Friday, 26 May 2023 09:14

The politics of Eurovision

Written by
in Music

To understand what a giant corporation like the European Broadcast Union (EBU) means when it says that its flagship event, the song contest, must be “unpolitical” you have to understand where the whole thing came from. Founded in 1950, the EBU replaced the IBU (International Broadcast Union), which had for 25 years controlled and vastly expanded the radio network in Europe, and which had, in 1941, completely capitulated to Nazi control.

Fundamentally, to be “unpolitical” for the EBU is not a statement about the neutrality of entertainment but, in view of the past association of European broadcasting with Nazism, a demonstration of its neurotic relationship with fascism. So, despite all the pro-Ukranian propaganda that festooned the event, and the absurd presentation of the country as an attractive tourist destination, Zelensky’s brand of militarised ultra-nationalism is too redolent of the EBU’s own difficult origins. It is also a signal — in soft focus — that when you address an audience as big as last Saturday’s, that talk of war won’t wash.

But talk of peace doesn’t suit Eurovision either, and again this is programmed into its DNA. The unavoidable homage to John Lennon in Liverpool, for example, reduced Imagine (No countries / Nothing to kill or die for) from a singalong to a mumbled solo.

To replace the discredited IBU, the victorious allies proposed a new broadcast union, the OIR, that would cover the same area as the old one, from the meridian 40 degrees east of Greenwich to the parallel 30 degrees north of the equator, taking in every country that borders the Mediterranean and eight countries in the Soviet Union. Each country would have a vote, meaning that capitalist Britain would be comprehensively outnumbered by socialist countries. Leadership was shared between the Soviet Union and France. Britain refused to participate, and by 1950 tensions were such that the breakaway EBU was formed and the agreements were signed in a hotel in Torquay.

In other words, from the beginning and a decade before the cold war, the values of the EBU were disassociated from socialism with active leadership from Britain despite sharing the European continent and having achieved victory over Nazi Germany as allies. Broadcast was split into socialist and anti-socialist blocs, and the fact that the song contest continued to be broadcast in former socialist countries without their participation is the most obvious indicator of the underlying political drive behind it, and that Eurovision as a whole was a cultural weapon.

The eastern half of the former IBU created its own broadcast union in 1960, called the OIRT, or Intervision, and two blocs mirrored each other right down to rival song contests, with the Intervision song contest being held from 1977-80 in Poland. It promoted some remarkable musicians, and particularly Czeslaw Niemen (pictured above) who pioneered eastern rock ’n’ roll. Fascinatingly, Finland, along with eastern bloc countries, was a contestant in the east.

Although Eurovision itself was originally based on an Italian model, the postwar Sanremo Italian Song Festival, it used the ethos of postwar reconciliation through music only as window-dressing for what became an enormous marketing opportunity for powerful capital interests in the music industry, and as a vehicle for the promotion of its own kind of spectacular commodity. Diversity and the LGBT agenda is deployed as camouflage for capital in a similar way.

This year’s winner is a prime example of the way the competition is rigged. Prior to the contest itself Sweden’s entry, Tattoo, had by far the largest market penetration (over 80 million hits on Spotify) and due to its uncanny echoes of Pont Aeris’s Flying Free, Abba’s Winner Takes It All, Adele’s Easy On Me and Mika Newton’s V Plenu it is also beset by justified accusations of plagiarism. Indeed, that so many songs resemble one another demonstrates the fundamental poverty of the Euro-product, the commodity song, and Tattoo made no more impression on me than a passing Volvo.

The formula is the folk song, given the kind of overproduced sheen that Abba mastered, and deployed towards the eastern bloc on rocketfuls of super-charged marketing, and then, as the countries capitulate to the west encouraging them to represent themselves as folky tourist destinations stripped of their socialist past. It has been a long-term strategy guided by corporate interest in music.

To demonstrate this self-regulating intention behind the songs is the whole basis of Laibach’s aesthetic, covering pop songs with drums and dictatorially delivered vocals. The EBU defence line that the music commodity is unpolitical is also accompanied by the charade of popular involvement, but this is only a recent development. Initially a vote was held behind closed doors and simply announced, like the election of a pope. To be “unpolitical” necessitated being determinedly undemocratic.

It was a whole 40 years into the competition before tele-voting was introduced and combined with jury votes, first for only the five principal countries, then all competing countries and finally for this year, the whole world, in an assertion of global dominance that was announced with an extraordinary lack of fanfare. Anyone anywhere could vote, which presumably included Russians who had been excluded from the competition. Or did it?

This combination of shame and bullishness reflects not only the capitalist corporate ideology driving the event, but also the token status of the voters themselves. They are there as consumers alone, and additional rules introduced this year allow juries to present themselves as the “public vote,” cementing the voice of corporate interest behind the facade of “democracy.” Why so many rules, one wonders. Why can the winner not simply be decided by democratic vote rather than by the majority stake of elites? But this anomaly passes without comment and the presenters never fail to characterise the “public” vote as “risky” and “capable of changing everything,” and it is not organised labour but the spectre of fascism that lurks behind this fear.

Last year’s winner, and this year’s the audience favourite, the Finnish Cha Cha Cha, were both written by admirers of Rammstein, and the Finnish upstart has already been covered by the German Rammstein wannabes Lord of the Lost, whose own Blood and Glitter was a shameless allusion to the Nazi slogan Blood and Iron. Socialism may be the enemy, but the fascist past is built into the very fabric of the EBU product. But you need to calibrate it carefully: Lord of the Lost came last, deservedly; Cha Cha Cha won the unruly public. Such bands are the progeny of Laibach, the pioneers of provocative industrial rock, and the go-to band for neonazis across the continent.

It’s not surprising that they were invited to Kiev to stage their own Eurovision in March and announced this coup with a press release “supporting the Ukrainian armed forces” and describing the war as “a geopolitical conflict between the US and Russia on Ukranian territory.” This was enough for Ukranian ultra-nationalists to recast their idols as Russian propagandists and proves, for once, that industrial rock — however tactical it might be — is out of its depth and without moral compass in a genuine war zone.

So Zelensky — poor camera-hungry fellow that he is — was deprived of Eurovision not once, but twice in two months.

Read 1098 times Last modified on Thursday, 30 November 2023 13:49
Angus Reid

Angus Reid is the Arts Editor for the Morning Star