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By Sarah Lipkis
Eurovision, an international music competition, was founded in 1956 with only seven countries (The Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Switzerland) as a way of bridging divides after World War II. Today, Eurovision is one of the biggest music events in Europe—with over thirty countries participating each year and 130 million viewers tuning in. Though conceived by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) as a political event, Eurovision has become a microcosm of contemporary political discourse. Beneath the pageantry of the competition, the 2014 Eurovision seemed preoccupied with two events dominating the news: tension between Russia and Ukraine, and LGBTQ rights in Europe.
From its inception, Eurovision has been no stranger to political controversy. In a May 2011 article, The Atlantic described Eurovision as "a political battlefield where you need advice from Henry Kissinger as much as Simon Cowell.”
In 1968, Spanish Singer Joan Manuel Serrat was withdrawn by Francisco Franco from the competion after declaring his intention of singing in Catalan instead of Spanish, which was seen as a provocation against Franco. In 1974, Portugal’s song, "E Depois do Adeus’," served as a signal to begin preparations for the April 25th military coup that lead to the Carnation Revolution. During the late 1970s, after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, Greece refused to participate if Turkey was allowed to take part in the competition.
In response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, songs during the 1990 competition in the former Yugoslavia reflected a greater sense of unity through such songs like Norway's "Brandenburg Tor," Germany's "Free to Live," and Italy’s winning song, ." Eight years later in 1998, Dana International, representing Israel, became the first transgender singer to win Eurovision.
Dana International Eurovision 1998
In 2000, the Israeli band, Ping Pong, waved both Israeli and Syrian flags on stage during the competition. Israeli Broadcasting Authority, and the larger European community, denounced the performances, seeing it as an inappropriate dig at Syria, which had been engaged in peace-talks with Israel. In 2003, England received “null points” (no votes) from jurors, which was seen as a punishment for British support of the Iraq war. In 2005, host country, Ukraine’s song was considered to be the anthem of the Orange Revolution. Georgia withdrew from the competition in 2009, which was held in Russia, due to controversy over the reference to Vladimir Putin with Georgia's lyrics “we don’t want Put-in.” Azerbaijan and Armenia have often used Eurovision to stage for political conflict whether through refusing to broadcast each other's songs, or even launching police investigations into citizens who voted for the other country. In 2012, Armenia pulled out of the competition due to it being held in Azerbaijan.
Ukraine Eurovision 2005
The conflict in Ukraine and LGBTQ rights, decisively marked the 2014 Eurovision competition. During the lead up to the competition, Swedish newspaper, Aftonbladet, brought up the issue on how votes from Crimea would be counted. One stage of voting works by citizens calling in or texting after all songs in the semi-finals and final are performed. However, people may not vote for the country they are living in (for example if you are in Ireland you cannot vote for Ireland). On April 30, 2014, EBU announced that for the purposes of the competition, Crimea would be counted as Ukraine. Speculation emerged that the EBU’s decision was politically motivated—by counting Crimea as part of Ukraine, some thought it was showing solidarity with Ukraine and refusing to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of the region. The EBU denied the accusation, stating that their decision was based on the way telephone services are set up in Crimea. The EBU also noted that while Crimea would count as part of Ukraine for the purposes of the competition, the region was free to vote for Russia or any other country.
Besides voting, many are accusing Russia’s Tolmachevy sisters' love song as having a darker message. The lyrics of Russia's song “Living on the edge/closer to the crime/cross the line a step at a time. Now maybe there's a place/maybe there's a time/maybe there's a day you'll be mine,” is thought to be a veiled reference to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Though just conjecture, many understood the lyrics as proof of Russia’s desire to further annex parts of .
Tolmachevy sisters Euvosision 2014
The crowd’s markedly different response to the Ukrainian singer Mariya Yaremchuk versus the response to Russia's Tolmachevy sisters indicates a greater European sentiment over the situation in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s anti-gay laws. When Yaremchuk took the stage during the final competition, she was greeted by cheers, while the Tolmachevy sisters were repeatedly booed during the semi-finals and finals. Russia was also booed during the voting process. Countries who also voted for Russia, such as Belarus and Armenia, were heckled. It should be noted that both Belarus and Armenia have anti-gay laws similar to those of Russia.
In front of millions of viewers, Austrain singer Conchita Wurst was announced the winner of Eurovision on May 10, 2014. Wurst is the second transgender singer to win Eurovosion. She is also the competion's first bearded woman.
Ukraine Eurovision 2014
Assistant professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, and co-editor of , Karan Fricker said “This was an historic Eurovision victory in advancing acceptance of LGBTQ people in Europe. The last major victory in the contest that did similar work was the win of Israeli transsexual Dana International in 1998.”
Conchita Wurst Eurovision 2014
Leading up to the competition, protests and petitions in parts of Austria, Belarus, Russia, and other countries, called for Wurst to be barred from competing or that her entry be edited out during the broadcast (countries broadcasting Eurovision are not allowed to edit out competitors). Vitaly Milonov, a deputy in the St. Petersburg legistar, stated that, “The participation of the clear transvestite…on the same stage as Russian performers…is obvious propaganda for homosexuality and moral decay.” Regardless of the transphobia, Wurst went on to win Eurovision.
According to Fricker, Wurst became “symbolically linked to LGBTQ politics.” Wurst was able to use both her performance and her victory speech as a tool for social change. Her song “Rise like a Phoenix,” describes the strength she needed in overcoming discrimination against being gay, transgender, and bearded. Though gay rights is a controversial issue in Europe and throughout the rest of the world, Conchita Wurst’s win at Eurovision is seen as a step in the right direction. During her victory speech, and when asked what she would say to Putin, she responded with, “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity and we are unstoppable.” Wurst is being hailed as a symbol and advocate of LGBTQ rights.
Conchita Wurst’s Victory Speech Eurovision 2014
Though conceived as a friendly competition, Eurovision has a long history of reflecting greater political tension. Amid the glamour of this year’s competition, conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the issue of LGBTQ rights took center stage.
Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Cover photo courtesy of Eurovision Research Project]