The Political Scientist’s Guide to Eurovision
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I need to confess that I’m a pretty big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest. But this is not a fan article…so read on.
Since 1956, European countries have been sending their musical stars* to perform at what is now the longest running annual television music competition.
In 2015, Eurovision attracted a viewing audience of 200 million in more than 40 countries.
Each one of these 200 million people watches Eurovision for different reasons, be it for national pride, because of a boy-band crush, as an expression of identity, for the contest’s cult-status and kitsch value, and even in some cases – the quality of the songs.
But as a political scientist, I see a different side to the contest. For me, Eurovision is a window, albeit one sprinkled with glitter, into European politics and society. And, funnily enough, the same basic concepts that we use to understand political institutions (such as parties and legislatures), participation (voting and mobilisation), comparative politics and international relations, translate really well into talking about Eurovision.
So if you’re planning on watching the contest this week, here’s what you might look for.
When we talk about geopolitics, we are interested in the effect of geography on the politics of a state or a region.
The evolution of the Eurovision Song Contest over the last 60 years is a perfect illustration of the expansion of Europe since the end of the Second World War. When it began in 1956, seven nations competed: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Italy. The boundaries of Europe in 2016 (for the purpose of the contest) encompass 42 countries. Seventeen of these competing nations are not members of the EU, including many Eastern Europe counties and former Yugoslav republics, Israel and Australia.
The slogans adopted by the Eurovision organisers reflect this inclusive vision for Europe: ‘We Are One’ (2013), ‘#Join Us’ (2014), ‘Building Bridges’ (2015) and ‘Come Together’ (2016).
Yet we know that the European project has always been contested, that national identities and ideas around what it means to be European are fluid and can conflict, and that regional tensions can easily ignite. In 2015 Eurovision organisers reportedly installed ‘anti-booing’ technology into the broadcast to protect the Russian entry from vocal protest over the country’s position on homosexuality and its military actions in the Ukraine.
Last week, controversy erupted when local organisers decided to place a ban on waving local, regional and disputed territory flags in the live audience. The policy was relaxed following complaint that regional flags including the Welsh dragon were elevated to the status of the ISIS flag and could not be used.
Organisers have stated that the rainbow flag and the flag of the European Union will be ‘tolerated’, so long as they are not ‘used as a tool to intentionally make a political statement during the show’.
So viewing audiences keep watch: given the attention that has been drawn to it, we may well see some flag activism around LGBT rights and Brexit.
One of the biggest problems facing modern representative democracy is the declining level of interest and participation in legislative elections. In contrast, Eurovision – as an opportunity for people to participate in a multi-national ballot – goes from strength to strength.
The winner of the song contest is decided in an electoral system that aggregates the votes of panels of national experts with those of the viewing public, who participate via phone or SMS.
Countries can’t vote for their own acts and inevitably a pattern of geo-political voting emerges every year. So watch out for the largest blocs: the Scandinavian countries, the Balkans and countries from the former USSR. Diaspora voting is also common; Ireland, for example, tends to award high points to the Baltic States.
While figures for the exact number of voters are difficult to come by (we do know that over 10 million people voted in 2009), the viewing audience has more than doubled in the last decade. Unlike representative politics, the contest is particularly good at attracting a youth audience. On average, 45% of 15-24 year olds watching on 2016 broadcast stations saw the grand final. This could be the (rather fun) future of voting.
Primaries and candidate selection
Before the contest takes place, there needs to be some way in which the national acts are selected. The political science literature on the selection of candidates for elections has demonstrated that there are many different ways that parties select their candidates, and the same is true for Eurovision.
At one end of the spectrum we have highly participatory processes like Melodifestivalen, which is a popular song contest that selects the Swedish national entry over six televised shows. At the other end are countries where the national contestant is simply announced by the partner broadcaster, such as in Australia.
In politics, scholars have noted that candidate selection contests are becoming more inclusive, as a way of building up popular support through methods such as primaries. This reflected in Eurovision with the increasing number of national contestants who have previously won reality television contests. In the 2016 competition, there are eight contestants competing who previously won shows such as the Voice, the X Factor and Idol.
There is obviously quite a scary parallel here between Eurovision and US presidential primaries.
However, party scholars have had very mixed results when analysing the impact of more inclusive methods of selection on electoral fortunes. If the same logic holds here, an appearance on the Apprentice might not secure the US Presidency, and a win on the X Factor won’t necessarily guarantee Eurovision success.
Convergence and nation branding
A criticism of politics in general is that the offerings provided by political parties and candidates have become too similar. Parties create a product that will get them the most votes and appeal to the broadest possible audience.
The logic of Eurovision could be said to work in the same way. Eurovision songs need a number of basic elements from which many drinking games have emerged: wind machine, smoke machine, scantily clad performer beating drums, key change and a repetitive (often nonsensical) chorus. In 60 years the dominant style has evolved from schlager music to Eurobeat.
However, because Eurovision also offers nations an opportunity to showcase their national identity, we see some interesting variations on this formula. In 2012, the Russian entry Buranovskiye Babushki consisted of six elderly women dressed in national costume, performing what has been described as ‘ethno pop’.
Throughout its history, the Eurovision song contest has pushed the boundaries of Europe. More countries have come on board, performers sourced from around the world (remember Celine Dion wining for Switzerland in 1988), and international music styles embraced.
Two years after Australia was invited to take part in the contest, the Australian partner broadcaster SBS has secured the rights to extend the contest into Asia. Justin Timberlake will perform as the interval act this year, an announcement that coincides with the contest being broadcast live in the United States for the first time.
If history repeats we may well see the United States invited to compete, like Australia, as a guest entrant.
A lot of it’s political
So, enjoy the celebration that is Eurovision in whichever way you want. But if you’re watching the contest this year, try looking beyond the songs and smoke machines to see what Eurovision tells us about politics and society today. You might be surprised by how much the contest actually reveals
*Term used with artistic licence.
First published on The Huffington Post Australia.
Anika Gauja is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations, Sydney University.