Eurovision: Europe and Its Big Identity Show

Dancing gorillas, yodeling Lithuanians on a canon, gypsy music combined with hip-hop – these are just a few productions from the Eurovision Song Contest 2017. For those who don’t follow every single aspect of the contest, the political significance of the event might still be rather interesting. Beyond the fancy clothes and all the glamour there is a communication ritual which consists of the participating countries showing off their national identity and cultivatedvalues.

Just as the institution of the European Union, the Eurovision has also started as a peace project in 1956. At the first event, there were only 7 contestants, while now, there are more than 40 performers. As thenumber of  contestants grew, the European Broadcasting Union was constantly changing the rules and the regulations to keep it non-political, but it hasn’t been successful so far. The biggest transformation occurred in the rating system. At the beginning, the participants came from Western Europe, but after the end of the Cold War, the contest opened up to the Eastern bloc, which led to a tactical voting. This meant that the original countries had no longer had a chance to win. So the votes of the audience were replaced by a mixed system where the votes of professional jury and the people of the participating countries had the same weight in the evaluation.

Eurovision plays a major role in the formation of a national and European identity: Europeanization appears as a cultural procedure in the contest. According to Catherine Baker, who studied the gender and geopolitical aspects of the Eurovision, the performed songs reflect different narratives and shows a country’s national and European identity, especially with regard to how much they want to be a part of the European cultural scene.

The government of Estonia, for example, considered it to be its goal to win the Eurovision contest in 2000. Empirical research devoted to voter behavior, the styles preferred at the Eurovision, and the successful strategies, all were a part of the government’s Human Development Program. The country won the contest in 2001.

The overall image of Europe that had been reflected by the contest changed significantly when the Eastern bloc’s countries started to participate. The scope of the contest was widened and new narratives appeared. The win of Turkey in 2003, with a traditional belly dancing, caused a major outrage among conservative Turkish people. But this event has started to contribute to the formation of a new – and successful – Balkan identity.

One manifestation of the overpoliticization of the contest is the bloc voting. The Eastern expansion resulted in the fact that a stong rivalry between the new contestants and the original countries. Derek Gatherer, a lecturer of the University of Lancaster, tried to map these voting blocs. He discovered that the Scandinavian countries have a strong bond, the Balkan countries also form a bloc, and the post-Soviet countries keep together too. In these regions the votes are most likely to support another country that belongs to the bloc. The conflicts between nationalities are also present but Gatherer found that the togetherness of the region often overwrites these conflicts.

In the spirit of acceptance as a universal European value, gender and gender policies played in the contest a significant role in the past. According to Catherine Baker, respecting the LGBTQ rights is a great indicator of how much each country is able to identify with the European values. There were quite a few gay or transgender participants in the history of Eurovision. Some countries try to forge an advantage from having a contestant that identifies as LGBTQ.

There are some success stories that are in line with this strategy. t.A.T.u is a good example, with the group participating in the Eurovision back in 2003. However, the tolerance exhibited on the international scene was far from the real social climate. Therefore, although the Russian girl duo was introduced to the international media as a lesbian couple, strongly homophobic Russian audience knew them to be, in fact, two straight women.

Vanessza Juhasz
Republikon Institute