Singing from the rooftops: Eurovision in the time of coronavirus

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 way

May 15, 2020
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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 strengthen European integration, until the late 70s the EBU had to annually re-confirm whether to hold Eurovision the following year.

Eurovision’s supposed origin in a shared wish to celebrate “unity in diversity” after devastating wars has become part of what Eurovision means today. Presenters Måns Zelmerlow and Petra Mede, for instance, alluded to Europeans setting aside their differences in troubling times while introducing the 2016 Stockholm contest, which was overshadowed by mass refugee deaths in the Mediterranean and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In 2020’s lost spring, Eurovision has moved online, to meet fans in the only space where they could connect. Eurovision’s social media channels compiled “home concerts” of singers performing under lockdown, streamed past editions to tie in with fan-led rewatches at #EurovisionAgain, and replaced the weekday semi-finals with the videos of contestants singing songs in different musical genres, inviting international fans to dance along. While a stage normally separates contestants and audiences, this year’s semi-final broadcasts placed them on almost equal terms, with many performers just as confined as viewers to their homes.

This digitally-distributed Eurovision creates quite a different political atmosphere, one where the big picture of international relations seems far less in view. The chain of contentions between Ukraine and Russia played out through Eurovision ever since Putin’s annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine in 2014 seems more distant when no press conferences or on-air commentators re-litigate the background. Meanwhile, fans protesting the Russian parliament’s anti-LGBTQ legislation of 2013—as many have at recent contests, though Russia’s very participation in Eurovision flies in the face of some anti-LGBTQ lawmakers’ objections—have nobody to boo.

Host cities conventionally play up their—and the country’s—relationship to “Europe.” Some instances have been much-loved, like Swedish Television’s light-hearted interval acts (including Zelmerlöw and Mede’s “Love Love Peace Peace”), while some have been controversial, as when Tel Aviv hosted in 2019 amid escalating international outcries against the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, or when authorities in Baku bulldozed apartments to build the stadium for Eurovision 2012. With no live contest, no voting, and no hosting rights for next year up for grabs, this level of meaning that we have become accustomed to in Eurovision is suddenly not there.

Part of what many fans feel they have lost without a live Eurovision is the spectacle of staging, where national broadcasters’ choices about how to design and choreograph their entries come to the fore. These choices sometimes play into viewers’ existing expectations of what music from that nation is like—and sometimes work against them. Consciously or subconsciously, in a setting where each song is understood to represent the nation, both approaches harness viewers’ impressions of a nation’s culture and politics into how they make sense of what they see. This level of “performing” one’s national identity is far less prominent in what has become of Eurovision this year.

The end result might even approximate the more participatory, democratic Eurovision some past contests have tried to imagine through moments like Madcon’s flash mob dance in the Eurovision 2010 interval. Panning from the Afro-Norwegian duo to (white) fans’ homes across the continent as if Eurovision were one giant, networked dance party, the segment folded nations together into a digital future—though a future that, as performance scholar Katrin Sieg argues, relied on particular assumptions that cast black Europeans more as talent in the global creative economy rather than equal inhabitants of the European home.

After successive years of increasingly political, and politicised, Eurovision contests, might 2020 have ended up the least political of all? Saying so would still overlook how politics have both shaped the underlying idea of Eurovision and determined the material circumstances in which participants and viewers have been able to realise that idea this spring. The sight of some contestants recording their home concerts outdoors while others sing in apartment corners illustrates the different conditions of each government’s lockdown—itself a political as well as scientific question. Beneath the surface, the contest’s very structure as a competition between nations, and the ways its origins have been retold, have suffused it with the politics of defining national and European identities, however different it feels in this digital-only, non-competitive year.