THE BLOG

Eurovision: War and Politics on Primetime TV

29/04/2014 15:06 BST | Updated 28/06/2014 10:59 BST

UK interest in Eurovision has waned in recent years with the accusation that it is "all just political".

In the early 1950s, Europe was bitterly scarred from war. Maps had been redrawn, reparations were being paid and wounds were being healed. Some of the healing was to come from planned economic integration. In this vein, in 1957, the European Common Market was formed. Just one year beforehand, in a spirit of technological integration, the first Eurovision song contest took place, by the shores of Lake Lugano in Switzerland.

Despite being born in a common era with shared principles and "Euro" in its name, Eurovision has nothing to do with the EU itself. Its governing body is the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), whose terrestrial scope includes all of continental Europe but also includes all North African countries such as Libya and Morocco, much of the Middle East, like Israel and Jordan and most of the Caucasus region, including Georgia and Armenia.

However, given Eurovision's conception and birth and its formative years took place in Western continental Europe, it is fair to say that Western Europe remains at its historical and cultural heart. A short-lived rival, the Intervision Song Contest, ran in the late 70s and early 80s in and amongst Soviet Union states and friendly neighbours but nothing in television terms has matched the grande dame of annual transnational broadcasting, in Europe or elsewhere. In this respect, like in many other ways, the West truly did win.

It does rather beg the question though: what's the point of Eurovision today? What purpose for a contest conceived to demonstrate technical and televisual modernity and to integrate post-war societies? The Olympics and the football World Cup showcase enough technological marvels and simulcasts every other year. As for war, no Western European country has fought a war against another since the song contest began.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, light entertainment became political statement and Eurovision found a new purpose. Whilst officially apolitical, Eurovision has however become a cradle for the culture wars between East and West.

The post-Soviet world required countries to search for their national identity and place in the wider world. Countries like Latvia, Estonia and Azerbaijan were neither ever likely to win the chance to host the Olympic Games nor indeed to have any significant influence on global politics. They could however win the Eurovision Song Contest (and in each case have done so) and in doing so win the right to stage the contest and showcase their (relatively young) nation to the world. Azerbaijan reportedly spent over €120m on just the venue for the 2012 contest. Baku dripped with new money and showed itself to the world's media, like an oligarch's wife: confident, rich and controlled. Baku's makeover may have covered up visible flaws: but the world's media shone a Eurovision-sized light on her human rights abuses.

Seven years earlier, just months after the Western-supported Orange Revolution and the election of Victor Yushchenko, Ukraine's new President took to the stage at the end of that year's contest in Kiev. Ukraine's entry that year (a reworking of the Orange Revolution's marching anthem) made no effort to hide its political intent - chains were symbolically broken on stage, the colour orange abounded and the lyrics spoke of revolution and togetherness. Ukraine's multi-ethnic, multi-layered and evidently fragile concept of a nation state has been brought into sharp focus in the past few months, but on the Eurovision stage it has unfailingly manifested itself as a modern, European country, and proudly Ukrainian. In 2007, Ukrainian drag artist Verka Sechduka came to the stage singing "Lasha Tumbai" (an almost unmistakeable corruption of "Russia goodbye"). Hugely popular, she came a very close second.

As Verka evidenced, much like the Sochi Olympics and EU accession, Eurovision shines a light on minorities and their rights. Eurovision has been won by artists from ethnic minorities (most recently, Sweden's Loreen - of Moroccan and Muslim heritage), by a transgender artist (the Israeli superstar Dana International) and by a Balkan lesbian (seriously, you couldn't make it up).

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This year, Austria's entrant is a bearded drag artist Tom Neuwirth, under his drag name Conchita Wurst. Conchita is stunning, with a soaring voice and flowing locks. Predictably, her entry is causing controversy - for the most part in the more easterly parts of the EBU. Online petitions have risen in Belarus, Russia and Armenia to censor her performance at Eurovision. Whilst Conchita also offends conservative sensitivities in her home country, most of Western Europe would be damned if they would favour censorship over a right to freedom of expression, speech and sexual preference. The Culture Wars of Eurovision are very much still alive and well.

The contest itself does of course attract a large gay following but surely not just because of the camp and the kitsch. Eurovision is a genuine celebration of freedom in all its elements: a right to be carefree; a freedom of expression; the freedom to vote and be counted. All of these elements face challenges in societies where such things do not exist. The fact that earlier this year the EBU found evidence of an attempt of vote rigging for Azerbaijan would be ironic if it weren't so tragic. We take for granted the right to vote (more will vote for Eurovision than for any MEP, guaranteed) and the LGBT community's right to be free, to marry and yes, to entertain us on television. And even the UK is not immune to the nation state-ment that underlies the entire contest. It is a matter of national pride that as the home of the world's best pop music, we should be able to win a contest over Montenegro, for goodness' sake.

So, Eurovision does have a point. And the point is as political as an apolitical organisation can get: it's about freedom, democracy and the nation state. Perhaps it is "all just political" after all?

In the UK, the Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast on 6th and 8th May on BBC Three (semi-finals) with the final on BBC One on 10th May at 8pm.