The Eurovision Song Contest is a pan-European international song competition where each nation sends a singer and song to represent them in an annual music competition. The countries perform their songs and then vote on their favorites, giving their top ten songs 1-12 points (excluding 9 and 11). The nation with the highest points wins and has the right to host the competition the following year. This contest began in 1956 in Lausanne with only 7 countries; at its 60th anniversary, over 45 nations have participated, and the contest continues to grow. The contest has produced some of the world’s greatest musicians, including Julio Iglesias (Spain 1970), ABBA (Sweden 1974), Celine Dion (Switzerland 1988), among others.
The 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Vienna, provided a musical extravaganza of European (and even Australian) music that was simultaneously embroiled in geopolitics. The night’s winner was “Heroes” by Sweden’s Måns Zemerlöw, but the results and politics surrounding the event still linger in the minds of thousands of fans. As much as the contest justifies its performances as a way to inspire European cooperation and entertainment, it would be impossible to dissociate the international music competition from the existence of political voting blocks and the effect of governmental policy. This year was especially resonant in the political community for three reasons: the introduction of Australia, the heated fight for victory between Sweden and Russia, and the failure of Germany and Austria to receive a single point.
The appearance of Australia in the Eurovision Song Contest caught geographers completely off guard. The first question to ask is whether this forward-seeming initiative is even allowed. Technically, this is not the first time that Eurovision has expanded outside of Europe; the competition added Israel in 1973, Morocco in 1980, Cyprus in 1981, Armenia in 2006, Georgia in 2007, and Azerbaijan in 2008. To be able to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest, the nation’s broadcaster must be part of or an associate of the European Broadcasting Union. But this is the first time an addition of this magnitude has occurred. Guy Sebastian, a very accomplished pop star before the song contest, was chosen as Australia’s representative with the song “Tonight Again”, an up-tempo medley. But if adding non-European countries is normal, then what is the issue? The issue is more political and cultural; the addition of Australia stands on the fine line between expanding the competition and forfeiting its European identity. Australia’s participation has prompted other nations to look into the possibility of joining the Eurovision Song Contest, particularly China and their broadcaster Hunan TV. Many sociologists in the Netherlands and France have claimed that an expansion past Australia to other regions would simply ignore the original purpose of the contest and disturb a European tradition. Furthermore, Australia’s stellar 5th place finish in their debut only managed to anger countries like France, Spain, and the UK, who have struggled with the contest in recent years. Only time will tell if the European Broadcasting Union will continue to allow Australia to compete.
The voting this year was one of the tensest in recent memory. By the midpoint, Russia was leading Sweden by over 20 points, driving viewers to speculate about a potential Moscow 2016 hosting. Although this competition is about the music, the political implications of having Russia host the competition could be rather hefty considering the current political situation. When Russia hosted in 2009, many nations threatened to withdraw because of Russia’s invasion of the South Ossetia region of Georgia in August 2008. Georgia was forced to withdraw at the last minute because their song “We Don’t Wanna Put In” was said to have political references to Vladimir Putin. Now, given the situation in Ukraine, the possibility of Russia hosting the competition will most likely escalate political turmoil within Eurovision. Ukraine had already withdrawn this year in order to focus energy on the war effort. Furthermore, the glitz and glamour of the Eurovision Song Contest attracts a huge following by the LGBT community. Due to Russia’s stringent laws regarding LGBT individuals, many feared that a large share of the Eurovision fandom might be at risk if Russia won the right to host in 2016. As a matter of fact, after Austria won last year, represented by drag queen, Conchita Wurst, Russia thought about withdrawing because they claimed the win was a symbol of the “moral decline” of Europe. Even given its shaky relationship with the contest, Russia has managed to be the most successful Eurovision nation of the 21st century. Russia has strong support from its Eastern allies and is assured high points from past Soviet nations and Balkan Slavs, reflecting its geo-political strength. This year, Russia’s song “A Million Voices” by Polina Gagarina was celebrated as a song about love, peace, and hope for a better future. But Gagarina’s beautiful performance was still met with waves of LGBT flags and muffled booing from the crowds. In any case, the Eurovision Song Contest, and Gagarina have defended the song as a reflection of peace loving Russians and not the government’s actions. One of the strongest images from this year’s competition was that of Gagarina holding the hands of Wurst, demonstrating that she lives by her lyrics, and despite Putin’s actions, many in Russia still value peace and equality. Ultimately Russia was surpassed by Sweden and will not be hosting the completion.
Nul points is a French term that means no points, but has been adopted by Eurovision to humorously mean any entry that receives no points in the competition. Before moving forward, it is essential to explain the Big Five rule, which states that the five largest contributors to the Eurovision Song Contest (France, United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Germany) automatically qualify to the final, as does the host country, which this year was Austria. Nul points has become less common over the years. The last time a country received nul points was the United Kingdom’s entry in 2003, “Cry Baby” (which many have attributed to the United Kingdom’s participation in the invasion of Iraq). A simple math calculation shows how hard it is for nul points to occur: Each nation is given 1-8, 10, and 12 points to give out, or a total or 58 points per voting country. This year’s Eurovision had 40 voting countries, meaning a total of 2320 points were given out between the 27 nations in the final. Speaking in terms of probability, all nations should get at least one point, but this year neither Germany and Austria were able to rack up a single one.. In Germany’s case, one could blame, Angela Merkel’s tough position on austerity, as well as their weak result in 2013. Many of Germany’s former strong allies in the competition, like Spain, Portugal, and Greece, have not looked favorably on recent German policies and, consequentially, German Eurovision entries. But this reasoning may be flawed considering that in 2010, at the height of Europe’s economic hardship, Germany actually won Eurovision. Likewise, Austria tends to have a very neutral position in global affairs and their role as the host should have made it easier for them to receive points, yet they managed to get nothing. This earned them the dubious title of being the worst placing host nation in Eurovision history.
In essence, this year’s Eurovision Song Contest reflects the extent to which politics and music overlap in this international organization. Though it has only been less than a month since the finale of this year, 18 nations have already confirmed their participation, including the return of Turkey and Ukraine. It would be difficult to say what the future holds for the competition; its dynamics are as fast-paced as those of Europe’s political scene. What can be said, though, is that Eurovision will continue to deliver a musical extravaganza for the world to bicker about and love.