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The year of singing politically: The 68th Eurovision Song Contest 2024 Malmö, Sweden

Welcome to the show. Let everybody know I’m done playin’ the game. I’ll break out of the chains.

—Nemo, “The Code,” winning song of Eurovision 2024

Breaking out of the chains had emerged as a central leitmotif and call for activism at the Eurovision Song Contest long before Swiss non-binary singer, Nemo, performed it as the winning song, “The Code,” at the Grand Finale on May 11 2024 in Malmö, Sweden. Though the lyrics could and did allow for different interpretations when the 2024 national entries first began to circulate on the internet—whose show, whose game, who’s everybody, who’s playing—ambiguity had been stripped away by the height of the Eurovision season in April. Nemo’s own breaking of the code became an allegory for direct engagement with the most unbreakable of all Eurovision codes: performance of politics, understated or overt, is strictly forbidden.

Nemo, “The Code,” Official Eurovision Video

Violating the code would lead to rejection of a national entry by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the largest broadcasting network in the world and the organizational infrastructure for the Eurovision itself. In extreme cases, when the politics of a song mirrored the geopolitics of Europe, violation of the code could lead to banning a nation from competing entirely, as it did in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. The Eurovision Song Contest, in a word, should be apolitical. It should channel a cultural democracy for Europe heralded by an annual motto, this year “Unity by Music.” Such lofty goals for song may well be cause for celebration, but the reality of the largest music competition in the world, in which nation vies against nation on the global television stage, undermines the myth of a world without politics.

At Eurovision 2024, that myth would be fully dispelled. It was the announcement of the Israeli entry, Eden Golan and a song called “October Rain,” that in February forced the EBU into its attempt at apolitical activism. The title and lyrics of the song, according to the EBU, were direct references to the October 7th Hamas attack in Israel. Whether direct or not, always an abstruse category for EBU censors, Israel was given the option of withdrawing, substituting a new song, or altering “October Rain” to contain no political references. Israel chose the third of the options, entering with a song called “Hurricane”. With that entry, political controversy was unleashed, with calls for banning Israel because of its war in Gaza, which led in turn to massive demonstrations on the streets of Malmö and loud booing of Eden Golan at the semi-finals and finals—and a fifth-place finish in the May 11th Grand Finale, highly respectable under any circumstances.

Eden Golan, “Hurricane,” Official Eurovision video, Israel

Just how does the EBU and the organizers of the Eurovision Song Contest, including the host country that produces the shows for Eurovision Week, exercise its apolitical activism? To answer that question, one needs to consider the long history of the counterpoint between top-down organization by Europe’s media empire and the bottom-up participation of a musical citizenry seeking to win its place in a Europe constituted of diverse fragments. There are many ways to pose the question, but a critical way to answer it is to reflect on the different ways song itself expresses organization and participation.

In principle, any citizen of a nation whose broadcasting network is a member of the EBU has the potential to participate in the Eurovision. Competitions begin locally in the nation, move across regional boundaries, and eventually reach the stage provided nationally by the country’s broadcasting network, for example, the well-known Sanremo Song Contest in Italy. Winning entries are determined by a voting system that, though in variants among different countries, affords the feeling of democracy. The entry of San Marino (population 33,660) reaches Eurovision Week through a process that is comparable to that of Italy, albeit on a vastly different scale. The concept of Eurovision democracy in the bottom-up process is inherently political, which in turn is evident in the changing styles, languages, and symbolism of entries from year to year. Some nations choose to be more international, others recognizably national, for example, in the folk music-inflected entries of Croatia and Armenia on May 11th. The musical politics of some nations serve style and genre: for example, the consistent use of chanson and cabaret style by singers for France, the political meaning of the lyrics notwithstanding. In 2024, the LGBTQ+ signifying of the North African Muslim French entry, Slimane, fitted beautifully to the chanson style of his song, “Mon Amour.” National differences, when performed effectively, do not deter the voting public across Europe, who this year placed Croatia and France in the second and fourth positions.

Baby Lasagna, “Rim Tim Tagi Dim,” Official Eurovision video for Croatia 2024

The top-down musical democracy of the EBU and of the Eurovision Song Contest (as pageant and spectacle) depends on another set of criteria to enforce its apolitical activism. Not only the content of a song, but its structure must observe strict rules (for example, exactly three minutes, maximum six performers on stage). Infringing on these rules is an act of not belonging to Eurovision democracy. In 2024, as conflict and controversy enveloped the rest of the world, the EBU and the Swedish production team turned away from the roiling of external politics, instead looking inward, gazing at the Eurovision itself, its history, and a sort of fantasy world imagined as its alternative for Europe. In both the semi-final performances (May 7th and 9th) and the Grand Finale, the intermission acts on the stage in Malmö were consistently retrospectives of earlier Eurovision entries performed by former Eurovision stars. Host Sweden had made the decision that Eurovision 2024 should be a grand fiftieth-anniversary celebration for Eurovision 1974, won by ABBA singing “Waterloo,” the most popular song in Eurovision’s sixty-eight-year history. Many of the songs performed in the 2024 Eurovision imaginary came off as sad commentaries of a world no longer relevant, if apolitical. I found it rather pathetic to watch Johnny Logan (“Mr. Eurovision” from the 1980s and 1990s) during the first semi-final singing Loreen’s 2012 winning song, “Euphoria.” When Loreen, the Swedish winner from 2012 and 2023, introduced her “new song” at the appropriate ritual moment in the entr’acte of the finals, it was barely distinguishable from those earlier songs, as if she was trapped in a cycle of covering herself.

As the political world did battle with the apolitical world, it was the former that broke through, opening the stage for a politics that could capture a new attention. Criticism of the politics of ongoing war, in Gaza and Ukraine, can be openly expressed. Engagement with a different Europe, one unsettled, not united, by music, might someday occupy a presence on the Eurovision stage. In 2024, we witnessed that presence in the powerful cry to humanity in the Ukrainian entry of Alyona Alyona and Jerry Heil, “Teresa and Maria,” which concluded the Grand Finale in third place. As I did in my blogpost last year, I give the final words in 2024 to Ukraine, which show us why the Eurovision really can and should matter.

Spring makes its path, no matter what.
The world is on her shoulders,
Misled, winding, rocky. . . .
All the divas were born
As human beings with us.

Alyona Alyona and Jerry Heil, “Teresa and Maria,” Official Eurovision Video, Ukraine

Featured image by Arkland via Wikimedia Commons. CC4.0.

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