In America, we are fretting about primary results and preparation for the coming presidential election. Elsewhere in the world, many people are starting to think about a very different kind of voting opportunity: The Eurovision Song Contest!

Despite the existential crises, Europe’s show goes on. As it does so, the Eurovision contest raises a number of questions about the identity and definition of Europe.

In America, we are fretting about primary results and preparation for the coming presidential election. Elsewhere in the world, many people are starting to think about a very different kind of voting opportunity. It is certainly not quite as important but it is every bit as dramatic, filled with fake tanner and questionable fashion choices.

It’s that time of year again. Some of you might be aware that it is time for glitter, glamour, awkward cultural references and at least a hint of absurdity. Next week, people from a wide span  of countries will be tuning in. According to the European Broadcasting Union’s (EBU) assessment last year, nearly 200 million viewers watched as Sweden’s Måns Zelmerlöw took the prize.

This  year, while it’s theoretically anyone’s game, bookies are avidly working to predict the outcome for who will host next year’s contest. Yes, I’m referring to the Eurovision Song Contest which will be held in Stockholm. Two semi-finals will be held on May 10th and 12th with the grand final to follow on Saturday, May 14th.

Europe: one song at the time 

It is not filled with potential world leaders so much as with people who are brazenly willing to represent both their respective home countries and the broader idea of a vision of Europe as an optimistic, tolerant and diverse public space. As we know, Europe has experienced a series of tumultuous years in recent times. Every year, it feels like this is a time to reflect on what Europe stands for – what the continent’s idealistic hopes are – and to contrast that with the challenges that are being faced when the television turns off. Now that feels more true than ever.

As debt and economic crises have dragged on within the Eurozone over the years, Eurovision has experienced the effects of budget limitations in its own way. Many countries have had to sit out of the contest at times. Poland, Montenegro, Serbia, San Marino, and Bulgaria have taken breaks in recent years for financial and scheduling reasons but they are all fielding performances this year.  Greece has continued to participate in spite of the country’s difficult economic circumstances.

Slovakia has stayed out since 2012. Romania made headlines this year when it was forced to withdraw from the contest due to the Romanian broadcaster’s inability to sufficiently pay its debt.

In the case of Romania, participation in the Eurovision Song Contest is being used as a public method of sanction of Televiziunea Româna (TVR) by the EBU.

Eurovision : A Broader (Euro) Vision ?

Regardless, Europe’s show goes on. As it does so, the contest raises a number of questions about the identity and definition of Europe. Participant countries are members of the EBU and they expand far beyond the environs of the European Union into its broader neighborhood.

From Iceland to Israel across the entirety of Russia and throughout the Caucasus, performances are encouraged from a diverse range of performers. For the second year in a row, Australia, although not an active EBU member, is joining the ranks as a guest participant and truly questioning the notion that this is a regional contest. The contest even airs live in China. The US has largely been left out, but for the first time in history, Eurovision will be aired live on the channel Logo TV for American audiences.

As debate rages in Britain about the coming referendum and the possibility of Brexit, the United Kingdom prepares an entry to hopefully garner votes from abroad. Britain’s performances have in recent years, with minimal exception, been lackluster fodder for mockery, but there is always hope. The UK’s neighbor, Ireland, is the most successful country in Eurovision history, though if Sweden’s Franz wins this year (as he’s currently predicted to do), Sweden would pull to a tie.

Accusations of bloc-voting, political biases, and even outright fraud in Eurovision voting have been frequent. The EBU is working to address those criticisms. A major change was made this year to the scoring method for ranking the songs, the most significant change in the voting method since the introduction of the modified Borda count in 1975. The reality is that the competition is a reflection of the cultural and musical preferences of a diverse range of people. It is a contest where hegemony is rooted in regional pop culture and globalization of musical trends. It is a contest of soft power.

The Lyrical Ties That Bind

Ostensibly, Eurovision aims to step away from politics. With the delicate situation in contemporary Europe weighing upon the viewing public, the EBU has taken steps to control the potential for tension by regulating the use of flags by the fans at the live performance, specifically banning the  flag of ISIS (ISIL) along with those of separatist movements of a political nature.

Eurovision is a decidedly secular competition that celebrates participants of all backgrounds. It drew global attention in 2014 when Conchita Wurst won as a drag performer with the ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix”. Politics is not always avoidable as sometimes great strides are taken to present political messages as subtext. An example in 2016 is that Ukraine will feature Jamala performing a song in the language Crimean Tatar entitled “1944” about the deportation of ethnic Crimean Tatars during Stalinization.

The show stands as an imperfect symbol of Europe. Yet it is aspirational, largely uplifting and
varied. It is a contest that is in many ways more about the journey than the destination itself, irreverent, humorous and entertaining. As pressures of all kinds challenge Europeans, Eurovision offers a respite and also a reminder of the values of mutual cooperation and respect for differences.

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

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