Music, glamour, outrageous costumes and… politics? On Saturday evening, all of Europe will be looking to Rotterdam for the final of the Eurovision Song Contest and can expect a raucous spectacle despite strict coronavirus regulations.
One country, however, has already lost its chance for “Douze Points”. Belarus was disqualified by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, because the lyrics of the Belarusian entry mocked protests against the country’s authoritarian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Although the contest is a music competition and supposed to bring together all Europeans (and even those from outside the continent), this was hardly the first time Eurovision has turned political.
From votes for neighbouring countries, to disqualifications from the contest, to political statements onstage, the Eurovision Song Contest has always had political elements. In 2017, for example, the host country Ukraine slapped a travel ban on Russia’s entrant, Julia Samoylova, because she had previously visited occupied Crimea. In addition, Eurovision has been a celebration of diversity and an LGBT event for decades, bringing LGBT artists and a sea of rainbow flags even to countries that are not normally LGBT-friendly.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Dzintra questioning the extent to which Eurovision is really about music, as she feels that politics plays too big a role in the competition. Is she right?
We put her comment to Dr. Irving Wolther, an expert in linguistics and cultural studies and the author of the first doctoral thesis on the Eurovision Song Contest. For years, he has been the German expert on Eurovision, and on social media you can find him as “Dr. Eurovision”. How would he respond? Is Eurovision about music or politics?
Hi Dzintra, that’s a very interesting question that goes right to the heart of Eurovision. How could a contest where countries vote on each other and give each other points not actually be political? Well, from the very beginning, the Eurovision Song Contest has been political in a way, because it was created as a platform for the European public broadcasters to work together, so it is also about media politics at that level.
In the beginning, it was actually more about music than it is today, because the scoreboard showed the names of the songs and not the countries. But because the BBC wanted to make the competition a bit more exciting, they introduced having the country names on the scoreboard. And, from then on, it developed more and more into a national competition in the truest sense of the word.
For another perspective, we have also put Dzintra’s comment to Alexandr Chahovski, whose organisation, the Belarusian Culture Solidarity Foundation, brings together 1,500 Belarusian artists and musicians to campaign against the Lukashenka regime’s repression of artists. As part of their efforts, he helped launch a campaign against the TV station loyal to the regime, which led to Belarus’ official disqualification from this year’s Eurovision. Based on these experiences, what does he think? Is Eurovision about music or politics?
Well, first of all, thank you Dzintra, for your question. In general, art and music should stay out of politics. But there is no art without freedom. When you have censorship in a country or musicians are political prisoners, like we have in Belarus, you cannot separate culture and politics. Our democratic protests, which started in August 2020, were very culturally inspired and over 600 protest songs were created during that time. This musical and artistic soul gives us Belarusians hope to live in a free, democratic country.
The Eurovision Song Contest has always had political scandals. Our goal at the Belarusian Culture Solidarity Foundation is to help and support Belarusian artists, musicians and actors. Because, at the moment, the authorities are doing everything they can to ‘clean up’, which means: ‘If you’re not with the regime, go away, we don’t care about you.’ And our campaign for the Eurovision Song Contest was about showing solidarity with the majority of Belarusians. The majority of Belarusians really like Eurovision, and we also have a lot of really talented artists and musicians who can represent our country.
The rules state that the broadcaster chooses who gets to represent the country. In Belarus, the broadcaster is a supporter of the regime, so of course there is censorship. Originally the band VAL was supposed to go to Eurovision, but when the band supported the protests and criticised the regime, the national broadcaster simply disqualified them. Then a new selection process was started, but obviously many Belarusian artists refused to enter this process. In the end, they only had a few artists who were all ‘Lukashenko friends’. So, this was 100% political.
Next up, we received a comment from John who is concerned that some participants are using the Eurovision contest to ‘promote sectional, divisive interests’. Does this apply to Belarus’ disqualification from the contest?
This is the question we put to Alexandr Chahovski of the Belarusian Culture Solidarity Foundation, who campaigned for Belarus to be excluded from Eurovision. How would he answer John?
John, thank you very much for your question. Due to the rules of the European Broadcasting Union, the national broadcaster decides who represents the respective country. But our national broadcaster does not represent the majority of Belarusians, because the broadcaster represents the regime. We started the negotiations with the European Broadcasting Union with the statement that the Belarusian broadcaster violates all possible and conceivable journalistic ethics standards, for example, by censoring art.
We wanted to offer an alternative candidate, but the rules didn’t allow that. So, instead we suggested that the station disqualify him. But when the station announced its choice, we were actually happy because this band was not even a garage band, it was so ridiculous that we actually wanted it to go to the competition because it would have been so embarrassing for the station and for the regime. We would have done anything to make it clear that this band does not represent the country, but the regime. But the decision to ban the broadcaster was absolutely the right decision, because the participation of this band would have been a disgrace for the Eurovision Song Contest. That particular national broadcaster and that particular music band should not have the honour of representing the country at Eurovision. So, the decision to disqualify the broadcaster was absolutely right.
Finally, we received a comment from Alexandra, who thinks that Eurovision has a significant influence on European culture and that it should be seen as a unifying event for Europeans. She asks: “How could Eurovision further contribute to the exchange of cultural elements between countries?”
What does “Dr. Eurovision” Irving Wolther think? How can the Eurovision Song Contest contribute even more to cultural exchange across Europe?
Alexandra, you just hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly what Eurovision is about for me. It’s about communicating national culture, making us familiar with the diversity of different cultures within Europe, embracing them and not making them all the same.
At the moment, I’m a bit afraid that some countries tend to choose songs to please everyone without giving an idea of what makes that country unique, what makes its culture unique. So, I think that this aspect of conveying national musical culture in Eurovision is the most important one.
Personally, I would like the organisers to reintroduce one of the original rules that was in place until the mid-2000s, which was that the national entry should have some kind of national cultural flavour. Unfortunately, they took that out of the rules, but I wish more countries would dare to use Eurovision for that purpose.
Is Eurovision about music or politics? What role does politics play in the Eurovision Song Contest? Why was Belarus disqualified from the competition? And can Eurovision contribute to genuine cultural exchange across Europe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!