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“We could build a future where people are free”: reflections on the Eurovision Song Contest

Spectacle at its grandest has long been crucial to the Eurovision Song Contest’s projection of its own importance for Europe and, increasingly in the past two decades, a unified Europe’s position in the world. Each year’s competition outstrips that of the year before, as song styles multiply and nations are added to the spectacle of nation competing against nation with the hope of representing Europe musically to the world. The restrictions imposed by rigid performance guidelines—three minutes and no more for every song, six performers, whether musicians or dances, on the stage and no more, lyrics removed of politics in order to represent the nation, but not nationalism—remain in place to enforce the illusion that aesthetic democracy prevails.

Each year, the parade of hyperbole from the very boundaries of Europe proceeds, pushing paradox to the peripheries. During Eurovision Week 2016, which culminated in the Grand Finale on May 14th, the power of panem et circenses was meant to be at its most spectacular ever. Australia, in 2015 a “special guest,” returned to compete again, securing second place and further securing the Eurovision’s musical colonialism far beyond Europe’s borders. Live broadcasts in China and for the first time ever in the United States (on the Logo television network) signaled expansion of continental proportions and the potential of pushing live viewership exponentially beyond the hundreds of thousands usually boasted.

If the statistics failed to convince Eurovision fans that Stockholm was the best and boldest Eurovision ever, then the pyrotechnics on the stage should have finished the job. The marching puppets of Måns Zelmerlöw’s 2015 winning song for Sweden, “Heroes,” have made holograms de rigueur for a winning performance. Virtually everything that the rules forbade—wolves running across the stage in the wild and in communion with a naked singer (Belarus’s Ivan), projections of choristers and bandmates, birds and angels, flame throwers and showering stars—had become virtual reality. The Eurovision Song Contest’s sense of itself, recalled repeatedly through the intermission programming of the two Semi-Finals and the Grand Finale, seemed to be unstoppable. In the final entr’acte of the evening, Eurovision competitors from the past gathered to perform a mash-up from years past as if to show the world that it really is about winning formulae.

And yet, Stockholm’s 2016 tale proved not to be a fairy tale for Eurovision’s sense of self and spectacle. Try as it did to minimize the reality of refugee and immigrant crises, try as it does every year to block songs that are political, try as it did to paint European popular music with the patina of “Love Love Peace Peace” (the title of the perfect mash-up in the Grand Finale), the Eurovision Song Contest could not keep Europe in 2016 at arm’s length from the stage on which nation competes against nation.

Although the Eurovision Song Contests of 2014 and 2015 had borne witness to the tensions between Eastern and Western Europe that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the military occupation of eastern Ukraine by forces supported by Russia (see my OUP blog posts from the past two years: “There is Hope for Europe – The ESC 2014 and the return to Europe” and “Tales of two Europes: sameness and difference at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015 Vienna”), there was considerable evidence in the months preceding Eurovision 2016 that those tensions had relaxed. As soon as the Russian entry, Sergey Lazarev’s “You Are the Only One,” was announced, it became the odds-on favorite to win. Lazarev is well known as an actor and musician, with fans both Russian and international. His public persona is cloaked in an ambiguous sexuality, with sufficient ciphers to convince many in the LGBTQ Eurovision fan base that Eurovision 2017 in Moscow could be a space of safety and celebration. The production team for “You Are the Only One” responded to the successful use of hologram technologies in 2015 with a performance of non-stop special effects. Finally, and not insignificantly, Lazarev’s song utilized the Eurosong formula at its best, creating a song that many would like and few would dislike. Russia, which invests tens of millions of dollars in its Eurovision songs, was bound for victory, and there seemed to be no voices of dissent, national or otherwise (I confess that I was among those not dissenting).

Sergey Lazarev, however, did not win for Russia, but rather it was Ukraine’s Jamala (Susana Jamaladinova) who captured the largest number of votes with her power ballad “1944.” The contrast, indeed, the conflict, signaled by these two songs could not have been more telling. While the 1944 of Jamala’s song was a historical and personal reference (her grandmother had been deported) to the Soviet Union’s deportation of Crimean Tatars to internment in Siberia during World War II, it was lost upon no one that Ukrainian Crimea had been annexed by Russia in 2014, leading to political repression and suffering of the Tatars in the region. Jamala, also well known in Ukraine as an actress and singer, is herself of Tatar heritage, and she sang the chorus of “1944” in Crimean Tatar. Her performance lacked holograms, and its use of special effects was focused on heightening her presence as a lone singer on the stage, choreographed only with powerfully expressive passion. “1944” was a stylistic mix, part ethnic, part soul, part prayer, all crescendoing to the cry and outcry that brought the song to its close as Jamala collapsed on the stage.

It would be too easy, as most press reports in the immediate aftermath of Stockholm 2016 do, to conclude that the Eurovision had itself collapsed into bilateral political conflict in Eastern Europe. The success of a few other songs reveals why there are other stories to tell, other visions of Europe at play, even amid the spectacle. The first of these stories is that of song itself. All of the top five finishers were songs that deserved to place at the top in the competition itself, which is to say, they did the musical work as well as any cultural and political work. In second place, Australian Dami Im’s “Sound of Silence” was a song of extraordinary power, and it rose to its position without choreography (Im sat for most of the performance). The Swedish entry, Frans’s “If I Were Sorry,” in fifth place was notable for its simplicity and a performance that needed neither pyrotechnics nor holograms. Musically, Sergey Lazarev belonged in the top five, in third place, right where he landed.

Ultimately, I find solace and meaning in the songs of the Eurovision Song Contest themselves, and I remember just why the politics of music has far more power than the conflicts between one nation and its neighbors. It was for me again reassuring that the grand spectacle of the Eurovision Song Contest had a soft underbelly in the 2016 Grand Finale in Stockholm. There were a few moments, critical to the historical reality of a continent struggling to deal with humanitarian crisis, when the scripts of the announcers and the networks, especially the European Broadcasting Union, were simply suspended, and the Eurovision opened to the world beyond itself, the real world from which it is inseparable. None was more powerful than the intermission performance during the first Semi-Final and the Grand Finale of a dance troupe performing “The Grey People,” in which the struggle of the refugees and immigrants—those who would be future Europeans when the walls and prejudices of the present were leveled—took to the stage in modern dance and with their bodies gave voice to the European message at the heart of Jamala’s “1944”: “We could build a future where people are free.”

Featured image credit: Globen (The Globe Arena), Stockholm, Sweden’ by Fredrik Posse. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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