Last night the Ukraine won Eurovision 2016 with their song, 1944, that was a bold political statement against Russia. Any doubts that Eurovision is politicised seem to have been dispelled, and this might just be the biggest political statement to date.
What is Eurovision?
Every country in Europe, plus Australia and Israel for reasons no one truly understands, put forward one original song. Each song is performed once and the winner is decided by each countries vote, combined with a public vote. The winner then closes the show by performing again, and that country hosts the show the following year. Next year, the Ukraine will be hosting Eurovision 2017.
The competition was founded in 1956 as an attempt by the European Broadcasting Union to bring Europeans together after the trauma of World War Two. Exchanging bombs and guns for songs and glitter, the competition has gone from strength to strength. It has grown so big that Justin Timberlake now performs and, for the first time ever, Eurovision was broadcast in the US. Last year 200 million people watched the show and it was set to increase again this year, especially with the grand final being live streamed on YouTube.
The politicised culture of Eurovision
The show is rooted in politicised origins and is watched by people all over the world. Every year there are debates around the politics of the voting patterns, with excuses made for the UK’s repeatedly poor performance. Personally, I hold the controversial opinion that the UK performs badly because our acts are absolutely awful. Be that as it may, there are certain patterns that seem to emerge, whether it be the consistent Scandinavian successes or the Balkan bloc.
Interestingly, Malta was the only country who voted for us this year. Not that that is surprising as Malta and Ireland tend to support us, (where were you Ireland!!?) and we only ‘granted’ Malta independence in 1964, having claimed them as part of our Empire for 150 years. If you’ve visited Malta, you quickly realise how closely connected our two countries still are and the significant ways ‘we’ have influenced their culture.
However, perhaps this isn’t a political decision to vote for the countries we’re most closely allied with, perhaps it is cultural. It may be the cultural similarities that lead one country to support another’s act. If you look at the voting blocks that form, they are also based on proximity:
- South-eastern Europe – the countries of former Yugoslavia in the Balkans
- Eastern Europe – the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe
- Northern Europe – the Nordic nations, of which only Sweden, the host, was competing this year.
One of my biggest problems with Eurovision from a cultural perspective is that almost everyone speaks in English. The hosts always speak English and most performances are in English. From a pragmatic perspective it makes sense in that it is the most commonly shared language. However, how difficult would it really be to allow people to speak in their first language and have subtitles? Blame it on the British empire or American imperialism, but it still makes me uncomfortable that the English language is privileged above any other.
Mic drop or bomb drop?
Many would argue that, given the political context cited above, last nights performance was not that surprising. I think it was. The voting patterns often seem to reflect political alliances or cultural similarities, but performances themselves are not normally that politicised. Many sing about peace and love in true pageant style, but last night changed that. The Ukraine shifted the context and their performance was easily the most striking part of the show.
You may remember that, until fairly recently, the Ukraine was in our news almost every day. A ceasefire was announced last year, after a conflict with Russia that left thousands dead and many more injured. The political posturing is far from over, sporadic fighting is ongoing and the economic situation is fragile. However, the story no longer fuels the politics of fear and so it has been dropped by the British media. The BBC timeline on the subject goes up to June 2015 and then abruptly stops. Will last nights performance put the Ukraine back in our media for political discussion? I hope so.
One of the most interesting questions is what the Ukraine hoped to gain from this performance. Were they trying to engage Europe with their historic struggle with Russia? Was the singer, Jamala, simply trying to sing about something of intense personal importance to herself? Was this a threat to Russia?
Eurovision is about soft power in multiple forms and countries all over the world, especially post- Soviet countries, have now ‘picked sides’ between Russia and the Ukraine in a very public space.
1944 reflects on Stalin’s deportation of more than 240,000 ethnic Tatars from Ukraine’s Crimea region during World War Two. It resonates politically today with the ongoing tensions between Russia and the Ukraine, and has been received as a rebuke for the invasion of the Ukraine two years ago. In the run up to last nights performance Russia complained about the song, as Eurovision generally bans politicised messages. However, Jamala was allowed to perform and ended up competing closely with one of the pre- contest favourites, Sergey Lazarev, who was representing Russia.
When Jamala went on stage at the end she was intensely emotional and said: ‘I really want peace and love to everyone. Thank you Europe. WELCOME TO UKRAINE.’ The words have often been repeated at Eurovision but, for me at least, they took on a different perspective with tears streaming down her cheeks and her song about the tragedy of war.
The night was clearly an emotional one for Jamala, whose performance was partly inspired by her great- grandmother who was one of those deported in 1944. Jamala dressed in traditional Tatar clothing, highlighting the importance of both music and fashion in making individual and political statements. She split the song between English and the Crimean Tatar language, with the opening lyrics including the words:
“When strangers are coming/
They come to your house/
They kill you all/
We’re not guilty/Not guilty.”
1944 is a song that won’t be forgotten for a long time and I hope that political coverage will continue to be shaped by her heartfelt desire for ‘peace and love.’ It seems ambitious to think Putin will have been moved by this message, but it will be interesting to see how diplomatic relations between the two countries continue.
The future of Eurovision
Traditionally, Eurovision is not supposed to have politicised songs but perhaps this will change in the light of last nights success. Personally I am pleased that the Ukraine had the opportunity to platform part of their perspective, but arguably many other stories were silenced last night and there are political tensions running throughout Europe.
Whatever happens, the Ukraine will be hosting Eurovision next year. This highlights Russia’s failed attempts at annexation and will bring attention and, hopefully, funding to the country. The details of the costs are extensive, and many countries face major losses. For example, in 2012 Azerbaijan spent £48 million on hosting and only gained around £7 million in tourist hosting.I am thrilled that the Ukraine will be hosting next year, but it will be interesting to see how they choose to proceed and I hope that they don’t go down the route of other countries and end up crippling their economy over it.
Last night was an intense political moment and was possibly a game changer in Eurovision history. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, the Ukraine choose to politicise Eurovision 2017.
Photo credit getty images.