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Why the Eurovision Song Contest still matters in 2020

What would be left of the Eurovision Song Contest once wrenched from the spectacle and ritual of its annual Grand Finale in May? Could it survive, stripped of glitz, pyrotechnics, and camp, its penchant for ever-expanding excess? Would the legions of fans worldwide, who love the contest, retain their passion and return in 2021? Such were the questions that were real and not rhetorical when the European Broadcasting Union, the largest global broadcasting network and sponsor of the contest, reluctantly announced on 18 March 2020 that it was canceling the 65th return of the longest-running televised musical competition in the world on 16 May, when it should have taken place in Rotterdam

With the cancellation of the 65th Eurovision Song Contest, the rupture between two Europes opened once again, exposing the political divisiveness between nations and the aesthetic pluralism in the musical representation of Europe. The songs for the 41 competing nations had been chosen through national competitions well before the March cancellation, and they were circulating on numerous internet platforms as both official and bootleg videos. The sound of this contest, from the tried-and-true clichés to the attempts to push the boundaries of a three-minute song as far as possible, was fully available for all wishing to engage the competition months in advance. The old Eurovision sound was evident in the abundant songs that intentionally reminded listeners of earlier Eurosongs, styles that clearly signified the national and styles that deliberately eschewed nationalism. As always, many songs openly expressed the politics of diverse sexualities (e.g., Azerbaijan’s Efendi, singing “Cleopatra”), while virtually all songs heeded the strict European Broadcasting Union directive to avoid nationalist politics at all costs (e.g., Russia’s Little Big, performing “Uno”).

The new Eurovision sound was most clearly audible and visible in the diversity of the performers. Never before in its history had so many singers of color performed. The Czech Republic, Israel, Malta, the Netherlands, San Marino, and Sweden would have sent performers of African heritage to Rotterdam, representing that heritage to different degrees—Sweden’s female trio, the Mamas, with gospel, the Netherlands’ Jeangu Macrooy, African American hymnody, and Israel’s Eden Alene, a mixture of African and Caribbean musics.

The several crises faced by Europe in recent history—the rise of right-wing populism, the migration crisis, and the rapid spread of COVID-19—were almost entirely absent from the official videos, though a few subsequent videos turned directly to these crises, reimagining the old Eurovision sound as the new. The initial version of the Italian entry, Diodato’s “Fai rumore” (Make Noise), in traditional Sanremo style and filmed as a sexually-charged dance scene, was resituated to the Roman arena in Verona, where Diodato sang alone, symbolically isolated in a nation struggling against the pandemic. “Fai rumore” would become a hit across Italy, sung every evening from balconies. One of the boldest transformations from old to new occurs in the video of Malta’s entry, Destiny, singing “All of My Love.” With clear references to the desperate plight of refugees traveling across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe—the island nation of Malta is the first European country at which they can find refuge—the actors in the video increasingly don masks in what becomes a life-and-death struggle in search of the Promised Land.

Destiny, “All of My Love” (Malta)

Whether we are witnessing a transformation of the contest itself at this moment of uncertainty, from the old to the new, remains an open question. Even as fan clubs throughout the world cobbled together alternative competitions to replace what they were missing (e.g., with #EurovisionAgain), the European Broadcasting Union produced a two-hour broadcast that located the contest in the present. Competition had been eliminated, and there was no voting. The drama of nation vying against nation disappeared as entries from one country covered those from other countries. The intermission acts, with their massed ensembles and dance troupes, gave way to intimate solo performances by past winners, addressing the social, psychological, and physical struggles of people during the pandemic. The old was made new, which is to say present in real time, and with stunning beauty as, for example, Sweden’s Måns Zelmerlöw sang “Heroes” (2015) from his backyard in London and Serbia’s Marija Šerifović sang “Molitva” (Prayer) in the empty streets of Belgrade, both of them with superimpositions of healthcare workers at the front lines. The 2018 winner, Netta, from Israel composed a new song, “Cuckoo,” directly engaging the fragility of mental health and singing from the confinement of her own bedroom.

Måns Zelmerlöw, “Heroes”

Marija Šerifović, “Molitva” (Prayer)

Netta, “Cuckoo”

A Europe united in common voice swelled throughout the evening, culminating with a gallery of all national entries joined in the chorus of “Love Shine a Light,” Katrina and the Waves’ winning entry for the UK in 1997. And so, the Eurovision Song Contest 2020, “Europe Shine a Light,” came to an end that was not a conclusion, but rather a chorus of European nations in the midst of uncommon uncertainty affirming that Europe would survive to sing again: “Long live the Eurovision.”

Featured image: screen capture from “Love Shine A Light” performed by the artists of Eurovision 2020.

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  3. John Wakefield y

    Does it mean we’re getting together is this at least a sub-text?

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