The central mission of the Eurovision Song Contest is to share music across boundaries that divide people. Juggling several dozen participating countries and how they go about doing things has been a form of sweet amusement in the history of the show, but sometimes there’s friction between the pieces. When things get awkward, sometimes a question arises: Is Eurovision political?
Massiel, who succeeded in winning the contest for the first time for Spain in 1968, sang in Castilian Spanish the victory number: La La La. Before the contest, during the Spanish preselection, the original rendition of the song was written in Catalan and sung by the artist Joan Manuel Serrat. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the song was ineligible to be sung or sent to the contest so long as the lyrics weren’t translated exclusively into Spanish. Serrat insisted on keeping the words in Catalan, and because of his refusal to change the song, Massiel was selected as the vocalist.
We see a second brush with politics when we look back at the 1974 contest in Brighton. The 1964 victor and returning artist, Gigliola Cinquetti, was spearheading the Italian delegation with her song, Sì. In regard to the political climate of the nation, Italy was on its way toward a referendum on divorce. RAI, the Italian broadcaster, was fearful of the subliminal messaging that they assume was endorsed in the song pursued by one notion: ‘Yes’ or Sì, in this case would target Italian voters and persuade them to vote to outlaw divorce in the country. As a result, the song and its Eurovision performance were censored from broadcast in Italy. In any event, Cinquetti did go on to receive a second place result overall, behind ABBA.
The Sami culture was introduced to the contest by Norway in 1980, held in The Hague. Sámiid ædnan, which means ‘Sami Land’ in English, was sung by Sverre Kjelsberg and Mattis Hætta, and was written as a buttress to a rallying cry on behalf of the Sami tribes where autonomy demonstrations were taking place. Protest was spurred on by the construction of the Alta Hydroelectric Power Plant, which would have inundated a village and largely disrupted the natural ecosystem that supported the Sami way of life in Finnmark. The distinct Sami singing style of joik was first brought to the show because of this song.
The breakup of Yugoslavia and the humanitarian crisis that ensued in the Balkans were fresh on the minds of competing European countries headed into the 1993 Contest. The new sovereign nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina debuted in the show with an expression of pain and a call to action to the rest of the world with their song, Sva bol svijeta, sung by the vocalist, Fazla. Since the country was reverberating from being an active war zone, the delegation with the singer were reported to have come under gunfire as they were escorted by the UN to Ireland. Despite the song itself receiving only 16th place overall, the entry contested a new purpose for the contest: to tell the story about people in extreme distress where other avenues of making their story known may not lay.
The 2008 contest saw another first: Russia won. The winner of the contest was Dima Bilan with his hit Believe, but what occurred along the lines of political disparity occurred after the contest was held, and before Moscow was set to host the 2009 show. In this space of time, Russia pioneered an invasion of their neighbor Georgia, who is also a regular participant in Eurovision. Stephan and 3G were the victors of the Georgian national selection, and their anti-Kremlin song We Don’t Wanna Put In left a very unsavory taste in the mouths of the Russian delegation, and because the song was not categorically apolitical in its stride, the song was within grounds of disqualification. Resultantly, Georgia was not represented in Moscow.
A more recent instance of a Eurovision selected artist being unable to participate in the show because of their political displeasure were the duo VAL who were set to represent Belarus in the 2020 Contest with Da Vidna. Their support for a pro-democratic government which was made apparent through their social media posts, which caused a fatal friction between them and their broadcaster. Aside from the Rotterdam show not being televised that year at all because of the Coronavirus, the following year saw the Belarusians select Galasy ZMesta to sing for the nation their song Ya Nauchu Tebya. The latter entry was unapologetically pro-Lukashenko in its lyrical content, and was swiftly barred from participation in 2021.
There may be several other instances of political division damping the fervor of the contest, but the reality of politics in Eurovision is not ultimately indifferent to how it finds its way into other facets of entertainment – sports for example. Has the world ever truly witnessed a cohesively apolitical Olympic Games? Alongside the Olympics, Eurovision has a living discourse about what politics should be allowed to do that transforms with time, like human values.
What other ‘political’ moments in Eurovision have we missed? Let us know!