Salvador Sobral’s stripped-down performance and heartfelt singing were somewhat of an anomaly in an annual extravaganza known for outrageous kitsch and over-the-top production. Previous contests have featured a Russian Olympian skating on a mini ice rink, Finnish monster-metal pyrotechnics, and a singing turkey puppet from Ireland. And, by all means, you should watch this top-ten video of crazy entries to the end (Tanzen!).
The fascination with Eurovision, however, goes beyond the wild costumes, questionable musicality, and surreal staging. The byzantine voting system, which even confused Sobral, has been the subject of many popular and academic analyses. Since voting is done by country (and countries cannot vote for their own entries), the contest also puts on a remarkable show of ethnic, nationalist, and/or cultural solidarities. These voting patterns, along with the range of cultural expressions on the stage itself, mean that there are well over 6,000 hits for Eurovision on Google Scholar.
Eurovision is also a hotbed for actual international politics. Ukraine, this year’s host, banned Russia’s contestant for having performed in Crimea. This follows last year’s winning performance by a Crimean Tatar singing about Soviet deportations. Armenia’s 2015 entry was forced to change its name from “Don’t Deny,” which was deemed too overt a reference to those who refuse to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide. While the 2014 win by an Austrian drag queen incited Vladimir Putin to criticize the waning of “traditional values,” the context has long been notable for promoting openness to gay and transgender rights.
Embracing Eurovision lets us revel in the glitter and the flamboyance–and, in rare moments, drop the irony and just be moved by a performance like Sobral’s. But it also leaves me with a bizarre sense of something important just behind the curtains. Eurovision’s artists have pushed many boundaries (not just those of taste). In the midst of the carnival hoopla and nationalist cant, the spotlights also illuminate debates and negotiations about values and identity. In a year when the EU’s future has repeatedly been called into question, Eurovision is one place where Europeanness itself is being worked out.
Ein, zwei, drei… [so stuck in my head].