On 18th March 2020, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) took the unprecedented decision to postpone the 65th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest – an annual celebration of (mostly) European popular music, regularly involving more than 40 nations from across the continent and beyond – to May 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, Jon Ola Sand (the outgoing Executive Supervisor of the contest) noted that this was the first time in the history of Eurovision that an edition had been cancelled since its inception in 1956, though maintained that Eurovision will return next year “stronger than ever”.
However, for a contest whose viewing figures in the UK represent only a fraction of those recorded before the turn of the century (with similar trends reported in other participating nations), accusations of irrelevancy have become prevalent amongst the general public and media alike, with the foreign affairs editor of a Serbian magazine describing it as “a rather worthless contest” and as being “politically and cultural insignificant”.
Irrespective of whether Eurovision is truly “insignificant” in 2020, perhaps there is an argument to be made that the Eurovision Song Contest should have a more pragmatic purpose: to unite culturally and politically-differing nations through music.
Eurovision has never been entirely separated from politics – from the unprecedented military presence at the 1973 contest, due to an Israeli debut appearance just seven months after the atrocious Black September attacks in Munich, to rising Russia-Ukraine and Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions leading to numerous withdrawals from editions in the 2010s, the political landscape in Europe has always reflected in some fashion on the contest and indeed on its participating songs.
But whilst conflict and tension have done much to divide nations, the opposite also holds true at Eurovision. Perhaps the most notable example of this comes from the 1993 contest in the Republic of Ireland, held during the climax of the Bosnian War and the breakup of Yugoslavia; during the voting portion of the contest, in which the host receives the points from each participating nation by phone-line, a garbled and heavily-distorted voice came from Sarajevo to announce the points from Bosnia & Herzegovina, greeted by warm applause in the theatre when the contest was held. This was but a few short seconds of a three-hour broadcast but, in that fleeting moment, everyone gathered in Millstreet was united in a single semi-political gesture.
Small actions like this, while insignificant in any consideration of the contest as a 65-year-old trans-continental whole, yield a faint glimmer of the possibilities for European unity offered by Eurovision. As an event which gathers musicians, many of whom are highly influential back home, from over 40 countries – a number which is set to increase in the coming years, with countries such as Andorra, Morocco, and Turkey all discussing the potential for their returns to the contest – it could be said that more should be done in order to promote the international connections that we need in an ever-divided world, not just in a political sense, but equally in a cultural sense. We shouldn’t be focussing on what divides the participating nations, whether that be the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh, or the international recognition of Kosovar independence from Serbia. Rather, we should focus on what unites them: a love of one’s country, a love of one’s culture (including what sets it apart from other nations), and a love of music.
So, perhaps when the contest returns next May in the beautiful Dutch city of Rotterdam – an edition of the contest that I hope to be at – we can all take a moment to step back from the ridicule and the accusations of “they didn’t vote for us because of Brexit” and consider what the Eurovision Song Contest really stands for. After all, in the words of Arabella Kiesbauer when opening the grand final of the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, “all of tonight’s artists will bring life to our motto Building Bridges: bridges between countries, cultures, music styles and, most importantly, between people.”
Image: “The Hosts of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest” by Dewayne Barkley, EuroVisionary is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.