may play out in the contest. The British have long had an uneasy relationship with Eurovision characterized by a hostility that Karen Fricker has noted harmonizes with the broader Euroskepticism that defines elements of populist British politics. The UK most recently won in 1997 with an entry by Katrina and the Waves, whose biggest commercial success came 12 years earlier with “Walking on Sunshine”. Since then, the British have has several last place finishes but nevertheless continue to compete as part of the “Big Five” nations who automatically reach the Eurovision final. The broadcast of Eurovision in the UK was long accompanied by the commentary of Terry Wogan, whose wry and ironic take characterized a humorous and often distained reading of Eurovision as reflecting the very different values of Europe from the UK. This year’s UK attempt, Joe and Jake (two former contestants on the television show the Voice, which has become a place to find Eurovision contestants throughout the continent), were selected through a BBC show that allowed viewers to participate in the nominating process. The duo is projected to finish in the middle of the pack but will larger fears about a British exit generate sympathy points to convince the Brits to stay? The 2003 nul vote against the British influenced by the UK’s support of the Iraq War suggests that Eurovision viewers do have a political approach to the allegedly apolitical contest.

Even as the UK decides on its future relationship with the EU, its cultural influence continues to resonate in the Eurovision, as several of this year’s acts model their musical style on successful British artists such as Adele, Sam Smith, and Amy Winehouse in their quest for the Eurovision prize. Indeed, the English language has become in essence the lingua franca of Eurovision (even France’s entry capitulated a bit with its English-language chorus). Eurovision cannot imagine a Europe without Britain, but will the UK take Eurovision seriously to consider its place in the “New” Europe? If the spirit of inclusion that has become part of the pageantry of the song competition cannot convince its members to remain a part of it (NB: a country does not have to part of the European Union to compete), what “Europe” does Eurovision then symbolize?

Featured image credit: Eurovision Song Contest’s Greatest Hits, used with attribution to Thomas Hanses (EBU), Guy Levy / © BBC 2015

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