At this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, the voice of Portuguese Salvador Sobral lingers a reminder of its humanistic promise.


By now the bright lights of Kiev’s stage for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest have dimmed for another year and as many are aware, this year’s winner was an emotive Portuguese song, “Amar Pelos Dois” which was performed by Salvador Sobral and written by his sister Luisa Sobral.

The song translates as “For the Both of Us (Love For Both of Us)” and was touchingly dueted after its victory by Luisa and Salvador together. It was a striking victory for multiple reasons. The song was performed quietly and emotionally without the amusing tropes that are typical of Eurovision such as major pyrotechnics, wind effects, suggestive butter-churning or hairbraids, or this year, yodeling or dancing gorillas.

It was also striking because it was a victory for a Portuguese song in its native language and in a style that is reflective of lusophonic culture. It was a song that was not trying to be anything or anyone else. It felt likethe song was taking the listener down a street in Lisbon or Rio rather than to a typical Eurovision stage.

It was certainly not the only song like that in the competition. This year’s Eurovision theme was to “celebrate diversity” and did feature some breakthroughs. Hungary nominated Joci Papai with “Origo” through national televoting.

He is the first Roma performer in the contest and his song blended traditional Roma and Hungarian sounds in a moving performance. This was also the first time that a song in the Belarussian language was performed at Eurovision as Belarus sent Naviband with “Story of My Life.” Portugal was the clear winner of both the jury and televoting defying earlier predictions that Italy’s Francisco Gabbani would easily take the title. Gabbani’s “Occidentali’s Karma” finished sixth overall. Bulgaria’s Kristian Kostov placed second and Moldova’s Sunstroke Project came a surprising but enthusiastic third after televoting.

What can we take away from this aside from the usual humor of the Eurovision?

The trend towards a deeper or more intense winner may have begun last year when Ukraine’s Jamala won with a gripping account of genocide and ethnic minority oppression in her song, “1944”. This brought the contest to Kiev, a move which exposed Russo-Ukrainian tensions to the contest resulting in Russia’s late-stage withdrawal from the competition.

That said, for the viewing public the joy of Eurovision probably largely comes from the fusion of the absurd and the endearing. It remains to be seen if future contests will move away from the humorous elements that have defined Eurovision. My personal estimation is that with the diverse representation of countries and cultures within the European Broadcasting Union, we will continue to see a juxtaposition of various elements. Encouraging more support for diverse musical styles can only be a good thing.

Despite sometimes being prone to mockery, Eurovision is a forum for cultural exchange and for the dissemination of “European values” to the broad viewing public. Encasing the concept in quotations is very necessary because there is much that is nebulous about it.

The participants extend from Iceland to the Caucasus nations and Israel in the Levant to, in the last few years, eager Australia. It is a quirky contest but as we saw this year, at its heart there is an emotion and a sense of compassion that is inherently part of contemporary Europe. We have seen that idea before in memorable Eurovision winners like 2014’s Conchita Wurst and 2012’s Loreen. In 2017, Europe is defining itself further as it politically roils from social, economic and political challenges that dominate the headlines.

In the past year, Brexit and its corresponding uncertainty have presented an existential crisis as the European Union faces a secession for the first time. With the parallel crises of waves of migration and far right insurgency, the road ahead has been unclear though the recent victory of Emmanuel Macron in France gives hope for a continued Franco-German alliance to underpin the broader alliances within Europe.

As trivial as it may seem the cultural vote to recognize Portugal’s song feels like an indicator for a possible path for Europe, one less dominated by aspirations toward Anglo-Saxon cultural and social paradigms.

Indeed, the UK’s Lucie Jones was a highly competitive West End performer of an aspirational ballad executed flawlessly but finished dismally in 15th place.

Her song, “Never Give Up On You” felt like an ironic joke through no fault of her own and some have blamed Brexit for her result, which is not unreasonable given the quality of her performance and the irony of her song’s lyrics. Only time and the events that fill it will tell if this tendency will continue in future contests.

The expression of compassionate values as a defining European ideal is more important than ever at a time when some countries in the world are playing “fast and loose” with the values that were carefully developed in the wake of the Twentieth Century’s world wars.

Humanity and Compassion of Europe

The liberal (in the sense of holistically celebrating freedom) world order is sometimes under threat and in the past year has sometimes seemed to be held together perilously and tenuously. In that state, Europe generally tries to define itself as standing for a sense of humanity or compassion. We have seen that with the open though sometimes fraught embrace of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani migrants.

We have seen that with the complicated bailout of Greece as it has faced economic hardship. Europe should embrace its role and also open itself up to global consensual cultural engagement. It might seem silly but Eurovision is an example of a relatively successful platform for cultural exchange and celebration.

There is some room for criticism; for example, the European Broadcasting Union has made broadcasting deals in countries such as the US, Canada, and Brazil that have made it extremely difficult to view the contest, essentially allowing it to be buried in those countries by major media corporations, namely Viacom, who have been given the exclusive rights over its broadcasting or lack of coverage.

In the US which did allow Youtube viewing of only the final this year, it is an example of cultural isolation which does not help to bridge the ideological divide both within the US and between certain elements in the US and Europe.

In a country that is suffering from isolationist tendencies among some elements of society, the process of tacitly allowing or encouraging isolation only worsens the tendency. Portugal’s victory was difficult to view in Brazil, home of the globe’s largest Portuguese-speaking community. Canada lacked any deal for viewership. Eurovision is only a light-hearted contest but it is also a unique crossroad and a channel for cultural definition. As a conduit of art and emotion, this year, it largely succeeded.

Krista Westerlund is an independent thinker. She holds a Master's Degree in European Politics from LSE.

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