2015 saw the 60th anniversary of the first Eurovision Song Contest, an annual song writing competition for European nations. The original event was a humble affair with seven nations competing in the format of a radio show. It has expanded to include over 43 countries with its expansion often foreshadowing the expansion in the Council of Europe, the EU and NATO. While the ESC is a pan-European cultural event with over 180 million viewers in Europe, the format itself has driven satellite broadcast innovation and provided an unrivalled platform for cultural promotion at little or no cost. Notably, the ESC tends to provoke either strong positive or negative reactions. In many countries, the ESC is an annual jamboree with street parties and a weeklong build-up while in other countries the competition is seen as kitsch running-joke. On multiple levels, the ESC lends itself to comparative analysis. The role of voting/political, language, economic power/finance and national pride are never far from any discussion on Eurovision. We will consider just four of these comparative points and highlight areas of tension within the ESC which may or may not mirror or serve as a proxy for nationalism across Europe
The Political and the Non-Political Divide
The ESC is often viewed as a driver of changing conceptions and realities of Europe and Europeaness since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is also important to note that the contest itself is framed as a contest between nations (not of particular singers). The contest is a symbolic contact zone between European cultures (Fricker and Gluhovic, 2013:3). However, this never happens without problems. Each year the debate about politics of the contest reoccurs. Many viewers wonder – ‘Is Eurovision still about the music?’ (Perhaps- was it ever about the music?)
When discussing the annual Eurovision Song Contest, we identified some form of general division between core/founding members (‘the big five’) of the West and newer participants mostly located in the South and East of Europe (periphery- ‘new’ Europe). Every year questions of the limits of Europe arise as well. The ESC is a site of cultural struggle over limits and meanings of Europe while both national identity and the participation in a European identity are co-confirmed (Reinelt, 2001: 386).
The political or non-political voting behaviour has become central to many of the debate surrounding the contest. There are a number of assumptions made by the public and by the media:
- Immigrants vote for their native entries (diasporic voting) – often countries such as Germany will give maximum points to Turkey due to its big Turkish population.
- Eastern Europeans just vote for their neighbouring country (bloc voting) – A lot of the time, polls clearly show sympathy towards neighbouring countries. Especially in the Balkans, this is seen as a major feature.
Do these really hold true? Is it all really a big conspiracy and opportunity for Europe to take revenge against their enemies?
We need to keep in mind that this dichotomous, simplistic distinction is not always limited to the East. One key example here would be the 2003 entry by the UK:
Jemini received 0 points that year and many suspect that this is due to the 2003 Iraq Invasion. Unpopular politics have often resulted in a low number of points.
A counter example is Germany’s victory in 2010. Germany does not have a good record in terms of Eurovision and also was hardly a popular country at the time. How would we explain their victory in 2010 if it is mere politics?
Another explanation apart from the political would be cultural affinity. In many cases, viewers are simply more likely to vote for a song they have heard before or one which is similar to their own traditional music and even language similarities play a big role.
According to Gellner, language is neither a conscious choice nor a primary dependency in nationalism. Gellner, states “people do not embrace high cultures because they realise the needs of industrialism or because they calculate its benefits” (Smith, 1998, p. 41) but as a functional need to communicate “without any conscious calculation of advantages and prospects of social mobility” (Gellner, 2006, p. 60).
However, we need to consider whether rational choice is not only a valid behavior in principle but a documented phenomenon in the ESC.
The language principles of the ESC have been altered four times in the last 60 years reflecting growing concern and tension in the linguistic dominance of key languages. Initially (1956-65), there were no language restrictions on entrants, and as such French dominated. By 1966, rules were introduced to ensure songs were sung in a “national language” to address the Francophonie dominance (6 French 2 Dutch/1 each in Danish/ and Italian). For three years (1973-76) any language was accepted which resulted in 3 English language wins in a row. National language only rule was reintroduced in 1977 which remained in place for twenty years until 1998. Since 1998, only two winners have been solely in a national language while all other winners were in English. There has been no French language winner since 1988 (Celine Dion – Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi). France has adopted a dual French/English language song only twice (2008/2012) which was each time a source of national soul-searching and political contention.
If the objective of the ESC is to engage most effectively with a 500m European population, the rational choice of a language which is accessible and simple is key. English is that language.
Global marketing has both created global products but also harmonised top-level linguistics towards simple English across all markets irrespective of local vernacular. English is now seen, not only as simplifying global campaigns, but also as being a “neutral and widely understood” language (Nickerson & Camiciottoli, 2013, p. 332).
Importantly, English is perceived as disconnected from any single nation. As such English has aspirational qualities and characteristics as it is “the language of technology, progress, and the future” (ibid, 2013, 333). If we extend the Gellnerian approach, English may be becoming ‘disembedded’ from its original Anglo-Saxon territories and a resource for modernization in itself. English would then be an integral element in the theory of industrialization and no longer just a language among a host of languages. (Macnachdainn, 2015). As such English may be considered not as a language but an instrument in and of itself of modernization.
Ironically, it is not only artistically that English is dominating the ESC. Legally the contractual terms and conditions for participation 2016 state:
2.8) Prevailing Version: These Rules are drafted in English and French. In the event of any inconsistencies between the two versions, the English version shall prevail.
The ESC and finances
“The Eurovision Song Contest is not the kind of event that you organize if you want to earn money.” – Thomas Schreiber, ARD, 2011
Austerity measures in place throughout Europe have ignited debates on the cost effectiveness of the ESC. Publically-funded broadcasters are subject to a number of fees not including those involved in hosting. The strongest debates occur not only in exorbitant cases, but where nations who take part repeatedly fail to end up in the top five on the final night despite paying the broadcasting fees.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) owns the rights to the ESC and EuroRadio and is the largest global union of public broadcasters (European Broadcasting Union, 2016). The United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain and Italy – known as the “big five” – have a long-standing contract with the EBU. Broadcasters within these countries, such as the BBC, pay an annual subscription plus additional broadcasting fees for a guaranteed place in the ESC final (Baker, 2012). Germany won the ESC in 2010 and is the only one of the group to have reached the top five since that year (ESC-History, 2016).
In 2012, the BBC paid £1.5m to the European Broadcasting Union. This included the subscription cost plus approx. £300k for fees. In the ESC final the same year, the UK was awarded a total of 12 points, resulting in second-to-last (Denham, 2015), with costs believed to have been approximately £1.5m (Baker, 2012).
Norway hosted the ESC in 2010 to a cost of €25m (Moles, 2010). Germany’s costs the following year were around the same (Ulrich, 2012). In 2012, Azerbaijan built a stadium to host the ESC. This was controversial at the time as many people were displaced from their homes in order for construction to take place (Cairns, 2011). The total costs of the build as well as infrastructure are believed to be between $700 and $800m (The Economist, 2012). Several countries have withdrawn their participation, citing austerity measures. In Greece, the public broadcaster has been closed, so private funding has been used (Dr Eurovision, 2014)
The financial benefits of broadcasting the event, according to Wolther (2012: 169) outweigh the costs discussed above. High viewing figures promote the nation, resulting in an increase in tourism (ibid). Fleischer & Felsenstein (2002: 143) concur, suggesting that there are three types of “economic surplus” resulting from the ESC. They are: producer surplus, where profits are gained from private investment, most likely to be from private companies using the ESC to sell and/or promote their own goods and services; consumer surplus, which is the “public good” reward, where the public is able to view the ESC privately and awareness – possibly cultural – ensures that they are able to enjoy the viewing based on their own preference. An example of this could be the use of narration throughout the BBC broadcast]; finally, government surplus, which is the result of increased tourism which, whilst estimated, is understood to be the largest benefit.
“The quality of play or performance, athleticism or musicianship notwithstanding, in the end it’s all about winning. In the public squares of Tallinn, Berlin, and Barcelona, alcohol flows and crowds become rowdy. In the taverns where Irish, Croatians, or Romanians gather, the rise and fall of national vocal fortunes produce wild mood swings—unmitigated celebration some years, the stupor of disappointment in others. Dispassionate reaction to the ESC virtually does not exist.” (Bohlman 2004)
The Eurovision song contest originated as an effort to promote a pan-European cultural identity, but it has increasingly also become a platform for showcasing national identities within Europe. The song contest demonstrates “the simultaneous strengthening of national identity and difference within the larger framework of Europe, so that rather displacing or competing directly with the nation states, Europe becomes a new layer or context for political community, managing diversity rather than eliminating it.” (McNamara 2015: 85) Eurovision has become “a discursive tool” in the definitions of Europeanness and political strategies striving for Europeanization. (Bolin 2006: 191).
Baker (2008) has noted that over the past couple of decades, there has been a predominance of non-western European countries in the competition (between 2001 and 2007, Eurovision was won by Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece, Finland, and Serbia), which “suggests that a key conflict surrounding the event in the 2000s has been European eastward ‘enlargement’ and its associated tensions.” Increased Eastern European participation in Eurovision has also led to the prevalence of “A folklorist musical style” in the entries of many of those countries (Björnberg 2007), involving an essentialist representation of tradition. The Eurovision Song Contest’s transnational audience and implication in commercial practices create pressures toward representing the nation through simplified, well-known images. (Baker 2008) Shay (2002) has described this essentialization as a state using generalized or region-specific music and costume “to cover the purported musical output of an entire country.” An example of this is Ukraine’s winning entry in 2004 (“Wild Dances” by Ruslana), which was based on a simulated essentialization of the dances, costume and rituals of the Hutsul people who live in the Carpathian region of western Ukraine.
Björnberg (2007) has attributed Eurovision’s “return to ethnicity” to prevailing Western perceptions of Eastern European countries embodying “values of authenticity” and “non-ethnic” Western countries being more abstract or transnational in their Eurovision productions. However, this argument is complicated by the exoticized, region-specific entries often made by Scandinavian countries and France, for example. As Baker (2008) notes, “marginality, rather than easternness, seems to determine the objects of essentialization.” Nevertheless, there is indeed a distinct difference between the cultural pride invested in Eurovision entries by Eastern and Southern European countries as opposed to the lackadaisical kitsch that dominates most Western entries. A 2015 BBC news story described the UK’s approach to Eurovision as “pick[ing] a singer who all four judges didn’t turn around for in The Voice competition, in partnership with a teacher who is part of a Rolling Stones tribute band.”
Whether as an indicator of European inclusion or cultural distinction, non-Western European countries tend to actively engage in the contest as a “fantasy of self-display on some sort of global or cosmopolitan stage” (Appadurai 1996: 39) and even though there is a universal level of enthusiasm for the contest in Europe (and pride in home victory), the level of cultural investment by these countries may suggest to some that they take it significantly more seriously than their Western counterparts. As McNamara (2015) has stated, “the contest seems to map Europe in terms of the ins and outs.” Raykoff (2007) quotes a Romanian in 1993 as saying: “We have always wanted to belong to Europe and the song contest is the only part of Europe that functions without political union.” Akin (2013) has discussed the place of Eurovision in the Turkish collective imagination in the context of Turkey’s relationship with Europe. For most of the Turkish population, achieving success in Eurovision has been “an issue of national pride” (Christensen and Christensen 2008: 159). Before Turkey won Eurovision for the first time in 2003, “national media discourses in that country had traditionally framed [Eurovision], in large part, as a national struggle to be won against the Europeans, thus confirming Turkey’s European credentials at last.” (Akin 2013) Eurovision in Turkey has much more prevalently been associated with concepts of battle, rivalry and competition rather than notions of festival, friendship and cooperation. (Dilmener 2003; Kuyucu 2010; Meric 2006)
What influences the voting patterns? Demographics, Linguistics, Politics…
How can ‘power’ and changes in power balance be observed through the ESC?
Does the ESC reflect utopian hopes of a new European order more than political, economic, social actions?
To what extent can the ESC be seen to be fostering pan-European identity?
What is the relationship between layered national and European identity seen in the practice of the ESC?
Are there factors in the ESC which serve to reproduce and reinforce East/West and Old/New dichotomies?
Is the ESC an example of how more pan-European identity can be fostered or is it simply an outlier?
Do hosting plans/actions causing countries to revert to “economic nationalism”?
(Wealth=national power = prestige i.e Azerbijan spending in 2012 vs countries withdrawing)
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