Any event garnering millions of pairs of eyes, lots of key players with vested interests and a slew of diverse, often conflicting, opinions is always going to bring about tension. It just so happens that this week, and let’s face it a lot of the lead-in, has concerned the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC).
The world’s biggest live music show and longest-running live song competition – with an audience averaging over 200 million annually, mixing performers, fans and delegations from over 40 countries – has rarely been staged without ruffling a few feathers.
From Israeli singer Dana International’s win, which raised eyebrows over 20 years ago and brought the contest to the heart of Jerusalem just before the turn of the Millennium, the ESC found itself back in Israel this month for the annual competition, where the Netherlands – an originator country at the Contest – snatched victory for its fifth time following a 44-year wait.
This year’s host, Israel, drew a huge amount of criticism. So too, did Madonna, who received a huge amount of backlash ahead of her performance over her perceived part in supporting the state’s role in its conflict with Palestine. Last night, protests over the competition sprung up around the country. The complications continued once Iceland’s entry as well as Madonna, displayed Palestinian flags as part of their performances, against the wishes of organisers. But as contentious as it all may seem, political controversy at the ESC is nothing new.
The beauty of Eurovision Song Contest is the fact that every year the host changes – unless you’re Ireland in its 90s heyday when it hosted four times in five years, three of them consecutively, but that’s an anomaly.
Year on year, the title is passed on and the right to host the following year’s contest is part and parcel of that process. That doesn’t mean it always works out smoothly. Tempers flared, whispers ran rampant and issues abounded when the likes of Ukraine and Azerbaijan hosted in 2017 and 2012, respectively.
As the contest gets bigger and bigger, the stakes heighten and the cost of hosting soars to eye-watering amounts, there’s an argument for actually ending the automatic hosting right as the case may need to stipulate “only the capable should apply”.
Will the Netherlands be boycotted when hosting next year? Probably not, and it could be argued that the Eurovision Song Contest isn’t the correct platform to air grievances and take a stand against a country or territory.
The Eurovision Song Contest was born of a desire to unite a Europe ravaged by war and difference, bringing together the continent through a shared love of music in a non-political fashion. Germany’s Nicole won with Ein Bißchen Frieden (“A Little Peace”) in 1982, but the win itself paled in comparison to Germany being awarded 12 points from Israel, which the singer has spoken openly with regards to the profound effect it had on her and the message it sent.
There is no perfect, utopian place on earth, no host city that would please every single person surveyed and no location that hasn’t seen a scratch of controversy in its time.
Should that mean forgoing the world’s biggest live entertainment spectacle – bigger than the Superbowl – every time the host location has question marks over how it operates?
At its core, it’s a music competition and entertainment show, not a meeting of the United Nations. Some context: Croatia has never won the contest, but it’s hosted before – Zagreb in 1990 following Yugoslavia’s sole win.
Italy won that year with a chorus chanting “Unite, Unite Europe”, a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and as the single market was about to be introduced. Less than a year later, the former Yugoslav nation was declared dissolved into separate states.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s act fled under the cover of darkness and threat of being shot in order to compete for their country in 1993. Kyiv’s first turn at hosting in 2005 came months after the Orange Revolution protests and their second, in 2017, came only a few years after the Euromaidan uprising in the heart of the capital.
Freedom of speech, freedom to express opinion and disapproval, absolutely, but it’s worth reminding ourselves, too – amidst all the flag waving and country point-scoring, the ESC is actually a competition between broadcasters, not governments.
The European Broadcasting Union is precisely that, a collection (union) of broadcasters from across Europe and beyond who pool resources, and it’s up to broadcasters – not their countries – to decide whether they participate or not. It’s up to the broadcaster to foot the bill, organise an act and vie for the title.
If there’s a “right time” to host this contest, more often that not it often falls on a country to host at a “wrong time” or another. For performers, artists, singers and songwriters, Eurovision is a platform. For broadcasters, it’s visibility (and a dash of glory). For countries once at war, it’s a friendly, light-hearted competition.
There are so many platforms to take a stand on in terms of political commentary, but Eurovision shouldn’t be one of them, owing to the very reason it was created in the first place.
Patrick Hanlon and Russell Alford are Eurovision writers at gastrogays.com and hosts of a new podcast “8, 10, 12” which delves into the Eurovision Song Contest in greater detail