The Eurovision is a strange affair. While many turn their nose up at the competition for being rather low brow, it can be entertaining to watch if you go in with an open mind. In what other competitions do you get political feuds, stage invaders, and lyrics subtly accusing other states of genocide?
Combining the joys of popular music with the complexities of international relations, the song contest can be described as many things, but boring is certainly never one of them.
The best way to describe the Eurovision is that it’s a bit like a school popularity contest. It’s where the entirety of Europe (and a few beyond) go to pick who they like and, more importantly, who they don’t. And just like any school, the world has its unpopular kids who will stop at nothing to impress their peers.
No country fits this description better than Russia. Having been seen as the bad guy for the last century, Russia has to be one of the least popular countries in the view of the Western world, second only to the likes of Iran and North Korea. This is something their politicians want to rectify, and what better place to do so than at the Eurovision.
The lengths Russia goes to winning the song contest is beggars belief. For example, Russia’s Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov critisced Azerbaijan after one year’s competition. Why? Because they refused to give Russia’s entry any points.
While this may not seem like a big deal to us Irish, who never seem to get points anyway for the last decade (our songs have been terrible), to the Russians, it was a slight. Lavrov himself said: “The outrageous action at Eurovision regarding the Russian contestant will not go unanswered.” Honestly, Lavrov should have probably taken the advice of fellow countryman Ilya Bryzagalov, but that’s just my opinion.
One of Russia’s more successful attempts at cracking the Eurovision occured in 2016, their song being described by the BBC as having “Everything but the kitchen sink.” This was an understatement. No expense was spared in the formulation of the entry. Writers who had composed previous competition winners were hired to write the song, while set design was so over-the-top that critics described it as Olympic in scope.
Even the singer, Sergey Lazarev, was chosen with popularity in mind, Lazarev having openly criticised Putin, the annexation of Crimea, and even Russia’s attitude to homosexuals. This last part was especially important, as Russia is acutely aware that the Eurovision is popular with the gay community.
Of course, while this attempt was more successful, it didn’t win. To add insult to injury, Ukraine ended up taking home the trophy in 2016 for their song ‘1944,’ which was about a genocide perpetrated by Stalin. At this point, it should be noted that songs and performers are never supposed to be political, but what can you do?
Suffice to say, if Eurovision was The Simpsons, Russia would be Millhouse. However, while this failure of the part of Russia might be amusing, the feuds that occur in regards to the song contest can be downright hilarious for those not involved.
For example, the following year Russia did not enter the song contest, not because they didn’t want to, but because Ukraine barred their contestant for entry because she had performed in Russian controlled Crimea.
And the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan makes this Russia/Ukraine relationship look positively cuddly by comparison. These two countries have had so many Eurovision spats that there’s wikipedia page to record them all. These disputes have ranged from small things like visa policies for competition attendees, to the picturing of contested territory during the distribution of points.
By far the most ridiculous of these episodes was Armenia’s 2015 entry to the contest. Called ‘Face the Shadow’, the song featured six singers, most of whom from the Armenian diaspora, dressed in WWI uniforms singing about the importance of love and unity, all the while repeating the lyrics “Don’t deny” over and over.
The song also just happened to fall on the one hundred year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, something that Azerbaijan denies ever happened. According to Armenia, this was all a coincidence. According to Azerbaijan, it wasn’t.
With all that said, what can we expect this year, though perhaps a better question is what can’t we expect? After all, this year, the competition is being hosted by Israel.
Going back to the Simpson’s analogy from earlier – if Russia is the Millhouse of Eurovision, then Israel is Mr. Burns. Israel’s very presence in the Eurovision is cited as a reason other members of the European Broadcasting Union such as Egypt and Morocco don’t participate, and with the popularity of movements such as BDS, that number might soon increase.
Make no mistake, just like Russia, Israel is a very unpopular country with some sections of society. However, unlike Russia, they never let that stop them.
While Russia may flounder while looking for the chance to be popular, Israel almost seems to revel in its bad boy status. Their songs are often go against the grain, and while this occasionally results in bad songs, it often results in them producing some really interesting music. ‘Golden Boy’ is still one of my personal favorites to this day, and while many conservatives didn’t like it, their latest entry and last year’s winner, ‘Toy’ was nothing if not fun.
It’s this kind of good/bad dynamic that makes Eurovision so interesting, and as such why this year’s competition will be so much fun to watch. I myself have no idea how this competition will end. Will Russia finally end up winning, having brought back good ol’ Sergey for one last crack at the competition? Will Armenia and Azerbaijan have another go at each over some perceived slight, intentional or not? Will Hezbollah storm the stage near the end of the competition, only to make way for their own halal Boy band that ends up performing the next great Eurovision hit?
I have no idea. But no matter what happens, it will surely be entertaining to watch.
Photo of Eurovision Stage by Andres Putting