For some, the Eurovision song contest is an embarrassing and painful display of old-fashioned nationalism; for others it is European togetherness at its best. From a more sober perspective: what does this year’s contest tell us about the current condition of Europe?
Writing about this year’s Eurovision song contest and the condition of Europe, I am tempted to comment on the fact that the UK sent Engelbert Humperdinck to represent the country – a 76 year old bard known for hits such as “after the lovin” (1976). I also want to point out that it was a German company that built the “Baku Cristal Hall”, the stadium where the show took place, and that the Azerbaijani government, which hosted the contest, is known for its human rights violations. Everything as usual: the UK doesn’t care, Germany makes money and human rights violations are glossed over by glittery pop music? No – I believe a more thorough analysis is necessary.
“We’re going up up up up”
Leyla Aliyeva (no, surprisingly she is not the president’s daughter) was one of the “hosts” of this year’s Eurovision song contest. Leyla tells the reader on eurovision.tv that in her eyes the contest is the “largest cultural and social event that is able to make people from all ranges, races and nationalities come together.” She believes that it will “crash the borders and will unite the West and the East.”
Was this year’s song contest – because it was hosted in Baku – in fact an expression of and a driving force behind a new Europe? Was this year’s song contest the staged yet noteworthy beginning of a bridge between the people in Azerbaijan and the European community? What Leyla expresses cannot be easily rejected as advertisement for the corrupt and brutal government of Ilham Aliyev – other voices that are certainly not under this suspicion fall (more or less) in line with her idea. Norbert Walter, the former chief economist of the Deutsche Bank, for example, claimed in a recent interview that what we see in Eurovision is the engagement of a European civil society that has yet to develop on a political and economic level. Eurovision as a European Vision? It is certainly true that a celebration of different artists from different European regions – from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea – is an achievement and should not be taken for granted. Is it all merriment, togetherness, beauty… no better, EUphoria, then? Is Europe really going “up up up up up”?
National cultures – “Just gimme more”
There may be reasons to doubt this rather straight forward idea of where Europe is heading – to summarise, it’s only “up”. In contrast to its purported unifying character, the contest builds on an idea of Europe divided into nations; it wasn’t Loreen who received points but Sweden as a whole; every Swede, whether he/she wants them or not, receives “douze points.” This suggests that a Europe without nation states is still beyond the imagination of many. At the same time, this year’s song contest laid bare the consequences that follow from this specific way of thinking about European cultural life: since performers are seen as representing their entire nation, there is high pressure on them to present a simplifying picture of what “their” countries are like.
Source: Youtube. “You make me want your Aphrodisiac,”: Eleftheria Eleftheriou representing Greece to the rest of Europe?
Eleftheria Eleftheriou, as one would say in Eurovision language “Greece,” and Ivi Adamou, “Cyprus,” are only two examples of this. Both performed up-beat summer music – the former drawing on traditional Greek tunes, the latter incorporating Latino rhythms. Wrapped in a light summer dress, “Greece” asks the television viewer (in English) to “spend the night” with her because she is “addicted”; “Cyprus” admits that she loves “the way you fill me up with life” and begs: “Just gimme more”. While these performances might underline stereotypes to which some people outside of Greece and Cyprus subscribe, it seems natural to assume that many of the millions of different people who live in the territory we call Greece and Cyprus might find themselves not well represented in what I would call a performance of subservient femininity, eroticised and exotified for an English speaking audience. One might suspect that the driving force at work behind this affirmation of clichés and stereotypes is not a feeling of pride, a connection with cultural heritage or an appreciation of diversity but rather the forces of supply and demand – be it the international music or the tourism industry of the respective countries.
Pasha Parfeny’s (“Moldova’s”) performance reveals another consequence of the idea of national representation that the song contest relies on. In a song that incorporates and alludes to (the song is called Lăutar) traditional Romani music, “Moldova” presents itself as exotic to “western” ears. And even though there are Romani people living in Moldova, I cannot shake the feeling that while their music is being integrated in this context, there is no interest in integrating or representing “gypsies” as part of a Moldovan or European culture – this impression is amplified by the fact the Romani people who live in Moldova face more than difficult circumstances economically, politically and socially. And how could they be represented, since they are not a nation? But aren’t they also part of a European culture? Is Europe not more diverse than the simplifying representations of nations in the contest make us believe? And isn’t that a good thing?
Political frames – “Together, we sail into infinity”
Apart from questions about national representation and musical originality, this year’s Eurovision song contest was especially interesting because of the political dynamics that accompanied it. The focus was on the host – Azerbaijan – or rather the government of Azerbaijan, a government often and openly criticised for its human rights violations, who even dared to tear down inhabited houses under the scrutiny of foreign media just to build the “Baku Cristal Hall.” It should be noted that despite the fear that Aliyev would be able to use the contest as an advertisement for his government, it seems that criticism has been so widely and openly expressed that this attempt failed. Maybe a sign that European media (or at least the media in many countries) are not as easily distracted by glittery pop music and are to be taken seriously.
I cannot shake the feeling that while their music is being integrated in this context, there is no interest in integrating or representing “gypsies” as part of a Moldovan or European culture
Can “we” therefore be proud of Europe’s respect for human rights? Is it not a good sign that Anke Engelke, part of the German jury, when revealing the German votes in the final round, began with the words “tonight, nobody could vote for their own country, but it is good to be able to vote and it is good to have a choice. Good luck on your journey, Azerbaijan! Europe is watching you!”? It certainly is a caring gesture. But “we” – whoever that is – should also be aware that at the same time there are “occupy” and “blockupy” protests being stopped in many western European countries, including Engelke’s home country – and nobody openly accuses the governments there. I am not comparing the situation in Baku to Frankfurt, Madrid or London, but as Susan Sontag points out: “no ‘we’ should be taken for granted when looking at other people’s pain.”
All in all, it seems to me that while this year’s Eurovision song contest may have been a celebration of peaceful yet engaged European togetherness for some – and this is an achievement – it also exposed the complex power relations this “we” implies; and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the “big five”: France, Germany, Spain, UK and Italy, in contrast to all others, don’t need to go through the contest’s semi-final. I didn’t touch upon the fact that “neighbouring countries” often award each other points “they” wouldn’t necessarily deserve – even though, obviously, each performance is stunning. No simple and timeless “Forever and ever together, we sail into infinity, We’re higher and higher and higher, we’re reaching for divinity”? A “together” caught between EUphoria and EUphemism?
We will have to see… and listen in a year
Teaser Image: escaustria.at (CC-BY-NC-SA)