Covid-19 may have cancelled this year's Eurovision, but that doesn't mean the politics of the contest aren't on show in a different wayby Catherine Baker / May 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
The Eurovision Song Contest has survived financial crashes, terrorist threats and even contestants at war. But in March, Eurovision organisers had to accept what fans had feared for days—that given the global pandemic, the competition would have to be cancelled for the first time in a history dating back to 1956.
Italy was already in lockdown by the time the event’s organisers made their decision—and soon, much of Europe would follow. Instead of Italy’s entry echoing from an arena in Rotterdam as planned, it was instead sung from balconies by apartment-dwellers stuck in their homes and viewed on screens around the world. Iceland’s already-selected representative, Daði Freyr, enjoyed a social media surge, while Azerbaijan released a much-anticipated big-budget production—yet, as governments reacted to coronavirus at different speeds, Denmark’s entrants had already been forced to record their preview video on stage without a crowd. By the end of March, Dutch media were reporting that Rotterdam’s Ahoy Arena, this year’s contest venue, would instead become an emergency hospital for sufferers of Covid-19. Eurovision’s story seemed to have ground to a halt.
Eurovision’s modern-day origin myth, retold by presenters and even celebrated in science fiction (see Catherynne M Valente’s 2018 novel Space Opera), speaks of countries setting aside their differences and putting war behind them. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), founded in 1950, held the first Eurovision in 1956 after its director Marcel Bezençon chose to create an international version of Italy’s Sanremo festival (where juries voted on new hits by Italy’s top stars) for the EBU’s Eurovision network. The timeline makes it seem temptingly like a cultural counterpart to the economic precursors of today’s EU forged in 1951–7 through the Treaties of Paris and Rome.
Yet Eurovision emerged for practical as much as cultural reasons, as historians like Alexander Badenoch and Dean Vuletic suggest. Live link-ups for major sporting, cultural and news events (including the 1954 World Cup) were easier with compatible technical standards, while broadcasters in smaller countries could use programme exchanges to overcome the prohibitive costs of producing all their own television programming.
The EBU archives Vuletic consulted for his recent book, Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest, show that Bezençon distanced the EBU from visions of European political unification, which would have dismayed many members. Far from designing Eurovision as a cultural mechanism to…