Music & Sound

Is There a Radical History of Eurovision?

Radical history and the Eurovision Song Contest might seem an unlikely mix – yet the first protest against a participating country took place less than a decade into Eurovision’s history, when a Danish left-wing activist in the audience of the 1964 Copenhagen contest held up a sign saying ‘Boycott Franco and Salazar’ – then the military dictators of Spain and Portugal.

Some Eurovision participants have come from radical music scenes, especially as the contest’s musical diversity and broadcasters’ appetite to take creative risks has recently grown. Ireland’s 2024 representative Bambie Thug, a non-binary ‘ouija pop’ artist and practising witch, spent time in underground music scenes in east London as well as their hometown Cork.

The Croatian art-punk band Let 3, whose 2023 entry satirised militaristic hypermasculine dictators at a Eurovision which could not be held in the 2022 winning country Ukraine because of Russia’s full-scale invasion, have roots in a radical counterculture that dates back to late socialist Yugoslavia, and had originally developed their song’s concept for an anti-war rock opera inspired by avant-garde productions of Lysistrata and Brecht. They invited Zagreb’s present-day queer underground into their performance by asking radical drag artist Jovanka Broz Titutka to join their visuals.

Performers from scenes which were radical in their own contexts also appear much earlier in Eurovision’s history, often connected to the fall of dictatorships in southern Europe. Mariza Koch, whose 1976 Greek entry famously lamented the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, belonged to a folk music scene that could only exercise its public voice after the Greek junta fell. Portugal’s 1974 entry ‘E depois do adeus’ acquired its radical significance only after Eurovision, when left-wing army officers resisting the Portuguese dictatorship’s colonial wars agreed it was a signal to launch the coup that became the Carnation Revolution. Their other signal song, ‘Grândola, vila morena’ by José Afonso, belonged to a radical culture of political folk song which became the sound of revolutionary Portugal – pastiched a generation later by comedians Homens da Luta, representing Portugal at Eurovision 2011 amid Europe’s financial crisis.

Perhaps the most elaborate radical engagement with Eurovision is still that of the Icelandic anti-capitalist techno-industrial, BDSM-styled band Hatari. Hatari won the right to represent Iceland at Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv amid national debate about whether Iceland should take part when Israel had been subject to a cultural boycott campaign by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) since 2004.

Hatari performing at the Eurovision Song Contest 2019 in Tel Aviv, Israel, Martin Fjellanger.

For the previous decade, Eurovision’s LGBTQ+ connections – including Dana International becoming Eurovision’s first openly trans artist and first openly LGBTQ+ winner when representing Israel in 1998 – had increasingly encouraged Israeli state institutions to build the contest into their pro-LGBTQ+ communications strategies. Radical queer activists have termed these ‘pinkwashing’ to convey how they argue these narratives aim to deflect international public attention from the state’s repression of Palestinians.

Before travelling to Tel Aviv, Hatari connected with queer Palestinian musician Bashar Murad to discuss their participation. Contest rules constrained how far they could speak out until after Eurovision, and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, censured them for calling what they had seen in Israel ‘apartheid’. During their stay they had visited occupied Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, met Murad, and obtained Palestinian flag banners that they displayed live during the grand final’s voting sequence – though PACBI criticised their acts as ‘fig-leaf gestures of solidarity’ after having crossed a ‘Palestinian boycott picket line’.

Hatari’s friendship with Murad became a lasting collaboration, and their drummer Einar Hrafn Stefánsson co-wrote Murad’s song ‘Wild West’ for Iceland’s national selection in 2024, with overtones of queer Palestinian diasporic resistance. By then, Hamas had committed the attacks of 7 October 2023 against Israeli targets including a music festival, and the Israeli military had retaliated with such disproportionate force against civilian life in Gaza that the International Court of Justice ruled on 26 January 2024 that the Israeli state was at ‘plausible’ risk of committing genocide. PACBI called a boycott of Eurovision 2024 on the same evening Murad narrowly lost the Icelandic final.

Campaign image for Boycott Eurovision 2024, PACBI.

A radical history of Eurovision would take in performers and performances like these, but would not confine itself to them. Radical history, as Onni Gust has written, has concerned itself with the lives of people and communities ‘marginalized in the official record’, with systems of oppression and people’s struggle against them, and with the conditions in which these histories are produced. These conditions demand radical inquiry.

Eurovision is a liberal structure, not a radical one. It is with the language of liberal inclusion that today’s EBU takes pride in its flagship event’s association with LGBTQ+ rights: its annual Eurovision brand impact report praises Eurovision for ‘boosting acceptance’ of LGBTQ+ people throughout Europe, symbolised by public votes affirming famous LGBTQ+ winners like Dana International and 2014’s Conchita Wurst. The event’s stated values are universality, diversity, equality, inclusivity and the ‘proud tradition of celebrating diversity through music’. Radical perspectives on liberal visions of ‘Europe’ critique all of these.

Indeed, performance scholar Katrin Sieg argues that twenty-first-century Eurovision has been structured by a neoliberal politics of cosmopolitan representation, where central and east Europeans yearn to be recognised as equally European by the West and musicians from racialised minorities are put front of stage to showcase nations’ inclusivity while obscuring more difficult politics of racial and ethnic difference at home.

Participating artists often test the boundaries of what they can do and say while contractually linked to the event, in ways which are sometimes more politicised (could Portugal’s Salvador Sobral wear a ‘SOS Refugees’ sweatshirt at Eurovision press conferences in 2017? Could Hatari release their first collaboration with Murad while the Tel Aviv contest was still going on?) and sometimes less (could Finnish musicians show viewers a middle finger or simulate nakedness on stage?).

The EBU as contest organiser still unilaterally delimits these boundaries, on pain of sanctions for broadcasters that break contest rules. Broadcasters transfer these to artists through contractual obligations, and it has been speculated one reason why artists who have expressed discomfort about competing in 2024 while Israel takes part – including Bambie Thug, the UK’s Olly Alexander, and several other queer artists – have not withdrawn is the financial penalty they would face.

In the midst of Black radicalism, revolutionary Marxism, anti-Vietnam War protest and FBI repression in the late 1960s USA, Howard Zinn offered five ways in which history could be useful for radical change:
to sharpen our perception of ‘how bad things are, for the victims of the world’;
to expose governments’ pretensions ‘to either neutrality or beneficence’, and ‘the ideology that pervades our culture’;
to ‘recapture those few moments in the past which show the possibility of a better way of life than that which has dominated the earth thus far’;
and ‘to show how good social movements can go wrong, how leaders can betray their followers, how rebels can become bureaucrats, how ideals can become frozen and reified’.

A radical history of Eurovision like this would need to demonstrate how its liberal principles have obscured other marginalities, as critical scholars and content creators are already doing. It would also look beyond performance content and public discourse to explore the contest’s material power relations, including the situations of low-paid production, catering, cleaning and security workers whose labour has always been necessary to stage the contest and whose numbers have rocketed with Eurovision’s transformation into an arena event.

These material power relations extend to the event’s consequences for host cities and their residents: critical scholars of the Olympics, a much larger mega-event, have said much more on this, and on host states’ deflection of negative publicity through what Jules Boykoff calls ‘sportswashing’.

The most dramatic negative impact of Eurovision for a host city may still be the eviction of hundreds of Baku apartment-dwellers before Eurovision 2012 so that Ilham Aliyev’s regime could advance its alleged sportwashing ambitions by constructing a new arena. While Eurovision can bring many positive impacts for host cities, as it appeared to for Liverpool in 2023, we should not assume all impacts are positive, but should seek evidence. What for instance changed, if anything, for queer inhabitants of cities like Belgrade in 2008 where queer visibility and safety were pulled into the spotlight by hosting Eurovision, and were those changes for the better?

Eurovision celebrations in Liverpool, UK, 2023. Kenneth Coffie, Unsplash.

A radical history of Eurovision would also need to be a radical history of public broadcasting in Europe, the ideologies it has naturalised, and its relations to state, nation, and public, and indeed to private capital as many states’ support of public broadcasting has hollowed out – particularly those hit harder by financial crisis in central and Eastern Europe, like Bosnia-Herzegovina which has not competed since 2016. Corporate sponsorship is now crucial to Eurovision, adding an almost unexamined set of actors into its power relationships. A radical history of Eurovision would therefore expose the fiction upheld by the EBU that the international song contest can be apolitical, as necessary as that fiction might be for cultural relations activity to occur.

At the same time, it would search for ‘moments which show the possibility of a better way of life’ beyond state violence, anti-queer sentiment, and the suppression of radical performance and speech. Eurovision once appeared to be one of those spaces, when Peter Rehberg wrote in 2007, the year of Marija Šerifović’s queer-coded victory for Serbia, of how rare it was to see ‘both queerness and national identity’ celebrated at the same time. This is still powerful in conditions of repression and censorship, but is also more open to co-option than when Rehberg wrote.

Alternatives to Eurovision imagined during the boycott years of 2019 and 2024 reveal further moments searching for better possible ways of life, even though they reached only a fraction of Eurovision’s audience. The 2019 EuroNoize project, featuring underground and DIY bands from 11 European countries, aimed to critically examine the assumptions about Europe, politics and international competition underpinning Eurovision. Its greenroom host reflected afterwards that being able to freely discuss political topics with the participants made her realise how much she had been constrained by Eurovision’s rules when interviewing contestants there.

Palestinian, Israeli and international musicians boycotting Eurovision 2019, including Murad, livestreamed a Globalvision festival on the night of the Eurovision grand final, with performances in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, Haifa, London and Dublin. This year, protesters in Malmö are similarly planning ‘FalastinVision – the Genocide Free Song Contest’ on grand final night, where Murad is again expected to perform.

Alternative Eurovision events are also taking place beyond Malmö. In Ireland, for instance, ‘Shine On Palestine: the Alternative Eurovision’ will take place the night before the grand final in Galway and Dublin. Dublin drag queen Panti Bliss, whose viral speech against homophobia rocked Ireland in the same year that Conchita won Eurovision, will MC the Dublin event, and her Pantibar ‘sadly’ will not screen Eurovision 2024, indicating how the contest’s sexual politics have shifted since 2014.

Though different in format, all these projects have aimed to create alternative experiences that protest contemporary Eurovision but operate with some of the same emotional affordances of international musical competition/co-performance that drew many viewers to the event. Each project hints at a gap between the values Eurovision has claimed and the realities of its contemporary politics, which alienated some politically engaged fans in 2019 and more in 2024. While it is anachronistic to see Eurovision as always having had a progressive social mission, a myth of its progressive impact has still developed around it. For some who have loved Eurovision with a sense of social justice that also calls them towards solidarity with Palestinians, that myth is now on the brink of becoming another of Zinn’s good causes ‘gone wrong’. The outcomes and alternatives of any continued boycott campaign will become part of its future radical history.

Feature image: Hatari at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final dress rehearsal, Martin Fjellanger.

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