When Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands briefly acknowledged his victory in the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest with the dedication, “this is to music first, always,” he was making a claim that most viewers would have found unobjectionable. Laurence’s hopefulness notwithstanding, the real position of music in the 2019 Eurovision Grand Finale on 18 May 2019 in Tel Aviv was more troubling than secure. From the moment that Israel’s Netta Barzilai had won the 2018 Eurovision in Lisbon, the first return of the Eurovision to Israel since Dana International had won in 1998 promised controversy. There was little to stop the rising European conflict between inclusion and exclusion—the rights of national ownership and belonging—from spilling over into an international music competition, born of the Cold War, but coinciding with the week of Naqba, the Palestinian day of “Catastrophe.”
The European Broadcasting Union and the Israeli hosts followed tradition by taking every step possible to exclude political symbols from entering the contest. Song lyrics, for example, must be stripped of political meaning or risk elimination. The broadcasting union goes to extreme measures to prevent border conflicts between competing nations, from finding place in songs. Minority rights, legal restrictions on LGBTQ rights in competing nations, the refugee crisis, the #MeToo movement, and the rise of right-wing nationalism find their way into songs in coded form more often than not.
The depoliticization of the Eurovision by media organizations in recent years has grown disproportionately in comparison with the social issues it seeks to silence. The national song entries suffer accordingly, replacing a poetics of critical eloquence with glitzy performance. The Tel Aviv Eurovision show, for example, displayed more pyrotechnics and acrobatics than ever before. Intermission acts mustered Eurovision stars from previous years, who combined forces in one mash-up after the other, to turn European history—the Cold War, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the formation of the European Union, civil war and ethnic cleansing in southeastern Europe—into one big colorful panorama. When Madonna was flown to the Eurovision to perform the final intermission act of the Grand Finale, the excess would have reached its ultimate crescendo had Madonna risen to an occasion that, clearly, she understood not in the least.
The 2019 Eurovision also contained voices of quiet resistance, singers and songwriters who were responding to a more troubling reality in Europe. Against the backdrop of relentless show it was often difficult to hear these voices, the marginal representing the marginalized. The most subtle of such voices responding to a more troubling Europe was that of Tamara Todevska, whose song, “Proud,” was the first-ever entry for North Macedonia. Singing a gentle ballad about the relationships between women, especially multi-generational relationships, Todevska reflected on the difficulties of inclusion and harassment (Girl, for every tear the world makes you cry/ Hold on to me, I am always on your side. . . ./ Tell them, this is me and thanks to you I’m proud). Her song received the most jury votes from national committees and eventually placed seventh.
There were other singers voicing resistance, ranging from the intensely personal to the most political. The Norwegian entry, the trio KEiino, performed “Spirit in the Sky,” posing questions about cultural survival in a natural world endangered by climate change, but then elevating the questions to Indigenous rights with Sámi lyrics in the chorus. France’s Bilal Hassani, a drag performer of North African heritage, eschewed subtlety altogether (I am me, and I know I will always be/ Je suis free, oui j’invente ma vie) when performing the intertextual LGBTQ “Roi” with dancers who had different disabilities.
As the 2019 Eurovision Grand Finale drew to its close, it became clear that the quieter voices, those who recognized that Europe was larger than national politics and the clichés of spectacle, just might carry the day. Bilal Hassani’s “Roi” (King) perhaps asked too much in 2019, but Mahmood’s “Soldi” (Money), about broken family relations, sung by a Muslim representing Italy, moved to second place. When the tallies were complete, it was one of the gentlest of all 2019 entries, Duncan Laurence’s “Arcade,” that would bring the 2020 Eurovision to the Netherlands. Beautifully crafted and magnificently sung, “Arcade” soared above Eurovision 2019 (A broken heart is all that’s left. . . ./ I carried it, carried it, carried it home):
Just who will listen to the voices of quiet resistance at Eurovision 2019? Will they remain just parts of the show, effectively censored by the broadcasting union’s restrictions on political statements? Do they function as bread or circuses in Europe at a time of moral crisis? The long history of political relevance and engagement notwithstanding, such questions have reached a new and critical relevance in the present. It remains to be seen as to whether the 2020 Eurovision in the Netherlands will carry the most popular song contest in the world back to a home in which the voices of all Europeans rise above a competition increasingly stripped of its politics.
Correction: An earlier version of this post was missing the concluding paragraph. It has been added in at the behest of the author.
Featured Image credit: “Duncan Laurence (Netherlands 2019)” by Martin Fjellanger, Eurovision Norway, EuroVisionary is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.