The Eurovision Song Contest is like a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a feather boa, and doused in sequins, just for good measure. It swings into our lives every May like a Balkan Miley Cyrus on a mirror-plated wrecking ball of kitsch, bringing with it a chaotic confection of everything that is good in this world – cheesy lyrics, euro-pop beats, synchronised dancing, questionable costume changes, heavily accented English, and all the perils of live television. It’s a delirious festival of camp you can lose yourself in for the evening, taking a shot every time someone belts out a key change until you’re loudly abusing the spokesperson from Belarus for only giving two points to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, when you know that saxophone solo deserved more.
The idea of a televised song contest emerged in 1956 from the rubble of the Second World War in the hope of uniting a battered and fragmented continent through the healing power of music. It has failed spectacularly in this endeavour. Assembling a host of representatives from across Europe once a year to compete in a publicly-voted contest in which there can only be one winner seems a little bit like the plot of the Hunger Games even before you throw in the turbulent backdrop of twentieth-century European politics. The official rules of Eurovision explicitly state that ‘no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted’, but rules are made to be broken, and if you’re already throwing the laws of good taste to the wind, you might as well keep going. From the harmless bloc voting that Britain continues to blame for its dismal showing in recent years (rather than the fact they sent Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler in successive years), to more explicit political statements, nations have been using the greatest disco on earth as a platform for protest and demonstration for decades.
In the early years of the competition, the Eurovision’s ‘no politics’ rule was tested by the fact that two of its competing states were fascist dictatorships. An intrepid demonstrator stormed the stage at the 1964 competition with a banner reading ‘Boycott Franco & Salazar’, denouncing the authoritarian regimes of James Franco in Spain and Salazar Slytherin in Portugal. Clearly he didn’t do his job properly, because both regimes were still in power when the 1974 contest rolled around a decade later. That year was notable for a few reasons; Olivia Newton John represented the UK in full pre-makeover Sandy from Grease mode, and Sweden made its contribution to humanity by gifting us ABBA. When played on the radio back home, though, the Portuguese entry – while it may have lost out to ‘Waterloo’ – was used as a signal to begin preparing for the military coup that would begin the Carnation Revolution and go on to topple the Estado Novo regime. Eurovision has brought down dictatorships and spread democracy; Australian Idol gave us Mark Holden and ‘TOUCHDOWN!’
The Eurovision performers of the 1970s weren’t going to be left out of the action. Greece boycotted the 1975 contest, which featured the first appearance of Turkey in the competition, in protest of their invasion of Cyprus the year before. Nobody can resist the lure of Eurovision for long, though, and they returned the following year, but those reading between the lines of their 1976 entry may have noticed a subtle reference to the Cypriot conflict in jaunty lyrics like ‘homes burnt down by napalm bombs’ and ‘crosses, wooden crosses… rotting in silence.’ 1978 also saw some tense political relations spill over into the Eurovision arena, when Israel won for the first time with the excellently named group ‘Izhar Cohen & the Alphabeta’. When it became clear that the voting was heading in that direction, Jordan cut the broadcast and falsely announced that runner-up Belgium had won.
Russia hosted the competition in 2009, and understandable tensions were high. This was especially the case in Georgia, which had fought a short war with the former motherland just nine months before. It’s perhaps understandable that the contest organisers thought the Georgian entry for that year, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’, could be interpreted as possibly contravening the no politics rule. Georgia swore they didn’t know what they were talking about, but they were disqualified anyway. Russian gay rights activists also used the 2009 contest to protest against their treatment by the authorities, outrageous accusations to which the authorities responded by violently breaking up their Pride parade and arresting the demonstrators. Just last year, following the crisis on the Crimean peninsula, the audience audibly booed the Russian act – a pair of blond twins whose hair was braided together and whose performance included the use of a seesaw. Whether or not there were wider geo-political motivations behind the booing remains open to interpretation.
More than just a singing contest, Eurovision teaches us the necessity of freedom of expression. And I choose to exercise that right in demanding full transparency into the selection process that chose Guy Sebastian to represent Australia this year. I want names, people.
Words by Georgia Oman