Already during the initial spread of the coronavirus pandemic during the early months of 2020, when the organizers of the Eurovision Song Contest determined the world’s largest and most extravagant musical competition could not take place in May, plans were underway for its return a year later, on 22 May, 2021 in Rotterdam. The intervening year was one of introspection, a year removed from Eurovision temporality as venue, contestants, and songs were retrofitted for the second sixty-fifth annual staging in 2021. The Eurovision mise-en-scène in Rotterdam was to be one of Europe’s recovery and revival, following prolonged pandemic and isolation. The Rotterdam Ahoy Arena would host live performances, if to a much-reduced audience of 3,500. The thirty-second postcards (short introductory videos for each artist) punctuating the songs in live performance uniformly staged a tiny room symbolizing lockdown on the empty landscape of a Dutch city. Healing now possible, the moment for celebrating new beginnings had arrived.
When the final votes were tallied, few of the estimated 200 million viewers in the global television audience would question the arrival of new beginnings, but many would question its meaning for Europe. The hard-rocking Italian band, Måneskin, performing “Zitti e buoni” (translated as “Shut Up and Sit Down”), became the winner of the Eurovision 2021, propelled to victory by the overwhelming support of the popular vote. Måneskin’s path to Rotterdam followed the traditional route of Italian entries, winning the Sanremo Song Festival earlier in the year. “Zitti e buoni,” however, circumvented, or rather, took no heed of, the themes of recovery and revival. “Zitti e buoni” harkened back to an earlier rock ‘n’ roll, mixing styles—here, a splash of metal, there a sustained swath of hip-hop—asserting Måneskin’s selfness and belying the collective cause of healing embraced by other entries. In its original version, there were instances in which the lyrics were so vulgar they had to be excised prior to the Eurovision. “Zitti e buoni” is a song about new beginnings, about mine, maybe yours, but who really cares.
Måneskin, “Zitti e buoni” (Shut Up and Sit Down), 2021 Eurovision winner
In order to reach first place, Italy needed the considerable popular support of 318 votes to surpass the close race between Switzerland and France, which had emerged as the first- and second-place finishers after the voting by the national juries. Switzerland’s Gjon’s Tears, singing “Tout l’univers” (The Whole Universe), had entered Eurovision 2021 as a favorite. Gion’s Tears had also been the Swiss entry in 2020, gaining considerable support with his gentle, compellingly distinctive ballad style. In “Tout l’univers” the Albanian-Swiss singer addressed an intense sense of intimacy to “you” and “our,” locating “me” in a troubled relation to the many, the whole universe.
Gion’s Tears, “Tout l’univers” (The Whole Universe), 2021 third-place finisher (Switzerland)
Barbara Pravi’s stunning chanson, “Voilà,” the French entry was similarly a favorite prior to the Grand Finale (“Je me casse” [I Gotta Go], sung by Malta’s Destiny was the third favorite). Though Pravi brought her own complex ethnic heritage to represent France—she is of both Iranian and Serbian heritage—“Voilà” staked its claim for Europeanness by weaving many stylistic threads into an exquisite fabric of Frenchness. Her debt to Parisian cabaret and Edith Piaf is undeniable, enhancing her sense of recovering self for new beginnings.
Barbara Pravi, “Voilà,” 2021 Second-place finisher (France)
The dominant themes of recovery and revival from the pandemic that ran through the broadcasts and media accounts during Eurovision Week and the days thereafter, strove to emphasize the hopeful and the positive: the Eurovision Song Contest is back, and Europe has emerged from its lockdown to celebrate its diversity in the songs of its nations once again. New beginnings were indeed possible. One does not have to listen very hard to such self-celebratory pronouncements to recognize that a dark side still lingers, especially in the voting procedures. The combination of two different voting totals—first, a jury of professionals in each country, second, the vox populi casting their votes by telephone and texting—revealed not only its own flaws, but also exposed some of Europe’s ruptures, before and now (almost) after the pandemic.
The conflict between the national juries and the popular voters is emblematic of the divisions between elite institutions of political power and a growing populism seeking to wrest its share of that power. Among the most disturbing issues of divisiveness and populism for me during Eurovision 2021 was the clear rejection of performers of color by the popular vote. That rejection could not be clearer up and down the charts during a year when the number of performers of color was greater than ever. Singers of color were penalized by the public at the top of the competitive list—Malta’s Destiny, with Nigerian heritage, was pulled from her competitive position following a paltry forty-seven popular votes—and at the bottom—the Netherlands’ Jeangu Macrooy, whose family heritage is that of the former Dutch colony, Suriname, received no votes, null points, in the popular voting. The insult to Macrooy, performing a song that openly recognized George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, must also be called out as open racism in the Europe of the 2021 Eurovision. Macrooy’s voice was the most powerful of all calls for recovery and healing. He makes clear that the cost for new beginnings in a world that now follows pandemic and racism is considerable. It is his voice, raised as a clarion anthem in the Eurovision Song Contest, that might truly lead to the “Birth of a New Age.”
Jeangu Macrooy, “Birth of a New Age,” 2021 twenty-third-place finisher (the Netherlands)
Feature image: Sculpture of Eurovision 2021 trophy in Rotterdam, public domain via Unsplash.