Image Description: A group of people are on a stage as confetti flies around them. To the left, there are three individuals, one of them clapping. Oleh Psiuk (left) holds a trophy with one hand. MC KylymMen (center) smiles and holds a blue and yellow flag, the Ukrainian flag. Ihor Didenchuk (right) holds another Ukrainian flag. Behind them are three other members from the band waving smaller Ukrainian flags.
As 10 million Europeans sat in front of their televisions on Saturday night, May 15th, a screen of blue and yellow lit up their rooms. Blue as a sky absent of airplanes and fog; yellow as a hopeful sun uniting a people. As the popular votes were announced, Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra jumped up in a dance of joy and momentary liberation — the people of Europe had spoken. In true Eurovision spirit, the split screen displayed Sam Ryder, the runner up from the United Kingdom, pumping his fists in the air as if he had won. A win for European solidarity, in this moment, was a win for all.
Ukraine had been predicted to win from the moment it was announced that they would still be competing in the 2022 Eurovision song contest. Russia had been excluded from participating on the 25 of February by the competition’s Executive Board with a statement that including Russia would “bring the competition into disrepute.” The board continued to list its values to emphasize diversity, unity and understanding. Eurovision is an event which “unites Europe on one stage.”
Therefore, when Oleh Psiuk took the mic in front of millions of Europeans, he spoke for them all. While accepting the win as a symbol of solidarity, he pleaded for help for Ukraine, beaming with pride underneath a wonderful pink bucket hat; his youthful appearance juxtaposed the severity of his statement. As some displeased European fans sat at home that night with the familiar ‘it shouldn’t be about politics’ debate, the boys of Kalush Orchestra celebrated while preparing to return back home – the Ukrainian government has placed a restriction on men of fighting age from leaving the country. However, this restriction was momentarily lifted for Kalush Orchestra to attend the competition. There is something dystopian about the sight of the men on stage, dancing with joy in front of an audience paying 350 euros to see them sing, knowing that they will return home to fight. “Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.”
This is the beauty of an event like Eurovision, its historical union between politics and music. On an ordinary Saturday night sometime in May, the European spirit is stronger than ever. Amidst individual Europeans, the competition evokes a connected European community, united in voicing the shared concerns of the people. Issues raised in song lyrics become personal as families sit in front of a screen, shouting at national panels and mocking the choices of dancing and costumes. This spirit and unity among the European continent (alongside ‘non-European’ countries such as Armenia, Israel, Cyprus and Australia) may seem foreign to American readers, which is why this article aims to provide a much needed how-to guide to Eurovision. Understanding the event demonstrates why the political weight of Ukraine’s win personifies the competition’s spirit fiercely and wholeheartedly, as well as advocating why you should get into it next year:
- Nobody takes the music too seriously, but it’s loud, fun and proud. Yes, we understand that the songs are not always great, the dancing is bizarre and the pyrotechnics on stage are out of control. There is a long history of queer representation in the competition with competitors like Dana International, the first transgender performer winning for Israel in 1998, or Wurst, Austrias bearded drag queen making leaps for queer acceptance in Europe. The normalization and celebration of outrageous costumes and gender fluid performances has led to a niche of art that is only truly seen at Eurovision. Whilst this doubtlessly started off as using queer content to create shock and awe, it is now so embedded in the culture of the event that a large queer fanbase has found its home in the event. Diversity is embraced as a Eurovision value, and anything is possible. Truly, anything. This undeniably results in half of it being wonderfully eccentric, satirical and ironic, placed perfectly for a balance of prideful joy.
- The voting can’t be separated from politics. The voting system works in two ways. There is the traditional television-competition-style public vote, in which the public gets to vote by phone for any country that is not their own. The second part of the votes is based on a panel of music professionals from each country. They assign points to 10 countries: 1-8, 10 and 12 points per country with the best country getting 12 points. Both aspects are always politically weighted. With the country panel votes, there are clear favorites present. For instance, Belgium and the Netherlands, neighboring countries with similar languages and cultures, will always give each other points. Within countries, the population shines through, with the Turkish minority in Germany and the Netherlands giving points to Turkey. Such ‘friendships’ between countries are representative of overlapping cultural values and geographical distance. Moreover, the public vote is always politically influenced by current events and sociopolitical climates. For instance, in 2021 the UK was awarded a devastating zero points from both the panel and the public votes. It would be amiss to not attribute these zero points to the country’s Brexit finalization. The transition period was over in January of 2021, and the competition took place on May 22nd. The only other time the UK was awarded zero points was in 2003, after London’s support of the Iraq war. To the opposite effect, Ukraine’s success was won by the public vote; one of rightful sympathy and compassion for the oppressed. Before the public vote, Ukraine was in fourth place, 100 points behind the winning UK. To allow them to win, they received 631 points, triumphing over the UK’s 466. This is a record amount of public votes for any singular country. Politics undoubtedly plays a role in winning the hearts of the public, showing a yearly rapport of public opinion about the events occurring within European countries — an inside scoop to the minds of a nation.
- Voting isn’t the only place of political influence as the public platform lends itself to a wonderful mix of protests and activism. Heated politics has come to be personified through the competition. Every year, for instance, there is the question of Israel’s participation. As the first non-European country to compete, the competition has been historically broadcasted by the ‘Arab world’ with advertisements cutting over Israel’s performances, ending the competition streaming if it ever looked like they would win. When the competition was hosted by Tel Aviv in 2019, Iceland’s entry raised Palestinian flags in protest while the votes were being counted. Moreover, Israel’s own original entry in 2019 dropped out when learning that the competition would be held on a Saturday, violating the Jewish Sabbath. Song lyrics have historically been loaded with political weight, with Ukraine’s 2016 entry protesting the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Russia, and Armenia’s 2015 entry advocating for recognition of the Armenian genocide (which they were forced to change).
- Australia is in it… (yes, we are all very well aware that Australia isn’t in Europe). Australia was asked to join in 2015 for the 60th anniversary of the competition. It was a special event, prompted by a strong following of Eurovision among Australian citizens. However, when Australia arrived they became an iconic part of the celebration, aligned with similar values to the competition. After the anniversary year, their inclusion is now somewhat unmissable, a joke among other Europeans about how Europe is a cultural understanding rather than a geographical one. The board stresses the values of “democracy, pluralism, diversity, inclusion and freedom of expression,” which extend to more countries than just those classically considered ‘European’. This is also why countries on the Mediterranean border of Europe and Russia are included.
- It’s amateur hour for pros. You may think to yourself, “Why hasn’t the UK won since 1997? There are plenty of well known British artists… Why were Elton John, One Direction, Stormzy, Adele or Ed Sheeran never in the competition?” You wouldn’t be the first to go down such a logical path of thought. However, the competition only allows entrance to ‘amateurs’, with the criteria that the song can’t have been released before September 1st of the competing year. This is because Eurovision wants the competition to be fair, allowing for no disadvantage to smaller, non-English speaking countries that have a less prominent music industry. However, just because celebrities can’t compete doesn’t mean Eurovision doesn’t jumpstart your way into fame. ABBA and Celine Dion are examples of Eurovision success stories that inspire artists, year after year, to compete and ‘make it’ in the competitive world of music.
- What happens to the winner? The winner of the competition gets to host Eurovision in their country the following year. I hear your alarm bells ringing – how will this work with Ukraine? While Charles Michel, European Council President has said that he holds the hope that the competition may be “hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine,” it seems many others are not so optimistic about the liberation and rebuilding of the capital by May of 2023. Even President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed he would like to try to host it, extending the hope for Ukraine to be “free, peaceful, rebuilt.” There is currently much speculation about who will replace Ukraine if this wish isn’t granted, with a strong case being made for the UK to host as the runner up. A similarly complicated case occurred in 1969 with a 4-way tie between France, United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands. This happened after Austria withdrew from the competition due to the dictatorship of Franco in Spain, the host country. The Netherlands was randomly drawn to host the following year. However, in protest, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Finland all withdrew in the following year.
- Some countries go straight through to the finals, but don’t worry, their privilege stabs them in the back most of the time. If you’re watching Eurovision for the first time, you might wonder why Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Spain and France go straight through to the final. This is because they are the biggest financial contributors to the competition. However, this isn’t completely unfair. Usually, along with some resentment reflected in the public votes from smaller countries, they don’t do so well. Since other countries’ songs have the chance to be heard twice, they get picked up as favorites. However, for the ‘Big Five’, the Saturday night final is their debut moment. This means these songs easily get lost among the crowd’s excitement for hearing ‘that great song that they heard 2 nights ago’. Generally, the privilege of these countries doesn’t help them much, and it is therefore not seen as a significant advantage.
So there you have it, a rundown of one of Europe’s most beloved events of the year. A closer insight into the historical background of the event and the way politics is weaved in explains why Ukraine’s win was neither surprising nor displeasing. The public vote has always reflected any political turmoil and social opinions that bubble at the surface of Europe’s dynamic intra-country relationships. This makes it so that the competition represents perhaps a more true democratic ideal than many countries ever get the chance to realize. While, in competitive spirit, nationalism is expressed in a strong desire for your own country to win, the stripping of the power to vote for your own country places everybody into a headspace of external awareness and compassion. The sentiment of Ukraine’s win is a beautiful one that makes me, as a European citizen, nostalgically look back at the continent with a warm heartfelt fondness.
And yet, I sit across the world and feel some underlying unease at the unfolding events. Kalush Orchestra’s win, however symbolic, is not a win for the war. It is not a bandaid over their suffering. Despite the historical significance of a Eurovision win, this does not absolve the European public from acting and standing up for Ukraine. Knowing human nature’s engrained obsession with entertainment, I sit in some fear of a hands-off approach that may follow. The display of public support is justified, but joy should not be the dominating emotion. The war continues, as does the nation’s agony. Though music is unifying, we cannot sit back and rest, thinking a star studded moment on a European stage with the support of 52 countries solves the terrors of a country ripped apart by Russian oppression.