“In that case, they changed the lyrics, and it was allowed to go forward, [but there was] lots of orange on the stage when that was being performed, so if you knew what it was about, you knew what it was about,” Baker says.
“What is perhaps different now is that the organisation is perhaps accepting that it cannot avoid being a geopolitical actor sometimes … by the very fact that states engage in public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy in the first place,” Baker says.
Paul Jordan, a popular culture expert referred to as “Dr Eurovision”, who authored the book The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, National Identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia, says countries have long used the competition as a “tool in soft power, in terms of trying to shape their international image”.
In Estonia’s case, Jordan argues, “it came at a time when they hosted it, when they were applying to join the European Union. So, there was a lot made around their international image and presenting a positive face to the world.”
At the same time, the process opened up the country to scrutiny. “So analysis of Estonia’s case study really shows you the kind of inner workings of nation building, of a country’s tension with its Soviet past, its Russian neighbours and the Russian-speaking population or the minority that lived there.”
In Ukraine’s case, Jordan says, Eurovision has been used to re-shape global perceptions of the country. “Until they won Eurovision, there wasn’t really a lot of good news, there was much about [the nuclear reactor accident in] Chernobyl. There was political scandal and a revolution.
“So Eurovision was really an opportunity for them to control the narrative for the first time,” Jordan says. “And for Eurovision, they changed their visa regulations for European Union citizens so, until the [current] war, it shows you Eurovision having an influence in terms of foreign policy.”
As geopolitics go, the pressure in 2022 feels particularly acute because we have one country (Russia) expelled, another (Belarus) suspended because its national broadcaster is seen to be a propaganda tool and a third (Ukraine) surfing a wave of international support that could fuel a win.
In past years, Baker says, “there had been a number of states whose policies caused concern, which were participating in Eurovision, [where there was] the opportunity for an authoritarian regime to use Eurovision to try and paint a good picture of itself.”
One problem, Baker says, is that the EBU’s decision to act on the Russian issue subsequently exposes the other times in its history when it chose not to. In 2019, when Israel hosted the event, the country’s bombing of Gaza “ended up coming into the contest, and the context around the contest,” she says.
And while there is now a perception that Ukraine could surf a sympathy vote towards a win, Baker is sceptical. “I honestly don’t think there’s any such thing as a sympathy vote at Eurovision,” she says. “And certainly not a big enough sympathy vote that would be able to take a song all the way to winning.
“You’ve got to appeal not just to juries in almost 40 different countries, you’ve got to appeal to viewers as well,” Baker adds. “And given the level of competition that there is at Eurovision, an entry has got to be so technically and musically efficient to be a contender with all the other ones, which are going to be at that standard as well.”
More critical is the road ahead. “It is a turning point,” Jordan says. “The EBU have always tried to distance themselves from the politics of it. And you saw that in recent years, they’ve expelled songs, but actually, it wasn’t necessarily a country [being expelled], it was a song.”
This year, the pressure was both external, in terms of international reaction to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but also internal, Jordan says, as the EBU faced a potential revolt from other countries who did not wish to be used by Russia in a game of optics.
“This really is the first time you have seen a country uninvited,” Jordan says. “I think they realised that position [of taking no action] was untenable, particularly when other broadcasters were threatening to withdraw,” he says. “It really is unprecedented, but I think it’s also the right thing to do.”
In a sense too, says Jordan, Eurovision’s fate is tied to the geopolitical journey of Europe. “I think sometimes the political element is exaggerated [because the competition was first organised to use newly laid coaxial cable between European countries],” he says.
“People often think of it as an attempt to unite Europe after the war, but that was kind of a by-product, it was never the original aim,” he says. But like any international event, whether it be the Olympics, or the World Cup, politics does come into it.
The 66th Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast live on SBS from May 11-15, with primetime broadcasts on Friday, May 13, and Saturday, May 14, at 8.30pm, and Sunday, May 15, at 7.30pm.
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