What Europe can learn from Eurovision
In an opinion piece – originally published in 2017 – our director André Wilkens wonders whether pop could be the secret glue that holds Europe together? As the song contest’s millions of fans celebrate the European ideal, their excitement is partly political.
My first time was 1998, when I was living in Turin and visited some friends in Berlin who insisted on going to a Eurovision party. I wondered if they were having me on. I liked the Rolling Stones, the Clash, Feeling B and Pankow, not Nicole, Abba, or Achim Menzel.
That year’s German entry was a guy called Guildo Horn, and his support band rejoiced in the name Orthopädische Strümpfe, orthopedic socks. His song was titled Guildo hat euch Lieb, Guildo loves you all. It took a few beers before I started to get the joke: he couldn’t actually sing, but he was at least living proof that Germans can laugh at themselves. There was something almost Pythonesque about Guildo and the Orthopedic Socks, and they came seventh, which was much better than most German contestants.
That was my first Eurovision, and I’ve watched it on television most years since then. The music is a by-product: Eurovision is first and foremost a phenomenon, pop art in the Warhol tradition, punk by any other name. Why do so many of us immediately think of politics when we think of Europe? For some people, Europe is all about pop, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Could music be the secret glue that holds Europe together?
In 1954, three years before the Treaties of Rome, public broadcasters in the EU’s founding countries and Switzerland set up the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The idea was to share images and sound and promote international cooperation, and they coined the label Eurovision for cross-border productions. These were all about watching together and sharing a continent-spanning vision.
The essence of Europe
All this was long before cable television and YouTube, and there were many technical challenges to overcome. The EBU also had to decide what kind of programming Europeans might enjoy watching together, and programming director and media bureaucrat Marcel Bezençon suggested a festival where singers from all the countries involved could compete for the Grand Prix. The first Eurovision Song Contest was held in the Swiss city of Lugano in 1956.
At first the medium was the message, and Eurovision’s main purpose was to increase the reach of television and promote the development of new technology. Colour TV, moving cameras, and live image overlays from each country all contributed to the growth of modern television. Eurovision was a policy laboratory that could attract an audience of 150 million in a single night. Even in the golden age of television, and with the exception of football and the Olympics, no other entertainment format has achieved this kind of success.
When the Iron Curtain fell, Eurovision was one of the first institutions to unite east and west. East European countries first took part in 1993, more than ten years before the EU’s great eastward expansion. The event offered an opportunity to show the rest of Europe what they wanted to be: modern, colourful, not Soviet, with their own slightly eccentric identity – and above all, European.
Eurovision “cells” form everywhere
It was like applying to join Europe, but with singing, dancing, and laughter rather than rules and form filling. The idea appealed not so much to politicians and bureaucrats as to Europe’s citizens, who even got to vote. The east European nations gave it everything they had, and were successful: six have won the Grand Prix since 1993. This has been good marketing for them, because the winner gets to host the event in the following year, and it has also helped to develop the format of Eurovision, which now includes preliminary rounds, and its technology.
The Eurovision movement is not the official cavalcade of the great and good of politics, business, and the media at conferences, talkshows, and banquets. It is made up of fans who communicate via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and websites, and face to face, investing their own time and money and having fun organising and problem solving, uninterested in petty rivalries and passing fads.
You could see the Eurovision Song Contest as an enjoyable, apolitical event with its own following. The official language rules emphasise that, as in football and the Olympics, the whole thing has nothing to do with politics. But it is political, however subtly.
It was political when Germany became a founding member of the Grand Prix d’Eurovision despite its recent Nazi past. It was political in the 1970s, when Greece and Turkey competed despite the Cyprus conflict. In 1971, Katja Ebstein sang Diese Welt, this world, Eurovision’s first song with a green message. And Nicole’s Ein bisschen Frieden, a little peace, was more than a little political in 1982, at the height of the antinuclear movement and the Falklands war.
In 1990, the Italian winner Toto Cutugno sang about the wonderful togetherness of Europeans in Zagreb, which at the time was part of Yugoslavia. When the Ukrainian singer Ruslana won in 2004, and the event took place in post-orange-revolution Kiev the following year, it was politically charged. In 2009 the contest was held in Moscow, and gay fans protested against threats of violence.
Fellow Ukranian Jamala wasn’t exactly being apolitical when she won the Grand Prix for 1944, a song about her family’s forcible expulsion from Crimea, beating high-tech digital entry. This happened two years before the Russian annexation of the peninsula. So Eurovision isn’t political, but it does hold up a mirror to European politics.
I don’t find the next sentence easy to write. But I do think Europe could learn a whole lot from Eurovision. For example, that it’s good to have a vision and stick by it.
It teaches us that being national and European is a good combination, provided it’s clear that you’re playing by European rules. It says that Europe is not just about coal, steel, and bureaucracy, and there’s nothing wrong with pathos now and then, painful though it can be. It shows that a European movement can emerge in places where you’d least expect it to, and that industrial policy can shape your identity, though that wasn’t the original intention. And it teaches us that Europe shouldn’t be such a snob, and that dewy-eyed pop fans are more likely to save the Union than fulminating journalists.
Eurovision teaches us that the smallest countries are often the most dynamic. That Europeans speak English, but it’s boring if they all do. That you can trust the public: after all, they turned Conchita Wurst into a Eurovision princess, which is more than politicians ever would.
Europe needs more Eurovisions.