The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Eurovision is political this year. As it is every year.

Israel's Netta Barzilai celebrates after winning the Eurovision contest in Lisbon last year. (Armando Franca/AP)

Dean Vuletic is a historian of contemporary Europe at the University of Vienna and the author of the book “Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest.”

Europe’s most wide-ranging election is about to take place. No, not the elections for the European Parliament, which will see voters from the European Union’s 28 member states take to the ballot box later this month, but rather the voting on May 18 for the final of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Eurovision, the popular televised musical competition that has been held annually since 1956, will draw votes from 41 states, most of which are from Europe. But that’s not the only way the contest embraces political conventions. Though the organizer of the contest has long marketed it as a nonpolitical and unifying force, it has historically been dominated by the politics of the time.

Eurovision’s very premise is a nod to political relations. In the early years of the contest, its organizer — the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the association for national public service broadcasting organizations from Europe and the Mediterranean region — debated whether the names of national broadcasting organizations or states should appear on the scoreboard. It decided that national identifications were more succinct and recognizable. They also evoke more emotions, from patriotism to prejudice, making the competition more enticing.

This is why Eurovision voting has historically been the subject of political analysis, as academics and journalists ponder the meaning of which national audiences voted for which songs. It has also made Eurovision an important tool of cultural diplomacy — and a point of contention.

These trends can certainly be seen this year. Because Netta Barzilai, a contestant from Israel, won last year’s event, the 2019 iteration is being held in Tel Aviv. This has made the contest a target of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. The outcry over Israel hosting the competition was especially intense because Barzilai was crowned just days before the controversial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and both she and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made clear that they wanted Eurovision to be held in Jerusalem.

Over the past few months, celebrities have signed open letters in support of and against the competition being held in Israel. Icelandic entry Hatari, a "techno BDSM" and punk rock band, has even been openly critical of the Israeli government. And just ahead of the beginning of Eurovision rehearsals in Tel Aviv, Israeli forces and militants in Gaza traded fire along the border, leaving several injured and killed. The threat of further attacks hangs over the event.

This is not the first time that Eurovision has become embroiled in political controversy. In fact, the hosting of Eurovision has become a contest of international relations played to a soundtrack of Europop. Previously, the hosting of Eurovision had usually been more polarizing because of its cost. But the last decade has seen the national broadcasting organizations of Armenia, Georgia and Russia withdraw from the contests staged by Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine, respectively, because of diplomatic tensions or outright conflict.

And increasingly, politically symbolic artists and songs have been winning the contest. In 2014, Austrian bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst provoked debates across Europe on the rights of LGBT communities. In 2016, the Ukrainian entry “1944” was about the ethnic cleansing of Tartars from Crimea and was particularly controversial as an allusion to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Barzilai’s song, “Toy,” was inspired by the #MeToo movement.

While the EBU may fear that politics harms the Eurovision brand, my research suggests that this doesn’t seem to be the case with viewers. Indeed, one of the reasons Eurovision has managed to remain so attractive to viewers is because it has consistently reflected political and social changes in Europe. It is often viewed as a barometer of public opinion in the continent.

This year, the most political song in Eurovision is Hatari’s “Hate Will Prevail,” which envisions a doomsday scenario for Europe. With the European Union’s elections taking place the week following Eurovision, the lyrics from the song, “Hate will prevail, and Europe’s heart impale”, take on a powerful meaning. With this overtly political message, Eurovision will capture the political zeitgeist — as it has done time and time again.

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