Friendly competition is a part of life in the 21st Century. Whether it be a pub quiz or a sports game, fighting for victory is a fun way to let off steam. After World War II, however, Europeans decided to take the concept to 11 and introduced the Eurovision Song Contest to facilitate international harmony in 1955. Over sixty years later, and the competition regularly has over 40 countries competing, during shows watched by over 200 million people around the world. (“Eurovision Song Contest…”) So suffice it to say, Eurovision is a big deal.
Like any huge pop cultural event, Eurovision is bound to get tied to politics in some way. However, the official Eurovision rules state that “no lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the ESC,” (Rules of the Eurovision…) which sounds like it would quell any kind of political entry. But the reality is much more complicated, falling on officials to determine each entry that’s called into question. One of those entries was the song from Ukraine that was entered into last year’s contest, “1944” by the jazz singer Jamala. Her song told the story of Crimean Tatars like her grandmother who were forcibly deported by Joseph Stalin toward the end of World War II (Jamala). The Russian delegation perceived this as an anti-Russian message, and the song’s place in the contest was challenged. In the end, the song was accepted and actually won, ahead of Russia’s act which had been predicted to win the contest for quite a few weeks in advance (@EBU_HQ).
Eurovision tradition dictates that the winning country has the right to host the next year’s contest, which means that Ukraine will be hosting in 2017. However, tensions had been high about the potential for conflict arising with Russia. And on March 11th, when Russia confirmed their participation with the singer Julia Samoylova, those worries were validated; Samoylova was found to have performed in Crimea in 2015. That wouldn’t be a problem if, due to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine didn’t have a law banning anyone who had performed in Crimea from entering the country. On March 22nd, the Security Board of Ukraine confirmed that Samoylova had received a three-year travel ban into Ukraine for her actions. (Shea)
This left contest organizers at an impasse. Initially, they offered to set up a satellite connection so that Samoylova could sing from a Russian studio and still be voted on by the public. However, both the Russian delegation and Ukrainian authorities vetoed the idea. (“Eurovision: Russia rejects offer…”) A few days later, the Chief of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the organization that oversees the contest, Ingrid Deltenre, warned that unless a solution was found, Ukraine would face consequences for barring Samoylova from entering the country to compete. (TASS)
While it might be the contest’s most high-profile incident in recent years, Eurovision is no stranger to political interference. Various entries in past editions have either made political statements or referenced events that would cause conflict between nations. For example, Finland’s artist in 2013, Krista Siegfrids, had come out in favor of same-sex marriage, which was banned in Finland at the time. While on a promotional tour around Europe, she announced that she planned to feature a same-sex kiss during her performance to protest the ban. (Wyatt) Around the same time that a citizen’s movement to legalize same-sex marriage in Finland was picking up steam, and Siegfrids spoke with and supported the movement just before she performed at the contest. (“Krista Siegfrids kunnialähettilääksi”) No objections were filed with the EBU about the kiss and it became a symbol of the performance, recognizable for years to come.
Eurovision history is full of stories similar to Jamala’s and Krista Siegfrids’s, and as it continues to grow, its impact on the popular culture of Europe will make it a more attractive venue for political speech. Who wouldn’t want an audience of over 200 million to hear a message that could advocate for equality, remembrance, or some other platform? The EBU will have to take a long look at its policy and update it for the future to avoid more problems like the one it’s facing with Julia Samoylova.
@EBU_HQ. “@Refshaleoen The Ref. Group concluded that the title & lyrics of the song don’t contain political speech and don’t breach @Eurovision Rules.” Twitter, 9 March 2016, 8:07 a.m., https://twitter.com/EBU_HQ/status/707568496079675393
“Eurovision: Russia rejects offer for Julia Samoilova to perform ‘via satellite’.” bbc.com, British Broadcasting Corporation, 23 March 2017. Web. http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-39367029
“Eurovision Song Contest attracts 204 millions viewers!” Eurovision.tv, European Broadcasting Union, 24 May 2016. Web. http://www.eurovision.tv/page/news?id=eurovision_song_contest_attracts_204_million_viewers
Jamala. “1944.” 1944, Enjoy!Records, 2016, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNECV2h-y58
“Krista Siegfrids kunnialähettilääksi!” tahdon2013.fi, Tasa-arvoinen Suomi ry, 15 May 2013, Web. http://www.tahdon2013.fi/uutiset/krista-siegfrids-kunnialahettilaaksi/
Rules of the Eurovision Song Contest 2017. European Broadcasting Union, 2016.
Shea, Christopher. “Ukraine Bars Russia’s Eurovision Entrant.” nytimes.com, The New York Times, 22 March 2017. Web. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/arts/music/ukraine-bars-russias-eurovision-entrant.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0
TASS. “ЕВС рассмотрит вопрос о нарушении правил “Евровидения” в Киеве после завершения конкурса.” Russian News Agency TASS, 29 March 2017. Web. http://tass.ru/kultura/4136710
Wyatt, Daisy. “Eurovision 2013 to feature first lesbian kiss in protest against lack of gay marriage legislation.” independent.co.uk, Independent Digital News & Media, 17 May 2013, Web. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/eurovision-2013-to-feature-first-lesbian-kiss-in-protest-against-lack-of-gay-marriage-legislation-8621231.html