At a speed few can fathom, nationalism has become the dirtiest word in all of European cultural politics. Embraced by the right and rising populism, nationalism seemingly poses a threat to the very being of Europe. Nationalists proudly proclaim a euroscepticism that places the sovereignty of self over community. Just how and in what forms can the values of a common Europe survive? To answer that question, even cautiously, I turn once again to the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), hosted this year by Portugal in mid-May. No theme is more central to the ESC than the musical competition between nations. The history of the ESC, established in 1956, has consistently responded to nationalist pressures. Musicians compete in the name of the nation; nation struggles against nation, accompanied by the symbols of national selfness.
To listen to the vast repertory of Eurovision songs from the past 63 years is to bear witness to modern European history itself. In recent years, this intrinsic nationalism has decidedly intensified. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the growing numbers of refugees, and the rise of right-wing populist movements throughout Europe have all left their impact on Eurovision songs. National entries may explicitly commemorate the past—Armenia’s 2015 “Face the Shadow,” recognizing the hundred years since the Armenian genocide, Ukraine’s juxtaposition of Soviet and Russian repression in Crimea with Jamala’s 2016 winning song, “1944.” Indeed, the history of the ESC is one marked by protest and boycott, politicization and national censorship.
And then there was this year’s ESC in Lisbon, when something changed and it was song itself that won the day. The first sign that the contest, with its theme of “All Aboard,” was embarking on a different route was the quick exit in the first semi-final (May 8) of the Russian entry, Yulia Samoylova, “I Won’t Break.” Samoylova had returned to the ESC after being prevented from singing the year before in Kiev after performing in Russian-annexed Crimea. The second sign that ESC 2018 would be different was a growing consensus that the songs themselves were significantly better than in previous years. It was not entirely clear just why this was so, but an aesthetic that took the music seriously was shared by many entries. Generally, there were fewer gimmicks on the stage. Several of the most memorable songs in Lisbon consciously broke the mold of appealing to the youth culture of European popular music, instead offering intimate portrayals of aging—Ieva Zasimauskaitė’s “When We’re Old,” for Lithuania—or the loss of a family member—Michael Schulte’s “You Let Me Walk Alone,” for Germany, which in fourth place proved one of the most powerful songs.
Traditionally, Eurosongs historicize, consciously drawing upon the past, and though Eurovision self-referentiality did not disappear, it was carried out respectfully, for example, when the Portuguese entry, Cláudia Pascoal and Isaura’s “O Jardim” (The Garden), evoked the winning song from 2017, Salvador Sobral’s “Amar pelos dois” (Love for Both of Us). Power ballads, long a Eurosong staple, were fewer, while hip hop finally came of age. Folk-inflected entries were few, but notable, as in Sanja Ilić and Balkanika’s “Nova deca” (New Kids) for Serbia.
Far more critical for ESC 2018 was a decidedly new Eurovision sound. It was this sound that the winning song, “Toy,” performed by Israel’s Netta Barzilai, marvelously captured.
Composed by the team, Doron Medalie and Stav Beger, “Toy” wove together the many threads of a diverse ESC history, creating a sound that was new and exciting for the Eurovision stage. The use of vocables—melodic sounds with no lexical meaning—has long been standard in Eurosongs. When Netta sang vocables in “Toy,” she thus made a gesture toward the past. She also made a deliberate connection to a style that heretofore had little presence in the ESC, electronic dance music (EDM). Over the 45 years of its participation in the ESC Israel had benefited from nationalist politics, but found itself sometimes vilified by other competing nations. Israel’s ESC fortunes declined dramatically after Dana International won in 1998. I was hardly alone in believing that global politics would prevent Israel from winning the ESC. Netta herself claimed that the song made the case for diversity, though in the end it was musical diversity that “Toy” best exemplified:
Netta Barzilai, “Toy” (opening strophe)
Look at me, I’m a beautiful creature.
I don’t care about your wooden time preachers.
Welcome boys, too much noise, I will teach you.
Pam pam pa hoo, turram pam pa hoo.
It is also important that the political present and nationalism also provided contexts for some of the finest songs in Lisbon, among them my personal favorite, the French entry, “Mercy,” performed by the female-male duo, Madame Monsieur.
In the chanson style that has distinguished French songs throughout Eurovision history “Mercy” not only contained a political narrative about the European refugee crisis, but it also mapped that narrative on Europe with the official video, which contains images of arriving refugees:
Madame Monsieur, “Mercy” (opening strophe)
Je suis née ce matin, I was born this morning,
Je m’appelle Mercy, My name is Mercy,
Au milieu de la mer In the middle of the sea
Entre deux pays, Mercy. Between two lands, Mercy.
At the end of the evening, “Mercy” placed only 13th, its European message politely acknowledged, but not compelling. Throughout the Grand Finale the questions of music and nationalism rose again and again, belying simple explanations and leading many to wonder whether we might be witnessing a different response to the new nationalisms, even those synonymous with rising populism in Europe. If only briefly, the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon offered us a moment, in which we could experience the ascent of music in the age of nationalism that we have come to know all too well.
Featured image credit: Lea Sirk (Slovenia 2018) by Wouter van Vliet, EuroVisionary is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.