Ukraine’s entry in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest just won, narrowly(ish) beating the geographically challenged Australian (not a typo) entry.
The final nail-biting announcement arose from the two-stage voting process: first a classic jury style vote on each song and then the announcement of the phone-poll popular vote. Australia had taken the lead with the jury vote but Russia and Ukraine had topped the popular vote. Who would overtake whom? Well, in the end Ukraine leaped up the ranks and took the top spot.
But Eurovision isn’t Eurovision without its unique ability to connect kitsch with the complexities of European-ethno-national politics.
Australia (then the other two…)
The least complex issue in that odd triad of nations competing for the top spot was the presence of Australia. While the exact status of Europe as a continent is open to question and its boundaries hard to define, it is not a hard to classify Australia as not-Europe. Which makes its presence an interesting one in terms of what counts as Europe culturally.
At one level, Australia’s inclusion in Eurovision looks politically regressive. Essentially identifying Europe as an entity with European colonization. Europe as ‘The West’ and Australia as The West’s proxy on the other side of the Earth. But Eurovision is also a Europe of something other than US-hegemony – of late even more so as the role of Eastern European nations has grown. Eurovision as a Europe of little, distinct and diverse nations is part of its charm and its endurance. One reason Ireland has so often won is that it manages to fit in a sweet spot of Western European pop-dominance/not actual fought a war against anybody else (except the UK/England and the UK likes Ireland)/small country finding its way through modern globalization. Australia then, is another quirky addition, not unlike Israel.
Australia of course, has its own identity issues and this is where the politically regressive reading heads off in another direction. Eurovision’s popularity in Australia is rather like football/soccer’s popularity, an effect from later non-British/Irish immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Eurovision itself is televised on SBS, an Australian TV channel dedicated to multi-ethnic and multilingual programming. In Eurovision 2014 Australia provided a special guest (non-competing) song performance by Jessica Mauboy (Mauboy is of both Indonesian and Indigenous Australian descent). The 2015 entry to Eurovision (Australia’s first) was performed by Guy Sebastian, a former Australian Idol winner who is of Malaysian descent. This year’s Australian performer, Dami Im, was born in Korea.
Rather than just be a proxy for The West, Australia has taken its own ethnic and multicultural character and played it back towards Europe.
Ukraine and Russia
So what happens when two countries take part who are engaged in active hostilities? Well if you are Ukraine then you enter a song about Josef Stalin’s brutal deportation of Tartars and you choose a singer of Tartar descent whose family is from the Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/22/ukraines-eurovision-entry-takes-aim-at-russian-oppression
Technically political songs aren’t allowed (as Georgia found out in 2009 with their song We Don’t Wanna Put In [i.e. Putin]) but the ballad 1944 was ostensibly about a past historic event rather than current politics. While being a more current historical reference than Eurovision’s all time greatest song (Waterloo by ABBA – obviously, duh), it was allowed.
Russia, on the other hand, didn’t have an overt political statement with its entry but it had pulled out all the stops. Sergey Lazarev is (apparently) a huge star in Russia and his song was widely tipped as a likely winner. While not a Putin power play as such, obviously any win by Russia of anything is read in complex ways by the rest of Europe.
So yeah, Eurovision is a giant metaphor of geopolitics or something
It always is and that is part of the fun. The final trio of possible winners, plus the quirky voting system to add extra tension, meant each of the three outcomes were loaded with significance.