Musical Diplomacy: The Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv

Musical Diplomacy: The Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv

After winning the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) with her song “Toy” (inspired by the #MeToo movement), Netta Barzilai issued the declaration, “Next year in Jerusalem!” By using the traditional Jewish phrase, she was suggesting that the 2019 ESC would be held in that city. 

 The ESC is an annual, live, televised popular music song contest in which national public service broadcasting organizations from Europe, as well as Australia and Israel, submit an entry to represent their state. Expert juries and viewing audiences from the participating states vote on the winner, whose national broadcasting organization then earns the privilege of hosting the contest the following year. The ESC has been one of the world’s most popular television programs, with an annual viewership in recent years of almost 200 million. The popularity of the contest has made the ESC an attractive tool of musical diplomacy for local and national governments. Indeed, the ESC is now Europe’s broadest popular election, allowing more citizens from more states to vote than in any other singular event – 42 states will participate in the 2019 ESC, compared to 27 in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament. This helps explain why voting results in the ESC are often analyzed in political terms. Indeed, as this article will explain, the ESC and politics go hand in hand despite claims to the contrary by the event’s organizer. The fight over the 2019 ESC’s host city highlights the historical dichotomy of an externally apolitical event that is used time and again by its contestants to send strong political messages.  

Considering the ESC’s international reach, the Israeli government hoped that the 2019 ESC would be held in Jerusalem so that the contest could promote the city as Israel’s capital. Netta won the 2018 ESC just two days before the American Embassy opened in Jerusalem on May 14th. This came after the Trump administration became the first foreign government to recognize the city’s capital status. 

 The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an organization of national public service broadcasting organizations from Europe and the Mediterranean rim, is the organizer of the ESC. It cautioned its Israeli member, KAN, that a city aspiring to host the mega-event first needs to fulfill the EBU’s technical requirements, and that the contest should not be manipulated for political purposes. In the end, KAN decided to stage the 2019 ESC in Tel Aviv, a city whose vibrant gay community will warmly welcome the thousands of visitors attending the contest in May this year. The ESC has historically held a special place in gay culture, and this was first made obvious onscreen when the transsexual singer Dana International won the 1998 ESC for Israel. Since then, Israeli participants have often used the contest to promote a gay-friendly image of their state. 

The EBU’s efforts to depoliticize the 2019 ESC are part of the organization’s broader attempts to dissociate the contest from political controversies and protect its commercial brand. In recent years, the most politically controversial contests have been the 2012 ESC in Baku, which put the dictatorship of Ilham Aliyev in the spotlight, and the 2017 ESC in Kiev, which reflected the military and political tensions between Russia and Ukraine when Russian entry was barred because its singer had performed in Russian-occupied Crimea. Yet, politics in the ESC is nothing new: the contest has always been appropriated by artists, governments, and national broadcasting organizations to send political messages. In the very first ESC in 1956, West Germany was represented by a German Jew, Walter Andreas Schwarz. The first-ever Israeli singer to appear in the contest was Carmela Corren in 1963—albeit she performed as Austria’s representative. Israel debuted in the contest a decade later after the development of satellite connections made it possible for the ESC to be broadcast live to Israel, as its national broadcasting organization could not depend on connecting to a terrestrial network via Israel’s hostile neighbors. 

EBU officials like to insist that their organization is not a political one, but rather a technical one that promotes international cooperation in radio and television broadcasting. The EBU is, however, a political product of postwar international relations: it was formed as the Western European successor to the International Broadcasting Union (IBU) that had existed during the interwar era. The EBU’s Cold War equivalent in Eastern Europe was the International Radio and Television Organization, which had its own version of Eurovision called “Intervision.”  

The mass entry of Central and Eastern European states into the ESC after the Cold War, following their incorporation into the EBU beginning in 1993, provoked resentment among some West European commentators who often unfairly accused the juries and publics of these states of biased voting in favor of their neighbors. Bloc voting is, however, nothing new in the ESC: Francophone and Nordic participants were accused of doing the same in the contest in its early years. While the recent political controversies in the ESC have tended to emphasize imagined divisions between East and West, it is really the division between Europe’s North and South that has proven most tangible. 

Several southern European national broadcasting organizations were compelled to desist from, or at least economize, their ESC participation during the recent economic recession. At the same time, there was record spending on the contests that were staged in Azerbaijan, Denmark, Germany, and Russia from 2010 to 2014. Portugal, one of the countries most affected by the economic crisis, hosted its first-ever ESC last year during a period of economic growth. This marked the first time that the contest had been held in a Mediterranean state since Athens hosted in 2006. The ESC now appears to be riding a Mediterranean wave as it hits the shores of Tel Aviv. 

The contest currently finds itself, as always, a mirror of international economic and political relations in Europe and the Mediterranean rim. Political tensions with Russia have influenced Ukraine’s withdrawal from the 2019 ESC, and the political views of the Icelandic entry, the group Hatari, have been critical of Israel. Calls by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement to get states to shun the 2019 ESC have, however, gone unheeded. Although the ESC has historically featured kitschy songs about peace, Israeli entries in the ESC have often made particularly poignant political statements about Israel’s relations with its neighbors. There will surely be more attempts at musical diplomacy this year in Tel Aviv.

 

Dr. Dean Vuletic is a historian of contemporary Europe based at the University of Vienna. He is the author of Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest, the first-ever scholarly monograph on the history of the ESC, which he produced as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Intra-European Fellow. As a Lise Meitner Fellow, he currently leads the research project “Intervision: Popular Music and Politics in Eastern Europe”. He holds a doctorate in history from Columbia University. Dr. Vuletic regularly comments on the ESC in international media, and more information about his work can be found on his website www.deanvuletic.com.