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The extent on which political desires can be brought into reality through the medium of a song contest.

  • Aug 15 2022
  • Jude Macannuco
    is a Berlin based freelance writer and editor.

The Eurovision Song Contest is known for its camp factor. Look no further than the UK’s entry from 2007, “Flying the Flag”, which has achieved infamy through its expressions of unbridled sexual innuendo coupled with British imperial aspiration. The performers, a band called Scooch, staged a musical rendition of a preflight safety demonstration with the refrain “We’re flying the flag all over the world”. The band members were dressed up as stewards and offered the international audience members refreshments throughout the performance. Replete with delightfully out-of-tune solos and thinly veiled horniness, it’s unclear whether the performance pays a tone-deaf tribute to Britain’s history of global expansion or simply to its self-perceived culture of hospitality. 

There is something unifying — a word I could just as easily substitute with ‘placating’ — in the medial form of the televised song contest. I think of American Idol, a prominent television presence in my childhood. Its release in the year following 9/11 and concurrent immense success attest to, I would wager, a kind of collective response to a perceived assault on the nation. The contestants performed songs that everyone can sing along to — veritable American classics. When they finally finished, the use of telephone voting enabled us, the viewers, a collective participation in the question of whom will the nation choose? The knowledge that one is partaking in collective spectatorship and the ability to influence its outcome directly through voting all conspire to create a sense of belonging. It’s a type of cathexis. I still recall the feelings of elation or devastation elicited by my preferred singer’s victory or defeat. As its name would suggest, the point of the contest was the identification of a national idol. Shortly after Bush was reelected, I asked my kindergarten teacher whom she voted for. She gently scolded me for posing such an invasive question, adding that it is impolite to ask about adults’ political convictions. “No,” I replied, “I meant in American Idol.”

But with Eurovision, we have something different: a collection of states tethered together by intersecting unions, trade agreements and borders of varying porosity vying for musical supremacy. What’s more, the contest prohibits viewers from voting for their own country’s candidate. This brings international tensions and long-standing animosities directly to the fore. These tensions were mostly lost on preteen me; when Serbia’s Milan Stanković performed in 2010, my attention lay more on the gaudy costumes on-stage than the meaning of his song’s title, “Ovo je Balkan”. The title translates to ‘This Is the Balkans’ – an assertion of regional identity in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars. As a spectacle, Eurovision provides a mediated site for the mimicry of identity rather than its engenderment. It enables a kind of peacocking in the figures of the country-selected candidates, which affirms an emotional investment in the relatively feeble act of televoting. One would be hard-pressed to argue that Eurovision succeeds in psychically mending any wounded national spirits. Instead, it seems to act as a stage for the projection of this woundedness.

This year’s Eurovision in Turin proceeded as usual but was also overcast by the senselessness of war; it has brought the contest’s patent absurdity and commingling anxieties into much sharper relief. In any case, Eurovision’s projective capacities remain intact. A patchwork, glued together, it is infused by a litany of desires—both tacit and explicit political. Even though the contest hovers above and emanates out of real politics, it is stymied before it achieves full articulation. If Eurovision and similar song contests claim a democratic or egalitarian principle, it is one-sided, residing solely in the images it produces. The question, then, would be to what extent political desires can be brought into reality through the medium of a song contest, or if such a mediation is possible at all.


Banner: Oliver Beer, Reanimation (Snow White), 2014
© Oliver Beer

This Contribution was released with the support of Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, Bundesverband Soziokultur, Neustarthilfe, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien.



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