Associate Professor Anika Gauja looks beyond the songs and smoke machines to explain what Eurovision tells us about politics and society today.
Let's start with a disclaimer. I need to confess that I'm a pretty big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest. But this is not a fan article…so read on.
Since 1956, European countries have been sending their musical stars (term used with artistic licence) to perform at what is now the longest running annual television music competition.
In 2016, Eurovision attracted a viewing audience of 204 million in more than 40 countries.
Each one of these 204 million people watches Eurovision for different reasons, be it for national pride, because of a boy-band crush, as an expression of identity, for the contest's cult-status and kitsch value – and even, in some cases, the quality of the songs.
But as a political scientist, I see a different side to the contest. For me, Eurovision is a window, albeit one sprinkled with glitter, into European politics and society. And, funnily enough, the same basic concepts that we use to understand political institutions (such as parties and legislatures), participation (voting and mobilisation), comparative politics and international relations, translate really well into talking about Eurovision.
So if you're planning on watching the contest this week, here’s what you might look for:
When we talk about geopolitics, we are interested in the effect of geography on the politics of a state or a region.
The evolution of the Eurovision Song Contest over the last 60 years is a perfect illustration of the expansion of Europe since the end of the Second World War; with the competition growing from seven in 1956 to 42 in 2017. Seventeen of these competing nations are not members of the EU, including many Eastern Europe counties and former Yugoslav republics, Israel, and Australia.
Yet we know that the European project has always been contested, that national identities and ideas around what it means to be European are fluid and can conflict, and that regional tensions can easily ignite.
Last year’s winning song, 1944 by artist Jamala from the Ukraine, was regarded by many to be a contemporary commentary on Russia’s activities in Crimea. Russia attempted to have the song banned, but this was unsuccessful.
As Kiev prepares to host this year’s contest, the diplomatic standoff between the two nations continues. Russia will not compete for the first time since 1999, after Russia’s selected contestant, Julia Samoylova, was banned from entering the Ukraine after it was deemed by Ukrainian authorities that she illegally performed in Crimea (a territory annexed from the Ukraine by Russia in 2014).
How the UK’s entry will be received in the aftermath of the Brexit vote is another thing to watch. The title of their song this year, ‘Never Give Up on You’, is somewhat ironic given the circumstances.
Britain hasn’t performed well over the last two decades in the contest, despite having guaranteed entry into the competition’s Grand Final every year, so disentangling a possible ‘nul points’ caused by Brexit backlash from their general level of mediocrity will be challenging.
One of the biggest problems facing modern representative democracy is the declining level of interest and participation in legislative elections. In contrast, Eurovision – as an opportunity for people to participate in a multi-national ballot – goes from strength to strength.
The winner of the song contest is decided in an electoral system that aggregates the votes of panels of national experts with those of the viewing public, who participate via phone or SMS.
Countries can't vote for their own acts and inevitably a pattern of geo-political voting emerges every year. So watch out for the largest blocs: the Scandinavian countries, the Balkans and countries from the former USSR. Diaspora voting is also common: Ireland, for example, tends to award high points to the Baltic States.
While figures for the exact number of voters are difficult to come by (we do know that over 10 million people voted in 2009), the viewing audience has more than doubled in the last decade. Unlike representative politics, the contest is particularly good at attracting a youth audience. On average, 45 percent of 15-24 year olds watching on 2016 broadcast stations saw the grand final. This could be the (rather fun) future of voting.
Before the contest takes place, there needs to be some way in which the national acts are selected. The political science literature on the selection of candidates for elections has demonstrated that there are many different ways that parties select their candidates, and the same is true for Eurovision.
At one end of the spectrum we have highly participatory processes like Melodifestivalen, which is a popular song contest that selects the Swedish national entry over six televised shows. At the other end are countries where the national contestant is simply announced by the partner broadcaster, such as in Australia.
In politics, scholars have noted that candidate selection contests are becoming more inclusive, as a way of building up popular support through methods such as primaries. This reflected in Eurovision with the increasing number of national contestants who have previously won reality television contests. This year, we actually have a battle of Australian reality TV show winners with Australia’s representative Isiah Firebrace the winner of X-Factor in 2016 and Anja Nissen, representing Denmark, the winner of The Voice Australia in 2014.
However, party scholars have had very mixed results when analysing the impact of more inclusive methods of selection on electoral fortunes. On the one hand, with a popular vote, you might get the musical equivalent of Boaty McBoatface. On the other, an internal jury might be out of touch with the public’s taste and mood. The best method of selection appears to be mirroring the contest itself: of the last 10 years’ winner, only three were selected exclusively by jury (Russia, Germany, Azerbaijan), while seven were selected in national song competitions that combined jury and public voting.
A criticism of politics in general is that the offerings provided by political parties and candidates have become too similar. Parties create a product that will get them the most votes and appeal to the broadest possible audience.
The logic of Eurovision could be said to work in the same way. Eurovision songs need a number of basic elements, from which many drinking games have emerged: wind machine, smoke machine, scantily clad performer beating drums, key change and a repetitive (often nonsensical) chorus. In 60 years the dominant style has evolved from schlager music to Eurobeat.
However, because Eurovision also offers nations an opportunity to showcase their national identity, we see some interesting variations on this formula. In 2012, the Russian entry Buranovskiye Babushki consisted of six elderly women dressed in national costume, performing what has been described as 'ethno pop'.
Throughout its history, the Eurovision song contest has pushed the boundaries of Europe. More countries have come on board, performers sourced from around the world (remember Celine Dion winning for Switzerland in 1988?), and international music styles embraced.
Australia will now compete in the contest for the third time (Australia’s 2016 entrant Dami Im, placed second) and the Australian partner broadcaster SBS has secured the rights to extend the contest into Asia. Last year, Justin Timberlake was invited to be the performance’s interval act as the contest was broadcast live in the United States for the first time.
If history repeats, we may well see the United States invited to compete, like Australia, as a guest entrant.
So, enjoy the celebration that is Eurovision in whichever way you want. But if you're watching the contest this year, try looking beyond the songs and smoke machines to see what Eurovision tells us about politics and society today. You might be surprised by how much the contest actually reveals.
Anika Gauja is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. An earlier version of this article first appeared as 'What You Can Learn About Europe From Eurovision' in The Huffington Post Australia.