From the author: This article was originally an essay I wrote for one of my university classes on popular music on screens (which I highly recommend) titled “Performing Europe at the Eurovision Song Contest”, so if I get a little wordy at times, I apologise endlessly. (I did try and cut it back, honestly.) There’s a list at the bottom of this article of the books and articles (from people much cleverer than me) that heavily inspired the essay – you should definitely give them a read, especially “A Song for Europe”. Okay, end introductory remarks.
In few places are ongoing debates about the role of musical performance in popular culture and politics more visible than at the Eurovision Song Contest. Performance at Eurovision is significant for the opportunity it provides European countries to imagine and express their own visions for Europe. In this way, Eurovision becomes a key cultural touchstone in a broader European integration project in which competing ideas of “Europeanness” are literally given centre-stage and put to a pan-European vote.
With a focus on two of the Contest’s more notable (and successful) performances—Israel’s Dana International in 1998, Russia’s t.A.T.u in 2003—we are able to chart a two-fold role for Eurovision when reviewing ongoing processes of post-war European alignment.
First, Dana International’s performance and eventual win at Eurovision became a focal point for Israel’s internal conflicts over culture and religion as the country attempted to articulate a closer alignment to “Europe” and the liberalisation of social values that such an articulation demands.
With Russia and faux-lesbian pop group t.A.T.u, a complicated and contradictory relationship to Europe is performed where European ideals of gender and sexual fluidity are mimicked and mocked to iterate a sense of Russian indifference or immunity to pan-European modernity.
In both cases, performance at Eurovision stands as a contribution to the geopolitical and social discourses of Europe that affect the Song Contest at nearly every juncture, thus inscribing the potential for Eurovision to act as important and valuable intellectual resource when dealing with questions of “Europe”.
Eurovision and Europe
In its 62-year history, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) has become a significant force in the ongoing social, cultural and political evolutions of postwar Europe. Eurovision’s role in Europe predates the creation of the Contest in 1956.
The success of Eurovision should not be read as a constant subscription to the pan-European ideals of unity, cohesion and cooperation that the Contest espouses.
At the end of World War II, an alliance of public-service media entities established the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to foster programming exchanges and provide technical information and standards to member organisations. As the successor to the Union Internationale de Radiophonie (UIR) that was effectually disbanded by Nazi Germany, cohesion and cooperation were mobilising factors in the creation of the EBU.
This motivation has translated into the pan-European projects that the organisation has undertaken to institute and no more clearly so than in the Eurovision Song Contest. The first edition of Eurovision was broadcast from Switzerland in 1956 with the espoused goal of uniting a war-torn Europe through popular music. Exploiting the nascent medium of live television, it also provided a young organisation with the opportunity to embed itself in Europe’s rapidly evolving technological landscape.
“… the Eurovision Song Contest’s ‘grand illusion [is] that it brings together the diverse peoples and cultures of Europe on one great wing of song, when all it makes manifest is how far apart everybody is’.”
Eurovision has stood alongside key moments in European history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the expansion of the European Union, and, indeed, as the ideals of European integration have been tested and critiqued over time. Yet, the appeal of Eurovision has rarely waned despite varying attitudes to this project of European integration. The most recent edition of Eurovision—held in Kyiv, Ukraine—boasted 182 million viewers in 42 markets, shoring up the show’s claim to the title of the largest, most-watched and longest-running television music competition in the world.
The success of Eurovision should not, however, be read as a constant subscription to the pan-European ideals of unity, cohesion and cooperation that the Contest espouses. In fact, we can turn to Eurovision itself to see how these ideals have been negotiated, co-opted and rejected through certain musical performances.
Musical style at Eurovision is generally marked by a tension between appealing to a lowest common denominator of popular appeal and the expression of distinctive ‘local’ sounds. In some cases, countries have found that electronic, ultra-mainstream pop is prototypical for a successful Eurovision entry. Others, in contrast, have widened the scope of Eurovision’s musical style by injecting regional forms of popular music that often impart strong nationalistic themes. These culturally specific variants of pop music have won the Contest in the past two years. Ukraine’s Jamala won in 2016 with 1944 sung partly in the Crimean Tatar language and Salvador Sobral, the reigning Eurovision champion, won with a jazz waltz sung entirely in Portuguese.
This dynamic between music stylistically situated at either the centre or periphery of European popular music is illustrative the general contradiction that Eurovision has come to stand for. This, as Wogan describes in their work, is the Eurovision Song Contest’s ‘grand illusion that it brings together the diverse peoples and cultures of Europe on one great wing of song, when all it makes manifest is how far apart everybody is’.
Dana International: Israel’s gay moment
Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst captured the attention of Europe and indeed the world following her win in Copenhagen in 2014. Notable for her coupling of a feminine character with facial hair, Conchita’s success did not so much as forge new ground for such gender-bending performances as it did capitalise upon past liberalisations of sexual and gender discourses within Eurovision. Though no single “sexual turn” can be (or should be) discerned in the history of Eurovision, the success of Israeli transgender woman Dana International stands out as in important moment in this history. Dana’s journey to the Eurovision Grand Prix was not without significant debate as critiques over her performance were extended to questions over what her selection meant for Israel’s relationship to Europe.
Dana International’s performative interventions through the Eurovision Song Contest had a significant impact on an Israeli negotiation of gender and sexual politics both within the country and on the European stage. Born Yaran Cohen, Dana attained fame within Israel as a female impersonator before undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 1993.
Dana’s selection as Israel’s representative to the Eurovision Song Contest 1998 propelled her into the centre of a broader conflict between orthodox and secular Israeli Jews about the liberalisation of dominant cultural and religious attitudes. To some, including high-profile ranking members of the Israeli legislature, Dana’s selection was antithetical to the attitudes that Israel should have subscribed to with one parliamentarian opining that ‘choosing her is sending a message of darkness to the world’. Others embraced Dana as a symbol for Israeli progressivism against religious fundamentalism.
The debate over Dana’s performative interventions must be situated within Israel’s peculiar and rapidly evolving queer landscape. As Walzer notes, Israel is notable for, among other things, the extensive legal protections afforded to gay citizens and queer-friendly school curricula despite orthodox religion maintaining a significant balance of power.
In this way, Dana International’s Eurovision performance becomes an element of Israel’s ongoing, internal contestations over queer political progress. Dana’s performance itself is not significantly notable in production terms: there is no outlandish drag costumes, intricate staging or choreography. Indeed, it is more helpful to conceive of Dana’s performance as the product of her persona, her musicality and her politics. Ziv concludes that at this ‘intersection of some of the structuring tensions of Israeli society’, Dana’s selection, performance and eventual win represent a confluence of historical moments that are best read as significantly subversive to Israeli culture and contributive to the construction of an identity on the fringes of Europe.
Russia’s love/hate Eurovision relationship and redefining “Europeanness”
In contrast to Israel’s articulation of closeness to Europe on the Eurovision stage, Russian performers have occasionally expressed an ambivalence to the Western European ideals of the Song Contest. As we have seen, the transnational features of Eurovision puts on pressure on performing nations to engage in a dual-project of presenting their national identity while simultaneously articulating a closer alignment to a pan-European cooperative identity. As we have seen with Israel, this pressure can lead to inner national tension over who controls the national identity that is performed on Europe’s biggest stage. Russia continues this trend but offers an interesting performative quirk visible through the way in which their performers manipulate certain Eurovision stereotypes and modes of address.
The goal of having t.A.T.u at Eurovision was to communicate a fervent sense of national motherland pride while challenging the globalising processes that many Russians saw as destructive to their nationalising ideals.
Russia negotiates tensions arising between its Soviet heritage and Western Europe’s central role in defining the boundaries of “Europeanness” for the continent. Miazhevich reads Russia’s performances as an attempt ‘to engage with the culture of sexual and aesthetic excess characteristics of Eurovision’. Their most successful representative, Díma Bilán, who won the Grand Prix in 2008, is a vivid expression of Russia’s ability to read and manage Eurovision’s camp aesthetics. Through Bilán’s highly metrosexual performance, it was clear that Russia’s Eurovision handlers were acutely aware of the Contest’s lingua franca and, in turn, able to manipulate and deploy it to demonstrate a closeness to Western Europe’s sexually liberalised identity. However, this has not always been Russia’s approach to Eurovision performances.
Giving rise to a contradictory and complicated relationship to Europe, one of Russia’s most popular exports, t.A.T.u, have been critical to a counter-narrative that works against the Contest’s liberal ideals. As t.A.T.u shocked European audiences through provocative and rebellious performances and generated endless streams of controversy in their homeland, they iterated a peculiar Russian approach to negotiating Western European hegemony through popular culture.
Through their faux-lesbian erotic performance of Ne Ver’, Ne Boysia at Eurovision 2003, t.A.T.u strategically and successfully courted a Western European gaze. As Heller notes (see the reading list below for more detail), the goal of having t.A.T.u at Eurovision was to communicate a fervent sense of national motherland pride while challenging the globalising processes that many Russians saw as destructive to their nationalising ideals. They did this by co-opting the distinctly Eurovision-esque identity categories of homosexuality, lesbianism and gender-fluidity, reconfiguring them through a figure of rebellion that stands clear for Russia’s growing aversion to the Western European-led integration project. t.A.T.u’s performance at Eurovision inscribes a mimicking mockery of Western desire that flows through and around the Song Contest. By revealing the tenuous basis upon which the Eurovision project is built—that is, the dual-nature contradiction of expressing one’s national identity for the goal of sustaining a European unity—t.A.T.u. successfully reiterates a form of Russian ambivalence, immunity or, indeed, superiority to Western European hegemony.
Performance at the Eurovision Song Contest is significant for its role in a complex mediation between visions for Europe and expressions of nationalistic identity. Through popular music, competing interpretations about what it means to be European are performed on the Eurovision stage thus firmly embedding the Contest in the cultural fabric of Europe at-large.
Common to both performances is a clear notion that performing at Eurovision is not and cannot be limited to the low-brow visual performance of a three-minute pop music number.
Two successful and controversial Eurovision entries—Israel’s Dana International and Russia’s t.A.T.u—reveal the ongoing cultural and geopolitical tensions that manifest through Eurovision performance.
Israel’s internal conflicts came to be embodied through Dana International as her selection and performance incited vigorous debate between orthodox and secular Israeli Jews. These debates formed part of a broader contest of ideas in Israel marked by the contradictory existence of legal and cultural acceptance of homosexual citizens alongside a religious gentry that maintains a strong influence over social attitudes in the country.
Turning to Russia, we find a post-Soviet nation with a clear hold over Eurovision’s performative lingua franca that is, in turn, successfully in declaring a sense of superiority over the Western European ideals that a reified through the Eurovision Song Contest.
Common to both performances is a clear notion that performing at Eurovision is not and cannot limited to the low-brow visual performance of a three-minute pop music number. Eurovision is inscribed and informed by geopolitical discourses that have variously affected Europe’s post-war integration project and national senses of belonging to the continent. Indeed, the dense social and cultural meanings that Eurovision negotiates and, crucially, performs, makes this diverse mediascape incredibly good to think with.
Various books, articles and media things I read while writing this
“Eurovision Song Contest 2017 Reaches Over 180 Million Viewers.” EBU News, 23 May 2017, ebu.ch/news/2017/05/eurovision-song-contest-2017-reaches-over-180-million-viewers.
“Transsexual Singer Stirs Up Passions.” BBC News, 10 May 1998, news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1998/05/98/eurovision/90279.stm.
Björnberg, Alf. “Return to Ethnicity: The Cultural Significance of Musical Change in the Eurovision Song Contest.” A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest, edited by Ivan Raykoff and Robert Tobin, Ashgate, 2007, pp. 13 – 24.
Various editions of the Contest, mainly:
Eurovision Song Contest 1998. Produced by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)/European Broadcasting Union, 9 May 1998.
Eurovision Song Contest 2003. Produced by Latvijas Televīzija (LTV)/European Broadcasting Union, 24 May 2003.
Eurovision Song Contest 2008. Produced by Radio Television of Serbia (RTS)/European Broadcasting Union, 20 – 24 May 2008.
Eurovision Song Contest 2015. Produced by Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF)/European Broadcasting Union, 19 – 21 May 2015.
Eurovision Song Contest 2016. Produced by Sveriges Television (SVT)/European Broadcasting Union, 10 – 14 May 2016.
Eurovision Song Contest 2017. Produced by National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (UA:PBC)/European Broadcasting Union, 9 – 13 May 2017.
Gamabaccini, Paul, et al. The Complete Eurovision Song Contest Companion, Pavilion Books, 1998.
Heller, Dana. “‘Russian Body and Soul’: t.A.T.u. performs at Eurovision 2003.” A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest, edited by Ivan Raykoff and Robert Tobin, Ashgate, 2007, pp. 111 – 122.
Jacquin, Patrick (editor). “EBU 50th Anniversary”. Diffusion: Journal of the EBU, 1999/2000, pp. 1 – 40, European Broadcasting Union, ebu.ch/CMSimages/en/publications_50_e_tcm6-12446.pdf.
Miazhevich, Galina. “Sexual Excess in Russia’s Eurovision Performances as a Nation Branding Tool.” Russian Journal of Communication, vol. 3, no. 3 – 4, 2010, pp. 248 – 264. Taylor & Francis Online: doi:10.1080/19409419.2010.10756776.
Raykoff, Ivan and Robert Tobin. A Song for Europe: Popular Music and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest. Ashgate, 2007.
Walzer, Lee. Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through Today’s Changing Israel. Columbia University Press, 2000.
Ziv, Amalia. “Diva Interventions: Dana International and Israeli Gender Culture.” Queer Popular Culture: Literature, Media, Film, and Television, edited by Thomas Peele, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp. 119 – 136.