Intersections: The whole world tunes in to Eurovision
Having once brought the likes of Celine Dion, ABBA and even the Grammy-nominated club hit “Ooh Aah… Just a Little Bit” into the international periphery, the Eurovision Song Contest is an explosion of really bad lyrics, even worse outfits and stage performances that will make any fan of kitsch cringe.
But it’s also a complex portal lined with flashing LED lights, fueled largely by an LGBT fan base that gives you a rare glimpse into the veins of little-known countries that for one night are pumped entirely by power ballads.
It is my favorite time of year, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures I look forward to indulging in every May.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in my love of Eurovision — these days, the song contest lures an increasingly large American fan base who tune in via live Internet streaming while barraging social media with unhinged commentary.
In our globalized world, you might have direct access to what’s going on in England, France, Spain or Germany even, but how often do you think about Montenegro, Serbia, Romania or Georgia?
This year, Sweden won the 60th edition of Eurovision, which took place in Vienna, Austria, on Sunday and brought in an estimated 195 million viewers spread across 45 countries.
It’s not the winner you’re really watching for, however, but the laughs as well as controversy many of the contestants bring. Eurovision gives you a peek into the hidden countries of Europe through admittedly horrible song and dance, but it also provides insight into national identity, culture and if you’re lucky, politics too.
This is made all the more interesting because, as per Eurovision rules, entries must not contain lyrics or messages alluding to politics of any kind.
Since Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on Russia’s LGBT population, Eurovision has been duly unkind to the country’s contestants. Last year, its performers got booed. This year, during representative Polina Gagarina’s performance in the semiinal, a flurry of rainbow flags emerged.
During the finale, audible booing could be heard yet again, even though Eurovision sound technicians reportedly used “anti-booing” technology to muffle any surly noises.
The Romanian group Voltaj took the opportunity on the international stage to sing about the thousands of children left behind in Romania whose parents have been forced to migrate to Western Europe to find work. The country has the second highest poverty rate in the EU, after Bulgaria.
Hungary, on the other hand, entered with a song called “Wars for Nothing” which Eurovision officially called a “peace anthem.” Israel, who also participates in the contest, protested — as one of the captions for the song’s initial video referred to the 2014 assault on Gaza, where 500 children were killed last summer.
Further East, Armenia’s entry had begun causing controversy long before the contest officially arrived, with a song initially called “Don’t Deny,” that alluded to the Armenian Genocide, an especially poignant entry considering the commemoration of the genocide’s centennial this year.
Of course, in order to play by Eurovision’s apolitical rules, the country’s representatives denied that “Don’t Deny” was indeed about the genocide and changed the name to “Face the Shadow,” though the message was still the same.
On the surface, Eurovision is a cheesy song contest that should come with a consumer warning about potential ear bleeds, but under all the glitter, there’s real insight to be gained about the countries that willingly throw themselves into this mess — insight that Americans should be paying attention to. We are no longer in a phase where the only people and places we should care about are in our immediate vicinity — we need to start paying attention to what goes on outside of our own, comfortable bubbles.
Eurovision is a four-hour, light-hearted distraction filled with glimmers of discontent and discourse that are a perfectly consumable starting point. If you tune in next year, just make sure you have a steady supply of wine to make it all go down as smoothly as possible.
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.