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Opinion: Eurovision Song Contest may seem frivolous but in wartime, it matters

Johnny Fallon discusses the political relevance of the song contest coming up this week in the midst of the war in Ukraine.

Johnny Fallon

Updated May 9th 2022, 8:15 AM

THE EUROVISION SONG contest is a unique institution. In many ways, it seems amazing that such a show has survived in the modern age when so many TV formats come and go over the decades.

However, it has been its ability to adapt and change with the times that has been its strength. Of course, despite being one of the most widely watched TV events in the world it is also the one that some people go to extraordinary lengths to tell you they don’t watch or don’t like or don’t see the point in. These are the passions it still creates.

Hidden among all this is the wonderful contradiction that it is ‘just’ a song contest. A bit of fun. Harmless. Yet at the same time, it is so much more. A sense of identity. A place on the world stage and a chance to wave a national flag. In fact, there are few scenarios (even in sport) where flag waving can be done as proudly and with as little harm or offence as with the Eurovision. Maybe because deep down we all care, and yet and the same time we say we don’t.

Pushing boundaries

It is this element that has always given the contest its very serious, enduring political theme. It is no secret that countries value their opportunity to be seen on the stage. Along with Italia ’90, Eurovision played a key part in Ireland finding a confidence and belief that emerged during the ‘90s as the country gradually transformed socially and economically into a truly modern European one.

The trend toward Brexit and its effect can be mapped in the commentary on Britain and the reaction to Britain at times. The contest was essential for those countries emerging from the shadow of communism in the ‘90s and placing themselves on the world stage.

It has been the scene of heartbreak and hurt, filled with hope over devastating conflicts like the war in the Balkans when contestants lost loved ones and risked lives to compete in the final in Ireland.

From Franco to Putin leaders have tinkered with the contest and complained or interfered to try and get their way. With public voting now a core part of the contest it is also an indicator of the more whimsical moods of the European people.

Sure, they like a bit of fun, who doesn’t? They don’t want every entry to be a serious song, they like a laugh. Of course, countries share similar tastes in particular regions, which is hardly surprising. But we do know that every year a stand out song takes votes from every corner of the continent to find itself a winner. We know that something transcends all boundaries.

Skirting controversy

None of this is without controversy. Israel wins and there will be more calls for a boycott. Other Arab countries won’t enter because Israel is there. The Balkans conflict created many challenges too. We have had countries trying to censor content of particular songs or trying to block particular acts. The European Broadcasting Union always has a struggle to overcome these issues.

This year it is different. There is a sense that Europe and its people were in no mood for compromise. Similar to sport and other organisations, once Russia invaded Ukraine there was little doubt but that it would be expelled from the contest. This was a barometer of public mood as much as anything else.

The conflict was a very definite threat to many countries in Europe. Ukraine has long been a popular member and winner of the contest. The invasion cast a shadow that went beyond the immediate conflict itself and made Europeans extremely uneasy about a world they had felt very safe and secure in.

Eurovision sees itself as a celebration, a coming together of all these countries a place where nations emerge on the stage from oppression. Where nations escaping the Soviet Bloc were welcomed. Any participation from Russia in the current circumstances, where it was reverting to an old soviet stereotype, was an offence to all of these.

And unlike other conflicts where governments have made some case for their actions, Russia did not see a need to even do this. There was no debate. Europeans would never have accepted Russia taking part while its news feeds threatened nuclear war and it casually disregarded the rights of a neighbour that had not done anything to harm Russia itself.

This contest now sees Ukraine as one of the favourites to win. It is hardly surprising. There will be an outpouring of feeling. This contest may be ‘just’ a song contest. It may be ‘just a bit of fun’. There will be opportunities to laugh and complain as always. But there will be flag waving. Not just for national pride this time. No, this time while Europe can still play it will be a sign of resilience, a sign of support and a sign that there is a better world than war and missiles, one where we can vote and accept decisions, where dreams can happen or people are allowed to disagree and complain.

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None of these things should separate us so viciously in the end. For all the cheesy songs, and the lyrics that won’t make sense, Eurovision still represents us at our very best. Fun loving, nonjudgmental and not having to always conform, but at the same time, proud and resolute in learning lessons of history and still determined that people and nations can come together, but based only on mutual respect. And in doing so can sing a good auld song together.

Johnny Fallon is a political commentator, author and voice of ‘The Johnny Fallon Podcast’.

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