From Dictators to Drag Queens

ESC expert Dean Vuletic (photo: © Thomas Salamonski)
ESC expert Dean Vuletic (photo: © Thomas Salamonski)

The finals of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) – the biggest music competition in Europe – are right around the corner. We talked with ESC expert Dean Vuletic about the political dimension of the event.

Music, colourful wardrobe and eccentric dance numbers – the yearly Eurovision Song contest is the longest-running international TV song competition. It was created by the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in 1956 and in recent years reached 100-200 million viewers around the globe. Because of this it also serves as a stage for political messages, examines historian Dean Vuletic at the University of Vienna, in his recent book Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest. We asked him about ESC’s political dimension today:

Mr. Vuletic, there are a lot of interesting facts about the ESC’s development in the past six decades. But which feature or fact struck you most during your research on the ESC’s political dimension?
The most striking result from my research is that the ESC has been appropriated by so many political actors with various motivations and orientations – “from dictators to drag queens”, as I write in the first sentence of my book.

The end of the Cold War obviously was a huge landmark in European and therefore also in the ESC’s history. What were the biggest turning points in the ESC’s political dimension in the past 10 to 15 years?
The ESC has been used in the cultural diplomacy of Central and East European states to promote their aspirations for European integration, which we especially saw in the contests staged in Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine and Serbia at times when these states were seeking entry into or closer ties with the EU. Since then the major turning points have been the hosting of the ESC by Azerbaijan, which was the most expensive contest ever staged and was used by the authoritarian government of Ilham Aliyev to whitewash its international image. The withdrawal of Turkey from the ESC since 2013 has also been a sign of the deterioration of that state’s relations with the EU. And since 2014 the ESC has been a stage on which the political tensions between Russia on the one hand and Ukraine and West European states on the other have been played out.

 “ESC has mostly reflected political change rather than
been a harbinger for it.”

Looking at the “modern” ESC of the 2010s: Is there any specific strategy applied by authoritarian states, to use the ESC for “shining a positive light” on their – otherwise criticized – nation? What are possible “tools” used in this context?
These authoritarian states have tended to send entries to the ESC that are innocuous pop songs which portray these states as modern and open. These songs have themselves often been produced by West European composers and lyricists.

Are such “political messages” – in whatever form – more directed to the own people, or to the wider, international audience and media?
Such messages are more directed to the international audience. After all, a national audience cannot vote for its own state’s entry in the contest, so a song is validated by the international one.

To which extend would you regard the national candidates or the overall winners of the ESC event as indicator or harbinger of certain political attitudes?
In the introduction of my book I ask whether the ESC has been a catalyst for or just a mirror of political change. I conclude that it has mostly reflected political change rather than been a harbinger for it. To give two recent examples: the ESC in Baku did not bring an improvement in media freedom in Azerbaijan; and, despite Conchita Wurst’s calls for Austria to introduce same-sex marriage after her victory in the 2014 ESC, the Austrian government was reluctant to do so – the decision was ultimately made by Austria’s Constitutional Court in 2017.

Overall, would you say states use the ESC today more “to assert their national distinctiveness”, as it’s called in your book’s description, or to connect with others in same sort of common “European identity”? Or is it, in the end, all just about “Getting 12 points from our neighbouring states”?
The ESC is still more about promoting states rather than a European identity, even though it is one of the greatest European popular cultural phenomena as one of Europe’s longest-running and most popular television shows. The contest is based on the participation of states represented by their national broadcasting organisations, so the national factor is essential to it. The issue of bloc voting has also become less relevant following changes to the voting system since 2009, although we can still see diasporic and regional affinities influencing the voting results.

Thank you very much, Mr. Vuletic.

The interview was conducted by Frank.

Dean Vuletic is a historian of contemporary Europe at the Department of East European History at the University of Vienna, where he leads the project “Intervision: Popular Music and Politics in Eastern Europe”. His recent book Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest, published at Bloomsbury Academic in 2018, is the first-ever scholarly book on the history and politics of Eurovision.

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